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The Fables of Jesus: An Interview with Justin Strong, Winner of the Lautenschlager Award 2022

The Lautenschlaeger Award is a prestigious academic prize awarded to ten doctoral or first post-doctoral works in theology and biblical studies. Each winner is awarded a financial prize and the opportunity to propose an international colloquium on a significant academic theme. I interviewed several 2022 winners and will feature these interviews on Word By Word over the coming months. 

The following interview is with Justin Strong, a self-proclaimed intellectual extrovert (they do exist!) whose work centers on the stories of Jesus, and how we might properly categorize them as fables, rather than parables. This is a fascinating topic of study, and Justin provides robust answers to my questions below.

What is your background, and what led you to theological studies? What brought you to Notre Dame to do your PhD work?

I belonged to a Christian fundamentalist environment as a child and am the son of a church organist, so I was fairly engrossed in the Bible and church environment at an early age. I attended a conservative Christian elementary school for a few years and to offer one example of my experience, like many a child, had a healthy interest in dinosaurs. I vividly remember there being foreboding stamps placed on the opening pages of the dinosaur books I would read at the library, warning me that they contained unbiblical ideas: namely that they portrayed the Earth as being older than six thousand years. My parents separated when I was around ten and there was a pretty sharp theological departure from then on. We were a dirt poor single-parent household with four children and receiving clothes and food from local churches happened more and attending church happened less. 

I left for college at a pretty young age hoping for a better situation and really by chance ended up at Azusa Pacific University, which was pretty close to where I grew up. I encountered something I’d never heard of there: a field devoted to studying the Bible called “biblical studies.” Probably like many people seriously interested in theology and biblical studies, I got into it because I wanted answers to the big questions and to make sense of my upbringing. I was pretty sure by then that Satan didn’t plant dinosaur bones in the ground to test my faith, but I thought I should work out whether God was real, whether the Bible was true, and things like that. As one quickly learns in this field, you don’t so much get answers to these questions as you do ever more sophisticated questions. But, I found biblical studies fascinating, learning methods to find out “what really happened” behind the biblical text, learning dead languages, the ancient history, and Indiana Jones vibes all really fit my nerd adventurer ambitions. I found the authentic message (both in the sense of historical and sincere) of good news to the poor, the healing of bodies that didn’t work quite right, and radical inclusivity to be both deeply empowering to me and simultaneously fascinating from a dispassionate socio-historical perspective.

Long story short, I attend Harvard Divinity for my master’s, did a Fulbright in Berlin, and then my PhD at Notre Dame. While you’d think that someone who wrote such a book with Luke in the title would be a die-hard New Testament specialist, I came to Notre Dame because it didn’t bifurcate the sub-fields like many universities do. Notre Dame offered a program in “Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity” and that’s the kind of training I wanted. I didn’t even decide on which testament to focus until deciding my dissertation project on Luke, so you might notice I’ve published on Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Jewish texts, early Syriac literature, alongside the New Testament. Doing a PhD at Notre Dame was a fantastic experience because of the wonderful people, the almost unparalleled resources of the university, and the low cost of living there. While a lot of people dread writing their dissertation, I really enjoyed the process because I thought I was working on something genuinely new with major implications.

Your books (published as one volume) argue that Jesus’s stories, while overwhelmingly referred to as parables, should be classified at fables. What is the central thesis driving this idea, and what support do you draw upon from extra-biblical sources to support your claim?

My books set out to solve some fundamental puzzles about Jesus and his “parables” and to grapple with the implications of the solutions.

