Week 3: New Testament Parables

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Background Reading (1): Parables and the Synoptic Gospels

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Parables and the Synoptic Gospels
  2. The Gospel of Thomas
  3. Terms and Definitions

Buddhist jatakas and Christian parables

Last week you read the stories told by the Buddha, called jataka tales, which the Buddha used to teach the monks and other members of his community. This week, you will be looking at the teaching stories used by Jesus to teach the members of his community. These teaching stories are usually called "parables," from the Greek word parabole, which means a "comparison." Like the Buddhist jatakas, these Christian parables are more than just entertainment. They are didactic stories, which are told in order to teach a lesson or convey a moral.

In the Buddhist jataka tales, the present situation provided a frame for the story of the past, and the Buddha pointed out the "connection" between the present frame and the past birth story. Christian parables work in a very similar way. There is a frame, or present situation, that shows Jesus as a teacher and storyteller. The parable is a story that is inserted into this frame, so that there is a connection between the fictional world of the story and the world of Jesus and his audience. The parable is based on a "comparison" between the world of the story and the world of the storyteller and his audience. That is why the Greek term, "parabole," or "comparison," is a good definition for this kind of story.

You will also notice some important differences between the Buddhist jatakas and the Christian parables. The Buddhist belief in reincarnation meant that the Buddha could present these stories as his "past lives." This is not the case for the Christian parables. In addition, the Buddha tells some very long and elaborate stories, true folktales, which do have a lot of entertainment value, in addition to being used as teaching tales. The Christian parables are usually much shorter and simpler than the Buddhist jataka tales. In addition, the Christian parables, cover a much more limited range of topics than the Buddhist stories. The Buddhist stories incorporated all kinds of traditional folktales, including talking animals (like the talkative tortoise!) along with many trickster stories. You will see that this is not true of the Chrisitan parables. For example, there are no stories about talking animals among the parables of Jesus!

One of your tasks this week will be to get a sense of the kind of content covered by the Christian parables: what are the kinds of plots that you find in these stories? who are the typical characters? and what can you learn about the settings of these stories, the physical environment in which they take place?

Parables in the Jewish Tradition

It is not surprising that Jesus used parables, since these were a strong part of the Jewish tradition. In Hebrew, the term for this kind of parable is "mashal."

There are some famous examples of parables in the Hebrew Bible, such as the story of David and Bathsheba in the Book of Samuel. King David fell in love with Bathsheba, who was the wife of Uriah. David arranged to have Uriah killed so that he could take Bathsheba for his own. In order to rebuke David and point out his error, Nathan came and told this story to David (2 Samuel 12)

A rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; rather he took the poor man's ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.

When David hears about what the rich man did, taking the poor man's lamb, David is outraged and says that the rich man should be punished. Nathan then confronts the King: "You are the man!" What Nathan means is that David is like the rich man in the story, Bathsheba is like the lamb, and the poor man is like Bathsheba's husband Uriah. When David condemns the rich man in the story, he condemns himself. David's understanding of the situation depends on the relationship between the characters in the frametale (David, Uriah, and Bathsheba) and the characters in the parable (rich man, poor man, and the lamb),

Notice that the frametale of David and Bathsheba gives the story a very specific moral interpretation. If you just heard the story of the rich man, the poor man and the lamb, not knowing anything about King David, you might say that the story had a general kind of moral: "rich people treat poor people unfairly." When the story is put inside the frametale of David and Bathsheba, the moral becomes much more specific: "David treated Uriah unfairly." This example from the Hebrew Bible reveals why parables can be such powerful teaching tools. People are often not able to judge themselves accurately, but when they see themselves reflected in the parable, as in a mirror, they are able to gain new insight and understand things that they were not able to understand before. David did not understand his own situation clearly until he heard the parable of the poor man and his lamb.

The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke

The parables that you will be reading this week are taken from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. These three gospels are often referred to as the "synoptic" gospels. This Greek word means "seeing together," and what it means here is that the authors of these gospels shared some sources in common. As a result, they sometimes agree word-for-word, or tell the same stories with only small variations.

Yet when it comes to the parables, there is actually a surprising amount of variation. There are just three parables that occur in Mark, Matthew, and Luke: these are the parables of the Mustard Seed, the Vineyard, and the Sower. There are an additional five parables that occur in two of the gospels. Yet there are a total of twenty parables that occur just in one gospel, that is, either in Mark, or in Matthew or in Luke. So even though the synoptic gospels drew from common sources, each of them presents a different collection of stories that Jesus tells to his followers. If you are curious, I have provided a chart that lists which parables occur in multiple gospels.

In the readings for this week, you will be able to look at these unique parables, and you will also get a chance to compare the way that the same parables sometimes are found in more than one gospel. When the same parables are repeated, I have pointed this out in the notes, and given you some hints to help you compare the ways in which the same parable is presented in different ways. Are there differences in the story itself? And are there differences in the frametale, that is, in the way that Jesus tells the story and the way he interprets the story for his audience? Also, please pay special attention to the frametale. Just like in the Buddhist jataka tales, sometimes the frametale is elaborate, and we learn a lot about the storytelling situation. In other cases, the frametale is very brief, and we do not have a lot of information about the specific situation in which Jesus told the parable and how he framed it.

  1. Parables and the Synoptic Gospels
  2. The Gospel of Thomas
  3. Terms and Definitions

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM