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JESUS’ PARABLES: Religious Experience and Communication Form


Marco Antônio Domingues SANT'ANNA (FCLAssis/UNESP)1


RESUMO: Neste trabalho, pretendemos discutir a provável relação entre a forma parabólica como um gênero do Novo Testamento e a experiência religiosa em si. O fato de a experiência de Jesus ser primordialmente articulada em parábolas e não em outra expressão lingüística pode sugerir que essa forma de comunicação é parte da experiência religiosa. Sendo assim, haveria uma intrínseca e inalienável ligação entre a experiência de Jesus e as parábolas de Jesus.


PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Parábolas; Jesus; Experiência Religiosa, Forma de Comunicação.



As for the functions of parables, I would like to propose that there is some diversity in the roles performed by this genre.


According to Aristotle (384 – 322 B. C.), in his work Rhetoric2, the parable was an argumentative strategy, and an introductory means of proof. In this case, it is necessary to have an interactive relation between speaker and listener, since it depended on the listener setting in action some mental process, which led to complete understanding. Nevertheless, in the realm of Greek classical literature, the parable should not be considered a literary genre but a kind of symbolic speech.


Nowadays, a characteristic which appears in the majority of texts on parable as a genre is its utility in the field of teaching, as quoted, for instance, in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, which mentions the parable as “an immensely useful source of teaching”3. In his turn, Kirkwood, in the article “Parables as Metaphors and Examples”, published in Quarterly Journal of Speech, describes the parable as “any short narrative told primarily in order to instruct, guide or influence listeners instead of entertain.”. 4


Beginning with the negative aspect of the last statement, i.e., the lack of entertainment, I would emphasise that the parable does not serve as pure entertainment. Therefore, a sort of constraint has been established for this kind of speech. Such a declaration seems to indicate that the functions of parables should not be judged according to aesthetic criteria. This point of view does not accept a parabolic construction whose function would be to satisfy the human need for fiction and fantasy.


Incidentally, this point of view is the same as that of J. Jeremias, a German theologian, who demonstrated that despite being essentially simple, the concept of parables involves more comprehensive consequences. In the field of New Testament parables, more specifically about the various ways of interpretation developed through History, the author declares that “…the Jesus parables are not – at any rate primarily – literary productions, (…)”5. We found the exception in this excerpt – “(…) – at any rate not primarily – (…)” is very important to demonstrate that, according to Jeremias, even though it is not their essential characteristic, the parables could be accepted as literary productions.


Such a concept could have been confirmed by Northrop Frye, when the critic says that “prose, as opposed to verse, is also used for other than literary purposes: extends itself not just till the literary limits of melos6 and opsis7, but also to  external realms of praxis and theory, of social action and individual thought.”8.


Developing this idea, Frye shows the great books, which are universally recognised, usually separate from Literature, such as The Bible, Dialogues of Plato, The Meditations of Pascal, take a new meaning, the literary one, when we try to answer the basic question: What is the model form of prose? In fact, even though in Frye’s view this question could not be totally answered, those quoted universal books could not be left out of the equation. In order to justify his point of view, Frye explains that “literary elements are involved in the verbal structures where the literary intention is not the main intention”9. To illustrate his thesis, he presents examples such as the Areopagitica, the speeches of Churchill, which were made in 1940 and some other works, which had no literary intention. Incidentally, according to the author, this was a positive procedure because if it had happened in a different way, they would fail in their purpose. Nevertheless, later they came to be considered as literary writings and important data for critics in general.


Based on this perspective, we can suppose that the parable, like the quoted examples above, actually has not, primarily, any aesthetic-literary intention. In addition, originally, there was a large emphasis on oral communication of the parabolic genre. However, because the texts had been composed with literary elements, manipulated and constituted deliberately, so that they have reached the status of speech genre, they could be approached and analysed through literary procedures, at the level of their material and their structure, and this is a worthwhile procedure.


Another datum which continued this line of thought, different from those samples quoted by Frye in his argument, which originally constitute historical texts, is that the parabolic texts are completely invented speech structures and narratives of limited length, produced from the imagination of their creators. From this perspective they could be considered literary material which could be approached aesthetically as well. So, even though the aesthetic function is not the primary, one can not deny that, at some level, it is present.


