LOY Excursus: Criteria for Identifying Separated Twin Parables and Similes in the Synoptic Gospels

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Even casual Gospel observers notice that some of Jesus' parables and similes come in pairs that resemble one another so strongly that they might be regarded as twins. But how does one determine which parables and similes truly are twins, and which might just bear a family resemblance? In this post David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton suggest five criteria that authenticate parables and similes as true twins.

Revised: 20-October-2017

Anyone acquainted with the Synoptic Gospels knows that some of Jesus’ parables and similes are twins.[1] For example, Hidden Treasure and Priceless Pearl appear as a pair (Matt. 13:44, 45-46), Tower Builder and King Going to War (Luke 14:28-29, 31-32) do the same, as do Lost Sheep and Lost Coin (Luke 15:4-7, 8-10) and Mustard Seed and Starter Dough (Matt. 13:31-32, 33; Luke 13:18-19, 20-21).[2] With respect to the examples we have just mentioned, the twin parables and/or similes not only resemble one another, they also appear adjacent to one another in at least one of the Synoptic Gospels.[3]

From the list of twin parables and similes that remain paired in at least one Gospel we have culled certain formal characteristics common to each of them, which can be used as criteria for evaluating whether other parables or similes in the Synoptic Gospels that strongly resemble one another but that do not appear in the same immediate contexts might be separated twins that were conjoined at a pre-Synoptic stage of the transmission of Gospel materials.[4]

Five Criteria for Identifying Separated Twin Parables and Similes

Common to the twin parables and similes that remain connected in at least one of the Gospels are the following characteristics:

1) The most distinctive feature of twin parables and similes is that both twins play out the same scenarios acted out with different characters and different props.

  • In both Hidden Treasure and Priceless Pearl the main character finds an item of value and sells everything in order to obtain it.
  • In Tower Builder and King Going to War the main character calculates his chances of success before embarking on a risky venture.
  • In Lost Sheep and Lost Coin the main character loses a valued possession, makes an effort to find it, and invites his/her friends to celebrate with him/her when it is recovered.
  • In Mustard Seed and Starter Dough something expands out of proportion to its original size.

2) In each of the attested twin parables and similes there is a contrast between the social standing of the main characters.

  • Hidden Treasure (poor farmer) vs. Priceless Pearl (wealthy merchant)
  • Tower Builder (small time farmer) vs. King Going to War (king)
  • Lost Sheep (male proprietor of a large flock) vs. Lost Coin (female owner of a small savings)
  • Mustard Seed (man) vs. Starter Dough (woman)

3) Both twins illustrate the same point.

  • Hidden Treasure and Priceless Pearl illustrate the joy of abandoning one’s possessions in order to become Jesus’ full-time disciple.
  • Lost Sheep and Lost Coin illustrate God’s attitude toward repentant sinners: God rejoices over them and wants everyone else to rejoice with him.
  • Tower Builder and King Going to War have unfortunately not come to us in their original context, neither has their original context been convincingly conjectured. It is likely that Tower Builder and King Going to War illustrate either a prospective disciple’s need to consider the seriousness of the commitment he was about to make, or, alternatively, Tower Builder and King Going to War might illustrate Jesus’ rejection of some prospective disciples.
  • Mustard Seed and Starter Dough illustrate the expansion of the Kingdom of Heaven from its small beginnings.

4) Twin parables and similes tell both stories using the same or similar words and phrases.

  • Common to Hidden Treasure and Priceless Pearl are: both characters are described as a “person” (ἄνθρωπος; Matt. 13:44, 45); both characters sell “all that he has” (πάντα ὅσα ἔχει(ν); Matt. 13:44, 46); and both “buy” (ἀγοράζειν; Matt. 13:44, 46) the special object they have found.
  • Common to Tower Builder and King Going to War are: “Which of you?” (Luke 14:28) // “Which king?” (Luke 14:31); “Will he not first?” (οὐχί πρῶτον; Luke 14:28, 31); “if he has” (Luke 14:28) // “if he is able” (Luke 14:32).
  • Common to Lost Sheep and Lost Coin are: “What man?” (τίς ἄνθρωπος; Luke 15:4) // “What woman?” (τίς γυνή; Luke 15:8); “one” sheep (ἕν; Luke 15:3) // “one” coin (μίαν; Luke 15:8); “until he finds it” (ἕως εὕρῃ αὐτό; Luke 15:5) “until she finds [it]” (ἕως οὗ εὕρῃ; Luke 15:8); “he summons his friends and neighbors” (συγκαλεῖ τοὺς φίλους καὶ τοὺς γείτονας; Luke 15:6) // “she summons her friends and neighbors” (συγκαλεῖ τὰς φίλας καὶ γείτονας; Luke 15:9); “Rejoice with me, because I found” (συγχάρητέ μοι, ὅτι εὗρον; Luke 15:6, 9); “repenting sinner” (ἁμαρτωλῷ μετανοοῦντι; Luke 15:7, 10).
  • Common to Mustard Seed and Starter Dough are: a man “takes” (λαβών; Matt. 13:31; Luke 13:19) the seed // a woman “takes” (λαβοῦσα; Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20) the yeast.

