Matthew 1:1-25: In the Year of Jubilee?

Considerable ink has been spilled regarding Matthew’s selection of the individuals in his genealogy (including three women: Tamar, Rahab and Ruth), and the differences between his list that of Luke 3:23-38. My attention is drawn, on the other hand, to the underlying structures of the two lists and what they were intended to tell us about the message of the Evangelists concerning the time in which Christ was born.

Matthew summarizes the chronological structure in the final verse of his genealogy of Christ:

Πᾶσαι οὖν αἱ γενεαὶ  πὸ Ἀβραὰμ ἕως Δαυὶδ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ Δαυὶδ ἕως τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος ἕως τοῦ Χριστοῦ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες.

Therefore, all of the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, from David until the exile to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the exile to Babylon until Christ fourteen generations. (Matt. 1:17)

J. T. Milik in his masterful work, The Books of Enoch,[1] has commented on these two genealogies in his preliminary study of 4Q180-181 (4Q Pesher on the Periods). He has drawn clear comparisons between this Qumran work and other known chronographic works. According to Milik: “…this chronological work presented the sacred history divided into seventy ages corresponding approximately to seventy generations, from Adam to Noah ten generation-weeks, from Noah to Abraham ten weeks, etc., up to the advent of the eschatological era.”[2]

The seventy generation-weeks structure clearly belongs to similar chronological speculation heard in Daniel 9:24-27 and Jeremiah 25:11-12 and 29:10. In it seventy weeks-years is equivalent to ten jubilees (70 x 7=10 x 49). Yet, an alternate chronological structure is heard in the Greek Testament of Levi 16:1 and 17:1-11 where the division is not according to a patriarchal genealogy but according to the generations of priests:

In each jubilee there shall be a priesthood: In the first jubilee the first person to be anointed to the priesthood will be great, and he shall speak to God as father (17:2)…[until the final generation] in the seventh week there will come priests: idolators, adulterers, money lovers, arrogant, lawless, voluptuaries, pederasts, those who practice bestiality (17:11).

This dark time is followed immediately by the advent of the priestly redeemer: …And then the Lord will raise up a new priest (18:2).

The jubilee structure of the Greek Testament of Levi then represents a chronology of seven jubilees rather than the ten jubilees of 4Q180-181, Daniel and Jeremiah. In another work found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13-Melchizedek) we find a combination of these two systems of thought. The priestly redeemer is identified with the biblical Melchizedek, but his advent is marked at the conclusion of ten jubilees rather than seven:

the first Week of the jubilee, after nine jubilees…the end of the tenth jubilee. (2:7)

So, we hear in various Jewish works of the pre-Christian era two alternating chronological expectations for redemption presented within a jubilee framework. One describes the advent of the redeemer in the tenth jubilee and the other in the seventh jubilee. These two opinions assist us to discern the varying genealogies of Matthew and Luke. As Milik observed on the genealogy of Luke 3:23-38, we find seventy-six names. “If one deducts the first six patriarchs, one finds again in the era of the patriarch Enoch the beginning of a computation of seventy generations—exactly the same, therefore, as Enoch 10:12…. In Matthew 1:1-17 the reckoning begins with Abraham, and the series of ancestors of Christ is divided into three great ages, each one embracing fourteen generations. In other words, the sacred history from Abraham up to the birth of Jesus is looked upon as the cycle of six weeks (3 x 14=6 x7) which will be completed by the seventh—eschatological—Week ushered in by Jesus Christ.”[3]

Illumination of Jesus' family tree by an unknown sixteenth-century Flemish miniaturist. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Illumination of Jesus’ family tree by an unknown sixteenth-century Flemish miniaturist. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, Milik noted that in 4Q180-181 the significant biblical events remembered were marked by the intervention of angels, “messengers of God who is the special protector of Israel (Deut. 32:9 ff.).”[4] Should we understand a similar understanding in both Matthew and Luke where we find angelic intervention in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus?

What we witness, therefore, in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke is neither haphazard nor accidental. They reflect diverging Jewish opinions about the time for the advent of the redeemer. The Evangelists intended for us to understand that the birth of Jesus inaugurated the era of redemption—expressed by way of a jubilee chronological framework. While unnoticed by most modern readers, both Matthew and Luke have gone to great effort to underscore the importance of the very time in which Jesus was born. His birth is presented as the fulfillment of the hope for a jubilee redemption. Against this background Jesus’ first public words in Luke’s Gospel take on added poignancy as he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue of Nazareth: “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19; Isa 61:2).

  • [1] J. T. Milik, The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).
  • [2] Milik, Books of Enoch, 252.
  • [3] Milik, Books of Enoch, 257.
  • [4] Milik, Books of Enoch, 252.

Hebraisms in the New Testament

“Hebraisms in the New Testament” was published in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols.; ed. Geoffrey Khan; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 2:198-201, and is used here with Brill’s permission.[1]

Revised: 31-October-2017

A ‘Hebraism’ is a typical feature of the Hebrew language found in another language. In this article, the term is used to refer to a Hebrew feature found in the Greek of the New Testament (NT).

The majority of today’s NT authorities assume that Aramaic lies behind the Semitisms of the NT, and that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language. This is so much so, in fact, that the student who consults standard reference works is informed that the Greek words for ‘Hebrew’ and for ‘in the Hebrew language’ (not only in the NT, but in Josephus and other texts) refer to the Aramaic language (BDAG 270). Moreover, although Acts 22.2 specifically uses the expression τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (tē hebraidi dialektō, ‘in the Hebrew language’) to refer to the language Paul is speaking at this point in the narrative, many English translations (e.g., NIV, NET) render these words as ‘in Aramaic’—even though the terms ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Aramaic’ are kept quite distinct in Greek texts from the period, such as the Septuagint (LXX) and the works of Josephus.

Since the discovery of the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts, about eighty percent of which are written in Hebrew (Abegg 2000:461), the Hebrew Bar-Kokhba letters, and other epigraphic materials, a reassessment of the language situation in the Land of Israel in the 1st century C.E. has taken place. It now appears that Hebrew was alive and well as both a written and a spoken language (Bar-Asher 2006:568-569). Scholars have begun moving in the direction of a trilingual approach, with three primary languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, available for use (see, e.g., the ossuary inscriptions collected in Rahmani 1994). Hebrew served as the traditional language of the Jewish community; Aramaic served as the lingua franca of the Near East; and Greek served as the international lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean (Bar-Asher 2006:585). To be more specific, Aramaic was probably dominant in the Galilee,[2] Hebrew prevailed in Judea, and a multilingual situation characterized Jerusalem, Caesarea, and other large cities. The result of this multilingual situation, especially for the topic at hand, is a host of Semitisms (both Hebraisms and Aramaisms) in the NT (for listings, see Howard 1920:411-485; Fitzmyer 1981:113-125; Davies-Allison 1988:1 80-85).

There are ten references to the Hebrew language in the NT: τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (tē hebraidi dialektō, ‘in the Hebrew language’; Acts 21.40; 22.2; 26.14); Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti, ‘in Hebrew’; John 5.2; 19.13, 17, 20; 20.16; Rev. 9.11; 16.16). Paul speaks to a crowd in the Temple in Jerusalem “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 21.40; 22.2), and Jesus speaks to Paul “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 26.14). The author of John gives the Greek transliterations of three place names—Bethzatha, Gabbatha, Golgotha—and despite their Aramaic etymology, he accepts these proper nouns as part of the Hebrew language. This author also records that the notice Pilate placed on the cross of Jesus “was written in Hebrew [Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti)], Greek and Latin”; and that Mary addressed the resurrected Jesus in Hebrew as ῥαββουνί (rabbouni, ‘my master’). The author of Revelation records two Hebrew names: Ἀβαδδών (Abaddōn, ‘the angel of the bottomless pit’ [Hebrew: אבדון ’aḇadōn, ‘destruction’]), and Ἁρμαγεδών (Harmagedōn, ‘mountain of Megiddo’ [Hebrew: הר מגידון har məḡiddōn]), a place name.

The Aramaic language is not mentioned in the NT, although it is referred to six times in the LXX (2 Kgs. 18.26; Ezra 4.7; 2 Macc. 15.36; Job 42.17b; Isa. 36.11; Dan. 2.4). The term Συριστί (Sūristi, ‘in the Aramaic language’) is the LXX’s translation of אֲרָמִית (arāmit); adjectival Συριακή (Sūriakē) in 2 Macc. 15.36; Job 42.17b.

It is often difficult to distinguish Hebrew from Aramaic in Greek transliteration. Most transliterated proper nouns, e.g., Γεθσημανεί (Gethsēmanei; Matt. 26.36; Mark 14.32) and Ταβειθά (Tabeitha; Acts 9.36, 40), may be Hebrew or Aramaic, and, regardless of their origin, could be used in either language (or any language, for that matter). Common nouns, such as μαμωνᾶς (mamōnas, ‘mammon,’ ‘wealth’; Matt. 6.24; Luke 16.9, 11, 13) and κορβᾶν (korban, ‘corban,’ a gift dedicated to the Temple’; Mark 7.11), are used in both languages. However, the form ραββουνι (rabbouni) deserves comment. The word appears twice in the NT: Mark 10.51 and John 20.16, in the latter of which it is correctly called “Hebrew”. Most scholars assume this word is Aramaic, but, as Kutscher demonstrated (1977:268-271) on the basis of the most reliable manuscript evidence of Rabbinic Hebrew, it is acceptable first-century C.E. western Hebrew; cf. the form רַבּוּנוֹ (rabūnō, ‘his master’; Mishna Ta’anit 3.8 [Codex Kaufmann]).

In addition to Hebrew items, a number of transliterated Aramaic words are found in the NT: ταλιθὰ κούμ (talitha koum, ‘little girl, get up’; Mark 5.41); ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι (elōi elōi lema sabachthani, ‘my God, my God, why did you forsake me’; Mark 15.34); Ἁκελδαμάχ (Hakeldamach, ‘field of blood’; Acts 1.19); and μαρὰν ἀθά (maran atha, ‘our lord, come’; 1 Cor. 16.22). Regarding ἐφφαθά (ephphatha, ‘be opened’; Mark 7.34), Abegg (2000:462) observed that the Greek transcription “is ambiguous and by form more likely Hebrew than Aramaic.”

Like the language of the Bar Kokhba letters (where תשמים abbreviates את השמים), as well as all living languages (e.g., modern American English has, “Betcha could,” or “Don’t wanna go”), Modern Hebrew, too, abbreviates speech, as this Israeli weekly magazine cover illustrates. The upper line of the banner held by the children reads מנקים תעולם (“We are cleaning up the environment”), with an abbreviation sign (′) over the ת to show that it stands for -את ה. The abbreviated מְנַקִּים תַּעוֹלָם, i.e, מְנַקִּים אֶת הָעוֹלָם, could only occur in a living, spoken language.

Two registers of Hebrew existed side-by-side in the first century C.E.: a high language and a low language. The former was a continuation of Biblical Hebrew, especially Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), and may be seen in many of the sectarian scrolls found at Qumran. The latter, a more colloquial variety, is illustrated by certain non-literary documents from the Judean Desert (cf., e.g., מעיד אני עלי תשמים [meʿid ʾani ʿalai taš-šamayim, ‘I call heaven as witness’; Murabbaʿat 43.3], with a reduced form of the nota accusativi [normally, את (ʾet)] affixed to the following noun), but primarily by Tannaitic literature. Hebraisms emanating from both registers are to be found in the NT, as illustrated below.

The aforementioned transcriptions of Hebrew lexemes are only the most obvious Hebraisms in the NT, but other influences may be seen as well. Most prominently, the Greek prose of the NT sometimes reflects an underlying Hebrew grammatical structure. Examples of such ‘literary Hebraisms’ are the structures [subjectless ἐγένετο (egeneto) + time phrase + finite verb] (Mark 2x; Matt. 5x; Luke 22x) and [subjectless ἐγένετο (egeneto) + time phrase + καί (kai) + finite verb] (Matt. 1x; Luke 11x). Both constructions are Septuagintal equivalents of the biblical ‏וַיְהִי (wa-yhī, ‘and it was’) structures. Both are non-Lukan in style since, although they occur frequently in Luke’s gospel (apparently copied by Luke from one or more sources), they do not occur in Acts (the exemplar of Luke’s own hand, especially Acts 16-28). A deceptively similar syntactical structure, [ἐγένετο (egeneto) + infinitive as the main verb], does appear in both Luke and Acts. However, this structure is idiomatic Greek, and not a syntactical feature of Hebrew, nor is it found in the LXX (Buth and Kvasnica 2006:73, 268-273).

Selected examples of low-register Hebraisms, which appear in quoted speech within the Synoptic Gospels, include the following:

(1) In Luke 15.18, 21 the prodigal son says to his father: ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν (hēmarton eis ton ouranon, ‘I have sinned against heaven’). The post-biblical idiom ‘Heaven’ as a euphemism for ‘God’ to avoid the tetragrammaton does not occur in the Bible, nor is it found in the LXX. “The use of the term ‘Heaven’ in Luke 15.18, 21 as a substitute for the Divine Name can hardly be a septuagintism” (Wilcox 1992:5:1082). However, the idiom also exists in Aramaic (see Sokoloff 2002:557).

(2) In Matt. 12.42 (= Luke 11.31) Jesus uses the expression βασίλισσα νότου (basilissa notou, ‘queen of south’). This expression is apparently a literal Greek translation of מלכת תימן (malkat teman, ‘queen of Teman’), a post-biblical equivalent for biblical מַלְכַּת שְׁבָא (malkat shevā’,  ‘queen of Sheba’; 1 Kgs. 10.1, etc.; always [8x] βασίλισσα Σαβα [basilissa Saba] in the LXX). “Neither in Greek nor in Aramaic could the term for ‘south’ be used as an equivalent of Sheba” (Grintz 1960:39). Notice also that βασίλισσα νότου (basilissa notou) has no article, likely as a result of its being the translation of Hebrew construct state.

(3) Jesus said to Peter, σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα οὐκ ἀπεκάλυψέν σοι (sarx kai aima ouk apekalūpsen soi, ‘flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you’; Matt. 16.17), something that would have been unclear to a Greek-speaker outside a Jewish environment. The expression בשר ודם (basar vadam, ‘flesh and blood,’ i.e., a mortal human being) is a post-biblical idiom (cf. Mishna Nazir 9.5; Mishna Sota 8.1). The expression is not found in the LXX, nor is it an Aramaism (Grintz 1960:36).

(4) The theological concept העולם הבא (ha-ʿolam hab-baʾ, ‘the world to come,’  lit. ‘the coming world’) is coupled by Jesus in Luke 18.30 with חיי עולם (ḥayye ʿōlām, ‘eternal life,’ lit. ‘life of eternity’), a LBH expression, in a wordplay based on the dual meaning of Hebrew עולם as ‘eternity’ and ‘world’ in Second Temple Hebrew, καὶ ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον (kai en tō aiōni tō erchomenō zōēn aiōnion [conjectured Heb.: ובעולם הבא חיי עולם (u-ḇa-ʿolam hab-baʾ ḥayye ʿolam, lit., ‘and in the coming world life of eternity’]). For this same wordplay, see Mishna Avot 2.7 (Codex Kaufmann). The expression העולם הבא (ha-ʿolam hab-baʾ) does not appear in the Bible or the LXX, but it is found often in rabbinic literature, e.g., 15x in the Mishnah; while חיי עולם (ḥayye ʿōlām) appears once in the Bible (Dan. 12.2). The wordplay is also possible in Aramaic.

(5) The wordplay ‘forgive a sinner’s sins’ / ‘forgive (i.e., cancel) a debtor’s debts’, found in Luke 7.36-50 and Matt. 18.23-35, is possible because of two senses of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) verb מחל (maḥal, ‘to forgive’) In post-biblical Hebrew, מחל (maḥal) replaced the BH סָלַח (sālaḥ, ‘to forgive someone,’ ‘forgive sins’ [but in BH never ‘to forgive a debt’!]). Apparently, the two senses of מחל (maḥal) are also behind the request, ‘Forgive us our debts’ in the sense of ‘Forgive us our sins’, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6.12). The equation ‘sinners’ = ‘debtors is found in a case of synonymous parallelism in Luke 13.2, 4. In early rabbinic sources there are numerous examples of the expressions ‘forgive wrongs or sins’ and ‘forgive debts’ with the verb מחל (maḥal), e.g., ‘he is not forgiven until he seeks [forgiveness] from [the plaintiff]’ (Mishna Bava Qamma 8.7); ‘[if the victim] forgave him the value of the principal” (Mishna Bava Qamma 9.6); ‘forgive me this morsel’ (Tosefta Bava Batra 5.8); and ‘[sins] against God you are forgiven’ (מוחלים לך [mōḥalim lecha]; Sifra, Aḥare Mot 8 [to Lev. 16.30]). The exact expression ‘forgive sin or debt’ with the verb מחל (maḥal) has not turned up in the more meager Second Temple Hebrew and Aramaic literary remains (מחל [maḥal] is found only 5x, in the non-biblical DSS). However, the nouns חוב (ḥōv) and חובה (ḥōvah), connoting both ‘sin, guilt’ and ‘debt’, along with the verbal root חו″ב (ḥ-v-b) ‘sin, be guilty of’ and ‘be indebted,’ are attested. In Hebrew texts, we find, e.g., כלנו חייבים (kullanū ḥayyavim, ‘[Remember that] we all are guilty’; Sir. 8.5; cf. Sir. 11.18; CD 3.10). In Aramaic texts, one finds, e.g., ‘your sins…your wrongs’ (4Q537 f6.1), where the plural of חוב (ḥōv, ‘sin,’ ‘debt’) is parallel to the plural of its synonym חטא (ḥeṭʾ, ‘sin’).

In sum, the text of the NT contains many Semitic elements, some of which are Hebraisms and some of which are Aramaisms. The Hebrew language is mentioned ten times in the NT: Jesus, Paul, and Mary speak “in the Hebrew language”; three toponyms bear ‘Hebrew’ names; even an angel has a ‘Hebrew’ name. The notice Pilate had placed on Jesus’ cross was written ‘in Hebrew,’ as well as in Greek and Latin. The Synoptic Gospels show evidence for the existence of two registers of Hebrew: a high, literary register and a low, spoken one. Translations of Hebrew syntactic structures and literary phrases are found in the narrative framework of these gospels; while direct speech exhibits wordplays and idioms that are typical of post-biblical, spoken Hebrew.

Enlargement of an ossuary fragment discovered in Jerusalem bearing a Hebrew “Corban” inscription. Translation: “Any man who [intends to use] it [should regard] it as Corban [i.e., dedicated to the Temple].” Photo: Boaz Zissu. Courtesy of Boaz Zissu.


  • Abegg, Martin G., Jr. 2000. “Hebrew language”. Dictionary of New Testament background, ed. by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, 459-463. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity.
  • Bar-Asher, Moshe. 2006. “Mishnaic Hebrew: An introductory survey”. The literature of the sages: Second part, ed. by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson, 567-595. Assen: Royal Van Gorcum and Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • BDAG = Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William Arndt, and Felix W. Gingrich. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Buth, Randall. 1990. “Edayin/Tote—Anatomy of a Semitism in Jewish Greek”. Maarav 5-6:33-48.
  • Buth, Randall and Kvasnica, Brian. 2006. “Temple authorities and tithe evasion: The linguistic background and impact of the parable of ‘the vineyard, the tenants and the son'”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 53-80, 259-317. Leiden: Brill.
  • Davies, William David and Dale C. Allison, Jr. 1988. A critical and exegetical commentary on the gospel according to Saint Matthew (International Critical Commentary). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Eshel, Hanan. 2006. “On the use of the Hebrew language in economic documents from the Judean Desert”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 245-258. Leiden: Brill.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1981. The gospel according to Luke (Anchor Bible Commentary). Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
  • Grintz, Jehoshua M. 1960. “Hebrew as the spoken and written language in the last days of the Second Temple”. Journal of Biblical Literature 79:32-47.
  • Howard, Wilbert Francis. 1920. “Semitisms in the New Testament”. A grammar of New Testament Greek, ed. by James Hope Moulton, Wilbert Francis Howard, and Nigel Turner, vol. 2, 411-485. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Joosten, Jan. 2004. “Aramaic or Hebrew behind the gospels?” Analecta Bruxellensia 9:88-101.
  • ____. 2005. “The ingredients of New Testament Greek”. Analecta Bruxellensia 10:56-69.
  • Joosten, Jan and Menahem Kister. 2010. “The New Testament and Rabbinic Hebrew”. The New Testament and rabbinic literature (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 136), ed. by Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, and Peter J. Tomson, 335-350. Leiden: Brill.
  • Kutscher, Eduard Yechezkel. 1977. Hebrew and Aramaic studies (Hebrew, and English). Jerusalem: Magnes.
  • ____. 1982. A history of the Hebrew language. Jerusalem: Magnes and Leiden: Brill.
  • Rahmani, Levi Yitshak. 1994. A catalogue of Jewish ossuaries in the collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority and Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
  • Safrai, Shmuel. 2006. “Spoken and literary languages in the time of Jesus”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 225-244. Leiden: Brill.
  • Sokoloff, Michael. 2002. A dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period. Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press.
  • Wilcox, Max. 1992. “Semiticisms in the New Testament”. Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5, 1081-1086.
  • Zissu, Boaz and Amir Ganor. 2007. “A new ‘qorban’ inscription on an ossuary from Jerusalem” (in Hebrew). Cathedra 123:5-12, 193.

Cataloging the Gospels’ Hebraisms: Part Five (Parallelism)

Revised: 20-Dec-2012

As indicated in the last article, “parallelism” is a central feature of Hebrew poetry. It permeates the words of biblical poet and prophet. The frequency with which parallelism occurs in the utterances of Jesus is surprising, and leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Greek source (or, sources) used by the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke derive(s) from a Greek translation (or, translations) of Hebrew documents.

Scholars have investigated Hebrew poetry, including parallelism, for hundreds of years. They have divided parallelisms into 3 categories: 1) Synonymous Parallelism, 2) Antithetical Parallelism, and 3) Synthetical Parallelism (see C. F. Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord: An Examination of the Formal Elements of Hebrew Poetry in the Discourses of Jesus Christ [Oxford: Clarendon; 1925], 15-16). For an excellent article on Hebrew poetry, see James Muilenburg, “Hebrew Poetry,” Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1972), 13:671-81. Also superb is the online article, “Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry,” in the Jewish Encyclopedia (article written by the Editorial Board of the encyclopedia).

In this article we will survey the first of the above three categories. Synonymous parallelism is the repetition of a thought in different but synonymous, or equivalent, words. Before suggesting that similar structures are found in the New Testament, let’s look at examples of synonymous parallelism in the Hebrew Scriptures.

We have no portion in David,

No share in Jesse’s son. (2 Sam. 20:1; JPS)

The parallels are “portion” = “share,” and “David” = “Jesse’s son,” thus:

portion | David
share | Jesse’s son

In other words, “share” is the equivalent of and a substitute for “portion,” while “Jesse’s son” refers to the same person as “David.”

Here are more examples of synonymous parallelism:

The LORD roars from Zion,

Shouts aloud from Jerusalem. (Amos 1:2; JPS)

roars | Zion
shouts aloud | Jerusalem

 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! (Zech. 9:9; RSV)

rejoice greatly | O daughter of Zion
shout aloud | O daughter of Jerusalem

At [that] time I will gather you,

And at that time I will bring you [home]. (Zeph. 3:20; JPS)

In this parallelism, “gather you” is a synonym for “bring you home.”

I will turn your festivals into mourning

And all your songs into dirges (Amos 8:10; JPS)

your festivals | mourning
your songs | dirges

Let me know Your paths, O LORD;

teach me Your ways. (Ps. 25:4 [25:3]; JPS)

let me know | your paths
teach me | your ways

He who corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,

and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. (Prov. 9:7; RSV)

corrects | scoffer | gets himself |abuse
reproves | wicked man | incurs | injury

Now, let’s turn to examples of synonymous parallelism in the Gospels:

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. (Luke 1:46-47; RSV)

my soul | magnifies | the Lord
my spirit | rejoices in | God my Savior

Don’t go in the way of the Gentiles,

and don’t enter a city of the Samaritans. (Matt. 10:5; my trans.)

In this verse, “go,” that is, “travel,” is a synonym for “enter,” and “Gentile roads” is a synonym for “Samaritan cities.” Assuming a Hebrew undertext, the singular nouns “way” and “city” probably should be understood as carrying a plural sense: “ways” and “cities.” In Hebrew, the singular of a noun is often used in a plural sense. In Ezekiel 20:47, for instance, “tree” means “trees.” See Bivin, “Jesus and the Enigmatic ‘Green Tree.’

You build the tombs of the prophets,

and decorate the monuments of the righteous. (Matt. 23:29; my trans.)

build | tombs | prophets
decorate | monuments | righteous

 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,

killing the prophets

and stoning those who are sent to you. (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34; RSV)

killing | the prophets
stoning | those sent to you

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed,

or hidden that will not be known. (Luke 12:2; RSV)

covered up | revealed
hidden | known

This your brother was dead, and is alive again;

he was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:32; my trans.)

dead | alive
lost | found

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?

Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? (Matt. 7:9-10; NIV)

bread | stone
fish | snake

Nation will rise against nation,

and kingdom against kingdom. (Luke 21:10; RSV)

nation | against | nation
kingdom |against | kingdom

For with the judgment you judge, you will be judged;

and with the measure you measure, it will be measured to you. (Matt. 7:2; my trans.)

judgment you judge | you will be judged
measure you measure | it will be measured to you

There were many widows in Israel in the days of [the prophet] Elijah…,

And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha. (Luke 4:25, 27; RSV)

widows in Israel | [the prophet] Elijah
lepers in Israel | the prophet Elisha

He who is not with me is against me,

and he who does not gather with me scatters. (Matt. 12:30; Luke 11:23; RSV)

is not with me | is against me
does not gather with me | scatters

…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,

and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt. 5:45; RSV)

makes sun rise | on the evil and good
sends rain | on the just and unjust

If I tell you, you will not believe,

and if I ask you, you will not answer. (Luke 22:67-68; RSV)

In the Hebrew of Jesus’ time “ask” was a synonym for “tell.” That knowledge helps us understand this passage, and also helps explain the story about Jesus in the temple at age twelve: he was “sitting among the sages, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at…his answers” (Luke 2:46-47). Strange. Logically, we would expect, “were amazed at…his questions.” However, in Jewish discussion and debate, in Jesus’ time and still today, asking the right question demonstrates knowledge of the answer! “Questions” are “answers”!

(The master of that slave will come)

on a day when he does not expect him

and at an hour he does not know. (Matt. 24:50; Luke 12:46; my trans.)

on a day | he does not expect
at an hour | he does not know

Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,

and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. (Matt. 10:41; NIV)

Synonymous parallelism is often more extended than just one couplet, for example:

Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth,

And thick clouds the peoples;

But upon you the LORD will shine,

And His Presence be seen over you.

And nations shall walk by your light,

Kings, by your shining radiance. (Isa. 60:2-3; JPS)

Here are several striking examples of extended synonymous parallelism found in the teaching of Jesus:

Ask, and it will be given you;

seek, and you will find;

knock, and it will be opened to you.

For every one who asks receives,

and he who seeks finds,

and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Matt. 7:7-8 = Luke 11:9-10; RSV)

A disciple is not above his teacher,

and a slave is not above his master.

It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher,

and the servant like his master. (Matt. 10:24-25; RSV)

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?

Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others?

Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt. 5:46-47; RSV)

Blessed are your eyes, for they see,

and your ears, for they hear….

many prophets and righteous men [hypothetical reconstruction: “many prophets and messengers”]

longed to see what you see,

and did not see it,

and to hear what you hear,

and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:16-17; RSV)

Do you think these Galileans [that Pilate had slaughtered] were worse sinners than all the (other) Galileans…

or do you think [the eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell] were greater debtors than all the others who resided in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:2, 4; my trans.)

Here, in Luke 13:2, 4, as in the Lord’s prayer, “debtors” is the equivalent of “sinners.”

Do not worry about your soul [i.e., your life],

what you will eat,

nor about your body,

what you will wear.

Isn’t the soul more than food,

and the body more than clothing? (Matt. 6:25; my trans.)

Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!

If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon,

they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.

And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths [literally, Hades].

If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom,it would have remained to this day.

But I tell you that it will be more bearable for [literally, the land of] Sodom on the day of judgment than for you. (Matt. 11:21-24; NIV)

Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done. (Matt. 6:9-10; KJV)

It is likely that the petitions Jesus taught his disciples, “hallowed be thy name,“ “thy kingdom come,“ and, “thy will be done“ (Matt. 6:9-13), constitute a three-part synonymous parallelism. If so, these three phrases would not be different requests, but rather, a 3-part parallelism, with the request repeated in typical Hebraic fashion in three nearly synonymous ways, with each of the three reinforcing the idea of the other two, or explaining more fully the implications of the other two. See Brad Young, “The Lord’s Prayer (9): ‘Lead Us Not Into Temptation.’” Therefore, “May your kingdom come” would mean the same as “May your name be sanctified,” and “May your will be done.” If this threesome is a Hebraism, we would learn that “doing God’s will” is the same as “bringing his rule into the hearts of people as more and more persons accept his rule in their lives. “Thy Kingdom come” is not a petition for God to initiate Armageddon, but means the same as, “Hallowed be thy name” and “Thy will be done.”

In Psalms 1:1, we find a 3-part synonymous parallelism:

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers. (Ps. 1:1; RSV)

walks | counsel | the wicked
stands | way | sinners
sits | seat | scoffers

The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-10) are even more extended, an 8-part synonymous parallelism!

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who pursue righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3-10; RSV)

Each beatitude is equal to, and has the same sense as, the other seven. In eight slightly different ways Jesus makes his point. For instance, “the meek” is the equivalent of “the poor in spirit,” and “be comforted” is another way of saying, “be satisfied.” Notice, too, that the 1st and 8th beatitudes end with “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” a nice way of bracketing Jesus’ beautiful, poetic creation. All the beatitudes refer to kingdom people, members of Jesus’ movement. In order to be, and remain, in his movement, his disciples had to be the kind of people who continually sought God with all their heart, hungering and thirsting for his salvation.

In the next article in this series, we will expand our discussion to include Antithetical Parallelism.

To read the next article in this series, click here.

Cataloging the Gospels’ Hebraisms: Part Four (Parallelism)

Revised: 20-Dec-2012

Doubling, or repeating, is a characteristic feature of Hebrew. Hebrew loves to say things twice (or more!) by adding equivalents. Words, phrases, sentences, and even stories, are doubled (or tripled). Sometimes, this doubling is quite complex, for example:

The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of Teman will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Luke 11:31-32; Matt. 12:41-42) [See my, “The Queen of Teman.”]

One important Hebrew form of doubling is known as “parallelism,” expressing the same thought in two or more different, though synonymous, ways. “Parallelism” is the hallmark of Hebrew poetry.

Rather than invest energy in refining a definition of “parallelism,” let’s gain a feeling for this feature of Hebrew by looking at a few examples from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Book of Psalms is full of parallelism. The book’s first verse contains a 3-part parallelism:

Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
or stand in the way of sinners,
or sit in the seat of mockers. (Ps. 1:1; NIV)

The prophet Amos transmits God’s message in a two-part parallelism:

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24; RSV)

God speaks in parallelism through Moses:

They have stirred me to jealousy with what is no god;
they have provoked me with their idols. (Deut. 32:21; RSV)

Mary used parallelism in her poetic praise of God:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. (Luke 1:46-47; RSV)

Each of the two sides, or ribs, of a parallelism has the meaning of the other. Roughly speaking, whatever one side of a parallelism means, its other side means the same. More than half the words in the Hebrew Bible appear only once or twice, but happily, often in a parallelism. Sometimes, the only clue scholars have to a rare biblical vocabulary item’s meaning is its equivalent, or opposite, found in the other rib of a parallelism.

“Parallelism” is the essence of Hebrew poetry, thus pervading the poetic portions of the Bible. A biblical prophet, it appears, had to have the muse of poetry as well as the spirit of prophecy: a prophet could scarcely open his or her mouth without parallelisms popping out. Surprisingly, parallelisms also permeate the Greek synoptic Gospels, especially the sayings of Jesus, a good indication that the Greek of these Gospels is derived ultimately from a Hebrew source.

Here is a sampling of the many doublets and parallelisms we find in the sayings of Jesus: “The wise and understanding“ (Luke 10:21); “prophets and apostles” (Luke 11:49); “kings and governors” (Luke 21:12); “two men will be in the field…two women will be grinding with a hand mill” (Matt. 24:40-41); “look at the birds of the heaven…consider the lilies of the field” (Matt. 6:26, 28); “they make their phylacteries wide…and their tassels long” (Matt. 23:5); “when you see a cloud rising in the west…when you see the south wind blowing” (Luke 12:54, 55); “a reed shaken by the wind…a man dressed in fancy clothes” (Matt. 11:7-8; Luke 7:24-25); “eating and drinking…a glutton and a drunkard…tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34); “you are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13, 14); “as it was in the days of Noah…as it was in the days of Lot” (Luke 17:26, 28); and “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matt. 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:10).

As an exercise, please fill in the blanks in the following parallelisms:

  • “A disciple is not above his teacher and a ______ is not above his ______” (Matt. 10:24-25).
  • “My yoke is easy and my ______ is ______” (Matt. 11:30).
  • “Foxes have holes, and the ______ ______ ______ ______ have ______” (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58).
  • “You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the ______ of the righteous” (Matt. 23:29).
  • “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets, and stoning ______ ______ ______ ______” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34).
  • “The master of that slave will come on a day he [the slave] does not expect and at an hour ______ ______ ______ ______” (Matt. 24:50; Luke 12:46).

In coming installments of this series, we will look at parallelisms that are more complex than those above. A sensitivity to Hebrew parallelism allows scholars to interpret correctly a number of Jesus’ sayings, e.g., “Do not give the holy to the dogs, and do not throw your pearls before the pigs, lest they trample them with their feet, and turning, rend you” (Matt. 7:6).

To read the next article in this series, click here.

The Theological Significance of the Parable in Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament

One of the finest articles ever written on rabbinic parables and the parables of Jesus was published in 1972 in the now defunct Christian News from Israel. The article is a classic, but, unfortunately, no longer available. Jerusalem Perspective is pleased to resurrect this milestone article together with the responses of founding Jerusalem School members, the late Robert L. Lindsey and David Flusser.[1]

When he was alone, the Twelve and others who were around him questioned him about the parables. He replied, “To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given; but to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables, so that (as Scripture says) they may look and look, but see nothing; they may hear and hear, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12; NEB)

These lines have always been something of a crux interpretum. Yet the consensus of modern scholarship seems to be on the side of Frederick C. Grant, who, pointing out that “quite patently (Jesus’) parables were a device to aid his hearers’ understanding, not to prevent it,” finds it necessary to describe Mark’s theory as “perverse.”[2]

Whatever may have been the original significance of Mark’s words or their justification with regard to the parables as spoken by Jesus, there can be very little doubt that they are a fairly accurate description of what has happened to the parables in the long history of their interpretations—not only the traditional allegorical ones, with their built-in arbitrariness, but also much of the voluminous writing on the subject which has appeared since Jülicher administered the coup de grace to the allegorical understanding of the past.

When we see modern scholars going into contortions to perform a neat separation between similitudes and parables proper, between illustrations and allegories, invoking the canons of Greek rhetoric and even turning to Buddhist sources for prototypes, we can well imagine a modern Mark who might characterize all such efforts as “looking and looking, but seeing nothing.”[3]

All of which is not to say that this type of work is altogether without value. Eta Linnemann is certainly right when, for example, she tells us that “the image in the similitude is taken from real life as everyone knows it,” whereas “in the parables proper…we are told freely composed stories.”[4] But the question remains whether that kind of analysis gets us any closer to an understanding of what the parables are all about. Joachim Jeremias seems more to the point when he dismisses the distinction drawn between metaphor, simile, parable, similitude, allegory, illustration and so forth “as a fruitless labour in the end, since the Hebrew mashal and the Aramaic mathla embraced all these categories and many more without distinction,” and when he warns us that “to force the parables of Jesus into the categories of Greek rhetoric is to impose upon them an alien law.”[5]

The warning of Jeremias is based upon an understanding of the particular environment within which Jesus functioned. It was the environment of Palestinian Judaism, in which the mashal type of teaching, inherited from the Hebrew Bible, was—as C. H. Dodd correctly observed—“a common and well-understood method of illustration, and the parables of Jesus are similar in form to Rabbinic parables.”[6] Ignaz Ziegler was able to list some 937 parables dealing with comparisons based on “a king” or “the kingdom.”[7] While most of those parables belong to the period after the fall of Bethar in 135 C.E., Israel Abrahams surmised that “some of the oldest parables in which heroes are kings, perhaps dealt in their original forms with ordinary men, and kings was probably substituted for men in some of them (both Rabbinic and Synoptic) by later redactors.”[8] We by no means wish to imply that all of the Rabbinic parables invariably compared religious themes, such as the nature of God, to earthly kings. That was not the case. W. O. E. Oesterley notes, in addition to the royal parables, also those “which present a scene of a feast, and those which deal with some agricultural topic, such as a field or a vineyard.”[9] There were many others as well.

But an important point to be made in this connection is that we would unnecessarily limit our field of vision were we to confine our observation to those Rabbinic statements which are either specifically labelled as a mashal or begin with one of the mashal’s typical introductory formulae. The mashal was but one of the methods of teaching one of the two aspects of Torah.

Torah, for the Pharisaic Jew, was God’s revelation, and, as such, had to have a message for the present. To deduce the message for the present from the wording of the ancient text involved the process of midrash. That term “denotes both the occupation, the expounding and searching of Scripture, and its result, the exposition arrived at.”[10] In later usage, the term midrash came to denote the non-legal utterances of the Rabbis but in the earliest sources, those of the Tannaitic period, midrash was applied to both legal and non-legal interpretations of Scripture.[11]

Two other terms from the early Rabbinic period are somewhat more precise in distinguishing the legal from the non-legal teachings. Halakhah (“the way”) is the term used for the legal rulings.[12] And Haggadah (or, in Aramaic, Aggadah) is the term for the non-legal teachings. The word Haggadah originated in the exegeticalterminus technicusmaggid hakathubh (“the Scripture verse says, or implies”), but, already in very early times, the noun Aggadah came to be exclusively applied to non-legal interpretations.[13]

Moreover, “Halakhah and Aggadah do not exist solely and exclusively in connection with Holy Scripture. Among those who accept the oral tradition as a source of revelation…Halakhah, direction for the conduct of life, is also a quite independent entity, having existence apart from Scripture. In the same way, Haggadah can also exist independently, being no more than a religious tale of an edifying or apologetic tenor.”[14]

We can go even further than this and assert that whatever theology the ancient Rabbis had was taught and understood by them as Aggadah. That is why the wider connotation of Aggadah, rather than only the narrower subdivision of mashal, is important to us in our present investigation. We shall continue to refer to Aggadah throughout the remainder of our presentation.

The theological significance of the Aggadah was stated in the Siphre, the Tannaitic Midrash to Deuteronomy, in the following terms:

Is it your desire to know Him by Whose word the world came into existence? Then study Haggadah, for, by so doing, you get to know Him by Whose word the world came into existence, and you attach yourself to His ways.[15]

It is the merit of the German scholar, Paul Fiebig, that he, perhaps more than anyone else, has endeavoured to demonstrate in detail how the parables of Jesus have to be read in the light of the contemporary literature of Aggadah.[16] Yet it can hardly be conceded that Fiebig was sufficiently at home in the whole realm of Rabbinic literature to warrant the occasional generalizations in which he engages—such as when he asserts that the eschatological-messianic theme “completely recedes into the background in the direction taken by Rabbinic thinking,” or that “for Jesus, the great religious themes and basic ideas move far more into the foreground than they do in the parables of the Rabbis.”[17]

But then, alas, Fiebig is not alone among those aware of Jesus’ Palestinian Jewish background who feel compelled to fault the teachings of the Rabbis in comparison with those of Jesus. Somehow, this whole area of scholarship is still awaiting its liberation from the fetters of polemics and apologetics.

Thus, Gustaf Dalman, another great Christian scholar of Rabbinics, emphasizes that:

one and the same parable or proverb can be used for quite different purposes… He who pays attention to this will find that our Lord not only occasionally, but always deviates from the Rabbis, notwithstanding the similar application made of the same material in both cases.[18]

Again, Oesterley not only stresses that difference, but also introduces a value judgment:

One cannot…fail to notice the immense difference both in subject-matter and treatment and, above all, in application, between the Gospel parables and those of the Rabbis; interesting and instructive as the latter often are, they stand on an altogether lower plane…

We are convinced that any impartial reader of the two sets of parables, the Gospel and the Rabbinical, will be forced to admit that the latter compare very unfavourably with the former.[19]

Rudolf Bultmann, too, finds it necessary to point out that, while the New Testament parables do indeed correspond to the Rabbinic parables in a formal sense, both as a whole and in details, the Rabbinic parables are often forced and artificial, whereas the New Testament parables are the product of a greater originality in intuition.[20]

The list of authorities could be considerably extended. But enough has probably been quoted to illustrate the tendenz. It is, in a way, an understandable tendenz. It also has its theological significance. In the pre-modern period, when traditional Christian dogma was widely accepted, and when people believed in the Virgin Birth, in the Incarnation, and in a literal Resurrection, we find no attempt to demonstrate the “originality” of Jesus’ “contribution” to mankind’s religious thought. Nor were artistic and aesthetic criteria invoked to prove the inferiority of Rabbinic teaching. It was a simple case of accepting Christianity as the truth, and of regarding that which was not Christian as either untrue or superseded.

But, with the decline of traditional belief in the supernatural, it became necessary—for those who wanted to be both Christian and modernist—to resort to more terrestrial criteria to prove that Jesus was superior to his Rabbinic contemporaries. Thus, with Harnack, one endeavoured to show that Jesus’ ethical teachings were superior to those of the Pharisees and the Rabbis,[21] and, with Jülicher and Bultmann, one detected Jesus’ greater skill and originality in parabolic teaching.

It is not our intention to question the spiritual contributions made by Jesus, or to deny his individual originality—any more than we would think of questioning and denying the contributions and the originality of a Hillel, a Rabbi Akiba, or a Rabbi Ishmael. But that is just the point. There would seem to be no real need, in evaluating a religious genius, to downgrade indiscriminately all of his contemporaries. It need not be a case of “either/or.” It could be a matter of “both…and.” At any rate, it is the latter attitude which we shall seek to pursue.

Something that Eta Linnemann stressed may serve as the point of departure for our undertaking:

For the original listeners to the parables of Jesus we cannot presuppose the belief that he is the Christ…. Jesus stood before these listeners as a carpenter from Nazareth, as a wandering Rabbi. Like many at that time who wandered up and down the land with their disciples, as a preacher of repentance, of whom some supposed that he was a prophet. No acknowledged proof of divine authority gave weight to what he said, so that men had to listen to it in advance as a word of revelation. For even his miracles were no sort of authorization. Jesus was not the only wonder worker of his time…, and miracles were not an unequivocal proof for his contemporaries that the power of God was at work in the wonder worker.[22]

In the circumstances, it is perhaps easier for a believing Jew than for a believing Christian to approach the New Testament parables in the frame of mind of the original audiences to which they were addressed. And, when a modern Jew does so, he is quite liable to react in just the way in which Ignaz Ziegler did:

Jesus was an Aggadist, as were, to a greater or lesser extent, all of his learned Pharisaic contemporaries. He did not have to learn the art of parable-making from anybody, for that art was being practised and cultivated in all of the alleys and in all of the synagogues.[23]

Yet all three Synoptic Gospels testify to the strong impression which Jesus made on his listeners: “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”[24] The meaning of that verse is somewhat problematical. Joseph Klausner may be right when he sees the difference between the scribes and Jesus in the fact that the former made frequent references to the Scriptures in their parabolic teachings, while the latter did not, and that, while the Tannaim and their successors, the Amoraim, mainly practised Scripture exposition and only incidentally used parables, the reverse was the case with Jesus.[25] Also, it is not improbable that, in Jesus’ parabolic teaching, there was more of the force of the speaker’s own personality and the directness of his teaching than the audience was accustomed to hear from the average scribe, who tended to couch his message in the more conventional style of the schools.

But we cannot really be sure. And that, for two reasons. In the first place, Jesus may have been more of a Scripture exegete than the Gospels, in their present form, would allow him to have been. If Joachim Jeremias is right in arguing for the authenticity of the context, in Luke l0, in which the parable of the Good Samaritan is found,[26] we would have an instance where Jesus used a parable for midrashic Scripture exegesis. Perhaps some of Jesus’ other parables, too, may originally have been part of his exposition of Bible passages—even though, for reasons of their own, the Evangelists may have seen fit to rearrange the material.

And that leads us to the second problem: the history of the transmission of ancient texts. If we read the parables of Jesus side by side with the parables preserved in the early Rabbinic texts, we shall have to agree with Israel Abrahams, who said: “Not only were the New Testament parables elaborated by the Evangelists far more than the Talmudic were by the Rabbis, but the former have been rendered with inimitable skill and felicity, while the latter have received no such accession of charm.”[27]

To illustrate, let us take a parable of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who died circa 80 C.E.), as preserved in the Tannaitic Tosephta. Yohanan was commenting on the fact that the first set of the tablets of the Law is described, in Exodus 32:16, as being “the work of God,” whereas Moses had to furnish his own raw material for the second set.

To what is the matter like? To a human king who married a woman. He brought the scribe, and the ink, and the pen, and the document, and the witnesses. When she disgraced herself, she had to bring everything. It was sufficient for her that the king would give her his own recognizable signature.[28]

So far the Tosephta. In a much later Rabbinic work, the Midrash Debharim Rabba, which, in its present form, probably dates from the tenth century, we find the following version of the same parable:

They asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: “Why was the first set of tablets the work of God, and the second set the work of man?”

He said to them: To what is this matter like? To a king who took a wife. He brought the scribe, and his own paper (sc. for the marriage contract), and his own (wedding) diadem. And he brought her into his house. The king (then) saw her sporting with one of his slaves. The king was angry with her, and he threw her out. Her agent (thereupon) came to him, and said to him: “My lord, do you not know whence you have taken her? Was it not from among the slaves? And, since she grew up among the slaves, her heart is still bold with them, and she is learning from them.”

The king said to him: “What do you want? That I become reconciled with her? You bring your own paper and scribe; and, behold, here is my signature!”

Thus did Moses say to the Holy One, praised be He, when Israel did that deed (i.e., the making of the golden calf). He said to Him: “Do you not know whence you have taken them? Did you not bring them forth out of Egypt, a place of idolatry?”

The Holy One, praised be He, said to him: “What do you want? That I become reconciled with them? (Then) bring your own tablets; and, behold, here is My signature!”[29]

Now, there can be very little doubt that the original first-century Rabbi Yohanan said considerably less than is here put into his mouth. But, by the same token, it stands to reason that he also must have said more than the bare sketch preserved in the Tosephta. Indeed, it is doubtful whether we could be able at all to interpret the laconic passage in the Tosephta were it not for the more elaborate versions contained in the later Rabbinic literature. As for Rabbi Yohanan’s ipsissima verba, I am afraid that we may never know them.

David Halivni has pointed out that the transmission of materials by the masters of the Rabbinic tradition was not simply a mechanical process, but one in which the thoughts of the transmitters and their relation to the material became part of the transmitted material itself.[30]

Of course, a far shorter period of time elapsed between Jesus’ utterance of the parables and their being edited by the Evangelists than was the case with Rabbi Yohanan’s parable and later Rabbinic literature. Thus, in the case of the parables of Jesus, there was less time for the material to “grow.” Nevertheless, far more skilled editorial work went into the making of the Gospels than into the editing of Rabbinic sources. As Jacob Neusner has aptly remarked, “to no individual in the history of Tannaitic and Amoraic Judaism was half so much attention ever devoted as was given to Jesus.”[31]

This, incidentally, underlines the precariousness of the task, often too lightly undertaken, of comparing the parabolic utterances of the Jesus of the Gospels with those of the early Rabbis—on the basis of purely aesthetic criteria alone.

While there was less time for the parables of Jesus to “grow” than there was for the Rabbinic parables, accretions there nevertheless were. This is obvious from the variations occurring within the parallels of the Synoptic Gospels themselves. It is also taken for granted in modern New Testament scholarship—as when there is a recognition of the fact that parables, originally addressed by Jesus to those who disagreed with him, were recast by the early Church in such a way that they could be read as teachings which Jesus addressed to his own disciples.[32]

And thus we return to our original question: What did Jesus say in his parables? What was it that made his listeners think of Jesus as “one having authority”?

The answer, it must be said, depends upon the kind of Jesus that you have in mind; for, in determining what Jesus did or did not say, various scholars are guided by their overall impression of the role which Jesus actually played. Occasionally, those scholarly views tend to cancel each other out. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, pictures a Jesus whose teachings were different both from the Judaism of his own time and from the Christianity of later generations. Consequently, Bultmann will accept as genuine parables of Jesus only those “where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterized the preaching of Jesus; and where, on the other hand, we find no specifically Christian features.”[33]

By way of contrast, Leo Baeck, while also ruling out of consideration any material which reflects the tendencies and purposes of the generations which came after the first generation of disciples, will accept as genuine words and deeds of Jesus only those which exemplify “the way of life and the social structure, the climate of thought and feeling, the way of speaking and the style of Jesus’ own environment and time.”[34]

Thus, while Bultmann and Baeck agree in ruling out of consideration any material which reflects the views of the later Church rather than those of Jesus, they disagree precisely on what it was that Jesus himself taught. For Bultmann, the yardstick is the contrast to contemporary Jewish piety; for Baeck, it is the agreement.

Further complications arise from the kind of simplistic and fallacious reasoning in which a number of scholars tend to indulge. Schematically, we can represent it as follows:

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • Jesus taught in parables.
  • Ergo : Jesus’ parables led to his crucifixion.

This point of view is, of course, never put quite as simply, although some scholars come perilously close to doing so. Witness Charles W. F. Smith:

Jesus used parables and Jesus was put to death. The two facts are related and it is necessary to understand the connection…[35]

The parables were not simply vehicles of teaching. They were instruments forged for warfare and the means by which his strategy was vindicated—until no further words could serve, but only an act. The parables are the precipitate of a campaign, the final step of which was his surrender to the cross.[36]

Joachim Jeremias, too, thinks that the parables “were predominantly concerned with a situation of conflict,” and he, too, calls them “weapons of warfare.”[37] In the same vein, Dan Otto Via, Jr., states:

Jesus’ behaviour, which challenged the Jewish world of fixed religious values, precipitated a conflict that resulted in his death. Inasmuch as his parables are interpretations of his behaviour, they are a part of the provocation of his conflict; hence he risked his life through his word.[38]

Needless to say, the underlying assumption of this view, however formulated, is that the message which Jesus preached was religiously so offensive to his Pharisaic contemporaries that, to silence him once and for all, he had to be put to death. But it is really nothing more than an assumption. Suppose, for example, that one began with a different assumption—with the assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans was a political execution which had nothing whatsoever to do with the religious message of his parables. And that is not even an assumption. It is a fact; for, as S. G. F. Brandon has demonstrated very clearly:

Ironic though it be, the most certain thing known about Jesus of Nazareth is that he was crucified by the Romans as a rebel against their government in Judaea.[39]

Or suppose that one accepts the conclusion of Haim H. Cohn, the Israeli Supreme Court Justice, who argues that, so far from being responsible for Jesus’ death, the Sanhedrin actually tried—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to save Jesus from the hands of the Roman authorities.[40] What would happen to that whole syllogistic structure which leads from the crucifixion to the contents of the parables? It would certainly be unable to withstand the onslaught; and a new interpretation of the parables would have to come into being.

Yet even without such an onslaught, carried out with the weapons of more recent scholarship, the syllogistic structure—apart from its logical fallacy—is doomed to fall on account of its inherent weakness. For it was built on an inadequate knowledge of the very nature of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism.

Did Jesus come into conflict with assorted scribes and Pharisees? No doubt, he did! But so did the Pharisees among themselves—all of the time. Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism is an argumentative kind of religion. There is hardly a single item of either Halakhah or Aggadah in the entire range of Rabbinic literature which is not contested by one Rabbi or another. That kind of conflict is the very life-blood of Rabbinic Judaism. What is more, even in those cases where a decision was reached by majority vote, the dissenting opinion continued to be transmitted as part of the tradition. The Talmud is a record of discussions, not a law code. That was the situation in matters of Halakhah. When it came to Aggadah, to matters theological, with one or two rare exceptions, no vote was ever taken; and different—often contradictory—views were taught side by side. They had to be, for the Aggadah was dialectical. As Emil L. Fackenheim describes it:

Divine power transcends all things human—yet divine Love becomes involved with things human, and man, made a partner of God, can “as it were” augment or diminish divine power. Israel’s election is a divinely imposed fate—and a free human choice. Man must wait for redemption as though all depended on God—and work for it as though all depended on man. The Messiah will come when all men are just—or all wicked. These affirmations must be held together unless thought is to lose either divine infinity or finite humanity, or the relation between them. Yet they cannot be held together except in stories, parables, and metaphors.[41]

Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism was anything but a rigid and monolithic structure. The fact that Rabbi X came into conflict with Rabbi Y certainly did not mean that henceforth Rabbi Y would be after Rabbi X’s blood. They might even submit to a Heavenly Voice proclaiming: “Both of them are the words of the Living God!” as did the constantly feuding schools of Hillel and Shammai.[42]

It is, therefore, with utter amazement that someone schooled in the Rabbinic tradition comes across Eta Linnemann’s final comment on the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). After explaining that Jesus was teaching about the unconditional goodness of God, and was thereby attacking the merit system of Pharisaic Judaism, she concludes by saying:

But those who remain closed to his word must raise the demand: “Crucify him, this man blasphemes God.”[43]

Must they really? It is true enough that many Pharisees and Rabbis did subscribe to Ben He He’s maxim, “According to the labour is the reward.”[44]  It is furthermore true that the alleged Rabbinic parallel to the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard differs in one crucial respect from the parable told by Jesus. In the latter, the labourers hired in the eleventh hour receive a full day’s wages even though they have only worked for one hour. In the former, the man who received a full day’s wages for two hours’ work is said to have actually earned them, because, during those two hours, he accomplished more than the rest of the labourers had done all day long.[45]

But it is likewise true that Arthur Marmorstein was able to write a whole book of 199 pages about the Rabbinic doctrine of merits,[46] a book in which he traces the changing fate of that particular doctrine. It was a doctrine more firmly held in some generations than in others; one, moreover, which never lacked its opponents among the ranks of the Rabbis. Yet we never find that those who challenged the doctrine were threatened by their opponents with crucifixion.

Nor, to the best of our knowledge, was that threat uttered against Rabbi Yudan bar Hanan, when he taught in the name of R. Berekhiah:

The Holy One, praised be He, said to Israel: “My children, if you see that the merit of the patriarchs is giving way, and that the merit of the matriarchs is declining, go and cleave unto steadfast love (hesed); as it is said [Isa. 54:10], ‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed.’ ‘The mountains may depart’—that refers to the merit of the patriarchs; ‘and the hills be removed’—that refers to the merit of the matriarchs. From now on it is a case of ‘but My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord Who has compassion on you.’”[47]

For that matter, there is no record of the crucifixion of the Rabbi who taught the following Aggadah:

“And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” [Exod. 33:19].

At that time the Holy One, praised be He, showed him (Moses) all the treasuries of the reward prepared for the righteous.

He (Moses) said to Him: “Sovereign of the Universe, to whom does this treasury belong?”

He (God) said to him: “It belongs to those who act righteously.”

“And whose is that?”

“It belongs to those who support orphans.”

And similarly in the case of every single treasury—until he saw a particularly large treasury.

He [Moses] said to Him: “Whose is this?”

He [God] said to him: “To him who has (sc. merit), I give of his own. But to him who has none, I give (sc. out of this treasury) for nothing (hinnam = lit. gratis, derived from hen = grace); as it is said: ‘And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.’”[48]

A sermon like that, addressed to a congregation reared in the more conventional doctrine of “According to the labour is the reward,” would attract attention and stimulate thought. Indeed, it might even cause some astonishment at the preacher and marvel at his self-assured “authority.” But the question of “blasphemy” would not occur to anyone. Why, then, should we assume that Jesus’ audience reacted any differently to the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard?

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from an 11th century Byzantine Gospel text.
Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from an 11th century Byzantine Gospel text.

Still, once one has made up one’s mind that everything Jesus taught in his parables must have been offensive to his Pharisaic contemporaries, one tries to find “offence” everywhere.

A case in point is Linnemann’s treatment of the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The fact that the father showed greater affection for, or made more fuss over, the returning prodigal than in respect of the conventionally obedient elder brother means—to her—that Jesus turned “the world upside down,” and she is careful to underline the fact that a man who would thus turn the world upside down must also be ready “to suffer it that people will ‘put him out of the world’ for the sake of the order of the world.”[49]

It would take us too far afield to cite all the numerous passages from the Aggadah which deal with the doctrine of repentance, and which seem to suggest that anyone who did not accept the message of the parable of The Prodigal Son would not have been within the mainstream of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. Suffice it to draw attention to a significant literary curiosity.

The Talmud contains the following statement:

Rabbi Abbahu said: The place occupied by repentant sinners cannot be attained even by the completely righteous; as it is said (Isa. 57:19): “Peace, peace, to him that is far off, and to him that is near.” What is the meaning of “far off”? It means someone originally far off (i.e., the sinner who is far from God). And what is the meaning of “near”? It means one who was originally (and still is) near (to God).[50]

This passage is quoted by an eighth-century scholar, Rabbi Aha Gaon—with one significant change. After the statement that the repentant sinners are superior to the completely righteous, Rabbi Aha inserts the following words:

What are repentant sinners like? (The matter can be compared) to a king who had two sons; one walked in the way of goodness, and one became depraved.[51]

Louis Ginzberg, who edited this manuscript, surmises that Rabbi Aha must have had those words in his text of the Talmud, even though later editions of the Talmud no longer contain them. Ginzberg also asserts that they are “the short, original form of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son.”[52]

Israel Abrahams, commenting on this text, finds that Rabbi Aha’s reading of the talmudic passage “looks like a reminiscence of Luke’s Parable,” and goes on to say that “it may have been removed from the Talmud text by scribes more cognizant than Abbahu was of the source of the story.”[53]

We are not interested at the moment in the question of priorities, i.e., did the Aggadah borrow it from Jesus, or did Jesus utilize aggadic material? Nor are we concerned with the question of who removed the words from the text of the Talmud. It is a rather unlikely hypothesis to think of scribes “more cognizant than Abbahu was of the source of the story.” For Rabbi Abbahu, who knew Greek, was famous as a controversialist with Christians.[54]

What is of great importance to us, however, is the simple fact that the parable of The Prodigal Son fitted in so easily and naturally with the Rabbinic scheme of things that it could be used by the Rabbis themselves to illustrate a Rabbinic statement on the subject of repentant sinners. That would hardly have been the case had that parable been meant to “turn the world upside down”—if, by “world,” we mean the world of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism!

As a final illustration, we may be permitted to refer to The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In the attempt to play Jesus off against his Jewish contemporaries, this parable plays a very significant role. Robert W. Funk summarizes it as follows:

The scribes and Pharisees sought to relate (the law) to everyday existence in countless ways, but it grew less relevant with each step…Jesus attempted nothing less than to shatter the whole tradition that had obscured the law.[55]

While we do not subscribe to Funk’s evaluation of the Rabbinic interpretation of the law, we shall grant him his point for argument’s sake, and confine ourselves to an examination of how, if at all, Jesus’ telling of the parable of The Good Samaritan was an attempt “to shatter the whole tradition that had obscured the law.”

To begin with, we hold, with Jeremias,[56] that there is no reason to detach the parable from its present context.[57] The difficulty, noted by a number of scholars, that the lawyer asks, “Whom must I treat as a neighbour?” while Jesus’ parable answers the question, “Who acted as a neighbour?” is only an apparent difficulty. As Jeremias points out, neither Jesus nor the lawyer is seeking a definition of “neighbour,” but, rather, the extent of the conception of “neighbour.” “The only difference between them is that the scribe is looking at the matter from a theoretical point of view, while Jesus illuminates the question with a practical example.”[58]

It is obvious that Jesus is intent upon giving the conception of “neighbour” its widest possible extent, and upon broadening the lawyer’s horizon. Therefore, the man in the parable, who exemplifies the love of neighbour, is not a representative of the clergy, a priest or a Levite. He is not even a fellow Jew, but a Samaritan. And the fact that a Samaritan is given the role of the merciful neighbour was, according to Linnemann, “surprising and offensive to Jesus’ hearers.”[59] According to Robert W. Funk, Jesus’ question at the end, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbour?” is “a question on which the Jew chokes.”[60]

That Jesus meant to “surprise” with this parable is quite likely. It is certainly surprising to be told that your own religious teachings are better put into practice by an outsider than by your own religious leadership. The Rabbis, too, occasionally liked to hold up the behaviour of non-Jews as examples to be followed by Jews.

Rabbi Akiba said: For three things I love the Medes. When they cut meat, they cut it only on the table; when they kiss, they only kiss the hand; and when they hold counsel, they do so only in the field…

Rabban Gamaliel said: For three things I love the Persians. They are modest in their eating habits, modest in the bathroom, and modest in their sexual relations.[61]

But the Rabbis’ use of this teaching device went beyond an admiration of the non-Jews’ good manners and etiquette. They did not shrink from using it in expounding one of the Ten Commandments! In a question, strikingly similar to the lawyer’s question in Luke 10, the disciples asked Rabbi Eliezer: “How far does the honour due father and mother extend?” And the Rabbi answered:

Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama ben Nethina, did in Ashkelon!

We are then informed that Dama ben Nethina was head of the city council in Ashkelon. He once refused to disturb his father’s sleep, when, by doing so, he could have made a great profit. He would never sit down on the stone on which his father sat; and, after his father’s death, Dama turned this stone into an object of worship. (A curious point for a Rabbi to single out by way of praise!) And he treated his mother with the utmost deference even when, on one occasion, she insulted him in the presence of the entire city council.[62]

Judging by the record, in both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmud, no offence was taken at this illustration. Now, if invoking the heathen of Ashkelon in an exposition of Exodus 20:12 caused no offence in the case of Rabbi Eliezer, it is difficult to see why invoking the Samaritan in an exposition of Leviticus 19:18 should have been so particularly offensive in the case of Jesus.

Admittedly, the relations between Jews and Samaritans were not particularly friendly. But why should the Samaritan not be thought capable of acting the good neighbour? After all, within a strictly legalistic context, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel once stated:

Whatever commandment the Samaritans have adopted, they are very strict in the observance thereof—stricter than the Jews.[63]

At the time of Jesus, the Halakhah treated the Samaritans in some respects as Jews, and in other respects as Gentiles. It was not until the third century C.E., long after the time of Jesus, that the decision was reached not to regard the Samaritans as Jews.[64]

We are, therefore, no more able to see the “offence” in the parable of The Good Samaritan than we have been able to see it in The Labourers in the Vineyard or in The Prodigal Son. What we are able to see is a Jesus who impresses by his directness of approach, his skill in the use of the parable, and his ability to draw his listeners into the problematik of his presentation. But he does all that within the ambience of the Pharisaic-Rabbinic world of thought and within the broad limits of the realm of Aggadah. The fact that Jesus and the Rabbis spoke the same language and shared the same world of thought must not, however, be taken to imply that a Jesus, or a Hillel, or a Rabbi Akiba did not each have his own very specific emphases. Nor does it mean that either Jesus or the Rabbis were primarily concerned with religious commonplaces or moral generalities. The very concreteness of their language made that impossible. But it is also the very concreteness of their language—the use of parables instead of dogmatic formulations, of folklore motifs in place of theological constructs—which prevents the philosophical dissipation of their central affirmations. Therein lies the abiding theological significance of the parables of Jesus and the Aggadah of the Rabbis—and perhaps not least for an age like ours, when the religious heritage of Jerusalem and the philosophical heritage of Athens almost seem to have reached the end of their common journey through the history of human thought.


David Flusser’s Response

Petuchowski’s article is an important step in the progress of scholarship. Even the best recent books dealing with the parables have neglected the fact that Jesus’ parables are not as unique as they seem to be. They are part and parcel of rabbinic tradition. This simple truth has been forgotten because a German scholar, Jülicher, decided that there is practically no connection between Jesus’ and the rabbinic parables; Jülicher even thought that the other Jews were influenced by him.

Until now, dissident scholars have tried to find concrete sources for Jesus’ parables: they pick out this or that rabbinic parable to show that Jesus had known it and had transformed it in his own way. But the correct approach would be to use the method of the Russian formalists and study the form of the Jewish parable itself, its motifs and literary functions. Most motifs are common to the parables of the rabbis and of Jesus. Two themes are dominant: workers (or slaves), their labour and compensation, and the banquet and the invited guests, but even the image of the net appears in a parable of Jesus and a saying of Rabbi Akiba. A master of this kind of oral literature can, with the help of these motifs, describe an interesting, often paradoxical, situation, which, at the same time, evokes a realistic impression. Occasionally, the situation is so striking that others like to use the new creation, but even so, strictly speaking, they do not repeat a specific parable, but rather change its components, combining them with other popular themes. This happened, for instance, in Jesus’ famous parable of the Sower. The archetype, so to say, appears in Mishna Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:15: “There are four types of students: Quick to learn and quick to forget…slow to learn and slow to forget…quick to learn and slow to forget and slow to learn and quick to forget…” Jesus worked out this scheme in an “impressionistic” way and applied it to four kinds of soil. That types of disciples, or spiritual rabbis, were compared with various objects is also known from rabbinic literature, take again Mishna Avoth 5:18. Let me cite an example of a rabbinic parable: “This world resembles a householder who hired workers and inspected them to see who really worked…both for those who really worked and for those who did not really work, all was prepared for a banquet” (Seder Eliahu Rabba, ed. Isch Schalom, p. 5). Here, the theme of workers and their work and the banquet motif are dovetailed. Even the paradox of this parable resembles the way of Jesus: both the good and the bad workers are invited to the banquet. The parable is used in an eschatological sense, for the banquet motif is very apt for that purpose: the Gentiles will not partake of the banquet but be condemned to Gehenna, because they speak against the Children of Israel. But the simile itself could also be used for many other purposes and here it is not very well adapted to its aim.

A good parabolist, evidently, had not only to produce tension within the simile itself, but also to forge a dialectical link between the simile and its application. When one does not clarify one’s parable, the simile only offers hints of the object of the teaching, and even then not unequivocally. A parable may explain the meaning of human life, the eschatological expectation, the proper and false behaviour of Man towards God, the study of Torah, Israel’s election. It may even be used, as in later rabbinic literature, to elucidate biblical narratives or individual verses.

The parable itself, then, unilluminated, is really difficult to understand, and there may often be more than one possible meaning. Jesus was right to stress the point that a parable is harder of comprehension than a plain teaching. The study of his parables in connection with rabbinic ones will surely throw light on the development of this genre in rabbinic literature and its typology.

Robert L. Lindsey’s Response

Dr. Petuchowski has very correctly assessed the liberal-Christian point of view of many scholars as one leading to serious distortion of the insistent Jewishness of the New Testament. He is unquestionably right in attacking the shallowness with which many Christians approach and reproach the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition.

It is of the greatest importance that the approach to the New Testament include a careful and critical understanding of the characteristics of each of the Gospels and their inter-relationship. Although the priority of the Gospel of Mark has long been taken for granted, the consensus of much of the scholarship today is that we cannot view this “assured result of criticism” as self-evident. It is certain that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke preserve materials more historically authentic and deriving from earlier sources than the text we have of Mark. This means not only that Mark is full of readings which are secondary but that we often have, at least in Luke, a far less redacted story.

Luke’s story does not implicate the Pharisees in the arrest of Jesus. The blame is placed on the “high priests,” namely, the ruling Sadducean family which largely controlled the affairs of the Temple and of whom the Essenes complained so bitterly. Luke even has a report that some of the Pharisees warned Jesus against Herod Antipas and, in his book of Acts of the Apostles, he makes it clear that many of the first Jewish Christians were Pharisees in background. It is surely significant that he never suggests that the Sadducees joined the Jesus movement.

Thus, the tendency to chastise the “scribes and Pharisees”—a phrase very frequent in Mark and even more so in Matthew—is almost surely due to Mark’s editorial policy to stereotype and dramatize; in this instance, as even Rudolf Bultmann noted, Mark and Matthew show the ever-growing trend of “the tradition” to involve the Pharisees in the fate of Jesus. Since there are other and serious reasons for accepting Luke’s story as the earliest and, in general, the most exact, we have a further illustration of his preservation of good texts—here, of a picture of the Pharisees which seems to accord with the best that we can learn of the Jewish movements of the first century.

As for the propensity of Christian scholars to see in Jesus’ use of parables a teaching method which led more or less automatically to opposition from the organized movements of the period, one is reminded how Jesus himself argued against those who accused him of casting out demons with the help of the Prince of demons. “If I cast out demons by the aid of the Prince of the demons,” said he, “by whose aid do your sons cast out demons?” If Jesus automatically aroused violent antagonism by using the parabolic method, would not the rabbis have provoked it by their own use of simile and allegory? We must look for other causes than this happy aggadism for the fateful conflict over Jesus.

There is a strong possibility that the famous passage in Mark (4:10-12) about Jesus’ purpose in using parables is more original than it seems. Many have supposed that Mark is suggesting that Jesus deliberately used parables to hide his message. Scholars claim that Jesus could have said nothing of the kind, for, obviously, the whole purpose of the stories that he tells is to make a point; the conjecture is that Mark changed Jesus’ words for his own “theological” reasons.

The puzzle of the passage, which Petuchowski labels a crux interpretum for modern scholars, is the use of the strong Greek word translated “so that.” Luke’s parallel, which—I argue—is earlier, and closer to the original Hebrew undertext, quotes Jesus as saying to his disciples: “To you it is given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God. To the rest (the message comes) in parables so that seeing they shall not see and hearing they shall not understand” (Luke 8:10). When we translate this passage word for word into Hebrew from the Greek we get a good Hebrew text and we are immediately in the Jewish world of 30-40 C.E. “Secrets” is a Qumranic term, the Kingdom of God is the rabbinic malchut shamayim. Thus, as in other Gospel contexts, Jesus is shown as picking up Qumranic and rabbinic terms and combining them; we need not suppose that this passage is the invention of non-Jewish circles.

More importantly, the expression “seeing they shall not see and hearing they shall not hear” is a plain hint of Isaiah 6:9-10, in which the prophet is bidden to tell the people:

Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and be healed.

These verses, like so much of Isaiah, were on the lips of all Jews in the time of Jesus. He had only to hint at the special, classical Hebraism “seeing to see” and “hearing to hear” for all to recognize the kind of people whom he was describing. They knew Isaiah had spoken to his generation in supreme irony, much as a mother might to a rebellious child. Her hope—and the hope of Isaiah under God—is to shock the rebel into a right perception of his erroneous ways.

There are, then, excellent reasons for surmising that this saying is one of the ipsissima verba of Jesus and that the “so that” is a vital part of the hint of Isaiah. One might paraphrase the words of Jesus: “You are my disciples and have willingly followed me, so you understand what I am talking about. These other people have to be told as Isaiah told the people of his day, line upon line, precept upon precept. By using parables, I am trying to cure them of their spiritual blindness.” Everything that we know of Jesus fits this interpretation—he taught in Hebrew, made wordplays on the Hebrew Scriptures as did the Essenes and the rabbis, and had a prophetic concern for his own people. Our New Testament problems, as Petuchowski has so well said, are mostly due to the ignorance of Jewish thought and expression in the first century—and, let me add, a failure to recognize Greek texts which have descended from literal translations of written Hebrew sources.

  • [1] Reprinted from Christian News from Israel 23.2 (10) (1972): 76-86. Used with permission. Christian News from Israel was a publication of the Government of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Many outstanding articles were published in this journal during the approximately thirty years of its existence, beginning in 1950. However, unfortunately, it is next to impossible to find copies of this now-defunct journal—even large libraries seldom possess it. Jerusalem Perspective reprints this article with the permission of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, thus resurrecting Petuchowski’s fine work. At the time the article was written, Petuchowski was Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Theology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a visiting Professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. We have preserved the spelling of the original Christian New from Israel article, which was according to British usage. Flusser and Lindsey’s responses appeared in the following issue: Christian News from Israel 23.3 (11) (1973): 147-50.
  • [2] In The Interpreter’s Bible (ed. George Arthur Buttrick, et al.; Vol. VII; New York and Nashville, 1951), 699ff. But cf. T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (2nd ed.; Cambridge, 1935), 57-81.
  • [3] See Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (offset of 1910 edition; Darmstadt, 1969), 1:25-118, for a survey of this kind of interpretation including Jülicher’s own. For a more recent attempt to classify the various types of parable, see Eta Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables (New York and Evanston, 1966), 3ff.
  • [4] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 3ff.
  • [5] Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York, 1953), 20. See also Robert W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God (New York, Evanston and London, 1966), 126.
  • [6] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (revised ed.; London, 1936), 15.
  • [7] Ignaz Ziegler, Die Königsgleichnisse des Midrasch be leuchtet durch die römische Kaiserzeit (Breslau, 1903), passim.
  • [8] Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (2 vols.; Cambridge, 1917-1924), 1:99.
  • [9] W. O. E. Oesterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background (London, 1936), 10ff.
  • [10] J. W. Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (Assen, 1954), 54ff.
  • [11] Cf. W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der jüdischen Traditionsliteratur (Leipzig, 1905), 1:25-7, 103-5.
  • [12] See Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:42ff.
  • [13] See Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:30-37.
  • [14] Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics, 56ff.
  • [15] SiphreEqebh, paragraph 49, ed. Finkelstein (Berlin, 1939), 115. The statement there is attributed to the doreshe haggadoth. A variant reading has doreshe reshumoth, probably a group of allegorists. See Jacob Z. Lauterbach, “The Ancient Jewish Allegorists in Talmud and Midrash,” Jewish Quarterly Review (New Series, Vol. 1 [1910/11]): 291-333, 503-31, and Isaak Heinemann, Altjüdische Allegoristik (Breslau, 1936), 66ff.
  • [16] See Paul Fiebig, Altjüdische Gleichnisse und die Gleichnisse Jesu (Tübingen and Leipzig, 1904): Die Gleichnisreden Jesu im Lichte der Rabbinischen Gleichnisse des neutestamentlichen Zeitalters(Tübingen, 1912); and Der Erzählungsstil der Evangelien (Leipzig, 1925).
  • [17] Fiebig, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 128ff.
  • [18] Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua (London, 1929), 223.
  • [19] Oesterley, The Gospel Parables, 10ff.
  • [20] In R.G.G. (2nd ed.), 1241, as quoted by Theodor Guttmann, Hamashal Bithequphath Hatannaim (2nd ed.; Jerusalem, 1949), 71. Guttmann attempts to rebut Bultmann’s charge by saying that Bultmann’s distinction might possibly be correct in the case of some of the post-Tannaitic parables, but that it does not hold in the case of the Tannaitic parables, i.e., those of the period closest to the New Testament.
  • [21] Cf. Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity? (New York, 1957), passim.
  • [22] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 35.
  • [23] Ignaz Ziegler, Die Königsgleichnisse des Midrasch, xxii. Jülicher, too, was aware of the aggadic nature of Jesus’ discourse, but he could not get himself to admit that Jesus shared that much with the Rabbis. That is why Jülicher makes a pathetic attempt to divorce the aggadic realm from the purview of Rabbinic concern. “The Rabbi, as such, has one method of teaching only—the Halachah. The scribe is already bound by his very name to forgo originality. He is to be but a channel for the wisdom streaming forth from every word of the Scriptures. The Haggadah, that independent melting down of Scriptural bullion in the fire of imagination and soul, it is not the product of the Rabbinic, but of the Hebraic spirit… It is the voice of the people which can be heard in such pictures. The Haggadah together with its flowers, the parables, grew up in the home—to be sure, in the Hebrew home with its intimate, happy and pure family life. The Rabbi and his Halakhah is (sic) an outgrowth of the school. That is why the Jewish Rabbi, as a Rabbi, had to despise the haggadic element. But, as a human being, as a son of his people, he was nevertheless unable ever to get away from it altogether. Jesus did not want to get away from it. God had saved him from the school” (Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 1:172ff.). It did not seem to have dawned on Jülicher that such Haggadah as is available to us has come down to us for no other reason than that the Rabbis, in their schools(!), have preserved it. He seems also completely unaware of the fact that, in Rabbinic Judaism, it was usually one and the same person (e.g., Hillel, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai) who was both a master of the Halakhah and a master of the Aggadah. There is, of course, no denying that the Aggadah represented the more popular element in Rabbinic teaching. But, in reading the literature, one hardly gets the impression that the Rabbis, as Rabbis, had to “despise” that element, or that they yielded to it only with the utmost reluctance. On the contrary, as Max Kadushin points out (The Rabbinic Mind [2nd ed.; New York, Toronto, London, 1965], 87): “Characteristic of the Rabbis’ relation to the folk, of the identity of their interests with those of the folk, is the Rabbis’ own attitude toward Haggadah. They did not view it as something fit only for the masses, but to which they themselves were superior; on the contrary, they felt themselves deeply in need of Haggadah, regarding it as one of the great divisions of Torah, and the study of which was incumbent upon them…. Younger scholars were stimulated toward becoming skillful in Haggadah as well as in Halakhah.” And see Isaak Heinemann, Darkhe Ha-Aggadah (2nd ed.; Jerusalem, 5714), 16. Yet there are indeed a few isolated passages in Rabbinic literature which disparage the Aggadah. Leo Baeck has examined those passages in great detail, finding it possible to relate them to very specific circumstances, viz., the usage of aggadic hermeneutics by Christians of the second century, in the allegorical and christological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (Leo Baeck, Aus drei Jahrtausenden [2nd ed.; Tübingen, 1958], 176-85.)
  • [24] Mark 1:22; Matthew 7:29; Luke 4:32.
  • [25] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 1946), 264ff.
  • [26] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [27] Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1:96. See also A. Marmorstein’s observation that the sermons, contained in the Aggadah, are so brief and laconic that it is not always possible for us to reconstruct the entire sermon on the basis of the mere sketch which has been preserved (Arthur Marmorstein, Talmud und Neues Testament [Vinkovci, 1908], 47.)
  • [28] Tosephta Baba Kamma 7:4, ed. Zuckermandel, 357ff.
  • [29] Midrash Debharim RabbaEqebh, section 17, ed. Lieberman (Jerusalem, 1964), 91. The parallels in TanhumaKi Tissa, chapter 30, and Yalqut Shime’oniKi Tissa, section 397, introduce yet a further motif, viz., the bride’s agent destroys the original marriage contract.
  • [30] David Halivni, Sources and Traditions (Tel Aviv, 1968), 15 (Hebrew).
  • [31] Jacob Neusner, Development of a Legend (Leiden, 1970), 2.
  • [32] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 42ff.
  • [33] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York and Evanston, 1963), 205.
  • [34] Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia 1958), 99ff.
  • [35] Charles W. F. Smith, The Jesus of the Parables (Philadelphia, 1948), 17.
  • [36] Smith, The Jesus of the Parables, 272ff.
  • [37] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 21.
  • [38] Dan Otto Via, Jr., The Parables (Philadelphia, 1967), 192.
  • [39] S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (New York, 1967), 1 and passim. And see his, “The Trial of Jesus,” in Judaism 20:1 (Winter 1971): 43-8.
  • [40] Haim H. Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (Tel Aviv, 1968), passim (Hebrew).
  • [41] Emil L. Fackenheim, Quest for Past and Future (Bloomington and London, 1968), 16ff.
  • [42] B. Erubhin 13b; b. Gittin 6b.
  • [43] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 88.
  • [44] Mishnah Abhoth 5:23.
  • [45] J. Berakhoth II, 8, Krotoshin ed., 5c; Canticles Rabba 6:2.
  • [46] Arthur Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature (London, 1920).
  • [47] J. Sanhedrin X, 1, Krotoshin ed., 27d.
  • [48] Midrash TanhumaKi Tissa, section 16, ed. Buber, 58b. Parallels which name different “good deeds” are found in Midrash TanhumaKi Tissa, section 28, and Exodus Rabba 45:6.
  • [49] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 80ff.
  • [50] B. Sanhedrin 99a.
  • [51] Louis Ginzberg, Geonica (2nd ed.; New York, 1968), 2:376–7.
  • [52] Ginzberg, Geonica, 2:351.
  • [53] Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1:92.
  • [54] S. Mendelson, “Abbahu,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1:36-7.
  • [55] Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 221ff.
  • [56] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [57] Cf. also Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 208ff. Funk summarizes the position of Birger Gerhardsson: “Since the rabbis were fond of the parable in the exposition of scripture, it is not surprising that the lawyer’s question, which had to do with an exegetical point (what is the meaning of re‘akha in the text?), evokes a parable as a midrash on the text.”
  • [58] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [59] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 53.
  • [60] Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 212ff.
  • [61] B. Berakhoth 8b.
  • [62] B. Kiddushin 31a; j. Pe’ah I, 1, Krotoshin ed., 15c; and cf. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 2:36ff.
  • [63] B. Hullin 4a.
  • [64] See Maurice Simon, “Introduction” to Tractate Kuthim, in A. Cohen, ed., The Minor Tractates of the Talmud, Vol. II (London, 1965).

A Short Response to Steven Notley’s “Let the One Who Has Ears to Hear”

Revised: 17-Jun-2009

Readers of Jerusalem Perspective Online owe a debt of gratitude to Steven Notley for his exposition of The Parable of the Sower. He offered us an exegetical, agricultural, and topographical backdrop against which we can read the parable. He also left us with a memorable exhortation with reference to commitment and obedience: Don’t be marginal!

His treatment of the parable demonstrates continuity of language, imagery, and form between Jesus’ didactic methods and those of other Jewish personalities of Roman Antiquity. Yet I wonder if this simple farming parable contains a barely audible word for some readers, particularly Western readers coming from Protestant backgrounds.

Notley noted that Jesus adopted The Four Types as a rhetorical framework for this parable; however, he made no attempt to explain the significance of the fourfold structure for the interpretive task. Christian particularism (which typically finds expression in the assumption that only the Born-Again will inherit eternal life) wafts through much of our preaching. Those who have been exposed to this idea may be inclined to transpose on Jesus’ teaching a “we-they” grid. In the case of this parable, “we” would be the good soil whereas “they” would comprise the other three categories.

The order of The Four Types usually implies ascending gradation from worst to best. When I read The Parable of the Sower, I am inclined to see the third group as representing the category in which most of us fall —including me. We are people with concerns; we work hard to pay our bills and grow our nest eggs; we even indulge in life’s finer pleasures, perhaps more often than not.

Luke the evangelist informed us that as a genre, Jesus’ parables are vehicles for communicating “secrets of the kingdom” (Luke 8:10). I read the Parable of the Sower as illuminating something secretive about the kingdom. Students of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) know that several of Jesus’ most provocative sayings deal with entering the kingdom of heaven. Acceptance of Jesus’ call to discipleship typically meant leaving behind profession, property, and family in order to follow. I imagine that James Dobson already noticed how certain sayings fit rather poorly in an agenda focused on the family. On the other hand, these same sayings characterized the life and service of Mother Teresa. To echo Notley’s language, she did what she heard.

Approaching the interpretive task at hand from this perspective, I see a prickly nuance in this farming parable. The phrase “cares…of life” looks like a conceptual parallel to Rabbi Nehunya’s usage of derech eretz in Mishnah, Avot 3:5. (The same phrase may relate conceptually as well to Matthew 6:25-34.) If so, then from a kingdom-of-heaven perspective, both mundane anxieties (i.e., “cares of life”) and material excesses (i.e., “wealth and the pleasures of life”) thwart leaving it all behind. In my case, I probably could overcome affection for money and the comfort it can bring, but fretting over food, raiment and shelter remains an impediment of colossal proportions for entering his kingdom.

The Amidah Prayer

Revised: 18-Jun-2013

Because the prayer Jesus’ taught his disciples (The Lord’s Prayer) is apparently an abbreviated version of the Amidah prayer[1] (also known as the Eighteen Benedictions, or Blessings), it is important for Christians to be familiar with this central prayer of Jewish religious life. (Not finding an English translation of the Amidah to my liking, I prepared the new translation of the Amidah below.)

The Amidah is very ancient, some of the changes to it being made 200 years before the time of Jesus.[2] The prayer is also very beautiful, full of allusions to and quotations from Scripture.

The Amidah is the essential part of the morning, afternoon and evening weekday services in the synagogue. Every Jew is religiously obligated to pray the Eighteen Benedictions daily.

The prayer is composed of three opening benedictions of praise, which include: “We will hallow your name in the world as it is hallowed in the highest heavens”; thirteen petitions including petitions for wisdom, healing, forgiveness, deliverance from want and affliction, and for the sending of the Messiah, “the branch of David”; and three concluding benedictions, which include thanksgiving to the “rock of our lives and shield of our salvation” whose “miracles are daily with us,” whose “wonders and benefits occur evening, morning and noon,” and whose “mercies and kindnesses never cease.”

The headings below in capital letters (e.g., “THE GOD OF HISTORY”) that summarize each benediction are for reference only, and are not to be recited. The characterization of God (at the end of each benediction, e.g., “the shield of Abraham”), which always follows the words, “Blessed are you, O Lord,” also can be used to summarize each benediction, and, if strung together, comprise a nice description of God: God is the shield of Abraham, the one who revives the dead, the holy God, the gracious giver of knowledge, the one who delights in repentance, the one who is merciful and always ready to forgive, the redeemer of Israel, the healer of Israel’s sick, the one who blesses the years, the one who gathers Israel’s dispersed, the King who loves righteousness and justice, the one who smashes enemies and humbles the arrogant, the support and stay of the righteous, the one who rebuilds Jerusalem, the one who causes salvation to flourish, the one who hears prayer, the one who restores the divine presence to Zion, the one whose Name is the Beneficent One and to whom it is fitting to give thanks, and the one who blesses Israel with peace.


The  Amidah


Blessed are you, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows lovingkindnesses, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for his name’s sake.

O king, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, O Lord, the shield of Abraham.


You, O Lord, are mighty forever, you revive the dead, you have the power to save. [From the end of Sukkoth until the eve of Passover, insert: “You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”]

You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like you, O doer of mighty acts? Who resembles you, a king who puts to death and restores to life, and causes salvation to flourish?

And you are certain to revive the dead. Blessed are you, O Lord, who revives the dead.


[Reader] We will sanctify your name in this world just as it is sanctified in the highest heavens, as it is written by your prophet: “And they call out to one another and say:

[Cong.] ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” [Isa. 6:3]

[Reader] Those facing them praise God saying:

[Cong.] “Blessed be the Presence of the LORD in his place.” [Ezek. 3:12]

[Reader] And in your Holy Words it is written, saying,

[Cong.] “The LORD reigns forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah.” [Ps. 146:10]

[Reader] Throughout all generations we will declare your greatness, and to all eternity we will proclaim your holiness. Your praise, O our God, shall never depart from our mouth, for you are a great and holy God and King. Blessed are you, O Lord, the holy God.

You are holy, and your name is holy, and holy beings praise you daily. (Selah.) Blessed are you, O Lord, the holy God.


You favor men with knowledge, and teach mortals understanding. O favor us with the knowledge, the understanding and the insight that come from you. Blessed are you, O Lord, the gracious giver of knowledge.


Bring us back, O our father, to your Instruction; draw us near, O our King, to your service; and cause us to return to you in perfect repentance. Blessed are you, O Lord, who delights in repentance.


Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed; for you pardon and forgive. Blessed are you, O Lord, who is merciful and always ready to forgive.


Look upon our affliction and plead our cause, and redeem us speedily for your name’s sake; for you are a mighty redeemer. Blessed are you, O Lord, the redeemer of Israel.


Heal us, O Lord, and we will be healed; save us and we will be saved, for you are our praise. O grant a perfect healing to all our ailments, for you, Almighty King, are a faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are you, O Lord, the healer of the sick of his people Israel.


Bless this year for us, O Lord our God, together with all the varieties of its produce, for our welfare. Bestow ([from the 15th of Nissan insert:] “dew and rain for”) a blessing upon the face of the earth. O satisfy us with your goodness, and bless our year like the best of years. Blessed are you, O Lord, who blesses the years.


Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the ensign to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, O Lord, who gathers the dispersed of his people Israel.


Restore our judges as in former times, and our counselors as at the beginning; and remove from us sorrow and sighing. Reign over us, you alone, O Lord, with lovingkindness and compassion, and clear us in judgment. Blessed are you, O Lord, the King who loves righteousness and justice.


Let there be no hope for slanderers, and let all wickedness perish in an instant. May all your enemies quickly be cut down, and may you soon in our day uproot, crush, cast down and humble the dominion of arrogance. Blessed are you, O Lord, who smashes enemies and humbles the arrogant.


May your compassion be stirred, O Lord our God, toward the righteous, the pious, the elders of your people the house of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, toward proselytes, and toward us also. Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in your name. Set our lot with them forever so that we may never be put to shame, for we have put our trust in you. Blessed are you, O Lord, the support and stay of the righteous.


Return in mercy to Jerusalem your city, and dwell in it as you have promised. Rebuild it soon in our day as an eternal structure, and quickly set up in it the throne of David. Blessed are you, O Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem.


Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, O Lord, who causes salvation to flourish.


Hear our voice, O Lord our God; spare us and have pity on us. Accept our prayer in mercy and with favor, for you are a God who hears prayers and supplications. O our King, do not turn us away from your presence empty-handed, for you hear the prayers of your people Israel with compassion. Blessed are you, O Lord, who hears prayer.


Be pleased, O Lord our God, with your people Israel and with their prayers. Restore the service to the inner sanctuary of your Temple, and receive in love and with favor both the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayers. May the worship of your people Israel always be acceptable to you. And let our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion. Blessed are you, O Lord, who restores his divine presence to Zion.


We give thanks to you that you are the Lord our God and the God of our fathers forever and ever. Through every generation you have been the rock of our lives, the shield of our salvation. We will give you thanks and declare your praise for our lives that are committed into your hands, for our souls that are entrusted to you, for your miracles that are daily with us, and for your wonders and your benefits that are with us at all times, evening, morning and noon. O beneficent one, your mercies never fail; O merciful one, your lovingkindnesses never cease. We have always put our hope in you.

For all these acts may your name be blessed and exalted continually, O our King, forever and ever. Let every living thing give thanks to you and praise your name in truth, O God, our salvation and our help. (Selah.) Blessed are you, O Lord, whose Name is the Beneficent One, and to whom it is fitting to give thanks.


Grant peace, welfare, blessing, grace, lovingkindness and mercy to us and to all Israel, your people. Bless us, O our Father, one and all, with the light of your countenance; for by the light of your countenance you have given us, O Lord our God, a Torah of life, lovingkindness and salvation, blessing, mercy, life and peace. May it please you to bless your people Israel at all times and in every hour with your peace. Blessed are you, O Lord, who blesses his people Israel with peace.

  • [1] For abbreviated versions of the Amidah prayer taught by ancient Jewish sages to their disciples, see my “Prayers for Emergencies.”
  • [2] The prayer’s final version dates from around 90-100 A.D., when a nineteenth benediction was added.

Let the One Who Has Ears to Hear, “Hear!”

Revised: 23-Feb-2009

While Christian scholars in this century have written volumes attempting to reconstruct Jesus’ parables in Aramaic, they have largely overlooked the simple fact that there exists no story parables in Aramaic, Greek or Latin. All are in Hebrew! In stark contrast to the dearth of story parables in these languages, literally thousands of Hebrew parables are preserved in Rabbinic literature.

In this study of The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-8) we want to look closely, not only at the message of Jesus’ parable, but how he told it, with particular attention to its Hebraic elements and its Jewish background. Let me encourage the reader, while we course our way towards the eventual destination of understanding what Jesus meant to say to his hearers, to enjoy the journey of discovering how Jesus communicated that message. My hope is that you not only hear and understand more clearly the words of Jesus, but that you appreciate more fully what a masterful teacher he was.

Cultural Context of Jesus’ Parables

Like other Rabbinic parables, our story reflects the physical and social realities of the local setting. Ours is a farming parable, and it assumes that we already know how people living in the eastern Mediterranean planted crops. The relatively haphazard style of broadcasting seed prepares the reader for the “four-fold” outcome of the sowing. While in this instance, most of us can imagine the setting, sometimes the essential background is unfamiliar to us. Unlike the original hearers of the parables, we are separated by time, land, culture and language.

In “The Man Who Would Be King,” we noted that Jesus’ parable of the man who went away to receive a kingdom (Luke 19:11-27) assumed that we knew the story of Herod’s son, Archelaus, who went to Rome to inherit his father’s kingdom (Josephus Flavius, Jewish War 2:34). On other occasions, Jesus seems to reshape existing parables to serve his own purposes. The Gospel writers assume that we recognize those changes, and sometimes the key to understanding Jesus’ aim lies in knowing how he has changed the familiar parable.

While adaptation of existing parables is common in Rabbinic Judaism, Christian students are surprised to observe how closely Jesus’ parable of The House Built upon the Rock (Matt. 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49) resembles an ancient similitude in Avot de-Rabbi Natan (Version A, chap. 24; Goldin, p. 103). Not only is the metaphor of building a house on a firm foundation employed in both, but the very aim of the parables is similar. They emphasize the need for action and obedience!

Undergirding both parables is the ancient debate about the relative importance of hearing God’s word (i.e., study of the Torah) and doing it. Recurring in the discussion is mention of the unusual Hebrew word order in Exodus 24:7, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will hear.” The Sages asked, how is it possible to “do” before we “hear”? This question epitomized the divergence in opinion about which was more important, to study God’s word or to do it. Jesus represents the opinion of those who put strong emphasis on action—without, of course, neglecting the importance of studying the Scriptures. Remember his warning about the example of some Pharisees: “Do what they say, but not what they (don’t) do!” (Matt. 23:2).

A first-century B.C.E. relief of an ear from Thessalonica dedicated to the gods Serapis and Isis by a worshipper in order that his prayers might be heard. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A first-century B.C.E. relief of an ear from Thessalonica dedicated to the gods Serapis and Isis by a worshipper in order that his prayers might be heard. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, this same emphasis lies at the heart of the Parable of the Sower. The four types of soil represent the four types of “hearers.” Even the literary structure of four types of soil represents classical Jewish teaching style. If a sage intends to describe various “types,” then typically there will be four. In Mishnah, Avot 5, we read several lists of “four types.” Jesus’ parable follows this pattern by providing four types of hearers (Luke 8:11-15). Our assumption that the aim of the parable is to encourage the listeners to be “good hearers” (i.e., ones who hear the word of God and do it!) is strengthened by Mark’s command in the opening to the parable: “Listen!” (Mark 4:3).

Hebraisms in Luke’s Version of Jesus’ Parable

The Lukan parable is marked by Hebraisms in its Greek. It begins (Luke 8:5) with the repetitive narrative prose: (literally) “the one who sows seeds seeded his seed.” To understand this Hebraic style, it is important to know that Hebrew words are built from three-letter stems. These stems form the basis for creating related nouns, verbs and adjectives. For example, the three-letter stem for “book” (סֵפֶר, sēpher) is s-ph-r. Built from this same stem one finds the words for “story” (סִפּוּר, sipūr), “scribe” (סֹפֵר, sopher) and “to tell” (סִפֵּר, sipēr). Hebraic narrative style enjoys stringing these related words (cognates) together in sentences. It is this kind of identifiable Hebraism in Luke’s parable that attracts the attention of scholars in Jerusalem, who are interested in the Hebraic undercurrents to the Synoptic Gospels. While our canonical Gospels are Greek, they often exhibit primitive Hebraic tendencies. Other Hebraisms that can be observed in Luke’s version of the parable are “the birds of the air” (Luke 8:5; see Gen. 1:30; 2:19; cf. Matt./Mark’s “birds”); “on the rock” (Luke 8:6; cf. Matt./Mark’s “on rocky ground”); “make [yield] fruit” (Luke 8:8; see Gen. 1:11, 12:2; 2 Kgs. 19:30; cf. Matt./Mark’s “give fruit”).

The physical imagery of the four-fold outcome of the sown seed suggests the manner of terraced farming in the hill country. On the slopes of the hill, the farmer gathers the stones from the field and uses them to construct retaining walls. This has the combined advantage of removing the stones from the field and preventing soil erosion. Paths through these fields are usually alongside the retaining walls. It also is along the margins that the thistles flourish and choke out other vegetation. According to the parable, seeds fall on the footpath where they are trampled and eaten by the birds of the air. Some drop on the rocks. Others fall among the thistles. All of the seeds that fail have fallen in the margins of the field. While one must be careful not to allegorize a parable, the message to be a “good hearer” is reinforced by the agricultural imagery: “Don’t be marginal. Be committed and obedient.”

A final Hebraism may be present in the description of the seed that fell into good soil. It yielded a “hundredfold.” The language and setting echo another “hundredfold crop” sown by the patriarch, Isaac: “And Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy” (Gen. 26:12-13).

The Sages discuss in ancient commentaries the significance of Isaac’s blessing from the Lord and his “bumper crop.” One interesting interpretation suggested that Isaac knew the promise, “And I will bless you and multiply your seed for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Gen. 26:12). Nevertheless, “Isaac expounded [this blessing] and said, ‘Since a blessing is earned only through one’s actions…,’ he arose and sowed” (Tosefta, Berachot 6:8). Thus, Isaac’s blessing resulted from his obedience to act upon God’s promise.

The Lesson of Jesus’ Parable

The parable concludes with Jesus’ charge, “The one who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Most readers pass over these words as if they were just an archaic way to say, “pay attention.” However, in the context of the parable they have a more profound significance for the listener. They serve as the exclamation point, the final challenge to those who heard Jesus’ parable: “Be good hearers! Be those who hear the word of God and act upon it. Then, like Isaac, you will be blessed, and you will see the hundredfold fruit of your obedience.”

The Qumran Targum of Job as a Window into Second Temple Judaism: A Response to Randall Buth’s “Where Is the Aramaic Bible at Qumran? Scripture Use in the Land of Israel”

Having recently studied the Qumran Targum of Job, I was especially interested in Randall Buth’s recent article on the relative lack of targums at Qumran. I would like to thank Buth for bringing this important topic to the website. Finding myself at odds with his conclusions, however, I feel a response is in order. I would like to suggest a different reading of the evidence of Qumran and its implications for the language of the larger Palestinian Jewish reading public. My own conclusions are very different from Buth’s, and I think that it is the question of a starting point that makes the difference.

Before drawing conclusions from the relative lack of targums at Qumran, one needs to appreciate the special circumstances represented by Qumran’s outlook on Hebrew and Aramaic. If the Qumran community was as averse to clothing its religiosity in Aramaic as recent scholarship has argued, then it would be wrong to draw a negative conclusion about the use of Aramaic beyond Qumran based on what we find (and do not find) at Qumran.[1] In other words, asking “Where is the Aramaic Bible at Qumran?” might be like asking “Where is the lunch meat in a vegetarian’s refrigerator?” The fact that a number of Aramaic texts were found at Qumran does not substantially alter this picture, except that we are then forced to say that the Qumranites did not look upon Aramaic as religiously evil per se, but only as an inadequacy for true piety and communion with God.

Given the pivotal role of targumic practice within the argument against a Hebrew vernacular, it is not surprising that the Qumran Targum of Job has become a storm center in the debate over the principal language(s) of Jewish Palestine. Scholars who believe that Hebrew was the vernacular language typically object to the use of this particular targum as evidence for the linguistic situation in Palestine. They emphasize that the targum of Job is just one targum, representing only one book of the Bible. “Where are all the other targums?” they ask. This tactic effectively turns the Targum of Job’s role in the argument for an early targumic corpus on its head: rather than try to explain the existence of this targum, scholars are now forced to explain the sparseness of the Qumran targumic library. Although this is an argument from silence, one cannot simply say that, for that reason, it fails to be probative: for a corpus of writings as large as that found at Qumran, a properly constructed argument from silence can indeed be probative to some extent.

How then does one explain the sparseness of the Qumran targumic corpus? J. T. Milik suggested that “such translations were little needed in the highly educated milieu of the Essene Community.”[2] The plausibility of Milik’s suggestion increases with every new study of Qumran’s language ideology (see note 1): the use of Hebrew appears to have been a house rule at Qumran. But we are still left to explain the existence of two copies of the Targum of Job. Scholars have offered a couple of answers. Perhaps the Hebrew text of Job presented special difficulties (a suggestion made by Abraham Berliner in 1884 and recently echoed by Philip R. Davies).[3] Unfortunately, this explanation can be pushed to support two different views of the targumic situation beyond Qumran: viz., it can explain why Job and no other books (except Leviticus) were found at Qumran, or it can explain why Job and no other books (except Leviticus) have been found in first-century Palestine in general.

An alternative suggestion takes note of the fact that a copy of biblical Job written in paleo-Hebrew script was found at Qumran. The fact that this script was usually reserved for books of Moses suggests that the Qumranites may have held to Mosaic authorship for the book of Job, a minority view attested in rabbinic sources. A belief in Mosaic authorship would certainly raise the value of a Targum of Job.[4] Unfortunately, this argument is similarly equivocal: it does not tell us whether the paucity of targumic texts at Qumran reflects a paucity of targumic texts beyond Qumran. Mosaic authorship of Job can explain why the Qumranites would have singled out this targum as one deserving of their care and attention, but it can also suggest that this targum might have been produced years ahead of other targums. The question of how to dispose of translated texts was a matter of debate among the Tannaim, and we do not know what criteriology the Qumranites might have accepted. Despite the fact that the Targum of Job was written in Aramaic (manifestly a substandard language at Qumran), the conceit of Mosaic authorship may have guaranteed the Targum of Job a permanent place in the Qumran holdings, while other targums (brought in by new recruits or donations) were summarily destroyed. We have no indication that the Qumran aversion to Aramaic moved them to destroy Aramaic texts, but the rabbinic proscriptions against written targums show that a disdain for the religious use of Aramaic could extend to the disapproval of Aramaic texts. How one deals with these texts would then be dependent upon one’s view of which texts retain their sanctity after being translated.

The hebraeophone camp well recognizes that the existence of one or two targums at Qumran could be more damaging to the thesis argued here than the existence of no targums at Qumran would be. But whether it ultimately is more damaging will depend on the relationship between Qumran ideology and the Qumranic targum of Job. The liberation of the Qumran library has brought about a renewed appreciation for the fact that most of the material found at Qumran was not penned there, and so it cannot be used to provide specifics about Qumran ideology. With the notable exception of E. W. Tuinstra,[5] scholars are convinced (for good reasons) that the Qumran Targum of Job was not the product of the Qumran scriptorium. The more we understand the language ideology of Qumran, the more difficult it becomes to imagine that the Qumranites wrote the Targum of Job. And the fact that the Qumran Targum of Job is based on a Hebrew Vorlage differing from the Hebrew text of Job found at Qumran (cf. esp. the reading of Job 33:28-30 in 2Q15) supports this verdict in a big way.[6] (These are all facts with which Buth apparently agrees.)

The well known account of Rabban Gamliel disposing of a copy of a targum of Job by ordering it to be immured within a wall (Tosefta, Shabbat 13:2-3; Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15c; Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 115a) certainly sheds light on the issue:[7]

Rab Huna said [would say?] to you, “It is Tannaitic, for it was taught: if they were written in targum [viz., Aramaic] or in any language, they may be saved from a fire.” R. Jose said, “They may not be saved from a fire.” Said R. Jose, “It happened that Abba Halafta went to Rabban Gamliel Berabbi at Tiberias and found him sitting at the table of Yochanan ha-Nazuf, and in his hands was a targum of the book of Job and he was reading it. He said to him, ‘I remember Rabban Gamliel your grandfather, that he was standing in an elevated place on the Temple Mount, and there was brought before him a targum of the book of Job, and he said to the builder, “Bury it under the bricks.”‘ Then he [viz., Gamliel Berabbi] ordered them and they hid it.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 115a)

The context of this passage is a halachic debate concerning the disposal of targums, but the story may provide clues to the earlier Gamliel’s theological/halachic assessment of this particular targum as well. Since the rabbinic tradition says nothing about the condition of this copy (if damaged or soiled, it would have needed retiring), Gamliel’s verdict presumably reflects his disapproval of this targum. Scholars have frequently noted that the tannaitic Rabbis often disapproved of targums, and assumed that this explains Gamliel’s negative judgment. But this disapproval probably had nothing to do with a general rabbinic aversion to Aramaic holy texts, for otherwise it would have been unnecessary for the Talmud to identify the offending targum as that of a particular book of the Bible.[8] (It thus seems somewhat hypocritical for Joseph A. Fitzmyer to dismiss Tuinstra’s explanation for Gamliel’s actions because there is “not a shred of evidence for this speculative reason,” when in fact the view that he propounds has precisely the same dearth of evidence for its support.)[9] It remains, therefore, to suggest that there was something unacceptable about this targum, something that was different from other targums. Perhaps, in spite of its non-Qumranic origination, it represented sectarian associations for the Rabbis. If that is the case, its presence at Qumran can be more readily understood in the context of the absence of other contemporary targums. We must remember that “Essene” represents a wide set, of which “Qumranic” is merely a subset, and that many who aligned themselves with general Essenic piety and thinking probably did not accept the linguistic learning curve imposed by Qumran. The offending targum may well have represented this wider group, which undoubtedly comprised a very large segment of ancient Palestinian Judaism. To a large degree, this segment represented the generality (viz., am ha’aretz) against which rabbinic self-definition was hammered out.

This explanation for Gamliel’s reaction has been challenged by those who oppose an early date for targums of biblical books in general: they often point out that the Qumran Targum of Job is devoid of the sort of sectarian additions that would have annoyed Gamliel, or point to linguistic signs of that targum’s foreign origin.[10] But while the Qumran Targum of Job does not contain any clear sectarian additions, and although its minor departures from the canonical text happen to include exegetical principles shared by the Rabbis (cf. at 21:20; 39:23; 41:14 [permutation of consonants] and at 29:7 [‘al tiqre]),[11] it does possess one characteristic that troubled the Rabbis a great deal: it failed to neutralize the biblical anthropomorphisms (see esp. 11QtgJob 25.5; cf. Job 34:49), a celebrated concern of the later targums (and one that the later rabbinic Targum of Job would heed).[12] The troubling nature of any translation policy that did not neutralize the biblical anthropomorphisms (as the later [non-Qumranic] targum of Job would do) probably lies behind R. Judah bar Ilai’s famous censure of the one who translates literally: “The one who translates a verse according to its form is a liar, and the one who adds (to it) is a blasphemer” (Tosefta, Megillah 4:41).[13]

In other words, the Rabbis might have regarded the Targum of Job found at Qumran as an essentially Essene product, although, being Aramaic, it does not reflect the more narrow linguistic ideology of the Qumran branch of Essenism. I am not suggesting that this targum was composed by the Essenes—there are real problems with that view.[14] Muraoka’s argument that its dialect points to a Babylonian origin may well be correct.[15] An Eastern origin fits well with the patterns of anthropomorphic views of God that we find in some Eastern strains of Judaism (especially as later reflected in the Karaites), as well as in Eastern strains of Christianity. This targum may not be Essene in origin, but it conforms more to Essene views than to protorabbinic views, most notably in issues that were of paramount concern to the Rabbis. Of course, all this hardly counts as an argument that targumic texts proliferated in the Second Temple period, but it does show that as an argument from silence, the evidence of Qumran does not work in the other direction either.

It should be noted that the hebraeophone view’s argument from the sparseness of the Qumran targumic corpus is more a smokescreen than a reasoned response to the argument from the existence of the Targum of Job. Once the smoke is cleared away, the latter argument can be seen still standing. As Maurice Casey writes, the existence of such a literal translation “is pointless unless there were Jews who wanted to know what the book of Job said, and who could understand an Aramaic translation but not the Hebrew text.”[16] Muraoka’s argument for an eastern origin may weaken the argument somewhat as it appears in this specific form, but we are still left with a need to explain the fact that at least two copies of this work circulated in Palestine.

Finally, mention should be made of the early date that scholars have assigned to the fragments of a Palestinian targum in the Cairo genizah. This targum appears to be earlier than any of the better known extant targums. But if neither this targum nor any other outside of Qumran goes back to the Second Temple period (which is presently unknown), that would not mean that the practice of translating the Scripture into Aramaic within the synagogue service is not a Second Temple practice. The rabbinic proscriptions against reading the translation from a written text at least show that this was an ideal, and the incorporation of prepared Aramaic texts into the study regimen of those preparing for the weekly service was surely gradual rather than immediate.

There are other aspects of Buth’s article on which we disagree—for example, I strongly disagree with his high view of institutionalized education in the Second Temple period[17] —but I only want to note here that there is more than one way to interpret the evidence of Qumran as it pertains to the existence of targums.

Click here to read Randall Buth’s response to Jack Poirier.

  • [1] See Emile Puech, “Du Bilinguisme a Qumran?,” in Mosaique de Langues, Mosaique Culturelle: Le Bilinguisme dans le Proche-Orient Ancient: Actes de la Table-Ronde du 18 novembre 1995 organisee par l’URA 1062 “Etudes Semitiques” (ed. Francoise Briquel-Chatonnet; Antiquites Semitiques 1; Paris: Jean Maisonneuve, 1996), 171-189; Stanislav Segert, “Hebrew Essenes-Aramaic Christians,” in Mogilany 1995: Papers on the Dead Sea Scrolls Offered in Memory of Aleksy Klawek (ed. Zdzislaw J. Kapera; Krakow: Enigma, 1998), 169-184; William M. Schniedewind, “Qumran Hebrew as an Antilanguage,” JBL 118 (1999): 235-252; Steven Weitzman, “Why Did the Qumran Community Write in Hebrew?,” JAOS 119 (1999): 35-45; John C. Poirier, “4Q464: Not Eschatological,” RevQ 20/4 (2002): 583-587.
  • [2] Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea (SBT 26; London: SCM, 1959), 31.
  • [3] Abraham Berliner, Targum Onkelos: Einleitung in das Targum (Berlin: Gorzelanczyk, 1884), 90; Philip R. Davies, Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (Library of Ancient Israel; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 154. As Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes, “[W]as the Hebrew text of Job so difficult even for this community of Jews that it had to have recourse to it in an Aramaic verison [sic]? Such a question is not easily answered. It is further complicated by the issue raised by Stanislav Segert, who thinks that the Aramaic texts found at Qumran were really non-Essene compositions, produced elsewhere and brought into the community, in which they were merely read or used by members who otherwise spoke and wrote in Hebrew” (“Some Observations on the Targum of Job from Qumran Cave 11,” CBQ 36 [1974]: 503-524, esp. 511). See Stanislav Segert, “Sprachliche Bemerkungen zu einigen aramaischen Texten von Qumran,” Archiv Orientalni 33 (1965): 190-206.
  • [4] Roger Le Deaut writes, in response to Berliner, “[I]t should not be forgotten that there is a tradition attributing the composition of the book to Moses himself (b. Bath. 14b). The esteem accorded to this book might thus have contributed to the production of the Aramaic version” (“The Targumim,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 2: The Hellenistic Age [eds. W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990], 563-590, 571). See J. P. M. van der Ploeg, A. S. van der Woude, and B. Jongeling (eds.), Le Targum de Job de la Grotte 11 de Qumran (Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen; Leiden: Brill, 1971), 6.
  • [5] See E. W. Tuinstra, Hermeneutische Aspecten van de Targum van Job uit Grot XI van Qumran (Th.D. dissertation, Rijksuniversiteit te Groningen, 1970), 69-70. Fitzmyer writes, “The evidence cited in support of [Tuinstra’s reasoning] is so slight that it is not convincing” (“Some Observations on the Targum of Job from Qumran Cave 11,” 512).
  • [6] See Fitzmyer, “Some Observations on the Targum of Job from Qumran Cave 11,” 523-524.
  • [7] See Roger Le Deaut, Introduction a la Litterature Targumique (Rome: Insittut Biblique Pontifical, 1966), 68-70.
  • [8] Fitzmyer writes that Gamliel’s reaction against the Job Targum “probably should…be explained as part of the general early prohibition of ‘writing down’ what was normally transmitted by oral tradition” (“Some Observations on the Targum of Job from Qumran Cave 11,” 515 n. 49).
  • [9] “Some Observations on the Targum of Job from Qumran Cave 11,” 516.
  • [10] See Philip S. Alexander’s discussion of literal versus paraphrastic targums (“The Targumim and the Rabbinic Rules for the Delivery of the Targum,” in Congress Volume: Salamanca 1983 [VTSup 36; ed. J.A. Emerson; Leiden: Brill, 1985], 14-28, esp. 14-15).
  • [11] See Le Deaut, “The Targumim,” 588.
  • [12] See Fitzmyer, “Some Observations on the Targum of Job from Qumran Cave 11,” 517-518, 522. As Alexander writes, “It is…possible that [the targums’] extremely reverential tone and elaborate anti-anthropomorphism reflect their liturgical setting, and spring from a desire to avoid expressions that could be misunderstood by the uninstructed. The frequent and often startling anthropomorphisms of the Talmud stand in striking contrast” (“The Targumim and the Rabbinic Rules for the Delivery of the Targum,” 27). Depending on where one places Targum Onkelos, these talmudic anthropomorphisms do not necessarily represent the academy’s lower criteriology of discourse: rather, they may reflect a new openness toward mystical speculation in Babylonia. J. Courtenay James, writing long before the Qumranic targums were known, correctly notes that the avoidance of anthropomorphisms in Targum Onkelos cannot be used as a basis for dating the writing (The Language of Palestine and Adjacent Regions [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920], 251). On the targums’ avoidance of anthropomorphisms and other challenges to God’s transcendence, see Le Deaut, “The Targumim,” 586-587. Andre Paul writes, “La traduction des textes sacres a toujours ete une question grave pour les juifs, surtout les juifs anciens. Traduire est de soi une impiete: c’est en effet toucher, en surface comme en profondeur, au texte divin et donc risquer de le transformer, souiller et profaner. Les juifs de l’Antiquite repugnaient volontiers a traduire l’Ecriture tout comme ils s’interdisaient toute representation divine, plastique mais aussi linguistique: le nom de Yahve, on le sait, n’etait ni ecrit ni meme prononce” (“La Bible grecque d’Aquila et l’ideologie du judaisme ancien,” ANRW 2.20.1 [1987]: 221-245, esp. 230-231).
  • [13] After first offering an unconvincing explanation for Gamliel’s action (viz., that “it was not part of the lectionary cycle and therefore would cause people in their private reading of it to neglect the house of study”), Steven Fraade “alternatively” suggests that Gamliel “might have had it removed since it was a defective or unapproved translation” (“Rabbinic Views on the Practice of Targum and Multilingualism in the Jewish Galilee of the Third-Sixth Centuries,” in The Galilee in Late Antiquity [ed. Lee I. Levine; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992], 253- 286, esp. 256). See Alexander, “The Targumim and the Rabbinic Rules for the Delivery of the Targum,” 25-26. Alexander writes, “Normally,…censure appears to have been in the hands of the congregation” (ibid, 26).
  • [14] There is a possible ideological contact between the Job targum and the Qumran community in the use of “plantation” in 11QtgJob 35.10. As van der Ploeg, van der Woude, and Jongeling note, however, the source of the term in 11QtgJob is probably the biblical Psalms (Le Targum de Job de la Grotte XI de Qumran, 6).
  • [15] Takamitsu Muraoka, “The Aramaic of the Old Targum of Job from Qumran Cave XI,” JJS 25 (1974): 425-443; idem, “Notes on the Old Targum of Job from Qumran Cave XI,” RevQ 9 (1977): 117-125. But cf. Kutscher’s explanation for the presence of “eastern” vocabulary in the Genesis Apocryphon: “The centre of the Persian empire being in the east, including the territory that was to become the domain of the (later) Eastern Aramaic, it was only natural that especially in the lexical field the ‘Reichsaramaisch’ should be coloured by the eastern dialects” (“The Language of the ‘Genesis Apocryphon,'” 14). “Reichsaramaisch” is the designation most scholars use for the language of the Qumran Targum of Job. See A. Diez Macho, El Targum: Introduccion a las traducciones aramaicas de la Biblia (Barcelona: Consejo superior de investigaciones cientificas, 1972), 41-42.
  • [16] Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (SNTSMS 102; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 33-34.
  • [17] The reader who is interested in this issue owes it to himself/herself to read Catherine Hezser’s persuasive revisionist account in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (TSAJ 81; Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2001).

More on the Absence of an Aramaic Bible at Qumran: A Response to Jack Poirier’s “The Qumran Targum of Job as a Window into Second Temple Judaism: A Response to Randall Buth”

I appreciate this opportunity to return to some issues concerning the Targum of Job that I raised in “Where Is the Aramaic Bible at Qumran? Scripture Use in the Land of Israel” and to evaluate Jack Poirier’s response entitled, “The Qumran Targum of Job as a Window into Second Temple Judaism: A Response to Randall Buth.”

I will summarize briefly the main points in my original article:

An Aramaic Targum of Job was widely known in Jewish circles during the Second Temple period—there are two different copies at Qumran, two rabbinic stories connected with the Gamaliel family that mention a Targum of Job, and a bibliographic reference to an Aramaic account at the end of the old Greek translation of Job. That is remarkably wide attestation. Just as remarkable, there is no evidence, other than these copies of the Targum of Job, that an Aramaic Bible was in use before A.D. 70. I suggested several possible explanations for this paradox, and concluded that an Aramaic Bible, if it existed at all, was most probably not in general use in the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. Lacking an Aramaic Bible, it appears that the Hebrew Bible was the Bible in use for the majority of persons in the land during the first century.

Poirier’s response was definite, yet curiously indirect. “Finding myself at odds with his [Buth’s] conclusions…I would like to suggest a different reading of the evidence….” However, identifying his reading is difficult. Poirier’s main argument would appear to rest on his statement, “I only want to note that there is more than one way to interpret the evidence.” We agree on this; however, the question is not whether or not there exists a plurality of interpretations of the evidence, but which reading best corresponds to the evidence.

Apparently, Poirier argued that Qumran should not be expected to have an Aramaic Bible:

If the Qumran community was as averse to clothing its religiosity in Aramaic as recent scholarship has argued, then it would be wrong to draw a negative conclusion about the use of Aramaic beyond Qumran based on what we find (and do not find) at Qumran…. The fact that a number of Aramaic texts were found at Qumran does not substantially alter this picture, except that we are then forced to say that the Qumranites did not look upon Aramaic as religiously evil per se, but only as an inadequacy for true piety and communion with God.

This is a strange argument. First of all, besides assuming an anti-Aramaic campaign at Qumran, it slides over hard evidence. Qumran, in fact, has two targums to Job, found in Caves 4 and 11. The covenanters at Qumran were hardly boycotting Aramaic texts, and certainly not something as close to being canonical as the Targum of Job. The evidence would argue the opposite, that if a member brought in an Aramaic Bible text, the community would have respected and preserved it. Even more curious is the fact that fragments from Greek Bibles were found at Qumran. Poirier did not include this wider picture in his interpretation. The fact that the Qumran community collected and preserved Greek Bible texts shows that they were able to preserve biblical writings that they themselves did not compose. This, in turn, points to the irrelevancy of Qumran’s in-house language preferences. The issue about the choice of language for their own writings, be it countercultural or not,[1] did not prevent them from gathering and using writings in other languages. (Poirier stated, and I agree, that Qumranians preferred Hebrew for their own bylaws and compositions.) The important issue, then, is that they did use scriptures and translations produced by others. Exclusivity and a boycott of Aramaic scriptures is thus an implausible explanation for the missing Aramaic Bible. Most anything is possible, but that does not make it probable.

Poirier wrote, “Asking ‘Where is the Aramaic Bible at Qumran?’ might be like asking ‘Where is the lunch meat in a vegetarian’s refrigerator?'” Well, his metaphorical refrigerator is filled with meat: four copies of Aramaic Tobit, six copies of Aramaic Enoch, Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon, two copies of Aramaic Job, a piece of Aramaic Leviticus 16, not to mention all the Greek meat dishes! The Qumran sectarians were not “vegetarians” and yet they do not seem to have had access to an Aramaic Bible.

Other possible explanations were raised by Poirier:

  1. (quoting Milik) “Such [Aramaic] translations were little needed in the highly educated milieu of the Essene Community.” Agreed. Members of the community did not need Aramaic translations; but again, that hardly explains their absence. They little needed Greek, either; nevertheless, they had some Greek Bible texts.[2]
  2. “The Qumranites may have held to Mosaic authorship for the book of Job…. A belief in Mosaic authorship would certainly raise the value of a Targum of Job.” Possibly, but notice that there is no Aramaic Genesis, Exodus, Numbers or Deuteronomy at Qumran, and, quite possibly, no Leviticus as a book.
  3. “The conceit of Mosaic authorship may have guaranteed the Targum of Job a permanent place in the Qumran holdings, while other targums (brought in by new recruits or donations) were summarily destroyed. We have no indication that the Qumran aversion to Aramaic moved them to destroy Aramaic texts.” To his credit, Poirier distances himself from such a conspiracy theory—there is no evidence. It is one thing to recognize the Qumran community’s preference for Hebrew, but it would be irresponsible to suggest that there was a hateful, destructive war against Aramaic. This is contradicted by Qumran’s own holdings, and is a historical impossibility.

Poirier’s discussion of the rejections of an Aramaic Job by Rabban Gamaliel the elder and Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh is helpful, but irrelevant to the question of Qumran acceptance of targums. If other targumim existed that the rabbis did not like, where are they? By all appearances, Qumran would have accepted them with open arms, at least they did so for two copies of Job.

Another puzzling comment is Poirier’s statement, “The hebraeophone view’s argument from the sparseness of the Qumran targumic corpus is more a smokescreen than a reasoned response.” First, I can only guess at what a hebraeophone’s view is. Surely, it cannot be my view that three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, were in common use in the land of Israel. Each of these languages has left behind a considerable number of writings. Secondly, if the alternative to a hebraeophone’s view is thinking that only Greek and Aramaic were available for popular first-century writings, then Poirier may be guilty of circular argumentation. He may be reflecting a two-language attitude and then criticizing me for not forcing the data into that viewpoint.

Many scholars still write as though only two languages, Aramaic and Greek, were being used in first-century Israel, only giving passing mention to Hebrew, if at all. This “two-language” viewpoint is particularly noticeable in secondary literature that deals with possible written Semitic sources within the early Christian movement.[3] The point of my article was to urge the return to the primary data in dealing with the limited question of Bible versions in use in Israel. The “two-language” view predicted a commonly used Aramaic Bible. That Bible has not been found even though some write as though it had. The targum of Job is not such a Bible.

In evaluating the evidence and potential explanations of the paradoxical missing targum, probability requires us to move in the directions outlined in my article and this response. Those directions fit nicely with what specialists in Mishnaic Hebrew and Second Temple linguistics have written. M. H. Segal, E. Y. Kutscher and Abba Bendavid, Moshe Bar-Asher, Elisha Qimron and Michael Sokoloff do not have a problem with seeing three languages in common use in the late Second Temple period. In such a milieu, if a targum were also in use, fine, and if not in use (as it appears), fine. However, a problem arises if one assumes that a targum must have been in use, or assumes that the discovery of the Qumran Job targum is that targum. (Qumran’s two copies of Job add to our knowledge of a Second Temple-period targum of Job, but the existence of a Job targum was already known from the Septuagint and rabbinic literature.)

Incidentally, the existence and use of a Job targum makes excellent sociolinguistic sense. It appears to have been imported from the East and copied at Qumran. I would expect—although this remains an unsupported assumption—that the Aramaic-speaking Diaspora in eastern lands would want to produce an Aramaic Bible just as the Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt produced a Greek Bible, the Septuagint. Someday we may find a Second Temple-period Aramaic Bible in, or from, the East. Meanwhile, we should note that the Hebrew dialect of Job is strange. At any period, a translation of the book might have been highly desirable. Notice that the Greek translators of Job mentioned their having made reference to an Aramaic work (Job 42:17 LXX). Apparently, these third to second-century B.C. Greek translators were at home with the Hebrew Bible everywhere but in Job.

I would like to thank Poirier for his reference to Catherine Hezser’s work, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine.[4] It is a helpful and substantial work, although I am surprised that Poirier calls it “persuasive.” Hezser’s breadth of secondary literature is impressive. However, on details, her view of literacy has been overly influenced by Meir Bar-Ilan’s work, including his misapplication of rabbinic evidence on the scarcity of public readers in synagogues of the Talmudic period.[5] Likewise, Hezser’s handling of primary language evidence is weak. She refers to, and rejects, a few of the conclusions of scholars like Chaim Rabin and E. Y. Kutscher,[6] but she does not interact with the data discussed by them, nor by the following generation of Israeli scholars—Moshe Bar-Asher, Avi Hurvitz, Elisha Qimron, Michael Sokoloff, Steven Fassberg, and others—what might be termed the most active and detailed school of Second Temple and Mishnaic Hebrew studies in the world.

In summary, what Bible or version did Jews use in the first century in the land of Israel? The Targum of Job does not represent the norm. That should be clear. The multiplicity of documents at Qumran, the diversity of Greek Bible texts, the attested openness of the sect to collecting texts from beyond their community, and the Aramaic non-biblical texts all point to the Hebrew Bible being the biblical version in common use both at Qumran and in the rest of the land.[7]

  • [1] The choice of Hebrew as a written language does not appear to set the Qumran community apart from other streams of Jewish society. However, the style and kind of Hebrew at Qumran appears to be different. The scribes of Qumran wrote in a natural continuation of Late Biblical Hebrew (Second Temple Biblical Hebrew), but in a dialect that appears to be consciously cleansed from Greek loanwords. Notice that in their desire to write in a high style, they did not return to a First Temple Hebrew style. The Pharisees apparently chose a colloquial dialect of Hebrew for their oral law and the practice was continued when this oral law was collected and written down in the Mishnah, about A.D. 220. Mishnaic Hebrew was noticeably distinct from the “high” literary dialect. If Ben Sira is representative of the Sadducees, then even they were using a literary Hebrew for some of their writings. The Sadducees were also the probable recipients of a “proto-Mishnaic Hebrew” letter, 4QMMT. Even within the Jewish-Christian movement, the evidence for Semitisms in the Gospels points to narrative document(s) in Hebrew rather than Aramaic. (See note 3 below.)
  • [2] Discussion of the vernacular languages is not relevant here. My article does not deal with the complex question of the vernacular languages in use in the land of Israel in the Second Temple period.
  • [3] Please note, I am not suggesting that any of the four Gospels were written in a Semitic language. In all probability, they were written in Greek, and their immediate sources were Greek. On the other hand, because of internal linguistic evidence, I cannot attribute the highly Hebraic narrative style in Mark and Luke to some kind of artificial, holy style. The muted Hebraisms interspersed into the Gospel of Luke’s uneven Greek are not its author’s. Luke was partially smoothing out Hebraisms, not adding them. See my forthcoming article with Brian Kvasnica, “The Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son” [JP—now published as Randall Buth and Brian Kvasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe-Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels Volume 1 (eds. R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 53-80.] A blatant element in translation Greek that separates Hebrew narrative style from Second Temple-period Aramaic narrative style is outlined in my article, “Edayin-tote, Anatomy of a Semitism in Jewish Greek,” Maarav 5-6 (1990): 33-48. For a popular presentation of the article, see my, “Matthew’s Aramaic Glue,” Jerusalem Perspective 28 (Sept./Oct. 1990): 10-12.
  • [4] Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (TSAJ 81; Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2001).
  • [5] One of Bar-Ilan’s works is available on the web: “Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E.” Certainly there was only a small minority of reliable public readers of the Hebrew Bible in the first-century synagogue, but reading the Hebrew Scriptures in public is a skill far beyond basic literacy. It requires a knowledge of pre-Masoretic Hebrew traditions.
  • [6] Hezser even attributes Rabin and Kutscher’s views to a “majority,” a majority view that does not yet seem to have penetrated New Testament scholarship. Both Rabin and Kutscher viewed the Judean villages as the natural home of spoken Hebrew. The Second Temple use of written Hebrew dialects is another matter, and should be beyond controversy. However, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it appears that many writers still assume only two languages, Aramaic and Greek, were available to members of the first-century, Jewish-Christian movement.
  • [7] This conclusion accords with what we find in tannaic and amoraic sources. Early rabbinic midrashim, for example, Mechilta, are almost wholly Hebrew and based on the Hebrew Bible. Later midrashim, such as Genesis Rabbah, begin to insert Aramaic stories into the Hebrew base text and commentary. The Aramaic Bible became a storehouse for exegetical traditions and attained a place of special mention.

Where Is the Aramaic Bible at Qumran? Scripture Use in the Land of Israel

Qumran has many Aramaic documents but shows a provocative lack of targum (Aramaic translations of Scripture). With nearly all the Qumran material published, we still have only two copies of an Aramaic Job and a piece of Leviticus 16 in Aramaic to represent the Aramaic Bible at Qumran. If we included the Apocrypha, we could add the four copies of Aramaic Tobit.

The indications of foreign origins of Aramaic Job[1] and the post-Second Temple origins of the general targums[2] need to be integrated into our understanding of targumic origins. Current paradigms concerning popular Aramaic Scripture use in the synagogue[3] and Aramaic Scripture use for gospel background[4] need reformulation.

We will find that first-century Scripture use was anchored directly in the Hebrew Bible in the land of Israel. This is certain at Qumran, very probable for the synagogue, for Pharisaic literature and the Gospels. Extensive, direct Hebrew Scripture use needs to be our working paradigm for the first century. This paradigm can help gospel studies and synagogue studies regain a proper focus.

Scriptural texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls have produced surprises. Interest has been generated by para-biblical texts like the Temple Scroll and the many fragments now referred to as “reworked” Bible. Questions of canon have been reopened as we try to understand how these texts fit into the general landscape of Scripture during the Second Temple period.[5]

During most of the twentieth century New Testament studies generally have assumed that the targums—more precisely, Aramaic predecessors of our extant targums—provided the historical matrix for scriptural access for the general Jewish population in the land of Israel as well as for Jesus’ audience. The discoveries and publications of 4QtgJob, 4QtgLeviticus and 11QtgJob during the 1950s and 1960s are frequently cited in both Jewish and Christian scholarship as confirming these assumptions. Bruce Chilton writes: “Their [The Galilean Jews’] understanding of the covenant came not from the written Torah and Prophets in Hebrew, which few of them could read, but from their oral targum.”[6]

Levine writes,

There is a consensus regarding two matters. For one, the targumim already existed in the first century C.E. in both written and oral form. The fact that an Aramaic targum of Job was found on the Temple Mount in the days of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (first half of the first century C.E.) would indicate that other such works of the Torah and the Prophets were undoubtedly also in circulation, and not only at Qumran. The other matter of consensus is that much of the material in the extant targumim originated in the synagogue setting.[7]

If there is such a consensus,[8] it is time for change, time to incorporate what the evidence at Qumran has to offer.

Qumran has many Aramaic documents so it should be no surprise to find Aramaic Bible as well. However, it is not the existence of two copies of Job, or a fragment of Leviticus 16, that should draw our attention. With all of the Qumran scrolls and scroll fragments published and visible, it is time to discuss the provocative absence of targums. In Second Temple period Judaism, Aramaic translations of Scripture do not seem to exist in the land of Israel.

Two fragments of the Targum of Job discovered in Qumran Cave XI. Each fragment is approximately 6 cm. wide. (Courtesy of the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum)

The absence of targum in first-century Israel is even more glaring than what it might seem at first glance. As Muraoka pointed out, 11QtgJob has something of a foreign color to it.[9] It looks more like a copy of an import than a local product. Admittedly, the evidence is somewhat circumstantial and insufficient. From the extra alef letters in words like שבויא (shavvi’, “he placed”) (11QtgJob xxix 6) and תבוא (tavu’, “they returned”) (11QtgJob xxxii 3), it appears that 11QtgJob was copied at Qumran. However, the high incidence of writing the article “the” with alef instead of he points to a non-Qumranian, eastern origin for the targum. Muraoka noted that the use of emphatic-state nouns [= definite] for absolute state nouns [= indefinite] is another eastern trait. The resolution of dagesh into nun and the higher incidence of subject-object-verb word order further augment the eastern impression of this targum.

Cook has noted that the majority of “easternisms” in 11QtgJob are matters of orthography and, therefore, not a firm basis for a claim that the targum represents an eastern dialect within a Hatran-Syriac-Nabatean continuum.[10] While that may be true for establishing underlying dialects, it does not change the foreign status of 11QtgJob. If the targum was not produced in the land of Israel, we are left with virtually no targum at Qumran. The Aramaic portion of Leviticus 16 is much too brief to determine whether it was part of a liturgical reading or indeed part of a complete scroll of Leviticus. If the portion survived from a complete book, one could consider the question of its origins; however, unfortunately, the text is too short to determine its dialectical character.

The Book of Job itself is a strange item in the Hebrew Bible. It represents a unique dialectical profile in classical Hebrew. It uses many words in meanings that are unique and otherwise unknown within the Hebrew language. An Aramaic copy of Job is mentioned in the Septuagint (ca. 150 B.C.): “This man is described from the Aramaic book, on the one hand, as living in the land of Ausis, on the borders of Idumea and Arabia, and, on the other hand, as having been given the name Iobab….” (Job 42:17 [LXX]).[11]

The well-known stories of Rabban Gamaliel the elder and Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh further attest to the apparently unique status of Job:

Said R. Jose: “It once happened that my father Halafta visited R. Gamaliel Berabbi at Tiberias and found him sitting at the table of Johanan b. Nizuf with the Targum of Job in his hand which he was reading. Said he to him, ‘I remember that R. Gamaliel, your grandfather, was standing on a high eminence on the Temple Mount, when the Book of Job in a Targumic version was brought before him, whereupon he said to the builder, “Bury it under the bricks.”‘ He [R. Gamaliel II] too gave orders, and they hid it.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 115a; Soncino)

We do not know why Gamaliel buried the Job translation. Did he consider that particular translation to be so poor as to be invalid? Was that translation hermeneutically offensive? Did he consider every translation of Job to be invalid? Was the copy worn out? Was he judging that the translation was to be treated as Scripture, thus needing geniza burial? (Geniza means “hiding” and refers to the special respect given to worn-out religious texts.) Was it a transgression of the prohibition of writing Oral Torah? Was the question one of canon for the Ketuvim (the Writings)? We do not even know for sure whether the translation referred to Aramaic or Greek. In any case, Job is the only Aramaic, translated, biblical book with multiple attestations in the Second Temple period: there are two copies at Qumran, the copy mentioned in the Septuagint, and the two different copies mentioned in connection with Gamaliel and his grandson. Clearly, the book of Job raised many questions and, during the Second Temple period, was treated a little differently than other books of Scripture.

In the light of the marginality of the Job targum (i.e., its peculiar Hebrew dialect, canonical status, and probable foreign origin of the targum), the consensus to which Levine refers rings hollow. He speculated that “other such works of the Torah and the Prophets were undoubtedly [emphasis mine—RB] also in circulation, and not only at Qumran.” Finding a foreign Job targum cannot support such wishful thinking. In fact, finding multiple copies and references to a Job targum, but without other biblical targums, argues the opposite of the alleged “consensus.” At Qumran, we have found only the targum that we already knew about from the Septuagint and the Gamaliel stories. But the Job targum does not represent the whole Bible. It represents Job. This means that the Aramaic Bible is missing at Qumran and the old consensus must reorganize around a new reality.[12]

What do the texts at Qumran tell us about language and access to Scripture? Firstly, we should not assume that there was antagonism to Aramaic at Qumran. The community had many Aramaic documents. In addition to the Job targum and the Leviticus 16 document, their library contained the Genesis Apocryphon, Enoch and Tobit in Aramaic. Secondly, it would appear that the Qumran community accepted scriptural translations from outside their circle. The many copies of biblical books in Greek attest to a certain openness to translated Scripture.

There are four possible explanations for the scarcity of Aramaic translations of Scripture at Qumran:

  1. The scarcity might have been due to chance. However, in light of the approximately 800 documents that have been recovered at Qumran, it is highly improbable that accident could describe the situation. We have too many Hebrew Bible manuscripts, Greek Bible manuscripts, and non-biblical Aramaic manuscripts to consider this a reasonable explanation.
  2. Perhaps the targum was only permitted to be transmitted orally at that time? This is one of the suggestions for Gamaliel’s burying the Job targum.[13] There are serious problems, however, with this suggestion. First, it is based on a contradictory extrapolation of a later synagogue practice. From the third century A.D., at least, the meturgeman (oral translator in a synagogue) was not supposed to read from a written targum during the liturgical reading of the Scripture (y. Megillah 4.1, 74d). But this liturgical restriction was in place during times when written targums were happily being used in the schools outside of the public Torah reading. The liturgical restriction did not rule out the existence and acceptability of written targums in general. The existence of written targums may be taken as a fact during the period when oral liturgical restrictions were in place, from the third to the sixth centuries A.D. Secondly, the restriction, like the prohibition against publishing the Oral Torah, was rabbinic. The Qumran community would not have considered itself bound by it, if it had existed during their time, before A.D. 70. Much of their reworked Bible, pesher and documents like the Temple Scroll can be considered written equivalents of Pharisaic Oral Torah. So, there are three counts against this suggestion: the liturgical restriction would have allowed written targums in a library, had they existed; the restriction did not apply to Qumran; the time period of the restriction may likely have been post-Second Temple period and thus not contemporary with Qumran.
  3. Perhaps the targum was tinged with Pharisaic doctrine, and Qumranians, being opposed to the Pharisees and rejecting books like Maccabees, rejected targum? However, the alleged existence of Pharisaically-tinged targums would not have prevented the Qumranians from creating their own targum, if such was the common practice in the land; nor would it have prevented them from acquiring more neutral versions from Damascus and further east. Furthermore, the existence at Qumran of Greek translations of biblical texts shows the difficulty of asserting that only a Pharisaic targum, boycotted by Qumran, existed.
  4. Targums were not used in the land of Israel at the time, or, at least, not commonly used. This is the plain reading of the Qumran evidence. If either the Qumran community or the general Jewish communities from which the Qumran covenanters came were using Aramaic translations of biblical texts, we would have expected much more representation among the extant manuscripts at Qumran.[14]

The documents at Qumran allow us to reconstruct Scripture access in the Province of Judea in the first century. The people at Qumran obviously related directly in Hebrew to the Hebrew Bible. However, their texts also reflect society at large. Many of their texts came from circles outside their own group. The Qumranites had Greek Bibles, Aramaic compositions, and Job targums, at least. From the evidence, we must assume that the Qumran community and the other Jewish communities in the land were using Hebrew Bibles. While this may be a subtle, and seemingly small, change in general perspectives on the period, it can have profound and far-reaching implications. Instead of an ignorant and somewhat disinterested general population, we may assume that the general population had direct access to the Hebrew Bible, generally understood it, and were interested in teaching that related directly to the Hebrew text. Included in the general picture would be the social interactions depicted in the Gospels of the New Testament. A careful investigation of these Gospels provides additional support to the thesis of popular Scripture use based on the Hebrew Bible in the first century.[15] But scriptural exegesis in the Gospels remains for another article.

An earlier form of this article was presented to the Aramaic Section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2002 (Toronto).

Click here to read Jack Poirier’s response to this article.

And for Randall Buth’s response to Jack Poirier, click here.

  • [1] Takamitsu Muraoka, “The Aramaic of the Old Targum of Job from Qumran Cave XI,” Journal of Jewish Studies 25 (1974): 425-443; LXX Job 42:17; see also Ed Cook, “Qumran Aramaic and Aramaic Dialectology,” in Studies in Qumran Aramaic (ed. T. Muraoka [Supplement 3]; Louvain: Peeters, 1992), 1-21; and idem, “A New Perspective on the Language of Onkelos and Jonathan,” in The Aramaic Bible: Targums in their Historical Context (JSOTSup 166; eds. D. R. G. Beattie and M. J. McNamara; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 142-156.
  • [2] Ze’ev Safrai, “The Origins of Reading the Aramaic Targum in Synagogue,” Immanuel 24/25: The New Testament and Christian-Jewish Dialogue: Studies in Honor of David Flusser (1990): 187-193.
  • [3] See note 7 below.
  • [4] See note 6 below.
  • [5] See Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).
  • [6] Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus, An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 4. Chilton’s remarks need a double correction. This paper only deals with the question of first-century targums. Chilton’s assumption that “few of them could read” explains his specific reference to an oral targum, but also reflects a minimalist view of Jewish literacy that also needs correction. The literacy question goes beyond the scope of this article and is irrelevant to the question of targums. Briefly on literacy, it can be noted that the rabbinic concern to find “readers” in a synagogue (Soferim 11:1; t. Megillah 3:5) does not reflect high illiteracy, but refers to a special group of people who could read the unvocalized Hebrew Bible in a synagogue setting before ten witnesses, according to the received tradition. The traditions were complicated and any mistake required rereading a verse. It was possible for a synagogue to have only one such reader. But a synagogue full of illiterates is a misrepresentation of Jewish society.
  • [7] Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 150.
  • [8] Edward Kutscher dated the Palestinian targum tradition to post-Bar Kochva (A.D. 135 ff.) and the Onkelos-type of targum to pre-Bar Kochva (“Language of the Genesis Apocryphon: A Preliminary Study,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 4 [1958]: 10 n. 44). He did not commit himself as to how far back an Onkelos targum had started. Ze’ev Safrai, “Origins of Reading the Aramaic Targum” (above note 2), specifically dates the targum to a post-Second Temple, second century period.
  • [9] See Muraoka, “The Aramaic of the Old Targum of Job from Qumran Cave XI” (above note 1).
  • [10] Ed Cook, “Qumran Aramaic and Aramaic Dialectology” and “A New Perspective on the Language of Onkelos and Jonathan” (above note 1).
  • [11] The Septuagint is probably referring to an Aramaic translation of the whole book of Job. Frequently, ἑρμηνεύεται (ermeneuetai) refers to translation, though it may be used for generic descriptions as well. The subject of the verb, οὗτος (outos, “this”), is masculine, so it refers primarily to Job the person rather than to a βίβλος (biblos, “book”), which is feminine, or a βιβλίον (biblion, “booklet”), which is neuter.
  • [12] Levine listed four reasons for the existence of written targumim in the Second Temple period:

    1. Job and Leviticus 16 were found at Qumran, and rabbinic tradition cites the Gamaliel stories about a Job targum.
    2. There are exegetical traditions found in the targumim that are parallel to those found in Josephus, Qumran, Septuagint, apocryphal literature, New Testament and rabbinic literature.
    3. There are linguistic ties between the targumim and Qumran Aramaic.
    4. Rabbinic authorities in the second century A.D. are aware of targumic practices in the synagogue and such a situation points to earlier, existing practices.

    Only this last point carries any weight. As detailed in this article, the first point actually exposes the lack of evidence for a targum to the whole Bible. The multiple attestations all point uniquely to Job, not to Scripture in general. The second point is irrelevant, but may expose a circular kind of reasoning used by many in the field. The point would be valid only if the exegetical traditions originated with the targum. Otherwise, it merely shows that there was a rich exegetical tradition in Jewish culture that shows up in many sources, including the targumim. The targumim were able to draw on those traditions and incorporate them. This makes the targum valuable as a source for old traditions, but does not place the targum in the Second Temple period. The third point about dialect cuts in two directions. The differences from Qumran Aramaic must also be considered. A second-century origin to targum traditions has a better fit than a first-century hypothesis. If foreign origins for targum traditions are posited for Job, then both time considerations and dialectical differences from Qumran become irrelevant. The fourth point, while important, becomes data that must fit first-century data. Ze’ev Safrai studied the rabbinic citations and concluded that the targumic practices under discussion started in the second century. He came to his conclusions independent of the archaeological profile provided by Qumran. We should acknowledge that Qumran supports him.

  • [13] See Saul Lieberman, Tosefta ki-fshuta, 3:203 n. 6.
  • [14] This matches certain hints in rabbinic literature. Mishnah, Megillah 1:8 records a rabbinic difference of opinion: “The books [of Scripture] may be written in any language…. Rabban Shim’on ben Gamaliel says, ‘They have not permitted Scriptures to be written in any language except Greek.'” This halachic dispute appears to reflect a situation in the mid-second century A.D., when Greek translations were an accepted fact, but an Aramaic targum was not yet in wide use in the Land of Israel. Qumran manuscripts reflect a similar situation at an earlier period.
  • [15] Please note that this does not necessarily imply that Hebrew was the first language, or market language, for most of the people, but only that it was part of a trilingual environment, with Greek and Aramaic also being widely used. Some of the complexity of language use is reflected in the ketubbot (marriage deeds). From the wording of Mishnah, Ketubbah 4:12, we may conclude that in Jerusalem and the Galilee marriage deeds were written in Aramaic, but in the Judean hills they were written in Hebrew. We might compare this linguistic situation to a mixed Spanish-Italian community where children grow up hearing both languages on a regular, even daily basis. It would not matter to members of this community which language was used as a mother tongue, or primary language. A speaker would use the language that was appropriate to the social context, and everyone would be able to follow. Besides Jewish multi-lingualism, it would appear that there were mother-tongue Hebrew environments in existence up through the second century A.D., probably more so in Judea than in Galilee, and a general decline of Hebrew after the destruction of A.D. 70, and especially after that of A.D. 135. From the third century A.D. Hebrew was still expected to be understood by the general adult Jewish population, but as a second language where Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures were read antiphonally for interactive understanding. See S. Fraade, “Rabbinic Views on the Practice of Targum and Multilingualism in the Jewish Galilee of the Third-Sixth Centuries,” in The Galilee in Late Antiquity (ed. L. I. Levine; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992), 253-286; and note the situation behind y. Megillah 4.4, 75b, where parents in Tarbanat asked for half verses of Hebrew and Aramaic to be read for their children.

Parables of Ill Repute

Once Shmuel ha-Katan, a sage who flourished at the end of the first century C.E, decreed a day of fasting and prayer for rain. The people began their fast at sunset, and rain fell before sunrise. They interpreted the rain as a sign of divine favor. Then Shmuel told them a parable:

What does this situation resemble? It is like a slave who requests his ration from his master. The master says to them, “Give it to him so that I may not hear his voice!” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta‘anit 25b)

On another occasion Shmuel decreed a time of fasting and prayer for rain. The people began their fast at sunset, but rain did not fall until late into the next evening. Again they interpreted the rain as a sign of divine favor. Then Shmuel told them a parable:

What does this situation resemble? It is like a slave who requests his ration from his master. The master says to them, “Wait until he languishes and suffers! Afterwards, give it to him!” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta‘anit 25b)

In both of these parables, Shmuel cast God in an unsettling role. In the first, he depicted God as the irascible master who shuns the voice of his slave. The slave represents the people. In the second, again he depicted God as the master. This time, however, ignoring the request, the callous master makes his hungry slave suffer.

Illustration by Helen Twena.
Illustration by Helen Twena.

The point of these two parables is clear: the people have no reason to boast. The shock and humor of the parables, which obviously captured the attention of Shmuel’s audience, emerge from the scandalous conduct attributed to God. Far from being noble, his conduct falls far short of expectations, both ancient and modern.

Shmuel’s purposeful distortion of God’s character served to heighten the dramatic effect of the parables. He did not intend that the master’s conduct should be emulated: it is despicable. The gap between our expectations and the master’s conduct can be bridged only with laughter.

The Synoptic Evangelists recorded approximately thirty different parables told by Jesus. Three synoptic parables remind us of Shmuel’s scandalous parables, because the protagonists behave in a morally ambiguous manner. Interestingly, only Luke included these scandalous parables in his Gospel.

The first two scandalous parables deal with prayer: The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8) and The Impious Judge (Luke 18:2-8). In the first parable, a man wakes a sleeping friend at midnight and asks for three loaves of bread. At first the sleepy friend tells his late-night visitor to go away. Motivated not by concern for his friend, but self-interest, the friend eventually acquiesces and gives the loaves to the man. Likewise, in the second parable, a judge who neither fears God nor has regard for humanity, finds himself cornered by a persistent widow demanding legal protection. Her repeated visits finally convince the judge that giving a ruling on her behalf will be the easiest way out of his predicament.

Each of these parables sets up a mini-drama that parallels, but is antithetical to, reality. Of course, people petition God at all hours of the day with urgent requests, and widows look to him for justice. But unlike the sleepy friend who complies with the request out of embarrassment that the neighbors might hear, or simply out of frustration, God responds because of his genuine concern for humanity. And unlike the impious judge who grants justice because of the widow’s unflagging appeals, God stands ready to protect those whom society has overlooked.

Jesus was not suggesting that the behavior of the sleepy friend or impious judge be emulated. On the contrary, their disappointing conduct represents a glaring contrast to God’s. From the contrast, the parables’ humor emerges.

The Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1-9) is Jesus’ most scandalous parable. Originally told as a critique of the Essenes’ attitude toward non-sectarians and their wealth, this parable portrays God as the master of a sly steward (a non-sectarian) who has mismanaged his money. Accordingly, the master notifies the steward that he will be dismissed. Faced with the horror of manual labor or begging for a livelihood, the steward summons each of the master’s debtors and cancels the debt in the hope of creating for himself a safety net after his dismissal. To the audience’s surprise, the master, who suffered financial loss because of the steward, praises him.

Here again, the aim of the parable is not to promote dishonest handling of money. Rather, using a very funny parable, Jesus criticized the Essenes centripetal mentality, which had found expression in their economic policy. The Essenes avoided commercial transactions with outsiders. The master’s praise for the dishonest servant should not be interpreted as an endorsement of such improper behavior, but as a critique of the Essenes’ narrow attitude toward non-sectarians and their money.[1]

The scandalous elements of these three Lukan parables serve as another indication of the continuity in motifs and literary forms between the Synoptic tradition and rabbinic literature. As I have said elsewhere, the rabbinic writings constitute “our principal source” for interpreting Matthew, Mark and Luke.[2] For me at least, this conclusion means that Jesus stood closer to Pharisaic Judaism than to the other major first-century Jewish sects.

Lastly, Luke’s inclusion of scandalous parables in his Gospel tells us something about his handling of his two written sources: Luke apparently sought to represent all facets of their contents. He was willing to include Jesus’ scandalous parables, even if their inclusion meant that God might be perceived as behaving improperly and the point of the parables be misunderstood. Matthew and Mark may not have been willing to risk such consequences.[3]

As a Gospel writer, Luke was both independent of Matthew and Mark, and bold. Regarding his independence, he was the only Evangelist not to implicate the Pharisees in the events leading up to Jesus’ death. Regarding his boldness, Luke alone mentioned the atrocities of Roman officials (cf. Luke 13:1). The results of our present, brief study further attest to Luke’s independence from Matthew and Mark, and his boldness—independence, by preserving the three scandalous parables, and boldness, by transmitting parables that portrayed God in a morally ambiguous light.

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  • [1] For a full discussion of the Dishonest Steward parable’s meaning, see David Flusser, “Jesus and the Essenes.”
  • [2] See David Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 24.
  • [3] The closest Matthew came to including a scandalous parable in his Gospel was his inclusion of The Day Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). The scandalous and critical moment of this parable is God’s declaration, “Am I not allowed to do what I wish with what is mine?” The evidence from the Synoptic Gospels suggests that Matthew and, particularly, Mark were more sensitive than Luke to including scandalous elements in their compositions.