I'm currently enjoying reading through Ruben Zimmermann's Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Intepretation. It's proving fascinating to me because so much of my own work has insisted that form criticism still, in various ways, has a determinative impact on Gospels studies. Zimmermann is doing the same thing, though he is focused particularly upon the parables. In a section I just read, he observed how form critics distinguised clearly between the subgenres of "similitude" and "parable" partially on the basis of the claim that the latter primarily reflected an unusual occurrence rather than daily life. Zimmermann shows how subsequent scholarship has rightly questioned these means of distinction precisely due to their subjective nature and dependence upon a full knowledge of the ancient context. (In other words, this method is sometimes hampered by the fact that we often don't know what we don't know.) It reminded me of more recent debates over the criterion of embarrassment, and particularly the contributions of Rafael Rodriguez and James Crossley. Here's what Zimmermann says about a purported "unusual" occurrence in a "parable":
"As has often been stated, however, the distinction between the normal and the unusual is questionable. While Juelicher and Bultmann agreed that the parable of the sower dealt with an extraorindary single occurrence and is thus, according to their definition, a parable, Jeremias objected based on ancient sowing practices. According to Jeremias, the text portrays 'a description of the regular method of sowing, and that in fact, is what we have here . . . in Palestine sowing precedes ploughing. Hence, in the parable the sower is depicted as striding over the unploughed stubble . . . What appears to the western mind as bad farming is simply customary usage in Palestinian conditions.' Other examples also call into question the criterion of the extraordinary. 'Does it appear almost sensational' [here Zimmermann is citing Harnisch, Glechniserzaehlungen] if a judge finally gives in to an insistent widow simply out of the need for peace (Luke 18:2-8) or if one fulfills the urgent request of a friend (Luke 11:5-8)? Which father would not rejoice at and celebrate the return of a son who was believed lost (Luke 15:11-32)? Is this an extraordinary occurrence? The question can also be turned around--is it a daily occurrence for a blind man to offer to guide another blind man (Q 6:39), for someone to find treasure buried in a field (Matt. 13:44), or for a master to leave his house to his servants when he goes on a journey (Mark 13:34-37)? The boundaries between the normal and the extraordinary, between the generic and the unique, are blurred." (122-3)
All of this raises the question of who gets to decide whether something is embarrassing or unusual. Of course, the answer to that question is the person making the argument, and it is part of his or her task to explain precisely why a given thing could have been embarrassing or unusual, and under what circumstances. I do think, though, that Zimmermann's discussion is raising a point that I have pursued elsewhere (as have others), which is that, while also not being dismissive of received wisdom, we should be hesitant of uncritically allowing previous scholars to set these definitions for us.