Does Using a Proper Name Turn a Parable Into a True Story?
The argument I have heard Arnold Fruchtenbaum, and others, use to justify that the Rich Man and Lazarus is not a parable is that parables don’t use real names. In a previous post (see Is “The Rich Man and Lazarus” a Parable?) I showed from the book of Matthew when and why Jesus began using parables. The Matthew passage is clear and can be objectively interpreted. The idea that a Jewish parable never uses a proper name seems to me to be an idea that is imported into the text and a violation of the Grammatico-Historical Method of interpreting scripture.
Below I am going to quote several pages the book “The Indictment of Eternal Torment” by E. D. Slough (an ordained minister in the church of Christ) which speaks directly to the “a proper name makes this a real event” rule. The book was written in 1914 which makes Pastor Slough a contemporary of A. J. Pollock. I should provide one caveat which is that Slough appears to have believed in soul sleep which, again, I do not believe in. Nonetheless he is a biblical literalist and his argument on this point is solid.
Please give Pastor Slough your attention and make up your own mind:
We would expect a reason for believing this parable to be a real circumstance. And so Mr. Sommer gives us his reason, saying, “from the fact that the text says there was a certain rich man and also gives the poor man’s name.” He lays down a rule, then, by which to determine a real circumstance from a parable. If that rule is good and sound, it is just what the world has long needed. For such a rule will work wherever it is applied. So if accurate and reliable, we can tell which are parables and which are not. But if it proves unsound, so that it cannot be depended on, then it is worthless, absolutely, and not only so, but misleading and in the way.
In order to estimate the value and strength of this rule, we need only to apply it to other parables. But before we can do this, we must throw it into the form of a general principle, which, briefly stated is this: That when in the course of our Lord’s teachings he introduces distinct characters into his narratives, they are real events and not parables. This is the rule, for it was because of the distinct characters of this parable that he determined it to be a real circumstance. And we will test it on its own merits and be governed by the results. We turn to Luke 10:30, 37, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him and departed, leaving him half dead; and by chance there came down a certain priest that way and when he saw he passed by on the other side. And likewise a ‘Levite’ when he was at the place, came and looked on and passed by on the other side; but a certain ‘Samaritan,’ as he journeyed came where he was, and when he saw him he had compassion on him, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him, and on the morrow, when he departed he took out two pence and gave to the host and said unto him, take care of him, and whatever you spend more when I come again I will repay you.”
This gives us an ideal opportunity to try the rule. In this we have a narrative of the most realistic nature. Is characters are distinct. The plot is familiar. There is nothing impossible about it. And while it does not give their names, it tells where it occurred. It speaks of a certain priest, a Levite, a Samaritan. The man falling a victim was a certain man. It occurred between Jerusalem and Jericho, two real towns. There are also roadhouses or Inns in such places. If Mr. Sommer’s rule can ever be called valid, it must apply here. And no sooner do we apply it then we rake the whole narrative off the list of parables.
We admit it was within the range of possibilities for such a circumstance to have occurred in all its details, but there is not a probability in ten thousand that it did occur just that way. Though no doubt scores of journeymen met misfortune at the hands of highwaymen passing over the wilderness road between these cities, as we are informed by historians. But we apply the rule and make it a real circumstance.
Again: “then said he unto him, ‘a certain man’ made a great supper and bade many, and sent his servants at supper time to say to them that were bidden, come, for all things are now ready, and they all with one consent began to make excuse” etc. (Matt. 14:16, 18).
This has always been recognized as a parable. But it was a certain man that did it, he sent them out to bid them come, that it was ready, and such suppers were common among the oriental aristocrats. It could have occurred just that way—there is nothing incredible about it. When they began to make excuse, one had bought a piece of ground—a very common transaction; another had bought a yoke of oxen, and must test them, very natural indeed; another had married a wife. But the same certain man sent them into the highways to compel them to come in and said, “not one of them that are bidden shall taste of the supper.” The excuses were of the most frivolous make-believe, none of them would have been hindered from honoring the invitation. Everything about the narrative is natural, nothing incredible, so we apply the rule, and because of the great naturalness of the picture and its distinct characters it becomes a real event.
Let us try it again: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, ‘Simon, I have somewhat to say unto you.’ And he said, ‘Say on, Master.’ ‘There was a certain creditor which had two debtors, one owed five hundred pence and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him most’” (Luke 7:41, 42). Here is that certain man, and a rich one, with two poor men, almost beggars, both owing more than they could pay. It was an apt illustration of a great lesson so badly needed at that time and to that person. We call it a parable, but when we apply the rule, because of its realism, it becomes a real circumstance.
We must give the rule a thorough test before we pass judgment upon it, so we will try it again–“And he spoke a parable unto them, saying, the ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought within himself saying, what shall I do because I have no place to bestow my fruits? And he said, this will I do, I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there will I bestowal my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years, take your ease, eat, drink and be merry. But God said unto him, you fool, this night your soul shall be required of you. Then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?” (Luke 12:16, 21). Here we know we have a parable, the Lord said so. It has a certain rich man in it. It was possible for all this to occur. Thousands of penurious, selfish, and rich men are doing this daily. God said, “You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you.” Whose soul? This one in the parable. Here the characters are just as distinct as in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. And we apply the rule here, and take it out of the list of parables. It becomes a real circumstance, or that rule is not worth a pinch of dust. But the Lord calls it a parable, and so do we.
This, then, surely tests the validity of the rule. And we must conclude that we can tell absolutely nothing by its use. These narratives without exception are presented as we would relate a scene to which we had been an eye witness. There could be no parables without these distinct characters. It matters not if the characters are named out and their homes established, a parable is given only for the lesson or moral it contains. And parables would be meaningless without them.
The Indictment of Eternal Torment
E. D. Slough
[Click on this link to see the next installment in this series: Old and New Testament Pictures of Sheol/Hades]