The Helping Hand of Thomas
One of the ways the authors of
Matthew and the other gospels massaged their sources was to turn the often
brief sayings they had into elaborate allegories.
The allegory was one of the most favoured ways of
"making a point" in the ancient world - a form which persisted in frequent
use into medieval times. Today, though less used, it's still a popular
An allegory is a
fictional narrative that conveys a symbolic meaning through its details.
The term derives from the Greek allegoria which means "speaking
otherwise". Allegory has also been defined as an extended metaphor. The
symbolic meaning of an allegory is usually expressed through
personification and other symbols. Thus a father or a son is intended to
symbolise an otherwise concealed lesson; or an animal or event stand for
another hidden moral.
Jesus may have
used allegory - but none of the surviving material we can attribute
historically to him takes this form. Thus when allegory appears in the
gospels it is most likely the work of the gospel author.
The Parable of
the Sower is a good example. Mark 4.3-20 has three main sections:
The first consists of the parable itself. It concludes with a
statement characteristic of the sayings of Jesus: "Those with good
hearing had better listen!" Very few scholars maintain that this section
is not one of Jesus' authentic parables.
The second section tells readers what the purpose of parables is.
The tone is Gnostic. That is, it refers to an inner circle of people to
whom "the secret of the kingdom of God" has been given, contrasted with
"those outside" to whom "everything comes in parables". Gnostic teaching
was common in the Church's earlier years.
The third section explains what the story is supposedly actually
all about. In so doing it transforms the story from a parable into an
allegory, with the various outcomes of seeding representing various
meanings or morals.
A parable is a story anchored in daily life, but to which no particular
interpretation is attached. This is not to say that a parable has no
meaning, or that its meaning may not be obvious. But it leaves the drawing
of conclusions about meaning to the hearer, who will know the elements of
the story intimately from his or her daily life.
This may present
the modern reader with considerable problems. One example is the parable
with the traditional title of "The Wicked Husbandmen" or "The Wicked
Tenants" (Matthew 21.33-41; Mark 12.1-9; Luke 20.9-16).
these three versions leads into a short section which implies that there
is a "correct" interpretation of the story. The son who is killed is (of
course) Jesus himself, the "stone that the builders rejected" (Psalm
118.22). The wicked tenants are (of course) those who refuse to hear the
gospel and are crushed by God's justice in the last days. The vineyard is
the empire of God (in contrast to the oppressive Roman Empire) through
which power will be taken away from the rich and powerful who now run
The explanations are the work of the gospel authors, probably
reflecting the kind of thinking which went on in the communities of which
they were members. It's worth noting here that these communities may not
have thought of themselves as Christian. Rather, they may have seen
themselves as Jews who had identified the Messiah and who were now
following the correct path to God.
A strong clue to
the parable's original form is given in the version preserved by the
Gospel of Thomas, which isn't in allegorical form and has no added
interpretation. It runs:
person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers so they could work
it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so that
the farmers would give him the vineyard's crop. They grabbed him, beat
him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master.
His master said, "Perhaps he didn't know them." He sent another slave,
and the farmers beat that one up as well. Then his master sent his son
and said, "Perhaps they'll show my son some respect." Because the
farmers knew that he was heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and
The Gospel of
Thomas may have been written down some years after that of Matthew (though
a minority of scholars place it as early as 50
- some 30 or so years before Matthew's). Whatever the case, it's a good
example of material which has been preserved in nearly original form and
which helps us sort out what Jesus probably said from the
interpretation and commentary of the canonical gospel authors.
Not only do
modern readers need to recognise these additions and interpretations, but
they also should be aware that they may not have enough knowledge of the
social customs and laws of first-century Palestine to get the point that
Jesus was making. Getting the point is even more difficult for those who
have had drummed into them, perhaps over many years, the traditionally
"correct" meanings of the parables.
The Parable of
the Wicked Tenants might be better titled "The Parable of the Leased
Vineyard" - which is neutral and says nothing about its potential meaning.
If so, its central point may be other than theological teaching about the
coming of God's kingdom in the near future and the justification of
Christians on judgement day.
background to the parable is important. It can't be guessed from the
Herod the Great remained in power for some 40 years. He was
regarded by his Roman overlords as a model ruler, mainly because he saw
to it that taxes were paid to Rome and because he kept the peace. His
great achievements were, however, bought at the cost of grave suffering
on the part of ordinary people in Palestine. Perhaps even more exacting
than forced labour and heavy taxes, was the loss by a majority of
peasants of their land. By Jesus' time, many men whose families had
previously been landed, had to earn a living either by fishing or a
trade. The rest continued farming - but now as tenants of absentee
landlords, in effect bound to semi-slavery.
As in Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries, the wealthy of the
Roman Empire (a tiny group, far less than 1 percent of the population)
derived their money mainly from the revenues of their estates. A
quotation from the Roman historian Cicero illustrates.
Writing about a proposed reform of land-laws he says:
"I ... proposed to omit all clauses which adversely affected
private rights ... [of] the landed gentry ... I thought that two
advantages might accrue [from a good reform] - the dregs might be
drawn from the city, and the deserted portions of Italy might be
In short, few of the powerful would have thought anything of owning
land and taking from it the maximum revenue it would deliver. Perhaps
it is true that a tenant who became a landowner would adopt the same
attitude, in which case the actions of the tenants in the parable
would have been understandable.
Palestine after the death of Herod the Great in 4bce
was ripe for revolution. A number of small uprisings and religious
movements disturbed the peace many times before the final upheaval in
66. In the year 70, after four years of war, Jerusalem was razed to the
ground, much of the population was dispersed from the countryside, and a
Roman place of worship was built on the site of the Hebrew Temple. In
other words, the rebellious tenants of the parable would have echoed the
more general air of unrest in Palestine at the time.
A somewhat obscure Roman law specified that if the heir to an
estate died intestate, the land would revert to the tenants who held it.
We have no way of knowing if Jesus' hearers would have known about this
law, but it does illuminate an otherwise rather puzzling aspect of the
The average person is unaware or only dimly aware of the existence of
sources of knowledge about Jesus other than the gospels. Many assume, for
example, that the letters of Paul tell us a great deal about Jesus. In
fact, Paul did not know Jesus personally. Almost all his writing is his
own theology, derived from Hebrew teaching and from the Pharisees.
Contemporary scholars are presently exploring the distinct possibility
that the Gospel of Thomas and others gospels will provide them with
important new insights into the life and times of Jesus
The upshot in this case is that the contemporary reader
may struggle to invest this parable with meaning. Might it mean, for
example, that poor people are to resist oppression in the same way that
the tenants did, that social violence is sometimes justified? Or does it
mean that every person has the right to the fruits of his or her own
property? Or perhaps we should take from the parable some sort of
"spiritual" meaning? Maybe Jesus was trying to get across something about
social justice, and the duty of the rich and powerful to treat those less
fortunate than themselves with scrupulous fairness.
strength of the parable form is that it encourages listeners to think for
themselves in their own situations. As Jesus often said, "Let those whose
hearing is good listen carefully!"
 Cicero and the Roman Republic, F R Cowell,
 Other important gospels are: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas; the
Infancy Gospel of James; five fragmentary gospels; the Gospel of
the Hebrews; the Gospel of the Ebionites; and the Gospel of