Evolution in Christianity 3
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On: Evolution in Christianity 3
Another recently received book on the parables is B T D Smith,
Parables of the Synoptic Gospels, Cambridge 1937. It begins
encouragingly, not with the first parable but with short chapters on
The Mashal, Varieties of Figurative Speech in the Synoptic Gospels,
and three others, ending with The Gospel of the Parables. In Chapter
1, Smith notes that the word mashal is most commonly not a parable in
our sense, but a proverb, a byword, or a simple comparison. Klyne
Snodgrass made the same point in extenso in his more recent book.
There is also hidoth, "riddle," also a well developed OT form. Some
more recognizable parables (in the modern sense) are quoted from
Judges 9:7f, 2 Kings 14:9, and 2 Sam 12:1f.
Smith then takes up the Rabbinic literature, notes that "the oldest
parts were not composed before the [2c, but] incorporates traditions
which go back to the times of the New Testament. Just so: that far and
seemingly no farther. Several parables are attributed in this
literature to Johanan ben Zakkai (c70), and one to Hillel (c20).
Hillel seems to be the earliest figure to whom parables are
specifically attributed in the Rabbinic writings, and we should note
that Hillel is easily the most mythologized rabbi in the tradition: he
and Shammai would indeed seem to have been developed, much like the
Confucius discuples Yen Hwei and Dz-lu, as expository opposites. Some
studies recently seen note the succession of rabbis, with Hillel
conventionally given among them, but it is more likely that the first
position at that time was held by Shammai, and Hillel's position is
due to later revisionism (it also seems that all but a few of
Shammai's pronouncements on points of law were later reversed). Do we
not have here a retrospective alteration in Rabbinic tradition?
On this hasty and tertiary overview, it seems that the parable in the
familiar sense of the term exists in Rabbinic tradition, but that in
that tradition it does not go back beyond the time of Jesus, and given
the later expansion of the Hillel image, perhaps not that far. This
raises the possibility that the contacts between Rabbinic parables and
Jesus parables (see the previous note, on Evans) represent a
contribution into, rather than from, Judaism.
(Looking back at Evans, we may notice that the two Rabbinic parables
cited by him as resembling the parables most likely to be those of the
historical Jesus are not attributed, in that literature, to any
I note also that after the destruction of the Temple, Jewish learning
moved from Jerusalem to (gulp) Galilee, specifically to Tiberias. If
parables had anything to do with Galilee, then their use by Jesus (a
Galilee man) would not be surprising, nor would their appearance in
Jewish tradition after Jewish tradition itself had relocated to Galilee.
This possibility leaves us with the hypothesis that Jesus was first in
the field with the parable device of teaching. If so, then we have
perhaps a slightly different sense of the familiar passage . . .
Mk 1:22 "And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them
as one who had authority, and not as the scribes."
Mk in general shows Jesus as very successful as a popular preacher.
The Second Tier Gospels are concerned, here as in much else, to
reJudaize Jesus; they portray him as precociously learned in the Law,
and in the same way as the standard experts were learned in the Law,
not as proceeding in a different way altogether. I think the earlier
(Markan) view is a priori the more likely, and here suggest that not
only was his style of teaching popular rather than learned, it used
such devices (requiring only common experience, and not previous study
of the Scriptures or their standard interpretation - the probable
content of scribal exegesis) as the parable comparison.
One thinks of Mencius, who in his actual conversations with rulers
always used illustrations and examples from daily experience
(comparing a King's way of seeking success to climbing a tree to look
for fish). It is only in what I may call the Second Tier Mencian
writings, from the generation after the Historical Mencius, that we
get invented dialogues in which the whole atmosphere is a learned one,
and Mencius and/or the ruler are represented as both fully acquainted
with the already incipiently canonical Shr and Shu. It was surely a
temptation for the second generation Mencians, in the light of an
increasingly fixed canon and an accelerating rate of textualization,
to do what they did. So also, I suggest, for the second generation
Evangelists, who were concerned to activate the Scriptures as a body
of prophecy concerning Jesus, in which task it would not have helped
to represent Jesus himself as ignoring the Scriptures in his own
teaching, and taking up a less learned and more popular approach.
All conclusions in this area must be tentative, but my own tentative
sense of the material reviewed so far is that it is probable that it
was Jesus who first used parables in teaching, whether as his own
extension of a device that was latent here and there in the
Scriptures, as something in the air of Galilee, or simply as an
invention of his own. The parable device was greatly (if not always
convincingly) developed in later Christian teaching, a stage preserved
in Matthew and Luke, and it also, at about the time of Matthew and
Luke, began to appear as a device of exposition in Rabbinic learning
proper, this coinciding more or less with the removal of the seat of
Rabbinic learning from Jerusalem to Galilee.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst