Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Jesus and Jewish Parables

by CWK

            Parables are hard to come by in the first century.[1] There was, however, a prominent Rabbi who taught about 150 A.D. who is worthy of note. We read of him in Mishnah Sotah 9:15, “When Rabbi Meir died, makers of parables ceased.”
            This cryptic saying alerts us that a certain style of teaching departed with Rabbi Meir. However, it also alerts us that this kind of teacher – makers of parables – had at least some life in Israel.
            Also of note is The Dream of The Cedar and Date Palm found in Genesis Apocryphon (written about 5 A.D.; 1QapGen 20.13-16). Abram details his dreams, which amounts to a date Palm pleading for the life of a cedar tree. This “parable” reminds one of the dreams of Pharaoh (Genesis 41) and Nebechadnezzar (Daniel 2), and contains some of the mystery inherent in many of Jesus’ parables.
            The more important find from Qumran is The Parable of the Fruitful tree (4Q302a). Like Jesus, this parable employs harvesting metaphors (tree, soil, fruit, rain, branches). It is the closest thing to Jesus’ parables outside the OT that I have come across.
            In post biblical history, the most important parable is The Lame Man and The Blind Man. It is attributed to Ezekiel (interesting given that Ezekiel was the most prolific parabolizer in the OT), but is certainly apocryphal. We have access to a long version of it in the writing of the bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius (Against Heresies 64.70.5-17), who claims to have found it in the Apocryphon of Ezekiel, but it shows up in several other Jewish sources, always in shorter form than the one detailed by Epiphanius (Sanhedrin 91a-b; Lev Rabbah 4.5; Mekilta on Exodus 15:1). This parable also reflect that language of Jesus parables (King, kingdom), and even Jesus’ themes: the ungracious response of a servant of the King; excuse making; severe judgment.
            There are 325 surviving Tannaitic parables. Roughly 60 % of these refer to a king, and the king usually represents God.[2] Some bear striking resemblance to the parables of Jesus; for example, Rabbi Simon Ben Eleazar’s Parable of the Two Administrators (Mekilta on Exodus 20:2) sounds a lot like The Parable of the Ten Minas (Lk. 19.11-27).
            This survey so far shows that Jesus’ themes, and even his language are found across Jewish literature.
            We can go further, though. Jesus’ phraseology even has parallels. The Mekilta of Exodus 20:2 uses this phrasing, “To what may this be compared.. A king who entered a province said to his people...” This has striking verbal parallels with, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared (Mt. 13.24)…”

[1] “…if by “early Jewish parables” we mean parables of the first century, then, apart from the parables of Jesus, there are very few that can with certainty be dated to this period,” Craig A. Evans, “Parables in Early Judaism;” in The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 51.
[2] “Parables in Early Judaism,” 67.

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