The Parables of Jesus

Recovering the original meaning of Matthew’s parables

Read Helmut Koester’s article “Recovering the Original Meaning of Matthew’s Parables” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, June 1993. 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. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in 2013.—Ed.


 

“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. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily on March 27, 2013.
 

 
Helmut Koester was the John H. Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, where he had taught since 1958. His research was primarily in the areas of New Testament interpretation, history of early Christianity, and archaeology of the early Christian period. He passed away on January 1, 2016.
 

 

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  • Jan says

    The sowing parabel is about reincarnation. The key is Thomas’ logion #8. The fisherman keeps the big fish and throws the smaller ones back into the water. Indeed, Matthew altered the end of the sowing parabel.

  • Philip says

    While clever, I don’t think these conclusions are true about evangelistic “additions”. First of all, the point of the story is the same in all sources, simple or with “additions”, from the Gospel of Thomas or Mark or Matthew. After all, if the seed that grows into x60 or x120 is the saved who hear God’s Word, what does one think is the fate of the other seed? And the saying in the Gospel of Thomas, many of whose sayings are simplified since we know the author collected the sayings from the Gospels including John amongst other sources, certainly betrays that Jesus must have pointed out what happens to the seed that fell in the thorns, on the rock, on the side of the road. The fact that he mentions thorns proves this, as no sower throws seed in thorns, and if some fell there by accident, Jesus’ saying would have no point in mentioning it unless the Markan et al interpretations were given. The same is with all the other examples: there’s two ways to look at anything, but that doesn’t mean the other side was never important. And Jesus’ crowd didn’t really need to understand any “hidden” message – they all either believed or didn’t, and the explanation to his disciples, being secret, only elucidated the wisdom; it didn’t prevent anyone from believing by not knowing. As Hillel famously stated, the whole Torah can be summarized as “‘love God and your neighbor'; the rest is commentary.”

    And to say Jesus never divulged allegorical interpretations to his disciples would be to deny what most rabbis did in those days, to even higher degrees (hence why Jesus said none of his teachings were secret – the message he repeated in its main point was quite clear). Not that the allegory was too undecipherable such as the Gnostic systems of later days, but simple people without an education don’t really connect the dots in more complicated matters. And to say that the Evangelists tried to explain how/why people didn’t believe or stopped believing would be to describe a perennial problem of any time in those early Christian generations, so it hardly makes sense that it would take 40-60 years for the Christian community to have to “invent” interpretations of Jesus’ parables to explain these things. They would have been done by Jesus himself if anything; something that his parables, actually, prove that he did.

  • Taryn says

    This is a frustrating article to read, most especially more than 20 years after it was written. It offers no critique or support from anyone else who is a recognized authority on the parables and certainly, some 20 years after its first appearance, an idea this major would have found some engagement, even outside the pages of “Bible History Daily.”

    Some of the comments gamely try to address the substance of this article, but I would prefer to read someone who is a recognized expert–people who know, for example, that the Gospel of Thomas is older than other gnostic writings and should perhaps not even be referred to in that way. That Gospel is in a very different form than the canonical ones, might this suggest a reason they differ?

  • Dcon123 says

    The professor is surely wrong about this parable. His thoughts of addition to the the text and even mentioning the book of Thomas or at best sad.

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