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: 5 June 2020

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]

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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; Cadbury, Making, 149.
  • [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.
  • 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 studied at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where he earned a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies (2002). Joshua continued his studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he obtained a Master of Divinity degree in 2005. After seminary…
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