The master-servant type scene in the parables of Jesus

Anthony Basil Taylor, Fordham University


Eight of the synoptic parables of Jesus deal with the interaction of a master and his servants, and share a narrative structure which can be characterized as Task, Separation, Trial, Decision, Reunion, Evaluation, and Retribution. Using the language of Robert Kellogg and Robert Scholes in The Nature of Narrative and Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative, the present study examines whether this convergence of the master-servant topos and narrative structure is conventional or unique to Jesus. The evidence of the Old Testament and the Tannaitic midrashim indicates that this kind of story was conventional in ancient Palestine. Jesus created his parables against a background of specific, conventional audience expectations. Sometimes his stories reinforce these expectations and sometimes they confound them, but all his servant stories are in dialogue with these expectations. This set of expectations is called the Master-Servant Type Scene. In order to discover whether the master-servant type scene is a convention of ancient Semitic literature, the present study examined the master-servant stories of the Old Testament, early Jewish literature, the New Testament, early Christian literature, and the Tannaitic midrashim. Early Jewish literature and early Christian literature contained a few stories with a master and servant, but none of these employed the master-servant type scene. Much of this literature is apocalyptic and non-narrative, and much of it was composed out of Palestine. Of the Semitic stories composed in Palestine, four Old Testament stories, eight New Testament parables and six Tannaitic midrashim employ the master-servant type scene. The fact that the master-servant type scene is present only in the Semitic literature of ancient Palestine indicates that it is a convention specific to that literary tradition. The fact that it appears not only in the New Testament but also in the Old Testament and the Tannaitic midrashim indicates that Jesus' master-servant stories are not idiosyncratic: his stories employ a convention which was used by other authors and which was well-known to his audience. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)

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Recommended Citation

Taylor, Anthony Basil, "The master-servant type scene in the parables of Jesus" (1989). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8917243.