The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 10

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10. The Parables of Jesus.[edit]

The parables come after the phrases of the Sermon on the Mount as the most important of the sayings of Jesus. They are so greatly esteemed, and have such a repute for “uniqueness” and unsurpassable excellence that in the opinion of many they would suffice of themselves to establish the authorship of Jesus.

All these parables deal with “the kingdom of heaven,” the manner of its spread, the way to become worthy of it, and the attitude which the Jews and Gentiles assume in regard to the promise of it in the Jesus-cult. The connection with Isaiah is thus obvious.

“Go and tell this people,” Jahveh bids the prophet, “Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (vi, 9 and 10). “With stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing; yet they would not hear” (xxviii, 11 and 12). These words have had a general influence on the description of the conduct of the Jews to Jesus, but they have had the special effect of causing the Evangelists to make Jesus speak in parables (Matthew xiii, 13). In this way we can understand the otherwise unintelligible saying in Mark iv, 12, that the Saviour speaks in parables to the people in order that they may not understand him and be converted and receive forgiveness for their sins. There is simply question of a quotation from Isaiah. More than elsewhere we here recognise the mystery-character of the original Christianity of the Jessaeans, who thus reveal their dependence on Isaiah. The doctrine is communicated in parables which are unintelligible to “outsiders” and are not intended to be understood by them. Only the disciples or initiated are permitted to perceive “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” Hence we read in Matthew xiii, 34 and 35: “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world” (Psalm lxxviii, 2). Mark, moreover, says that he explained all to his disciples (iv, 34).

In these circumstances we are not surprised to find one of the chief parables, that of the sower (Matthew xiii, 3; Luke viii, 5), first among the Naassenes, the pre-Christian Gnostic sect, the close relation of which to Christianity we have already pointed out. In this parable, however, we have, as W. B. Smith has shown at length, a modification and adaptation of a much older allegory in which the Gnostic teaching illustrated the sowing by God of the seed springing from the Logos which produces the world.[1] In the case of many other parables of Jesus, also, the source can be traced, and they are not reproduced as sayings of Jesus with any great improvement. Thus the parable of the merchant who exchanges all his goods for a single pearl is found in the Talmud (Schabbat, fol. 119, col 1), and goes back to Proverbs viii, 10: “Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.” Even the parable of the net, which follows it in Matthew, seems to be inspired by the same passage in the Talmud, according to which the pearl is lost in a storm, swallowed by a fish, and recovered by the catching of the fish, and restored to its original owner, who sells it and obtains great wealth.

We read as follows in the Talmud: “God said to man: How great is thy guilt for betraying me? Thou sinnest against me, and I have patience with thee. Thy soul comes daily to me, when thou sleepest, and renders its account, and remains my debtor. Yet I give thee back thy soul, which is my property. So do thou each evening return his pledge to thy debtor.” It is not difficult to see in this passage the parable of the dishonest servant (Matthew xviii, 23).

Again, we read in the Talmud: “To whom shall I liken the Rabbi Bon, son of Chaija? To a king that hath hired labourers, among whom was one of great power. This man did the king summon to himself, and held speech with him. And when the night fell, the hired labourers came to receive their hire. But the king gave to the favoured labourer the same hire which he had given unto the others. Then they murmured and said: We have laboured the whole day, and this man hath laboured but two hours, yet there is given unto him the same wage that we have received. And the king sent them away, saying: This man hath done more in two hours than ye have done during the whole of the day. Even so had the Rabbi Bon done more in the study of the law in the twenty-eight years of his life than another would have done who had lived an hundred years” (Berachoth, fol. 5, col. 3). The parable is quite consistent and unassailable. But the Biblical parallel—the parable of the workers in the vineyard—is clearly distasteful, since the king attempts to justify his conduct by a purely arbitrary feeling, and regards his lack of justice as a virtue (Matthew xx, 15). It has not been improved in the mouth of Jesus, where it is made to illustrate the theme that in the kingdom of heaven the last shall be first, and the first last; that many are called, but few chosen (xx, 16).