For the sake of clarity in responding to your question, the first issue to address here is the word “parable” itself. To state the obvious, “parable” is an English word. So when we say they are “overwhelmingly referred to as ‘parables,’” we are talking about English and not Greek. While “parable” is based on the Greek word parabolē,the use and meaning of the Greek word is actually a pretty far cry from what people think of when they use the word “parable” in English. In the Septuagint and indeed in the New Testament, parabolē is taken over unevenly from the Hebrew mashal and is used for all kinds of texts that we would not think of as “parables.” Parabole is applied to all of the following, for example:

 “Then Balaam uttered his oracle (parabole), saying: ‘Rise, Balak, and hear; listen to me, O son of Zippor…’” (Numbers 23:18); “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam 10:12); “Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness” (1 Sam 24:14); “to understand a proverb (parabole) and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Proverbs 1:6); “I will make them a horror, an evil thing, to all the kingdoms of the earth– a disgrace, a byword (parabole), a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them” (Jeremiah 24:9, cf. Deuteronomy 28:37); “From the fig tree learn its lesson (parabole): as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28); “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb (parabole), ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” (Luke 4:23); “He also told them a parable (parabole): ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?’” (Luke 6:39); “This is a symbol (parabole), of the present time” (Hebrews 9:9, all translations NRSV)

If you asked me for an example of a “parable” and I said, “You bet: ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’” you might give me a funny look. Simply put, parabole in the Septuagint, as in the New Testament, has a very broad meaning, and not at all co-terminus with the English “parable.” Also significant is where the term is absent. While parabole appears in the Synoptic Gospels (who copied from each other), it is not used in any other gospel, whether in John, Thomas or Q (so far as we can reconstruct it). If not in John, the latter two both have a substantial number of “parables” in them, but never label them parabole. So the term “parable” actually has remarkably little do with the Greek word from which it takes its name or the texts to which it is applied; they only partially overlap. What a mess.

Even in the New Testament, there is little agreement among scholars about what texts count as “parables,” with different commentaries ranging from a few dozen to well over 100. As one scholar describes it, “parable” is a “terminological joker card.”1 Precisely because it means everything and nothing, I find the term “parable” very unhelpful. parabole is an umbrella term with many forms underneath it—proverbs, taunts, oracles, word pictures, riddles, and similes—but these are not usually what people mean with “parable.” 

What people generally mean with the English word “parable” are texts like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Sower, the Crafty Steward, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Unjust Judge, the Treasure Hidden in a Field, the Lost Sheep, and so on. To distinguish these from all the other types of texts under the parabole umbrella, parable scholars refer to these as “narrative parables” or “true parables.” To put a finger on it more precisely, what we think of as a “parable” is a short, fictitious, past-tense story about anonymous fictional characters that is told to bring insight or make a point about something outside of the narrative, often made explicit in a summarizing statement. These texts, the “true parables,” are my focus and where a fundamental puzzle in New Testament scholarship has been lacking a solution.

The fundamental puzzle arises from something truly incredible about these texts I have just named, which I identify on the first pages of the book: so far as biblical scholars can tell, Jesus is the first person in recorded history to make use of this kind of “narrative parable.” And it is not as if “narrative parables” are some minor tradition about Jesus in the gospels. Jesus tells dozens across the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in all of their sources, Q, M, and L. As Charles Hedrick writes in the first paragraph of his book, “virtually everyone thinks Jesus’ stories constitute his characteristic form of discourse.”2 This peculiar and unique position of Jesus is noted eagerly and often in many studies on the parables. Joachim Jeremias informs us: “Jesus’s parables are something entirely new. In all the rabbinic literature, not a single parable has come down to us from the period before Jesus.”3 Bernard Brandon Scott writes, “Jesus and the rabbis developed and employed a genre of mashal not evidenced in the Hebrew Bible.” Similarly, Klyne Snodgrass: “Little evidence exists that prior to Jesus anyone was telling narrative parables,” 4 and Luise Schottroff: “The literary form ‘parable’ belongs to the history of post-biblical parable culture. It is not yet found in the First Testament.”5 Jacob Neusner drives the point home: “As to such similitudes as servant/master, tower/war, lost sheep/lost coin, the thief, faithful servant, children at play, leaven, seed growing of itself, treasure in the field, pearl of great price, fish net, house builder, fig tree, returning householder, prodigal son, unjust steward, two sons, and the like—we have nothing of the same sort. It is true that later rabbinic materials make use of similitudes. But the Pharisaic stratum is notably lacking in them.”6

On historical grounds and on literary grounds, the idea that Jesus of Nazareth could be the first figure in history to use a new genre called the parable is a most implausible scenario. That is not how genres work. One might suppose there was a widespread “parable” tradition that left us no record apart from the gospels, but this is speculative and unfalsifiable. As Neusner points out, we do not even have second-hand testimony of such a tradition contemporary with Jesus. Where then did Jesus and the gospels get “narrative parables” from?

In my study, I offer a simple and more realistic solution to this fundamental puzzle—the ancient fable. The book demonstrates that the missing piece of the puzzle, this new “mashal” appearing with Jesus and the later rabbis, the “narrative parable,” is the ancient fable. Short, fictitious, past-tense stories about anonymous fictional characters that are used to bring insight or make a point about something outside of their narratives are precisely the defining qualities of the ancient fable. One does not need to go hunting for vague echoes in the Hebrew Bible for Jesus’s inspiration, the fable was ubiquitous in the first century, with many hundreds of fables circulating during Jesus’s day that are identical in form, content, characters, interpretation, and so on, including several direct parallels. I haven’t made an official tally, but readers can consult the lengthy indexes freely available in the back of the book, listing hundreds of fables surviving from this time. These have gone virtually unnoticed by biblical scholarship until now and this study is about bringing them into view and addressing the major implications for the study of Jesus and the Gospels.

I outline many reasons for why this has not been argued in any book-length treatment, but chief among them is that biblical scholars are simply unacquainted with the ancient fable. As scholars of the ancient fable often lament, people today have an understanding of fables based more on La Fontaine or the Brothers Grimm than anything during the days of Jesus. In my view, the basic misperception that fables are simply moral stories about talking animals is the greatest blunder of the last 120 years of parable scholarship. This view does not survive long after unwrapping the cellophane from a copy of ancient fable collections, where we find many fables about prodigal sons, foolish farmers, corrupt judges, fishermen, treasures in fields, shepherds, and so on. Indeed, the reason that the volume is broken down into two books is precisely because an introduction to the ancient fable for biblical scholars was desperately needed. Before you get to Book II on the Gospel of Luke, Book I: “The Parable and the Ancient Fable” is a standalone introduction to the world of the ancient fable aimed at biblical scholars. It dispels the many myths about the ancient fable, introduces the many ancient fable authors, collections, and contexts of their use, and trains the readers how to work with these ancient materials for future studies. It then integrates this knowledge into our category of “parable.” Upon finishing Book I, the reader will be better acquainted with the ancient fable than most professional classicists and essentially all biblical scholars. 

After establishing the essential heuristic value in interpreting parables from the fable context, Book II: “The Fables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke,” explores the many and far-reaching implications that come with applying the fable background to the parables of Jesus. I continue introduced ancient fables, now via the Gospel of Luke, to show how reading the “narrative parables” in this framework gives clarity to the text like never before. I bring in this host of new parallel primary literature and new methodologies from fable studies. I fill the once-empty stage of parable tellers with a chorus of fabulists and set the Lukan Jesus among them. I set the formerly unique cast of the parables—servants, masters, thieves, children, treasure finders, fishermen, kings, prodigal sons, crafty stewards, fools, widows, judges, friends, and neighbors—among new company. From fable theory in antiquity, I describe the first-century approach for how the parables of Jesus were told, read, and interpreted. From the ancient educational and rhetorical context, I show how any literate Greek author (such as the evangelists) would be trained to compose and redact fables. I show that it is against the ubiquitous fable background that Luke and his audience would encounter and interpret these texts called “narrative parables.” 

What role does Jülicher’s concept of parabeln in your argument, and why does his model apply so well for Luke’s presentation of Jesus’s parables/fables?

While you would never guess it from my introduction chapter, I had actually spent a while working on this thesis before I discovered what Jülicher had to say on the matter. For non-parable specialists, Adolf Jülicher is commonly considered the father of modern parable exegesis, publishing his Die Gleichnisreden Jesu in 1899. I had been somewhat anxious about why no one had reached what seemed such an obvious conclusion to anyone who was acquainted with ancient fables. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Jülicher and I have come down similar paths. Unlike parable studies since, Jülicher discusses the ancient fable at some length and concludes, “Die Mehrzahl der παραβολαί Jesu, die erzählende Form tragen, sind Fabeln, wie die des Stesichoros und des Aesop.“7 “The majority of Jesus’s parabolai that have a narrative form are fables, like those of Stesichorus and Aesop.” What we know about the ancient fable has come a long way since Jülicher, but to have the father of modern parable exegesis on your side is not a bad start when arguing for a thesis that is sure to ruffle a few feathers today. As I point out in Chapter 9, the first chapter of Book II, Jülicher sometimes gets too much credit though. It is not that I am using his model so much as he was simply the most recent person to work from this idea. Before Jülicher, before people forgot the fable tradition, it was not uncommon for scholars to see Jesus’s fables as just that: fables. So, I see myself as picking up a tradition that left off 120 years ago. With everything that’s happened since in the fields of biblical studies and fable studies, there was a lot of catching up to do!

As for why the Gospel of Luke, it’s important to point out that the “parable” tradition of Jesus is far from even across the Gospels. Even parable specialists will commonly blend them all together like a gospel harmony. But, just as the evangelists convey quite different stories about Jesus, so too is their “parable” tradition very different from each other. It is in Luke that we get the largest number of “narrative parables,” the paradigmatic examples, and the most confounding ones: the Two Debtors (7:41–42), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) the Shameless Neighbor (11:5–10), the Rich Fool (12:15–21), the Fig Tree (13:6–9), the Place at the Table (14:8–11), the Tower Builder and Warring King (14:28–35), the Lost Coin (15:8–10), the Prodigal Son (15:11–32), the Crafty Steward (16:1–8), the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19–31), the Worthless Slaves (17:7–10), the Judge and the Widow (18:1–8), and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9–14). All of these appear only in Luke and, furthermore, these do not once mention “the Kingdom of God” as their focus. Instead, these examples communicate ethical lessons about vices like pride, greed, and glutton and virtues like prayer, neighborliness, charity, and forgiveness. These fables form a corpus found only in the Lukan gospel and have a very particular character. Precisely the characteristic features that make the Lukan “parable” corpus so special and memorable, are the very same facets that align them with the fable background so clearly. As I show over several chapters from matters of form, structure, characters, and lessons, the Lukan author and/or his source have done a superb job presenting these texts as fables of the highest literary quality (and Jesus as a model elite fable teller).

You discuss the “form” of both parables and fables as one key to suggest that Jesus’s stories fit the latter paradigm. What are the differences and why do they matter for your thesis?

There are two important places where I discuss form. One is Chapter 7, the concluding chapter of Book I, where I integrate the fable introduction with our understanding of “narrative parables.” The second is in Chapter 10 where I show that the Lukan fables fit the form of the ancient fable perfectly. 

In the concluding chapter of Book I, I address the parabole as it is discussed by classical rhetoricians. Once again it’s problematic to call it “parable” not only for the reasons outline above, but also because outside of the Gospels, classicists translate parabole in these other sources as “comparison” or similar. As Arlen Hultgren put it, parable scholars generally do not appeal to this material because parabole is not used in a way resembling the Gospels.8 The examples of parabole are generally single sentences, not told in the past tense, without an application appended to them, and do not have nearly the same breadth as the Septuagint use. This is a good indication to me that the evangelists are working with the parabole of the Septuagint rather than classical rhetoric. In a well-known passage of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the forms parabole (comparison) and logos (fable)are described one after another. Several scholars even before Jülicher have observed that while the paraboledoes not fit “narrative parables,” the fable does! “In Aristotle, these “parables” are in fact closer to similes than to genuine stories; for the latter Aristotle in fact employs a separate rhetorical term, logoi, a word usually translated as “fables.”9

Chapter 10 is devoted entirely to the matter of form. Here, I demonstrate that the form of narrative parables and fables is identical. In the field of biblical studies especially, form has been a go-to source for the determination of genre and a guide to interpretation. I describe how biblical scholars and fable scholars, working independently of one another for the last century, have arrived at an identical form for their respective texts “parables” and “fables.” Reading a fable scholar describe the form of the fable after a parable scholar describes the form of the “true parable” is the easiest way to convey this:

