Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

Did John Historicize the Parable of the Wicked Tenant?

One of the most significant disagreements between John and the synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke, Matthew) revolves around Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem. The synoptic gospels place the incident over three days in the last week of Jesus’ life. John places the visit over several months and ends it at about three months before Jesus is arrested. Where the synoptic gospels say Jesus went to the Temple during those three days, John says Jesus was hiding away to avoid arrest (on the theological principle that his hour had not yet come.)

Another important difference is that almost nothing in the synoptic account of Jesus’ last visit looks anything like John’s version of the last visit. For example, in the synoptic accounts, during the final visit, Jesus chases the money-changers out of the Temple and the priests want to put Jesus to death but hold back because of the crowds. In John, the incident is missing in his account of the final visit, but he does have a version of the money-changers story set two years earlier, only in his version there is no plot to put Jesus to death or punish him.

In the synoptic accounts, the chasing of the money-changers is one of two incidents that lead the priests to become furious with Jesus and seek his arrest. The other is Jesus relating the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, which the priests interpreted as an attack on their authority. On the surface, John seems to also eliminate this story from his gospel, but I think I found a version of the parable embedded in his account of the final visit but transformed into an historicized version of the parable.

Let me show you what I mean by comparing the two versions in question. I’ll begin with Mark’s account of the Parable.

Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:1-11)

The builder in this parable is god, the various rent collectors are the prior prophets, the rent is the due owed to God, and the son, obviously is Jesus. But, “When they [i.e., the priests] realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away (Mark 12:12).”

Here, now is what I believe to be John’s version of the story. Contextually, like the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, it comes during Jesus’ last visit to the Temple, right after Jesus says the authorities want to kill him and members of the crowd begin to think that the failure to arrest the outspoken Jesus might mean that he is the messiah. At this point,

Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me (John 7:28-29).”

Immediately after, “they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come (John 7:30).” The one who sent Jesus, as anyone familiar with John’s gospel knows, is the Father, God. When John’s Jesus says the authorities do not know “him,” he is saying that the authorities do not pay God his due.

So, at a point in the last visit narrative in both gospels, right after the priests have planned to arrest Jesus so that they can kill him, each has a story about the son of God being sent to collect what is due to God and being rejected, and, because of that message, the priests sought to arrest Jesus. In Mark, the incident takes the form of a reaction to a parable. In John, I submit), the parable has been transformed into an unfolding historical event.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *