The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary

Hultgren, Arland J. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. Pp. xxix + 522. Paper. $42.00. 

For the last few months we’ve been doing a Bible study series on Jesus’ parables at my church. As I’ve prepared to teach there have been three books that have become indispensable. The first has been Klyne Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, which I reviewed a few years back. The second is Eugene Peterson’s Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, which was graciously given to me by my friend Robert Jimenez. The third is the title under review, Arland J. Hultgren’s The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary.

Hultgren’s volume was published in 2000 and sat on my shelf for a few years before it got any regular use but has since become invaluable in my preparation to discuss Jesus’ most popular form of teaching. This book served as the basis for the introductory class I taught that gave us the basics on how to read and interpret Jesus’ parables. Hultgren begins with an introductory chapter that gives the reader the who, what, when, where, and whys of parables in the Gospels, namely how to identify and interpret them and what makes Jesus’ parables unique (or not).

The working definition that drives Hultgren’s study is that “A parable is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between God’s kingdom, actions, or expectations and something in this world, real or imagined” (3). He says that there are two types of parables: narrative parables and similitudes, which is somewhat simplistic compared to the categorization that Snodgrass uses, but workable in a general sense. Under this definition and these categories Hultgren identifies 38 units that can be treated as parables.

He separates them thematically and treats them as:

  1. Parables of the Revelation of God
  2. Parables of Exemplary Behavior
  3. Parables of Life Before God
  4. Parables of Final Judgment
  5. Allegorical Parables
  6. Parables of the Kingdom

There are also chapters on the Evangelists as interpreters of Jesus’ parables as well as parables in the Gospel of Thomas. Each individual parable receives the same general treatment although the length of the treatment varies from one parable to the next. But Hultgren’s approach is to first provide a translation of the parable followed by notes on the text and translation. He then gives exegetical commentary before moving on to exposition while rounding the studies out with select bibliographies. Sometimes he provides general comments on the texts when a parable appears in more than one place (e.g., “The Lost Sheep” in Matt 18:12-14//Luke 15:4-7; Thomas 107; Gospel of Truth 31-32).

It’s quite helpful to see how non-canonical material draws certain parallels with the Gospels but also where that material differs. For the most part Hultgren doesn’t go into the depth that Snodgrass does but his volume is half the size so we wouldn’t expect him to. Where I find him to be at his best is in the exposition, which is full of theological reflection and insight for practical application. He makes it clear early on in the book that his approach is to interpret the parables in light of the canon and for the benefit of the church. He does this well by building the foundation for his exposition on exegesis.

Is there room for disagreement in his interpretation of certain things? Of course! But that doesn’t detract from this volume any more than it detracts from others with a similar focus. Perhaps the section that will receive the least disagreement from scholars but possibly the most from those steeped in tradition is the chapter on the Evangelists as interpreters of the parables. Here Hultgren assumes Markan priority and proceeds to discuss the ways in which Matthew or Luke adapt, revised, or altered Mark’s material. This is in no way certain and it could have been helpful to see the alternatives explanations based on Matthean or Lukan priority. But this is a minor complaint.

In all, this is a wonderfully helpful commentary that is sure to aid anyone who is studying or teaching the parables. I wouldn’t say that it should be the only volume you should consult but in the event it was the only volume you could consult then I wouldn’t be too worried. Hultgren’s evenhanded discussions are more than enough to get the student heading in the right direction.

B”H

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