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New undesigned coincidence: The parable of the wicked tenants

There are some very minor differences in wording among Matthew's, Mark's, and Luke's accounts of Jesus' parable of the wicked tenants during Passion Week. You can read Matthew's here, Luke's here, and Mark's here.

Mark's, as is so often the case, is the shortest. Each of Luke and Matthew contains some material that Mark doesn't have, including some small material that each other do not have.

A difference that redaction critics have made a particularly big deal of is between Matthew and Mark. Mark says that Jesus said this, at the climax of his story:

"What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others." (Mark 12:9)

Matthew actually shows the surrounding audience answering Jesus' rhetorical question:

"When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” (Matthew 21:40-41)

Luke is similar to Mark at that point in that it shows only Jesus answering his own question, not the crowd. It also contains a small bit extra:

"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” (Luke 20:15b-16)

The "surely not" response of the crowd is unique to Luke.

Redactive critics focus on the fact that Jesus asks and answers his own question in Mark and Luke and that the crowd (or religious leaders) answer the question in Matthew. A critic with a theological/ideological redactive focus will usually suggest that this is Matthew's attempt to stick it to the Jewish leaders by making them pronounce their own judgement. A critic with a literary focus will suggest that Matthew is composing a short dialogue based on Mark's account in which only Jesus speaks. Presumably for the sake of greater literary interest. The similarity in Matthew is undeniable to the account of Nathan coming to David and telling him a parable about a rich man who stole a poor man's one ewe lamb and killed her. David said that the rich man should die, and Nathan then said, "Thou art the man!" Here, too, Jesus tells a parable and the audience says that the wicked tenants deserve severe punishment without realizing at first that the parable is directed against them.

Matthew continues:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. (Matt. 21:43-45)

All three gospels have the quotation from Psalm 118. All of them say that the leaders saw that Jesus was speaking about the nation, wanted to arrest him, but feared the people. Matthew and Luke both have Jesus' additional words about falling on the stone and being crushed by the stone. Unique to Matthew is Jesus' explicit statement in verse 43:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.

The redactive hypotheses of "turning into a dialogue" and/or casting the religious leaders in a bad light by making them pronounce their own judgement are both unnecessary. As I have always said, once we take seriously the possibility that Matthew was an eyewitness or even had eyewitness sources, yes, even when he is telling a story that is told in Mark, we have more resources available to us. The preference for Mark over Matthew, ubiquitous in NT scholarship, also needs to be challenged. Here it is entirely plausible that some in the crowd did speak up, as recorded in Matthew, and answered the question about what the king will do to his wicked tenants. There are often some members of an audience who like to participate by answering a rhetorical question asked by the teacher. We don't even know for sure who the "they" were who piped up. If Jesus then said something like, "That's right; that's exactly what he will do," this may well have been remembered by Peter (say) as Jesus' having affirmed that the owner would come and destroy the wicked tenants, and he may have told the story in that extremely moderately and recognizably paraphrased version to Mark. Alternatively, Jesus and the crowd could have spoken at approximately the same time. (Biblical critics, especially those with a redactive bias, typically overlook the possibility that multiple people spoke at once.)

A clue that Matthew's unique material in this passage is actually true, based on knowledge of the events rather than his desire to amplify the events from his imagination, comes from an undesigned coincidence with Luke.

Notice that, as Luke tells the story, something is left unexplained: The members of the audience say, "Surely not!" when Jesus says that the owner of the vineyard will come and destroy the tenants. (The Greek in Luke is something like, "May it not be!" the equivalent of "God forbid!" in modern English.)

But at that point, they and Jesus appear in Luke still to be talking about the parable. Nobody has pointed out the point of the parable. Why would they "jump the gun" by showing so much sympathy for the wicked tenants? Please remember that this is not a world full of pacifists! The audience would not be expressing horror over the king's destroying just anybody, because "destroying" is cruel! Clearly, in Luke, the audience recognizes the application of the parable to the Jewish nation and is responding to that. But nobody has made that application in Luke, and it seems a little bit much that the audience would simply make the leap all on their own to that application and exclaim in horror at the prediction of the punishment of their own nation for wickedness. Normally people don't rush to make unflattering applications to themselves and accept those applications!

