The Parables in America

Keynote Address by David Daniell
Tyndale Society Conference, ‘The Bible as Battleground’
Virginia, USA, 25 September 2004

The Bible has been the biggest single influence on American life from the beginning, as we have been hearing with much fine eloquence in this conference.

I want to take us more deeply into one of the most important Christian understandings of the New Testament - as it were to sink boreholes to find springs of water, such a common experience in rural America - and later to relate that to the battleground of our conference title.

Jesus spoke, all the time, about the power of God: most especially in the parables, those short dramatic stories, some a bit longer, that have quite extraordinary narrative skill. There are about forty of them, as well as short sayings in the same mode, almost all in the first three gospels. In those narrative stories, He is revolutionary. They are all beautifully made, but they are absolutely not merely nice little tales. Nor are they fictional illustrations of other points being made. They are themselves. The parable is the message, glimpses of God as Father.

It is appropriate to talk about the parables in the context of Tyndale. Not only did he write his first larger book developing one of them in his 1528 Parable of the Wicked Mammon - what we call ‘The Unjust Steward’. Tyndale also gave the English-speaking world the parables in the gospels, just as they are in the Greek, and in lucid, memorable words and phrases. They go off like little explosions, still, invariably bringing the unexpected.

Characteristically, we understand them at once. Interpreting takes work and imagination, and time. An apparently simple story, like that of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18, which we have had in English since Tyndale in the 1520s and 1530s, remains continually disturbing about received religion and the nature of God as Father.

Because of Greek influence quite soon after, the gospel writers added allegorical explanations supposed to have been made by Jesus privately to the disciples. Allegory was a Hellenistic thing, and later on allegories were enormously developed so that the parables became something encoded on a vast scale, like some sort of opulent, decorated shrine; the pages of secret meanings that Augustine made of the parable of The Good Samaritan make the hair stand on end. Jesus did not speak in code. So even in the gospels Jesus is once or twice made to interpret - the parable of the Sower, for example, saying ‘the seed is the Word’ and so on, which is not what the parable says, which is that the Kingdom of God is parallel experience: both apparent waste and failure in the sowing, and at the same time a harvest of a field of waving corn. Double time, and double experience. The point of the parables is the point, as it were, of Jesus himself: something had happened which had not happened before - the sovereign power of God in effective operation. As I might put it, the molecular structure of human experience changed, and has never been the same since Jesus. That is not static - so many of the parables are about, or imply, organic growth.

Incidentally, in the shift from oriental Aramaic to western Greek and to English, a grammatical form, a use of a dative, has been obscured. Jesus would not have said in Aramaic ‘The Kingdom of God is like a merchant...’, which makes a comparison too concrete and rigid. The Greek is properly a dative construction on an Aramaic base, so that in that tiny parable, about trading everything to buy one superb pearl, we should properly be hearing ‘It is with the Kingdom of Heaven as it is with the finding of an amazingly valuable pearl’. If you’re not careful, you have the kingdom of heaven as a middle-aged businessman.

What Jesus said, especially in the parables, was astonishing. They were spoken by him to the crowd, which included the religious dignitaries of the time, the scribes and the Pharisees. They hated him, because he said, correctly, that they had bottled up religious experience entirely for their own use. In their pride and complacency, they expected him to reinforce their understanding that God had perfected his kingdom in them. God, they said, was only in their tight, exclusive circle, with its succession from Moses, with, added to that, all the later rabbinical precedents. Jesus said, again and again in the parables, that the Kingdom of God was exactly the opposite.

For one thing, the parables tell of a world completely without religious exclusivity and separateness. God made the whole world, everything he made has unity, and it all coheres and belongs together. So Jesus took his material - all his material in the parables - from ordinary day-to-day life in a small provincial town, through the seasons: baking bread, family problems, being in debt, searching for a strayed sheep, working for an absent landlord, farming, sowing, harvesting, whatever. This is the most complete picture of Middle-Eastern small-town life that we have from the first century. At the same time, we have to recognise the range of human experience that those forty-odd stories contain.

Tyndale, in translating them, and in writing his books, shows his understanding of the largeness of spirit in Jesus, so vividly shown in the parables. The rebellious and wasteful rioter, that profligate and disgustingly ungrateful younger son in Jesus’s parable in Luke 15, was not only welcomed back - his father ran to meet him.

For another thing, the ‘point’ of the parables is invariably unexpected - I shall say more about this. Think quickly about two parables. In the one we call the Unjust Steward (‘dishonest’ is a better word), the steward has a career crisis, and cheats his way out of it. He has been caught stealing his wealthy master’s money, and been fired. How can he make a living? He won’t stoop to manual work or begging. So he arranges with the big debtors that they will rewrite - seriously reduce - the bills they hold, and he makes them, cunningly, do it in their own handwriting. They are let off meaningful sums of money. He knows that in their gratitude they will see him through. Jesus’s hearers, the Pharisees, expect his automatic disapproval of such dishonesty. Not at all. Jesus praises the criminal, calling him phronimos, which means wise or prudent. Faced with the big crisis in his life, he took action. Jesus is saying to his hearers, ‘Here are you, experiencing the biggest crisis imaginable, and you don’t do anything.’ They are being given complete new understanding of God, in Jesus’s life and what he says. And time has almost run out - his death is fast approaching - and they don’t do anything.

Similarly, in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, his hearers would expect Jesus’s commendation of the morally and religiously impeccable citizen, the Pharisee. Not a bit. Jesus recognises in the other one, the publican, the reality of his despair, which, in view of his trade, would be deep and all-consuming. God welcomes the despairing, hopeless sinner, and rejects the self-righteous.

The Pharisees hated Jesus because he reversed their idea of religion, and because he wouldn’t get a proper job but wandered about with a wretched band of drop-outs, sharing his life with criminals and prostitutes, which was not only socially unacceptable, but meant that to the Pharisees he was irreligious. And on top of that, Jesus convinced the scum that God loved them.

Jesus’s parables are not in any way like anything else, other oriental fables or folk tales, or the rabbinic stories with which they are sometimes compared, which always make a point about correct ethical choices. Jesus’s parables are a revelation of the love of God. His enemies hated him intensely, and ensured that he had a cruel death. Jesus wasn’t crucified for harmlessly making rather charming stories supporting the older ethics. The parables are revolutionary.

The outcasts got the point. Lepers. Taxfarmers. Prostitutes. Those who had not put themselves in the way of hating other people. Think of the reported event in Luke 7. A Pharisee named Simon gave a dinner-party so that his guests could meet that rather interesting prophet that everyone was talking about. He might turn out to be the sign of the expected New Age, the return of the departed Spirit of God, and in any case, as a Pharisee, Simon would gain merit by inviting a travelling teacher. But the party was crashed by a woman who was ‘a sinner’: she was either a prostitute, as is more likely, or the wife of someone with a dishonest or immoral life. She made a scene. Everyone was shocked except Jesus. We need to be clear about the nature of the shock. She wept over Jesus’s feet, and kissed them continually. To kiss a person’s knee or foot was the sign of the most heartfelt gratitude, such as might be shown to someone who had saved one’s life. Then she took off her head-covering and unbound her hair in order to wipe Jesus’s feet. It was the greatest disgrace for a woman to unbind her hair in the presence of men. She continued to kiss and wipe his feet, and anointed them with the perfume she had brought in an alabaster vase. Simon immediately privately dismissed Jesus as not a true prophet, because if he were he would know she was a whore, and would not have allowed her to touch him. Simon’s is a monumental mistaking of what was happening, seeing it only in terms of gender exclusiveness - a woman has barged in and upset his arrangements; and sexual horror - she is a whore; and in terms of his ritual purity and his own Pharisaical fear of defilement. Simon is wrong by 180 degrees. For us the event wonderfully demonstrates the spirit of Jesus. What Jesus receives is her abundant gratitude to him, her large-scale understanding of great forgiveness. We are not told how she got this understanding. It is part of the mystery of God at work. The little parable of the cancelled debts of two debtors which Jesus tells to Simon, with its huge disproportion between the great and the small, relates to love. She has great love for the Heavenly Father she has seen in Jesus, and therefore experiences great forgiveness. In every way, to Simon she is shockingly unacceptable. Jesus tells Simon that she is nearer to God than he is.

Again and again in the parables it is the poor, the shunned, the criminal, the ignored, the outcasts, the broken-hearted and despairing who can be seen to fathom the full meaning of God’s goodness. Jesus went about the towns and villages of Galilee, seeking the lost, and that was how the Kingdom came.

Again and again in the gospels it is the self-enclosed who refuse the love of God. The love of the Heavenly Father is so great that acceptance of it is limited only by the power to discover it. ‘We played to you’, the children in the marketplace said, ‘but you did not dance’. In another parable, the guests refused the feast. In another, the rich man had had all the signals and ignored them: it was Lazarus, the beggar at his gate, who received the full, embracing love of God. God’s rejection is as impossible as a householder’s refusal to take in and feed a benighted guest. The great love of God, like Jesus himself, seeks the lost - in Luke 15, the sheep and the coin were sought and found, and the father saw and ran to meet his younger son when he was still ‘a long way off.’

Two things Jesus’ parables do not touch. One is the whole world of rabbinic law: the other what we generalise as ‘the Second Coming’. Yes, there are parables about watchfulness, but the whole understanding of the Heavenly Father that the parables proclaim is that the Kingdom of God has at last come. It is wholly other: the realm of the wholly other contains, now, the last things. There is a sense of crisis, yes: but the crisis is not an Armageddon: it is, astonishingly, the willingness to recognise and accept joy.

So many parables announce joy. ‘Rejoice with me ... The lost is found. These are often small-scale, local joys, belonging to everyday village life. (Incidentally, Shakespeare recognised the force of such local losing and finding. In the middle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (3.2.463) he made the sprite Puck make up a wish for a good future: ‘Jack shall have Jill/Nought shall go ill/ The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.’ That is pagan, of course, but Shakespeare’s clinching of joy with seven words telling of tragedy turned to happiness, ‘The man shall have his mare again’, was, I believe, learned from the parables. The words look like a folk-saying, but Shakespeare made them up.)

Jesus as reported in Luke, especially, knows about joy at the level where it matters, in everyday reality. Think of Luke’s Christmas stories: before them there is a wonderful touch, early in Luke 1, where the angel of the lord suddenly appears to Zacharias in the temple, promising a son to him and his wife Elizabeth, even though she is barren and both are ‘well stricken in age’, as Tyndale puts it. ‘Thou shalt call his name John, and thou shalt have joy and gladness.’ ‘Joy and gladness’ are Tyndale’s words for the Greek chara and agalliasis - that last word defined as ‘exceeding great joy’. Luke’s gospel, we must not forget, opens his story of the new work of God with his people with ‘exceeding great joy’.

In writing The Bible in English (Yale UP, 2003), I was struck by how early was the identification by the first settlers in America with Biblical history. As I develop there, they wrote that they were in a new Paradise, a new Promised Land. It wasn’t long before they were declaring that America was God’s new country, especially selected by Him to fulfil his will, a doctrine very much still alive. But this was always based on Old Testament texts. As several speakers have pointed out, modern inability to recognise Bible references comes from modern ignorance of the Bible even among serious scholars. In a recent standard 2-volume edition of the writings of the earliest American settlers the editors - both distinguished scholars - proudly tell us that they have silently removed hundreds of Bible references and quotations on the grounds that (a) they clog the pages (b) they are boring and (c) no-one today is interested. This ignorance extends strikingly to ignorance of - and ignoring - the New Testament. But the special quality of the spirit of Jesus as contained in the gospels was, I found, notably absent among the earliest settlers - this is something I did not quite say in the book. That spirit of Jesus can be found especially in the parables.

One of the things I want most to stress is the uniqueness of Jesus’s parables. People tell me that they are studying oriental tales in order to get light on the parables of Jesus: or that there was a rich stream of Jewish rabbinic parables long before Jesus, and he was firmly in that stream. Yes, of course, there are oriental stories, often short and powerful: yes, of course, the rabbis told punchy stories; even our Old Testament has several, like the one Nathan told to David in 2 Samuel 12 about the poor man with the one precious little lamb which the rich man stole to serve as a meal for a guest. But two things need to be said: first, the strongest stream of rabbinic stories comes after Jesus; and, second, all the analogues from rabbis and surrounding lands make an ethical point which one can see coming. For example, in a lecture I heard in Italy last week, it was told that a man dies, and is taken to the afterlife. He sees a sumptuous room with a table laden with wonderful foods. Around sit angry people, unable to eat because the spoons they are given have very long handles. He is told that that is hell. Then the man is taken to another room, and round a similar table sit cheerful people happily feeding each other. That is heaven.

