Houston Graduate School of Theology


Academic Excellence, Personal Transformation, Leadership Development

Historical Jesus Parabolic Ministry


by Doug Kennard, PhD  

John Meier (A Marginal Jew, vol. 5) shocked the world of historical Jesus scholars restricting Jesus’s historical parables to four (Mustard Seed, Dinner Party, Talents, and Leased Vineyard). Usually skeptics in the Jesus seminar (e.g., Funk, “Silent Sage”) consider that Jesus told about two dozen parables. Some are more generous (e.g., Kennard, Messiah Jesus).

Some in early Judaism expected a Messianic Sage (4Q381 frag. 15.7). Some in early Judaism even anticipated a pre-existent wisdom being.[1] Josephus describes Jesus as “a wise man . . .  who performed surprising feats and was a teacher of the sort of people who accept the truth gladly. Teaching outside where the Jewish people were [assembled] was a common mode for Jewish sages. With this accessibility, he won over many Jews” (Ant 18.63).

Jewish sages develop narrative themes through parables (haggadah). Parables are polyvalent when disconnected from context but reflective of the thrust of the context within which they are imbedded. For example, the parable about a Shepherd Retrieving Straying Sheep occurs six times in two centuries. For example, Matt 18:12-13 encourages recovering straying disciples (similar to Gen Rab 86.4), whereas, in Luke 15:4-7, the same parable encourages disciples to rejoice when the lost are found.[2] Gnostic gospels include Jesus telling the same parable for different meanings: Jesus rescues the best loved (Gos Thom 107) and Jesus seeks the lost providing special knowledge (Gos Truth). The parable is also found in Ex Rab 2.2 to justify Moses as the appropriate leader. Context strictures parabolic ambiguity to focus on specific textual meaning.

Using parables, Jesus describes His kingdom as present and growing where God’s people are.[3] This sermon of growing kingdom parables emphasized that present kingdom life birthed by God is to be lived righteously and responsively to Jesus with the specter of eschatological judgment. After substantial kingdom growth, Jesus sends out His angels to gather His disciples into eschatological kingdom and destroy opponents.[4]

In fact, Jesus’s parable encouraging discipleship faithfulness, includes a nobleman receiving his kingdom (Luke 19:11-27 parallel to Matt 25:14-30) which mirrors Herod the Great and Archelaus receiving their kingdoms from the Roman Senate in 40 BC and 4 BC, even with them killing resistant Jews when each Herod initiated his reign.[5] Jesus’s kingdom message is so significant that His disciples need to buy into kingdom at whatever the cost (Matt 13:44-46; Gos Thom 76, 109). Those who respond inadequately fall away along the way[6] (Sower Matt 13:3-8, 18-23; Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-8; Gos Thom 9). Those who resist Jesus’s authority in kingdom do not show appropriate allegiance to God and will be excluded from kingdom.[7]

The leased vineyard parable is reminiscent of Isa 5:1-7 parable predicting Babylonian conquest such that this retelling predicts Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and 135 AD (Matt 21:40-46; Mark 12:9; Luke 20:16-18). Such resistance to Jesus’s offer to kingdom banquet also excludes the religious leaders from kingdom, while radical inclusion of normal folk within the kingdom banquet affirms the included folk with kingdom benefit and belonging.[8]

Jesus tells many more parables but these were chosen to show the historical depth of multiple attestation and consistency within Jewish rabbinic tradition. Jesus utilized Pharisaic kingdom imagery within His kingdom parables. Jesus’s use of memorable form in parable emphasizes His role as the historically recoverable Messianic Jewish sage.

[1] Sir 24.3; 1 En 42.1-3; Eth En 93.8; 94.5; 98.3; 4 Esr 5.9; S. Bar 48.33-36.

[2] Parallel to Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-9 similar to Song Rab 1.1.9; Gen Rab 39.10; Ruth Rab 8.1) and Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32 similar to Mek Beshallach 4.35-41; Deut Rab 2.24; Pesikta Rab 44.9; Ex Rab 46.4).]

[3] Leaven (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:20-21; Gos Thom 96:1-2 similar to Justin, Dial. 51.3), Mustard Seed (Matt 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19; Gos Thom 20:2-4 similar to b. Taanith 4a), and Wheat and Tares (Matt 13:30 similar to rabbinic parables ARNa 40.9; T. Abr. A 10; Paris mss 110).

[4] Wheat and Tares (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) and Drag Net (Matt 13:47-50; Gos. Thom. 8; similar to rabbinic parables ARNa 40.9; T. Abr. A 10; Paris mss 110; Sifre Deut 32.10; Gen Rab. 61.6; 83.5; Num Rab. 4.1; 11.2]; Sheep and Goats [Matt 25:31-46; similar to Dan 7:9-10, 18, 26; Rev 20:11-15; 1 En. 9.4; 60.2; 62.2-16; 63:1-12; 90:20-36; 47.3 with 46.2; 2 En. 63.1-2; 4Q246 col. 2; 11QMelch. 2.13; 2 Bar. 72. 2, 6; 73-74.4; Ps. Sol. 17; T. Abr. A 11.11; 12.1-18; 13.12; 14A; Sib. Or. 2.183-84, 239-54, 283-338; 4 Ezra 7.37; b. Ned. 39b-40a; Midr. Ps. 118.19]).

[5] Josephus, Ant 14.14.1-6; 17.196-341; JW 2.80-100.

[6] Similar to m. ’Abot 5.10-15; Justin, Dial. 125.1; 1 Clem 24.5; Pesikta Rab 11.2; ARNa 40.9.

[7] Leased Vineyard (Matt 21:28-46; Mark 12:1-11; Luke 20:9-19; Gos. Thom. 55, 65-66; similar to Deut Rab. 7.4; and Ex Rab. 27.9).

[8] (Matt 22:2-14; 25:1-13; Luke 14:15; 20:16-24; 22:16-18; Gos Thom 64.1-11; similar to Isa 25:6-9; 1Q28a 2.11-12, 19-21; m. ’Abot 3.16-17; 4.16; Gen Rab 62.2; Ex Rab 45.6; 50.5; Lev Rab 13.3; Num Rab 13.2; Ruth Rab 5.6; Cant Rab 1; 3.3).

Dr. Kennard is Professor of Christian Scriptures at Houston Graduate School of Theology and has been a member of the resident faculty since 2009.