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February 1, 2012

Jesus the Raconteur

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The backbone of the Jesus tradition is best preserved in certain of his brief quips, and most particularly in the stories he told. Virtually all of the stories attributed to Jesus in early Christian tradition are thought by even the most critical scholars to have originated with Jesus. There is more disagreement among scholars over which quips originated with Jesus.

      Remember that Jesus died somewhere in the early 30s, and the earliest gospel was not written until 70 or a little later. His stories circulated in oral form for at least a generation, being repeated by unknown persons until they were finally written down by the gospel writers around the middle of the first century, at least a half century after Jesus first told them. The gospel writers edited them to fit their narratives and also provided them with conclusions and interpretations.

     Here is one of his stories with the later literary context provided by the gospel writer stripped away:

A certain wealthy man employed a manager, and the manager was reported to him as frittering away the employer’s property. And having summoned him, he said to him: “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your managerial activities, for you are no longer able to manage my property.”

And the manager thought to himself: “What will I do, because my employer is taking away managerial responsibility from me? I am not healthy enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. . . . I know what I will do, so that when I am removed from my managerial responsibility they will welcome me into their households.”

And summoning every single one of his employer’s debtors, he said to the first: “How much do you owe my employer?” And he replied: “550 gallons of olive oil.” And he said to him: “take your promissory notes and, sitting down quickly, write 275.” Then to another he said “And you, how much do you owe?” And he replied: “516 bushels of wheat.” And he said to him: “Take your promissory notes and write 412 bushels.”

(Translation by CWH)

Something to ponder:

Imagine yourself in the early part of the first century somewhere in Galilee hearing this story from an itinerant Jewish story-teller for the first time. What would you make of it then? What do you make of it now? What is it about? What title would give it? Do you find it relevant to your own life in any way?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 1:46pm

Dear Charlie,

There are a couple of conditioning factors that contribute to the impact of the story on a listener.

I would hear it much differently that depending on my place in the social class.
I might be a dis-landed peasant and hear it has a description of how things are among the elites and their retainers.
I might be a landowner/farmer who is being taxed by the landowner in oppressive way, and see this steward's behavior as a clever way of getting both of us off the hook.
I might be a steward and hear it has a clever way for me to get back at the elite who is using me as his surrogate.
Or I might hear it as a member of the elite class; in which case I describe the storyteller as a rabble-rousing Occupier who needs to wash and get a job.

Since 90 to 95% of what we “hear” is not words and their meaning, but tonality, facial expression and body language, we have to make up all of that 90 to 95% in order to understand what the storyteller is really saying to us.

So our picture of the storyteller; the image and person we ‘make up’ as the speaker is critical in interpreting the story.

My guess is that the story is about economics, and just like it is today, how you understand the economy depends on your social class.

I stand with the 99%.

Thanks for good stuff Charlie. Keep it coming.
Peter says
Posted by Peter says on 2/1/2012 at 5:48pm

Hi Peter,
You are entirely correct about the oral situation. A good story teller varies the pace of the story and finds ways to emphasize certain elements. And the audience responds on the basis of the “baggage” they bring to the story. These observations suggest that there are almost as many versions of the story as there are auditors. In short, when Jesus told a story he likely had a reason or reasons for telling it as he did, but once he told the story he could not control it any longer; it belonged to the several auditors to repeat as they wanted. This observation is also true of the gospel writers, as a comparison of the few multiple versions of parables in the synoptic literature (Matt, Mark, Luke) shows. Another way of validating the observation is to catalogue the numerous interpretations of each parable that have been argued for as the “true” explanation.

There is no one meaning to a parable; there are as many meanings as auditors. Meaning does not lie latent in the story but it is evoked in the nexus between the auditor/reader and the story.

Your comment about economics being the subject is interesting. Isn’t that a rather odd subject for Jesus? Can you make a few more comments about that?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 2/4/2012 at 9:24am