In the Mirror of the Prodigal Son

The Pastoral Uses of a Biblical Narrative, c. 1200-1550

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Pietro Delcorno


In this fascinating reception history study of a key biblical narrative, Pietro Delcorno leads readers on a journey of interpretation that is expansive and comprehensive. Beginning with materials compiled in the 13th century and continuing to the middle of the 16th century, readers discover how Luke’s story has been read and interpreted for the benefit of the community of faith.

In Delcorno’s own words, the purpose of this book is to “investigate the relevance, function, and variety of interpretations of the parable of the prodigal son throughout the medieval period and up to the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century. During the given period, this biblical story was increasingly intertwined with major theological and pastoral themes. This parable became a fundamental instrument employed in pastoral activities to shape and negotiate the self-perception of the contemporary faithful, who in turn were called to look at the prodigal son’s story as a mirror reflecting their own lives” (1).

Delcorno fleshes out his thesis with carefully assembled sermonic materials along with materials drawn from other genres. In doing so, he shows the rich interpretative span to which this pericope in Luke has been subjected for both hortatory and corrective purposes.

Delcorno further explains his aim: “Moreover, by analysing the pastoral use of a specific evangelical text—namely the parable of the prodigal son—this study also aims to contribute to our understanding of the manner in which key biblical texts circulated in society, that is, how they were appropriated, adapted, transformed, and disseminated” (2). This point may well be the most important aspect of the book and to the present reviewer it is certainly the most interesting, since, from an exegetical perspective, pre-critical exegesis has been weighed in the balances and found wanting.

Also quite interesting in this volume is the way in which Delcorno shows that the pericope has political uses and is indeed brought to bear in the most acrimonious debates of the 16th century. He illustrates this by noting that “in their dispute over the prodigal son, Luther and Eck were discussing the profile of the perfect believer. The novelty of the discussion was in their profound disagreement” (14).

The chief contribution of the volume to our field of study is, however, its amazing collection of interpretations of a single text. Delcorno provides readers an opportunity to watch theologians wrestle with a key text in a way seldom seen. Delcorno has thus written a reception historical study which serves as a model for the genre. As he notes, “an overarching analysis of the interpretation and pastoral uses of the prodigal son parable for the millennium between the bishop of Hippo and the reformer of Wittenberg does not exist. The biblical commentary written by François Bovon, one of the most renowned contemporary scholars on the works of the evangelist Luke, serves as a revealing example. Bovon provides a description of the reception history of each of the pericopes of the Gospel of Luke, something quite unusual in biblical commentaries. However, in his presentation of the prodigal son, Bovon passes directly from Augustine to Erasmus, just briefly mentioning Bonaventure, who evidently is regarded as spokesman for the entire Middle Ages” (18).

This book has its weaknesses, but they are minute. Its strengths make it a valuable resource and a benefit to scholars of the history of biblical interpretation and application.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jim West is Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Church History at Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pietro Delcorno is NWO Rubicon postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds. He has published on medieval preaching and religious theatre, including Lazzaro e il ricco epulone: Metamorfosi di una parabola fra Quattro e Cinquecento (Il Mulino, 2014).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.