Unlocking The Gospels With Tanach: Things New And Old (3)

 

                   …like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old

                                                                   Matt. 13:52

 

Today, we are going to talk about the parables. The parables make up most of the teaching of Jesus: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.  He did not say anything to them without using a parable.[1] “Because of their prominent place in the first three Gospels, parables are, as scholars have argued, among the most likely teachings to go back to the historical Jesus.”[2] Why did Jesus speak in parables? Where does this genre come from?

THE LOST COIN

You may know that this provocative genre originates in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament): Heb mashal, like Greek parabolē, referred to figurative comparison. There are a number of parables in the Hebrew Bible: we find them in the book of Judges, in the books of Samuel and Kings, and in the books of the Prophets. However, the genre really flourished in the rabbinic literature. There are many parables in the rabbinic texts, and even though they were written down much later, they still contain some materials from Jesus’ time.

For instance, we find a parable similar to Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Coin in a Jewish commentary on the Song of Songs—Song of Songs Rabbah. Remarkably, here the parable itself is likened to the Lost Coin. “The matter is like a king who lost a coin or a precious pearl in his house. He will find it by the light of a penny-worth wick. Likewise, do not let the parable appear of little worth to you: through the parable, a man can stand on the words of Torah.”[3] The significance of the parables in Jewish tradition is clearly seen from this text: the parables are perceived as a means for understanding Torah. The Jews had always taught by means of parables, and that is why Jesus used them to help his listeners grasp his teaching: they were accustomed to parables and knew how to understand them.

However, there is an additional explanation of this phenomena that seems very important to me personally. Those who have been following this blog for a while (or have read my books) know how important the issue of Hidden Messiah is in my eyes. In the Gospels, we clearly see that “the secret of the kingdom of God, communicated through the parables, is explained to the insiders, but those outside only hear the impenetrable shell”.[4]  Parables separate insiders from outsiders: He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything[5] – and thus confirms the concept of the Hidden Messiah: Jesus was supposed to hide His messianic status from the people of Israel and to reveal it only to those who were chosen by the Father, like Peter (Matt.16:16).

JEWISH PRODIGAL SON

… this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.[6] The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most famous and beloved parables of the New Testament. Many consider this parable to be also one of the most typical of Jesus’ parables – depicting God as a Loving Father, full of grace and compassion, as opposed to the “stern and demanding” God of the Old Testament. You may be surprised to learn that this message of God’s grace has many parallels in Jewish thought, where the whole theme of return and repentance (in Hebrew, both words come from the same root: Shuvah and Tshuvah) is extremely important – God always welcomes His returning and repentant child. In fact, we find a very similar parable in midrash Devarim (Deuteronomy) Rabbah. The parable of the “Loving King and His Evil Son” illustrates the theme of repentance and God’s desire for his children to return to him. The matter can be compared to the son of a king who took to evil ways. The kingappealed to him saying, “Repent, my son.” Then the father continues: “Is it not to your father that you will be returning?”[7]This rabbinic parable reflects the same theology of grace that we find in the Parable of Prodigal Son. “Incorrect is the common view that the father’s generous response to the prodigal—whether the father is seen loving parent or representative of God—would be surprising to Jesus’ Jewish audience.”[8]. In Jewish tradition, the fathers always love their children, and God is always reaching out to find and bring a sinner home.   

THE PHARISEE AND THE TAX COLLECTOR

‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people … even like this tax collector.[9]

In the famous parable of Jesus in Luke 18:9-14, we read about two men who went up to the Temple to pray: one was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. A traditional Christian reading sees the Pharisee here as a hypocritical, legalistic and self-righteous character; sympathies would tend to align with the tax collector only, whilst the Pharisee would be dismissed as a completely negative symbol. However, do we miss something that Jesus’ audience would see in this story?

First of all, there is no doubt that there was a very negative attitude toward tax collectors in the society: not only the gospels, but later Rabbinic sources, describe this attitude as well. Tax collectors were viewed negatively throughout the entire Roman Empire. From the words of John the Baptist in Luke,[10] we understand that tax collectors usually took more money than they were supposed to—in the gospels, tax collectors were clearly associated with sinfulness!

What is important here – and is  missed completely by the  Christian audience – is that in the Jewish mindset, the sin of one person affects the whole community (that’s why Jesus taught to pray “forgive us our sins” rather than “forgive me my sins”), while the merits of the righteous one might benefit the whole community—remember Abraham arguing with the Lord regarding Sodom and the righteous people there! I imagine the Jews who first heard this parable would have thought about the Pharisee’s merits positively impacting the justification of the tax collector, but as they continued to listen and began to grasp Jesus’ point, they probably began to think the opposite: it was the tax collector’s humility and repentance that would benefit the Pharisee!  However, in any case the important point here, the point that is totally missed today, is that these both men were perceived as being connected, as being part of the same community—as influencing one another by their spiritual status. We need to learn to read the parables of Jesus through the eyes of the 1st century Jewish audience.

[1] Mark 4:33-34

[2] The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 68). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[3] Song of Songs Rabbah, 1,1,8

[4] The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 68). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Matt. 4:33,34

[6] Lk. 15:24

[7] Deut. Rabbah, 2:24

[8] The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 133). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[9] Lk. 18:11

[10] Lk. 3:13

 

 

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or JBNT (Jewish Background of the NT) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsor learning more about the Jewish Background of the New Testament, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com)

 

If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books – you can get them from my page:  https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/  I also want to let you know that I am preparing a book with all these Hebrew insights into Torah and into New Testament, the book   will be published and available soon. 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. simon thoka

    i am thankful for such great light

  2. Victor O Olear

    You blow my mind anytime i read your commentary.
    You bring the Torah/Gospel from heaven down to earth.
    God bless you.

  3. Nick

    Thanks Julia. The more I have “taken on” Jewish thought as is currently taught, the more sense I make of Jesus and Paul. A spiritual path congruent with the teachings of both is found in mussar, Kabbalah, and proper understanding of Torah. Hashem may be bigger than Christianity and Judaism. In my humble opinion…..
    Nick

  4. JOHN AKIN

    Julia, thank you so much for your insightful and compelling emails. I have read each of your books at least twice and often refer to them. Have encouraged my wife to read them as well. Dr Brad Young has some interesting insights concerning why Jesus always used parables to teach.