Adolf Jülicher   1857-1938 

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The father of modern research on the parables. From 1888-1923 Jülicher was professor of church history & NT at Marburg (Germany), where he influenced many bright younger scholars like Rudolf Bultmann.

The central thesis of Jülicher's masterpiece (The Parables of Jesus, 1886) was that Jesus' parables had been misinterpreted by Christian writers from the very beginning. As a Jewish teacher, Jesus frequently used the type of graphic illustrations that rabbis called meshalim (pl. of mashal: "it is like") in order to explain something. This is evident from the way some of the gospel parables, like the mustard seed or buried treasure, are introduced. The Greek gospel writers, however, confused Jesus' graphic oral illustrations with the type of picture puzzles found in OT literature:

They understood by "parable" not simply speech that is meant to make something clear by means of comparison, but on the contrary speech that is obscure, that requires interpretation...

According to the theory of the evangelists, the "parables" are allegories, and therefore figurative discourse that to some extent requires translation, while in fact they are...something very different: parables, fables, paradigmatic example stories, but always literal discourse.

Jülicher's basic insight was that parables needed to be taken at face value to be understood as Jesus meant them. This broke with the long history of parable interpretation by Christian preachers & scholars like Origen, who allegorized these stories by seeking some higher meaning. Jülicher took the fact that the synoptic gospels do not provide an interpretation of the dozens of parables they record (except in three cases) as evidence that no interpretation was originally needed. Interpretations were introduced only by later Christians, who did not quite know what to do with Jesus' vivid illustrations.

Yet, because misunderstanding of Jesus' parables is already evident in synoptic gospels' portrayal of the disciples' questions about parable, Jülicher pointed out that it cannot be taken for granted that the gospel parables are verbatim transcripts of Jesus' words:

The authenticity of the Gospel parables as we have them cannot simply be assumed. Jesus did not utter them as we now read them. They have been translated, transposed, and inwardly transformed. The reports that two or three evangelists give of the same parable never fully agree. Not only does the expression vary, but also the viewpoint, the arrangement, the occasion, the interpretation, whether it is expressed by means of the context or explicitly....

On the other hand, Jülicher took the fact that the evangelists themselves considered Jesus' parables to be puzzles, as evidence that they did not invent them. Though the exact wording of parables might not be original, he argued:

almost without exception they have a genuine nucleus that goes back to Jesus himself.

Therefore, Jülicher emphasized the importance of parables as a window into the mind of Jesus:

The biographer of Jesus cannot overdo immersing himself in and familiarizing himself with these parables. Here, as scarcely anywhere else, he becomes acquainted with extensive, interrelated, coherent lines of thought of his hero....

Thus, Jülicher anticipated two preoccupations of 20th c. gospel scholarship:

  • the analysis of gospel sayings to recover a logical core characteristic of Jesus rather than the gospel writers; &
  • the use of parables & other genuine Jesus sayings to reconstruct a portrait of the historical Jesus that has not been distorted by the impressions imposed on him by others.

[For further information & fuller quotes, see W. G. Kümmel The NT: The History of the Investigation of its Problems (English edition: NY/Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972) pp. 186-88].

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last revised 29 October 2021


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