The consensus among historians is that the historical Jesus Christ taught in parables. New Testament scholar Ruben Zimmermann says that “Jesus spoke in parables. This fundamental statement garners wide consensus in Jesus scholarship” (1). This entry wishes to briefly examine why there is scholarly agreement that Christ did, in fact, teach through the use of parables.
What is a parable? A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, and although debate exists over the actual number of parables ascribed to Christ, the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) have recorded over 40 of them, although John is thought to contain none (2).
Perhaps the strongest reason to accept that Christ taught in parables is that they are widely attested within both early and independent sources. Christ’s parables occur in the material unique to Matthew and Luke, referred to as M and L respectively. These are unique traditions to the authors of Matthew and Luke’s gospels that both writers had access to. As such, L and M predate these gospels which means they must be are earlier than 80 CE. Some scholars have dated L between 40 and 60 CE, thus making it earlier than Mark’s gospel. Christ’s parables are also found in Q material, which is a source that Matthew and Luke both very likely had access to on the basis of obvious overlaps between their two accounts. This means that parables are in the earliest gospel strata (Q, L, and M) as well as all the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), with the exception (if we accept current consensus) of the Gospel of John. Given their presence it is almost certain that parables were indeed a major method of Christ’s teaching. In New Testament scholarship it is prized if more than a single New Testament source attests to an event or saying of Christ, and is even more valuable if that source is early. This is why scholars put so much weight on the earliest gospel materials such as Q and the Gospel of Mark, and events and sayings within these materials are deemed very likely to be original to the historical Christ himself.
However, there are reasons beyond independent and early attestation for why historians think Christ taught in parables (3). First is that although Jewish sources often attribute parables to rabbis, there are few parables in the Old Testament or Dead Sea Scrolls and also very few used by early Christians outside of the New Testament. As a Jewish genre, they fit within the period after the Old Testament yet before Christianity became less Jewish in feel, meaning that Christ’s use of them fits very well within the context he conducted his ministry within. Moreover, from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 153a) we learn of a first-century Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and the parable he told of a king inviting servants to a banquet. According to his story, some servants were wise while others were foolish, partly because the latter did not wear the proper attire, and therefore incur the king’s anger. Key elements from this story are found within two different parables of Christ (see Matthew 22:1-14 and 25:1-13), which suggest that Christ’s parables frequently contained traditional Jewish themes rearranged to serve his own purposes and conclusions. It is more likely that these motifs reflect the Palestinian Judaism of Christ’s time than the setting of the early church several decades after its beginning when it begun to become more dominated by gentiles.
Second, the onus is on the skeptic is he rejects that Christ taught in parables because he has to adequately explain why, if Christ really had not taught in parables, we have at least three gospel writers who fabricated different parables if these were not a popular genre for early Christian authors to use. It makes little sense they would have done so, which suggests that their presence is more reasonably explained with their origins in a single person/teacher.
Thirdly, a number of Christ’s parables are viewed as masterpieces of composition, such as the parables of the sower, good Samaritan, and prodigal son. It would be far simpler to conclude that the creative genius for these stories originate within a single founder/teacher than to suppose that several later creative geniuses composed them and then all credited their less creative founder with their great compositions.
It seems then that the consensus scholarly view that Christ taught in parables is grounded on a fairly strong basis. This is first and foremost because of its wide attestation in source materials combined with additional considerations that strengthen the case.
1. Zimmermann, Ruben. 2015. Historical Approaches: Parables as Media for Remembering Jesus. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers. p. 57.
2. Zimmermann, Ruben. 2015. Ibid. p. 333-334.
3. Williams, Peter. 2018. Can We Trust the Gospels? Wheaton: Crossway. p. 112-113
The parables in GLuke are the most suspect among the synoptics, especially the long literary ones not seen in earlier Gospels, like the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, etc.
If you are interested in historical Jesus studies and the questionable authenticity of the parables, as even admitted by a Catholic scholar like Meier, please check out these blog pieces that summarize some of the evidence: