Twisting their tales

In many ways Jesus' parables resembled those of the rabbis. But His contained significant differences, also. In fact, the differences help explain why they wanted Him crucified.

Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is a professor of New Testament at the Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

Jesus was not the only parabler in Palestine. As Ellen White noted, "Parable teaching was popular, and commanded the respect and attention, not only of the Jews, but of the people of other nations."1

The scribes and Pharisees also taught in parables, many of which are preserved in the literature of the ancient rabbis. 2 When we compare the parables of Jesus with those of the rabbis, not only do, we see Jesus' parables in a new light but we can more clearly understand Jesus' mission as a teacher and why it led to His crucifixion.


The parables told in Palestine were unlike those told anywhere else, and since the parables of Jesus and the parables of the rabbis are both Palestinian, they formally resemble each other. As literary critics say, they belong to the same genre.

The oldest rabbinic book, the Mishnah, 3 contains an example that makes this resemblance very clear. In order to teach that one should not learn more than he is willing to practice, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: "He whose wisdom is more abundant than his works, unto what is he like? He is like a tree whose branches are abundant but whose roots are few. And the wind comes and uproots it and overturns it.

"But he whose works are more abundant than his wisdom, unto what is he like? He is like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many; so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, it cannot be stirred from its place." --Aboth 3:18.

The formal similarity of this parable to that of Jesus in Matthew 7:24-27 is obvious: " 'Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

"And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.'"(R.S.V.).

The majority of the rabbinic parables, like some of the parables of Jesus, have explicit interpretations attached. The significance of this fact is that in the past most Biblical critics argued that a good parabler would not need to explain his parables, and would certainly not supply "allegorizing" interpretations that invest several details in the parable with meanings of their own.

Mark's Gospel, for instance, supplies the parable of the sower (chap. 4:3-9) with an interpretation (verses 13-20), in which the four soils, the seed, the birds, the sun, and the thorns symbolize something else. This interpretation, the critics contended, is un-Jewish and therefore not Jesus' authentic words; rather, it must have been the creation of the early church or the evangelist himself, arising after the parable was used in a Gentile environment. 4

The rabbinic parables, however, are certainly not un-Jewish. And yet they offer similar kinds of interpretation. An example comes from an ancient midrash (which is a sort of homiletic commentary), Mekilta of Rabbi Ishmael: "They [the Egyptians] said: If we had been plagued without letting them [the Israelites] go, it would have been enough. But we were plagued and let them go. Or, if we had been plagued and let them go without our money being taken, it would have been enough. But we were plagued, let them go, and our money was taken.

"A parable. Unto what is the matter like? It is like one who said to his slave: Go get me a fish from the market. The slave went and brought him a rotten fish. He said to the slave: I decree that you eat the fish or receive a hundred lashes or pay a hundred minas. The slave said: I will eat it. He began to eat but could not finish. He therefore said: I will take the lashes. After receiving sixty lashes he could stand no more. He therefore said: I will pay the hundred minas.

"Even so it was done to the Egyptians. They were plagued, they let Israel go, and their money was taken." --Melkilta, Beshallach3. 5

No analysis of this rabbinic parable can be blind to the obvious fact that the master corresponds to God, the slave to the Egyptians, and the three punishments in the parable to the three punishments the Egyptians suffered. But that is no reason to call either the parable or its attached interpretation "allegorical." And the whole unit is Palestinian Jewish.


The preceding parable of the slave and the rotten fish illustrates one of the chief purposes for which the rabbis employed parables--to resolve a difficulty in Scripture. There were those whose sense of justice was disturbed as they listened to the story of the Exodus. Were not the Egyptians punished too harshly? The rabbis answered the question by telling this parable, which no doubt brought forth a hearty laugh from their audience!

Similarly people had difficulty with Numbers 16:22, and a rabbi explained it with a parable: "It is said, 'Shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?'"

Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught: A parable. It is like men sitting on a ship. One took a borer and began boring beneath his own place. His fellow travelers said to him: What are you doing? He said to them: What does that matter to you? Am I not boring under my own place? They said: Because the water will come up and flood the ship for us all.

