The Parables of Jesus

Recovering the Original Meaning of Matthew’s Parables

Read “Recovering the Original Meaning of Matthew’s Parables” by Helmut Koester as it was originally published in Bible Review magazine. Koester suggests that the parables of Jesus did not communicate a hidden meaning when they were told by Jesus—the parables of Jesus could be understood by all.
 


 

“Christ preaching on the Sea of Galilee,” by Jan Bruegel the Elder (1568–1625). When the audience heard the parables of Jesus, “such a very large crowd gathered” that he preached from a boat while his audience remained on the shore (Matthew 13:1–2//Mark 4:1–2). Bridgeman/Art Resource, NY

Jesus’ parables were among the earliest of his sayings to be collected. One collection of parables formed the basis of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The author of the Gospel of Matthew then used this Markan material and added more parables from other sources, thus assembling in a unified speech in chapter 13 seven parables: the parables of the Sower (Matthew 13:1–9), the Tares (13:24–30), the Mustard Seed (13:31–32), the Leaven (13:33), the Hidden Treasure (13:44), the Pearl of Great Price (13:45–46), and the Drag-net (13:47–50). Most of these parables will be read this summer from church lectionaries, which provide biblical passages to be read during Sunday services.

By the time these parables were written down, they had gone through a long period of use by Christian churches, sometimes significantly altering their original meaning. That is most evident in the Parable of the Sower, to which already Mark (4:13–20 = Matthew 13:18–23) had added an allegorical interpretation in which each feature of the parable is given a special meaning. In the Parable of the Sower, the allegorical interpretation understands the different types of earth on which the seed falls as four types of people who receive the word of God: (1) those from whom Satan is able to snatch the word, (2) those who receive it at first joyfully but then lose faith in times of persecution, (3) those in whom the word cannot grow because they are deceived by wealth, and (4) those in whom the word takes root and grows and brings fruit 30-, 60-, 100-fold.

Such an understanding is fundamentally different from the original meaning of Jesus’ words. As Jesus told the parable, it was much shorter, more like the brief version found in the recently discovered non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (#9):

Now the sower went out and took a handful of seeds and scattered them. Some fell on the road; the birds come and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and did not take root in the soil and did not produce ears. And others fell on thorns; they choked the seed and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil and it produced good fruit; it bore 60 per measure and 120 per measure.
 


 
The parables of Jesus are closely tied to their ancient setting. The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook, The Galilee Jesus Knew, focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.
 

 
In this form, the parable focuses only on the seed that fell on good soil and brought unbelievably rich fruit, while the seeds that were wasted and produced nothing are mentioned only for the sake of contrast. This is what the kingdom of God is like: Although much of the seed is lost, and although the sower is rather careless throwing so many seeds on the road, on rock and under the thorns, the results are nevertheless rich beyond belief. Thus Jesus originally illustrated God’s power to do miracles. The point of this parable was therefore analogous to the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.

The Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:24–30) also received a secondary allegorical interpretation in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 13:36–43): the “sower of the good seed” is the Son of Man, the “field” is the world, “the good seeds” are the sons of the kingdom, “the bad seeds” are the sons of the evil one, the “enemy” is the devil and the final burning after the harvest is the last judgment. However, the parable originally did not speak of wheat and weeds and burning with hidden meanings. Rather, it told a simple story about a farmer who had sown good-quality seed in his field and had the patience to wait, as a wise farmer would, in spite of all the weeds growing up together with the wheat. Jesus thus admonished his hearers to be patient and trusting and not to be alarmed if they see so much evil in the world.

Matthew’s tendency to understand parables as allegories with hidden meanings is finally all too evident in his interpretation of the Parable of the Drag-Net. In its original form the parable spoke about the wisdom of selecting that which is good. As the parable is told in the Gospel of Thomas (#8), it is still clear that it wants to illustrate wisdom:

The man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of small fish. Among them the wise fisherman found a fine large fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without difficulty.
 


 
One of the most famous parables of Jesus is the Good Samaritan parable, yet it is frequently misunderstood. Read “Understanding the Good Samaritan Parable” in Bible History Daily.
 

 
Matthew 13:49–50 on the other hand, changed the conclusion so that it pointed to the Final Judgment: “So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire.”

As the parables were told originally by Jesus, they were addressed to all people and could be understood by all. They did not communicate a hidden meaning that only the initiated insider could discover through complicated allegorical interpretation. Scholars have come to recognize that the allegorical meanings were added to the parables at a later stage of transmission. By the time the parables appear in the canonical Gospels, they were thought to be understandable only to those who have received “the mystery [or mysteries] of the kingdom,” and that they conceal their true message so outsiders would not be able to comprehend them (Matthew 13:10–15 = Mark 4:10–12). The church, characterizing the parables as secret teaching, claimed them as a peculiar Christian doctrine and used them to explain experiences in the life of Christian communities. Christians wanted to know why so many people were losing their faith during persecution (“the word had not taken root in their soul,” Matthew 13:21), why others could not develop their faith to bear fruit (“wealth had deceived them,” Matthew 13:22) and whether evil-doers would eventually be punished (“at the end of the age, they will be thrown into the eternal fire,” Matthew 13:42, 50). However, the original parables are still preserved and their message can still be heard: They speak of patience, wisdom and trust in God’s power.
 