5) Twin parables and similes are of similar length.

  • Hidden Treasure: 31 Greek words; Priceless Pearl: 25 Greek words
  • Tower Builder: 43 Greek words; King Going to War: 41 Greek words
  • Lost Sheep: 81 Greek words (Luke), 65 Greek words (Matt.); Lost Coin: 53 Greek words
  • Mustard Seed: 40 Greek words (Luke), 50 Greek words (Matt.); Starter Dough: 25 Greek words (Luke), 23 Greek words (Matt.)

Observe that the second parable in each set of twins is told with fewer words than the first.

Application of the Five Criteria

The criteria we have identified above can be applied to test whether other suggested couplings of parables and/or similes are true twins. As examples, we will test four sets of parables/similes that Lindsey identified as potentially separated twins: 1) Persistent Widow (Luke 18:2-5) and Friend in Need (Luke 11:5-7); 2) Darnel Among the Wheat (Matt. 13:24-30) and Bad Fish Among the Good (Matt. 13:47-50); 3) Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21) and Rich Man and Lazar (Luke 16:19-13); 4) Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32) and Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Persistent Widow and Friend in Need

1) Same scenarios acted out with different characters and different props:

In both illustrations a person makes a request, is initially denied, but then receives what he/she sought.

2) Contrast between the social standing of the main characters:

Friend in Need (man) vs. Persistent Widow (woman).

3) Both twins illustrate the same point:

If even a bad person will give what we need, albeit reluctantly, how much more will your Father in heaven willingly give Jesus’ full-time disciples what they need to serve him?

4) Same or similar words and phrases:

  • Persistent Widow: the widow “came to” (ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν; Luke 18:3) the judge. Friend in Need: a friend “comes to” (πορεύσεται πρός; Luke 11:5; cf. παρεγένετο…πρός; Luke 11:6) the man at night.
  • Persistent Widow: the judge says, “Because she keeps bringing me trouble” (διά γε τὸ παρέχειν μοι κόπον; Luke 18:5). Friend in Need: the bad friend says, “Don’t bring me trouble!” (μή μοι κόπους πάρεχε; Luke 11:7)

5) Similar length (second illustration slightly shorter than the first):

Persistent Widow (Luke 18:2-5): 70 Greek words; Friend in Need (Luke 11:5-7): 59 Greek words.

Result:

Persistent Widow and Friend in Need meet all five criteria for true twin parables/similes.

 

 

Darnel Among the Wheat and Bad Fish Among the Good

1) Same scenarios acted out with different characters and different props:

The good and the bad are allowed to remain mixed for the present, but they get sorted in the end.

2) Contrast between the social standing of the main characters:

Darnel Among the Wheat (landowner) vs. Bad Fish Among the Good (fishermen).

3) Both twins illustrate the same point:

God, in his wisdom, permits the righteous and the wicked to coexist.

4) Same or similar words and phrases:

The most important action verbs in both parables are συλλέγειν (“to gather”; Matt. 13:28, 29, 30, 48) and συνάγειν (“to gather”; Matt. 13:30, 47).

5) Similar length (second illustration slightly shorter than the first):

Darnel Among the Wheat (Matt. 13:24-30): 132 Greek words; Bad Fish Among the Good (Matt. 13:47-50): 71 Greek words.

Result:

Darnel Among the Wheat and Bad Fish Among the Good meet four of the five criteria for true twin parables/similes. Only with respect to the fifth criterion does this suggested pair deviate from the norm. However, we think it likely that the author of Matthew somewhat expanded the Darnel Among the Wheat parable.

 

 

Rich Fool and Rich Man and Lazar

1) Same scenarios acted out with different characters and different props:

  • The rich man in Rich Fool has a bumper crop and makes plans for future comfort only to discover that his time is up.
  • The rich man in Rich Man and Lazar enjoys luxury in this life but torment in the afterlife. He observes the reversal of fortunes, since the poor man who was miserable in this world is happy in the world to come.

The two scenarios are completely different.