"Even so did Job say: 'And be it indeed that I have erred, mine error remaineth with myself ' (Job 19:4), and his friends said: 'He adds transgression unto his sin, he extends it among us--you extend your sins among us." --Leviticus Rabbah 4:6. 6

We now begin to glimpse what the difference is between the parables of the rabbis and the parables of Jesus. It is not the literary form or the subject matter. Both collections of parables tell of nature, of agriculture, of merchants, kings, and servants. In fact, as we shall see, Jesus even adapted some of the same stories that the rabbis told (or, in some cases, perhaps vice versa). The real difference between the two collections of parables is that while the rabbinic parables seek to resolve difficulties, the parables of Jesus create difficulties. The parables of the rabbis were intended to make life and thought easier, but those of Jesus made them harder. Above all, where the parables of the rabbis were meant to reinforce the conventional values of the time, the parables of Jesus subverted those values, even turning them upside down and standing them on their heads.

Revolutionary teachings

An anonymous parable found in Sifra illustrates this startling fact. 7 The parable accomplishes two purposes: It explains a verse in Leviticus that seems to imply that God is a respecter of persons. And it justifies the trouble of living the strict Pharisaic lifestyle, which involved keeping many rules.

"'"And I will have regard for you "' (chap. 26:9, R.S.V.).

"They parable a parable. Unto what is the matter like? It is like a king who hired many laborers. And along with them was one laborer who had worked for him many days. All the laborers went to receive their pay for the day, and this one special laborer went also. He said to this one special laborer: I will have regard for you. The others, who have worked for me only a little, to them I will give small pay. But you will receive a large recompense.

"Even so both the Israelites and peoples of the world sought their pay from God. And God said to the Israel ites: My children, I will have regard for you. The peoples of the world have accomplished very little for me, and I will give them but a small reward. But you will receive a large recompense.

"Therefore it says: '"And I will have regard for you."'"

This parable is perfectly natural and logical. Showing that it was worth the trouble to be an observant Jew, it must have been very popular. Jesus surely had heard a story similar to this one, and it is .of great interest to see how He adapted it to His own purposes in Matthew 20:1- 16.

"'For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

"'And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, "You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you." So they went.

'"Going out again about, the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, "Why do you stand here idle all day?" They said to him, "Because no one has hired us." He said to them, "You go into the vineyard too"'" (R.S.V.).

So far so good. The people could sit back and enjoy the familiar story. They enjoyed the way Jesus parabled, putting in all sorts of vivid details, and they thought they knew how the story was going to end. They knew that one denarius was the normal wage paid to an agricultural laborer for a full day's work. It was also about the amount he needed to support a family for a day. Jesus' audience must have noted that the employer made a specific monetary agreement only with those laborers hired at the beginning of the day. The others would receive only whatever was fair. And since the employer must have been a sane and normal man, he clearly would not pay those laborers who worked only part of the day as much as those who worked a full day!

Furthermore, Jesus' audience would have immediately understood the standard metaphors in His parable. The employer represented God. And the various laborers signified--well, in the light of the familiar story, the laborers who worked all day must mean the Pharisees, strict religious people who observed all the 613 laws of Moses as well as the many traditional laws derived from or based upon them. God would have regard for them. And the others? Perhaps they represented other Jewish denominations, the Ammei ha-Aretz (less carefully observant Jews), publicans and sinners, the Samaritans, and finally (the eleventh-hour people) the Gentiles--at least those who kept the seven laws of the sons of Noah.

Jesus continued: '"And when eve ning came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, "Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.

'"And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat."

'"But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? [Or are you giving me that dirty look because I am kindhearted and generous?]"'" (R.S.V.).

This surprise ending must have been extremely shocking and disturbing. Far from being what the audience expected, it shattered their conventional value system and even affronted their common sense. The employer in the familiar rabbinic story was a normal and predict able sort who paid people what they deserved. But what kind of an employer was the one in Jesus' version, an employer who paid his workmen not according to what they deserved, but 28  according to his own extravagant generosity--the same pay for one hour as for twelve? That, taught the parable of Jesus--that is the kind of employer God is!

Not only that, but put alongside the rabbinic parable from which that of Jesus takes its departure, His parable suggested something else. Jesus' parable seemed to be saying that even the strictest Pharisee with the greatest religious attainments could expect no greater reward than the lowliest Jew or even the most despised Gentile if he turned to God. It was a scandalous doctrine!

Again and again wherever we can approximately match a parable of Jesus with a rabbinic parable, we find this same pattern. The parables of the rabbis support conventional wisdom and religion, while the parables of Jesus take us in a very unconventional, unexpected, and even revolutionary direction. What were good people to think of a Teacher who declared that a hated tax collector, a quisling, would go down from his Temple prayer justified, 8 but the zealous and respectable Pharisee would not (Luke 18:10-14)?

We have become too well accustomed to the parables of Jesus. We are likely to read the story of the Pharisee and the publican and exclaim, "God, I thank Thee that I am not like that hypocritical Pharisee!" But when we exercise our historical imagination and begin to sense how His parables must have struck their first hearers, we realize how upsetting they were. Jesus was a disturber of the pious. In their eyes He was too easy on prodigal sons and lost sheep. People become very angry when their cherished values are challenged, when their tidy world is turned upside down. A revolutionary should not be surprised to find himself crucified.

We have domesticated Jesus and tamed His parables. But rightly understood, His parables still shock. We will find it much harder to come to terms with them if we can hear them afresh.

1 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1941), p. 21.

2 The first of the classical rabbinic literature to
be compiled and edited was the Mishnah, about
A. D. 200. But though it was written many years after
the New Testament, the rabbinic literature is a
compilation of oral traditions that in many cases
are much older than the works in which we now
find them recorded. Some of these traditions
antedate Jesus. We cannot even say that the rabbis
to whom the various sayings and parables are
ascribed were the first to have uttered them.

3 The best English translation of the Mishnah is
that of Herbert Danby, trans., The Mishnah
(London: Oxford University Press, 1967). I have
taken the liberty of modifying this translation and
that of the other rabbinic works, in the interest of
great literalness and consistency. It should be
noted that in this quotation from the Mishnaic
tractate Aboth 3:18, there is a textual variant that
inserts at the appropriate places the words of
Jeremiah 17:6, 8, which may in fact be what
originally suggested this parable.

4 Thus the great British scholar C. H. Dodd
wrote: "The probability is that the parables could
have been taken for allegorical mystifications only
in a non-Jewish environment. Among Jewish
teachers the parable was a common and well-understood
method of illustration, and the parables
of Jesus are similar in form to Rabbinic
parables. ... In the Hellenistic world, on the other
hand, the use of myths, allegorically interpreted, as
vehicles of esoteric doctrine, was widespread, and
something of the kind would be looked for from
Christian teachers." The Parables of the Kingdom,
rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
1961), p. 4. Dr. Dodd was obviously aware of the
existence of rabbinic parables, but he must not
have carefully examined the interpretations so
commonly attached to them.

5 This translation is a slightly modified form of
that found in Jacob Z. Lauterbach, trans., Mekilta
de-Rabbi Ishmael, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: The Jewish
Publication Society of America, 1933-1935).

6 Leviticus Rabbah is part of a series of ten
midrashim (imaginative commentaries) on as
many Biblical books. The series is called the
Midrash Rabbah. A complete English translation
was edited by Isidore Epstein, Midrash Rabbah, 10
vols. (London: Soncino Press, 1939).

7 As yet there is no English translation of Sifra,
but there is a German one by Jakob Winter, Sifra:
Halachischer Midrasch zu Leviticus, Schriften der
Gesellschaft des ludentums (Breslau: Stefan Munz,
1938), Vol. XXIV.

8 Luke 18:14 revolutionized the meaning of the
word justified.

Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is a professor of New Testament at the Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - Healthy and Happy Family - Skyscraper 160x600