Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus

stories.jpgSnodgrass, Klyne R.

Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008. Pp. xviii + 846. Hardcover. $50.00.

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With thanks to Lara Sissell at Eerdmans for this review copy!

Klyne R. Snodgrass is Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL.  Although this is not his first book, it is the first book of his that I’ve read.  However, my introduction to his writing came last year when I obtained a copy of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP, 1992) and I read his article on “Parable” (p. 591-601).  At the time I had no idea who K. R. Snodgrass was but I remember thinking to myself, “wow, that article was quite detailed.”  At 10½ pages it far exceeded anything written in any of my other Bible dictionaries.  Compare this with the various entries on “Parable(s)” in the following dictionaries:

  1. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible (Thomas Nelson, 1986) — p. 798-800
  2. Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible (Hendrickson, rprt. 2001) — p. 679-681
  3. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Holman, 2003) — p. 1244-1247
  4. Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Baker, 1996) — p. 588-590
  5. Richards Complete Bible Dictionary (Word, 2002) — p. 754-756

While all of these volumes are comparable to one another, they don’t even come close to the Snodgrass’ article in DJG.  I said all that to say this: imagine that 10½ page article times 50 with another 267 pages of notes reflecting an additional decade-and-a-half of research and reflection!  That’s what we have with Stories with Intent, and after reading through various portions of this volume for the last three months I can truly say that the subtitle “comprehensive” is the proper descriptor for it.

Snodgrass isn’t content to merely interpret the parables for the reader, rather he begins with a 35 page “Introduction to the Parables of Jesus” [p. 1-35] where he answers foundational questions such as “What is a parable?;” “How should parables be classified?;” “What about allegory?;” and “How should parables be interpreted?”  He also discusses the distribution of the parables, the characteristics of Jesus’ parables, and finally issues related to New Testament criticism, where Snodgrass says with regard to the authenticity of Jesus’ parables: “I am convinced, however, that the parables are the surest place where we have access to Jesus’ teaching.” [p. 31]

Snodgrass includes another section before he begins interpreting the parables on “Parables in the Ancient World” [p. 37-59]  in which he gives the reader a brief overview of parables in the Old Testament, early Jewish writings (e.g., the Story of Ahiqar; 1Enoch; Joseph and Aseneth; etc.), Greco-Roman writings, the early Church, and finally later Jewish writings (i.e., rabbinic literature).  This foundation plays a vital role in the rest of the book because it serves as the template for the treatment of each individual parable.

Rather than going through each Gospel and handing every parable as it turns up, Snodgrass has opted for a thematic grouping.  So the parables are separated according to their inherent themes, i.e.:

  • Grace and Responsibility
  • Parables of Lostness
  • The Parable of the Sower and the Purpose of Parables
  • Parables of the Present Kingdom
  • Parables Specifically about Israel
  • Parables about Discipleship
  • Parables about Money
  • Parables concerning God and Prayer
  • Parables of Future Eschatology

Under each of these section headings he treats the individual parables, grouping together the double and triple synoptic material while pointing out differences in the synoptic material when significant.  Each treatment follows the same format outlined above beginning by stating the type of parable (e.g., “juridical” i.e. a “particular type of double indirect narrative parable” [p. 11]; “interrogative;” “aphoristic saying;” “similitude;” etc.).  Snodgrass then turns to the issues that require attention at which time he asks a series of questions that the reader is to keep in mind while working through the text.  This is followed by a listing of helpful primary source material in which Snodgrass directs the reader to relevant passages from the OT, early Jewish writings, Greco-Roman writings, early Christian writings, and later Jewish writings when applicable.  I really appreciated that Snodgrass listed the passages in question rather than simple citations; this saves a lot of time in running down references.  In the case of the double and triple synoptic material, Snodgrass does a comparison of the accounts before moving on to discussing the textual features worthy of attention.  The final thing addressed before moving into interpretation is relevant cultural information.

Once Snodgrass is ready to interpret the parable, the reader is already armed with a solid base from which to work through the text in question.  When we get down to finally interpreting the parables we are treated to various options for interpretation.  From here all of the “issues requiring attention” (i.e., the series of questions asked in the beginning of each parable) are addressed.  After answering all of these questions Snodgrass shifts attention to “adapting the parable” (i.e., life application).  I found myself deeply satisfied with his comments at the end of the Good Samaritan:

Adapting some parables, and certainly this one, is obvious: Just do it! Yet, some scholars and preachers shy away from any thought of morals, fearful that a concern for morals leads to “do-goodism,” hypocrisy, and an attempt to earn salvation, all obvious failures to follow Jesus. Moralism and telling people to be good are not the answer, but if we do not intend to tell people how to live, why bother with teaching or preaching? Jesus (and all the NT writers) certainly did not hesitate to instruct people about how they should live. We are doomed to failure as long as the church refuses to take seriously what Jesus actually said about lifestyle issues, keeping the commands, loving one’s enemies, helping the poor, and doing the will of the Father. Parables do not spell out every aspect of their theologies, but the presupposition of this one is of life in covenant relation with God, not just being good on one’s own. [p. 359]

I think that Snodgrass has touched upon what I perceive to be a major problem in theology in general, and that’s in trying to go deeper the interpreter entirely misses what’s on the surface.  This is also something that Snodgrass touches on in the book’s introduction where he notes the tendency of some of the fathers (e.g., Augustine) to over-allegorize the parables [p. 4].  By doing this and imposing meanings that were never intended, the plain meaning was missed.

Each parable treatment is closed out with a select bibliography of further reading material.  Other features worth mentioning are the six appendices:

  1. Occurences of παραβολή (parabolē) in the NT
  2. Occurences of the Verb מָשַׁל (māšal) in the OT
  3. Occurences of the Noun מָשָׁל (māšal) in the OT
  4. Occurences of παραβολή (parabolē) in the LXX
  5. Occurences of παραβολή (parabolē) in the Apostolic Fathers
  6. Classification of Parables

There are also two indices, one of authors and another of ancient works cited.  In addition to this there is a bibliography of primary and secondary sources on top of the further reading lists at the end of each parable.  The absolute worst and most unforgivable feature of this book is the 267 pages of end notes!  I don’t know what the reasoning behind this decision was.  This is a reference book, plain and simple.  I imagine that someone could read it straight through but I can’t imagine that many people would, so I can’t think of a single legitimate reason to use end notes as opposed to footnotes in this volume.  It’s not as if they’d interrupt the flow if they were there.  For this reason I cannot give this book the five stars that I think it deserves.  I will however give it four stars4.0 out of 5 starswith the recognition that it will stand at the pinnacle of reading material on Jesus’ parables for a very long time.  In fact, I can’t see this work ever being surpassed, but I’m sure that someone said that of Snodgrass’ predecessors.


20 thoughts on “Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus

  1. You know I saw this book at Half Price Books a few weeks ago and almost picked it up. Then I realized I wasn’t all that interested in reading interpretations of the parable so I probably wouldn’t read it much (if at all) and I put it back.

    Bryan L

  2. Bryan: I have high hopes of actually reading every page in it one of these days. The parable of the sower/soils got me interested in parables a long time ago (especially as it’s recorded in Mark). That and Luke 16:19-31 which most everyone believes is a parable but I still hold out hope that it’s not. I hope to eventually do a post (or series of posts) interacting with Snodgrass’ treatment of it, but we all know that when I plan stuff it never happens.

  3. Most excellent review. I’d like to hear how you got to the point of becoming proficient at writing them and how it came about that publishers started sending you books.

    This looks like a book I’d want to read through. I can imagine reading all the introductory material and then just read the commentary on my favorites, but then I’d probably be missing out on good stuff from the others.

    If indeed “the parables are the surest place where we have access to Jesus’ teaching” I’d want to read it all.

  4. Actually, when Chris Tilling reviewed the book, he was annoyed by the end notes too. And later had a guest post by Snodgrass giving a response where he addressed that issue. While I still don’t care for the end notes, I do think he gave a relatively reasonable reason.

  5. Nick:
    I hear Snodgrass is in disagreement with Wright on a lot of the parables. One of the things I like about Wright is that his views on the parables cause them to make sense in the context of Jesus’ ministry instead o them just being timeless teaching or something (I don’t know if Snodgrass does this or not). He has a pretty comprehensive view of the ministry of Jesus that his intepretations of the parables fit nicely into.

    Start telling enough people you’re poor and they just might start having more sympathy for you and sending you books. They probably thought Nick couldn’t afford books either until he started sharing his actual book budget ; ) They still send him books though so I don’t know what’s up with that.


  6. Jeff: Much appreciated. My proficiency in reviewing came from years of writing I suppose. My reviews are basically summaries of the book with varying levels of critical interaction depending on my knowledge of the subject matter. Summarizing is pretty easy though.

    As far as getting books, it’s a short story. I contacted publishers (via email) and asked for books. Of course I shared a little info about myself, my blog, and my audience. Some said yes, some said no, and some ignored me. But after building a body of work I was able to go back to some that ignored me or said no and point them to my reviews. So now a few of them have sent books as well.

    Brian: I really do think it will shut out every other book on parables. I remember Scot McKnight saying something a while back like he had one book about parables on his bookshelf for the last twenty years, and since getting this one he took that one off and expects this to remain for the next twenty years.

    Mike: Thanks, I’ll have to check that out.

    Bryan: Yeah, he disagrees with Wright a bit throughout the book. Snodgrass isn’t so much concerned with presenting the parables as timeless teachings (although some of them surely are), but rather situating them in the context of Jesus’ ministry and showing the simple points that he was trying to make at the time. So I’d describe him as basically doing what you’ve said Wright does. I can’t say who does it better since I have yet to get into Wright.

    And they send me books because I’m awesome! Need there be another reason? ;)

  7. Nick, thanks for this one. Right now I believe I have been bitten by a Kingdom bug.

    I’ll like to know how he handles those Kingdom parables. His Ephesians in the NAC is solid.

  8. Bryan: I note poorness cuz its true…. ;)

    Also I am with Snodgrass on the parable over Wright (based on what I have read in reviews and such – sounds like Snodgrass is better at putting things in their immediate context and not getting too overinterpretive).

    TC: The Kingdom Bug is a good one – read Ladd”s Gospel of the Kingdom.

  9. TC: There’s quite a bit in there about the parables of the kingdom (about 75 pages!) so I’m sure you’d have a good time reading it.

    Mike: Ever the stickler for details… ;)

    Brian: I haven’t read Wright but from what I understand he’s into looking at the whole picture (i.e., the grand narrative). That’s good, but it requires something that Jesus didn’t have access to, i.e., the canon. I don’t know that he attempts to situate the parables of Jesus in the overall narrative, but if he does that might be a mistake. I’ll have to read him to find out for myself.

    Bryan: Which books would you recommend for Wright on the parables? Snodgrass interacts with JVG (which I don’t have) and NTPG (which I have). Are there any others you’d suggest?

  10. JVG is the one to get if you want to see NTW on the parables.

    BTW, when Wright refers to the narrative he is not refering to any textual narrative hence your point about the Canon is neither here nor there. His point is that the acts that Jesus did (as recorded in the Gospels) were situated in the narrative of Isaiah 40-55 (see this).

    Also try:
    1. Jesus and the Kingdom (8.5MB MP3)
    2. Jesus and the Kingdom of God (7.55MB MP3)

  11. Nick:
    yeah JVG is the way to go. I have 4 lectures he gave on JVG if you want them.
    I haven’t really read his more popular books on Jesus so I wouldn’t know if those are good or not.


  12. I think that Nick just prayed the name it and claim prayer “books come to me” and they came ;-)

    I have to stop reading your reviews, I am not sure if I will be able to keeping buying books that you really like. Well, just kidding I have a good budget for books, on average I buy about 2-5 books per month.

    Thanks for the review Nick, much appreciated.

  13. Robert: Yes, I’ve learned to call those things which be not as though they were. ;)

    And the secret to reviewing books I really like is to do a bit of research before requesting them. I try never to request anything that I think I won’t enjoy. But I wish I could get 2-5 books a month! The last dozen I bought are it for the year.

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