Matthew, here, explains Luke. If we suppose that Jesus' words in Matthew 21:43, stating explicitly that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to another people, came prior to their exclaiming, "May it not be!" as given in Luke 20:16, everything makes sense. Jesus expressly pointed the moral of his parable, and the people cried out in horror.

This does mean that probably the order of Jesus' words overall was a tiny bit different from that given in Matthew. For example, he may have quoted Psalm 118 after rather than before giving the moral of the story. But such a difference in order falls well within the bounds of recognizable paraphrase based on simple memory variation.

Luke does not include Jesus' pointing the moral of the story. The people's exclamation is left oddly unexplained in Luke. Matthew does not give the exclamation at all; he simply records Jesus' statement that the kingdom will be taken from them. A classic undesigned coincidence.

The important point is that we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that, if a story is both in Mark and Matthew, Matthew got it from Mark with no independent knowledge of his own. This is not the only case of this sort concerning Matthew or Luke and Mark; I give a couple of others in Hidden in Plain View. Sometimes even when there are close verbal similarities among the synoptics, Matthew and/or Luke (in this case, both) have information not found in Mark, and we should never just assume that this information is something they added out of their own imaginations, whether literary or theological. The fact that that information fits together as in this instance cautions against such an assumption.

Comments (7)

Excellent analysis as always Lydia! But allow me a stupid question, since I like to play the devil's advocate... Could it be argued that this particular case should not be seen as an UC because Luke maybe though that the point of the parable is self-evident (or would be self-evident) to the audience and hence the "surely not" response is not in need of an explanation?

This is a plausible account of the phrasing variation. However, I have a different idea, though I don't know if it can really work or not.

What is the likelihood that Jesus told the parable (and MOST of his parables) several different times to different crowds? He spoke in towns in Galilee, he spoke in Samaria, and in Judea, and in Jerusalem. I don't know how many different towns he spoke in, but there were a lot. How likely is it that he did NOT repeat his parables some of the time? They were such an effective teaching tool, surely he re-used / recycled some of them. Why not? New crowd, new town, same story.

Now, this is not necessarily valid with THIS parable. All three of the gospel writers set this parable after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, i.e. in Holy Week, leading toward the confrontation with the chief priests. And it makes more sense as a parable with priests, scribes, and Pharisees in the crowd than without. So, I might be wrong. But even if it makes the MOST sense in the setting of Jerusalem, that doesn't mean it makes no sense in Jericho, for example, where there undoubtedly were scribes and Pharisees. Could Jesus have used it earlier "in the hustings" before using it on the main stage in Jerusalem?

If this could be true, is it possible that the different phrasings reported come from different tellings of the parable?

Could it be argued that this particular case should not be seen as an UC because Luke maybe though that the point of the parable is self-evident (or would be self-evident) to the audience and hence the "surely not" response is not in need of an explanation?

One could try that, but to my mind it still seems weird. I would think of it this way: The entire parable is casting the tenants in a bad light. One wouldn't be terribly happy about having one's nation portrayed as wicked and murderous even before the punchline is reached. But it sounds pretty strange, once the tenants are portrayed in this way, to say, "Oh, no, heaven forbid that they should be punished and that the vineyard should be taken away from them!" That makes it sounds like, in the world of the story, the bad guys should be allowed to get away with continuing to act as murderous squatters in the vineyard! It makes the audience sound silly, as though they are sympathizing with the bad guys. The more expected thing to do would be, sure, to realize whom this is directed against, but to keep one's mouth shut about it on the spot (perhaps nudging one's neighbors, getting angry at the story-teller, etc.) rather than bursting out with a naive and odd-sounding blast of sympathy at a point where the identity of the bad guys in the story still hasn't been explicitly revealed.

Don't get me wrong: I'm quite sure the audience was capable of recognizing against whom the parable was directed without having it spelled out in words of one syllable. There's nothing implausible about Mark, where it doesn't mention that Jesus said something so explicit. But it seems to me at least a little improbable that they would *speak up* in a way that makes it sound in the immediate context like they love murderous tenants.

Now, people *do* say strange and/or self-embarrassing things, especially on impulse, so if there were no other explanation, that one would do okay. But since we *do* have Matthew, that provides a *better* explanation.

If this could be true, is it possible that the different phrasings reported come from different tellings of the parable?

Well, first of all, I'm a little disinclined (and I would think you would be more so) to say that the different phrasings come from different *times* when all the authors seem to be talking about the same occasion. If I were forced to that conclusion, I'd conclude it, but it seems a lot simpler to conclude that the differences come from different memories of the same occasion, especially when they fit together well *for that occasion*.

Second, if one did think that some/any of the variations came from different occasions, one would have to ask whether (specifically) the, "May it never be" and Jesus' explicit pointing of the moral *did* happen on the same occasion. After all, those two things *do* fit together pretty well as effect and cause. It seems to me quite unnecessary to hold that the connection between them is illusory, merely apparent, because the "May it never be" and Jesus' pointing of the moral actually occurred on *different* occasions. And if those two things occurred on the *same* occasion, then it makes most sense to put them on the apparent occasion when this parable is, in fact, narrated in all of the gospels and when, moreover, the anger of the leaders at the meaning of the parable is explicitly said to be part of what is motivating them to seek his death in Holy Week.

Well, first of all, I'm a little disinclined (and I would think you would be more so) to say that the different phrasings come from different *times* when all the authors seem to be talking about the same occasion.

It's true, I am pretty cautious about the idea. We do think that at least some of the time they were being non-chronic in their recounting of specific stories and parables, i.e. not even trying to place them in a chronological order. But clearly they did less so for the events of Holy Week, so this isn't such a strong idea, I admit that.

I never really had an idea what the "surely not" of Luke was doing there. At best, I imagined it might have been a delayed reaction to the part where they kill the owner's son. (Some people are slow, you know. And it really is a shocking thing that the tenants say and do.) I don't suppose reporting a "delayed reaction" really makes sense when you are writing about the event, though, even if a few listeners were behind the times with the unfolding story. It's not like Luke was a recording device unable to discern the connection between this comment and that part of the story. (Not to mention Luke getting it second hand, of course.)

I think it's fairly clear that the "Surely not!" is a reaction, one way or another, to the meaning of the parable--the prophesied destruction of the Jewish nation. Either one takes it (as N.S. suggests above) that the audience realized that was the meaning and broke out in the exclamation, not worrying that this was a little precipitate (and hence somewhat self-embarrassing) since the parable hadn't been interpreted explicitly yet. Or else one incorporates Jesus' explicit point-making from Matthew and concludes that the "Surely not!" was in response to that. To my mind, that's a more satisfying explanation.

Thank you Lydia for the answer! I get your point that the (let us call) sceptical interpretation may have weird inplications as you said. If Luke had made up the "surely not" reaction, based on the incident in Matthew (or Mark), then he would have surely insert something like a hint that the audience clearly understood that the parable was all about them.

Yes, definitely he would have included that. And vice versa. If Matthew were written after Luke and had fictionally added Jesus' gloss on the parable to explain Luke, he would have put in what he was explaining. (I'm told that "critical scholars" are divided on whether Matthew came before or after Luke, though I think the evidence pretty strongly favors Matthew's being earlier.)

If one were to hypothesize anything other than the theory I've suggested, it would be that "surely not" is historical but was the audience jumping the gun a bit--speaking impulsively without realizing that it made them look silly.

But in that case, it would be just unrelated chance that the extra bit in Matthew (Jesus' gloss on the parable) explains the words "surely not" so aptly, which seems less parsimonious than taking Matthew and Luke to be connected at this point.

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