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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The "Sitz im Leben" of Jesus' Parables

New Testament (NT) scholars who spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus' parables are often concerned with the "sitz im leben" of the parables, that is, their "setting in life." The idea lying behind this quest is that knowing the settings in which Jesus uttered his parables helps in their interpretation. The significance of a particular phrase or twist in a parable can be lost on modern interpreters if they don't have a grasp of the first century middle eastern world. Consequently, they spend a lot of time drawing on historical and socio-cultural studies in order to better understand Jesus's world.

As part of this quest to gain a better understanding of the setting of Jesus' parables, NT scholars often seek to reconstruct their original wording. Take, for example, the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19). The gospel writers recount the parable differently from one another:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matt 13:31-32)
"With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (Mark 4:31-32)
"What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches." (Luke 13:18-19)
The New Testament scholar, Bernard Brandon Scott, ("Here Then the Parable," p. 373) argues that the original parable went something like this:
"[The kingdom of God is] like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden and it grew and became a great shrub and puts forth large branches so that the birds of heaven make nests in its shade/shelter."
While Scott's reconstruction is plausible, it operates under one of two questionable assumptions: Either (1) Jesus uttered the parable only once, or (2) he said it exactly the same way and in exactly the same setting each time he told it. Both of these scenarios strike me as unlikely. It is far more probable that Jesus told each of his parables multiple times to different audiences in various settings, and he seldom told them exactly the same way each time. If I am right, I'm not sure what it would mean for parable scholarship, but at a minimum I suspect that the extant versions found in the Gospels would carry more weight than they currently do among certain scholars.


  1. This is an eye-opener to me! This is a fitting answer to the negative Bible critics who say that the Bible is full of errors simply because some of the shared accounts in the Synoptic Gospels are different from one another.

  2. Just noticed your comment (since I posted it a few years ago). Glad you like or appreciate it