There is a struggle going on in the church—or at least in parts of the church—over how we should read the New Testament. Basically, as I see it, it comes down to this: do we read through the lens of later theological constructions (Patristic, Orthodox, Thomist, Reformed, Pentecostal, modern evangelical, etc.), or do we interpret according to a first-century Jewish framework of thought and historical perspective?
I am strongly in favour of the latter. I think we should base our “theology”—our self-understanding as the people of the creator God—as best we can on how the New Testament communities understood the texts, not on how the later church, under divergent intellectual and historical conditions, came to understand the texts. But it’s by no means a straightforward task.
A key interpretive method for those who think that the New Testament should be read as a first-century Jewish text is the reconstruction of the Old Testament background to New Testament ideas, stories and arguments, and with the help of good Bible search software this is easily done.
But what are the rules for doing such reconstruction? How much of the context of an allusion or quotation is relevant? How do we know that Jesus or Paul intended not only the literary context but also the historical setting of a quotation or allusion to be taken into account by their diverse audiences? To what extent does the fact of Jesus drive a reappraisal of the Old Testament narrative?
I’m not going to try and answer these questions here, but the interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants has been under discussion here recently and provides a good case in point. In what ways is it dependent upon the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7? Do the parables work in the same way? If Jesus is retelling Isaiah’s story for a new historical context, should we assume that he means to import the same historical frame of reference—that is, Israel facing military invasion and destruction? Or should we suppose that he has transposed the parable into a more symbolic key—that he has in mind some more spiritual form of “judgment”? Or is this all just over-reading the story anyway?
I’ll summarise the two versions of the parable, using the Septuagint in Isaiah’s case, and then make a number of points regarding the relationship between them.
Isaiah’s parable (Is. 5:1-7 LXX)
The beloved constructs a vineyard on a fertile hill and plants it with choice vines. He puts a hedge around it, builds a tower and digs out a wine vat. He waits for grapes but it produces thorns.
The people of Jerusalem are asked to judge between the owner and his vineyard. What more could he have done?
He tells them that he will remove the hedge and tear down its wall so that the vineyard will be trampled down and will become a wasteland.
Isaiah then explains that the vineyard is the house of Israel. The people were a “beloved young plant” but they did not produce the fruit of righteousness. Therefore, they will become captives and their land will be laid waste. The “Lord Sabaoth was enraged with anger against his people, and he laid his hand on them and struck them” (Is. 5:25 LXX). He will summon a distant nation to attack Israel (25:26-30).
A similar telling of the story is found in Psalm 80, though here the critical detail of the failure to produce good fruit is missing. God brought a vine out of Egypt, drove out the nations, cleared the ground, and planted the vine. The vine flourished at first, but God has broken down its walls, and the vineyard has been destroyed. The psalmist prays that God will “have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted” and will punish the enemies which have burned the vineyard with fire (Ps. 80:14-16).
Scholars are divided over whether the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom is in view or the Babylonian invasion of the southern kingdom. But it makes the point that such stories were naturally retold, either to give a new perspective on events or to show how history was repeating itself.
Jesus’ parable (Matt. 21:33-44; Mk. 12:1-11; Lk. 20:9-18)
Jesus’ version is a little more complicated. It is addressed to the chief priests, scribes and elders.
The master of a house plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a winepress, and builds a tower. He leases the vineyard to tenants and goes into another country. A similar development of the metaphor, though put to quite different use, is found in Song of Songs 8:11: “Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he let out the vineyard to keepers.”
The master sends his servants to get the fruit, but the tenants beat them and kill them. He sends his son, thinking that they will respect him, but they plot to get his inheritance and kill him.
Jesus asks his audience what the owner will do. They say that 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” (Matt. 21:41).
Same but different
1. The basic storyline is the same in both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ telling of the story: a man plants a vineyard, the vineyard does not produce good fruit, so the man responds in anger. But there are also significant plot differences:
- In Jesus’ parable tenants are responsible for the management of the vineyard, reflecting his persistent critique of the leadership of Israel. In the end it is not the vineyard that is destroyed but the wicked tenants, and management of the intact vineyard is transferred to new tenants.
- In Jesus’ parable the landlord is absent and must send others to get the fruit—first servants, then his son. The fate of those sent by God to Israel is an important part of the Gospel story (Matt. 4:12; 23:34, 37; Mk. 1:14; Lk. 11:49).
- In Jesus’ telling of the story the crisis culminates in the killing of the son, who is the “stone that the builders rejected” but which becomes the cornerstone (cf. Ps. 118:22-23).
2. No prophet is sent to the vineyard in Isaiah’s parable, but in the next chapter Isaiah himself is sent (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”) to Israel to prophesy to the people until “cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land” (Is. 6:11–12).
Jesus quotes from the account of the sending of Isaiah when he explains to the disciples why he speaks in parables (Matt. 13:10). The failure of the people to understand his parables is itself a sign that catastrophic judgment is about to come upon the nation. Jesus has made quite extensive use of this section of Isaiah in order to account for his own mission to Israel. He appears not to be using the passage in arbitrary fashion: he finds in these chapters in Isaiah a significant precedent for his own vocation.
3. Both parables function allegorically. The vineyard is Israel, the master is God, and the fruit stands for righteousness, though no meaning is attached to the fence, wall, tower, or wine vat. Jesus’ version is, if anything, more allegorical than Isaiah’s: the tenants are the leaders of the Jews, the servants are the prophets, the son is Jesus, and the “other tenants” are the poor and marginalised who will receive the kingdom. R.T. France comments:
Now that the old dogma that parables cannot be allegories has been abandoned, there is no problem in recognizing in the successive phases of and characters in the story a history of God’s dealings with Israel, even though there is no need to find allegorical equivalents for every circumstantial detail such as the fence, wine-press and tower.1
4. The destruction of the vineyard in Isaiah’s version of the story clearly has reference to the foreign invasion and exile as the judgment of God against his unrighteous people.
Should we regard the destruction of the wicked tenants as likewise a prophecy of the coming judgment of God against Jerusalem, only with a particular focus on the fate of the various political and religious elites? Hagner says: “These words may well constitute an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem.”2
Or is it just part of the story, a more or less incidental detail? France thinks that the coming of the owner “needs no allegorical interpretation (e.g. the destruction of Jerusalem); it is simply part of the story”.
- As a general point, it seems to me unquestionable that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels i) spoke of a coming judgment on Israel and on the leadership of Israel in particular, and ii) predicted the Roman invasion and destruction of the temple. Given that Jesus was a devout first-century Jew who knew and repeatedly quoted from the scriptures, not least scriptures referring to the Babylonian invasion in the sixth century, it seems virtually certain that he expected the judgment of God against the leadership in Jerusalem to take the concrete historical form of military invasion.
- But we also need to take into account his explicit condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees as the “sons of those who murdered the prophets”. Upon their heads will come “all the righteous blood shed on earth”; “all these things will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:29-36). He then laments over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”, directly exits the temple, and tells his disciples: “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2).
- So if Jesus expected the destruction of the temple to come upon this generation and in particular upon these “sons of those who murdered the prophets”, it seems reasonable to interpret the destruction of the wicked tenants in just these terms. In other words, the frame of reference for Jesus’ parable is no less historical than it was for Isaiah’s parable. The death of the wicked tenants belongs to the broad expectation in the Synoptic Gospels that the hypocritical, self-serving, unrighteous elites in Jerusalem would suffer catastrophe in the form of military invasion within a generation, as the concrete manifestation of the wrath of God.
- Finally, Luke has Jesus add: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Lk. 20:18). This is a quotation from Isaiah’s warning that God “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Is. 8:14).