A Word Fitly Spoken

Reviews of “A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission, and Adoption of the Parables of Jesus”

A Word Fitly SpokenAd-copy:

“The book is extremely readable. It further clarifies the complexities of first century religious life in ancient Palestine and the Judaic matrix of early Christianity. The author demonstrates familiarity with and appreciation of the Jewish sources and scholarship on all of the issues.”
Rabbi Howard Joseph
Concordia University


“I very much like the author’s bold reading of the texts. The book is always interesting and indeed hard to put down. If one reads it first to be entertained, a number of unexpected insights are discovered that might have been obscured by the usual critical reading of an argument.”
Lloyd Gaston
Vancouver School of Theology


From ATLA, 2966 Diamond Street, San Francisco, p.5

Rating: Excellent
Audience: Religious Studies
Popularity: Good

By concentrating upon the oral matrix of story telling, especially as reflected in first century Jewish and Christian documents, Culbertson develops a keen appreciation of the listener response analysis of gospel texts.

The parables are especially discussed in detail, providing a rich utilization of philosophical, methodological and literary sources of Hellenistic culture in Palestine. Recommended for scholars considering how the oral matrix influenced the reception of written texts.


From Choice, Vol. 33, No. 1, September 1995

Instead of placing parables in a Greco-Roman context (or even reading them simply via modern literary-critical categories), Culbertson seeks to understand the parables of Jesus against the grid of rabbinic literature. In doing so, Culbertson sidesteps the normal issues associated with the study of the New Testament (e.g., form, source, redaction criticism). The book includes nine substantive and exemplary chapters, treating such diverse issues as the specific and pancultural historical-political context of Jesus’ parables (chapters 1, 5, 6), the polyvalence inherent with transmission (chapters 2, 7, 8), the halakhic character of parables (chapter 3), and the rhetorical force of stringing together a series of parables (chapter 4). Culbertson closes this study with an engaging chapter interacting with listener-response theory. At each point, Culbertson successfully marshals rabbinic evidence to shed new light on the character, shape, function, and history of Jesus’ parables. This book is especially important for those doing graduate research in the New Testament.
C. C. Newman
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary


From Anglican Theological Review 88:2 (Spring 1996), pp. 341-344.

Philip Culbertson is Lecturer in Pastoral Theology and Director of Pastoral Studies at St. John the Evangelist Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand; but his interests and abilities far outstrip his title. During the past six years he has authored three books and co-authored a fourth. Two are in the area of pastoral theology and gender, and one is a book of readings from the patristic period. The present work sets certain teachings of Jesus on the context of other (mostly Rabbinic) texts. Culbertson his well-qualified to write such a book. His knowledge of New Testament is comparable to that of many specialists in that area, while his familiarity with Rabbinic and other Jewish texts reflects two years of advance work at the Hebrew University, plus many summers of study in Israel. His Hebrew is fluent, and in the present work he has no need to rely on translations. For this reason Culbertson never limits his research to translated sources and reflects considerable familiarity with modern Hebrew literature on his subject. Even where translations of his sources do exist, he tends to provide his own somewhat free renderings, which he peppers with expressions like “bust your butt” (p. 306).

Culbertson’s interest in the parables extends back several years. I remember vividly hearing his paper, “Reclaiming the Matthean Vineyard Parables” (Encounter 49 [1988], pp. 257-283) and thinking that here was a model for interpreting the parables that really broke new ground. He pointed out then, as he does here in chapter 8, that since the time of Is. 5 the vineyard had been a standard metaphor for the people of Israel. For that reason, those who heard the parable of the Wicked Tenants in the Vineyard (Matt. 21:33-43) would have associated Israel with the vineyard itself rather than the wicked tenants. In a somewhat similar vein Culbertson treats Matthew 1:2-16; 7:1-5, 29; 9:14-17; 13:3-53; 17:24-27; 22:15-21; and 25:1-12 as illustrations of various problems of interpretation. To these treatments he adds four chapters of introduction and three appendices, one of which is a helpful discussion of “The Half-sheqel Offering in the Second Temple Period.” The book also includes indices of names, subjects, and references plus a fifty-four-page bibliography. The bibliography is not exhaustive and omits some well-known books (e.g., Pheme Perkins’ popular book, Hearing the Parables of Jesus; David Stern, Parable in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature; and articles, e.g., Raymond Brown, “Parable and Allegory Reconsidered,” Novum Testamentum 5 [1962], pp. 36-45).

In his interpretations Culbertson uses various categories of ancient texts. These include Greek and Latin classics, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and early Church writings; but the great bulk of his sources come from Rabbinic literature. Anyone who uses Rabbinic literature for interpreting the New Testament, however, must confront the problem that Rabbinic literature in the form that we have it represents a Judaism considerably later than the more temple-centered Judaism of Jesus and Paul. Culbertson tries to avoid this problem and other matters of higher criticism by addressing “Christian and Jewish texts as we have received them” (pp. ix-x). He would use what he calls “listener-response theory,” in which he would seek “the various messages of any given parable in its particulars” (p. 284) and how these particulars would have been remembered and adapted by various listeners. Listeners do not always remember only the plain sense (peshat) of a parable. Jesus’s hearers would tend to draw out various “metaphorical or homiletical” (p. 49) interpretations, while an inner circle would be expected to carry away a secret meaning (sod). Such an approach may well soften the importance of dating and other critical questions, but it does not do away with them. Some (although by no means all) of the material that Culbertson uses dates from the twelfth century and later; and while Rabbinic texts may reflect earlier traditions, even carefully preserved traditions can change in the course of a century, never mind a millennium.

