Monday, May 12, 2008

Which Dictionary to use?

Half an hour. Between Sunday School, Bible class, Vacation Bible School, Primary Church, Teen church, sermons, Prayer meeting and small groups it was universally understood the amount of time dedicated to teaching/preaching was to be a half an hour. Not enough to cover the Sermon on the Mount. Certainly not enough to go through the book of Revelation! But just the right amount of time to give a complete discourse on a Parable.

Therefore it was common (especially by the proliferation of all that Bible study) to cycle through many of the Parables. And within the speech on the Parable, we would enter a familiar formula. First read the passage. Then assign the “actual” names to all the participants within the story. Give the spiritual point of the story. Tie in some historical fact to anchor the tale within the time period (and impress the audience with your ability to own and read a Commentary) and finally reinforce the application the recipients should utilize out of the story. Often one would work in a personal tale to illustrate the parable. Beginning, end or middle—it could go anywhere.

Since my friends and I had sat through the same routine on countless previous occasions, and having half a brain a piece—we figured out the point, the illustration and “who’s who” long before the person finished reading the verses. We were raised to be polite enough to listen through the next 27 ½ minutes of a person telling us what we already ascertained.

The Parable of the Talents entered the rotation on a regular basis.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord's money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, “Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” He also who had received two talents came and said, “Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” Then he who had received the one talent came and said, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.” But his lord answered and said to him, “You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matt. 25:14-30

The teacher would enter the tired monotone, we would hear (as we expected to hear) that the man was God, and the servants were Christians, and the talents were abilities, and we should use our abilities with hard work toward God’s work, and it was bad to not use our abilities, and someday we will be rewarded/punished for how we used our God-given abilities.

A story about a Christian who stopped singing for God, and started singing Rock-n-roll and then lost his ability to sing in a horrific blender accident…and the half hour was up…Time to go!

Seemed pretty straightforward and obvious. Hard work rewarded. Different people have different special abilities. Shouldn’t squander what we have.

And 100% wrong. This was not what the parable was about. We thought the first two servants were the “good guys” and the third servant was the “bad guy.” This is a total reversal to what the first century Judean audience would have understood. To them—the first two servants (and the man) were the bad guys, and it was the third servant who was doing the right thing.

How come they never taught that in our Sunday School?

See, to the Judean mind, including the peasants to whom this story was directed, “goods” were of a pre-determined quantity. One person gaining was ONLY possibly by another person losing. The first servant’s gain of five talents would only be possible by another, most likely a poor person, losing an equivalent sum.

Therefore, the only commendable person in the parable was the sole person who did not cause harm to others, yet retained what was rightfully the masters. The audience would understand a man who “reaped where he did not sow, and gathered where they did not scatter seed” was—in essence—a bad person who was only becoming rich at the expense of others.

Luke 19:12-29, further exemplifies the character of the man in highlighting the fact the man was going to receive a kingdom, which was opposed by the citizenry. When he did receive the kingdom, the man killed those who opposed him.

Eusebius, in reviewing this parable, thought Matthew was using a literary device to demonstrate the real person who was punished was the first servant who had gain illicitly. Even Eusebius understand the “good” guy in the parable was the third servant, and the “bad” guy was the first servant.

(And a side note not often pointed out—when there were multiple items it was often the “oddity” that was the exemplary item in Jesus’ Parables. One good seed, the rest were bad. One good Samaritan; the rest were unhelpful.)

O.K. so we have two very different interpretations of this parable—one very 20th Century (“use your abilities”) and one very 1st century (“The rich get richer.”) Which one did Jesus intend? Which one is the one we should use?

I ask this because often, in Biblical discussions, people talk about how Jesus’ words would be perceived by the people of the time. What it meant to them. Why he used certain terms. And how, to fully understand what Jesus was saying, we have to immerse ourselves in First Century Judea.

But in doing so—this parable is much different than what most of us were taught in our classes. Were all those classes wrong? Or are we to derive two completely different, even juxtaposed interpretations of the same passage?

Was Jesus talking to 1st century peasants, but in the back of his mind also talking to 21st century capitalists?

I often see Christians hopping back and forth between two opposing positions—that the books of the Bible were written for a specific period of time as compared to the books of the Bible written for ALL time. When it comes to the skeptic questioning the scientific or historical accuracy—we are assured the books were only written for what the people knew at the time. Yet then we are told the moral implications of the Bible are for all time.

