Sunday, June 21, 2009

Goodacre's "Dating Game" 5: The Historicity of the Parable of the Vineyard

In the second installment of this series we looked at the way Jesus identifies himself as the “stone rejected by the builders”/ “cornerstone” from Psalm 118. There we argued that the stone was most likely associated with the temple and that, ergo, Jesus had identified himself in terms of the temple.

Here’s the question: is the saying historical? Because the saying is also so closely tied to the Parable of the Vineyard―which, as I explained earlier underscores the cultic aspect of the stone saying―we might also inquire into the authenticity of the parable itself.

To begin with we ought to observe that some scholars (e.g., Jeremias) have preferred the version of the parable in the Gospel of Thomas, seeing it as more original to that found in the Synoptic Gospels. The version in Thomas is simpler and therefore seen as being “more primitive”.

In particular, scholars have preferred the version found in Thomas because it seems to have fewer allegorical features. The assumption here is that the presence of allegory points away from the teaching of the historical Jesus and is evidence of the theology of the early church.

Without getting into a long discussion here, the view that Thomas’ version of the parable is more original than that of the Synoptics has been rightly rejected by a number of recent writers. Indeed, the Thomas’ account can be shown to be dependent on the Synoptics’ as well as Syriac translations of the Gospels.[1] Furthermore, as others have pointed out, Thomas had good reason to exclude the exegetical features found in the Synoptics―to argue anything from their omission here is problematic since such omissions fit well with Thomas’ agenda.[2] Finally, the view that Jesus did not use allegory in his parables has been widely rejected.[3]

But even if Jesus himself used allegory, scholars still insist that particular allegorical features point away from the historical Jesus and towards the theology of the early church.

1. That the “the son” is rejected and killed would seem to point to a post-Easter setting.

2. The implications of the parable are that Jesus is the son of the vineyard, i.e., the Son of God. This is also said to most likely reflect the theology of the early church.

3. In the parable the judgment on the tenants comes only after the “son” is killed. This highlights the unique importance of Jesus and thus also seems to point towards the early community’s view.

4. The destruction that comes as a result suggests a setting after the destruction of Jerusalem.

5. The son is depicted as the final climax, being sent only after other messengers have been killed. This is said to make little sense―why would a father send his son into such a situation? The language is only explicable if one sees Jesus as the climax of salvation history―as the one who comes after all the prophets, a view most see as more likely the product of the early church than Jesus himself.

6. The image of the vineyard being handed over to others is said to point to a period after the “parting of the ways”—i.e., to some belief that God has rejected Israel in favor of the Church.

Let us briefly deal with each of these arguments.

1. The implication of Jesus’ fate in the parable, i.e., that he will be killed, only necessarily points to a Christian origin if one believes that Jesus could not have anticipated meeting a violent ed. However, as a number of scholars rightly point out, there is good reason to think that Jesus did in fact expect to die. Numerous arguments could be cited. For example, since many of the prophets were killed, if Jesus saw himself as a prophetic figure―and we have established in the discussion of the temple incident’s historicity that he did―he would likely have anticipated to suffer as they did.

2. That Jesus is identified as the “son”, i.e., “of God,” does not require one to believe the parable is the product of the early church. The Davidide was frequently associated with such language and there is strong support for the idea that Jesus understood his role in Davidic terms.

3. The unique importance assigned to Jesus in the parable need not be seen as the product of early Christian theology. Jesus himself could have seen himself as an eschatological figure―that would make him unique.

4. We already argued in our post on the temple incident that Jesus likely predicted a coming judgment on the temple. That the parable includes mention of the destruction of the vineyard need not suggest a post-70 setting.

5. If Jesus saw himself as an eschatological figure, he in fact did see his role in “climactic” terms―eschatology relates to the “end”. That the son therefore is killed after the messengers are sent and that the final judgment of the tenants occurs finally after his death is completely consistent with such an eschatological view. Nothing here necessitates a Christian setting.

