Baker Academic

Monday, January 18, 2016

Levine and Meier on the Parables of Jesus: Two Very Important (and Very Different) New Books

In the late 1990s, while I was working on my Master’s degree at Vanderbilt University, I had the privilege of studying under Amy-Jill Levine. In the early 2000s, while I was a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, I had the privilege of studying under John P. Meier. Both are brilliant scholars, both fantastic teachers, and both important players in the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus.

And now both have published important new books on the parables of Jesus: first, Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014); next John P. Meier A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume V: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (ABRL; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). Since I’m teaching a graduate course on the Synoptic Gospels this Spring, I’m currently working through both volumes simultaneously. (Alas, I never had a class on the parables with either of them.) The experience of reading the two alongside one another has been fascinating.
        On the one hand, there are several striking similarities between the two books.
First, for anyone familiar with either Levine or Meier, it goes without saying that both books are extremely well written. Meier’s clarity over the course of such a massive project as A Marginal Jew (5 volumes and counting) is more than enviable, and Levine’s combination of concision and consequence is more than refreshing. This is especially true in a field where scholarly writing that is long-winded (or “prolix,” as A.-J. kindly described one of my papers when I was a student) is all too common. From a purely aesthetic perspective, both authors are a sheer delight to read, frequently peppering their in-depth analyses with humor, insight, and a command of the English language that is something every student in New Testament studies should read carefully and attempt to emulate.
Second, both Levine and Meier’s volumes repeatedly challenge several major scholarly consensuses about the parables of Jesus. Over and over again, Levine and Meier set lots of cats among the pigeons. In every single chapter (and often on every page), Levine blows out of the water common assumptions that are made by interpreters of the parables. She made this reader (at least) realize just how much of what we we think we know about the parables of Jesus is often the result of unexamined assumptions and interpretive moves neither firmly grounded in the text nor the world of Jesus of Nazareth.  In the same vein, Meier begins his book by laying out “Seven Unfashionable Theses” (30-81), in which he takes issue with a number of widespread (but in his view erroneous) assumptions that continue to plague scholarship on the parables. The most controversial will surely be Thesis 7: “relatively few of the parables can meet the test of the criteria of authenticity that other sayings and deeds of Jesus are supposed to meet” (48). This stands in stark contrast to a long-standing scholarly consensus going back at least as far as Adolf Jülicher that the parables constitute a “particularly firm historical foundation” for historical research (J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 11-12) and that “there is no part of the Gospel record which has for the reader a clearer ring of authenticity” (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 13). It’s important to point out that Meier is not denying that all or most of the parables go back to Jesus (although he does argue against the authenticity of a few). What he is claiming, however, is that the vast majority of the parables simply do not pass muster when it comes to his criteria of authenticity, especially multiple independent attestation. (He devotes a lengthy chapter to the literary dependence of the parables in the Gospel of Thomas on the Synoptics; cf. p. 89-188). Instead, Meier’s verdict regarding many of the parables is non liquet (not clear one way or another). Such an “academic ‘rebel yell’” (one of Meier’s more striking descriptions of his work! cf. 89) is sure to generate debate in the field of historical Jesus research.
Finally, both books interpret the parables attributed to Jesus in their first-century Jewish context. This is perhaps the most exciting and illuminating aspect of their respective volumes. Both Levine and Meier know their Second Temple Judaism, and the result of their mastery of the subject is often stunning. Over and over again, Levine bursts popular hermeneutical bubbles in parable interpretation: e.g., contrary to common claim, in first-century Jewish context, shepherds were not universally despised as outcasts in Jewish society  ("the Lord is my Shepherd," anyone?); stories whose central characters were female were not inherently offensive to ancient Jews (ahem..., the books of Ruth, Esther, Judith, anyone?); when the so-called prodigal son asks his father for his inheritance, he was not saying: “I wish you were dead!”, and so on. She is particularly good at showing how rabbinic evidence is often selectively misinterpreted in ways that lead to anti-Jewish interpretations. Her dispelling of many (implicitly or explicitly) anti-Jewish interpretations alone is worth the price of the book and make it a major contribution to the contemporary discussion of Jewish-Christian relations. As with all of the volumes of A Marginal Jew, Meier’ knowledge of Second Temple sources is astonishingly broad and precise, and he deploys it throughout the volume, especially in the final chapter on the “happy few” parables that pass his criteria of authenticity (see 230-362).
On the other hand, there are several important differences between the books.
            First, in terms of audience, Meier’s volume is clearly written for fellow-scholars, albeit in such a way that a non-specialist reader can follow. I realize that the Anchor Bible Reference Library was originally aimed at general audiences. But it is significant that the series is no longer published by Doubleday (a division of the trade book giant Random House) but rather by Yale University Press. Ever since the publication of Raymond Brown's massive commentary on John in the 1960s, the series has become more and more academic over the years, and A Marginal Jew is no exception (as the end-notes make abundantly clear). On the other hand, Levine’s book—both in terms of format (e.g., brief end-notes) and publisher (HarperOne)—is written for a much broader public. With that said, Gospel scholars and Jesus researchers deserve to read Short Stories by Jesus very carefully. For one thing, Levine's mastery of parables scholarship is impressive. Whoever you are, you will not walk away from this book without having learned something new about the parables. Even more important: Levine repeatedly documents how many of the false assumptions about early Jewish practice and belief that plague popular preaching on the parables can also be found in (and often derive from) the pages of scholarly commentators who have not done their first-century Jewish homework.
Second, when it comes to the authenticity of the parables, the volumes couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, Meier’s entire book—as the subtitle suggests—is about “probing the authenticity of the parables.” Which parables pass the historical criteria of authenticity, and which do not? How do these parables fit into the overall reconstruction of the mission and message of Jesus? In contrast, Levine’s book is decidedly not focused on the debate over historicity. There are no lengthy sections weighing the arguments for and against the authenticity each individual parable. Instead, after emphasizing that we do not of course have access to “an unmediated Jesus,” Levine gives “several… reasons for thinking he told many, if not most or even all, of the parables recorded in the [Synoptic] Gospels” (11, cf. 11-17). She does add to this the caveat that this does not mean that these are “exactly the words that Jesus originally spoke” (17). Instead, Levine states that her primary goal is twofold: to help contemporary readers attempt to hear Jesus’ parables through “first-century Jewish ears” as they would have been heard by Jesus’ audience before Easter, and then to “translate them so that they can be heard still speaking” (17). The effect is often to make the parables seem eminently plausible on the lips of Jesus. But if you're looking for lengthy discussions of the criteria of authenticity (and who isn't? Chris Keith? Anthony LeDonne?) you won't find them in Levine's volume. That's not her purpose.
            Third, because of these very different aims, Meier’s volume ends up focusing in detail on only a handful major parables which pass his initial “sifting” of potentially authentic candidates: the parables of the Mustard Seed, the Evil Tenants of the Vineyard, the Great Supper, and the Talents/Pounds (see 230-362). Anyone going to Volume 5 of a Marginal Jew hoping for an exegetical analysis of all (or even most) of the parables attributed to Jesus in the manner of Klyne Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent (Eerdmans 2008) will come away disappointed. That’s just not what Meier’s book is about. By contrast, Levine gives extended exegesis of many of the ‘major players’ in the corpus of Jesus’ parables: the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Kingdom is Like Yeast, the Pearl of Great Price, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.
      In order to avoid growing prolix, I’ll stop here. The upshot is simple: these two new volumes on the parables by Meier and Levine are must reading for students and scholars. Read together, they give both an overview of many of the major parables (Levine) and an in-depth discussion of questions of historicity (Meier). There is much to be learned here, and much to be debated by anyone engaged in historical Jesus research and the study of the Synoptic Gospels.