Are they? Or is the Christian picking and choosing which suits them best? Which conforms to the culture they know?

We are told slavery was appropriate at that time, or polygamy was appropriate at that time, or genocide was appropriate at that time; but not now. Not once we have come to understand the full moral implications of such practices.

Well then—what about women preachers? Oh, THEN I am assured THAT one is universal! That has nothing to do with “at that time” but rather is a mandate from day one until the earth blows up. Literally. The bit about women covering their head or not wearing gold…well sure…THAT bit was only appropriate at that time.

You know the question is coming…

How do we determine any consistent methodology of what was appropriate only for that time period, and what is universally mandated? How do we determine the Parable of the Talents was to mean one thing at that time, and a complete role reversal now?

When we are to define the terms of the Bible—which dictionary do we use? The one the First Century would use for the New Testament and the Sixth Century BCE would use for the Tanakh? Or do we toss those out and use our dictionaries of today?


  1. Eusebius, in reviewing this parable, thought Matthew was using a literary device to demonstrate the real person who was punished was the first servant who had gain illicitly.

    Please tell us more, much more, about this sort of literary device. A superficial reading of the text seems to support the interpretation that the first two guys were good and the last bad.

  2. Hi Dagoods,
    I trust you have a link to the 1st Century Judean mind....? A quick search showed you might be mixing parables. Eusebius was describing a different parable from the Gospel of the Nazoreans, according to this source. Do you have any other sources? Cheers.

  3. The Barefoot Bum,

    I apologize if you are already familiar with some of this material; it may inform a lurker.

    The First Century Greek writers used chiasms—a means of telling a story through a set of structures which are parallel and inverted. If you recall High School English, we would use letters to explain poetic structures, such as “A,” “B,” and so on. So the simple poem of:

    Roses are Red;
    Violets are Blue;
    You look like a monkey;
    And smell like one too.

    Would translate structurally (based on the rhyme) to:


    Limericks would all be (and in order to be a limerick MUST be):


    We use a similar method in labeling chiasms, not in rhyme, but in concept or idea. Understand that the idea is not necessarily the same, but is parallel. Death/Life would be parallel. So would grow/whither, leave/enter and so on. Here is a simple example we all recognize:

    “The King is dead; Long Live the King.”

    The chiasm would be (and note how this is typical in that the chiasm tends to invert, or go in and then out, if you will):

    A. The King
    B. is dead.
    B. Long live
    A. The King.

    Unfortunately, I cannot tab in blogger comments, but when this is written out, we typically tab in for each new letter, so one can see the inversion. Also note how “dead” and “live” are parallel in a chiasm, even though we consider them opposite.

    The Gospel of Mark uses Chiasms throughout its work, and a click on that link will give many more examples of what we mean by this literary device.

    Now let’s get to Eusebius. In his comments regarding this parable, Eusebius refers to the similar account in the Gospel of the Nazoreans. A gospel which is unfortunately lost to us now. However, Eusebius claims to have a copy, or at least a fragment that he felt shed light on the situation. While Jim Jordan’s link provides the quote of Eusebius regarding the Nazorean accounting of this parable, it is illuminating to put it in chiastic form:

    “But since the Gospel (written) in Hebrew characters which has come into our hands enters the threat not against the man who had hid (the talent), but against him who had lived dissolutely—

    “For he (the master) had three servants,

    A. one who squandered his master’s substance with harlots and flute-girls,
    B. one who multiplied the gain,
    C. and one who hid the talent;

    “And accordingly,

    C. one was accepted (with joy),
    B. another was merely rebuked,
    A. and another cast into prison.

    Notice how in the chiasm it is the servant who hid the talent who is accepted, the one who multiplied the gain was rebuked and the first servant who was thrown into prison. To emphasize that Eusebius was attempting to rehabilitate the third servant (the one who hid the talent) within the account in Matthew, read more of Eusebius:

    “I wonder whether in Matthew the threat which is uttered after the word against the man who did nothing may not refer to him, but by epanalepsis to the first who had feasted and drunk with the drunken.”

    This is pointed out in Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Malina & Rohrbaugh on page 386.

    For that reason, I mentioned (and this is noted by Christian Biblical scholars by the way—I am not breaking new ground here) Eusebius was attempting to claim Matthew was not saying what the traditional Sunday School lesson would have us believe.

  4. Jim Jordan,

    No, I do not have a link to the First Century Judean mind. However, since they lived in a different culture, with a different monetary system, and a different economic system, and a different familial system, and a different social system, and different religions, and different caste system, and a different government, and a different educational system, and different knowledge, and different language and different means of travel and different means of communication all 2000 years ago, I thought there might…just might…be a teensy-weensy possibility they would think a little differently than a 20th Century American capitalist.

    So I have read some books (not just links) on the subject. If you are actually interested, you might start with the one I linked in my comment to The Barefoot Bum. *shrug* Perhaps you will take the word of a “true Christian” over that of a skeptic.

    Speaking of links—did you read the one you linked to? Did you see where it was “on Matt. 25:14-15”? (Hint: Look at the cite for the passage I quoted in my blog entry.) When Eusebius says, “I wonder whether in Matthew…”—what “Matthew” did you think Eusebius was referring to?

  5. You are correct to look at the social dynamics of the time in order to better understand the original content. In my Bible study we are constantly learning ancient societal norms of all kinds, also.

    Aside from Eusebius wondering IF the two parables are related, what else does he say? Like Eusebius, I wonder about a lot of things, too. But that doesn't mean that the original parable in Matthew was this other parable that is completely different in the Nazorean.

    Oh, and cheer up, you still sound tired. ;-)

  6. Jim Jordan: Aside from Eusebius wondering IF the two parables are related, what else does he say?

    No. Eusebius doesn’t wonder if the two parables are related. He presumes they are. (Hence the reason he mentions the parable from Nazoreans when commenting on Matthew.) What Eusebius wondered was whether Matthew was chiastically stating the threat of vs. 29-30 was actually directed at the first servant.

    It IS tiring pointing out the obvious.

    So in your Bible study, in which you look at “ancient societal norms”—do you think the Bible should be interpreted as it would be perceived by first/second century?

  7. do you think the Bible should be interpreted as it would be perceived by first/second century?

    Looking at what the Bible is saying in the context of the facts and the relationship between the facts of the time is essential. Then we can relate it to our time more correctly.

    The first servant took his 5 talents and made 5 more talents honestly. The Greek word used for how he made the 100% return is Ergazomai - to work, labor, trade, etc. No fault to be found there.

    It seems Eusebius was remarking on the similar structures of the parables. I don't follow how the first servant could be at fault in any reality. Unless I miss the obvious message that making money honestly is bad.

    What do you think this parable is about by the way? What are its metaphors?

  8. Jim Jordan,

    How is understanding what the writings would say to a first century person make it able to “relate to our time” more correctly? Explain how that methodology works—the crossover between words written in a completely different culture to fit within our own. Or is it catch-as-catch-can?

    Jim Jordan: The first servant took his 5 talents and made 5 more talents honestly. The Greek word used for how he made the 100% return is Ergazomai - to work, labor, trade, etc. No fault to be found there.

    Actually Thayers translates it as “trade” in vs. 16. Not manual labor. (Because if all it took was manual labor, one wouldn’t need the original 5 talents in the first place.) Be that as it may, perhaps you can answer the following questions to understand your own position:

    a) How much is a Talent?
    b) What “work” paid money in 1st century Judea?
    c) In understanding your answers to the previous questions-- what possible work could this person perform to be paid that much?
    d) What possible “honest” trades could be done to acquire this sum?

    I understand how you can’t follow how the first servant would be at fault. Just doesn’t compute with a 21st century American mindset. We have been born, bred and raised that making money is a “good thing.” Were they? Is that what life was about to them—making money? Capitalism? Or was honor of a higher value?

    Would the first century peasant’s first question as to the acquisition of this sum be “Was it honest?” or “Was it honorable?”

    The parable is about how the rich will continue to act as the rich to the detriment of the poor. Luke makes this point clear by placing this parable immediately after the story of Zacchaeus—a rich man who was beneficial to the poor. (Luke 19) As Luke understood what was being said, Jesus was saying, “Don’t get your hopes up because of this one good rich person. Notice how the rich will continue to act.”

  9. Oy ve, Dagoods,
    While I appreciate you pulling up these details and shining new light on an old parable, I think you're making an unjustifiable leap. A talent was a weight measure of silver or gold, either way they are great amounts of money, 1,2, or 5. But that is the metaphor for our gifts from God. They are great by themselves. One talent is more than enough to invest. I wouldn't mind having one measly 75kg of gold at $800 an ounce. Heck, I'd take silver.

    We will be judged accordingly as to how we used our talents that God gave us. The one who did nothing with his talent did so because he was afraid that God would not recognize what he did had he done anything. His view of God was that God was an odious landlord even though he had been given more treasure than he could ever spend. By his action and words, he rejected God's kingship.

    Thus the use of such a large unit of wealth denoted the importance and value of God-given talents, not that such phenomenal wealth is bad per se. That almost sounds like 21st Century socialist thinking, the poor get poorer when the rich get richer [and what is wrong with trading?]

    And this whole re-reading is based on Eusebius wondering about whether the parable was a re-telling of the Nazorean parable. Do you know what he concluded in regard to that? That would be interesting to find out, no?

  10. Sigh,

    It is like Christians think First Century Judeans went to work for Jewish Company at 9 a.m., worked the day and then were paid in appropriate shekels at 5 p.m. Stopped at the market, paying said shekels for that day’s ration of bread/wine. Went home and read the paper to see how their investments in Camel Futures was doing.

    I would think, having a Bible study and all, you would at least make an attempt to understand the culture in some remote fashion.

    At the peasant level it was far more of a barter society. Trading goods for goods. While coinage could be used across regions (and for long distance trading) to the peasants, large sums were unheard of. There were no huge savings plans. No bank deposits. The high mortality rate was partially due to starvation!

    One talent (on average) would be the equivalent of three years salary. Anyone reading this, imagine triple your yearly salary. The first servant obtained five times that. That is why “manual labor” to obtain 15 years worth of salary (while not spending any of the other 5 talents) is downright silly. If the servant could do that, he wouldn’t have needed the five talents in the first place! It is why Thayers translates it to “trade” not manual labor.

    There was no Jerusalem Stock Exchange to make a fast (but honest) buck on wheat shortage. No floor of the Temple Market to do some day-trading on thin pigeon price margins.

    Probably the most disappointing fact is how Christians so blithely plow through these stories without even remotely considering how the audience of that time would perceive it. They only see it how they would see it now.

    Jim Jordan—you really don’t have a clue as to how anyone could “honestly” or “honorably” make that sum, do you? All you want to do is jump to the allegory and explain it away without having to think about what the reaction of the people would be. How they would hear and understand the story. (Oh, and you didn’t have to explain the metaphor. Re-read my blog entry. We got the point upon reading the thing. We didn’t need any more filler for the 27 ½ minutes…)

    Eusebius is only an additional point. Far more interesting is the reaction of the audience within that society. But you probably don’t get that either.

    All right, I am done here. You can have the last word, if you want. There is no reason to continue to discuss with such an embrace of willful lack of knowledge.

    Hope it has been interesting for any who actually wants to understand the period.

  11. I apologize if you are already familiar with some of this material

    I'm not, hence my query. I'm reading the comments now with great interest.

  12. Interesting. Still, I think we need more. It does not appear that Matthew is actually using epanalepsis or chiasmum, at least not in the English translation. (My ancient Greek is, er... rather rusty.)

    For example, we have
    14 "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.
    15 To one he gave five talents[a] of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.
    16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more.
    17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more.
    18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

    There seems to be a clear A B C A B C going there: A gave five talents / gained five talents, B gave / gained two C gave 1, buried it.

    19 - 26 seems to have the same non-chiasmic structure, again A A B B C C. And 28 seems to clearly refer to the servant with one talent.

    I vaguely recall from spectating at BC&A at IIDB that Matthew was perhaps something of a doofus with a tin ear, but according to your link, Nazoreans comes after Matthew, so Matthew can't have just misunderstood Nazoreans. But perhaps they both got it from a common source, and Matt just fat-fingered it.

    On the other hand it seems pretty clear that expressing a parable praising effort and initiative in first-century Judea using the metaphor of lending money for interest would be like expressing the same sentiment today by employing bank robbery or organ stealing.

    In any event, reading the English translation doesn't strongly suggest that Matthew's account itself can be rehabilitated with the addition of a literary device.

  13. According to Philip Harland, the peasantry did live in an agrarian economy in Palestine but there was also trade and investment in land. So someone could invest this treasure and make money honestly. The audience would not have been unfamiliar with this dynamic.

    I'll leave it at that. It's an interesting investigation but IMO it needs more exploration to make a clear statement.