6. Those who take the parable to describe the rejection of Israel in favor of the church entirely miss the point of the parable. Craig Evans puts it best: such a view makes no sense of the story since it is the tenants and not the vineyard which is condemned. The identity of the vineyard remains constant―it is the tenants, likely the Jewish “leadership”―which changes hands. Evans (Mark, 223) writes: “All attempts to interpret the parable as a creation of the church suffer shipwreck on the rock of the parable’s basic story line: the focus is not on the identity of the vineyard, which is presupposed and remains constant; the focus is on the conflict between those who care for the vineyard and the owner of the vineyard whom the tenant farmers do not respect and will not obey.”

Suffice it to say, the arguments used to deny the authenticity of the parable are weak. In fact, a number of features actually weigh in favor of its historicity.

The Parable’s Dissimilarity to Christianity
As others have shown, the parable exhibits elements which are dissimilar from the early Church’s theology in significant ways.

1. Jesus was killed outside of Jerusalem. The Markan version has the son killed within the vineyard and then cast out, which does not mesh with the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ death who is killed outside the city. That in Matthew this element is changed attests to the problematic dimension of this element in the story. It is obvious that the Christians believed Jesus was actually killed outside walls of Jerusalem, something the author of Hebrews makes much out of (Heb 13:12-13).

2. The son is not raised from the dead. More telling is the fact that the story makes no mention of the resurrection, describing only the destruction of the tenants and the hurling of the corpse of the son over the fence. There is even no reference to a burial―an element that plays a crucial role in the Easter traditions. The fact that the story contains no hint of the son’s vindication, much less resurrection from the dead, would therefore seem to argue against it being of Christian origin and speak to its authenticity.[4]

Coherence of the Parable with the Jesus Tradition
The story can be shown to be coherent with what we know about Jesus.

1. Most obviously, the story is a parable―and that Jesus told parables is one of the most widely accepted pieces of the Jesus tradition.

2. In fact, this parable is quite similar to others attributed to him: e.g., the parable of the talents and parable of the pounds (cf. Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27), in which an authority figure goes away and entrusts what he owes to others and when they are proven unfaithful they are punished. Though Matthew and Luke appear to tell different versions of the story, the majority of scholars agree that their accounts are based on an authentic teaching of Jesus.[5]

3. Numerous other elements of the parable cohere with other aspects of the Jesus tradition which have strong claims to authenticity: his role as an eschatological figure (=he comes after the prophets); that he anticipated his death, an image which fits in well with his prophetic identity; his message of coming judgment; his identity as the “son” may be seen as related to his Davidic identity, etc.

Other Elements in Parable Meet Historical Plausibility
The parable can also be shown to be historically plausible within first century Judaism.

1. Jesus’ tale about the vineyard finds striking parallels with similar stories told by the rabbis, which also communicated lessons allegorically.[6]

2. Its connection with cultic themes (i.e., the stone saying―see below) is also plausible. As we saw in our exegesis of this parable, the temple and the cult were also associated with Isaiah’s description of the vineyard in other Jewish texts (e.g., 4Q500 and Targum on Isaiah).[7] That Jesus therefore speaks in a manner similar to the ancient rabbis and employs this Isaianic passage while speaking in the temple and in association with other cultic images (see above) strongly suggests a Jewish setting.

3. Furthermore, scholars have also identified over a dozen Aramaisms in the parable, which, at least signals that it originated in a Palestinian environment.[8]

All of this underscores the parable’s historical plausibility and weighs against the view that it originated in the early Church.[9]

Our next post in this series will examine the historicity of the stone-saying. This saying is, as we shall see, crucial to the whole question we have been exploring.

