Grace Theological Journal 9.2 (1988) 191-204

Copyright 1988 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.

 

 

STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF JESUS'

NARRATIVE PARABLES:

A CONSERVATIVE APPROACH

 

 

CHRISTIAN R. DAVIS

 

 

Recent structuralistic criticism of Jesus' parables usually uses

naturalistic assumptions, but structuralism can also use conservative

assumptions about the text. If the Bible is inerrant, then Jesus' parables

can be analyzed as they stand as units within the gospels. Underlying

structures of the parables can reveal their "deep meanings."

Twenty-seven parables are reduced in five steps to "actantial

schemata," then classified into four categories based on the completions

or negations of schemata and the relationships between schemata

within each parable. Each category teaches a different underlying

message. Further structuralistic study might supplement traditional

biblical hermeneutics.

 

* * *

 

Ever since the disciples asked Jesus, "Why do You speak

to them in parables?" (Matt 13:10b), interpreters have struggled with Jesus'

parables. Early exegetes, including Tertullian, Origen, and Jerome,

generally allegorized them, as did nearly all writers who dealt with

them before the nineteenth century. Even in the nineteenth and twen-

tieth centuries, critics such as Trench, Dods, and A. B. Bruce con-

tinued to treat them as primarily allegorical. In the late nineteenth

century, the German theologian Adolf Julicher proposed that Jesus'

parables had to be treated as classical parables, teaching a single,

central lesson-a principle that has become widely though not univer-

sally accepted. Since then, form critics, such as Bultmann and Dibelius,

and redaction critics, such as Cadoux, Dodd, and Jeremias, have

tended to treat the parables as human rather than sacred texts, useful,

perhaps, in the search for Jesus' original words but not trustworthy as

accounts of Gods special revelation.1

.

1For a brief survey of interpreters of Jesus' parables, see Jack Dean Kingsbury,

"Major Trends in Parable Interpretation," CTM 42 (1971) 579-89.



192 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Most recently, experimental hermeneutical approaches have flour-

ished. In a 1983 survey of recent literature, David L. Barr claims that

recent studies "form a veritable spectrum of hermeneutical options:

from a positivist reading of the text which takes meaning as obvious

and referential to a semiotic reading which takes meaning to be

polyvalent and autonomous-with several shades in between.2 One of

these recent approaches is structuralism. Defined in simple terms,

structuralism is a critical methodology that seeks to understand phe-

nomena (such as myths, folk customs, or literary texts) in terms of

their structures: the systems or patterns that relate individual phe-

nomena to each other. Structuralism has grown out of the linguistic

studies of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, the anthro-

pological studies of Claude Levi-Strauss, and the studies of simple

literary forms (such as folk tales) by Andre Jolles, Etienne Souriau,

and Vladimir Propp. Among the leading proponents of literary struc-

turalism today are A. J. Greimas, Claude Bremond, Tzvetan Todorov,

Gerard Genette, and Roland Barthes. Daniel and Aline Patte and

Alfred M. Johnson, Jr., have written texts applying structuralistic

methods to the Bible.3

Several biblical scholars have attempted to apply these structur-

alistic methods to Jesus' parables. Such studies published since 1975

include works by John Dominic Crossan (1975), Daniel Patte (1976),

"The Entrevernes Group"(1978), Gary A. Phillips (1985), and John W.

Sider (1985)4 This approach is attractive because the parables--as a

set of short, diverse, yet related narratives (like Propp's Russian folk

tales and Levi~Strauss's "myths")-provide the kind of matenal that is

most suitable for structural analysis.

Unfortunately, most structuralists assume that the meaning of a

text lies not in the text itself but in the culture of which the text is a

 

2David L. Barr, "Speaking of Parables: A Survey of Recent Research," TSF

Bulletin 6 (May-June 1983) 8.

3For a general introduction to structuralism, see Jonathan Culler, Structuralist

Poetics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973); Robert Scholes, Structuralism

in Literature:An Introduction (New Haven: Yale Univ., 1974). For texts on structuralism

in Biblical criticism, see Daniel and Aline Patte, Structural Exegesis: From Theory to

Practice (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978); Alfred M. Johnson, Jr., ed. and trans., Struc-

turalism and Biblical Hermeneutics: A Collection of Essays (Pittsburgh: Pickwick,

1979).

