Parsing the Parables: Why Context Matters

Actually opening up and reading a bible can be a pretty surprising experience for people nowadays. Go ahead and google any phrase involving ‘controversial’ and ‘Christianity.’ You’ll end up with a whole slew of clickbait-esque slogans, from’s ‘Top 5 Controversial Bible Verses With Commentary’ to Buzzfeed’s ‘7 Shocking Bible Verses You Probably Won’t Hear in Church.’ Probably not all that shockingly, the articles aren’t generally very academic.

Now, the lack of sophistication should in no way negate those articles’ relative importance. The fact that people are so startled by the violence, sexism, and slavery found in these verses speaks to the current conception of Christianity. Christians and atheists alike are somewhat justified in only expecting specific topics from the Bible. They’ve rarely seen any others.

I have heard plenty of sermons, attended plenty of theology classes, read plenty of biblical commentary. And I’ve come across an odd misconception related to this ancient text. It’s not just that there are currently misunderstandings of what exactly the Bible does or does not say. It’s that there always have been. On the most basic level, societies have assigned a specific authority to this book — the Book — with the assumption that it means the same thing that it has always meant, that there’s some unchanging base-level authority which has remained constant.

That base authority is, of course, supposed to be God. But such simplified thinking allows several degrees of cultural ignorance: the events that actually happened, the people that wrote the events down, the people that translated the writings, the people that interpreted the translations, and — most importantly — the cultures in which all of this happened.

Lauri Thurén, a writer who knows a whole lot more about the Bible than I do, points out that over time, “the assessments of literary history on early Christian writing have fundamentally changed” (106). In other words, the way we look at biblical texts is not a constant. And this is particularly problematic because the way we interpret the Bible changes the way some people will live their lives. God is supposed to be the base constant of the work, so we ignore how the words themselves have changed over time.

Now, avoidance of such oversimplification means being able to peer outside of our own narrow views and opinions; ignoring how others have thought is to ignore how others will think, and to assume that our current ‘correct’ understanding of a concept is and has always been right. You and I will see the same letters when we read a chapter, but even if you are from the exact same culture and time that I am, I doubt we’ll read quite the same thing. The variable is whether we let our values cloud our reading without considering what has shaped them. Ignoring our personal bias makes it impossible to understand what a text means beyond our own specific reading.

Some make this distinction by foregoing their personal opinions entirely. In “Parables Unplugged” — unplugged, supposedly, from any bias of the reader — Jesus’s stories are explored within a clean framework: the ‘claim’ made by the story, the ‘data’ enforcing the credibility of the claim, and the ‘warrant’ connecting the the story to the facts. Employing this robotic framework takes every bit of individuality out of the reading. It’s an attempt to carry the story back its origin. On this practical basis, the author walks through every parable in Luke.

The end of Luke 5 contains one of those parables where Jesus uses inanimate objects to explain why on earth his disciples are not doing what every other good religious person is doing. In this particular case, a group of Pharisees (the straight-laced high-class Jews) comes questioning why Jesus’s close Jewish followers are not observing the basic tradition of frequent fasting, which was essentially common courtesy for religious people at that point. Jesus has three answers for them: people don’t fast with a bridegroom, people don’t fix old clothes with new clothes, and people don’t fill old wineskins with new wine. And that’s all; I can’t imagine the Pharisees were completely satisfied with such an explanation.

But Thurén breaks it down for them. According to her structured reading of the latter two parables, Jesus presents the ‘warrant’ that “old and new should not be mixed,” based on the ‘data’ that “Jesus’ message means something new,” thus pushing the ‘claim’ that “old rules do not apply to Jesus’ message.” Her academic reading makes historical sense, and moreover is largely agreed upon as the right one. I’ve heard that sermon before, explaining why Christians don’t exactly follow Old Testament rules or why maybe some of those 7 Shocking Bible Verses aren’t so damning after all; because they’re old, and we’re concerned with the new, and Jesus said we don’t want those mixed together. Or our wineskins might break.

But I don’t think the Pharisees were as convinced as Thurén was that “the issue can no longer be simply the disciples’ fasting” (262). They asked Jesus why his followers weren’t obeying the rules of his religion, and he gave them sewing advice. The academic jump Thurén so easily makes between Jesus’s metaphors and old rules not being applicable to his message was not all that easy at the time. Even if the Pharisees were willing to sacrifice their original question for this theological explanation, whether they would agree on Jesus’s meaning is doubtful.

