Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
The Sermons, Miracles, and Parables
[p.78]The traditions about Jesus handed down in oral or written form were concerned mainly with what he did and said. They were accounts of his miracles, exorcisms, sermons, and especially his proclamation of the kingdom of God. That he was regarded as a moral teacher of supreme sensitivity and religious wisdom is obvious. As the Messiah he was seen by Paul and the early church not as a Davidic deliverer of the nation but rather as the divine savior through whom God grants salvation to the individual human soul.
For Christians generally, Jesus as supreme teacher and Christ as savior are one and the same person, human and divine. These conceptions, however different, are not incompatible. Yet especially in early Christianity, major theological controversies arose relating to the divine-human question. The Apostle Paul, like most theologians until recent times, gave virtually no attention to the life and teachings of Jesus. He was interested almost exclusively in Christ as the agent of salvation. Modern scholars, on the other hand, have been concerned more with Jesus as a person who walked in the pathways of Galilee and Judea, associated with people of diverse social station and religious and political views, who comforted the oppressed and suffering, and, above all, expounded on moral and spiritual matters with an impact that is beyond estimate.
The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount set forth in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew is the fullest and most effective presentation of Jesus’ teachings. It is usually regarded as a single sermon given at one time to his disciples and followers, presumably on a Galilee hill-[p.79]side. The Sermon on the Plain, recorded in chapter 6 of Luke, is similar to the Sermon on the Mount. It is often identified with the Sermon on the Mount, although it contains only about one-fourth of the material found in Matthew. However, scattered through later chapters in Luke are approximately thirty-five verses that correspond to statements found in Matthew’s account of the Sermon.1
In common with many other New Testament students, Joachim Jeremias holds that Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation of smaller collections of originally isolated sayings of Jesus. Each collection is a sermon-like summary of Jesus’ teachings or at least an expression of a theme found in those teachings.2 According to Jeremias, it can be assumed that each teaching relates to Jesus’ proclamation about the Kingdom of God and the promise of sonship in that kingdom.
Matthew placed the Sermon on a mountain or hillside. Ancient tradition has identified the place of the Sermon in the hills of Galilee overlooking the sea from the northwest. But even if it was in fact a sermon delivered at a single time and place, which is highly unlikely, the precise location cannot be determined. In both Matthew and Luke, the Sermon was addressed primarily to Jesus’s disciples (Mt 5:1); Luke refers to “a great crowd of his disciples” (Lk 6:17). However, both accounts indicate that many other people were present and heard Jesus’s instruction.3
It seems reasonable to believe that the Sermon on the Mount was not intended by Matthew to be understood simply as a single sermon. Rather, it was the new Word from God, a revelation of [p.80]the foundation of the New Covenant, the constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven. The expression “Kingdom of God” in Mark and Luke clearly includes reference to the historical Kingdom of David and Solomon. It was the hope and expectation of many Jews that God’s future kingdom would be a restoration of the ancient monarchy. However, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s expression “Kingdom of Heaven” seems to contain a more abstract and transcendent conception of the kingdom. For Matthew Jesus’s sermon contains a new Torah teaching, a new standard of righteousness that is grounded in the Hebrew prophetic tradition rather than in rabbinic argument and commentary. For Matthew, the kingdom is to be a restoration on the model of a heavenly kingdom in which the ideal of moral perfection is to be achieved, “as it is in heaven.” Composing the Gospel at least forty years after Pentecost, the evangelist may have regarded the Christian church as the beginning of the earthly realization of that ideal.
For Matthew the Sermon was an instrument for teaching the Christians of his own day the requirements of discipleship by providing a prescription for a new Way. It was a call for saintliness in the lives of the followers of Jesus. The Sermon may have been set out by Matthew in a more formal way as the central portion of a manual or book of instruction intended for use in the church.4 It begins with the Beatitudes, which in Matthew’s formulation are somewhat abstract. Perhaps the original utterances of Jesus were more direct and life-centered, for he was teaching the “people of the land,” among whom were the humble, the poor, and those who mourned and were despised. It was as though Jesus were saying, “Even though you are now discouraged and downtrodden, look up, be hopeful, for God’s kingdom is coming!”5
The theme of the Beatitudes is happiness—not happiness defined as pleasure but as joy or blessedness. The word blessed, [p.81]which appears in the King James Version and Revised Standard Version, is translated in the New English Bible as “how blest.” That Jesus begins each of the Beatitudes with this word indicates his high expectations for life in the kingdom. The Beatitudes are explained and elaborated in the remainder of the Sermon. According to J. C. Fenton, “They show who will enter the kingdom and share with God, under God, in the new order which is about to come.”6 They are directed at the powerless and those in despair, for they will eventually be first and blessed by God.
Since the English translation of the Beatitudes in the Revised Standard Version reproduces most of the familiar language of the Authorized or King James Version, there is perhaps something to be gained in meaning by reading the Beatitudes as translated by the New English Bible.7
How blest are those who know their need of God;
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
How blest are the sorrowful;
they shall find consolation.
How blest are those of a gentle spirit;
they shall have the earth for their possession.
How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail;
they shall be satisfied.
How blest are those who show mercy;
mercy shall be shown to them.
How blest are those whose hearts are pure;
they shall see God.
How blest are the peacemakers;
God shall call them his sons.
How blest are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right;
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
How blest you are, when you suffer insults and persecution and every kind of calumny for my sake. Accept it with gladness and exultation, for you have a rich reward in heaven; in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.