The parable of the two sons recalls the saying of the Talmud: “The just promise little, but do much” (Baba mezia, fol. 76, col. 2). The parable of the rebellious vine-workers is inspired by Isaiah v:

My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill.
And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it……and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.
What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?
And now go to: I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:
And I will lay it waste……For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

The parable of the royal marriage-feast runs in the Talmud: “A king held a great banquet, to which many guests were invited. They were requested to bathe, anoint themselves, and put on their festive garments, in order to appear worthily before the king. But the hour of the banquet was not definitely fixed. The more shrewd were seen walking up and down before the door of the palace about the ninth hour of the day, awaiting the moment when they should be permitted to enter. The more short-sighted thought otherwise, and each one went about his business, as on other days. Suddenly the summons was sent forth that those who were invited should come to the king's table. Then the former came in splendid garments, but the others in their soiled workday-clothes, on account of the haste of the summons. The king looked with friendly eye on those who had shown themselves prepared at his invitation; but the others, who had paid less regard to the king's command and had entered the palace in unfitting garments, had to receive as their reward the displeasure of the king. Those who were successful had a place at the royal table; the unsuccessful had to witness this, and had in addition to undergo severe punishment.”[2] The parable is not very happy, on account of its many improbabilities; but in the New Testament it is altogether absurd. The invitation to a banquet already prepared; the reluctance of the guests to go to the marriage-feast, so that they even kill some of the servants; the blind fury of the king, who burns the town in revenge; his anger against one who is brought in from the road because he has not on the wedding-garment, and the terrible punishment inflicted on him—all this is so unnatural, grotesque, and ridiculous that it can only be pronounced a complete perversion of the Talmud original.

The parable of the ten virgins (Matthew xxv, 1), which embodies the same ideas, is no better. Ten maidens going out to meet a bridegroom at night, and some of them forgetting (!) the oil for their lamps and being rejected by the bridegroom for this slight negligence these are not pictures taken from life, but untrue constructions of a flighty imagination. The same may be said of the master in the parable of the loan of the talents (Matthew xxv, 14), who is angry with the servant who brings back his talent without interest, deals hardly with him, and casts him into the darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. We may note in passing that Matthew xxv, 29, is a rabbinical proverb from the Talmud, where we read: “He who gathers shall have more added unto him; but he who suffers a loss, from him shall yet more be taken.”[3]

Of the parables in Luke, that of the lost sheep (xv, 4) runs as follows in the Talmud: “A muleteer drove twelve span before him, all laden with wine. One of them strayed into the yard of a Gentile. Then the driver left the others, and sought the one that had broken loose. Asked how he had ventured to leave the others for the sake of one, he answered: The others remained on the public road, where there was no danger of any man seeking to steal my property, as he would know that he was observed by so many. So it was with the other children of Jacob [besides Joseph]. They remained under the eye of their father, and were moreover older than Joseph. He, however, was left to himself in his youth. Hence the Scripture says that God took special care of him.”[4]

The parable of the lost piece of silver (xv, 8) repeats and weakens the same idea, and is likewise found in the Talmud: “When a man loses a piece of gold, he lights many lamps in order to seek it. If a man takes all this trouble for the sake of temporal things, how much the more should he when there is question of treasures that keep their worth in the world to come?” (Midrash Schir hashirim, fol. 3, col. 2). It is also the theory of the rabbis[5] that penitent sinners are dearer to God than the virtuous (Luke xv, 10).

The parable of the unjust steward (Luke xvi, 1) runs as follows in the Talmud: “A king had appointed two overseers. One he chose as master of the treasure; the other he put in charge of the straw-store. After a time the latter fell under suspicion of unfaithfulness. Nevertheless he complained that he was not promoted to the post of master of the treasure. Then was he asked, in astonishment at his words: Fool, thou hast incurred suspicion in charge of the stores of straw: how couldst thou be entrusted with the treasure?” (Jalkut Simeoni, (sect. 1, fol. 81, col. 1). The parable is not profound; but it is not quite inconceivable, as is the case with the parable in the gospel, when it says: “And the lord commended the unjust steward,” and “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness……He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If, therefore, ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?” (8-12). One asks in astonishment how such a parable could find admission into the New Testament.

