Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, The

Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, The

Keylock, Leslie R

The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation. By Brad H. Young. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998, xv + 332 pp., $24.95.

Whereas a century ago the focus of much NT research was on the Greek roots of the Biblical authors, today there is a strong tendency to see Jesus and the evangelists in terms of inter-testamental and Second-Temple Judaism. Jesus and Paul, it is stressed, were both Jews.

Young counters the widespread conclusion that many parts of the parables, and the interpretations given in the Gospels in particular, are later additions and do not come from Jesus. His methodology is to compare the parables of Jesus, including themes and individual expressions, to Jewish parables that reflect a similar theme and wording. The book is full of Jewish parables and stories that have some similarity to Jesus’ major parables (usually most tangential, it must be admitted). In the book’s fifteen chapters Young groups Jesus’ parables by theme and quotes rabbinic haggadah that contain a similar element.

His sparring partner is most often Joachim Jeremias, probably the foremost interpreter of Jesus’ parables in the 20th century. Even though Jeremias emphasized the Jewish background of Jesus’ parables, Young can say, “Jeremias has misunderstood the world of ancient Jewish thought” (p. 69), insisting that he erred primarily by claiming that Jesus broke away from traditional Judaism by teaching grace instead of reward.

Young divides his 15 chapters into six parts. The first part discusses the historical development and theological significance of parables in Judaism and Christianity. The other five parts break Jesus’ parables down by themes: Part 1, “Jewish Prayer and the Parables of Jesus,” Part 2, the parables of the contemptible friend and the corrupt judge, Part 3, “Parables of Grace in the Gospels and Their Theological Foundations in ancient Judaism” (the parables of the fair employer and the talents), Part 4, “Teaching in Parables: The Theology of Reconciliation between God and Humanity in Both Judaism and Christianity” (the Samaritan, the merciful lord and his unforgiving servant, the father of two lost sons, the two debtors), Part 5, “The Disciple’s Call: A Life of Learning and Doing” (the great banquet, the lost sheep and coin, the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, the tower builder and the king going to war, the unjust steward), and Part 6, “Torah Learning and God’s Reign” (four types of hearers [sower], the rich fool, the ten maidens, the good and bad fish, and the wheat and the tares).

The strength of this book is its quotation and analysis of many little-known Jewish parables, most from a later period than the time of Jesus, admittedly, but nevertheless having roots that go back perhaps to Second-Temple Judaism. Young challenges earlier interpretations, because Christian scholars did not know the Jewish roots of and background to the teachings of Jesus. As a result, they “frequently miss the deeper level of meaning” (p. 101) of the parables. In fact, a negative view of Jews and Judaism, he insists, has always proved detrimental to a correct understanding of this important literary form. “Jesus and his teachings must be placed in the midst of his own people rather than in conflict with them” (p. 123). Just as Deissmann a century ago mined the Greek papyri for parallels to NT Greek words and customs, so Young has mined the Jewish materials, and the rabbinics in particular.

Young is also critical of Karl Barth’s tendency to read Jesus’ parables “through the eyes of the church’s beliefs about Jesus rather than first-century Jewish beliefs about God” (p. 132). Young tends to see Jesus in disjunction with the early church and shows no awareness of N. T. Wright’s brilliant defense of the idea that those numerous NT scholars who make a disjunction between Second-Temple Judaism and Jesus or between Jesus and the early church are mistaken. Wright is not mentioned at all in the index of names and subjects, in fact. Young also shows no awareness of Craig Blomberg’s seminal work on the parables, though he quotes himself and his mentor, David Flusser, in support of Blomberg’s argument that a parable may have multiple points of comparison.

Young did his doctoral work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem under David Flusser and frequently quotes him with complete approval. Flusser in the foreword to the book commends Young’s “great new book” because he shows that “Jesus is both a foundation of the Christian faith and at the same time an integral part of Second Temple period Judaism” (p. ix). Where the two authors differ from Jeremias is in seeing Jewish thought not only as a background for Jesus but rather the original context and natural framework of his message.

The book has at least two weaknesses. One is its pedestrian style, which makes the book hard to read. The second is the tendency to diminish the differences to the place where it is hard to credit the Gospels with historical accuracy when they portray some Jews in a negative light. In fact, for Young, “the Romans crucified Jesus” (p. 174). It is hard to see why the Jewish leaders would have been opposed to the Jesus Young presents.

But Young has done an outstanding job of showing Jesus’ Jewish heritage.

Leslie R. Keylock

Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Copyright Evangelical Theological Society Sep 2000

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