Rabbinical Methods of Instruction










Mag. Claudia R. Wintoch













The Gospels in New Testament Times

Ken Lundeen






World Revival School of Ministry

Spring Trimester 2002





1. Introduction


2. PaRDeS


            2.1. P’shat


                        2.1.1. NT Examples


            2.2. Remez


                        2.2.1. NT Examples


            2.3. (Mi)Drash


                        2.3.1. NT Examples


            2.4. Sod


3. Parables


            3.1. Structure


            3.2. New Testament Parables


                        3.2.1. The Vineyard’s Tenants


4. Bibliography


1. Introduction


The New Testament was written in a Jewish context – by Jews and mostly to Jews.  Today we forget that Jewish background and culture and are unaware that rabbis at the time used different teaching techniques and methods to interpret and teach Scripture. In our western world we have reduced Biblical interpretation to “grammatical-historical exegesis” (Stern 1999:13) only, therefore losing the richness of what God has conveyed in His word. This unfortunate fact is the result of an overemphasis of “the Church Fathers in the second through eighth centuries to over-allegorize, an error which probably resulted from their misunderstanding the limitations of, and therefore misusing, the other three rabbinic approaches to texts.” (ibidem).

This paper discusses the four teaching methods rabbis used at the time of Christ and shows examples from the teachings of Jesus. It also considers the literary device of parables, which was extensively used by Jesus as we can see in the New Testament. My aim is to deepen the reader’s understanding of the richness of God’s word and provide him with the tools to discover all its treasures.


2. PaRDeS


The four basic teaching methods and means for Scripture interpretation the rabbis used can be remembered by the acronym PaRDeS (a Hebrew word meaning orchard, garden), which stands for P’shat, Remez, Drash and Sod. The first one is the one mostly used today (grammatical-historical exegesis), the other three being discarded for the most part since “they all allow, indeed require, subjective interpretation; and this explains why scholars, who deal with the objective world, hesitate to use them.” (Stern 1999:12).




2.1. P’shat


The Hebrew word p’shat[1] means simple. This teaching method is easiest to understand for people in the Western world since it is plainly saying what you want to convey. The text has a literal, plain meaning that the author wants to convey.


2.1.1. NT Examples

Jesus used this teaching method frequently, often preceded by a parable. Many Christians however have tried to imply a deeper meaning and even founding doctrine on their interpretation.

Jesus’s teaching on binding and losing is a passage that has commonly been misunderstood as we have lost the Hebrew perspective over the centuries. Jesus says in Matthew 18:18: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus is using p’shat in this statement and not using a picture to talk about forgiving and retaining sins. In Jesus’s time the terms binding and loosing were commonly understood as dealing with making legal judgments, as the Pharisees did. Jesus was simply conveying the same authority to his disciples who would have to work out the rules of the young church. David Stern (1999:57) points out that the wrong understanding “was adopted by Tertullian and all the church fathers, thus investing the head of the Christian Church with the power to forgive sins, referred to on the basis of Mt 16:18 as the ‘key power of the Church.’”

We have therefore a case where the church has wrongly gone beyond the p’shat because of their lack of understanding the Hebrew culture.

In the same way the church has understood Mt 18:20[2] as meaning that the presence of Jesus would be among those gathered in His name. While this would be a midrash[3] on that text, it is not the literal p’shat meaning. Jesus is still talking about binding and losing and is assuring His disciples that in the case of an issue brought before two or three messianic community leaders, “they can be assured that the authority of God in heaven stands behind them” (Stern 1999:57) in their decision.


2.2. Remez


Remez is Hebrew for a hint. Stern (1999:12) defines this method the following way: “a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p’shat.” Jesus or the gospel writers used remez to hint at Old Testament passages, especially messianic passages to claim, affirm or prove Jesus’s Messiahship.


2.2.1. NT Examples

Matthew frequently cites Old Testament Scripture to show the reader that Jesus was in fact the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. One such example is found in Mt 21:4-5[4]. Matthew hints back at Isaiah 62:11 and Zech 9:9 which are both prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. Isaiah reads: Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘See your salvation comes!. The Hebrew word for salvation here is yesha, which is basically identical with Jesus’s name. Zechariah says: Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion … See, your king comes to you … riding on a donkey, yes, on a colt. Matthew combines the two passages and gives us the hint that the salvation of Israel, the messianic King and Jesus are identical.

