Biblical Studies

The OT in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Last time we looked at an example of the OT in Mark’s telling of Jesus cleansing the Temple and his implied spoken judgment of the Temple leaders (you can read it here). This example came from Richard Hays’ new book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. Hays gives us two examples from the Gospel of Mark:

  • Jesus Cleanses the Temple and Curses the Fig Tree (Mark 11:15-19)
  • The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12)

The Synoptics and Thomas

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is seen in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 12:1-12; Mt 21:33-46; Lk 20:9-19). Interestingly enough, when set side by side with the Gospel of Thomas, the pseudo-Gospel is lacking many of the OT allusions seen in the Synoptics.

The Gospel of Thomas 65-66

(65) He said, “There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, ‘Perhaps he did not recognize them.’ He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they will show respect to my son.’ Because the tenants knew that it was he who was the heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear.”

(66) Jesus said, “Show me the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the cornerstone.”

It would be good to compare this version with one (or all) of the versions seen in the Synoptic Gospels, but for our purposes here I’ll compare it to Mark’s version.

Mark 12:1-12

And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower [Isa 5:2], and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.

Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son [Gen 22:2; Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1].

Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him [Gen 37:20], and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’? [Ps 118.22-23]”

And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.

The pseudo-gospel lacks OT allusions such as:

  • the planting and preparation of the vineyard, recalling Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (Isa 5:1-7)
  • the reference to the vineyard owner’s son as being a “beloved son” (recalling Gen 22:2; Ps 2:7; cf. Isa 42:1)
  • the tenants’ declaration “Come, let us kill him” (a verbatim citation of Joseph’s brothers in the LXX, Gen 37.20)
  • the concluding citation of Ps 118:22-23 which declares that the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone

In Context

While some scholars think Thomas’ version is more historically accurate, it actually takes the parable out of it’s Jewish historical setting, tearing it from the cultural and religious setting in which Jesus lived. Our canonical readings want us not to recognize only the allusion to Isaiah 5.2, but to read further ahead to what comes next in v7:

Isaiah 5.7

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!

In the beginning of the parable the reader can already see that this is a word of augment to Israel’s leadership. They have failed to yield good fruit to the Lord, the rightful owner. Instead they have stolen the fruit for themselves.

Identifying Jesus as the “beloved son” (Mk 12:6; Lk 20:13) links him both to Isaac (the beloved son who was called upon to be sacrificed by his father Abraham) and to the Davidic king (the beloved son whose kingly ruled is proclaimed in Ps 2.7-9). The death of Christ is not the result of a tragic misuse of power and violence, a poor soul who was given the wrong lot. His death will have saving significance for Israel, and for the whole world.

Ps 118.22-23

That Jesus’ death with have saving significance is confirmed by the use of Ps 118.22-23, which looks forward to the resurrection of God’s saving act:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.

Joseph was put into the pit due to the raucous jealousy of his brothers. Yet he was rescued from that same pit and eventually exalted to a position of power, just under the Pharaoh. In this position Joseph was ultimately able to save his people from an untimely death.

Is There Meaning to be Found?

In contrast to the Synoptics, the Gospel of Thomas gives us a colorless, dull version left open to be read however the reader may choose. “Thomas” makes it into a gnostic message, detaching the reader from the “evil of the world.” Yet the ultimate true meaning is lost to the reader.

The Evangelists [the Gospel writers] don’t want us to avoid pain. They want to know that Jesus went through the pain, the suffering, and the judgment for us. And he did it to save us from this world. Who is the “authentic caretaker and heir of Israel’s traditions”? Jesus is. Who has the authority to read and interpret Scripture? Is it the scribes and the Pharisees? No, it’s Jesus.

“The parable thereby places the story of Jesus within the unfolding story of Israel and presents his death as the climax of a pattern of unfaithfulness and judgment familiar to any reader of Israel’s prophetic literature. The pattern is as old as the story of Joseph’s resentful brothers” (p 12).

Significance in Mark

Jesus tells a parable to the religious establishment of Jerusalem to point out to them who he is and how evil they are. Even in telling them that he is the beloved son, the Kingly Davidic king who will rule, we see their evil hearts. Rather than bowing down to worship him, they leave him only to come back and test him in effort to trap him in his words. They are like Joseph’s brothers who hate hearing that he will rule over them. They think the landowner isn’t paying attention, yet when he looks (Isa 5.7), instead of finding justice and righteousness, he finds bloodshed. And now, the blood of his own Son, however, it is shed for his own people.

The builders have rejected this stone, yet he will be come the chief cornerstone. The work God does in resurrecting Christ will be marvelous before the eyes of all. He will be the beautiful King set high above all thrones, rulers, and principalities, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.

Significance for Us

Again, reading the Bible is reading the tip of an iceberg. The Gospel writers carefully show how Jesus lives out the life that Israel was supposed to live, one of love, justice, and righteousness. Yet, because they didn’t live this way, he comes down to live it for us, to die a wrongful death, yet in doing so saves the lives of those, even the religious establishment, who believe.

Jesus words have deep meaning packed into them. They are spoken to bring images to mind and a profound meaning to who he is.Reading and understanding this deepens our understanding of the Bible as a whole, and ought to give us a greater love for our Lord, the King. The King who loves. The King who died. The King who lives and reigns.


  1. Interesting article Spencer. Just curious, but do scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas is borrowing from the canonical gospels when it has similar material, or do they think it comes from common sources that the canonical gospels drew on? Does Hayes address this question?


  2. Hays doesn’t address this, but only mentions the GoT when comparing it here. I’m not sure what scholars think about the sources the GoT’s author drew on though. It could be both for all I know. I’m interested to find out though.


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