Culbertson’s book is important and stimulating, but the non-specialist may find it difficult reading. In the first place Rabbinic sources generally pose special problems of understanding and evaluation for Christian readers. Secondly, he tends to prefer Hebrew words to their common English equivalents, e.g., mashal and nimshal for “parable” and “moral” respectively. There is good reason for this preference. The Hebrew terms lack much of the baggage we have tacked onto their English equivalents. Still such terms may pose a small problem for some readers. Thirdly, certain kinds of errata may cause difficulties. For example, there is an error in the transliteration table of Hebrew letters (p. xv); he confuses Howard Kee with Alistair Kee (p. 280); and he lists three kinds of coin found in Matt. 17:12-27 (p. 170), although these verses mention only two.

Others may not agree with every point of Culbertson’s interpretations, but anyone engaging in serious work on the parables needs to consult the book. For myself, his interpretation of the Wicked Tenants in the Vineyard seems quite convincing, but other interpretations gave me pause. It was difficult to understand why the women Nazhat and Naamah, are present in Matthew’s genealogy “by implication” (p. 235). Many other interpretations are suggestive, and perhaps correct, but will probably require further evaluation by most readers. One such interpretation ends up understanding Jesus’ saying about new wine in old wineskins (Matt. 9:17) as a caution to “his followers not to get drunk in innovation” (p. 281). The value of this book, however, does not depend on whether we can agree with all Culbertson’s interpretations. Rather its value lies in the fact that Culbertson has begun to open a whole new vista for interpreting the parables and sayings of Jesus.
John T. Townsend
Episcopal Divinity School
Cambridge, Massachusetts


Published in Theology Digest 43:3 (Fall, 1996), 263-264.

Philip Culbertson lectures in pastoral theology at St. John the Evangelist in Auckland, New Zealand. He has studied rabbinics under various teachers in Israel. In this book he compares NT and rabbinical texts as he examines a dozen parables and aphorisms in order to clarify the context in which they were heard. He discusses contextuality, multiplicity of simultaneous meanings, behavioral expectations, catenae of parables, unexpected literary forms, alterations in textual transmission, how a nimshal can change its meaning, and new possibilities from listener-response criticism.


Published in Critical Review of Books in Religion 9 (1996), for The Journal of Biblical Literature.

Philip L. Culbertson, a noted pastoral theologian with publications in both men’s issues (New Adam: The Future of Masculine Spirituality [Fortress, 1991], Counseling Men [Fortress, 1994]) and patristics (The Pastor: Readings from the Patristic Period [Fortress, 1990], with A. Shippee), has written over the period of nine years a book that investigates the parables of Jesus by employing a rigorous study of rabbinics. What prompted this study was the perceived failure of NT interpreters to consider seriously the contributions of rabbinics for parable interpretation.

There is a sea of books about the parables of Jesus, ranging from historio-critical to narrative approaches; yet Culbertson’s study is innovative in two ways: (1) he argues for a direct relationship between rabbinic parables and the parables of Jesus and (2) he employs listener-response theory to the parables under investigation. Culbertson attacks the methodological assumption, often found among Christian interpreters, that there is a universal message of the parables and that Jesus’ parables are somehow unique (e.g., J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus [London: SCM Press, 1972] 12). Moreover, Culbertson challenges the “christianizing” of the parables of Jesus, a Jewish teacher, and thereby builds upon two definitive works: D. Flusser, Die rabbinischen Gleichnisse und der Gleichniserzhler Jesus (Bern: Peter Lang, 1981) and B. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1989).

Culbertson investigates a number of parables in Matthew’s Gospel to demonstrate that the study of rabbinics can indeed elucidate, if not at times correct, their conventional interpretation. By utilizing listener-response theory, Culbertson seeks to identify both the specific culture in which a story is told and the various meanings that can be heard within that story. What sets parables apart, then, is their identifiable cultural contexts and purposes.

The study contains nine chapters and three appendices. Chapter 1 grapples with the foundational issue of contextuality and includes a discussion of the bipartite structure of a parable: the body of the story, called the mashal, and the stated application or point, called the nimshal. For parable interpreters, the next distinction is paramount: the point of the parable is the story itself, or the mashal, and the nimshal (application) must be left up to each listener to determine. Thus, nimshalim may vary from culture to culture and from situation to situation, while the basic mashal remains the same. The point of any given parable, then, is the mashal, the narrative story itself. As Culbertson puts it, “a nimshal is the concretization of a listener’s emotional response to the mashal” (p. 14).