2) Contrast between the social standing of the main characters:

Rich Fool (rich man) vs. Rich Man and Lazar (rich man). There is no contrast.

3) Both twins illustrate the same point:

  • Rich Fool illustrates the principle “you can’t take it with you.”
  • Rich Man and Lazar wrestles with the question “Why do the wicked prosper.”

Rich Fool and Rich Man and Lazar do not illustrate the same point.

4) Same or similar words and phrases:

Aside from the description of both main characters as a “certain rich man” (ἀνθρώπου τινὸς πλουσίου; Luke 12:16 // ἄνθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος; Luke 16:19) there is no distinctive vocabulary common to both illustrations.

5) Similar length (second illustration slightly shorter than the first):

Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21): 94 Greek words; Rich Man and Lazar (Luke 16:19-13): 245 Greek words.

Result:

Rich Fool and Rich Man and Lazar do not meet any of the criteria of twin parables/similes.

 

 

Two Sons and Prodigal Son

1) Same scenarios acted out with different characters and different props:

  • In Two Sons neither son did what he said he would do.
  • In Prodigal Son one son grieves his father by squandering his inheritance while the other toils away trying to earn his father’s approval. When the prodigal returns he, too, wants to work his way back into his father’s favor. The father has to teach both sons that he loves them unconditionally.

The scenarios are not similar.

2) Contrast between the social standing of the main characters:

Two Sons (two sons) vs. Prodigal Son (two sons). There is no contrast.

3) Both twins illustrate the same point:

  • Two Sons illustrates the point that words don’t count as much as deeds.
  • Prodigal Son illustrates the loving character of the Heavenly Father.

Two Sons and Prodigal Son do not illustrate the same point.

4) Same or similar words and phrases:

Aside from “father” and “sons” there is no distinctive vocabulary common to both illustrations.

5) Similar length (second illustration slightly shorter than the first):

Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32): 106 Greek words; Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32): 391 Greek words.

Result:

Two Sons and Prodigal Son do not meet any of the criteria of true twin parables/similes.

 

Conclusion

The Gemini twins as depicted on the synagogue mosaic in Beit Alpha, Israel. The inscription to the left of the figures reads תאומים (te’ūmim, “twins”). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The five criteria for identifying separated twin parables/similes significantly strengthen the credibility of some of Lindsey’s literary reconstructions, most notably the pairing of the Persistent Widow with Friend in Need in the “How to Pray” complex. Other pairings that Lindsey suggested do not fare quite so well. While it is always possible that Jesus followed up one parable or simile with a second parable or simile that was different in form, style and content, compelling evidence would need to be produced in order to convince us that he in fact did so.

 

 

 


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  • [1] See Burnett H. Streeter, “St. Mark’s Knowledge and Use of Q,” in Studies in the Synoptic Problem (ed. W. Sanday; Oxford: Clarendon, 1911), 165-183, esp. 173.
  • [2] See Jeremias (Parables, 90-92) for a discussion of “double” illustrations (Jeremias’ discussion is not limited to parables and similes). We define parables as brief realistic narratives used to illustrate a particular point. On defining parables, see Notley-Safrai, 3-6. We define similes as a sub-category of parables, which are given in the form of a question (e.g., “Which of you, having a hundred sheep…?”). See Tower Builder and King Going to War, Comment to L1. For abbreviations and bibliographical references, see “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.’
  • [3] In rabbinic literature we occasionally encounter what we might call “dual parables,” such as the two parables in m. Avot 3:17, which tell the same story with different conclusions in order to illustrate how it is with a person who has accumulated more wisdom than deeds in the first case and how it is with a person who has accumulated more deeds than wisdom in the second. Similarly, m. Avot 4:20 has double parables about learning from the young versus learning from the aged, and t. Kid. 1:11 has three sets of double parables about those who practice a craft versus those who do not. These examples are not quite like the twin parables in the Gospels because they illustrate opposites, rather than using two similar parables to illustrate the same point. In t. Hag. 2:5, on the other hand, we find two parables that illustrate the same point, but the plots of the dual parables are not similar, unlike the twin parables found in the Gospels.
  • [4] For an initial attempt to identify “separated” twins, see Robert L. Lindsey, “Jesus’ Twin Parables”; idem, TJS, 44-52.

David N. Bivin

David N. Bivin
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David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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Joshua N. Tilton

Joshua N. Tilton

Joshua N. Tilton grew up in St. George, a small town on the coast of Maine. For his undergraduate degree he studied at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where he earned a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies (2002). There he studied Biblical Hebrew and…
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