Parables of the Sages: Jewish Wisdom from Jesus to Rav Ashi
By R. Steven Notley and Ze’ev Safrai
(Jerusalem: Carta, 2011), xii + 388 pp., $84 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Étienne Nodet
The parables of Jesus are well known, but they are not isolated or unrelated to other literature. They indeed belong to a Jewish genre, of which we find many examples in rabbinic literature. As the authors state, “The background for the parables of the New Testament is to be found in the world of Israel’s sages.”
This book provides an annotated collection of 417 parables from the earliest stratum of these rabbinic traditions, known as the period of the Tannaim. Notley and Saffrai give the original Hebrew, an English translation and notes that consider the historical, social and religious aspects of the individual entries, and their contribution to our understanding of the parables of Jesus.
Although written for the general reader, the work also includes all of the scholarly context—a detailed 70-page introduction, a discussion of the sources, short biographies of the sages, a bibliography and indexes.
These Jewish parables are not well known for two main reasons: First, they were published in rabbinic circles well after the New Testament. Second, they are not always easy to understand.
Our authors begin with a definition: A parable is a narrative taken from reality, albeit with some distortions, but without visions or miracles; it has a moral, normally overt; it is introduced by a statement that identifies it as a parable.
Parables do exist in the Old Testament but without that name. For instance, the prophet Nathan tells David a simple story about a rich man and a poor man that seems unconnected to David, but in fact it makes him realize his sin (2 Samuel 12:1–19).
The Tannaitic literature itself (Mishnah, Tosefta, Halakhic Midrashim) contains but a few parables; most are preserved in good, traditional Hebrew in the later collections of rabbinic literature—the Talmud and Midrash Aggadah (Rav Ashi was the editor of the Babylonian Talmud).
The question naturally arises whether the parables in this book have anything to do with the late Second Temple period, the period when Jesus walked this earth. The answer is definitely yes. But there are clearly methodological issues. First, the Tannaitic parables often deal with legal issues that are specifically Jewish; the New Testament parables, on the other hand, shift focus mainly to a kind of general wisdom literature.
Second, a large chunk of the Jewish parables is related to a Second Temple category of Jews called Hasidim present in Galilee. They had religious laws of their own, but they were very pious and sinfearers. They preferred poverty, healed the sick, brought rain and rescued people from trouble. With this we get closer to Jesus. However, while the rabbis admired the Hasidim, they also suspected them of superficial learning, which explains why their parables are not numerous in the official Mishnah; they were recovered later in less authoritative collections.
The Jewish parables often unfold in riddles, as Ezekiel tells us (17:2). Similarly, Jesus teaches the crowds in parables that they do not understand. He urges, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). The parables are simple but they must be understood on a deeper level.
A major difference between Jesus and the rabbis is that Jesus taught orally for all, while the rabbis produced learned compositions with parables embedded in them in a very concentrated style, as handy notes for future teaching, prompting the student to learn them as seriously as legal texts. This is the rabbinic style with which we are familiar.
Let me conclude with a saying from Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers 2:15) with which the authors conclude their “Introduction”: “The day is short, the work is plentiful, the workers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master of the house hastens!”