4John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Niles,

Ill.: Argus Communications, 1975); Daniel Patte, What Is Structural Exegesis? (Phila-

delphia: Fortress, 1976); The Entrevernes Group, Signs and Parables: Semiotics and

Gospel Texts, trans. Gary Phillips (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1978); Gary A. Phillips,

"History and Text: The Reader in Context in Matthew's Parables Discourse," Semeia

31 (1985) 111-38; John W. Sider, "Proportional Analogy in the Gospel Parables," NTS

31 (Jan. 1985) 1-23.



 

 

DAVIS: ANALYSIS OF JESUS' NARRATIVE PARABLES 193

 

part. They claim that the interpretation of any given structure is

dependent on culture and is therefore relative, not absolute. As a result

structuralism has been applied to Jesus' parables mostly by critics who

reject conservative assumptions about biblical inspiration in favor of

naturalistic assumptions about the text of the NT. Crossan, for in-

stance, has written that "we have literally no language and no parables

of Jesus except insofar as such can be retrieved and reconstructed from

within the language of the earliest interpreters.5

However, structuralism need not begin with such assumptions. It

is a method for analyzing texts which can be applied as well by those

who believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant as by those who see

it as a human, fallible document. In fact, structuralistic methodology is

inherently neutral, espousing no particular hermeneutical presupposi-

tions. It merely claims that the underlying meaning of a text--

whatever that may be-can be revealed by methodical analysis of the

structural relationships within the text.

Interpreters who hold to the divine inspiration of the Bible have

probably shied away from structuralism both because it has been used

mostly by critics with naturalistic assumptions and because of its

reductionist tendencies: treating texts as mere linguistic artifacts to be

analyzed. However, structuralism is no more opposed to the doctrine

or inspiration than is the diagramming of sentences from the Bible

(which is itself a structuralistic type of method). Just as diagramming a

sentence might help to reveal the meaning of the sentence, so structural

analysis of a set of parables might help to reveal the meanings of the

parables.

Hence, this paper will attempt to analyze some of Jesus' parables

using a structuralistic approach, beginning with three assumptions: (1)

that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God, (2) that particular

passages in the Bible can be isolated from their contexts and treated as

independent units of discourse, and (3) that the structure of a unit of

discourse is related to the underlying meaning of that unit. These

assumptions need some explanation

The first assumption is not just a point of faith but also a useful

heuristic principle. If the Bible is inspired and inerrant, then the words

recorded in the gospels as Jesus' words must represent Jesus' actual

words. Therefore, this principle eliminates the approach used, for

instance, in Crossan's book In Parables: The Challenge of the Histori-

cal Jesus, which compares the variants of each parable in Matthew,

Mark, Luke, and Thomas (!), decides what must be Jesus' original

parables (before their supposed redactions), and then analyzes the

 

5John Dominic Crossan, In Parables:The Challenge of the Historical

Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) xiii.



194 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

structures of these "rediscovered" (if not invented) parables.6 However,

based on the assumption of inspiration and inerrancy, the present

study will analyze Jesus' parables as they stand. (Their texts as given in

the NASB will be used here as adequate approximations of the original

texts.)

Furthermore, this first assumption supports the second assump-

tion: particular Bible passages can be isolated from their contexts and

treated as independent units. Although attempts to determine how the

parables function within the overall structure of the gospels can be

valuable (see for instance Elizabeth Struthers Malbon's 1986 study of

this issue),7 they are not the only way to approach the parables. If the

parables were the re-creations of the gospel authors, they might well be

meaningless outside their gospel contexts, but if Jesus himself created

and told them, then they can validly be treated as independent units

that are contained in a larger context. Hence, they can be isolated and

analyzed with valid results.

Unfortunately, identifying all of Jesus' parables is a nearly insur-

mountable task in itself.8 Therefore, this study is limited to only

twenty-seven texts, each one a narrative told by Jesus in a past tense

(primarily the Greek aorist). (See the Appendix for the list of texts

used.) Not included are non-narrative metaphors, such as "You are the

salt of the earth" or "You are the light of the world" (Matt 5:13, 14);

present- or future-tense narratives, such as the "unclean spirit" (Matt

12:43-45), the "stray sheep" (Matt 18:12-13), or the "sheep and the

goats" (Mark 25:31-46); and narratives about historical figures such as

David (Mark 2:25-26) or Elijah (Mark 9:13; Luke 4:25-26). All of

these texts could be used for structural analyses, but they are excluded

here mainly to simplify this study.

The third basic assumption of this study is the foundational

principle of structuralism: that units of discourse are built on under-

lying structures, the discovery of which can reveal the "deep meaning"

of the discourse. This "deep meaning" is not simply the interpretation

of the text. Rather, it is the underlying pattern or idea that all texts

with the same structure elucidate. Therefore, if the texts under con-

sideration, or any subset of them, reveal a common structure, they can

be taken as expressions of the same basic idea. In other words,

structuralism is used here as a method for finding sets of narratives that

all express, in varying ways, a common concept.

 

6Crossan, In Parables, pp.1-34 and passim.

7Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, "Mark: Myth and Parable," BTB 16 (Jan. 1986)

8-17.

8Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 1955 ed., s.v. "Parable (Introductory and

Biblical)," lists counts of Jesus' parables ranging from Trench's thirty to Bugge's

seventy-one.



DAVIS: ANALYSIS OF JESUS' NARRATIVE PARABLES 195

 

sender object receiver

helper→ subject ←opponent

 

The same actant (human or non-human), may fill several of the six roles

shown above, and some roles may be unfilled in any given narrative.

 

 

FIGURE 1. A. J. Greimas' Actantial Schema

 

To identify a text's underlying structure, structuralists have pro-

posed various schemata as foundations for all narratives. For example,

Vladimir Propp, one of the forerunners of structuralism, focused on

thirty-one "functions of dramatis personae," which he saw as elements

of the Russian folk tales that he studied.9 Later structuralists, such as

Claude Bremond and Tzvetan Todorov, have sought simpler para-

digms based on the essential action of resolving a.conflict.10 Among the

most popular schemata today are the "semiotic square" and A. J.

Greimas' "actantial schema.11 The semiotic square is a diagram used

to analyze the semantic oppositions of a narrative, pairing some

fundamental term with its contrary, its contradictory, and its homo-

logue.12 Because it deals with semantic elements and because its

schematization does not vary (always being a square), the semiotic

square does not serve the purpose of this study.

However, Greimas' actantial schema can elucidate the structure of

a narrative's action without specifying any semantic levels in the text,

and it can reveal a variety of narrative patterns. Hence, it provides a

useful paradigm for analysis and classification of the set of texts under

consideration. This schema is diagrammed as in figure 1. Greimas'

schema is certainly not the only possible paradigm for elementary

narratives-it is simply a useful one for the purposes of this study.

The method for reducing each text to this schema follows five

steps. First, a text is identified and isolated from its context in order

 

9Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, rev. 2nd ed., edited by Louis A.

Wagner, trans. Laurence Scott (Austin: Univ. of Texas, 1968),25-65.

10Claude Bremond, Logique du Recit (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973) 131-33;.

Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Oxford: Basil Black-

well, 1977) 108-19.

11Among critics of Jesus' parables who use these two schemata are Corrina

C) Galland (in Johnson, ed., Structuralism and Biblical Hermeneutics 183-208), The

Entrevenes Group (Signs and Parables), Daniel and Aline Patte (Structural Exegesis),

and John Dominic Crossan (The Dark Interval).

12Corrina Galland, "A Structural Reading Defined," p. 186, in Johnson,

ed., Structuralism and Biblical Hermeneutics.



GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 196

 

sender (man)→ object (command)→ receiver (doorkeeper)

helper () subject (man) opponent ()

 

This diagram represents a simple action in which a man, who is both the

originator (sender) and motivator (subject) of a command, gives a command

to a doorkeeper (receiver). No helpers or opponents are given.

(Other apparent actions in Mark 13:34 are Greek participles and are

therefore treated descriptive elements.)

 

FIGURE 2. Actantial Schema of Mark 13:34

 

to treat it as a self-contained unit.13 Second, the text is segmented,

with one segment for each definite action.14 Third, passages that do

not add action (such as descriptive or informative passages) are

separated out of the elementary narratives of actions.15 Fourth, the

actors in each segment are placed within actantial schemata. In very

simple, one-segment narratives, such as Mark 13:34, this is the final

step, resulting in a schema like figure 2. In most cases, a fifth step is

necessary: identification of the relationships between elementary nar-

rative segments. The two basic relationships to be identified here are

sequence (either casual or temporal-represented by " →") and

comparison or equality (represented by" ↔").

Once the texts are reduced to schemata (with letters representing

each actor to reduce semantic interference in the isolation of the

structure), the patterns of the chosen texts are compared. The criteria

for comparison used in this study were the completion or negation of

the narrative (i.e., whether the receiver in the schema does or does not

receive the object) and the sequences or comparisons of the schemata.

 

13I believe that this procedure is critically justifiable, based on the assumption that

the gospel accounts are inspired and inerrant, since Jesus himself delivered several very

similar parables (or forms of the same parable) in different contexts: see the narratives

of the mustard seed (Matt 13:31-31 and Luke 13:19) and of the marriage feast or the

dinner (Matt 22:2-14 and Luke 14:16-24).

14Defining a "definite action" is necessarily imprecise because every action can be

divided into smaller actions or combined to form larger actions. Thus "the sower went

out to sow" may be seen as two actions (going forth and sowing), as a single action

(sowing), or as many implied actions (leaving a place, going to a field, entering the

field, taking seeds in hand, etc.). Structural analysis must presuppose a general seman-

tic understanding of the text that allows the reader to determine what constitutes each

"definite action." For further discussion, see The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987 ed.,

s.v. "Structuralism," by Edmund Leach.

15Galland, "Suggestions for a Structural Approach to the Narrative," 190, in

Johnson, ed., Structuralism and Biblical Hermeneutics.



DAVIS: ANALYSIS OF JESUS' NARRATIVE PARABLES 197

Few texts were identical in structure, and all had some resemblances.

In general, however, four classes of narratives emerged. Class A con-

tains only completed narrative schemata with no comparisons in-

volved. Class B is similar but centers on a negated narrative (an act of

refusal or. opposition). Class C consists of a comparison of two simi-

lar narratives: one a completed narrative, the other, negated. Class D

uses a sequence of two class-C comparisons, one leading to the other.

Class A is the simplest but is interesting because, unlike most

narratives, it involves no apparent opposition, at least in the essential

action (Conflict of values may occur on a semantic level, but for

simplicity, this study is considering only actions, not values.) Its

pattern is the basic actantial schema (as in figures 1 and 2), with the

subject normally the same as either the sender (motivating an act of

giving) or the receiver (motivating an act of taking). Texts that fit this

class include the narratives of the mustard seed (Matt 13:31-32; Luke

13:18-19), the leaven (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:21), the hidden treasure

(Matt 13:44), the pearl (Matt 13:45-46), the laborers in the vineyard

(Matt 20:1-16), the traveler putting his slaves in charge (Mark 13:34),

the two debtors (Luke 7:41-42), the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32),

the unrighteous steward (Luke 16: 1-8), and the widow and the judge

(Luke 18:2-5). Some of these involve several sequential actions, but

all emphasize the transfer of a single object (not necessarily a material

object) to a single receiver. Some, such as the mustard seed, the

leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl, and the traveler consist of only

one or two closely connected elementary narratives. Others, such as

the laborers in the vineyard, the prodigal son, and the unrighteous

steward, include a longer sequence of narratives. But all express

completed transfers of one object to one receiver. The only one in

which an act of direct opposition is expressed is the widow and the

judge-which could therefore be put in class B-but because its em-

phasis seems to be on the final act of giving (i.e., the judge gives legal

protection to the widow), it has been placed, at least tentatively, in

class A.