What is missing, in all the analogues, in comparison with Jesus’s parables, are three things:

The reluctant householder, woken in the small hours, and the reluctant son in another parable, grumble, but, unexpectedly, do what they can, reversing their feelings. Parables are about those in crippling poverty, like the woman with the coin lost from her headdress, who finds it; or Lazarus. Even the parable of the Prodigal Son not only ends with the jealous, meanminded elder brother having to do the impossible, to try to understand a loving father; but the end of that story is in fact open. What happens next?

So many of Jesus’s parables end with the unexpected. Jesus is revealing the nature of God. It should be obvious that God will be unexpected. We must not make Him in our own image. I am continually struck by one quality of life in America which arises from your openness as a society, which is, and not only as seen from Europe, the unexpected.

America, it seems to me, ever since Raleigh’s ships first made a landfall off the Outer Banks in 1584, has always powerfully presented the unexpected, usually expressed in opportunity. To both those are linked a sense of optimism. This is a wild generalisation, of course, but America looks forward: tomorrow will be better. In an important sense, America reproduces the conditions in which Jesus spoke. Of course there are great differences, mostly in technology and life-expectancy. But in both is the freedom to live local, busy, contained everyday lives. Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has recently pointed out that William Tyndale, in all his writings, but particularly in The Obedience of a Christian Man, emphasised the economic and social implications of Christian discipleship. He found in Tyndale’s theology a striking concern for love and the family. I note that the reformers substituted for solitary confession to the priest’s ear the experience in worship of congregational General Confession and Thanksgiving.

Not only are there parallels in America to the conditions in which Jesus spoke - the parables make a singularly complete and convincing picture of life in a small provincial town - but also in the conditions to which he spoke. Not many Americans keep sheep or build defensive towers: but we recognise the people in the parables very well.

In other words, I believe that America has a special rootedness in the New Testament, quite un-grand in scale, and to do with that total freedom to live ordinary life in a village, day to day and through the seasons, that I noted above was the life in Jesus’s parables: baking bread, family problems, being in debt, searching for something precious that is lost, facing the local magistrate, helping the desperate, working for an absent landlord, supplying an awkwardly-timed request, farming, whatever. I relate this to American liberty: something, as has several times been pointed out in this conference, far greater than toleration.

But the heart of this relationship of, I believe, the life of the parables with the life of America, is the unexpected, which is fundamentally linked to the necessary New Testament gift of hope. America loves story-telling. The forty or so narrative parables are all small masterpieces of that art and craft. Just in passing, there is a clear trait in American story-telling which matches the parables. Jesus enjoys the oriental love of exaggeration: the parable of daily bread-making in what would be a tiny house ends with enough for a hundred people (so, out of insignificant beginnings, God creates his mighty kingdom). The unmerciful servant owed his master ten thousand talents, which is a hundred million denarii, or ten million dollars - a sum right off the map; contrasted with the debt to him of a mere hundred denarii, which is twenty dollars. (The parable tells of the magnitude of God’s forgiveness.) American literature from Mark Twain on has revelled in exaggeration.

Jesus is an accomplished story-teller. For example, the back-stories, as we would say, of the three operative figures in the parable of the Good Samaritan, are a blank. We are not told why ‘a certain man’ was going ‘from Jerusalem to Jericho’, nor the three others. They just were. It is extremely effective. Significantly, almost no-one has a name - ‘A certain man had two Sons,…’ and so on. Only the desperately-poor beggar covered in sores licked by the dogs is dignified with a name, Lazarus, which means ‘God helps’: that points up his awareness, something the rich man so disastrously lacks.

[Unfortunately, long ago the Church decided that he was a leper, and named their leper hospitals ‘lazar-houses’. A leper would not have been allowed near the rich man’s gate. Similarly, the Church identified the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume as Mary Magdalen, quite falsely: a wrong identification which remains unshiftable. In the gospels, the anonymity of that woman, as with the others, adds to her power as a narrative figure, and allows them all recognition as part of any town’s life.]

What differentiates Jesus’s parables is also, as the Oxford authority C. H. Dodd first pointed out in 1935, Jesus’s appeal to the hearers’ mind and imagination. Allegory, which the parables are not, is decoration of another point being made. The parables are the thing itself.

Some of the parables begin with a direct appeal to use the brain, ‘What do you think? if a man has a hundred sheep…’ ‘What do you think? A man had two sons. he came to the first and said….’ Whether the parables are so introduced or not, the question is implicit. As C. H. Dodd put it (Parables of the Kingdom, 21), ‘The way to an interpretation lies through a judgment on the imagined situation, and not through the decoding of the various elements in the story.’ Jesus is not expositing a school of thought. He is, himself, the thing itself, the tremendous revelation. We have to resist generalizations, such as make the point of the parable of the Talents, for example, no more than an instruction to invest wisely. Generalizations reduce the parables. That man who hid his master’s money showed inexcusable irresponsibility, frustrating the operation of God by careless and self-seeking neglect of God’s gift. The parables are dynamic, and more so. Jesus said, about himself, ‘I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’

I shall talk about two things that America has been very good at, in relation to the New Testament. They arise from my particular aerial view of the battleground. In The Bible in English I try to survey the whole scene of the Bible in America, from Raleigh’s ships off North Carolina and Drake’s on the California coast, to last Tuesday.

I see in America imagination of a particular kind, in relation to the life and teaching of Jesus. America has given, to itself and to the world, something unique and rather odd, an oblique interest in Jesus in commercially successful novelisations of his life. Europe had produced some interesting attempts from the eighteenth century. In the 1850’s, Charles Dickens’ Life of Jesus, greatly promoted in the States as the greatest story ever told, by the greatest story-teller ever known, was his one commercial flop. George Moore gave us The Brook Kerith (1916), and D.H.Lawrence the short The Man Who Died (1929). The Greek Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ (1950’s) deals with his tortured psychology, and in Anthony Burgess’ A Man from Nazareth of the 1980s Jesus teaches how to play the game of life.

But the palm for this kind of biblical imagination has to go to America. In the mid-nineteenth century such American fictions broke records for numbers sold. Though many could now be condemned as sentimental, the tone was usually of Jesus as moral instructor. I deal with the most popular of these in Chapter 38 of The Bible in English. They made family reading, with a particular aim of helping wives and mothers be the moral backbone of the United States.

My puzzle is, why were they necessary? Clearly there was a hunger for fictions of Jesus to be used imaginatively. But why that way? What was wrong with seeing his Heavenly father through his own words?

On the bookstalls in the twentieth century alone, different American fictional accounts of Jesus amounted to a total of nearly four hundred. Though Jesus barely appears in it, most famous has been Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, first published in 1880, and massively reprinted, even today. Like other novelisations of Jesus’s life (Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe of 1942, for example) it has been a successful movie. There have been nearly two dozen Hollywood Jesus-movies.

I recently browsed through the titles of twentieth-century Jesus novels, and was (shall we say?) taken aback. How about The Donkey’s Dream (1985)? Or Harrow Sparrow of the same year? Jesus: a Sister’s Memories dates from 1934. The Jordan Beach-head came out in 1956. Slings and Sandals (1929), and Sandals for Jesus (1965) presumably present the fashion angle. The context of Vinegar Boy of 1970 can perhaps j-u-s-t be glimpsed. The prizes for obliqueness have to go to Tracks in the Straw (1985), Dancing Girl (1959) and the almost five-hundred-page 1979 masterpiece, The Brothel. I suppose my all-time favourite title has to be the 1933 The Woolly Lamb of God. (I am not making these up. You can find them in Alice Birney’s 1989 bibliography.)