  1. Is there any consideration of an autobiographical component in at least some of the parables? Mahlon Smith, for example, thought that Jesus was probably the prodigal son. (Profiles of Jesus, Roy Hoover, ed., "Israel's Prodigal Son: Reflections on Reimaging Jesus," 2002, 87-116.).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Don't forget the son of a landlord, killed by ungrateful tenants.

    2. Based on Levine's reading of the prodigal son (or as she renames it, "the man who lost a son"), it does not have an autobiographical component.


    3. I'd call it instead, say, the "Lord" whose son was killed.

      I think it represents a viable but later demphasized theology of Jesus. In this case, it asks for our renewed obedience to Jesus, not just out of remorse. But also, in this early theology, out of fear of an angry God punishing us. As indeed, Judgement Day is supposed to.

      This differs slightly from later atonement theology. Where Jesus dies voluntarily for us. But in a way, it's part of the background assumptions of atonement: we have sinned against a Lord. In this case, by killing his son. And therefore, we deserve punishment. Which is why, atonement adds, we need Jesus himself asking for God to ... let us off the hook. To avoid his punishment for, among other things, killing his son.

  2. Brant, thanks so much for this. I hadn't read either yet and this makes me want to read them both.

  3. No, Gene, there isn't.

    You're welcome, Chris!

  4. If the Evil Tenants story is authentic, then it reveals a more assertive Jesus than generally. In that 1) Jesus rather strongly implies he is the son of God (vs. "Who do they say I am.") Then he 2)seems rather more threatening. Since he hints God will kill those who kill him.

    I don't know if or on what grounds this Jesus was affirmed as the authentic HJ. But if he is authentic, then the real Jesus was less meek and passive than the present NT implies. And even more than a little bullying. More like a military Lord.

    Did our meek and mild clerks, clerics, later rewrite the warrior Jesus into their own seeker image?

    Or perhaps these parables are not authentic, after all?

    As for the Prodigal Son, that would see Jesus as capable of error.

    Perhaps though the very crudity of these parables supports the thesis that they were early, unpolished pronouncements. Before a high and early Christology was imposed over this material.

  5. I'm not sure I understand. I read that "Meier is not denying that all or most of the parables go back to Jesus", however, it seems that ultimatey only few of them pass Meier's criteria of authenticity. So, how can most parables "go back to Jesus" and yet be "unauthentic"? Did Jesus ever talk about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son or not? I'm a simple mind and need simple answers :) Also because my life is too short to read all footnotes of Meier's books!! Btw, if parables are not (more or less) "authentic" saying of Jesus, Levine's book would lose a lot of its appeal for non-academic readers... Exacly like the Gospels :) Thank you.