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The Proverbs of Jesus: Issues of History and Rhetoric


The Proverbs of Jesus: Issues of History and Rhetoric.By Alan P. Winton. Supplement Series No. 35: Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1990. Pp. 236.

The author uses proverbial sayings as a means of explicating the complex interrelationships among biblical wisdom literature, eschatology, and Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God, and in that limited sense, the book is theological rather than paremiological. To his effort to define "the place of proverbial wisdom in the Synoptic presentations of Jesus (p. 11)," Doctor Winton devotes six closely-reasoned chapters, the titles of which suggest his approach: "Aspects of Wisdom in the Synoptic Gospels," "Classifying and Analyzing Proverbial Wisdom," "Problems of Historical Reconstruction: Wisdom, Eschatology and the Kingdom of God," "The Functions/-Rhetoric of the Proverbial Saying in the Synoptic Literature," and "Wisdom of the Kingdom: The Significance of Proverbial Wisdom." Wisdom locutions appear, according to Winton's analysis, in (1) the Imperative saying, (2) the Interrogative saying, (3) "longer sections of wisdom discourse, where a number of sayings are joined together (p. 28)," and (4) the Descriptive saying, the last of which comprises Winton's corpus of "proverbial sayings" and is the focus of his discussion.

Skirting Archer Taylor's pessimism about accurately defining the proverb, Winton embraces functional and linguistic characteristics as noted by D. Zeller (Die weisheitlichen Mahnsprüche bei den Synoptikern [Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1977]): (1) "In both form and content the saying exhibits a generalizing character which allows it to be applied in similar situations" (p. 33); (2) "[T]he proverbial saying is seen to be independent of context; there is a sense in which it can 'stand on its own'" (p. 34); (3) "[B]inary form [is] a common feature of proverbial sayings" (p. 34); (4) "Certain stylistic features are common in proverbial sayings which help to distinguish them from ordinary speech," (p. 35), such as terseness and elevated diction; biblical references and another of authors cited. and (5) "The proverb may be distinguished from the riddle on account of the lack of clarity in the sense of the riddle" (p. 35). He accepts much of Alan Dundes' structural approach to classifying proverbs and applies those principles to Jesus' proverbial sayings before turning to problems of interpretation. Concluding that Rudolf Bultmann's form-criticism is too historical and therefore limits the scope of interpretation, Winton adapts the literary/rhetorical approaches of W. A. Beardslee and J. A. Crossan and elements of Norman Perrin's "historical reconstruction of Jesus' message, and the effects of such principles on the interpretation of the proverbial material (p. 98)."

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.


The proverb specialist will appreciate the breadth of the author's reading, as evinced by a lengthy bibliography that cites, among other specialists in folk speech, R. D. Abrahams, E. Ojo Arewa, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, R. A. George, P. A. Goodwin, M. Kimmerle, B. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, A. Krikmann, M. Kuusi, N. R. Norrick, G. L. Permyakov, P. Seitel, J. W. Wenzel, R. N. Whybray, and J. G. Williams. Winton's notes are a feast of interesting materials that are often fascinating apart from their relationship to the text. The reader is further assisted by the inclusion of an index of biblical and extra-biblical references and another of authors cited.

George B. Bryan
Department of Theatre
Royall Tyler Theatre
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405

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