Another obvious example for remez is found in John 6:70 where Jesus says to his disciples: Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?. Applying p’shat we would have to take Jesus literally in that Judas was Satan (Greek diabolos) which is obviously incorrect. As verse 71[5] shows, Jesus was hinting at what Satan would inspire Judas to do – something the disciples would only understand at a later point in time.


2.3. (Mi)Drash


The Hebrew word drash or midrash means to search. It denotes “an allegorical or homiletical application of a text. This is a species of eisegesis – reading one’s own thoughts into the text.” (Stern 1999:12). Flusser (1987:61) defines it as “a creative exegesis and understanding of the text of the Bible and its stories, an attempt to discover all the various senses implicit in the biblical verse.” This technique is controversial today since it is seen as subjective and can go in a totally different direction from what the original text intended to convey. However, there has been a new interest over the last 20 years.

Some rabbinical schools held the opinion that one Scripture verse would contain several meanings, like the School of Rabbi Ishmael:

 “‘Behold, My word is like fire – declares the Lord – and like a hammer that shatters rock’ (Jer 23:29). Just as this hammer produces many sparks [when it strikes the rock], so a single verse has several meanings.” (Stern 1996:17)


Church Father Augustine still used midrash, finding multiple interpretations for a single verse, saying “to express in manifold ways what we understand in but one, and to understand in manifold ways what we read as obscurely uttered in but one way” (Stern 1996:24). He did not see any danger in it as long as the interpretations were in line with all of Scripture.

One of the most frequent literary forms of midrash is parables[6]. Then there is homiletical midrash[7] and the exegetical anthology[8] found in the classical period, which describe more a literary type than a teaching method.


2.3.1. NT Examples

Flusser (1987:61) holds the opinion that “all the books of the New Testament and all those persons who were active during the period of early Christianity also had an affinity to the world of the Midrash”. Jesus, having had a good Jewish education, was familiar with midrash, yet He only used it very subtly. In Matthew 5:21, for example, He expands the meaning of the commandment “you shall not kill” to not being angry with anyone, using a midrashic principle.

The gospel-writer Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: Out of Egypt I have called my son. Since the context of Hosea clearly speaks about God calling his people Israel out of Egypt, this passage is certainly not p’shat. Some believe Matthew is using a midrash. He is taking the text and making it refer to the Messiah. Many rabbis were used to taking this approach and no one would have found it questionable[9].

In the epistle to the Corinthians the apostle Paul is using a midrash on Exodus 34:29-35, talking about Moses’s glory, Christ’s glory and His glory being in us today.

Flusser claims that the early Christians and New Testament authors used midrash to show that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah to “explain the disaster of his death” and “find Biblical verses which hinted that this catastrophe was not unforeseen” (1987:63). Having established the validity of midrash, this statement can in no way be seen as negative but as a valid method used in that period of time.


2.4. Sod


The Hebrew word sod means secret. Stern (1999:12) defines this method the following way: “a mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like.” This method shows the sovereignty of God and inspiration of Scripture, as God hides meaning that can only be discovered through numerical methods, like the Bible codes discovered a few years back. Jesus might not have used this method consciously, as far as we know.

In the Hebrew language every number equals a value and numbers have meaning. In Revelation 13:18 we are told the number of the beast. Stern (1999:829) points out:

“7 is regarded as the perfect number; and triple repetition symbolizes absolute ultimacy …. Therefore 888[10] means that Yeshua is absolutely and ultimately beyond perfection, while 666 means that the beast in every respect falls short of perfection and is therefore absolutely and ultimately imperfect and evil.”




3. Parables


The word parable is derived from the Greek word parabole and means a comparison or analogy. Jewish teachers had already “developed the classic form of the parable from their religious heritage and cultural experience” (Young 1998:4). In Hebrew a parable is called mashal. “The mashal, or parable, is the most common narrative form the rabbis use in midrash to interpret the Torah.” (Stern 1983:27). It resembles a story, narrating what people do, rather than what they say, yet it is abstract, “not mentioning specific authorities nor placing the action in concrete time and setting nor invoking an authoritative text … a parable ordinarily focuses on wisdom or morality … a parable teaches its lesson explicitly” (Neusner 1998:191).

Most frequently parables were used in sermons in the synagogues. There are about one thousand parables recorded in rabbinic literature which were probably intended for sermons or lessons.

The earliest preserved parables are those found in the Bible. We know of fables that existed before, and they are seen by some as precedents for parables. The Mishna shows us that rabbis believed that the parable “was invented (according to one tradition, by King Solomon) in order to reveal the secrets of the Torah” (Stern 1996:41). This belief is reflected in the following parable about the parable recited by rabbis:

“It is like a king who lost a gold piece in his house, or a valuable gem. Does he not find it by means of a penny candle?

Likewise: Let not the mashal seem trivial in your eyes, for by means of the mashal a man is able to understand the words of Torah.”[11] (ibidem)


Parables can generally be put into one of three categories:

1. the parable as an illustration – helping to grasp a concept

2. the parable as secret speech – deliberately concealing a concept

3. the parable as rhetorical narrative – drawing a parallel between a fictional story and reality.

The second kind of parables started to emerge in the Middle Ages. Stern (1996:44) states that the third kind of parable is the most frequent: “Neither a secret tale with a hidden meaning nor a transparent story with a clear-cut moral, the mashal is a narrative that actively elicits from its audience the application of its message”.

One third of Jesus’s teaching consists of parables and it is therefore of uttermost importance for us to not only try to understand them from our viewpoint, but to understand them in their cultural, historic and linguistic context.


3.1. Structure

Parables have a basic two-part structure – the mashal (narrative) itself and the nimshal (explanation), which gives the listener its context. It usually concludes “with the citation of a prooftext, a Scriptural verse, which itself is reinterpreted in light of the nimshal and the mashal preceding it” (Stern 1983:28).

There is a motivation for the creation of every parable. A rabbi might have had a situation in his community that needed to be addressed and led him to the “invention of a metaphorical tale that opens an insight into the Torah” (Thoma 1989:28). He has a clear religious strategy for bringing out his h8iddush[12] – which we cannot always discern so many years later. What we can determine pretty well is what the listeners understood to be the author’s aim.

The parable itself is made up of six parts[13]:

1. The prolegomenon, which is the introduction to the parable with the aim of building anticipation for what is coming, e.g. “A parable, to what may the matter be compared? To a…”. Jesus often uses the following phrase in His kingdom-parables: “The kingdom of God is like…”.

2. The introduction of the cast, with every character playing an important role, being crucial for the plot. Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, for example, starts with “A man had two sons.”.

3. The plot of the story, which is the development of the story, leading the listeners to identify with one or more character in the story.

4. The conflict that is often crucial to the story, focusing on a major problem a solution is needed for.

5. The conflict resolution that the author has worked towards, to illustrate its resemblance with real life. Sometimes a parable ends without the resolution, leaving it up to the listener to discover it.

6. The call to decision and/or application the author is ending with, called the nimshal, which is  often introduced with the phrase “thus it is also with…”. It is “the major turning point of the parable. Here the storyteller is describing the significance of his or her tale and explaining the central theme” (Young 1998:25). There is a strong connection between the parable itself and the nimshal.



3.2. New Testament Parables

We find twelve narrative parables attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels. They can be put into four categories[14] according to their themes:

(1)   Jesus’s audience’s reception of His teaching

* The sower – Mt 13:3-23, Mk 4:3-20, Lk 8:5-15

* Children in the marketplace – Mt 11:7-19, Lk 7:24-35

* The marriage feast/banquet – Mt 22:1-14, Lk 14:15-24

* The two sons – Mt 21:28-32

(2)   How to prepare for the kingdom of heaven

* The ten talents/minas – Mt 25:14-27, Lk 19:12-27

* The wise and foolish virgins – Mt 25:1-18

(3)   God’s behavior regarding those accepting/rejecting His teaching

* The weeds sown by the enemy – Mt 13:24-30

* The laborers in the vineyard – Mt 20:1-16

* The vineyard’s tenants – Mt 21:33-46, Mk 12:1-12, Lk 20:9-19

(4)   The proper religious behavior

* The unmerciful servant – Mt 18:23-35

* The rich man and his storehouse – Lk 12:13-21

* The fig tree owner and his steward – Lk 13:6-9

Some parables may be put into more than one category. There are also other ways of categorizing them, e.g. by literary aspects like the kingdom-parables starting with “the kingdom of heaven is like…”.

The following chapter will discuss a parable belonging to the third category:



3.2.1. The Vineyard’s Tenants – Mt 21:33-46, Mk 12:1-12, Lk 20:9-19


This parable is one of two[15] narrative parables we find in all three synoptic gospels plus the apocryphal gospel of Thomas.

After the parable itself, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23. Quoting Scripture after a parable is uncommon in Jesus’s parables[16]. Matthew then adds a nimshal, giving the interpretation of the parable in verse 43: Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. This statement has traditionally be misinterpreted and used to confirm replacement theology[17]. This is very unfortunate, especially since verse 45 makes clear who the tenants in the parable represented: When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. The image of the vineyard was commonly understood as representing Israel, the owner therefore being God. Logically the son must represent Jesus, which has commonly been interpreted that way, even though some scholars claim that John the Baptist was meant[18]. However, the tenants do not represent Israel, who must be replaced with Gentiles, but the religious leadership that had rejected God’s prophets and finally even His one and only Son, the Messiah, therefore giving the leadership over to a new group of people, which would be the followers of Christ. The traditional scholar Jeremias puts the parable back into its time and culture and believes “that this original tale reflects the historical resentment felt by Galilean tenant farmers toward their absentee foreign landlords” (Stern in Thoma 1989:53). Young (1989:305) states that Jesus was preparing His disciples to what would happen to Him in Jerusalem and concludes that “this parable is the first allusion made to his death in public ministry”.

4. Bibliography



Cohen, Abraham, Everyman’s Talmud, Schocken Books: New York 1995


Flusser, David, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, Adama Books: New York 1987


Neusner, Jacob, Invitation to Midrash. The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation, Scholars Press: Atlanta, GA 1998


Pearl, Chaim, Theology in Rabbinic Stories, Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA 1997


Stern, David H. (ed.), Fiction. Rabbinic Fantasy, City College of New York: New York 1983


Stern, David H., Midrash and Theory. Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies, Northwestern University Press: Evanston, IL 1996


Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications: Clarksville, ML 1999


Thoma, Clemens and Michael Wyschogrod (eds.), Parable and Story in Judaism and Christianity, Paulist Press: New York & Mahwah 1989


Young, Brad H., Jesus and His Jewish Parables. Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching, Paulist Press: New York & Mahwah 1989


Young, Brad H., The Parables. Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA 1998



[1] Also Peshat, Pashat or Pashot.

[2] For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.

[3] See 2.3. (Mi)Drash.

[4] All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

[5] He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he would betray Him, being one of the twelve.

[6] See 3. Parables.

[7] “Each chapter in the collection is devoted to the interpretation of the initial one or two verses in the Torah reading for the week … and those interpretations are themselves organized in a special and apparently conventional structure.” (Stern 1996:56).

[8] “Interpretative opinions on Scripture are presented in the form of a running commentary on the Bible” (Stern 1996:56)

[9] David Stern (1999:12) however believes it is remez since “the Son equals the son: the Messiah is equated with, is one with, the nation of Israel. This is the deep truth Mattityahu is hinting at by calling Yeshua’s flight to Egypt a ‘fulfillment’ of Hosea 11:1.”

[10] The Greek name for Jesus equals 888.

[11] Stern is quoting Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:8.

[12] “The creative idea of the mashal teller“ (Thoma 1989:29)

[13] Largely taken from Young (1998:24f).

[14] According to Stern, Jesus’ Parables and Rabbinic Literature, in Thoma 1989:72.

[15] The other one is the parable of the sower.

[16] Only the parable of the sower alludes to Scripture as well. Interestingly both these parable are the only narrative parables in Mark.

[17] The theology that the Gentile church replaced Israel after it had rejected and killed Jesus.

[18] Like Malcolm Lowe (Stern in Thoma 1989:66).