Jesus’s parables are first of all brief, even terse … all the characters are anonymous. Parables are marked by simplicity and symmetry. Never are more than two persons or groups together in the same scene … the crucial matter of parables is usually at the end, which functions something like the punch line of a joke … While some parables do not have explanations, many do … This is usually accomplished by statements beginning “Thus also …’”10

Now a fable scholar describing the form of the fable: 

“The outward form of [fables] already presents a relatively uniform picture in archaic and classical times. … the oldest Greek fables even display something like formulaic phraseology of the kind later to be used systematically by the author of the Collectio Augustana. This is very evident at those points where the narrator, after finishing a fable inserted into the text, explains to the audience or readers the conclusion they are expected to draw from the exemplum ‘Thus you too …” (οὕτω δὲ καὶ ὑμεῖς/σύ…), or a similar expression… Of the fifteen [fable] narratives which survive in their entirety [from the Archaic and Classical periods]—all except one of these involve two characters—nine actually end with a remark that comments on the events recounted. The words are spoken by one of the figures, and the moral exemplified by the story can be derived from what is said; in several cases the closing comment censures the other character’s behavior. The preceding events are sometimes divided into an exposition and the action proper, so that the fable as a whole is then tripartite.11

It sounds like these two scholars are talking about the same thing because they are. The one key difference is that the “parable” is supposedly something new with Jesus, whereas the fable goes back about as far as Greek literature and further back still in Semitic literature. A couple formal details not mentioned in these quotes are also remarkable in Luke especially. Formal features peculiar to Luke’s “parables” that scholars have long noted also find their explanation in the fable form, such as the use of soliloquy, the introduction of the fable with the name of the protagonist followed by the Greek word tis, and the explanation of the moral after the storyDirect speech and soliloquy, the pronomina indefinita (the technical term for this tis phenomenon), and drawing the application of the fable either before (promythium) or after (epimythium) in an explicit statement are all hallmarks of the fable genre that appear especially in Luke.  

If Jesus spoke in fables rather than parables, what implications does this have for interpreters going forward, both those inside the church and those in a secular context?

Chapters 12 and 13 are devoted to how the ancient fable affects our interpretation of “narrative parables” both broadly speaking and then going case by case in the Lukan examples. One of the remarkable findings is a bit ironic. Namely, that parable interpreters have actually unknowingly been interpreting “parables” as fables all along. Key concepts in “parable” interpretation brought over by Jülicher and earlier scholars were drawn straight out of fable interpretation: concepts like the “single point” goal of a parable and the tertium comparationis were plucked straight from fable theory developed by such important figures as Ephraim Lessing. Once again working in parallel, unaware of the other, parable and fable scholars have been reaching similar conclusions with subsequent generations challenging their respective forebears. One example of this is Jülicher’s rejection of allegory as the operative mode of interpretation for “parables” (again based on fable scholarship and the view of “narrative parables” as fables). Parable and fable scholars alike would later identify this as pressing the matter too far and likewise recognizing allegorical elements within the fable and “parable.” 

For critical scholarship, the reason the fable context is so compelling is because it doesn’t just address one puzzle of the parable, but addresses them all through a comprehensive new framework, including matters of interpretation. There is so much new, never before considered material that sheds light on every aspect of interpretation… it’s almost like uncovering the equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the “parable” tradition. From how to make sense of characters, actions, plots, and lessons of individual fables like the Crafty Steward, to the tradition as a whole, this study serves as a guide. At the same time, introducing this framework imposes some much needed guidelines. Biblical scholars, including parable specialists have often taken great liberties to speculate about “parables” simply because the constraints of an established historical or literary context have been absent. The fable context is very helpful here for providing some direction, showing us how hundreds of other fables were interpreted and what other fable authors intended by them. 

From within the church, there are also many implications that I will probably leave for proper theologians to work out, but here is a start… The parables of Jesus are one of the foundation stones of the Christian faith. It is on the basis of the idea that the parable is something new with Jesus, a genre spoken by him and no other contemporary, that the parable somehow conveys the uniqueness of Christ and his original, divine genius. As David Stern observes, the implicit interpretation of Jesus’s parables by lay and Christian scholar alike reveals a “view of Jesus’s parables as being virtual revelations of Divine Word…. not entirely unlike the way the Bible describes God as creating the universe.”12 For lack of a better term, the parable is the genre of “high” Christology, a genre that conveys Jesus’s nearness to God. One of the significant, perhaps even radical shifts demanded by my findings is how contrary an interpretive lens we must put on. This study demonstrates that “true parables” have their home in the ancient fable—a ubiquitous and arguably the most basic story form circulating in the Mediterranean during the first century. If Jesus speaks in fables, then this genre of his stories is not anything new, they are a genre spoken not only by Jesus but also by countless contemporaries. In Jesus’s historical milieu, the fable had associations with the lowly. It was a genre for the powerless and the uneducated masses; the quintessential genre of low wisdom; a genre of the slave (a liability that Luke works hard to circumvent). Far from a genre of “high” Christology, reading the parable within the fable context reveals that the parable is something like a genre of kenosis. How would people in the church interpret the parables if they were not the genre of Jesus’s nearness to God, rather his nearness to the lowly of humankind, appropriate for one who took up the form of a slave? 

How has this study changed your approach to reading the Gospels, in particular Luke, and furthermore, how do you hope for your study to impact the study of Jesus’s parables/fables for future generations of readers and interpreters?

The uniquely Lukan fables make up about half of the gospel’s Central Section (Luke 9:51-19:28), with those brought over from Mark and Q or Matthew eating up a decent chunk of the rest. Understanding the Lukan fables means understanding much of the authors program, the Lukan Jesus, and his message. Although I obviously have taken a sharp departure from parable scholars and have a new perspective on the fables of Jesus, when it comes to Luke’s gospel, how I approach it has not changed all that much. I consider this a good sign. What I have argued actually fits perfectly with recent directions in Lukan scholarship about the author’s rhetorical training and his portrayal of Jesus. Going back to the 1980s, biblical scholars had good success locating many examples of the chreia in the gospels, one of the fable’s neighbor genres in rhetorical training. Although the fable played an important part in rhetoric, biblical scholars basically skipped over it because of the misunderstanding that the fable was about talking animals. A number of recent studies have shown conclusively in my view that Luke had rhetorical training (known as progymnasmata) and employs sophisticated rhetorical techniques like encomium. That Luke offers us such a superb fable tradition is no coincidence. It fits right in with what these other studies have been showing. Jesus’s use of fables like a well-trained rhetor fits in with what scholars have seen elsewhere in Luke as the fables contribute to the author’s characterization of Jesus as an educated and masterful teacher. I was also able to breathe some new life into the theory argued by more than a few scholars that Luke’s unique “parables” came from a collection. This theory fits very well with what we know about fable collections at the time. Chapters 14 and 15 argue, in great philological detail, that a fable collection source is quite plausible. 

As for the other gospels, this study has made me aware of a good deal of literature from what I see as the sub-elite social stratum that seems to me a relevant context especially for a gospel like Mark (despite some recent arguments to the contrary). As I discuss in chapter 9, for example, the fable teller persona is helpful also for understanding why Jesus tells “parables” to explain his points in Luke, but to conceal his meaning in Mark. The sub-elite context of certain early Christian writings and particular episodes in the gospels is something I’ll be working more on in the near future. 

With the immodest sub-title, “A New Foundation for the Study of Parables,” one imagines that I have some hopes for the future of how we study “parables!” With this study, I hope to have given this foundational Jesus tradition a firm tug in a new direction and offered a new starting point on which to build. Biblical scholars are almost never afforded the opportunity to study literature outside of a largely pre-defined corpus of biblical and Jewish material. This has imposed rigid limitations and leads to entrenched views that are sadly characteristic in our field. While indeed the fable is known as a “graeco-semitic genre,” it has lied outside of the purview of our field. With this study, I hope to make the ancient fable tradition widely known and ignored no longer. I hope to have provided here a tool to orient future scholars interested in this background to undertake their own work on it. There is much more to be done on the fable background and Chapter 16 lays out some important future trajectories. I especially look forward to the day when I can offer a lecture on ancient fables as a context for “parables” without having to devote half of my talk to dispelling myths about fables. I am also hopeful that such myths about fables will quickly fall away from future studies. I hope that books addressing the “parables” of Jesus will henceforth reckon with the fable context—to ignore it would render such studies, in my view, out of date. Finally, I’m hopeful that eventually, rather than having to dance around my preferred terminology, I will be able to lay off having to say “parables” in quotations and can simply refer to the fables of Jesus. 

What is the significance for you of winning the Lautenschlaeger award, and what do you intend to going forward in your own research efforts?

For scholarship broadly, the Lautenschlaeger Award is significant for bringing cutting edge scholarship to the attention of the field, giving publicity to deserving work not attached to big names, and showcasing ideas that have undergone yet another round of intensive blind peer-review scrutiny and come out on top. In other words, the Lautenschlaeger stamp of approval means that this work is an important contribution to the field that stands out from the crowd. When there are dozens of books coming out each year on the gospels, the Lautenschaleger, I hope, will motivate people to pick up mine! Since it’s published through an academic press, I have no control over the price. If it’s beyond your means to purchase, I hope you will encourage your library to get a copy! 

For me personally, to win this award is incredibly humbling. The Lautenschlaeger is not an award for senior scholars to pat each other on the back, or for the committee to raise their own prestige. The whole competition process is extensive and this is a serious act of service on the committee’s part to elevate a no name like me. For their service I’m very grateful. That the book succeeded in yet another intensive peer-review process is also incredibly encouraging to me. I recognized early on in the writing process that I was working against the grain of the established scholarship on the one hand and was walking down several untrodden paths on the other. Both of these facts were causes of much self-doubt and trepidation. I can look back on this now and see that it was worth it. 

As for my next steps, based especially on my work in The Fables of Jesus, I’ve recently been awarded a sizable research grant by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to continue work down related paths. I’m at the early stages of a couple larger-scale projects. The first is a trans-disciplinary project reading the New Testament with the emerging field of Animal Studies. Animals were ubiquitous in the physical spaces and thought-worlds of ancient peoples. There are many insights to be found when they are not overlooked as mere background characters. The second project will address how non-elite ideas and non-elite literature are useful for understanding central issues in our field, including such topics as the Synoptic Problem, to the healings of Jesus, slavery, and of course popular storytelling in fables. There will of course be some more articles on the “true parables” and ancient fable context in the near future! This DFG project also has a well-funded PhD position that is currently open for applications, see here: https://justindavidstrong.com/phd-scholarship/

For anyone interested in getting in touch or keeping up to date on my future projects, they can check out my website, my Academia page, my Instagram @j.d.strong, or reach me via email at justindavidstrong@gmail.com. As an academic extrovert, I look forward to people reaching out!

Study the parables (or fables) of Jesus using some of the many features included in Logos, such as the Longacre Genre Analysis tool and the Parallel Gospel Reader.

  1. Heininger, “Gleichnis, Gleichnisrede,” Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik Online https://www.degruyter.com/document/database/HWRO/entry/hwro.3.gleichnis_gleichnisrede/html.
  2. Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 1.
  3. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 12.
  4. Snodgrass, “Are the Parables Still the Bedrock of the Jesus Tradition?,” 143.
  5. Schottroff, Die Gleichnisse Jesu, 137.
  6. Neusner, “Types and Forms in Ancient Jewish Literature: Some Comparisons,” 376.
  7. Jülicher, Gleichnisreden Jesu, 1:98
  8. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 9.
  9. Stern, Parables in Midrash, 10.
  10. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 17–19.
  11. Holzberg, The Ancient Fable, 20–21.
  12. Stern, Parables in Midrash, 11.
Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger