eastern shore, Sea of Galilee

Yeshua and Jewish Story Parables, Part 2

eastern shore, Sea of Galilee

“The kingdom of heaven is like,” said Yeshua. More than once. He opened some saying with the formula, “it may be compared to.” These are classic modes for introducing a story parable.

“They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,” was Yeshua’s way of commenting on a social issue in his time. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman hiding a bit of leaven in three measures of flour. Ambiguous stories about a King who destroys murderers, inspects the garments of wedding guests, and throws some into the outer darkness colored his speaking.

There are perhaps two kinds of sayings Yeshua is known for: aphorisms (short, memorable sayings) and parables. He is known for aphorisms like, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, to God what is God’s.” But the man who said, “Go and do likewise,” is even more known for his longer sayings, the colorful parables that mystify and intrigue us. Mark said of him, “he did not speak to them [the crowds] without a parable.”

Yeshua’s way of talking appears to be unique and very distinctive to a modern reader. Yet it could be a mode of speaking that was known in those days. Historically speaking it is difficult to say for sure, but it seems others in Yeshua’s time gave story parables as sermons to enthusiastic crowds of hearers.

We find hundreds of story parables in rabbinic literature (Mishnah, midrashim, talmuds). In Part 1, I explained that I used to be among those skeptical that these Jewish parables were around in Yeshua’s time. I believed there was insufficient evidence to declare any connection between parables of Yeshua, written down between 67 and 90 CE, and those in rabbinic writings not composed until 200 CE and even centuries later (the Babylonian Talmud was still being edited as late as 600 CE and some of the midrashim were written down even later).

Then I saw R. Steven Notley’s paper at SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) this year and he made a believer out of me. For those who really would like to learn more about the parables in rabbinic literature and how they compare and contrast with those of Yeshua, you may want to get his book, Parables of the Sages: Jewish Wisdom from Jesus to Rav Ashi (co-authored by Ze’ev Safrai).

Here is a quick explanation of the cogent points that changed my mind.

Identical Use of the Word “Parable” in Rabbinic Literature and the Gospels

The term “mashal” in Hebrew (מָשָׁל) came to be a technical term for a story parable, but it was not always so. In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Proverbs gets its name from the first verse, מִשְׁלֵי שְׁלֹמֹה, mishlei Shelomo, “the proverbs of Solomon.” The basic meaning of the word seems to be a simile (a comparison using the word “like” or “as”). In Proverbs, therefore, a mashal is a wisdom saying, often a simile. Elsewhere in the Bible it is a term used for a prophetic poem (Balaam, Numb 23:7, etc.), a traditional saying (1 Sam 24:14; 1 Kgs 9:7), or even a taunt (Isa 14:4; Mic 2:4).

But in the terminology of rabbinic literature the mashal is a story parable. The range of meaning of the word changed over time.

More importantly, only two collections of writings use מָשָׁל in this narrow range of meaning: the Gospels and rabbinic literature. Of course, the Gospels use παραβολη (parabolae), because they are written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic. But παραβολη is the Greek word that corresponds in the tradition to מָשָׁל.

Perhaps it would be more impactful to state this in a negative: no other ancient Jewish literature uses mashal or parabolae as a specific term for story parables. Not Josephus or Philo. Not the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not Jewish apocalyptic literature or other Second Temple period Jewish literature. The Gospels and rabbinic literature, despite the distance of centuries between their being written down, use the term mashal/parabolae in an identical manner.

Only Two Collections of Early Jewish Literature Use Story Parables

This point goes together with the last one. The corpus of Jewish literature is empty of story parables. You won’t find them in Philo or Josephus, in Second Temple Jewish writings, and from the documents at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls). In his lengthy introduction to Parables of the Sages, Notley carefully qualifies this point. Of course, there are allegories and metaphors sometimes in Second Temple Jewish Literature. But they lack the qualities of the Jewish Story Parable.

So, the Gospels about Yeshua’s life and teachings have Jewish Story Parables. And rabbinic literature, from the Mishnah and the early midrashim, to the talmuds and later midrash collections, also have them. These pieces of literature may have been committed to writing centuries apart, but they have a uniquely common genre within them.

Jewish Story Parables Often Go Back to Galilean Holy Men (Hasidim)

I’m not familiar with all the criteria by which Notley and other scholars determine the origins of certain sayings found in rabbinic writings, but many of the parables may go back to the Hasidim of Galilee. A Hasid in ancient terminology (not to be confused with modern Hasidic Jews) was a man (I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of women being known as Hasidim) known for piety, acts of kindness, and often homespun wisdom. The rabbis in the first few centuries had a sort of love-hate relationship with them.

Many would say that Yeshua fits the model of a Galilean Hasid. His teaching does not emphasize scholarship in the Torah, but rather ethics and theology. He did not seek to impress with his learning, but he insisted on the primacy of deeds of kindness. Whereas the precursors of the rabbis (the Pharisees) emphasized scholarship, Yeshua accused them of being weak in actual piety. The rabbinic movement came to debate the proper balance between Torah scholarship and deeds of lovingkindness. But they tended to give primacy to scholarship. The Galilean Hasidim also had a reputation for amazing answers to prayer and being used by God to do miracles, much like Yeshua. These pious men were known to take a long time in prayer, which is something Yeshua was known for.

I definitely am among those who see Galilee all over the accounts of Yeshua’s sayings and deeds. I stridently disagree with those who count Yeshua among the Pharisees or even who think him similar to them. I believe that Yeshua is the divine Messiah, but at the same time he was very much a human being of his time and culture. Galilee fits Yeshua and, I guess we could say, Yeshua is fitting for Galilee.

In Yeshua’s Parables and Those in Rabbinic Literature There is No Temple or Synagogue

One of the features of Jewish story parables, as can be seen in Parables of the Sages, is a definite realism, but one that lacks a specific setting. They are stories about “a king” or “a land.” They do not name a place or a person. And the setting is generic in other ways too. Things may happen in a palace, but never in a synagogue or a temple. The stories have a sort of universal setting that is not Jewish-specific. This, of course, is also a trait of Yeshua’s sayings.

Jewish story parables are always told in Hebrew, even when recounted in Aramaic documents

Finally, and this is a strong bit of confirming evidence for all that has already been said, in rabbinic literature, story parables are written in Hebrew. I know some people think, “But isn’t all rabbinic writing in Hebrew?” No. Early rabbinic writings are in a kind of Hebrew known as Mishnaic (heavy influence from Aramaic and with Greek and Persian loanwords). Later rabbinic writings (the talmuds) are in Aramaic. Yet the story parables are consistently in Hebrew, even when they appear in Aramaic documents.

The fact that story parables were preserved in Hebrew is evidence of at least an attempt to retain their ancient character. That is to say, it offers substantiation that later rabbis and sages were preserving stories that were centuries old by the time they were written down.

It also raises a question. There is considerable evidence, in the Gospels themselves, that Yeshua spoke Aramaic. Yet it is possible, and we have to ask ourselves, that at the very least he may have used Hebrew in delivering sermons. I suppose it is possible, though I have not read the theories Notley made reference to in his paper, that the Aramaic excerpts in the Gospels are a translation by the writers for their own time. Is it possible that Hebrew was more customary for Yeshua than Aramaic? If not, could Hebrew have been the language of choice for teaching his disciples or even the crowds who came to hear him?


In literature whose provenance is separated by centuries, we find an almost identical literary form. The parables of Yeshua and those the rabbis preserved are related by geography (Galilee), literary features such as setting and themes, formal qualities such as introductory phrases, and emphasis (ethics and theology, not legal scholarship). Even more telling, in all of ancient Jewish literature, only the Gospels and rabbinic literature have these parables. I now believe the notion that they are connected is believable and difficult to explain away.

The miracle is that the rabbinic movement, which did not accept the ideas of Yeshua on the whole, and which was not the origin of story parables, preserved a literary form that was so different from the usual rabbinic material. The Galilean Hasidim were quite different from the rabbis. Yeshua was quite different from the rabbis. And yet, history and literature have left them forever connected.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi, Derek — I’m happy to read that you’ve been so impressed during your sojourn at this year’s SBL conclave. I would like to point out a few bits of information that you might find helpful.

    One is that DSS literature has essentially confirmed that Hebrew was a primary language among Jews in Judea, and even in the Galil. Though a few Aramaic phrases do appear in the Gospels, the Greek word for the Aramaic language does not. On the other hand, the term Hebraion (the Hebrew language) does appear in the apostolic texts. It would appear that Aramaic had a non-primary function as an augmentation or cultural flavoring of ordinary Hebrew discourse — in my view, not unlike the function that Yiddish has served in modern times within various Jewish immigrant communities while most speech was conducted in the dominant culture’s national language. Thus, Rav Yeshua and his audiences were almost certainly conversing in Hebrew, with a sprinkling of Aramaic phrases and aphorisms.

    Another point is that the Galilean cultural influence in Rav Yeshua’s conduct or expression is not contra-indicative of his Pharisaic outlook. Shammai’s views were somewhat more favored in the Galil than Hillel’s, though both were quintessential Pharisees. One could certainly be a Galilean Hasid and a Pharisee simultaneously. Nonetheless, it is not surprising to find references which denigrate the ancient Hasids and their emphasis on experience and behavior as against pure scholarship, for much the same reasons as only a few centuries ago the Mitnagdim denigrated the modern Hasidim for their emphasis on experience and fervor over sterile scholarship. Most of modern Judaism attempts to balance these approaches. It would be a mistake to contrast hasids against “rabbis” to suggest that one cannot be both, or that Rav Yeshua “was … different from the rabbis”.

    Another rendition of the term “mashal” is as an example or illustration, not unlike the notions of an allegory or a simile. It is also the root of the word “memshalah”, which is a governmental regime or administration — suggesting that the principles of such an administration ought to be derived from an exemplary degree of wisdom; though, even if not so, it is likely to become an example of what should *not* be done. But perhaps *that* discussion is best reserved for another time. [:)]

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