[1] An excellent discussion can be found in the recently published comprehensive study on the parables of Jesus written by Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 280. Snodgrass highlights to specific elements which point to dependence on Luke: (1) “they will give to him” (δώσουσιν αὐτῷ; Luke 20:10); and (2) “perhaps” (ἴσως; Luke 20:13). In fact, ἴσως is a hapax legomenon in the New Testament. As Snodgrass writes: “its appearance in Thomas must arouse suspicion” (280). Amen! See also, idem., “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen: Is the Gospel of Thomas Version the Original?,” NTS 21 (1974-75): 142-44.
[2] See, e.g., Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 280-81.
[3] For a fuller discussion see Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), 26-69.
[4] Moreover, Snodgrass makes the important point that “the parable is too indirect to be the confession of the early church” (Stories with Intent, 296).
[5] Can we really believe that the early Church attributed to Jesus the line: “You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed?” (cf. Matt 25:26; Luke 19:22). See Gundry, Matthew, 508: “Strikingly, the master accepts the severe portrait of his character and activity. His acceptance supports the authenticity of the parable. Early Christians would hardly have made up such a description of Jesus, even in a parable.” For further arguments in favor of authenticity ee also Bock, Luke, 2:1529, Nolland, Gospel of Luke, 2:911; Luz, Matthew, 248-50; Theodor Zahn, Das Evangelium des Lucas (KNT 3; Leipzig: A.Deichert, 1913), 628 n. 23; Alfred Plummer, St. Luke (ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1922), 437.
[6] See Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 278-80 and Evans, Mark 8:27―16:20, 220-22 who cites Midr. Tanh. B. Qĕdôšîm §6 [on Lev 19:2] which begins: “To what may this be compared? To one man living in Galilee and owning a vineyard in Judea, and another man living in Judea owning a vineyard in Galilee.” See also Midr. Prov. 19:21 which alludes to Isaiah 5:7; Sipre Deut § 312 [on Deut 32:9]; S. Eli. Rab. §28.
[7] See the discussion in Evans, Mark 8:27―16:20, 226-28. It also appears plausible that the Targum contains a pre-70 interpretation of Isaiah’s vision. See Johannes C. De Moor, “The Targumic Background of Mark 12:1-12: The Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” JSJ 29 (1998):63-80.
[8] See Marius Young-Heon Lee, Jesus und die jüdische Autorität: Eine exegetische Untersuchung zu Mk 11, 27–12,12 (FB 56; Würzburg: Echter, 1986), 80; Martin Hengel, “Das Gleischnis von den Weingärtnern Mc 12:1-12 im Lichte der Zenonpapyri und der rabbinischen Gleichnisse,” ZNW 59 [1968]: 7-8 n. 31; Evans, Mark 8:27―16:20, 224. Some have made the case that the use of the LXX also suggests a Christian setting. However, see Evans, Mark 8:27―16:20, 224-228; Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 287-88.
[9] It is also interesting to note that the Targum on Jeremiah 7, a passage cited by Jesus in his earlier temple action, describes the prophets as “servants” (cf. Tg. on Jer. 7:13), who are not heeded by the people. This bears a striking similarity to the language of the parable, which recounts how the wicked tenants rejected the servants sent by the vineyard owner.


steph said...

Maurice Casey will be presenting a paper on Mark 12.1-12 at the BNTC in Aberdeen.

Mike Koke said...

It is good to see if you are starting up this series again. I find it also interesting that Thomas sayings 65 and 66 have the parable followed by the saying about the stone the builders rejected. I wonder if it also points to Thomas dependence on the Synoptics, or perhaps that this parable was already connected with the saying about the rejected stone in the oral tradition?
P.S. I tagged you about the 5 influential book meme thing :)

jacob said...

I thought you might be interested in learning about OUR Jewish traditions, one which has embraced the real Christ of the gospel, the Law and the prophets.

If this doesn't interest you, I apologize in advance.

If you are interested let me tell you that we are the Frankist Association of America. One of our members has a new book out:

I am not that I am trying to sell you something. If you can't afford the book you can see the website of one of our teachers -

I just wanted to let you and the scholarly world that there have always been more than one type of Judaism in the world at any one time. Some forms of the faith had to learn to hide their beliefs in order to survive and perpetuate themselves.

Shalom, God Bless
Everything is perfect with God

Beth El Jacob Frank