If you get a chance to read parables from rabbinic literature, it is striking how similar they are to parables told by Yeshua in the gospels. I spent some time last night in The Historical Jesus in Context, ed. Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison Jr., and John Dominic Crossan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). Gary Porton has a chapter called “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and in Rabbinic Literature.”
The rabbinic parables, and there are hundreds of them, are similar to Yeshua’s parables in several ways:
(1) Yeshua’s parables are the oldest ones we have besides the ones in the Hebrew Bible (I wrote about them here). Not in Near Eastern literature or the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are there parables with human actors. The fact that Yeshua used parables as a major teaching tool, unlike many schools of Jewish writing from his time and earlier, suggests some affinity between Yeshua and the later rabbis. It seems fair evidence that Yeshua was in a stream of tradition which led to rabbinic literature (proto-rabbinic).
(2) Porton lists four similarities between Yeshua’s parables and those in rabbinic writings: form, images, themes, and abundance.
The form of a parable, simply, is a simile (“it is like, it can be compared to”) which leads into a symbolic story. The images in Yeshua’s parables and those of the rabbis often are quite similar. Consider these two examples, centuries apart and yet similar in nature:
To whom can Rabbi Bun bar Rabbi Hiyya be compared? To a king who hired many workers. But there was one worker more efficient in his work than others. What did the king do? . . . Evening arrived and the workers came to collect their pay. The king gave the more efficient worker the same wage as he gave them. The other workers became boisterous and said, “We worked all day long, but this one worked only two hours, but you gave him the same wage!” The king said to them, “This one did more work in two hours than the rest of you did working all day long.” Thus, Rabbu Bun, who labored as a student of the Torah only twenty-eight years became as remarkable as a sage who had studied for a hundred years. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 2:8, c. 400 C.E.)
For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matthew 20:1-16, c. 60 C.E.)
What are we to make of the remarkable similarity that sometimes exists between Yeshua’s parables and those in the rabbinic literature?
As Porton says, their relationship is extremely difficult to determine. The rabbinic parables are stories passed down for decades or even centuries before being written down. Their history, the changes that may have been introduced over time, are largely unknown. The hundreds of rabbinic parables are attributed to numerous individuals and many are unattributed. This is very different from the gospels which tell the story of one teacher, Yeshua.
So far, and I haven’t investigated thoroughly, I have not found parables attributed to figures before or during the life of Yeshua (readers, help me out here if you know of any). Therefore, it is not as simple as saying, “Rabbis told parables in Yeshua’s day and he walked in the same tradition.”
Porton puts it this way:
There are hundreds of parables in the Jewish collections; it was a popular literary creation, and likely just as popular in the oral culture. This fact means that the appearance of parables attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels is what we would expect from a Jewish teacher/scholar/sage/preacher in Galilee in the first century C.E.
Follow Porton’s reasoning:
(1) Parables were abundant and popular in the rabbinic literature codified in the third through sixth centuries.
(2) Parables are a genre well suited to oral teaching and tradition, easily passed down through generations.
(3) Therefore, parables were likely to be popular in the eras before the rabbinic literature was codified.
It’s not a bad case and the implication is, as Porton says, that Yeshua’s use of parables is not surprising. The New Testament, as is the case in other areas, gives evidence that parables were a teaching form known at the time. It is not a leap to then say that Yeshua walked in the proto-rabbinic stream, an early example of a kind of teacher that would later be known formally as a rabbi or sage.