The Gospel narratives were written as Christian faith documents. Not historical documents. So, where do we find the historical Jesus? I was trained for 30 years as a Christian Scripture scholar to dig for clues. The gospel of Thomas and the Q gospel and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish historian, Josephus, and many other archeological finds have given me a great glimpse. But I have found the parables of Jesus to be hidden gems of historical validity.
Whatever else Jesus is called — redeemer, savior, divine, etc. — we know for sure he loved to tell stories. These stories are called parables and they focus on one central topic: The Kingdom of Yahweh.
The word Kingdom meant more to his Jewish listeners than it does to us. They lived in the Kingdom of Rome. The Roman soldiers sat tall on their magnificent horses. The Roman banners waved at every corner. The Roman law ruled their country with an iron fist. They paid Rome a tax for every fish they caught, every crop they grew. When Jesus spoke about a “new” kingdom, wouldn’t his Jewish followers think “revolution”?
When he told them the parable of the farmer who planted good seed in his field and an enemy came along and planted weeds, (Matt. 13:24) who was the enemy? I’m sure their first thought was the Romans. When he talked about the fishing net that collects every kind of fish, and the bad must be separated from the good, (Matt. 13:47) who were the bad? Wouldn’t it have been the Romans?
Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was one of the first “historical Jesus” scholars. He thought — for sure — that Jesus was trying to start a political revolution. He says all the evidence points in that direction. If this was not Jesus’ intention, why didn’t he make that clear to Pilate? Matthew quotes Jesus as answering Pilate’s question: “Are you the king of the Jews?” with this quip: “You said it” (Matt. 27:11).
Years later, Christians changed his meaning, Reimarus says. They claimed that Jesus knew his father wanted him to be crucified for the sins of mankind and he willingly allowed Pilate to think he was a political opponent when he really wasn’t. But Reimarus says Jesus was this political rebel, this king of the Jews, and he even said so. “You said it!” And Reimarus claims he repeated it in many of his parables about the new kingdom.
Reading them now in the German book of Reimarus: “Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger,” I can see how some of the parables could be speaking of a political revolt. However, one parable stands out above all the rest as being just the opposite. The Jews hated the Samaritans almost as much as the Romans. Josephus, the Jewish historian, calls the Samaritans “evil and enviously disposed to the Jews” (Antiq. 11.4.9). Yet, Jesus tells one of his most famous kingdom parables about a Samaritan, and it sheds light on all the other parables.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell in with robbers who beat him up and left him half dead” (Luke 10:30). This man was a Jew, and his own Jewish priest saw him and passed on by. But a hated Samaritan saw him, bandaged his wounds, and paid for his recovery in a nearby inn. This is not a political revolt story. Far from it.
As I read the parables with this Samaritan in mind, I see Jesus eager to move his own Jewish friends into a deeper understanding of Judaism. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Yahweh is a symbol; it’s like the American flag. It’s not a political revolution with Jesus as the new king; it’s not even a theological revolution with a new religion; it’s a psychological revolution that begins inside our heads and leads us to greater acts of love and service.