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Introduction

This website was born out of years of trying to help well-meaning Christians understand that a lot of the ways they interpret Jesus's parables have the unfortunate side-effect of reinforcing stereotypes, misunderstanding, and prejudice about Jews and Judaism.

I'm Jewish, but I have Christian family and have done a fair amount of interfaith stuff, and I frequently get frustrated with how Christians talk about Jesus's parables, since their interpretations usually end up being:

  • Bad storytelling

  • Banal

  • Antisemitic

While I think Jesus was, overall, a pretty ordinary 1st-century Pharisee—moderate on some issues (gender, legal flexibility), conservative on others (divorce, foreigners, thought-crimes), and radical on a few (celibacy, eschatology)—there is one area in which he really stands out for me: he was an excellent storyteller. 

 

As a professional storyteller—and story analyst—myself, I genuinely love a lot of these stories, because like Torah, they read the reader as much as the reader reads them. 

I don't love how often the way they (and the rest of the NT) are interpreted to reify prejudice toward Jews and Judaism. Many Christians don't seem aware that Judaism continued to grow and evolve as a living tradition after the time of Jesus—in their minds, it seems to have frozen at that point.​

Christian ignorance about Jewish practice leads to beloved figures like Jimmy Carter proclaiming that the Jews of Jesus's time treated women "worse than the Taliban" (which would have come as a great surprise, I think, to the many first-century Jewish women who owned their own homes and businesses, managed their own money, traveled freely, argued for their rights in court, led synagogues, and were among patrons who made the preaching careers of rabbis like Jesus possible). 

That same ignorance can also lead to tragedies like a man in California shooting members of a synagogue in Poway—his rage inspired, at least in part, by what he'd learned at his Presbyterian church. 

It may be difficult to accept that the authors of the New Testament, engaged in a battle to distinguish themselves in the world's eyes as more than simply another Jewish sect, might not have been scrupulously honest in their portrayal of Jews and Judaism, but nearly 2000 years of Christian persecution, expulsion, torture, and genocide of Jews attest to the harm done by uncritically reading what the NT has to say about Jews and Jewish practices. 

Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl lists three rules for engaging with faith traditions outside one's own:

  1. When trying to learn about another tradition, you should ask its adherents and not its enemies.

  2. Don't compare your best to their worst.

  3. Leave room for 'holy envy."

 

If that's good practice in any engagement between faiths, how much more should it be followed by the largest faith in the world when dealing with one much smaller and more vulnerable? 

Why Should Jews Care About the Parables?

In addition to caring about how we're represented and how representations of our history affect perceptions of us today, I think we should care about the parables because, if Jesus existed and told these stories, they're Jewish storytelling from a period from which very little else has survived. 

We should care because these stories and how they're interpreted are a major component in Western culture, but more than that, if they're authentic, they're a missing link between biblical parables and rabbinic ones. 

Problems With Christian Readings

When I hear the NT parables preached, referenced, or discussed in Christian circles (and for the record, that means pretty much everywhere in the US, because even people who aren't practicing Christians still reference things like the Good Samaritan using the accepted meanings of these stories that have accreted over the centuries), I'm struck by how they're treated like Aesop's fables: allegories with a single, simple moral in which every element in the story—characters, their actions, and so on—matches up neatly with the real-world situation or behavior the parable is allegorizing.

That is, to put it mildly, not how Jews engage with our texts and stories. My rabbi says Judaism is a good tradition for people who like questions and not such a great one for people who need answers, and if the culture has one defining element, it's probably a severe allergy to the idea that there's a single "right" interpretation of anything. Two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes. Or seven opinions. Or eighteen. We can't even agree on the number of opinions in the joke. 

To be fair to generations of Christian preachers, this flattening of enigmatic, multivalent stories actually starts with the text of the gospels themselves. Luke immediately attaches an explicit moral to each story—sometimes before telling the story itself, which is a crime against narrative and would get him hounded off social media for giving away spoilers today—and Matthew has to make every last thing a fulfillment of prophecy somehow. It's probably not surprising that most pastors seem to have an index in their head:

Disclaimers

 

Let's get a few things out of the way first.

  1. I don't necessarily believe that Jesus, as he's portrayed in the Gospels, existed. Nevertheless, what I'm engaging with here isn't whether or not he actually existed as described—it's the text itself, which obviously treats him as real. 

  2. If the idea that, in trying to distinguish early Christianity from Judaism, the gospel writers had an agenda and may have been, shall we say, less than scrupulously honest in their portrayal of Jews and Judaism is going to offend you, this is not the website for you.

  3. I believe, along with most biblical scholars, that the gospels were written significantly after when Jesus would have been alive, and post-date other parts of the New Testament. 

help even people you don't like = The Good Samaritan 

don't be ostentatious about your piety = Pharisee and Tax Collector

 

There are also a number of ways that this leads to accidentally antisemitic takes on the stories, but rather than try to explain that here, I'll just let you see it in action in the articles on the parables themselves.

What to do about it

I believe that the best way to break these lively, challenging stories out of the petrifying accretion of centuries of oversimplification is to take them out of the gospel-writers' explanatory context, which wouldn't have been available to their original audience. (When Jesus decided to tell the story about the persistent widow and the recalcitrant judge, Luke didn't pop up out of nowhere to inform the listeners that they were about to hear a story about how they should pray hard.) 

Note that I'm not saying don't ever read that context. Learning about different interpretations of the same story is one of the joys of sharing tales across generations. I'm just saying don't start with it. Story first, interpretation second.

In order to hear them as their original audience would have heard them, there are a number of things I think are important to do (or not do) when approaching them. Treat them first as:

  • Stories: The parables are, first and foremost, stories a Jewish teacher was telling to a Jewish audience. They had to work on their own, as self-contained stories, to be comprehensible to the audience. That’s how I’m approaching them.

  • Not allegorical, but referential: (especially retroactively applied/anachronistic ones): Resist an immediate move to allegory, in which each element in a story must stand for something specific outside the story, and the story requires a key to understand. Allegory is fine, but don’t start there.

  • Not answer-providers but question-raisers: We should look at them as stories intended to raise questions, because, again, that’s how the form works in its cultural context. Jewish parables don’t exist to be comforting and simple. They exist to challenge their audience.

  • Challenging: If it’s difficult to hear, one is probably on the right track.

  • Arising out of, not against, their Jewish context: Almost everything Jesus said is actually in keeping with Jewish beliefs and concerns of the time, not in conflict with them.

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Parables and Antisemitism

There are a number of ways that readings of the parables can go to ugly places. Some are obvious—reading either the rocky ground or the thorny ground in the parable of the sower as representing Jews—while others get there by more circuitous routes.

Christian clergy and writers who know enough about Jewish parables to understand that they're supposed to be challenging sometimes still want to hold onto the familiar, traditional meaning. This generally leads to suggesting that this simple, obvious meaning was somehow challenging to the original audience. So if the meaning of the Prodigal Son parable is we should have compassion and forgiveness for people who screw up, then Jesus's original Jewish audience must have been shocked and challenged by the idea of compassion and forgiveness for people who screw up. 

The end result of this is the implication that Jesus's original Jewish audience must, logically, have been either exceptionally stupid or exceptionally evil, because compassion and forgiveness are pretty universal human values. 

 

The two statues pictured on either side of this section are traditional representations of Ecclesia (the church, who stands proud and triumphant) and Synagoga (the synagogue, blindfolded, holding a broken staff, and staring at the ground, humiliated and beaten). 

This is part of an enduring trend in which Jesus is defined over and above—rather than within—his Jewish context. As Dr. Amy-Jill Levine notes in a number of her lectures, this takes the form of the assumption that whatever Jesus did, the other Jews of his time must have been doing the opposite. If Jesus was preaching good news to the poor, the rabbis must have had contempt for the poor and been preaching good news to the rich.

Judaism is--whether tacitly or explicitly--presented as the problem Jesus came to solve. 

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What Is a Parable (in Judaism?)

In English, a parable is a story that parallels or compares things: a story that is somehow connected to a real-world situation in a way designed to make a point about that situation.
 

In Hebrew, it's a mashal, a name with which may be derived from the root for "rulership." It can indicate a comparison, but it's often used in the sense of "cautionary tale."

וְהִכְרַתִּ֣י אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מֵעַ֨ל פְּנֵ֤י הָאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָתַ֣תִּי לָהֶ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבַּ֙יִת֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הִקְדַּ֣שְׁתִּי לִשְׁמִ֔י אֲשַׁלַּ֖ח מֵעַ֣ל פָּנָ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל לְמָשָׁ֥ל וְלִשְׁנִינָ֖ה בְּכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

then I will sweep Israel off the land which I gave them; I will reject the House which I have consecrated to My name; and Israel shall become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. (1 Kings 9:7)

וָאֶתְּנָ֣ה לְבוּשִׁ֣י שָׂ֑ק וָאֱהִ֖י לָהֶ֣ם לְמָשָֽׁל׃

I made sackcloth my garment; I became a byword among them. (Psalms 69:12)

I read a paper once connecting the word with the meaning "sharpness," but I can't find it now. David Stern, the director of Harvard's Center for Jewish studies, has an excellent chapter on it:

Neither a secret tale with a hidden meaning nor a transparent story with a clear-cut moral, the mashal is a narrative that actively elicits from its audience the application of its message—or what we would call its interpretation.

Note well that a Jewish mashal is neither so esoteric that only initiates can understand it nor so simple that the moral is obvious. It's designed to provoke the audience to interpret it. It's not a passive teaching tool; it's an active one.

This is, of course, an oversimplification of what a mashal is, so I recommend reading my entry on what a parable is for a deeper dive. 

A Note on My Readings

Finally, I want to note that my purpose here is not to present the "correct" reading of any parable—my entire point is that contrary to much of Christian interpretive tradition, there isn't a single correct reading. Sometimes my readings might feel like a stretch; well and good, then. I'm trying to open up readings, not shut them down.

My goal is to shake the stories loose of the accumulated dust of centuries and show that they can be read in very different ways from the ones that that tradition has accepted, and that they don't need to be read in ways that denigrated or dismissed Jews or Judaism. 

Art Notes

Phillipe de Champaigne, Moses with the Ten Commandments

 

Ecclesia and Synagoga, Strasbourg Cathedral, France, 1230