The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus (Luke xvi, 20) reminds us of the Talmud story of two men who died at the same time, one of whom had lived virtuously and the other viciously, and whom a rabbi saw, the one enjoying great delight, the other painfully licking with his tongue the edge of a spring, the water of which he could not reach.[6] We read much the same in Midrasch Koheleth, fol. 86, col. 14: “Of two sinners one had been converted before his death; the other remained in sin. When the latter went to hell, he marvelled to see the former companion of his evil deeds taken into heaven. Then he heard a voice: Fool, know that thy frightful death brought thy companion to repentance; why didst thou refuse during thy life to turn thy heart to penance? To this the sinner replied: Let me do penance now. Fool, the voice cried once more, knowest thou not that eternal life is like the Sabbath? He who does not prepare his food for the Sabbath on the day of preparation [Friday], whereof will he eat on the Sabbath? He who does not penance before he dies shall have no share in eternal life.” In fact, the very words of Luke xvi, 25, are found in the Talmud, where it is said of the godless: “Because you have no share in that life you receive your reward in this world” (Berachoth, fol. 61, col. 2).

In order to illustrate the words, “Ask, and it shall be given you; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Luke xi, 9), Jesus tells the parable of a man who goes to a friend at midnight and asks for three loaves, which he at length receives, not from good-feeling or affection, but because of his importunity. The widow also (Luke xviii, 1) obtains her deliverance from her adversary after long entreaty only because she was so troublesome to the judge. These parables are harmless in themselves, but what an unworthy idea of God is embodied in them!

The comparison of the Messiah to a bridegroom (Matthew ix, 15; John iii, 29), and his coming to that of a thief in the night (Luke xii, 39), must have been very common among the Jews, as we find it also in Revelation (iii, 3, and xix, 7), and we saw that this was originally a Jewish work, subsequently modified in the Christian sense; perhaps it belonged to the circle of Gnostic sects from which Christianity issued.[7]

After all this it is impossible to say that the parables of Jesus could not be “invented” or are “unsurpassable.” On the contrary, they are often defective, sometimes quite inconceivable, and are closely related to the Jewish parables both in form and contents; indeed, they are in part imitations of the latter, and are at times weakened, instead of being improved, in reproduction. It is mere theological hypnotism, which more or less affects all of us, that makes so much of the parables of Jesus. And when Fiebig says, in his Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (1899), that these parables “have in themselves the guarantee that no one but Jesus could have created them” (p. 162), we know what to think of such extravagances.

The parables of the good Samaritan (Luke x), the prodigal son (Luke xv), and the Pharisee and the publican (Luke xviii) are really beautiful and important. The first, however, has a parallel in a Buddhistic parable which is believed to have had some influence on the gospel story;[8] the coincidence proves at all events that such a parable could be “invented.” The parable of the good Samaritan corresponds in substance with Deut. xxii, 1. It is in harmony with Jewish morality, but not with the command which Jesus laid on his disciples not to go to the Samaritans. Possibly it is a later invention belonging to the time when the Christian mission was extended to non-Jewish places. Both of the first two parables give ground for reflection in the fact that they are found only in Luke, not in Matthew and John. This looks as if they were not in the so-called collection of sayings. As to the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, so excellent a story may have been invented late, just as well as that of the woman taken in adultery (John viii, 3). How can we say that it was impossible for any but Jesus to have told the story?


  1. Der vorchristliche Jesus (1906), pp. 108-135. Moreover, we read in the first Epistle of Clement: “The sower went forth and cast all his seed on the earth. They fall dry and naked on the soil, rot, and then the care of the Lord causes them to rise again out of their corruption, and from the one many are produced, and they bring forth fruit” (xxiv, 5). We see that the parable was told in many forms. Which form comes from Jesus?
  2. Koheleth rabba, 9, 8. See also Bereschit rabba, sect. 62, fol. 60, col. 3; and Sohar Levit., fol. 40, col. 158.
  3. Tikkunim in Sohar Chadash, fol. 75, col. 4.
  4. Bereschit rabba, sect. 86, fol. 84, col. 3.
  5. See Sohar to Gen., fol. 29, col. 1113, where it is said that the penitent was a stage above the pious; and Sohar to Lev., fol. 7, col. 56.
  6. Tractat. Chagiga, fol. 77, col. 4, Jerusalem Talmud.
  7. Also compare Isaiah lxi, 10, and Mark ii, 19.
  8. Pfleiderer, Urchristentum (1902), i, p. 447; Van den Bergh van Eysinga, Indische Einflüsse auf evang. Erzählungen (2nd ed. 1909, p. 57).