The Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Context

I have decided to begin keeping an eye out for ‘stand out’ Th.M. papers, those that really seem to exemplify the kind of well-researched, thoughtfully argued, and biblically/theologically informed papers that we are hoping to produce through the Th.M. program. When one of these comes along (and I’d like to see one or two every semester), we will be posting them on this site so that we can all read and interact with them. Our inaugural contribution comes from Ben Johnson on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. The following is his summary of the paper; the actual paper is available here. Please give Ben your thoughts and questions in the comments.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Context: Jesus’ Interpretation of the Song of the Vineyard in the Light of Second Temple Jewish Parallels
A Summary

By Ben Johnson
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mk. 12:1-9/Mt. 21:33-46/Lk. 20:9-19; also GThom 65-66) is one of the most important and most variedly interpreted parables in the New Testament. Many commentators suggest that the only plausibly historical way of interpreting this parable is to strip it from its synoptic context (in the midst of Jesus’ Temple controversy) and to remove from it its reference to Isa. 5:1-7 which forces an allegorical interpretation of it. I suggest, however, that if we are looking for an historically plausible Jesus, then we are looking for one who both fits plausibly within the Judaism of his day, and yet is controversial enough within that Judaism to have been crucified and founded a community which later broke with that Judaism. By looking at several other Second Temple Jewish interpretations of Isa. 5:1-7 we can see that Jesus’ interpretation of Isa. 5:1-7 in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants fits these criteria perfectly.

LXX. Examining the interpretation evident in the LXX version of Isa. 5:1-7 leads to the following observations:  1) LXX Isa. 5:1-7 shows signs of smoothing or harmonization that is typical of LXX Isaiah. 2) It has updated the viticultural language to reflect the agricultural practices of the translator’s Hellenized culture. 3) It has envisaged the divine judgment upon the vineyard as destruction (as the MT did) but also as the removal of the divine presence. 4) It may also suggest that the phrase ‘a man had a vineyard’ is an idiomatic introduction to a certain type of tale. DSS. Looking at two texts in particular, 4QpIsab (4Q162) and 4Q500 leads to the following interpretive observations: First, in both 4QpIsab and 4Q500 we see the allegorization of the Song of the vineyard.  Second, in both 4QpIsab and 4Q500 we see that the allegorization of the indictment of the vineyard was directed at the Jewish leadership: the temple in 4Q500 and the ‘men of Judah’ in 4QpIsab. Third, we see in 4QpIsab the association of the judgment upon the vineyard with the withdrawal of the divine presence. Finally, in the biblical citation in line 1 of 4QpIsab, there is a change in the text from the MT which suggests an ‘eschatologization’ of the position of the community in its interpretation of the Song.

Targum Isaiah. The interpretive importance of the Isaiah Targum can be summarized as follows: we see that it has made even more explicit, elements which were implicitly noted in previous texts we have examined, such as the parabolic nature of the Song, the identification of the vineyard with the Temple and the removal of the divine presence. The judgment has also been contemporized and extended to include all the Jewish religious leadership by the inclusion of the synagogues in the judgment. The targumic version of Isa. 5:1-7 has also introduced the concept of inheritance, equating the vineyard with Israel’s inheritance, an element which is explicitly in mind in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. 3 Baruch. 3 Baruch interprets the destruction of the vineyard as destruction which came with the Babylonian exile, but also interprets it in light of the author’s present context, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The vineyard imagery has become a vehicle by which to interpret the theological importance of the authors present circumstance. Also, 3 Baruch has interpreted the judgment upon the vineyard as being ‘handed over’ to her enemies, just as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants sees that judgment as being ‘handed over.’

Several elements of Jesus’ interpretation of the Song of the Vineyard are characteristically Jewish. First, in its present context the Parable of the Wicked Tenants is clearly an indictment of the religious authorities, just as the various Second Temple Jewish interpretations were. Second, because of the clear reference to Isa. 5:1-7, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants must be interpreted allegorically, just as all of the Second Temple Jewish Interpretations of the Song of the Vineyard were. Third, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants envisages the judgment as the removal of divine presence (the vineyard owner goes away) just as many of the interpretations we saw. It also envisages judgment as handing the vineyard over to tenants or other people just as in 3 Baruch.

The only unique element of the Parable is Jesus’ understanding of his own role within the story. However, for Jesus to see himself as a climactic prophet, proclaiming judgment on the religious authorities and expecting to suffer a prophets judgment is well within the bounds of a historical Jesus and does not bear any of the clear marks of the post-Easter church changing the text. I conclude, that the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, as Jesus originally spoke it, must be understood to both look like the version of the Parable in the synoptics and be interpreted in its synoptic context of Jesus’ controversy with the Temple authorities.

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