 
“Recovering the Original Meaning of Matthew’s Parables” by Helmut Koester was originally published in Bible Review, June 1993.
 

 
Helmut Koester is John H. Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 1958. His research is primarily in the areas of New Testament interpretation, history of early Christianity, and archaeology of the early Christian period. His most recent book is From Jesus to the Gospels (Fortress Press, 2007).
 

 

Posted in Bible Interpretation, Jesus/Historical Jesus, New Testament.

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16 Responses

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  1. Mary T. says

    Why does the author give more weight to gnostic writings than the canonical gospels?

  2. JAllan says

    The usual scholarly assumption is that the simpler version of a story is the earliest. While the gnostic writers may have had THEIR theological axe to grind, this may be a case where they saw no need to comment. The orthodox church added its comment to the canonical gospel version of the parable, and in some cases the gnostics added theirs.

    One possible gnostic interpretation of the parables cited is that the different outcomes, and the judgement, refer to the judgement of the IDEAS within each follower’s soul or mind, with the “bad” ideas eventually being rejected. Even from an orthodox viewpoint, this is a reasonable SUPPLEMENTARY interpretation.

  3. Mary T. says

    Not sure what you mean by “reasonable Supplementary interpretation.” The author seems to have the story backwards. The Church has never taught that the gospel message or parables contain secret knowledge or mysteries available only to the initiate. THAT was the teaching of the gnostics. Given that the Church has always taught that salvation is open to everyone, the author’s case appears to be an oxymoron. Furthermore, the theology of the gnostic teachings can not be dated prior to the second century AD. I don’t think the author has made his case because, even though the sayings maybe very old, the Gospel of Thomas came to be written after the canonical gospels.

  4. arthur says

    Let me echo Mary T.’s sentiment. The GOT even says, “These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down” So, the words WERE hidden. It’s a shame that “scholarly” Christian writing has basically become Jesus debunking 101.

  5. Sara says

    Note to Mary T.: Don’t forget that predestination was a very firm teaching of the Church, along with everlasting punishment.
    Either the canonical interpretations given in the gospels are Jesus’ own interpretations, or they are the theological thought of later church people, or a little of both. Either way, the inclusion of some interpretations indicates that parables can pack layers of meaning, can frame further lessons. Think of parables earlier in the Bible. Nathan was not really talking about some anonymous rich and poor men and their lambs when he challenged David’s affair with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. His parable required interpretation to be understood, and David “got” it instantly. Parables don’t require initiates to unpack their meaning, just people willing to look into their own hearts.

  6. Anthony says

    Sara, there is truth in what you wrote. Parables don’t require initates to unpack their meaning, just peaple willing to look into their own hearts.Not what the churches gives or tell them, seek within oneself for deeper mening.

  7. Jeanie says

    Give me the simple story any day. It’s closer to oral delivery and without the many added interpretive levels.

  8. Annette says

    I just came across this site today and I have read the above story of the parables in Matthew. I am sure that many of the interpretations on all the parables have come in to view for the last 2000 years, especially when the Roman Catholic Church came into existence. However, many have missed one of the pivotal points of what Jesus/Yahshua was speaking about. Almost all, if not all, are addressed to the House of Judah (the southern kingdom) and the House of Israel (the northern kingdom). There was so much hatred between the family of Yahweh God and there was animosity toward each other. The Word of God fell upon all of them and many of them were just like those in the parable of the sower, each person receiving the Word in different ways. If you look at the parables in the light of Judah and Israel being divided the parables take on a completely different meaning. I believe this is who Yahshua/Jesus was talking about. In the old testament HE said they did not have ears to hear or eyes to see. It is still true in HIS day and it is still true in our day. I would enjoy your comments. Just email me at annettecarter2009@live.com….Thank you

  9. Mary says

    Unfortunately you have missed the whole of the interpretation of verses relating to the Reign of God. Found this site while looking for the Mustard Seed parable beginning with “The Reign of God is like a mustard seed. . . .” Once you understand the interpretation of this small parable the whole of the bible is understood. This understanding BTW was revealed to me by the Holy Spirit while in prayer.” Well, I just got up to go get my bible because I could not find this particular parable beginning with The Reign of God over the internet. Anyway, have it now and I’d like to share my understanding. “The Reign of God is like a mustard seed which someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest seed of all, yet when full grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes so big a shrub that the birds of the sky come and build their nests in its branches.” It’s important for me that this verse begins with The Reign of God rather than the Kingdom of God because of a more fullness of meaning. Very simply Humility which is perfect love/charity (not referring to conjugal love) is the mustard seed; the reign of God. Jesus’s life was this mustard seed example revealed to us. Isn’t it interesting to note that in all Jesus’s humility, humble life, He did grow to become the largest of shrubs and we have come to build our nests in His branches. Isn’t it interesting as well how from such small beginnings of no ranking status that Jesus has been loved and revered for over 2000 years. How could this be? Yes, Humility is our way to becoming one with Love/God for all eternity. Humility is the key. Love is the reign of God. Perfecting humility is to perfect love and all the virtues of God. Note as well that pride stands in direct opposition to humility and cannot occupy and same space in a same given moment in time with humility. One is either in one state or the other. Thus, Heaven is void of pride/self-fullness and all which opposes love. In short our journey here on earth is to perfect love to the best of our ability so we can become one with love for all eternity. Only God is perfect but, through perseverance and pray and by the grace of God we can make it. :) My exercise in need of perfecting is to love unconditionally and to never show dismay when love and or admiration isn’t given back as a debt of owing. No, God is always with me and He is all whom I need. All man have God within and I will love everyone God has created because He loved them first and reigns within; that part which cannot be placed under a microscope yet exists. Like I said no man is perfect only God is. We are all in need of forgiveness and love. We are all in need of help and grace. This is our trial and journey while here on earth. Unlike the Angels whom were given much and became proud; thus disrupting the realm of perfect love and thus had to be cast out of heaven; we have to earn our entrance. God’s love and grace be ever upon all here. :)

  10. Anne says

    I’ve been working with parables for quite a while. Turns out that the writers used a special literary technique to create parables. This same technique was used to create many biblical texts to act as parables. Understanding the way the texts were written as parables is necessary to really grasp the wisdom of the texts.

  11. Gary says

    Sorry, Anne, I cannot agree. Jesus says: “without me you can do nothing!” (John 15:5).

    So having great knowledge about how parables were crafted is not the way we understand them better. I vote with Mary.

    The only way to understand Jesus’ parables is so let Holy Spirit interpret them to us.

    1 Corinthians 2:14 is clear that those without the Spirit, cannot “get it”!

    The author says: “Scholars have come to recognize that the allegorical meanings were added to the parables at a later stage of transmission.”

    What he is really saying is simply that these so called experts have an unprovable opinion which is often the result of them not being able to accept, on faith, that God really does have the power to keep His words to us accurate and clear .

    Blessings all!

  12. Arthur says

    The parables were communicated, beginning in Matt 13 because the Jewish leadership had, by then rejected Yeshua. The parables were told so the ordinary hearer would not understand. This was done in fulfillment of the following Jewish prophecies: Deu 29:3,4; Isa 42:18-20; Isa 44:18; Jer 5:21; Eze 12:2.. Look ‘em up. Thanks.

  13. tapani says

    The gospel of Thomas 8 is mixing a fish to a pearl in the genuine Math. 13:46. Perhaps in his listerners there were many fishers, but we can imagine what they thought. Then it was compulsory use all the haul, because there were many mouths to feed, and always hunger was near. The parables of Jesus are above of all the others. They are life building and summons to faith actions.

  14. mohd says

    when jesus talk about seed…its talk about deliverance of his teaching…the seed is the word that come out from jesus mouth…the kind of groom is the kind of heart who receive the teaching…that is why jesus us focusing on seen but blind..listening but deaf….its same with what jesus explain in john chapter 14 where he convince his people that all his teaching is from God…when jesus said nobody come to father except trough him is….none of christian will raise to heaven except to Accept his teaching and work on it then he will release them from the door of hell…as he also said the door of heaven is narrow but the door of doome is very wide….this one jesus has explain trough his parables of wheat….

  15. NED says

    One of my Bible study groups is currently studying Our Hebrew Connection to help us better understand much of our scriptures. In the process we discovered something interesting about Parables and their use during Jesus’ day. The ancient Jewish teaching technique that Matthew employed throughout his gospel was known as the mashal + nimshal method. In modern day terms mashal + nimshal would be interpreted as parable + explanation. Each ancient Jewish parable (the mashal by itself), by definition, design and intent, had a real-life target (the nimshal). Here is an example of a typical ancient Jewish parable, the mashal and nimshal, or the parable + it’s real life target, a.k.a. its nimshal.
    For teaching purposes, the parable by itself was insufficient. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to properly understand the mashal by itself, as given above. To rightly understand it, the nimshal – or its real-life target – had to be introduced to its hearers. Neither was it a coincidence that Jesus’ own disciples failed to understand the parables (mashal without its nimshal or ‘real-life’ target) that their Master first spoke (13:36). The ancient Hebrew parable was a fictional story that was meant to teach a particular truth (or a set of truths (principles) about a real life occurrence. But it was only when the parable (e.g. Matthew 13:3-8) and the explanation (13:18-23) were given together that they actually made sense (13:3-8 + 13:18-23). Indeed, without the Author of the parables’ help, the student (13:36) usually could not figure out the meaning of the parable by itself… at least not correctly, and this was by design. The ancient Jewish parables were enigmatic and mysterious, and intentionally so (so don’t feel bad that they seem hard to understand). They were designed to create a dependant teaching relationship between master and student. Read more on-line at the following site: http://www.theparablediscovery.com/subpage7.html.

  16. Chris says

    Great work and interesting! I find that this happens as the interpreter tries to make it match his version of what to expect of Jesus as the Messiah instead of maintaining what he actually meant.I liked the article and it is amazing how it all fits together and we can see what actually happened by applying some common sense. To bad we cannot get back the verses and parables that the left out!


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