In a Bible Study, the question was asked: “Were there examples of parables in other ancient texts, and how did Jesus’ parables differ if there were?”
My initial reaction was that there were other examples, but it was difficult to say what the differences were. One thing was clear though, the parables were and are versatile. This means that from the historical figure Jesus, to those who told stories about Jesus, and finally to the Gospel writers who collected these stories, the meaning of the parable might change or be nuanced differently.
Upon some further reading, I stand by my initial reactions. The problem of parable study is first in the nomenclature: it is really difficult to define, according to the Gospels, what a parable is. But there were examples in ancient literature:
First in the Old Testament, 2 Sam. 12.1-5:
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” (See also 2 Sam 14 for another possible example.)
Closer to the period of the Gospels, Jewish Midrash also contains parables:
“It is like a man who inherited a place full of rubbish. The inheritor was lazy and he sold it for a ridiculously small sum. The purchaser dug therein industriously and found in it a treasure. He built therewith a great palace and passed through the bazaar with a train of slaves whom he had bought with the treasure. When the seller saw it he could have choked himself [with vexation].” (trans. Jeremias. from Midr. Cant., 4.12)
It is also likely that the Greeks had parables, because it is from the Greek word that we get our English word, “Parable.” A quote from the Greek Rhetoricians eludes me at the moment, but they are the ones who gave an ancient definition to the parables. Although, there would be no need for Jesus to have followed these “grammar rules.”
The disconnect I see is the the Greek speaking Semites use the Greek term for ‘parable’ to translate their own form of folk stories in Aramaic or Hebrew. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), Ezekiel 17.2-8 reads:
“Son of man, relate a tale, and speak a parable to the house of Israel: 3 and thou shalt say, Thus saith the Lord; A great eagle with large wings, spreading them out very far, with many claws, which has the design of entering into Libanus– and he took the choice branches of the cedar: 4 he cropped off the ends of the tender twigs, and brought them into the land of Chanaan; he laid them up in a walled city. 5 And he took of the seed of the land, and sowed it in a field planted by much water; he set it in a conspicuous place. 6 And it sprang up, and became a weak and little vine, so that the branches thereof appeared upon it, and its roots were under it: and it became a vine, and put forth shoots, and sent forth its tendrils. 7 And there was another great eagle, with great wings and many claws: and, behold, this vine bent itself round toward him, and her roots were turned towards him, and she sent forth her branches towards him, that he might water her together with the growth of her plantation. 8 She thrives in a fair field by much water, to produce shoots and bear fruit, that she might become a great vine.”
This is slightly different than the Gospel forms of a parable, yet the translator of Ezekiel calls it a ‘parable.’ It resembles more the post-exilic prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel than the parables of Jesus. Yet, there also is some discrepancy in the Gospel’s own use of the parable.
In Mark 3, Jesus speaks “parables,” saying:
How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.
Where are the parables? Where does one end and the other begin? V27 looks like a parable, but is rather short, but when else does Jesus tell a parable where one of the characters is Satan? Likewise, Jesus says later in Mark 7:17, “And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.” Either, Jesus is referring to the statement in v15, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him,” or to the missing v.16. It is difficult to tell, but clearly these examples are very different in form and content than Jesus’ more famous parables like the Good Samaritan, the Talents, or the Prodigal Son, where there are type-cast characters in a short narrative form.
Therefore, it seems highly likely that the Greek speaking writers and translators of our Bible used the term “parable” liberally to refer to all these different cases in the New Testament. This makes for difficult work in saying how Jesus’ parables differed from the parables of other ancient literature. What are your thoughts on forms and interpretations of Jesus’ parables?
For more internet reading, check Wikipedia or the Online Catholic Encyclopedia.