Who Will Avenge the Vineyard Tenants?

Thanks to Stephen Carlson for mentioning Richard Rohrbaugh’s RBL review of Kloppenborg’s The Tenants in the Vineyard. I almost included this story (Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65) in my parable series from a couple years ago.

Like Kloppenborg I think the standard allegorical reading of the parable is too problematic. The original story (I don’t understand his distinction between “originating structures” and “original versions”; sounds like needless terminology play) was probably about the futility of peasant revolt, and it ended at Mk 12:9/Mt 21:41/Lk 20:16a. So says William Herzog:

“Peasant revolts followed a typical pattern. They erupted unexpectedly, perhaps spontaneously, in response to a provocation that threatened even the subsistence of peasants. Because they were unpredictable and because they were supported by the peasantry as a whole, the rebels may have survived for a time, winning a few victories. But eventually and inevitably, the sanctioned power of the state would crush them. The codification of peasant revolt ends on a similar note: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”… In its closing question, the parable codifies the futility of violence under these circumstances.” (Parables as Subversive Speech, p 113)

Richard Horsley, on the other hand, is happy to read the parable allegorically and accept the vineyard as a metaphor for Israel. But he salvages a peasant reading by associating the “wicked tenants” with priestly aristocrats (Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 305-306). The synoptic writers put a Christological spin on the allegory, but Jesus was simply pronouncing doom on the rich as the prophets always had:

“You elders and princes who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (Isa 3:14)

The rich (tenants) were destroying the vineyard of Israel as always.

If we’re looking for an original version of the parable, either of the above will do. Herzog’s is non-allegorical and forces listeners to come to terms with the futility of revolt by underscoring the inevitable. The tenants are misguided good guys with whom peasants would have identified, and the landowner is a tyrant. The parable ends by asking, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” (Mk 12:9a) The answer is obvious — “He’ll kick your ass and just get some new tenants!” (Mk 12:9b) — but like many obvious answers, it needs spelling out to those who go on heedless.

Horsley’s reading is allegorical, promising judgment on the Judean elite. The tenants are the bad guys, and the landowner is God. But ironically, the message is still the same: only God can crush the evils and injustices of the present age.

4 thoughts on “Who Will Avenge the Vineyard Tenants?

  1. Loren, I´ll have to read Kloppenborg´s book first before I make a final judgement but from a glance at Rohrbaughs review that perennial red herring Gospel of Thomas is leading Kloppenborg astray again. I had this discussion with Stevan Davies,Mahlon Smith and Bill Arnal on the old Crosstalk ages ago and it is still nonsensical to claim that the version in Thomas lacks allegorical features. And there is no need at all to presume that a single word of this parable goes back to the historical Jesus. It was a fullblown allegorical parable made up by the early church right from the beginning and the standard allegorical reading of the parable (son=Jesus), (owner=God), tenants (Israel´s leaders) make perfect sense.

  2. Antonio,I agree that Thomas’ version is just as allegorical as the synoptic — or at least just as reinterpreted to suit a gnostic point of view. But it’s ridiculous to claim, as you do, that <>“there is no need at all to presume that a single word of this parable goes back to the historical Jesus”.<> Just as Thomas can reinterptet a synoptic saying, the synoptics can reinterpret a Jesus-saying. Pretty much everyone agrees (as do I) that Jesus was heavy-handed with parables. The parable genre doesn’t occur in the Hebrew Bible or Hellenistic literature, and even in the Christian tradition parables aren’t found outside the synoptics, Thomas, and Apocryphon of James. In other words, they either show up in abundance or not at all. Meaning there wasn’t as much creativity or imagination with parables as with other aspects of the Jesus tradition. (Synoptic and gnostic allegorizations actually support this: allegories signal a lack of creativity/imagination.) That’s not to say that all parables go back to Jesus, but most of them probably do in some way.My analysis above (as for the other five parables < HREF="http://lorenrosson.blogspot.com/2006/06/those-peasant-parables.html" REL="nofollow">here<>) operates under the assumption that the Leased Vineyard goes back to Jesus in some way. Maybe it doesn’t, but I agree with those who reverse the burden of proof for authenticity here: the burden is on the one who claims a parable is <>not<> from the historical Jesus.

  3. Loren,happy to see that you agree with me that the version of the Vineyard parable in Thomas is just as allegorical as the synoptics. But I don´t understand where you got the idea that “the parable genre does not occur in the hebrew bible”. It definitely does. Jesus or the gospel writers did not invent the jewish parable genre. There are at least five allegorical parables in the OT. Among them you should take a closer look at 2 Samuel 7:1 and Isaiah 5:1 (the original wineyard parable which is already allegorical). There are hundreds of parables in the Talmud and Midrash rabbah, and although these stories may have been written down later than the NT I think it would be preposterous to argue that Jesus or the early christians taught the craft of making parables to the rabbis. I think it is more probable that the Talmud and midrash preserve part of the parable tradition jewish teachers contemporary with Jesus lived with. And after years of studying the gospels I am not as sure as I was at the beginning with the standard consensus that the historical Jesus was heavyhanded with parables. On the contrary I see the contributions of the gospel writers themselves with growing clarity. Maybe it´s all a mirage, maybe not -;)

  4. Antonio, I realize that a few parables crop up in the Hebrew Bible (Nathan’s in II Sam 12:1-10 is probably the best known), but not to the extent that we can speak of a pervasive genre as in the synoptics and Thomas. A mere five examples, as you note, are obviously more exceptional than the rule. But as I acknowledged in the post (regarding your citation of Isaiah), Jesus could well have been speaking allegorically (per Horsley) without the later Christological trappings. Something an apocalyptic would have done.

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