Every now and then you get your paradigm blown about some aspect of biblical history or theology. That happened to me at the recent SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) meeting in a session put on by the Historical Jesus Section, with Amy-Jill Levine presiding. Specifically it was R. Steven Notley’s paper in the session whose topic was “Parables and the Historical Jesus.” We heard from John Dominic Crossan, John Meier, and Klyne Snodgrass before Notley got up to speak.
My expectations were low. This is no reflection on Notley himself, whom I have met and found to be a wealth of information on rabbinic literature. It’s that I have been operating for years on a different paradigm. I’ve been going by the principle that
we can’t really use the rabbinic literature to say much at all about the historical Yeshua (Jesus). Let me explain why.
Historical Problems: Gospels about Yeshua, Rabbinic Literature
The divide between the life and sayings of Yeshua and the earliest written material about and by the rabbis is hundreds of years. The life of Yeshua ended somewhere around 30 CE. The Gospels were written down between 67-ish and 90-ish CE. The earliest piece of rabbinic material, the Mishnah, is from 200 CE. And the Mishnah really has few comparisons with the Gospel material anyway. The elements of rabbinic material that seem to resemble Gospel material the most are story parables, found in Midrashic literature written down between 300 and 700 CE and the Talmuds (Jerusalem and Babylonian) written down between 400 and 600.
That’s a minimum 200-plus year gap between the Gospels and the earliest writings containing Jewish story parables. Think back to 1816 and how much the world has changed since then. In the Jewish world, happenings and changes between 90 CE and 300 CE were vast. After Yeshua’s lifetime, in 70 CE, Jerusalem and its temple was destroyed and Judaism forever changed. In 135 CE, the Second Jewish Revolt was quashed, Akiba killed along with thousands of other rabbis and hundreds of thousands of Jews. Judaism changed even more. Galilee became increasingly filled with Byzantine Christians, who were the majority population in the centers of rabbinic life when the earliest rabbinic literature was being written down.
I thought, and historical Jesus scholarship has mostly agreed, that we really can’t say the story parables of Yeshua and those in rabbinic literature are comparable. Notley changed my mind.
Now this area brings with it a lot of problems. Let’s say we find similarity between the story parables of Yeshua and those passed on to us by the rabbis. Who influenced who?
A Test Case: A Parallel Parable
Let me put up next to each other two parables and let’s consider their similarity. I chose this example randomly from a list of parallels in Notley’s Parables of the Sages (Co-author, Ze’ev Safrai):
Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.
To what may the matter be compared? To one who came to a shopkeeper. He said to him, “Give me a quarter-log of wine.” He replied, “Bring me your vessel.” So, he opened his pack for him. He said, “Give me olive oil.” He replied, “Bring me your vessel.” So, he opened his bundle [leather bag] for him. [The shopkeeper] said, “You cursed fool! You don’t have a [suitable] vessel, yet you seek to acquire wine and oil.”
Both parables are about ways of living and receiving teaching. In Example 1, which is Matthew 9:17, the disciples of John the Baptist have been doing a lot of fasting and notice Yeshua and his retinue feasting. They come to complain. Yeshua’s parable basically says they need to use the right vessel to receive his teaching (a new wineskin). In other words, they need to be open to a new paradigm — the paradigm of the arrival of the bridegroom, Messiah.
Example 2 is from Avot d’Rabbi Nathan (#405 in Parables of the Sages). The context is about people who come to the rabbis wanting to study Torah but whose lives are not conformed to ways of living the Torah. They apparently want the prestige and intellectual stimulation of Torah without the lifestyle and sacrifices of living for God as the rabbis do. (Note: the early rabbis did not get paid for their rabbinical work, but maintained jobs that provided a living while laboring for hours in Torah study in their spare time). These wannabe disciples of the rabbis need to obtain a proper vessel, just like the disciples of John who come to Yeshua with a complaint.
I don’t know the best scholarly guess for the date of the writing of Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, but wikipedia says 700-900 CE. Matthew’s Gospel is somewhere around 80-85 CE. Yeah, the parables are written down more than six centuries apart from one another. Perhaps you see the problem.
Bad Comparisons: Blunders in Comparing Yeshua and “the rabbis”
And people are constantly making historical blunders comparing the life and times of Yeshua with the life and times of the early rabbis.
An example of that is the idea that there were numerous rabbis in Yeshua’s day who gathered circles of disciples. These disciples supposedly memorized the sayings of their masters and were fiercely loyal to them. That is a serious misreading of the evidence.
The best we can tell, in Yeshua’s time, there were some circles of Pharisees and scribes who studied together. They were not the leaders of Judaism by any means, either in Judea, Galilee, or the diaspora (outside of Israel). They were few. They did not have formal academies as would be the case hundreds of years later when the Talmuds were written down. They were far less organized and numerous than a hundred years later in the days of Akiba.
Yeshua’s circle of disciples is not patterned after a rabbinic movement of scholars and disciples. It much more closely resembles Elijah and Elisha and the disciples of the prophets (just as is the case with John the Baptist).
So back to Example 1 and Example 2 above. There are a number of parallels between the parables of Yeshua and those found in rabbinic literature. Some of them are stunningly similar. The thing is, Yeshua’s parables are (arguably) first in the order of origination. So the question is this: did the later rabbinic teachers use and reuse sayings of Yeshua? Did Yeshua invent parables that came into Jewish use? Or, theory 2, did Yeshua draw upon a stock of already-existing Jewish parables and use them for his own ends? Or, theory 3, are parables so common in the ancient world that Yeshua and the later rabbis drew upon common ideas and themes found all around them (bound to have parallels)?
If we start down this road of seeing a historical connection of some kind between Yeshua’s parables and those found in the writings of the rabbis, these are the kinds of dilemmas we face.
Jewish Story Parables and Yeshua, an Undeniable Connection
So, this, in short, is why I went into R. Steven Notley’s paper with a rather low expectation. I came out with a different view. He persuaded me: there is an undeniable connection between Jewish story parables and Yeshua’s parables. Furthermore, Yeshua probably told them in Hebrew, not Aramaic.
Next time: what changed my mind?