I am being slightly unfair, as some of these are aimed at children - one hopes, not The Brothel. As the Yale scholar Jaroslav Pelikan points out in his 1985 Jesus through the Centuries, the Western imagination has been fascinated by the figure of Jesus of Nazareth: as rabbi in first century Judaism; the ‘King of Kings’ in the Constantinian dispensation; ‘the Prince of Peace’ at the time of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion; as ‘Liberator’ in the line of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The matter was treated with sanctity in early Christian poetry (think of the wonderful late-tenth-century Dream of the Rood) or awed ceremony in medieval drama. William Faulkner in A Fable, and Herman Melville in Billy Budd, realise the stature. As commentators point out, there has been a steady trivialisation in the modern novelisation.

Why? Why not open the New Testament and read the parables? Of course we rejoice with the angels in heaven when a benighted soul takes steps towards Jesus. But why go for the fake when you can have the real thing? Almost all the recent scholarship on the parables has been European. Why are the parables bypassed in America?

In my aerial picture I find, secondly, that America has a gift for translating the New Testament into English. In the last sixty years, since World War II, there have been eighty different, new, translations of the complete New Testament, or significant parts, from the original Greek into English. Three or four important ones have been British: all the rest have been American. The first fully American translation was in 1952 with The Revised Standard Version, which I know is still read, both original and revised.

I confess, however, that I worry at the fact of the American multiplicity. All of them claim to be doing that great thing of finally getting the Word of God, at long last, into the language that can be really, really understood today. Yet, apart from a couple that are, worryingly, free paraphrases, often far from what the Greek has, the translations are all, fundamentally excellent, and the same. They all start from a base of Tyndale and make a few small changes. (I fully understand that all of these Bibles are deeply precious to some Christians somewhere.)

Take, at random, a couple of phrases from parables. At Matthew 13:7, in the Parable of the Sower, Tyndale has ‘Some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked it.’ The King James has exactly the same, but changes the final ‘it’ to ‘them’. The Revised Standard Version has ‘Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.’ The New International Version has ‘Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.’ The Catholic New Jerusalem Bible has ‘Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.’ And so on, right across the spectrum of a score of versions. Tyndale’s original ‘fell among thorns, and the thorns…’ goes on and on. So does his ‘choked’. Tyndale made it - the Wycliffe version from the Latin 150 years before is quite different. What has been gained by multiplicity?

Ideological differences do not arise in the parables. As far as I know, there is not a sect somewhere which has decided that the parable of the Prodigal Son is unfair to pigs, and he should never have stopped looking after them, and not left them in their far country, poor things. No. The parables stand.

Another example. In the Parable of the Two Houses, Matthew 7:24, Tyndale has ‘a wise man which built his house on a rock.’ So does absolutely every other version, only occasionally changing ‘a rock’ to ‘rock’. Only the NJB is different, with ‘a sensible man’, though Tyndale’s ‘wise’ is better, from the Greek phronimos (the same word as we saw in the Unjust Steward).

Or, a complete parable, from Matthew 21:28-30. Here is Tyndale in 1534. (Again, the earlier Wycliffe version is very different.)

A certain man had two sons, and came to the elder and said: son, go and work today in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward repented and went. Then came he to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said: I will sir: yet went not. Whether of them twain did the will of the father?

The King James Version has exactly the same, only changing ‘elder’ to ‘first’ and ‘the father’ to ‘his father’. RSV is very similar, adding ‘today’ after ‘vineyard’, changing ‘likewise’ to ‘the same’, and modernising the last question to ‘Which of the two did the will of his father?’

And so on, again, right across. Some, instead of ‘repented’, have ‘changed his mind’, or, as in the New American Standard Bible, ‘regretted it’. The NJB has ‘thought better of it’, and is a bit toe-curling with the father saying, ‘My boy ’and the second replying, ‘Certainly, sir.’ The New American Bible has ‘his father’s will’ instead of ‘the will of his father’. What is being gained?

Some of the reasons for rival versions are sectarian, of course. Many reasons are financial. Most of the translations since World War II have been made over some years by salaried scholars working in leafy campuses with full secretarial back-up and, supporting them, publishers with enormous budgets (a long way from Tyndale, cold and hungry, working alone in a room in Antwerp, in hourly danger. And he, I believe, still did it best.) But there must be another drive at work. This is what America does well, very well. But in incomprehensible profusion. Again, why?

America does not have a constitutional national Christian church. One can argue that, in the light of the great number of American Christian sects and denominations, the Bible in English has taken its place. Which may just be a clue for another major puzzle. This has two sides. Why, in 1776, did not the Founding Fathers demonstrate their fullest independence by commissioning a fully American English Bible translation? America had the scholars - Dartmouth was already a centre of Hebrew studies, and Harvard and Yale had good Greek. But they didn’t. They went on doing what they had done for nearly 200 years, steadily importing some Geneva Bibles, but, massively, the King James Version from the UK.

Robert Aitken’s home printing of the King James New Testament in 1777, the first American printing, was a financial failure, and he was not baled out by Congress. It was several decades before American bible-printing took off, which it then did in a tremendous way, but almost always KJV.

The other side of the puzzle is to ask why the United States has been so in love with the King James Version, and still is. Yes, in the New Testament and half the Old Testament, where it shamelessly reprints Tyndale unchanged, to the figure of 83% in the New Testament, it is usually beautiful as well as clear. But for the second half of the Old Testament which Tyndale didn’t live to reach, when KJV departs for political reasons from the brilliant Geneva Bible of 1560, it can be, in the prophets, incomprehensible, though one is not allowed to say so.

Why has the American republic passionately and doggedly down the centuries cherished a monarchical text, already archaic in 1611, looking backward to the irrelevant Latin, frequently beautiful when it is Tyndale, often erroneous and sometimes unintelligible, but persistently loved as ‘our American Bible’ or even ‘the American Book’, and often known as, God save us, the Saint James Bible?

For The Bible in English, I made a point to study the American Bible printings since Aitken’s first in 1777. The figures of numbers printed defy belief. Over two centuries, we are talking billions and billions, very nearly all of them KJV, until the breakthrough in 1952 with RSV. Much-trumpeted fresh work, like that by Noah Webster in 1833, turned out to be straight KJV with a few silly changes.

But to go back to my point. Why the multiplicity? OK, commercial publishers look for the big profits. But why should a rival bible - so many rival bibles - make such an American battleground, and sell so vastly? The scholarship of Greek and Hebrew barely changes. Tyndale gave your nation the Bible in English, as your President announced in his first speech in London, to the pleasure of the Tyndale Society.

What are you, as a nation, looking for? Many of these bibles are what you call ‘study bibles’, relating the text to special experiences. To what end? Explication is one thing. But what’s wrong with just reading the parables? All of life is there, in the presence of a loving God.

Jesus’s parables go on and on resonating, like a line of Hamlet, only far more important. You think you know what it says: and then it suddenly hits you from a quite different angle. Jesus told the parable of The Good Samaritan in reply to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ If we think in global terms, that suddenly becomes a very alive question. Jesus’s answer was, to say the least, unexpected. Samaria was a disruptive enemy.

I used the image of drilling a water-bore, to get to the springs of Jesus’s teaching through the parables. I want to finish with a sort of parable of my own. I was brooding on how we hack and chip at the gospels with hammers and chisels, and shine on them multiple lights, determined to make them yield, and feel we miss something obvious. Then I found the following true story.

In the English midlands this summer, a team of archaeologists was working in a cave on a hillside. They were anxious to find what they were sure was there, pre-historic drawings and carvings. They shone high-powered torches and lamps, but found nothing. One morning, because they had a great deal to do, they started very early. And then they saw that the low morning sun penetrated the cave - and that that natural light revealed marvellous figures of animals in the walls and roof.

I say again that so many of the parables either express or imply joy. The house built on a rock does not fall down. The widow facing the unrighteous judge gets what she needs. Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom, whatever that means. The lost sheep and lost coin are found: not only do the happy finders rejoice with the friends and neighbours: Jesus says that a repentant sinner causes joy in heaven, before the angels of God.

In some strong ways in the wider world, Christianity, now in the fall of 2004, can seem brutal. Looking at the parables in the natural early-morning sunlight of faith, hope and love can reveal everyday figures and Christian meanings otherwise lost. We repeat our thanks to William Tyndale for giving them to us, from the original Greek, as always, so accurately, so clearly and so memorably. What we do with them is up to us.

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