[p.82]It may be appropriate to attempt an approximation of the early church’s understanding of these Beatitudes and their proper meaning in the lives of Christian disciples:
“How blest are those who know their need of God.” The qualities of character required for discipleship in the kingdom are the opposite of conceit, boastfulness, and self-righteousness; true disciples are persons of genuine humility; their worth is not measured in terms of worldly merit or position. In God’s Kingdom, common human judgments about goodness and merit will be reversed; the usual assessments of worth based upon position, wealth, or world achievement must be abandoned when the ultimate values of the future Kingdom are considered.
“How blest are the sorrowful.” Sorrow follows from the remorse one feels, not only for his own personal wrongs but even more for the wrong course Israel has taken. To mourn is to sorrow for one’s lack and for one’s need, to experience heartfelt repentance. The promise is to those who feel such sorrow; they will be comforted and strengthened when the Kingdom comes.
“How blest are those of a gentle spirit.” The meek, the unassuming and unpretentious are worthy of the kingdom. Those whose strength is within, in contrast with those whose status rests on pride of race and privilege or the arrogance of learning or power, will inherit the kingdom.
“How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail.” Jesus’s conception of the good was in positive rather than negative terms. For him the good person was not one who merely refrains from violating the social conventions and rules but rather one who is active and courageous in seeking to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. “Hunger and thirst” are powerful metaphors for expressing intense commitment.
“How blest are those who show mercy.” Happy are they who are compassionate toward others, who forgive others. This does not mean merely to pity them or to befriend them from a sense of duty or obligation. It is to know emptiness or need from one’s own experience and to have sympathy and compassion for others who feel that need.
[p.83]”How blest are those whose hearts are pure.” The expressions “clean heart” and “pure in heart” are found in several of the most popular Old Testament Psalms:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully. (Ps 24:3f)8
In Hebrew psychology, the heart represents the center of life. It is the seat of personal will and commitment. The “pure in heart” refers to those of genuine integrity who persevere with patience, trusting in the promise of God, and are committed to repentance and virtue. They will see God in the age to come.
“How blest are the peacemakers.” Peacemakers are those who attempt to create a community in which understanding and love prevail. The phrase “be sons of” appears in another passage in the Sermon: “Love your enemies … so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:44f).
“How blest are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right.” This Beatitude should be read with verses 11 and 12, “How blest you are, when you suffer insults and persecution and every kind of calumny for my sake. Accept it with gladness and exultation, for you have a rich reward in heaven.” “Persecution for the cause of right” here means persecution on Jesus’s account for allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven. This final Beatitude requires that a disciple completely and unreservedly, with whole heart and soul, commit himself to the cause which Jesus proclaims. Prophets before them were persecuted, says Matthew, for allegiance to God, and the promise is great for those who are faithful to their commitment to righteousness. Some ancient writers as well as modern historians have held that many early Christians possessed a martyr complex which exacerbated the persecutions against them and even contributed to their deaths.
The Moral Admonitions: Old and New
[p.84]The Sermon on the Mount continues from Matthew 5:13 through chapters 6 and 7 with an impressive summary of Jesus’s moral and religious teachings set forth with remarkable effectiveness. The teachings were usually in a pattern of metaphor and parable that embodied basic principles in concrete and familiar reality. The admonitions of Jesus to his disciples are too well known to warrant extensive comment. “You are the salt of the earth; … You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Mt 5:13f). The disciples are reminded that salt can lose its savor.9
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets” (Mt 5:17). The Law, the so-called books of Moses, the Pentateuch, was considered God’s word by every faithful Jew of Jesus’s time; the Prophets were the prophetic books written by or about the prophets of the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries BCE who were powerful advocates of social justice and righteousness.10 Jesus did not intend to reject the injunctions of the books of the Torah or the admonitions of the prophets. According to Matthew, Jesus would complete the Law and the Prophets. He would not abolish the old foundation but would build upon and perfect it. When the child becomes a man, the child is no more. But the child is not destroyed; he is fulfilled in the man. For Matthew, Jesus’s word was the foundation or standard of the new covenant for a new Israel.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). Instead of the formalism that sometimes characterized the ceremonial and [p.85]moral requirements of the Jewish Law, Jesus insisted on a sincere pursuit of righteousness, or uprightness, as a requirement for the kingdom. It is not enough to know the Law and demand its formal observance; the more difficult course of pursuing the personal virtues described in the Sermon on the Mount is essential for acceptance by God.
The formula “You have heard that it was said to the men of old … But I say to you,” expresses the principles of the “new” righteousness in contrast to the old commands. Jesus’s new word is made binding upon the disciples of the new covenant.11 The new morality is a morality of inwardness and motive as well as of overt action. On the question of murder, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill’; … But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:21f).
Under the narrow interpretation of the old Law, it was held that there was no guilt until the overt act of murder was committed. But for Jesus the act itself was the end of the guilt, not the beginning of it. Anger or hostility is the beginning of murder, and one who feels anger or the hatred it may generate toward another is in danger of judgment.12 But one who throws insults at one of his fellows or calls him a fool to demean him as a person is even more liable.13 For Jesus, the obligation to be reconciled with one’s “brother” takes precedence over one’s duties to worship [p.86]at the Temple. The worship of God must be with a clear conscience; if a person is out of harmony with man, he is out of harmony with God.
Concerning adultery, Jesus’s standard, says Matthew (Mt 5:27-30), was stricter than the written law. Just as with anger, lust is the motive underlying and preceding an immoral act, an aggression against another person. “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.” In these verses, by the use of forceful, hyperbolic illustrations, Jesus insisted upon the importance of personal integrity.
On the subject of divorce (Mt 5:31f, 19:3-12), the parallels in Mark 10:11-12 and in Luke 16:18 say straightforwardly that “whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery.” Only in Matthew is there the exception “on the ground of unchastity.” It is possible that the exception in Matthew represents an early church interpretation of Jesus in support of its own rules or practice on divorce at the time the Gospel was written.14 In any case, according to Matthew, Jesus is pointing up the higher standard implicit in the Law which was to take effect when God’s kingdom comes. In that ideal realm, the worth of both persons would be held in such high esteem that divorce would be out of the question.
Jesus saw the folly of the custom of putting one’s self under oath as a guarantee of truth. “But I say to you, Do not swear at all” (Mt 5:33-37). False witness or lying cannot be prevented by merely requiring or giving an oath. One who is false at heart will lie if the pressure is sufficiently strong. Jesus clearly wanted the speech of his disciples to be simple, direct, free from oaths.15 Only the habit of truth and honesty can ensure the integrity of one’s word.
“An eye for an eye” had been the old Law, and presumably it was intended to set some limits upon the primitive instinct to [p.87]retaliate and punish more than the original hurt.16 Jesus’s instruction to turn the other cheek and love one’s enemies was dramatically different; perhaps none of his moral teachings has occasioned more comment. He may not have been pointing out how to respond to an act of physical violence so much as to an insult—a piece of social insolence. Jesus’s teaching was directed at those who suffer the scorn and contempt of the powerful and at those who would be disciples in the kingdom to come. They must be capable of living above personal insult and injury.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall … hate your enemy'” (Mt 5:43). The Jewish Law set forth in the Pentateuch does not enjoin hatred of enemies. Jesus seems to be opposing such attitudes, policies, and practices as are found, for instance, in the “Manual of Discipline” of the Qumran community. In this document, usually presumed to be a work of the Essenes, there is an injunction requiring both love and hatred: It is the duty of members “to love all that He has chosen and hate all that He has rejected.… to hate all the children of darkness.”17 According to Jesus, in the kingdom of Heaven love will be the natural emotion of the pure in heart. This is not the love of natural affection that is experienced, for instance, in filial relationships, but love conceived in the Greek sense as agape, a god-like love. Also, the Sermon continues, “pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” To be a disciple one must act as a true son of God. And God is impartial in his love—”he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.… And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others?” (Mt 5:45, 47). Love is neither born of, nor cultivated by, what is received from others.
It is a common error to suppose because Jesus laid such great stress on love as the foundation of religion and morality, a foundation which has always been central to the meaning of [p.88]Christianity, that Christianity in this respect is different in principle from Judaism with its legal and rabbinical tradition. But the Old Testament itself enjoined love not only in the works of the Prophets, as is seen superbly in such writings as Hosea, but in the Law itself, which Jesus quoted when asked concerning the greatest of the commandments. Nor is it true, as some suppose, that the Jewish legal tradition interpreted love simply in terms of formalism and externals, even though in the Gospels Jesus directed his accusations especially against such narrow, literalistic, and legalistic religion and morals. But it is true that the meaning of love in the teachings of Jesus and in the Christian tradition assumed a somewhat new meaning and character as a quality of supernatural grace expressed especially by the term agape.18
“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This is the summary of the new teaching begun in Matthew 5:17. The righteousness of the new covenant, according to the Sermon, must exceed the righteousness of those whose commitment to the externals of moral legislation and tradition blinds them to the full values of the very Law which they honor. In seeking a norm against which to measure human moral and spiritual possibilities, Jesus set a standard that reached toward and embraced the idea of perfection in God’s own character.
The Nature and Meaning of the Miracles
Nothing in the evangelists’ accounts has generated more concern, produced more discussion, or elicited more controversy than the accounts of Jesus’s miracles. In the main tradition of Christianity, they have generally been accepted as literally true. The more skeptical have rejected their historicity with varying explana-[p.89]tions for their inclusion in the Gospels. Those explanations have referred to the credulity, superstition, and mythical propensities of the early Christians and the Gospel writers, the attempts of the early church to celebrate the supernatural powers of Jesus to establish conclusively his messiahship and to place him in the line of the prophets as the harbinger of the kingdom, the Son of God. The miracles have been variously treated as literal truths, myths, legends, allegories, and symbols.19 A full consideration of the miracles, of course, includes not only those allegedly performed by Jesus but also the accounts of his miraculous birth, his resurrection, his appearances to the disciples, and his ascension.
The term “miracle” has been employed with various meanings, ranging from the unknown, uncommon, and misunderstood to the supernatural or the intervention of God in the processes of the natural order. Its most common meaning in theology is a sensible fact which is independent of, if not actually contrary to, natural law—an event produced by direct or supernatural power transcending the natural order.
It was commonplace for the Jews of Jesus’s time to believe in miracles. Miracles are recorded in the Old Testament and in the intertestamental literature. The Talmud refers to miracles performed by rabbis at the time of Jesus. But the Gospel accounts feature miracles to a far greater extent than do the books of the Old Testament or, indeed, the non-Christian Jewish literature of the time of Jesus. That Jesus had miraculous powers was clearly a matter of utmost importance to the evangelists and, without [p.90]doubt, to the early Christians for whom they composed the Gospels. The miracles appear to have been considered necessary to the success of Jesus’s ministry and quite surely were a foundation for the faith of his immediate disciples and the early church.20
The Gospel reports describe more than thirty miracles, and the early non-canonical Christian literature lists many more. The miracle accounts of the Gospels can be conveniently summarized under four headings: (1) exorcism, (2) healing, (3) control of nature, and (4) raising the dead.21 Miracles appear in all four Gospels, but John records only seven.22 However, the miracles described by John are especially impressive and seem to have been selected to exhibit the most spectacular supernatural power.
It is evident that not only the followers of Jesus but also many of his enemies believed in his miraculous powers. Nevertheless, according to the Gospel writers, many refused to accept the miracles as authentic. The question of whether or not the miraculous events as reported actually took place is not the only, nor necessarily the most important, issue for understanding the place of miracles in the New Testament. Of major interest are the evangelists’ motives or purposes in relating them. There are reasons for thinking that they believed the healing miracles were not per-[p.91]formed simply, or primarily, out of concern for human suffering, notwithstanding Jesus’s compassion. Some accounts make this clear. For the Gospel writers, whatever else their meaning, the miracles were demonstrations of superhuman power that testified to the calling of Jesus. They were signs of the imminent coming, if not indeed the actual presence, of the kingdom.
In the Gospel of John, for example, miracles are understood as signs exhibiting Jesus’s true identity and his power and glory, the source of which transcends the temporal order. The special feature of each miracle is a sign of some facet of Jesus’s unique inner quality, which is Spirit. Changing water into wine, for example, is a disclosure of the power of the Spirit to transform life. The power of the Spirit to give sight is manifest in the healing of the blind man at Siloam. In this instance being able to “see” has special meaning for the believer. According to John, while for most persons “seeing” is limited to the physical, the true believer “sees” Jesus’s true nature and glory and shares in his eternal life.
Mark’s account of Jesus rebuking the storm is the prime example of a miracle exhibiting the control of nature (Mk 4:35-41). According to Mark, as Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee, a storm arose. Although Jesus slept, the disciples believed the situation was desperate. They expressed their alarm with an emotional question: “Do you not care if we perish?” Jesus’s calming the storm gave Mark an occasion to comment on the faith, as well as the lack of faith, of the disciples. And it was an occasion for Mark to again, as at other times, portray the disciples as men who failed to understand Jesus despite his teachings and demonstrations of power, or perhaps because of them. Even those who were closest to him, according to Mark, failed to grasp the true character of his message and the deeper meaning of his actions.
Jesus and the others landed in the country of the Gerasenes, on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee. In Jesus’s time this region was the Decapolis, or ten allied, Greek-speaking hellenistic cities, which included Gadara, Gerasa, and Damascus. The population of this region was predominantly of gentile birth and hellenistic culture.
[p.92]According to Mark, after Jesus left the boat he was confronted by a demoniac living in a nearby cemetery, who apparently had become violent (Mk 5:2-13). All attempts to restrain him had been unsuccessful. Jesus’s authoritative command to the demons possessing the man: “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” restored him to normality. The demons then entered a herd of swine.
Some have held that this account of the healing was probably grafted to a local tradition of drowning swine stampeded by the ravings of a maniac. The Jews, of course, were forbidden to keep swine, which were regarded as unclean (Lv 11:7f), but this was predominantly gentile country. There can be little doubt that for Mark and the early church this event recorded a confrontation between two powers beyond the comprehension of ordinary men—the power of Satan and the power of Christ.
According to Mark, the swine herdsmen fled and reported what had happened. The villagers came and “saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, … and they were afraid” (Mk 5:15). Fearing his strange power, they begged Jesus to leave their neighborhood. The grateful man who had been possessed went away as Jesus instructed him and told of the great thing that had happened to him. And, Mark concluded, “all men marveled.”23
These two miracles, stilling the storm and healing the Gerasene demoniac, demonstrate, in Mark’s view, Jesus’s dominion over nature, man, and the demonic powers. They exhibit the power of God. They are supernatural miracles, signs that God’s kingdom is breaking in upon the world.
For the evangelists and the early church, Jesus’s ability to restore life demonstrated conclusively his true nature. Those miracles build progressively in dramatic power from the story of Jairus’s daughter near death to the widow’s son being carried to his grave to the account in John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, who had been in the tomb four days. In these events the Christian proclamation [p.93]about Jesus as the Messiah-Savior came to a dramatic climax—Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.
The setting for the story of Jairus’s daughter was probably the seashore near Capernaum. Here Jesus received the request of Jairus to heal his child. Jairus, who was an official at the synagogue, seems to have been a person of some wealth as well as a religious leader. In Mark’s account and that of Luke, the daughter of Jairus was still alive when her father came to Jesus, perhaps in a coma, but to heighten the dramatic effect, in Matthew’s record the child is reported to have just died (Mt 9:18). Apparently the mourners had already arrived at the house before Jairus returned. On such occasions even the poorest Jews would be expected to employ at least two flute players and a woman to lament. At Jairus’s home were many mourners. Mark wrote that Jesus “allowed no one to follow him [to Jairus’s house] except Peter and James and John the brother of James” (Mk 5:37).
The raising of Jairus’s daughter was a dramatic event. “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping” (Mk 5:39), Jesus exclaimed as he arrived. According to Mark, Jesus “said to her, ‘Talitha cumi’; which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ And immediately the girl got up and walked” (Mk 5:41f). Those present at the home were overcome with amazement. In Luke as in Mark, Jesus charged those present to say nothing of what had happened, but Matthew indicates that “the report of this went through all that district” (Mt 9:26).
The other instance in the Synoptics of Jesus’s reviving the dead, or, in the case of Jairus’s daughter, one who may have been in a coma, is the raising of the widow’s son at Nain (Lk 7:11-17). This miracle appears only in Luke. The funeral procession of the widow’s son apparently was on its way to the tombs or burial caves outside the city. Jesus and his followers met the mourners at the city gate. It was a mournful scene; the widow was borne down by the weight of her loss. But the raising of her son was not only an act of compassion for a grieving mother, it was, in Luke’s view, a sign of Jesus’s authority and power.
[p.94]Nain was a small village in southern Galilee, only a few miles south of Nazareth. The fact that this event occurred in Galilee, where in Old Testament times Elijah and Elisha imbued with the spirit and power of Yahweh led bands of prophets and worked great miracles, has special significance for Luke. The books of the Old Testament indicate that there were few prophets of note from the northern kingdom. Nevertheless, in the northern Hebrew tradition, Elijah and Elisha were among the most illustrious after Moses and Samuel. For Luke and Mark, Jesus stood within the prophetic tradition of the north. This meant that he performed the miracles which Elijah and Elisha performed. In this instance, he revived the widow’s son, as Elijah revived the dead son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:8-24) and Elisha raised up the dead son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kgs 4:8-37). As a silent reminder of the Elijah typology, the words “and he gave him to his mother” are from the Elijah story.24 Luke was careful to establish continuity between the power of these two prophets to work their miracles and the power of the Spirit in Jesus to do the same.25
In the opinion of some Old Testament scholars, the story of Elijah’s flight from Jezebel to Mount Sinai and his encounter with God in a cave (1 Kgs 19:1-14) represent Elijah’s return to Moses and to the source of Israel’s faith.26 For Luke and the early Christians, Jesus, like Elijah, represented a renewal of the faith. For them, Jesus provided the way to Moses and to a new life. And the people said, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” (Lk 7:16).
Following the account of the raising of Jairus’s daughter and of the woman who had been ill for twelve years (a miracle within a miracle), Matthew recorded two accounts (Mt 9:27-34) of Jesus’s extraordinary power—the healing of two blind men and the healing of [p.95]a dumb demoniac.27 These miracles involve the restoration of the faculties of sight and speech, miracles which for Matthew may have fulfilled Isaiah’s predictions: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy” (Is 35:5f).
Matthew saw in blindness a metaphor for unbelief. In a number of instances, according to Matthew, Jesus spoke of the Pharisees as blind: “Let them alone; they are blind guides” (Mt 15:14). Also, in Mark’s Gospel, failure to see, to perceive or understand, seems to have been a problem among Jesus’s own disciples: “Then are you also without understanding?” (Mk 7:18). Again in Mark, after the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus and his disciples were discussing the leaven of the Pharisees. They said, “We have no bread.” Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? … Having eyes do you not see. … And do you not yet remember?” (Mk 8:16-18).
A leading characteristic of Jesus’s teaching was his use of parables, which brought his principles down to earth and usually enabled his hearers to gain a better grasp of his meaning. A parable is generally a short story based on natural things, events, and ordinary happenings in everyday life. It presents, in a graphic and animated way, an ideal or principle which has moral and spiritual meaning, and it becomes an inspiration and concrete guide in the task of making the common decisions which everyone must face.28
In his lectures on the foundation of religion, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote perceptively about Jesus’s teachings and his use of parables: “In the Sermon on the Mount, and in the [p.96]Parables, there is no reasoning about the facts. They are seen with immeasurable innocence.” According to Whitehead, the reported sayings of Jesus are not formal, systematized statements expressed in a prescribed form or as a model. They are, he says, “descriptions of direct insight.” The ideas are in Jesus’s mind “as immediate pictures” which are drawn from life, expressed in metaphor, and not analyzed in terms of abstract or theoretical concepts.29
In the view of Joachim Jeremias, the parables represent a “firm historical foundation”; they “are a fragment of the original rock of tradition.”30 But Jeremias holds that the parables have sometimes been incorrectly interpreted. From the beginning, church theologians, constantly seeking hidden meanings, applied allegorical interpretations to Jesus’ parables, modifying and expanding them to meet the needs of the church in its own time and in the light of its current conditions. As a consequence, some of the parables have taken on a double historical meaning: what Jesus meant in his own historical setting, and what they came to mean in the continuing life of the church. The task of modern scholarship, then, is to get behind the allegorical interpretations of the early church to the life situation of Jesus and recover the original form of the parables.31
Jesus’s parables are pictures from his life. They take the reader back to Galilee in the first century CE. One may watch the housewife making bread or patching a worn garment. The reader may see the marketplace, walk through the field with the sower, or stand on the seashore observing the fishermen cast their nets. An analysis of a few of the parables is instructive.
Parable of the Sower
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since [p.97]they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Mt 13:3-8)
The Parable of the Sower reflects the degree of rejection that the early Christians experienced. It points to the failure of some to accept Jesus and of others to understand him. But placed in the setting of the life of Jesus, it is a parable of encouragement, for God has made a beginning and apparent failures should not bring despair. There is good soil and God has promised to bring in the kingdom, despite its rather feeble beginnings. What God has promised will surely come about.
In the opinion of Jeremias and others, the Christian church transformed this parable about the hopeful coming of the Kingdom at the end of the age into an allegory of warning to members of the Christian community to stand fast against worldliness in a time of persecution. The parable became an allegory of soil with the principal emphasis placed upon the kinds of soils (persons who hear the word). As the sower sows, his seeds fall into four different kinds of soils. Just as the harvest depends upon the kind of soil into which the seed is planted, so, according to the interpretation of the church, the teaching of Jesus will yield its fruits (noble character and a righteous world), depending upon the condition of the heart and mind of those who hear it. Jesus and all who seek to spread the truth are the “sowers.” Furthermore, according to Matthew, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold” (Mt 13:23).
Parable of the Weeds
Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the house-[p.98]holder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'” (Mt 13:24-30)
Like the others, the Parable of the Weeds (Tares) among the Wheat was not intended as an abstract treatise or rule for church discipline. This is Matthew’s replacement for the Markan parable of the Seed Growing Secretly. The parable is concerned with sensitivity to wrongdoing. Taken in its entirety it exhibits the delicate intermeshing of good and evil in human will and the difficulties and dangers in attempting to judge and separate them. “Let both [the weeds and wheat] grow together until the harvest” was Jesus’s instruction. Here is a realistic treatment of the attempt made by many moral and religious enthusiasts who believe that separation from sinners is required for a righteous society. This separatist theme was especially pronounced among the Essenes who believed that the religious institutions in Jerusalem—priesthood, Temple, and the ceremonial calendar—had been defiled. They insisted that they alone were the “faithful remnant” spoken of by Isaiah through whom God’s promise would be fulfilled. Many of them retired to the desert seeking separation and seclusion from sinners to establish the pure community of Israel and await the coming of the Messiah.
For Jesus, such a separating out of sinners for the purpose of purifying the community was a grievous error. In the early stages of preparing for the kingdom, wheat and tares are much alike, as are the righteous and the sinners. Judging and excluding for the sake of purity would imperil the chosen who were concealed among them. “Let both grow together”; God is in control “until the harvest.” The time of Judgment and of separation is imminent, but not yet; until that time repentance is possible.
[p.99]Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mk 4:26-29)
The Seed Growing Secretly, another parable of contrast, is found only in Mark and is the only Markan parable that is not copied by either Matthew or Luke. In this parable Jesus’s disciples were told to observe how the earth and seed produce a harvest by means of the power which is within them. So it is with God’s kingdom. From an insignificant beginning, suddenly through God’s power there is the triumphant emergence of the kingdom. What is hidden in the seed will surely come to fruition in its own time. Just so, God’s kingdom will surely come in its own time and by its own power.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Mt 13:31f)
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of several parables which focus on growth: the parables of the Tares, the Seed Growing Secretly, the Net, and the Leaven. Each begins with “The kingdom of God is like” or “It is as if.” A mustard seed grows silently and naturally into a large sheltering plant. It is the least, the smallest, of seeds; yet, it becomes “the greatest of shrubs … so that the birds … come and make nests in its branches.” Here Jesus’s concern is probably to encourage and reassure his small company of disciples that the movement to which they were attached, with small beginnings, could yet become a transforming force. Perhaps the occasion was brought on by doubt and skepticism [p.100]which he had sensed among some of his disciples. According to Jeremias, Jesus’s encouraging response was, “With the same compelling certainty that causes a tall shrub to grow out of a minute grain of mustard-seed … will God’s miraculous power cause my small band to swell into the mighty host of the people of God in the Messianic Age.”32
According to Albert Schweitzer, it was Jesus’s view that God is preparing a secret like one experiences in nature. The parables, he says, are signs of the secret. As the harvest follows from the sowing without any apparent explanation, so will the kingdom come with great power, a consequence of moral renewal: “Repentance and moral renewal in prospect of the Kingdom of God are like a pressure which is exerted in order to compel its appearance. This movement had begun with the days of the Baptist.”33
Parable of the Leaven
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.” (Mt 13:33)
The figures of leaven, the mustard seed, and the seed that silently germinates illustrate certain characteristics of the kingdom. The parable of the mustard seed reveals the extensive growth of the kingdom from a small beginning, and the figure of the leaven extends this meaning. There is no coercion from the outside; the power of fermentation and growth is within.34
[p.101]The parables of growth, in the view of C. H. Dodd, are commentaries on the actual situation during the ministry of Jesus. They are metaphors about the coming of the kingdom of God in history. “They are not to be taken as implying a long process of development introduced by the ministry of Jesus and to be consummated by His second advent, though the Church later understood them in that sense.”35 In these parables, Jesus is teaching that the growth of the kingdom of God would be natural and silent, yet transforming and complete, “till it was all leavened.”
Parable of the Net
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Mt 13:47-50)
The Parable of the Net, found only in Matthew, is a comparison to the Parable of the Tares. Both appear to have been made over by the church as allegorical descriptions of the last judgment. The original point of the parable as told by Jesus apparently was to impress upon his disciples the necessity for patience until the time for judgment, which would be determined by God. Prior to the time of selection, edible and non-edible fish were mixed.36 Fishermen cannot discern what the net holds until precisely the right moment. In Jesus’s view of the coming kingdom, that right moment had not yet come; therefore, the net must be cast widely. Also, as had been indicated earlier, Jesus applied the metaphor of catching fish to the call of his first disciples: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).
Dodd suggests that there is a process of selection implicit in the metaphor of the net. The proclamation about the kingdom [p.102](like the net) is to all without distinction, but the appeal itself is selective in that it calls for an immediate decision, a judgment on the part of the hearer. Dodd says, “This selection is the divine judgment, though men pass it upon themselves by their ultimate attitude to the appeal.”37 According to this view, selection and judgment are not imposed upon people from the outside but emerge in the very process of deciding and believing.
Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mt 13:44-46)
The parables were apparently specific responses to particular situations of importance which Jesus encountered. Now and again someone plowing or digging in a field would accidentally discover buried items, and under Roman law the discoverer was allowed to keep one-half of the treasure’s value. It is not the central point of the parable of the hidden treasure to consider the morality of the farmer’s action in purchasing the field from an unsuspecting owner in order to gain the treasure. To press the question of the farmer’s culpability would thwart the purpose and aim of the parable. Actually, these two parables make the same point: the kingdom of God is the supreme treasure—worth more than all other possessions—the pearl without peer. The Kingdom of God is upon you. Decide for it now without hesitation.
The Parables as Secret Sayings
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. … because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Mt 13:10-13)
[p.103]There is a persistent question of whether Jesus intended to obscure his meaning through the use of parables as puzzles, as Matthew and Mark seem to suggest, or as a means of enlightening listeners by drawing upon their experiences and personal resources. Matthew suggests that spiritual blindness was upon the Jews (Mt 13:14f) which, he says, is in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Hear and hear, but do not understand” (Is 6:9f). Those who heard but received nothing from the parables fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that they were not capable of understanding. However, those given to know the secrets of the kingdom heard and understood. Mark’s view is different. He says that Jesus spoke in parables for “those outside … so that they may indeed see but not perceive” (Mk 4:11f).
There is some precedent for the interpretation of Jesus’s use of parables as puzzles in The Book of Enoch, a collection of pseudepigraphic writings dating from the first or second century BCE.38 “The Parable of Enoch” contains a similar notion of hiddenness; “And he took up his parable and said—Enoch a righteous man, whose eyes were opened by God, saw the vision of the Holy One in the heavens [which] the angels showed me, and from them I heard everything … but not for this generation, but for a remote one which is for to come.” Albert Schweitzer held that the secrecy theme in the parables about the secret of the kingdom of God is authentic to Jesus: How the mustard seed becomes the greatest of shrubs, according to Schweitzer, is the secret.39
However, many New Testament scholars believe that concealment is contrary to the spirit and purpose of Jesus’s ministry as clearly indicated elsewhere in the synoptic Gospels. Dodd concluded that the idea that Jesus “desired not to be understood by the people in general, and therefore clothed His teaching in un-[p.104]intelligible forms, cannot be made credible on any reasonable reading of the Gospels.”40
If Jesus’s intention was to clarify lofty and somewhat abstract ideas about the kingdom by means of concrete parables or stories, why is his meaning at times so elusive and susceptible to a variety of interpretations? J. C. Fenton has offered a plausible explanation of this predicament. “When Jesus used a parable,” he wrote, “its meaning was probably clear to his audience from the context in which he used it—though his audience may not always have wanted to understand his meaning. What seems to have happened is: the parables were remembered without their context, new meanings were read into them, they were put to new uses in the life of the Church, and the original intention of the parables was forgotten. It was then thought that Jesus had used parables in order to hide his message, and sayings of Jesus from another context were used to express this attitude.”41
The extent to which the practice developed of putting Jesus’s sayings “to new use” in the life of the church may be seen in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas, which was translated from the original Greek into Coptic, is a collection of parable-like materials, sayings, prophecies, and proverbs dating from about 150 CE. Its authorship is attributed to Didymos Judas Thomas, assumed by the Syrian Christian Church to have been the apostle and a twin brother of Jesus. The resemblance of this document to the synoptic Gospels, particularly to Matthew and Luke, is immediately evident to the reader. But Thomas is distinctly different. Thomas is a sayings source which assumes that secrecy was the most significant feature of Jesus’s teachings. The Gospel begins with the announcement that “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.”42 Thomas promises that “whoever finds the [p.105]interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.” This esoteric document, which is concerned with both the origin and destiny of the individual, shows later Gnostic influence, but in much of its substance its source may have been related to a primary source of the Synoptics.
1. Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” 6:20-49, includes the Beatitudes (6:20-23), love of one’s enemies (6:27-36), judging (6:37-42), tests of goodness (6:43-46), and the statement on hearers and doers of the word (6:47-49). Luke also includes an important feature in the introduction to the sermon—that following his night of prayer Jesus chose the twelve disciples and then delivered the sermon (6:12f, 17f.).
3. Luke reports that, in addition to his disciples, a “great multitude” came to hear Jesus “from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon” (Lk 6:17). Matthew says at the end of the sermon that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (Mt 7:28).
5. The parallel material in Luke (6:20f), “you poor,” “you that hunger now,” “you that weep now,” seems to some scholars to be closer to the real spirit of Jesus’ teaching than the Matthean statements.
9. Water and light are frequently used by the Gospel writers, especially John, as symbols of Jesus’s life-giving power. In Matthew’s view these admonitions probably mean that Israel had lost its savor, which could not be restored. The Christian church is the new Israel.
10. The portion of the Jewish Canon known as the Nebiim (Prophets) comprises the Former Prophets, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and the Latter Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve minor prophets. The canonical books were all in existence and highly honored in Jesus’s day, but the canon was not officially and finally settled until the rabbinical Synod of Jamnia (Jabneh) about 90 CE.
11. It is commonly assumed that the expression in Matthew (5:21f, 27f, 33f, 38f, 43f), “You have heard,” refers to the teachings of the past, presumably time-honored teachings that were accepted in Jesus’s time by the official guardians of the moral law. However, David Daube holds that this may be simply a narrow, literalistic understanding of the Law to which Jesus is objecting in Matthew. In Daube’s interpretation, “You have heard” might be read as “You have literally understood” or “You might understand literally” (David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism [London, 1956], 55-62).
12. Jesus’s teachings emphasizing motive and intention are not unique to Judaism. For example Rabbi Eliezer (ca. 90 CE) is reported to have said, “He who hates his neighbour, lo he belongs to the shedders of blood” (quoted from Fenton, Matthew, 87).
14. J. C. Fenton suggests that “the permission to allow divorce in certain circumstances seems to be one example of the use of this authority [Mt 16:19; 18:18] by the early Church; cf. 1 Cor. 7:12ff, 25ff, where Paul … distinguishes clearly and explicitly between his opinion and the Lord’s command” (Fenton, Matthew, 90).
16. “Then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex 21:23ff). The same warning is found in Lv 24:19f and in Dt 19:21.
18. For the meaning of agape in the Christian religion, see especially the classic work by Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (New York, 1969). For an analysis of the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity, see the work of the Jewish scholar Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1958); Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, trans. Victor Grubenweiser and Leonard Pearl (New York, 1948); and Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith, trans. Norman P. Goldhawk (New York, 1961). See also Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (New York, 1973).
19. For an interesting, exhaustive treatment of the problem of the miracles, see the early (1835) monumental work by David Friedrich Strauss, Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. George Eliot, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Philadelphia, 1972). Strauss treated miracles primarily in terms of mythology. Like many others today, the contemporary British historian Michael Grant sees them from a naturalistic standpoint. For Grant, the miracle stories serve to symbolize and point up the establishment of the kingdom. “Since, then, the kingdom of God according to Jesus’s conviction was not only about to be consummated in the immediate future but was already dawning by his own agency, the Gospels’ claim that his miraculous actions conquered and reversed the processes of nature in the world and among human beings constituted an assertion that these deeds both prefigured the Kingdom’s imminent consummation and symbolized and actually formed part of its current initial unfolding” (Michael Grant, Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels [New York, 1977], 44).
20. The Roman Catholic church enjoins its members to accept not only the miracles recorded in scripture but also the continuation of miracles to the present. Beatification and canonization, with few exceptions, have been associated with miracles. It is more characteristic of traditional Protestantism to accept simply the scriptural miracles, though miraculous claims are common today among evangelical Protestants.
21. In his celebrated essay “Of Miracles,” the Scottish philosopher David Hume provided skeptics with their classic maxim for assessing miracle claims: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavours to establish” (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [New York, 1955], Sec. X, Pt. I). The Jewish historian Joseph Klausner divided the miracles of Jesus reported in the Gospels into five categories: (1) “Miracles due to a wish to fulfill some statement in the Old Testament or to imitate some Prophet”; (2) “Poetical descriptions which, in the minds of the disciples, were transformed into miracles”; (3) “Illusions”; (4) “Acts only apparently miraculous”; and (5) “The curing of numerous ‘nerve-cases'” (Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Herbert Danby [London, 1947], 267-70).
22. Four of these miracles are unique to John’s Gospel: changing water to wine in Cana (Jn 2:1-11), healing the impotent man at Bethzatha (5:2-9), giving sight to the man born blind (9:1-12), and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-44).
23. Whereas in several of the miracles reported in Mark, Jesus charged those present to say nothing of them to others, here at Gerasa, in gentile territory—possibly the present village of Khersa on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee—he advised the healed demoniac to tell his friends what had happened (Mk 5:19f).
25. The similarities between the report of Elisha’s feeding the people with twenty barley loaves (2 Kgs 4:42-44) and the accounts of all four Gospels of Jesus feeding the five thousand lend support to this interpretation.
28. Charles H. Dodd describes the parable as a metaphor and simile “drawn from nature or common life.” The parables, he says, “are perhaps the most characteristic element in the teaching of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels.… Certainly there is no part of the Gospel record which has for the reader a clearer ring of authenticity” (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom [New York, 1961], 1).
32. Jeremias, Parables of Jesus, 149. Jeremias, 146-60, classifies the Parables of the Mustard Seed, the Leaven, the Sower, the Patient Husbandman (the Seed Growing Secretly), the Unjust Judge, and the Man Asking for Help by Night as parables of the Great Assurance.
34. Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 63, 155, points out that the nearest parallel to the Parable of the Leaven in Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:21 is to be found in Luke’s puzzling statement, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:20f). Dodd points out that two other possible translations are “is among you” or “is within your power.” The RSV says “in the midst of you.”
37. Dodd holds that the process of selection, a sifting among the disciples of Jesus, is shown in the Gospels: “A rich man comes … asking the way to life: [p.103]he is tested by the call to abandon his riches, and fails (Mk 10:17-22). … Another is called to follow, but pleads for time to bury his father” (Mt 8:21). Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 151f.