Perhaps the most interesting example in class A is the prodigal

son (Luke 15:11-32). This narrative includes at least five elementary

narratives, but each one is completed: the man gives wealth to his

son; the son gives away wealth; the son gives himself to a citizen; the

son gives himself to his father; the father receives him and then gives

him gifts. Though the older son expresses anger, he never acts out his

opposition. A structural diagram with letters for each actor might

look like figure 3. The significance of this example is that it shows in

an objective way how this relatively complex narrative expresses the

same type of pattern (hence the same basic idea) as that in such

simple narratives as the mustard seed or the hidden treasure. In fact,



198 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

a → b →c & d

vv 11-12: father (a) gives wealth (b)

to sons (c & d)

c

 

 


c b→

 

v 13: son (c) gives away wealth (b)

c

 

 


c c → e

vv 14-16: son (c) gives himself to

citizen (e)

c

 

 


c → c → a

vv 17-20a: son (c) gives himself to

father (a)

c

 

 


a → b → c

vv 20b-31: father (a) gives wealth (b) to son (c) (helped by slaves

opposed by other son [d])

f a ← d

 

The narrative is represented as a series of completed elementary narratives.

Some segments could be united or subdivided; this figure merely approximates

the total structure of the parable.

 

FIGURE 3. Actantial Schema of Luke 15:11-32 (the prodigal son)

by condensing the intermediate segments in the sequence, the narra-

tive of the prodigal son could be reduced to a single, completed

actantial schema (like figures 1 and 2) with the father as sender,

wealth as the object, the younger son as the receiver, the father and

younger son combined as the subject, slaves as helpers, and the older

son as an unsuccessful opponent.



DAVIS: ANALYSIS OF JESUS' NARRATIVE PARABLES 199

 

a → b → c

a ← d

 

The key element in class B is the segment in which the transfer of the

object (b) to the receiver (c) is negated (→). There is often opposition

(d), and the subject is often the same as the sender

 

FIGURE 4. Actantial Schema Typical of Class-B Narratives

 

Class B is similar to class A in that its narrative segments are

arranged sequentially. However, in B, a key segment is a negated

narrative, as schematized in figure 4. Examples with this structure are

the narratives of the unforgiving slave (Matt 18:23-24), the land-

owner and the vine-growers (Matt 21:33-40; Mark 12:1-9; Luke 20:9-

16), the marriage feast (Matt 22:2-13), the rich fool (Luke 12:16-20),

the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9), the dinner (Luke 14:16-23), and the

rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In each of these narratives, a

key segment-usually the last one-is negated. Thus, the unforgiving

slave negates his fellow slave's plea for mercy (Matt 18:30), and the

king subsequently negates the slave's plea for mercy (Matt 18:34). In

Matt 21:33-40, the vine-growers refuse to receive the landowner's

slaves-a negation that implies a further negation of the transfer of

fruits to the landowner. (The landowner's destruction of the vine-

growers is related in future tense, outside the narrative proper-Matt

21:41.)

An unusual example of a class-B narrative is that of the marriage

feast (Matt 22:2-13). Most class-B narratives contain either a single

act of negation (as in the landowner and the vine-growers) or a

negation leading to a second negation (as in the unforgiving slave).

But in Matt 22:2-14, the marriage feast has three basic negations: the

guests' rejection of the feast (vv 3, 5-6), the king's subsequent destruc-

tion of the guests' city (v 7), and the weakly connected rejection of the

man without wedding clothes (v 13). If vv 11-13-the man without

wedding clothes-are separated from vv 2-10-the guests' rejection

of the feast-the two resulting narratives both fit class B. In light of

this apparent structural aberration, a comparison with the similar

narrative of the dinner, recounted by Luke (Luke 14:16-23), is useful.

Luke's narrative has different details but has essentially the same

structure as Matthew's until the end, when Luke's narrative leaves

out the man without wedding clothes.



200 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

a b → c

a

 

 

 


d → b → c

 

d

 

In most class-C narratives, a sender/subject (a) gives an object (b) to a

receiver (c), and a different sender/subject (d) fails to give (→) the

same object (b) to the same receiver (c).

 

FIGURE 5. Actantial schema Typical of Class-C Narratives

 

While some critics take this variation as evidence of editorial

redaction, structural analysis suggests another possible explanation.

If, as has been suggested, narratives with the same basic structure

express the same underlying idea, Jesus may well have been expres-

sing the same idea in different ways for didactic force. In the context

of Matthew 22, Jesus juxtaposes two different expressions of the

same idea.16 (He apparently did the same thing in Matthew 13, where

he juxtaposes the narratives of the mustard seed and the leaven and

those of the hidden treasure and the pearl.) In Luke 14, in a different

context, he used yet another expression for the same idea. If one

accepts the premises that different expressions of the same structure

communicate the same underlying idea and that Jesus sometimes

juxtaposed two different expressions of the same idea, then the un-

usual structure of Matthew 22 and the variations in Luke 14 are

easily explained as normal manifestations of Jesus' uses of narratives.

In class C, two separate narrative segments-one completed and

one negated-are compared. Figure 5 shows the basic structure.

Narratives of this type include the two foundations (Matt 7:24-27;

Luke 6:47-49), the sower (Matt 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-8), the

dragnet (Matt 13:47-48), the two sons (Matt 21:28-30), the good

 

16Such juxtaposition seems to be typical of the Hebrew mind, as evidenced by

the parallelism often used in the Psalms and Proverbs.



DAVIS: ANALYSIS OF JESUS' NARRATIVE PARABLES 201

 

Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), the Pharisee and the publican (Luke

18:10-14), and the minas (Luke 19:12-27). In several cases, such as

the sower, the two sons, the good Samaritan, and the minas, there is

also a preliminary narrative segment that introduces the comparison,

but in each case it is obviously no more than a device to establish the

situation (e.g., the sower went out to sow"-Matt 13:3b). Also, in

two cases-the sower and the good Samaritan-the negated narrative

is repeated before the final, completed narrative segment occurs. For

example, the seeds beside the road, upon the rocky places, and

among the thorns all fail to yield a crop before the seeds on the good

soil do finally yield a crop. However, the pattern is still essentially a

comparison of a negated narrative (which is repeated) with a com-

pleted narrative.

Perhaps the most useful fact to notice in Class C is that complex

narratives such as the sower and the good Samaritan have the same

structure as such simple narratives as the two foundations and the

two sons. If the structuralistic method is valid, hermeneutical inter-

pretation should find close similarities among these narratives.

The final class, class D, consists of combinations of classes B and

C. In particular, a comparison of completed and negated narratives

(as in class C) leads sequentially (as in class B) to another comparison

of completed and negated narratives. While the specific narrative

roles vary, the basic structure is given in figure 6. There seem to be

only three examples of this class in the gospels: the tares among the

wheat (Matt 13:24-30), the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13), and the talents

(Matt 25:14-30). This class is the smallest but also the most complex

of the four.

One interesting problem in class D lies in a comparison of the

narrative of the talents with the class-C narrative of the minas (Luke

19:12-27). As with the marriage feast and the dinner, Matthew and

Luke retell two different narratives with obvious structural similari-

ties in two different situations. Matthew's narrative of the talents

(told during the Passion Week) is a definite example of class D, with

a comparison of the slaves' handling of the talents leading to a

comparison of the man's subsequent treatment of the slaves. How-

ever, Luke's narrative of the minas (told before entering Jerusalem),

while very similar to the second half of Matthew's narrative, leaves

out the narratives of the slaves' handling of the money and inserts a

seemingly unrelated narrative about the citizens' rejection of the

nobleman. Luke's version is probably best seen as a class-C narrative

(comparing the faithful slaves' completed narratives with the worth-

less slave's negated narrative) with an inserted class-B narrative (the

citizens' delegation leads to the nobleman's rejection of the citizens).

An obvious lesson to be learned here is that the boundaries between



202 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

a b c

comparison

d

 

 

 


e f g

h

sequence

i j k

l

 

 


m→ n → o comparison

 

p

 

In class-D narratives, a comparison (as in class C) leads to another

comparison (as in class C). The same sets of characters usually act

throughout the four segments, but the roles of each character may vary.

 

FIGURE 6. Actantial Schema Typical of Class-D Narratives

 

the classes are arbitrary and flexible, with one kind of narrative easily

combined with or transformed into another.

Such arbitrariness could arouse objections to the method. How-

ever, structuralism does not claim to find the only structures or

classification schemes applicable to the texts. It only claims to find

possible structures and schemes, with the further claim that if they are

found by application of consistent rules of analysis, they will reveal

patterns that reflect the underlying ideas of the texts. Different rules of

analysis may reveal different structures, but if, as this study assumes,

there is an absolute truth underlying each text, then any consistent

structural analysis of the texts should lead toward that truth.17

Another possible objection to this study is that the classes of texts

and their underlying ideas could be determined by more intuitive

 

17The opposite assumption-that there is no absolute truth underlying any lin-

guistic text and that different structures will therefore reveal different ideas-has led to

the radical deconstructionist movement.

 



DAVIS: ANALYSIS OF JESUS' NARRATIVE PARABLES 203

 

hermeneutical methods. While this objection has some validity, it

misses the point that structuralistic methods do not replace hermeneu-

tical methods but supplement them. Structural analysis attempts to

reveal and objectify the linguistic foundations upon which hermeneuti-

cal interpretations are built.

In conclusion, although the purpose of this study is only to

suggest how conservative Bible scholars might employ structuralistic

methods-not to take the further step of interpreting the ideas repre-

sented by the patterns that have been identified-a few suggestions for

interpretation might help clarify the study's results. For instance, the

narratives in class A, whether simple or complex, all reveal a pattern of

completed transferral of object to receiver. It may therefore be inferred

that in each one, Jesus was emphasizing an act of giving. Hermeneuts

can determine what is given, by whom, to whom. (God's gift to man of

eternal life is an obvious possibility.) Class-B narratives all emphasize a

negated act. Again, hermeneuts can determine what is negated and

what the negative force (the opposition) is. (Rejection of salvation

because of man's sinful nature is a possibility.) Class C reveals two

equal but opposite forces: a dualism that seems to be part of Jesus'

message (perhaps distinguishing two types of people, such as the

regenerate and the unregenerate). Class-D narratives seem to reveal

the consequences of oppositions between the two groups identified in

class C (probably God's rejection of the unregenerate).

These suggestions reveal nothing new or surprising; however,

that does not mean the method is unsuccessful. On the contrary, new

or surprising results, contradicting established interpretations, would

make the method suspect at best. Yet this study has shown that

structuralism can work within conservative assumptions about the

Bible to reveal new ways of looking at Jesus' narrative parables.

Further uses of structuralism in biblical study could be almost limit-

less. Undergraduate Bible students might find elementary structural

exercises helpful for developing their analytical skills. For advanced

students, much more detailed analysis of Jesus' narratives remains to

be done, and other biblical narratives, such as accounts of miracles or

dreams, the gospels themselves, the apocalyptic visions of Daniel or

Revelation, or the historical accounts in the OT or Acts might con-

tain significant structural patterns. Though more difficult to analyze,

non-narrative passages such as didactic discourses and poetic pas-

sages can be approached structuralistically. In short, the entire Bible

is open ground, largely untouched by structural analysis, at least

insofar as conservative theologians are concerned. With increasing

refinement of our methods, structuralism may help us to refine our

understanding of God's word.



204 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

APPENDIX

LIST OF TEXTS USED

Class A

mustard seed Matt 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19

leaven Matt 13:33; Luke 13:21

hidden treasure Matt 13:44

pearl Matt 13:45-46

laborers in the vineyard Matt 20:1-16

traveler putting his slaves in charge Mark 13:34

two debtors Luke 7:41-42

prodigal son Luke 15:11-32

unrighteous steward Luke 16:1-8

widow and the judge Luke 18:2-5

 

Class B

unforgiving slave Matt 18:23-34

landowner and vine-growers Matt 21:33-40; Mark 12:1-9;

Luke 20:9-16

marriage feast Matt 22:2-13; Luke 14:16-23

rich fool Luke 12:16-20

barren fig tree Luke 13:6-9

dinner Luke 14:16-23

rich man and Lazarus Luke 16:19-31

 

Class C

two foundations Matt 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49

sower Matt 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-8; Luke

8:5-8

dragnet Matt 13:47-48

two sons Matt 2-1:28-30

good Samaritan Luke 10:30-35

Pharisee and the publican Luke 18:10-14

minas Luke 19:12-27

Class D

tares among the wheat Matt 13:24-30

ten virgins Matt 25:1-13

talents Matt 25:14-30

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Grace Theological Seminary

200 Seminary Dr.

Winona Lake, IN 46590

www.grace.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu