Editor’s Note: For this post, Art Dewey draws from his book The Complete Gospel Parallels to provide an in-depth analysis of the Parable of the Tenants. We invite you to compare the passages below to refamiliarize yourself with the story, especially as found in the Thomas Gospel.
The Parable of the Tenants
33Listen to another parable.
There once was a landlord who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it, built a tower, leased it out to some farmers, and went abroad.
34Now when harvest time ar- rived, he sent his slaves to the farmers to collect his crop.
35And the farmers grabbed his slaves, and one they beat and another they killed, and another they stoned.
36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first group,
and they did the same thing to them.
37Then finally he sent his son to them, with the thought, “They’ll show my son some respect.”
38But when the farmers recognized the son they said to one another,
“This guy’s the heir! Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance!”
39And they grabbed him, dragged him outside the vine- yard, and killed him.
40When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers then?
41They say to him, “He’ll mas- sacre those scum and lease the vineyard out to other farmers who will deliver their produce to him at the proper time.”
1And he began to speak to them in parables. A man planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a winepress, built a tower, leased it out to some farmers, and went abroad.
2In due time he sent a slave to the farmers to collect his share of the vineyard’s crop from them.
3But they grabbed him, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.
4And again he sent another slave to them, but they at- tacked him and abused him.
5Then he sent another, and this one they killed; many others followed, some of whom they beat, others of whom they killed.
6Finally he sent his son, whom he loved. He said to himself, “They will show this son of mine some respect.”
7But those farmers said to one another, “This guy’s the heir! Come on, let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours!”
8So they grabbed him, and killed him, and threw him outside the vineyard.
9What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come in person, and massacre those farmers, and give the vineyard to others.
9Then he began to tell the people this parable. A man planted a vineyard, leased it out to some farmers, and went abroad for an ex- tended time.
10In due course he sent a slave to the farmers, so they could pay him his share of the vineyard’s crop. But the farmers beat him and sent him away empty-handed.
11He repeated his action by sending another slave; but they beat him up too, and humiliated him, and sent him away empty-handed.
12And he sent yet a third slave; but they injured him and threw him out.
13Then the owner of the vine- yard asked himself, “What should I do now? I’ll send my son, the one I love. They’ll probably show him some respect.”
14But when the farmers recog- nized him, they talked it over, and concluded,
“This guy’s the heir.
Let’s kill him so the inheritance will be ours.”
15So they dragged him outside the vineyard and killed him.
So what will the owner of the vineyard do to them?
16He will come in person, massacre those farmers, and give the vineyard to others.
Th 65:1–8; 66
1A [greedy]a man owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them.
2He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop.
3They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master.
4His master said, “Perhaps he didn’t know them.”b
5He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well.
6Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.”
7Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him.
8Whoever has ears to hear should listen.*
The Synoptic Gospels } 163
42Jesus says to them,
“It seems you haven’t read in scripture:
‘A stone that the builders threw away has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing, something we find amazing.’
43So take my word for it: God’s empire will be taken away from you and given to a people that bears its fruit.”c
45And when the chief priests and Pharisees heard his par- able, they understood that he was talking about them.
46They wanted to seize him, but were afraid of the crowds, because everyone thought he was a prophet.
22:1–14 #175, p. 132
10It seems you haven’t read in scripture:
“A stone that the builders threw away has ended up as the keystone. 11It was the Lord’s doing, something we find amazing.”
They kept looking for some opportunity to seize him, but they were afraid of the crowd because they understood that he had aimed the parable at them. So they left him there and went away.
When they heard this, they said, “God forbid!”
17But Jesus looked them straight in the eye and said, “What can this scripture pos- sibly mean:
‘A stone that the builders threw away has ended up as the keystone’?
18Everyone who falls over that stone will be smashed to bits, and anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
19The scholars and the chief priests wanted to lay hands on him then and there, but they were afraid of the people be- cause they understood he had aimed this parable at them.
Show me the stone that the builders rejected: that is the keystone.
* Mt 11:15; 13:9; 13:43b; Mk 4:9; 4:23; Lk 8:8b; 14:35b; Th 8:4; 21:10; 24:2; 63:4; 96:3
a Th 65:1 A lacuna in the papyrus makes the Coptic here uncertain; the hole can be filled in to read either “good man” or “greedy man.”
b Th 65:4 Perhaps he didn’t know them: Some scholars believe that the text should be emended here to read: “Perhaps they didn’t know him.”
c Mt 21:43 Many mss add a v. 44: “The one who falls over this stone will be smashed to pieces, and anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
For many Bible readers the story of the “tenant farmers’ revolt” in Thomas 65 seems rather contrary to the message and vision of Jesus of Nazareth. However, they become relieved when they listen to the version found in the Gospel of Mark (ch.12), as well as Matthew’s and Luke’s versions, which use Mark as their source. For now, let’s focus on Mark. Here, the story can be seen quite clearly as another condemnation of the leaders of Israel. (As they did to the prophets of old, so they did to Jesus. And look what has happened to them!)
The Jesus Seminar did not rest with that traditional reading of Mark. Instead, the Seminar took into consideration all of the evidence available. That approach meant the saying from the Gospel of Thomas had to be considered.
When a critical analysis is made on all of the comparative material, a very different reading of the story of the “tenant farmers’ revolt” emerges. Moreover, the Seminar scholars found that the Markan version of the tenant farmers actually was a rewriting by the writer of Mark. Both Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a source, followed Mark’s new direction.
In the following consideration we shall see what happens when we read these texts in their historical and rhetorical contexts. We shall also see what implications there are for today’s Bible readers.
As seen above (in the Complete Gospel Parallels) there are four versions of this story. And as we’ve already noted, Matthew and Luke both derive their versions from Mark. However, Thomas is independent of Mark. This means that in the tradition, two versions (Thomas and Mark) were passed down before Matthew and Luke were written. Were the Thomas and Mark versions simply oral variations (called performantial variations according to scholars) or is there another way of comparing these versions?
From recent research in the parables of Jesus one can argue the following.
First, we can observe that Thomas 65 is structured according to the oral law of three (e.g. “Goldilocks and the three bears”). Two slaves are sent, then the son as a climax. Such a structure suggests an oral origin.
This finding contrasts with the version of Mark. Notice in Mark the indefinite number of slaves sent. The oral law of three has been lost. Also notice, as we note below, certain insertions into Mark’s version of the story. Both Matthew and Luke follow Mark in those points.
Second, the scene in Thomas coincides well with what we know of the social and political situation in Galilee during the time of Jesus. Many people were displaced from their own land and were forced to hire themselves off to absentee landlords. Imagine being a tenant farmer on land your grandfather once owned and you can begin to understand how difficult it was to be a victim of this turn of events.
Third, Roman law of that time allowed for “squatters” to take over land if the heir was no longer alive. According to the custom, an heir had to claim the property by actually coming and taking it over.
Fourth, the language and imagination of this parable fits well with other arguably authentic sayings of Jesus (where people seize their golden opportunity).
Fifth, the apparently shocking image also is part of the historical Jesus’ repertoire. Many of the parables and aphorisms shock and stimulate the audience into thinking about what God’s Empire (power and presence) implies for them.
Sixth, contemporary gospel research distinguishes parable from allegory. A parable is a short narrative designed to question the listeners’ assumptions. Allegory is a narrative in which the meaning of the story is found outside of the story, that is, the various parts in the story take their meaning from references outside of the story (e.g., Animal Farm is not about animals taking over the farm of Farmer Brown; rather, it is about the Russian Revolution.).
Let us go back to the beginning of Thomas and read it as a story—but not according to Mark’s version.
A man (the text itself is unclear; it could be “greedy” or “good” man) has lent out his property and now wants the return on his investment. He sends slaves to collect the portion of the crop since he is, in effect, an absentee landlord.
There were many in Israel at the time. Some were wealthy Jews, who lived in the south (Judea) or non-Jews who lived in the surrounding region. The tenant farmers would be Galilean Jews. The listeners to this story would not identify with the absentee landlord. Rather, they would probably relate to the situation of the tenant farmers.
Now, instead of receiving what the owner considers his due, his representatives are sent packing. He then sends his son as a sign of his power (“They’ll show my son some respect”). The farmers continue to deny the owner. In fact, they kill the son.
Notice how both sides have made assumptions.
The owner thinks that the tenant farmers will give in to his power. In this honor/shame society, power is the underlying reality. The tenant farmers, however, interpret the son’s arrival as an indication that the father is dead (“they know he was the heir”). So, they kill him, assuming that the father is dead and that they would have squatters’ rights to the land.
But only the audience knows the whole story.
They know that the tenants have made a fatal mistake. The father is alive. And they also know that the father also has miscalculated.
As the audience ponder the story’s direction, they will be struck by how futile those efforts were.
They knew that once the father hears of the son’s killing, Roman soldiers will be called in and the tenants will be crucified. Their plan to possess the land will go nowhere. But what future does the owner have? Why have land if not to bestow it on one’s offspring?
The parable has done its job in making the listeners question their assumptions. As the audience members ponder the story’s direction, they will be struck by how futile those efforts were.
It is important for us to step back and ask what the social, political, and cultural assumptions were, upon which the story turns.
Both sides acted ultimately on the assumption that one wins by having an advantage over others. One wins at the expense of another.
This is precisely the domination system of the Roman empire.
Each side is angling for an advantage, as a wrestler looks for a way to pin his opponent. This is the “agon” (Greek for struggle, competition) of the ancient world. What this parable does is to cast a devastating light on the bankruptcy of this system. The ultimate result is disaster for all concerned.
Is this a story from Jesus of Nazareth?
First, one can argue that this is probably the earliest version of the story. (Below we shall point out where Mark has changed the story in format, content, and meaning.)
Second, the Thomas version shows signs of an oral performance. Again, this fits with what we have learned of the career of Jesus of Nazareth.
Third, the social situation would have been well known at the time, along with the assumptions on which the actors in the story rely.
Fourth, the story is not a story that one would hear from the lips of many people. The story is distinctive in the sense that it runs contrary to the basic assumptions of the domination structures of the first century.
For all of these reasons the story is quite likely from Jesus. Thomas 65 thus is probably the earliest version and closest to the understanding of the historical Jesus.
Let us make the following observations on Mark 12.
First, Mark uses Isaiah 5:1–7 in verses 1–9 and Psalm 118:22–23 in verses 10–11. Such use of texts from the Hebrew scriptures would indicate the hand of a scribe, well versed in that material. In fact, the material from Isaiah 5 would allow the listener to recall Yahweh’s complaint against the leaders of the people.
Second, we need to identify the “they/them” in verses 1 and 12 and the “you” in verse 10. (Cf. Mark 11:27.)
Third, we need to read before and after the text in Mark. When we do that, we can see that Mark 11:15–12:44 is a continuous series of debates, controversies, and polemic. There is a decided argument against the leaders of the Jews.
Fourth, one should take note of the larger context of the community of Mark who saw themselves as participants in the drama of the end time. For the Markan community the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) marked the beginning of the end. Now was the time to follow as disciples of Jesus in this cosmic struggle. Most likely the community was in Syria, diaspora Jews who were now reaching out to “the nations” in their midst.
Fifth, the argument in this text may well be another version of intra-Jewish polemic (see Matthew below). The use of scriptural traditions and polemic would fit well with the developments of the early Jesus movements in Syria and Palestine. In fact, Mark’s critique of the leaders of the Jews parallels Josephus’ complaint about the leaders during the war against Rome.
We can thus see that the writer of the Gospel of Mark has thoroughly allegorized the original parable
As such, the listener can identify from the outset with the situation of the owner of the vineyard, as the echoes from Isaiah 5 sink in. The slaves sent out are now seen as the various prophets sent to the people of Israel. And the son of the owner, now described as the “one beloved” (see the baptism scene in Mark 1:11, echoing Psalm 2:7; this word is only used here and in Mark 1:11) would be understood by the Markan audience as Jesus. The killing would then be seen as the crucifixion of Jesus and the subsequent punishment coming true in the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. The critique would be seen clearly against the leaders of the people (but not the people).
In short, Mark has turned the story on its head. From a provocative telling by the historical Jesus about the madness of an agonistic domination system, the Markan version reverses that criticism and transmutes the story into a condemnation of those who disagree with the Markan community. The struggle is on again.
Let us now turn to Matthew’s version (Luke follows Mark without the dramatic revision that Matthew presents.)
In its present format Matthew 21:33–43 is an obvious allegory. The Matthaean community has come to grips with the fall of Jerusalem and has seen in this historical disaster a connection to Israel’s record of infidelity. Following the lead of Mark, the death of Jesus is understood as the culmination of the long-standing rejection of the prophets of God by the people. God has continued to offer the covenantal promise; the response has not been resoundingly positive.
This revision of Mark was an attempt by the Matthaean community to gain some insight into the tragic history of the Jewish people. We must remember that the Matthaean community saw itself in competition with the Pharisees over which group was to represent the people of Israel.
Matthew’s community saw themselves as the true Israel carrying forward the correct interpretation of Torah through the prism of the wisdom of the One in their midst. We cannot therefore describe this story in its historical context as anti-Semitic. Rather, it was one side of the debate for the revival of Israel.
In fact, it represented a critical vein of the Jewish prophetic tradition. It was one side of essentially an intra-Jewish debate. We can see this quite clearly in carrying forward the appropriation of Isaiah 5 by Mark (cf. Mark 12:1–11 above).
What was probably a parable by the historical Jesus had been turned into an allegory concerning the fate of the prophets, Jesus and Israel. Matthew has taken this over, filled it out, and added the threatening verse 43. We should further note that this particular version in Matthew was aimed at what the community considered to be the contemporary opposition (see verse 45), namely the Pharisaic leadership at Jamnia.
This allegory then, is very much a polemical assault. Historical events have been viewed through the grid of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. From the prophetic viewpoint, if disaster has occurred then there has been a violation of the covenantal relationship. The fall of Jerusalem has been understood this way.
Moreover, the death of Jesus—about forty years before—is seen within the larger interpretive pattern of the killing of the earlier prophets. Even the Jewish historian Josephus saw the fall of Jerusalem in similar judgmental terms (without reference to Jesus of course).
But as with every prophetic indictment there is another angle of reading.
It could have signaled the occasion for repentance. While it may have been historically unlikely that such a version would have brought many non-Jesus believers into the “fold,” nevertheless this story did convey the possibility of thinking things over. Could it be that you have been wrong about things? Could you have misjudged the worth of that Nazarene? Remember, from the Matthaean community’s point of view, the “justice” connection between the death of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem makes sense only if the destiny of Jesus is seen as intimately tied up with the Jewish people.
The danger of this text is that it can be (and has been) interpreted in an anti-Semitic fashion.
One can easily do this by forgetting the Jewish matrix of the material. Once the historical context has been jettisoned there is usually little regard for the original intent. Then the triumphal image of Christianity is paraded at the expense of the Jewish people. At best they become a “thing of the past.”
What this text is trying to deal with, however, is precisely the realization that the Jews (from Matthew’s perspective) were not simply “to be written off.” On the contrary, such severe words were designed to shock fellow Jews into understanding what the Matthaean community saw as God’s will for the people. If that was so then, can it be any less now? Can those who still read this text afford to take their fellow Jews less seriously but without the dominating assumption?
As for the Seminar voting: Thomas would be seen as authentic RED. Mark would carry some of the original material but has been significantly changed: GRAY. Both Luke and Matthew follow Mark: GRAY. Thus, we would include Thomas 65 within the sayings of the historical Jesus.
Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
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