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The Texts Behind Jesus' Parable of the Tenants

To explain the place of Jesus in Israel's story, the writers of the New Testament made frequent reference to the Hebrew Scriptures, following the example of Yeshua himself. Some of these scriptural references are direct quotations, while many others are indirect allusions. The more we are tuned into these references, the deeper our understanding of the passages in which they appear.

As an example, consider the parable of the tenants, recorded in Matt 21:33-44, Mark 12:1-11, and Luke 20:9-18. This parable contains a scriptural quotation and several clear allusions.

Jesus begins his parable with a man who "planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country" (Mark 12:1). The description here evokes Isaiah 5:1-7, which pictures the people of Israel as a vineyard lovingly nurtured and developed by God (see also Ps 80:8-16; Jer 2:21). Based on the connection with Isaiah 5, we anticipate that the vineyard owner in Mark 12:1 represents God, while the vineyard again is Israel.

In Isaiah 5 the nation of Israel faces divine judgment for failing to bear good fruit. In the parable, Israel's leaders, represented by the tenants who manage the vineyard for the owner, are singled out for rebuke. When the owner sends servants to collect fruit from the vineyard, the tenants beat or kill them (Mark 12:2-5). This part of the parable refers to the times when God sent prophets to correct Israel, and those prophets were either abused (Jer 20:1-2; 37:15) or put to death (1 Kings 18:4,13; Jer 26:20-23; 2 Chron 24:21-22).

Finally, the owner sends "a beloved son" (Mark 12:6). The phrase "beloved son" recalls the way that God addressed Jesus at his baptism and transfiguration (Mark 1:11; 9:7), making clear that the son in the parable represents Jesus. This phrase also connects Jesus with Isaac, a beloved son who was to be sacrificed (Gen 22:2,12); with the Davidic king in Psalm 2:7; and with the beloved messianic Servant in Isaiah 42:1.

When the owner's son arrives at the vineyard, the tenants say, "This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours" (Mark 12:7). The Greek words for "come, let us kill him" in Mark 12:7 are identical to those used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis 37:20, where Joseph's brothers plot to kill him. The allusion to Genesis 37 in the parable associates Jesus with Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and spent years as a prisoner, but he later rose to be a prominent official in Egypt and saved many lives during a famine. Analogously, Jesus would be turned over to Romans authorities and killed, but he then would rise from the dead for the salvation of the world.

After the tenants kill the son, the vineyard owner "will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others" (Mark 12:9). This implies that it is the leaders opposing Jesus who will be rejected by God, not Israel as a whole. Jesus states that the parable illustrates Psalm 118:22-23: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes." The fact that Jesus would be rejected and subsequently exalted was no surprise to God, but instead was part of his eternal plan, recorded in sacred scripture centuries before.

The biblical echoes in the story of the tenants help us to interpret his parable and better understand the role of Jesus in God's plan. We can especially appreciate the value of these references if we see what the parable would be like without them. In fact, such a version appears in the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal Christian work compiled in the middle to late second century A.D.(1)

The Gospel of Thomas consists of 114 sayings, described as "hidden words that the living Jesus spoke." Some of the sayings are familiar from the canonical Gospels, while others are quite cryptic and sound more like the words of a Zen Master than those of a Jewish rabbi. For instance, here is saying 112: "Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh." Hmm.

Gospel of Thomas 65 is a short, revised version of the tenant parable: "He said: A good man had a vineyard. He gave it to tenants that they might cultivate it and he might receive its fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him; a little more and they would have killed him. The servant came and told it to his master. His master said, Perhaps he did not know them. He sent another servant; the tenants beat him as well. Then the master sent his son. He said, Perhaps they will respect my son. Since those tenants knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. He who has ears, let him hear."

If we were not already familiar with the parable from the canonical Gospels, we would have more difficulty interpreting saying 65. Saying 66 adds, "Show me the stone which the builders rejected. It is the cornerstone." Without the scriptural allusions in Mark 12:1-12, it is not so clear how sayings 65 and 66 are connected.

The omission of scriptural allusions in saying 65 seems to be deliberate. The Gospel of Thomas in general lacks interest in the Hebrew Scriptures, as evidenced by saying 52: "His disciples said to him, Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and all of them spoke in you. He said to them, You have omitted the one living in your presence and have spoken [only] of the dead." Twenty four was a traditional count for the number of books in the Hebrew Scriptures (see 4 Ezra 14:45). Saying 52 dismisses these books as irrelevant, the words of the dead rather than of the living Jesus.

The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas is a promulgator of enigmatic sayings who has no real connection to the Hebrew Scriptures or the Jewish people. The sad truth of the matter is that is also the only Jesus so many church attendees know. The canonical Gospels, on the other hand, reveal the true historical Jesus as Son of the God of Israel: a master teacher in the tradition of the Sages and an interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures in the tradition of the Prophets. He is also the one in whom those Scriptures are fulfilled.


(1) Richard B. Hays contrasts the canonical and Gospel of Thomas versions on pp. 9-12 of Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, Baylor University Press, 2014.


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