DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Helping Hand of Thomas

One of the ways the authors of Matthew and the other gospels massaged their sources was to turn the often brief sayings they had into elaborate allegories.

The allegory was one of the most favoured ways of "making a point" in the ancient world - a form which persisted in frequent use into medieval times. Today, though less used, it's still a popular form.

An allegory is a fictional narrative that conveys a symbolic meaning through its details. The term derives from the Greek allegoria which means "speaking otherwise". Allegory has also been defined as an extended metaphor. The symbolic meaning of an allegory is usually expressed through personification and other symbols. Thus a father or a son is intended to symbolise an otherwise concealed lesson; or an animal or event stand for another hidden moral.

Jesus may have used allegory - but none of the surviving material we can attribute historically to him takes this form. Thus when allegory appears in the gospels it is most likely the work of the gospel author.

The Parable of the Sower is a good example. Mark 4.3-20 has three main sections:

  1. The first consists of the parable itself. It concludes with a statement characteristic of the sayings of Jesus: "Those with good hearing had better listen!" Very few scholars maintain that this section is not one of Jesus' authentic parables.

  2. The second section tells readers what the purpose of parables is. The tone is Gnostic. That is, it refers to an inner circle of people to whom "the secret of the kingdom of God" has been given, contrasted with "those outside" to whom "everything comes in parables". Gnostic teaching was common in the Church's earlier years.

  3. The third section explains what the story is supposedly actually all about. In so doing it transforms the story from a parable into an allegory, with the various outcomes of seeding representing various meanings or morals.

A parable is a story anchored in daily life, but to which no particular interpretation is attached. This is not to say that a parable has no meaning, or that its meaning may not be obvious. But it leaves the drawing of conclusions about meaning to the hearer, who will know the elements of the story intimately from his or her daily life.

This may present the modern reader with considerable problems. One example is the parable with the traditional title of "The Wicked Husbandmen" or "The Wicked Tenants" (Matthew 21.33-41; Mark 12.1-9; Luke 20.9-16).

Each of these three versions leads into a short section which implies that there is a "correct" interpretation of the story. The son who is killed is (of course) Jesus himself, the "stone that the builders rejected" (Psalm 118.22). The wicked tenants are (of course) those who refuse to hear the gospel and are crushed by God's justice in the last days. The vineyard is the empire of God (in contrast to the oppressive Roman Empire) through which power will be taken away from the rich and powerful who now run things. 

The explanations are the work of the gospel authors, probably reflecting the kind of thinking which went on in the communities of which they were members. It's worth noting here that these communities may not have thought of themselves as Christian. Rather, they may have seen themselves as Jews who had identified the Messiah and who were now following the correct path to God.

A strong clue to the parable's original form is given in the version preserved by the Gospel of Thomas, which isn't in allegorical form and has no added interpretation. It runs:

A [certain] person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so that the farmers would give him the vineyard's crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, "Perhaps he didn't know them." He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one up as well. Then his master sent his son and said, "Perhaps they'll show my son some respect." Because the farmers knew that he was heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him.

The Gospel of Thomas may have been written down some years after that of Matthew (though a minority of scholars place it as early as 50 CE - some 30 or so years before Matthew's). Whatever the case, it's a good example of material which has been preserved in nearly original form and which helps us sort out  what Jesus probably said from the interpretation and commentary of the canonical gospel authors.

Not only do modern readers need to recognise these additions and interpretations, but they also should be aware that they may not have enough knowledge of the social customs and laws of first-century Palestine to get the point that Jesus was making. Getting the point is even more difficult for those who have had drummed into them, perhaps over many years, the traditionally "correct" meanings of the parables.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants might be better titled "The Parable of the Leased Vineyard" - which is neutral and says nothing about its potential meaning. If so, its central point may be other than theological teaching about the coming of God's kingdom in the near future and the justification of Christians on judgement day. 

The social background to the parable is important. It can't be guessed from the parable itself:

  • Herod the Great remained in power for some 40 years. He was regarded by his Roman overlords as a model ruler, mainly because he saw to it that taxes were paid to Rome and because he kept the peace. His great achievements were, however, bought at the cost of grave suffering on the part of ordinary people in Palestine. Perhaps even more exacting than forced labour and heavy taxes, was the loss by a majority of peasants of their land. By Jesus' time, many men whose families had previously been landed, had to earn a living either by fishing or a trade. The rest continued farming - but now as tenants of absentee landlords, in effect bound to semi-slavery.

    As in Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries, the wealthy of the Roman Empire (a tiny group, far less than 1 percent of the population) derived their money mainly from the revenues of their estates. A quotation from the Roman historian Cicero illustrates. 

    Writing about a proposed reform of land-laws he says:

    "I ... proposed to omit all clauses which adversely affected private rights ... [of] the landed gentry ... I thought that two advantages might accrue [from a good reform] - the dregs might be drawn from the city, and the deserted portions of Italy might be repopulated." [1].

    In short, few of the powerful would have thought anything of owning land and taking from it the maximum revenue it would deliver. Perhaps it is true that a tenant who became a landowner would adopt the same attitude, in which case the actions of the tenants in the parable would have been understandable.

  • Palestine after the death of Herod the Great in 4bce was ripe for revolution. A number of small uprisings and religious movements disturbed the peace many times before the final upheaval in 66. In the year 70, after four years of war, Jerusalem was razed to the ground, much of the population was dispersed from the countryside, and a Roman place of worship was built on the site of the Hebrew Temple. In other words, the rebellious tenants of the parable would have echoed the more general air of unrest in Palestine at the time.

  • A somewhat obscure Roman law specified that if the heir to an estate died intestate, the land would revert to the tenants who held it. We have no way of knowing if Jesus' hearers would have known about this law, but it does illuminate an otherwise rather puzzling aspect of the parable.

The average person is unaware or only dimly aware of the existence of sources of knowledge about Jesus other than the gospels. Many assume, for example, that the letters of Paul tell us a great deal about Jesus. In fact, Paul did not know Jesus personally. Almost all his writing is his own theology, derived from Hebrew teaching and from the Pharisees.

Contemporary scholars are presently exploring the distinct possibility that the Gospel of Thomas and others gospels will provide them with important new insights into the life and times of Jesus [2].

The upshot in this case is that the contemporary reader may struggle to invest this parable with meaning. Might it mean, for example, that poor people are to resist oppression in the same way that the tenants did, that social violence is sometimes justified? Or does it mean that every person has the right to the fruits of his or her own property? Or perhaps we should take from the parable some sort of "spiritual" meaning? Maybe Jesus was trying to get across something about social justice, and the duty of the rich and powerful to treat those less fortunate than themselves with scrupulous fairness.

The great strength of the parable form is that it encourages listeners to think for themselves in their own situations. As Jesus often said, "Let those whose hearing is good listen carefully!"
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[1] Cicero and the Roman Republic, F R Cowell, Pelican, 1956
[2] Other important gospels are: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas; the Infancy Gospel of James; five fragmentary gospels; the Gospel of the Hebrews; the Gospel of the Ebionites; and the Gospel of the Nazoreans.

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