In the same way, more specifically on Christian parables of The New Testament, John Dominic Crossan begins his work, In Parables, reminding us of five methodological principles, which, in the last twenty years, have been guiding research on gospel material. Among them, at least at this point, we highlight the criterion of dissimilarity10 for it is the criterion most related to aesthetic character in the approach to parables.


By criterion of dissimilarity the author intends to indicate the necessity of a diversified approach to Christian parabolic material since, from his point of view, the forms of expression used by Jesus are very peculiar to Him and even the Primitive Church did not have much familiarity with them. Consequently, this criterion requires an application, not just related to the subject or theme of parables, but more specifically, to its style and form.


Such a procedure is new because the vast majority of works published is dedicated to the theme of parable analysis and, those which touch on this formal aspect, do it in a not very deep way.


Therefore, it is interesting to know how Jesus uses metaphor in order to support the parabolic form and how this use is distinct from those told by the Primitive Church and by Judaism as well. From this approach come some hermeneutic problems of a basic nature. For instance, it requires that the analyst move up from such familiar realms to him as Hermeneutic and Exegesis to others such as Philosophy and Literature. Those taken for granted conceptual categories have not been considered sufficient to articulate properly the meaning of Jesus’ messages.


An essay which refers to these various possibilities of approach to biblical texts, including the parabolic speech, is “Rhetoric Biblical Criticism”, by Vernon K. Robbins and John H. Patton. It shows that this is a recent tendency, started with a work by James Muilenburg, “A Study in a Hebrew Rhetoric: Repetition and Style”,11 where the author pays special attention to rhetorical and stylistic schemes in prophetic literature when exploring its aesthetic and semantic dimensions.


As for New Testament studies, Amos N. Wilder was considered by essay authors as the father of rhetorical analysis when he published Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of Gospel12, which emphasises “(…) not so much (…) what the early Christians said as how they said it”13. His emphasis relates to the concept of form which, under Wilder’s perspective, could be limited to linguistic decoration or external style. Contrarily, the author articulated a holistic notion of form understood in terms of the New Testament, which usually does not refer to the external aspect but to the total reality of people or things analysed. So, he held that “(…) in all genuine artefacts, including language, shape and substance are inseparable, and mutually determinative.”14. This remark opened the way to one definitely establishing an awareness of the linguistic quality of the dialogue structures, story, poem and parable in the biblical analysis. So that, further on, as indicated in this essay, was published the work Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God15 where the author makes a comparison between the genre of parable and epistle, in his view, the greatest forms in Christian literature. Funk argued that the parables work as metaphors whereas the letters work as oral conversation. The purpose of metaphoric speech, suggested Funk, is destroying “(…) the conventions of predication in the interests of a new vision, one which grasps the ‘thing’ in relation to a new ‘field’, and thus in relation to a fresh experience of reality.16


Making this matter of the function of parables more radical, in the year following of the publication of Funk’s work, Dan Otto Via JR. published The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension. In this work he argued that Jesus’ parables are an aesthetic object in which "(…) the element of the extraordinary does not point directly to God, but being refused into the story – into the aesthetic mingling of the realistic and the surprising –it suggests that every day existence is crossed by the problematical, contingent, and unpredictable.”


Even though in this work the author had been developing rhetorical-literary analysis in lengthy theological speeches, his success with the parables of Jesus – considered the central form in the New Testament Literature – challenged interpreters to use the rhetorical-literary analysis to reach a more complete explanation of ancient Christian texts. In others words, assuming parables as aesthetic objects resulted in the evolution of an interpretation process for parables as well as ancient Christian literary constructions. So, the use of various methods came to suggest to interpreters that multiple interpretations were advantageous because they illuminated various levels of meaning and various dimensions of reality.


In the 1970s, according to Robbins and Patton’s explanation, this vision expanded itself more and more. Obviously, not without obstacles such as those faced by Amos N. Wilder in debate on myth and parable, standing completely against those who claimed that studies on parables, as the most ancient speech in Galilee, must be separated from gospel mythological categories. Contrarily, he argued that the parables of Jesus would have been ambiguous without the previously described “mythical” horizon of the Kingdom of God, which evoked the basic reference for people. Therefore, the central point for Wilder is that sensitivity to imagination does not allow critics to be satisfied with what he called shortened perspective. His approach establishes analysis of form as related to phenomenological and linguistic connections between inventive processes, historical conditions and ontological categories.


Following this historical journey, I can confirm that even though parabolic constructions do not have the primary intention of being artistic objects and to serve as pure entertainment, or to give aesthetic pleasure, they are formed from common elements which lead objectively to these aesthetic functions, and consequently they allow analysis in ways similar to those used for literary texts.


Although affirming that Jesus “taught as poet”, Crossan makes it clear that he does not want to confuse poem and religion and that he is conscious that the realm to which and of which Jesus preached is the world of religious experience. So, according to him, as the poetic experience ends in a metaphoric expression, the religious experience involves (...) the moment of disclosure or perception itself (...)”and “(...) the embodiment of the experience in symbolic form (...)”. This makes him conclude that the experience and the expression have an intrinsic unity and that, therefore, the fact of experience of Jesus being mainly articulated in parables, and not in another linguistic form, means that this form of expression is part of the religious experience. In an explicit way, the author says, “(...) there is an intrinsic and inalienable bond between Jesus’ experience and Jesus’ parables."17


From more deep reading of Crossan’s work, one can grasp Jesus’ experience as the metaphysical and divine dimension with which Christianity defines Him, i.e., his experience with God. In this way, for the researcher, as occurs in the realm of poetic imagination, in the religious creation a "chemical" generation exists, which makes the parables a linguistically correct form to express the character and action of Jesus as the one who proclaims the Kingdom of God and to express the proper meaning of the Kingdom of God.


Such ideas could be at least partially acceptable and partially argued. Beginning with the second option, we can affirm with Kirkwood that there is nothing inherently religious in telling short narratives. One could discuss such views answering that the parables are not only short narratives since they present other constitutive characteristics such as being non-mimetical and allegorical, configuring a form of epos18 and exercising specific functions in a speech. Even so, it would be possible to carry on by affirming that these aspects, in themselves, are not peculiar to religion. In addition, everybody knows of the existence of parables outside of a religious context.


On the other hand, because of everything which has been mentioned about parabolic form, and the fact that in the New Testament, it occurs with great frequency, clearly presents its distinct characteristics and, perhaps, more than that, constitutes itself as a genre in this context, we have been led to think that, in fact, a more intimate liaison between this form and the religious universe could exist.


There is concordance about Jesus as preacher of the Kingdom of God, which Perrin sums clearly: The central aspect of the teaching of Jesus was concerning to the Kingdom of God. Of this there can be no doubt and now no scholars do, in fact, doubt it. Jesus appeared as one who proclaimed the Kingdom; all else in his message and ministry serves a function in relation to that proclamation and derives its meaning from it.” 19


Therefore, the parables themselves, as linguistic and literary forms, would be exercising the larger function of proclamation of the Kingdom of God. That is why a more defined concept of the Kingdom of God becomes inalienable to perceive if, in fact, there is direct relation between the form and the concept transmitted through it.


First of all, we could observe with Crossan that the biggest emphasis of this concept, realised from the original term, does not fall on the aspect of place, as many times it is understood. Instead of that, the Semitic language underlines God’s action, through which his sovereignty is manifested. The poetic text of Psalm 145: 11 and 12 makes it evident: “They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendour of your kingdom." Along this line, we also could quote the passage of I Co 4:20, where Paul affirms that: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”


As for this aspect, Perrin declares that: “The Kingdom of God is the power expressed in deeds wherein it becomes evident that he is the king. It is not a place or community ruled by God; it is no even the abstract idea of reign or kingdom of God. It is quite concretely the activity of God as King.” 20


Relating to temporality inserted in the formula Kingdom o f God, generally, there was always an agreement among the scholars that it was an eschatological expression, i.e., linked to the end of the world. In Crossan’s point of view, Jeremias elaborated more properly this concept showing that Jesus taught “(…) an eschatology that is in process of realisation”.


Perhaps he had not spoken according to our concept of linear time, and that any polarity between present and/or future is inadequate to his intention. Even though this position has not reached the status of an exegetical principle, the maximum seriousness of how this subject has been approached is undeniable. For instance, according to Crossan, some years ago, Perrin observed that “we may not interpret the eschatological teaching of Jesus in terms of a linear concept of time, for this is foreign to the prophetic understanding to which he returns.” 21


Anyway, without any radicalisation, Crossan admits the question about the Kingdom of God is still open and the presupposition of linear time as the unique concept of temporality is being submitted to frequent examination.


In short, the Kingdom of God’s concept is not linked to place, but instead , to deeds and powerful acts of God which reveal him as the King. In addition, as for temporality, perhaps this concept does not submit itself to a linear model of time, which establishes a tension between past-present-future, but does point to an intersection of these categories suggesting eternity. Another reference to Psalm 145 may help to make this approach clear. In verse 13, one may read the following: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.”


Consequently, as the Kingdom of God is not a concept, which is linked to place, but to God’s powerful action, establishing a non-linear time modality and pointing to eternity, it was necessary to choose one form, which was capable of expressing historically these comprehensive elements. Therefore, the parables were the way of linguistic-literary expression to present the Kingdom of God, configuring, in these terms, a sort of manifesto of this institution. Besides, they start to constitute also the ontological fundament of Jesus’ experience as God. In connection with this dimension, all of the acts and words of Jesus are the consequence of everything that was announced through the parables. Everything which historically involved Jesus is a result of his experience as God, already present in his parables.


Therefore, we could affirm that the non-mimetism of Christian parabolic narrative constitutes a formal comprehensive index of the Kingdom of God, in terms of characters, place and chronological time, contributing to its limitless historical transposition and to its constitution as a religious dimension.


In this sense, it would be possible to establish an approximate equivalence between this religious speech and the philosophical speech which, according to Todorov, is characterised by exclusion of specific names of characters and by its non-temporality.22 One knows, however, that philosophical speech is considered highly complex and, for that reason, less accessible. Everything indicates that, in order to obtain different results, Christian speech has found in the parabolic form the ideal formula to be, at the same time, transcendent and accessible, when exercising its functions.


Working with the interpretation of metaphors in the New Testament’s parables, Tracy23 shows that, according to Paul Ricouer, one of the ways to observe the use of metaphors in New Testament parables is to perceive the expression the Kingdom of God is like, found in a considerable number of parables, as a qualifier radical of short narrative which follows it in the text.   


In this way, the conjunction of the radical the Kingdom of God is like… or is similar to… and of parabolic narrative is responsible to describe a human possibility of being in the world. In this line, one can answer the question to what is The Kingdom of God is similar? It is similar to what happens in the parable.


ABSTRACT: This work intends to discuss the probable relation between the parabolic form as a New Testament genre and the religious experience itself. The fact of experience of Jesus being mainly articulated in parables and not in another linguistic form may suggest that this means of communication is part of religious experience. This being so, there would be an intrinsec and unalienable bond between Jesus'experience and Jesus'parables.


KEY WORDS: Parables; Jesus; religious experience; communication form.




1 Professor Assistente-Doutor junto ao Departamento de Lingüística da FCLAssis UNESP.

2 ARISTÓTELES.  Arte Retórica e Arte Poética. Trad. Antônio Pinto de Carvalho. Rio de Janeiro: Ediouro, [s.d.].

3 The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1974, v.7, p. 136.

4 KIRKWOOD, W. Parables as Metaphors and Examples. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 74, 1985, p. 424.

5 JEREMIAS, J. The Parables of Jesus. 4 ed. Trad. João Rezende Costa. S. P.: Paulinas, 1983, p. 15.

6 Rhythm, movement and sound of words. From melopiia by Aristotle.

7 Drama.

8 FRYE, N. Anatomy of criticism. São Paulo: Cultrix, 1973, p. 319.

9 Idem, p. 319 – 320.

10 CROSSAN, J. D. In Parables - The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1992, p. 4.

11 MUILENBURG, J. Hebrew Rhetoric: Repetition and Style. Vetus Testament Suplement, 1 (1953), p. 97 – 111.

12 WILDER, A. N. Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of The New Testament. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

13 Author’s bold.

14 Op. cit., p. 25.

15 FUNK, R. W. Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

16 Idem, p. 139.

17 Op. cit, p. 22.

18 Verbal communication.

19 PERRIN, N. Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 54.

20 Idem, p.55.

21 Quoted by Crossan, p. 25.

22 TODOROV, T. Os gêneros do discurso. Trad. Elisa Angotti Kossovitch. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1980, p. 71.

23 TRACY, D. Metaphor and Religion: The Test Case of Christian Texts. Critical Inquiry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, v. 5, no 1, 1978.