Ideas

Q&A

Jesus, the consummate storyteller

Scholar Amy-Jill Levine believes we’re underestimating the literary power of the parables. Interview by Michael Fitzgerald.

Amy-Jill Levine.
Christopher Berkey for The New York Times
Amy-Jill Levine.

Who was Jesus, exactly? Depending on your perspective, there are a lot of potential answers: a wandering Jewish mystic; the son of God on Earth; a radical political agitator in the ancient Near East.

Now the New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine is offering another one: literary master. In a new book, “Short Stories by Jesus,” Levine argues that to understand how Jesus captured people’s imaginations, we need to appreciate him as a profoundly gifted storyteller, one who worked through the medium of parables—and that as modern, non-parable-reading people, we have lost the ability to see his genius.

The parables of Jesus are recounted in all four Gospels, and some are so well known we use them as cultural shorthand—the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son. Though they’re often treated almost as children’s stories, Levine suggests they’re nothing of the sort. Levine, who teaches at Vanderbilt University and wrote the 2007 bestseller “The Misunderstood Jew,” offers new translations of the parables in her new book, recovering the sense of provocation and challenge they would have presented to their first-century audiences. The Jesus we see here came up with inventive ways to challenge his listeners, and didn’t allow them easy answers or room for self-congratulation.

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Levine, who grew up in North Dartmouth, developed the book in part through frequent classes and lectures at universities, synagogues, Christian churches, and even a maximum security prison. She says it can be complicated to be Jewish and extol Jesus, but says the stories are “absolutely fabulous” pieces of world literature she wants people to appreciate anew. She spoke with Ideas by phone from her office at Vanderbilt’s divinity school. This interview has been condensed and edited.

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IDEAS: It has become commonplace to study the Bible as a work of literature, but you’re focusing on parables as a separate literary form within it.

LEVINE: The New Testament is replete with genres: healing narratives, genealogies, nativity stories, letters, apocalyptic literature. Parables are one of those genres. Our problem today is we’re less familiar with the genre, and it’s hard to fully appreciate them. We’re not going to understand how a parable was originally heard.

IDEAS: I always thought parables were sort of an invention of Jesus. You make it very clear that parables are a long-running tradition in Jewish literature.

LEVINE: The rabbinic sources are replete with them, but they’re also cross-cultural. Aesop’s fables can be looked at as a type of parable; Buddhist koans can be looked at as parables. Wisdom literature more broadly has a number of parabolic elements....Parables are a necessary form of human communication. They’re also a beautiful form of human communication, because they make the individual do some of the work.

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IDEAS: A theme of this book is that the parables should not be seen as platitudes.

LEVINE: Parables have often been domesticated. They’re taught to people as children, so they’re interpreted as children’s stories, or they become so familiar that everybody becomes bored with them, or we determine that we already know what they mean and we can move on to something more important. What I want to do is get back the provocation of the parable—get back the edginess, get back the challenge, which makes the parables more interesting, and I think it makes Jesus more profound.

IDEAS: To get at the discomfort these might have held for their listeners, you compare the Good Samaritan to “the Good Rapist” or “the Good Osama Bin Laden.”

LEVINE: The parable of the good Samaritan is usually understood to be a parable about how we should look at those who are discriminated against or socially marginalized and say they’re nice people, too. Which may be a very good lesson—but it’s somewhat of a platitude. When we look at who the Samaritans were in the first century, we begin to see not a minority against whom discrimination is practiced, but indeed the enemy.

IDEAS: And the Laborers in the Vineyard, where the owner pays everyone the same day’s wage regardless of how much of the day they actually worked for him. It’s framed as a story about heaven, but you say that makes it too easy.

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LEVINE: The first thing I do when I look at parables, I look at commentaries, and almost invariably they say this doesn’t have anything to do with contemporary labor practices or ancient economics. It’s a metaphor for divine grace. When biblical scholars think it doesn’t have a concern for economic issues, or real-life issues, that makes me very nervous. When we’re told it would be ridiculous for somebody who runs a business to pay everyone the same amount of money no matter how much they worked—well, there are other biblical examples of this. People knew other people needed money. The vineyard owner could be saying to the first hired and second hired, you didn’t care about the people who were left without work and you don’t care about them now, and it’s part of your responsibility to pay attention to those other people who didn’t have the opportunities that you did. I think it’s an important message now. When liberal middle-class people complain about the government not doing enough, well, what are we doing? We’re responsible too.

IDEAS: You developed this book in part over 11 years of teaching at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute in Nashville. What was the most valuable insight you got there?

LEVINE: My “insiders” ask questions that I would not usually ask, and they see things in these texts that I would never have seen. The most profound thing with which I’ve been challenged at Riverbend is my own sense of how one finds meaning in one’s life, how one lives in the world, how one addresses one’s past behavior. What does sin mean, what does forgiveness mean?

IDEAS: What does the book say to us about Jesus?

LEVINE: The parables reveal Jesus to be not only a figure of enormous wisdom but a great spinner of stories, a man with a terrific sense of humor, a man who probably better than most understands what people actually need to hear and can deliver what they need to hear in a way that challenges them to hear it.

IDEAS: I don’t think people think of Jesus as having a sense of humor. What’s your favorite Jesus funny story?

LEVINE: [laughs] There are a number of them. I like the part in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus where the rich man, though burning in hell, has not quite realized that Lazarus is not at his beck and call. I like the beginning of the parable of the Pearl of Great Price, which starts out “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant....” The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sells you something you don’t need at a price you can’t afford.

IDEAS: What would be a modern-day parallel to the parable?

LEVINE: Something like “The Daily Show.” When I hear Jon Stewart talk about politicians whom I actually like doing things that make me distressed, I’m called to account. I’m challenged, I’m sometimes indicted. Although I’m not sure Jon Stewart would appreciate the comparison to Jesus.

Michael Fitzgerald writes on innovation and culture. His last piece for ideas was an interview with “Zealot” author Reza Aslan.