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The parable
a rabbinical literary genre
by Fr. Olivier Catel O.P.

If there is one literary genre to which the reader of the gospel is accustomed, it is the parable which is the privileged way Jesus uses to teach: " Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable."(Mt 13:34) Thus, we are so accustomed to the parables that scatter across the gospels that we might forget that they are not, in form, an invention of Jesus but belong to the Jewish tradition – already present in the Dead Sea Scrolls – and more particularly to the rabbis who will come after Jesus. It is particularly the rabbis who used parables: religious schools closer to the priestly circles, to the Temple of Jerusalem, did not seem to have used them. Therefore, Jesus' parables are the oldest we have (with the exception of Qumran texts and some parables that are in the Old Testament).

The parable, in its form, is a comparison: "it is like...", "to what can be compared..." and allows, in a roundabout way, to transmit a teaching. It belongs more broadly to the genus of the apologist. In the form, images and themes of the parables, Jesus belongs to this tradition already present in Qumran and to this rabbinic tradition to come. He drew on an oral tradition that the Talmud has preserved and written.

We would like very quickly to present, in parallel, two parables - one from the Gospel and one from the Talmud - to understand their proximity but also their differences, that is, their specificity.

Talmud of Babylon, Shabbat 153a (sefaria.org)

“But does a person know the day on which he will die? (...) Similarly, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said the following story as a parable to this lesson: The situation is comparable to a king who invited his servants to a feast and did not set a time for them to come. The wise among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance to the king’s house. They said: Is the king’s house missing anything necessary for the feast? Certainly the king could invite them at any moment. The fools among them went to attend to their work and said: Is there such thing as a feast without the toil of preparing for it? While the feast is being prepared, we will attend to other matters. Suddenly, the king requested that his servants come to the feast.

The wise among them entered before him adorned in their finest clothes, and the fools entered before him dirty. The king was happy to greet the wise ones and angry to greet the fools. The king said: These wise servants who adorned themselves for the feast shall sit and eat and drink, but these fools who did not adorn themselves for the feast shall stand and watch.”

Matthew 22:1-14, (New Revised Standard Version 1989)

“Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’

And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The parable of the Talmud (also called mashal) is attributed to Yohanan ben Zakai who lived in the 1st century AD and saw the fall of Jerusalem before fleeing and founding the Council of Jamnia, which was the birthplace of the rabbinic movement.

The fabula, that is to say the story, is more or less similar: a king invites to a banquet that is prepared, the room is filled with guests but only those who have the festive garb can participate in the meal while those who do not wear this garb are sent away. The evangelical parable is more developed: the first series of guests refuse to go to the wedding – it is a part of the people of Israel in the interpretative tradition – and there is a conversation between the king and the guest who is not wearing the wedding garb. However, the two stories are very similar and it is easy to see that Jesus and Yohanan ben Zakai are drawing from the same source to teach.

The hint of these two parables – that is, the purpose of teaching – is not so different. In the Gospel parable, the banquet is the messianic banquet that brings together "the bad as well as the good", the righteous and the unjust, the Jews and the Gentiles. Only the righteous, dressed in wedding garments, that symbolize acts of holiness and justice, can stay at the banquet and pass the test of judgment.

The Talmudic parable – which also takes up elements of the parable of foolish and wise virgins (Mt 25:1-13) – insists on the necessary preparation for death and judgment, a theme also very present in the Gospels. This parable, in the Talmud, appears in the context of a discussion on the need for repentance before death: Rabbi Eliezer explains that one must repent one day before death. Then comes the parable that shows that no one knows the day of their death and that we must therefore always be ready.

The evangelical parable is thus part of an entire oral Jewish tradition: Jesus, like a rabbi, used these same images and themes to teach. The parables of Jesus are very generally eschatological, that is, oriented towards the Kingdom of Heaven, towards the end of time, the messianic times, and this is their great specificity.