Not even all current academic readings come to the same conclusions. While Thurén has her step-by-step process, Ruben Zimmermann writes on the slew of ways scholars have taken the stories apart before: some create groupings like “a) family, village, city, and beyond; b) masters and servants, c) home and farm,” or “parables of the temple, parables of the land, parables of the economy, and parables of the people” (187) to provide further clarification as to what a parable might mean. Other scholars “distinguish between formal and textual aspects,” from the genre to the number of words to the introductory sentences (185), all to provide a structured basis for coming to a particular conclusive meaning.

Debates on what Jesus meant in Luke 5 range from the small-scale reading of this parable to a large-scale perspective on how much of the entire Bible remains relevant. And that second argument is further broken down into whether we should only follow the rules that Jesus restated, or continue to follow all rules except for those Jesus changed. Even within the conceptual reading of the parable, disagreements range all over the place. Some have popular sway now, in a time when most Christians very easily set aside the more conservative sets of biblical codes; and some have been much more popular in the past, notably the far more strict (and profitable) reading favored in the Catholic church’s heyday in Europe.

Those readings are all hugely based on context. The society in which I read the parable today is not the society in which my great-great-great-grandparents read it, and theirs isn’t the one in which their ancestors read it either. Who read it, and when they read it, changed what they read.

And the possibilities are endless. Put the text in front of someone unfamiliar with the Bible without the name Jesus, and chances are they would wonder at the advice they just got on when to fast, something they probably never do, how to fix their clothing, something they probably never do, and how to decide what to put in their wineskins, something they probably never do. Taken without a little theology the passage is remarkably irrelevant. I absolutely wouldn’t care about it if I hadn’t been told it means something more.

And that highlights the danger of all these uninformed interpretations. I was told that this string of sentences about old and new possessions helps to determine how much of the Bible I should listen to. That’s a pretty weighty decision, considering the sort of claims it makes throughout, from the very irrelevant and ignored — “Thou shalt not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together” (Deuteronomy 22:11) — to the incredibly relevant and written on protest signs — “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). The decisions Christians make about whether to follow those rules are important today. If they’re going to make them based on Luke 5 and other passages like it, understanding this variability becomes absolutely paramount.

The problem we’re hitting here is the difference between what the Bible is meant to be and what the Bible is.

It is meant to be the timeless text central to its religion, meant to be the word of God always present to guide those on earth.

What it is is a book. And it carries with it all the flaws big old books intrinsically bear, and even more because of the nature of this specific text. Nowhere will you find a book more discussed, more studied, more translated, more interpreted. The Bible has been through an awful lot: the stories themselves hold a huge amount of history, and many were passed around orally for quite some time before being written down. Then they were narrowed down into which specific books would be included in the final draft, then translated from Ancient Hebrew and Greek into hundreds of modern languages. Every step of the way, more interpretations emerged, more specifications arose for how it should and must be read to truly follow the word of God.

The vague background assumption that the way we read the Bible now is how it always has been and always will be read becomes dangerous with the potency of the text. If Person A reads the passage and decides that it means nothing in the Old Testament is relevant, Person B reads the passage and decides that it means both testaments are important in different situations, and Person C reads the passage and doesn’t think it relates to the Old Testament at all, there will be disagreement. If all of them fervently believe that their reading is the true word of God and refuse to consider the other views, the fight gets ugly. Moreover, they might all still be wrong.

The original importance of the text has to be taken into account for interpretation here; where and when and by whom it was written changed what ended up on those pages and should, at the very least, help decipher the original intentions. But words and context are changeable. Expecting one and only one reading to be foundationally and undeniably correct provides grounds for arrogant fundamentalism, which can help people use the Bible to justify next to any opinion. There are a lot of words in that book, words that have traveled very far, and if people look hard enough for their interpretation, they will be able to find it; how out of context and how twisted it is depends on them.

To step back and understand what is really being said means moving away from these bafflingly quick readings. I wouldn’t scroll through one of Derrida’s texts, grab the sentence “Writing is no more valuable… as a remedy than as a drug” just because it agrees with me, and then forcefully argue that anyone who doesn’t think that’s what Derrida believes is wrong. It’s out of context, out of place; that’s an oversimplification of an issue as multi-layered as that of the Bible, but the principle of the thing still stands. Where words came from and what we use to interpret them are key to what conclusions we come to. Explaining the contexts behind those interpretations can help move us away from our bias to understand why other people think how they do. Debate can then shift from unexplained perception to justified reason about what the Bible might actually be explaining.


Works Cited

Thurén, Lauri. “The Parables as Persuasion.” Parables Unplugged: Reading the Lukan Parables in Their Rhetorical Context, Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2014, pp. 249–344,

Zimmermann, Ruben. “Reading and Analyzing Parables.” Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretations, Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2015, pp. 183–210,

Imitating Chuck Klosterman, particularly in “Death by Harry Potter” (
An earlier draft of this essay was read by Emma Lezberg and Joelle Troiano.