Parables, therefore, do not espouse pithy universal truths nor are they limited to specific timeless interpretations. Parables are dynamic stories unfolded in historical and cultural contexts. Thus, a mashal (story) is not necessarily connected to a specific nimshal (application).

Chapter 2 brings to the surface two interpretative concepts common to both Judaism and Christianity: (1) the multiplexity of scriptural texts (i.e., narratives can also be employed as parables) and (2) the intended esotericism of communication (i.e., the assumption that communication is not restricted to plain prose). Culbertson cites a famous rabbinic parable about individuals entering paradise, whose reactions are validated by certain scripture texts.

Chapter 3 analyzes a “lost” teaching of Jesus: a story about a rabbi who is brought before the civil tribunal for heresy because he accepted Temple donations from a whore, in direct violation of the Torah. The rabbi’s actions, however, were based on a discussion with one of Jesus’ disciples, who suggested the monies should not be wasted and could be used for purposes other than the Temple (e.g., to build a toilet for the high priest). The point here is to demonstrate that parables are halakhic midrash, not simply stories to be told; they evoke a behavioral expectation or response.

Chapter 4 examines the kingdom parables in Matthew 13, which have traditionally been investigated through the lens of redaction criticism (cf. J. Kingsbury, The Parables of Jesus in Matthew 13 [Richmond: John Knox, 1969]). Culbertson suggests that the literary device of catena, referred to in rabbinic literature as a “string of pearls,” is at work here. “‘To string pearls’ is to link verses from disparate parts of Scripture is such a manner as to argue a point that might not otherwise be obvious” (p. 102). He then examines five types of catena: (1) topical, (2) authenticating, (3) metaphorical, (4) forensic, and (5) parabolic, and concludes that the parables in Matthew 13 were strung together for a cumulative effect. Each parable builds an atmosphere of encouragement for those listeners who want to follow the kingdom principles of Jesus. The parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders in chapter 5 illustrates the pancultural adaptation of parables. Simply, meshalim [stories] appear in various forms in all cultures but are adapted in different ways to the specific culture.

Chapter 6 examines how historical and cultural conditions affected certain parables such as Matt 22:15-21 (Render unto Caesar) and Matt 17:24-27 (Coin in the Fish’s Mouth) and often render them with unexpected literary forms. Culbertson suggests, with rabbinic evidence, that the symbol of the fish points to humanity and its conditions (i.e., human behavior) and that the payment of the capitation tax (Matthew 17 and 22) suggests an idolatrous act, since coins symbolized icons of authority.

Chapter 7 addresses the question: How are parables affected by oral transmission? More specifically, what is perhaps lost in the transmission? Culbertson investigates Matt 7:1-5 (not considered a parable by most interpreters) and persuasively argues that a shift had occurred from a parable originally addressing the social ethic to a parable about the judicial system.

Chapter 8 recognizes that sometimes images presented in a mashal and its attached nimshal, or even nimshalim, can literally contradict each other. For example, the traditional (“Christian”) interpretation of Matt 21:33-43 has identified the wicked tenants in the vineyard with the Jews, who will ultimately be replaced by the Gentiles. Culbertson, by examining rabbinical parallels, concludes that the tenants are those who have turned their backs on Judaism, hence, non-Jews.

Finally, chapter 9 strips the parable of New Wine in Old Wineskins (Matt 9:14-17) of its Christian pretense using listener-response theory. The point of “the parable of the patches” is not new or old wine but the container (Jewish tradition) in which the wine is stored.

Three appendices conclude the book, each expounding an aspect of Culbertson’s methodology. Appendix 1 surveys the history of translation of Prov 25:11 (“A Word Fitly Spoken”) to show the difficulty of a phrase’s “plain meaning”; Appendix 2 offers a selection from Haim bar Bezalel’s Iggeret ha-Tiyyul to show the distinction of certain Hebrew literary devices; and Appendix 3 supplies background information on the half-sheqel offering.

Culbertson’s presentation is marked by erudition and clarity of prose. Although many would disagree with his lack of distinction between rabbinic parables and the parables of Jesus (do rabbinic parables reference the kingdom of God?), his arguments are nonetheless stimulating and his research exhibits a mastery of both Jewish and Christian primary and secondary sources. Culbertson can be faulted, however, for his lack of interaction with evangelical parable interpreters who have wrestled with the relationship of rabbinic parables and the parables of Jesus (cf. C. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990]; G. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral [InterVarsity, 1991]; and especially H. McArthur and R. Johnston, They Also Taught in Parables: Rabbinic Parables from the First Centuries of the Christian Era [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], who identify more than two dozen parables of Jesus that closely parallel rabbinic parables). Also striking is the absence of interaction with R. Gundry’s commentary on Matthew (Matthew: A Commentary on his Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994]).

In sum, Culbertson’s work is a fine piece of scholarship, which should receive a wide audience in the study of parable interpretation. His work voices the concern that to study the parables of Jesus seriously, one needs to consider the relationship between rabbinics and the NT.
Joseph B. Modica,
Eastern College,
St. Davids, PA 19087-3696

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