One of the reasons I was so interested in studying the rhetorical function of the questions of Jesus in Luke is because of Luke’s Hellenistic style—of all the Gospel writers (except, perhaps, John), Luke offers the most polished narrative and the most skillful use of Greek rhetoric. In “Luke and the Progymnasmata: A Preliminary Investigation Into the Preliminary Exercises,” the second chapter of Luke: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Hendrickson, 2007), Mikeal Parsons sufficiently establishes a connection between the Gospel of Luke and the rhetorical methods espoused in the Progymnasmata of Aelius Theon of Alexandria, a probable contemporary of Luke’s. Parsons shows how even if Luke was not familiar with Theon’s own writings, he was at least familiar with the rhetorical conventions of first-century Hellenistic literature from which Theon drew his teaching methods.

I found this particular chapter of Parsons’ book fascinating in relation to my own work in the rhetorical use of questions in Luke, which is just getting started. If it can be reasonably established that the author of Luke was familiar with the rhetorical conventions mentioned in Theon’s Progymnasmata, then it may also follow that Luke would have been familiar with what Theon has to say about the use of questions in discourse (narrative or oratory).

According to Parsons, one of these Hellenistic rhetorical conventions is the varying of inflected cases to clearly and skillfully indicate the intended subject of a narrative or oratory argument: “Inflecting the main subject or topic (klisis) was one of the first exercises taught to beginning students of elementary rhetoric and provided a transition from the study of grammar to the study of rhetoric since the exercise focused on the rhetorical function of inflection.”[1] Theon himself argues that varied use of inflection is “very pleasing,” rhetorically speaking, and signifies the rhetor or storyteller’s skillful communication abilities.[2]

A good example of how Luke employs this rhetorical method might be found in the so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Parsons asks:

Does the grammar of inflection help us understand better how the authorial audience may have heard this parable? The term ‘son’ occurs eight times in Luke 15:11–32, once in the accusative case (and plural, v.11) and seven times in the nominative singular, in reference to the prodigal (15:13, 19, 21 twice, 24, 25, 30). We might reasonably expect that the subject of a parable or story would occur most frequently in the nominative case; however, if we take seriously the role of grammatical inflection in the educational system of late antiquity, then we might not be surprised to learn that not only does the word ‘father’ occur twelve times in the parable, it appears in all five cases at least once, and in four cases, including the vocative (a rarity in Luke) at least twice: nominative—vv.20, 22, 27, 28; genitive—v.18; dative—vv.12, 29; accusative—vv.18, 20; vocative—vv.12, 18, 21. The conclusion seems irresistible that an ancient audience hearing Luke 15, who were conditioned (even unconsciously) upon ‘hearing’ a word inflected to identify that term as the subject of the story at hand, would have naturally understood that the subject of the parable was the Father and his love (p.30).

According to Hellenistic rhetorical conventions, the multiple occurrences of the word patros in a variety of inflected forms would indicate that the most important thing to take away from the story is the character of the father. Perhaps, as Joachim Jeremias suggested, the title of the parable should actually be “The Parable of the Father’s Love.”[3]

This suggestion should not be taken as the sole interpretation or “point” of the parable, however. Interestingly enough, Parsons notes the similarities between the parables of Jesus and Theon’s writings about fables as rhetorical devices, which Theon defines as “fictitious stor[ies] which depict or image truth.”[4] More importantly, Theon suggests that a fable is capable of holding multiple meanings, and thereby receives its rhetorical and philosophical weight.[5] This is probably why so many scholars have likened the parables of Jesus to riddles—stories that are difficult to understand, with multiple possible interpretations and a propensity for causing confusion (see Mark 4:10-12).

Is the so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son” a story about a “lost” son who finds his way back home?

Yes.

Is it about the harsh reaction of the older brother as much as the younger brother’s prodigality?

Yes.

But most of all, Luke’s highly refined rhetorical narrative skills would suggest that the parable is about the father who loves both sons—wayward and obedient—equally.


[1] Parsons, 28.

[2] Ibid, 28.

[3] Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (2nd rev. ed.; trans. S.H. Hooke; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 128. As quoted in Parsons, 30.

[4] Parsons, 21.

[5] Ibid, 22.