I recently finished my second college paper, which I had to write for the same class as the first: Introduction to New Testament Literature. The anti-Bible bias of the class was especially evident in this assignment. The prompt asked me to examine the different versions of the parable of the lost sheep and coin in Matthew, Luke, and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, and show how and why they differed. What the class wanted me to do was point out how each Gospel manipulated the parable in order to fit their own personal agendas, and therefore conclude that it’s unlikely that Jesus really said what we have recorded today in the Bible. Since the class is very one-sided and only gives the opinion that the writers of the Bible had horribly sinister intentions, I had more than enough info to make the case that Bible contradicts itself due to the biased agenda of the authors.
However, I don’t believe this is the case. This fact put me in the dilemma of how to get a good grade and yet still write what I believe and see as truth. I can think of some “Adventures In Odyssey” and “Down Gilead Lane” episodes where characters were asked to write or say something they didn’t believe for a class because of their Christian beliefs. They refused, and failed the assignment. While their intentions were noble, I don’t believe we have to go to that extreme. Of course, I’m not yet sure what grade I received, so that is yet to be determined.
I tried to do my best to provide what the class wanted me to say, but also state my counter arguments. If you ever find yourself in a college class that asks you to go against what you believe, perhaps this would be a method you want to try. Make sure to say what the class wants you to say so that the graders know you “learned,” but you don’t have to say you personally believe what you are saying, and can instead cite sources. Copied below is my paper:
The parable of the lost sheep and coin is well-known in our culture; however, we actually have three different versions of the story. Two of these variations appear in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, while the third shows up in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. While each version shares common aspects, they also contain differences. With the different Gospels displaying different versions of the same parable, it could be concluded that Jesus never actually told any of the three versions of the story as handed down to us today. According to Ehrman, each Gospel author simply copied and edited it from written sources of the sayings of Jesus. Another explanation, which I hold, is that Jesus actually did tell this story, and told it multiple times in different places and contexts and each author is recording a separate telling of the parable.
Matthew’s version of the parable shows Jesus is teaching disciples, and the story comes on the coattails of two somewhat similar pericopes earlier in Matthew’s Gospel which describe Jesus talking about “little ones.” In verse 6 of chapter 18, Jesus’ use of the phrase “little ones” is in a non-literal sense. Rather, “little ones” is referring to believers (NRSV 18.6-9). Likewise, shifting into the parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus’ use of the phrase “little ones” is also referring to believers, and the sheep are meant to represent believers. The shepherd represents God, and therefore, here in Matthew, Jesus is painting a picture of the relationship between God and his “flock” of believers, whom Jesus indicates are analogous to children (Matt 18:1-4). Jesus makes this clear in Matthew in verse 14 of the chapter, when he says, “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” With this statement, Jesus makes his point.
|Jesus didn’t look like this, but whatev.|
Thus, the parable in Matthew is illustrating how God will pursue those that go astray and try to bring them back to the flock, because, “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt. 18:14.) This advances Matthew’s theme of ethical formation, as God doesn’t want any in the church to be led astray and “lost,” rather, God wishes for all to remain within the “flock.”
Luke’s version of this story includes a different audience: tax collectors, and sinners. Scribes and Pharisees are also present, and their grumbling about the company Jesus is keeping is what sparks the parable from Jesus. This coincides with the theme of Luke writing an orderly narrative. Luke is explaining why the parable is told, which we don’t have in Matthew. The story of the lost sheep also closely resembles Matthew, as it is explaining that God does not want any of the “flock” to be lost. However, Luke focuses more on the celebration of finding the lost sheep or coin. This is congruent with the purpose of telling the parable: to explain to the Pharisees why he is eating with sinners. God is much more pleased with those who have gone astray and come back (sinners), rather than the righteous people (Scribes and Pharisees) who never went astray. Luke is drawing attention to the importance of repentance, which is one of his main themes.
Luke also tells another version of this parable which mirrors the story of the lost sheep. Luke tells of the poor woman and the lost coin. This story advances Luke’s theme of possessions. The story of the lost sheep involves a wealthy man who can afford a flock of sheep, while the story of the lost coin involves a woman who is poor. Luke is including the impoverished and those of low status in the story, as well as women specifically. Therefore, the story of the lost coin is also advancing the Lukan theme of the inclusion of womefn.
The majority view within New Testament scholarship is that Matthew and Luke are drawing on the source of “Q” in order to create this parable, which is why they are so similar. The differences in the two versions perhaps show where they might have deviated from “Q”. This explains why Luke includes the story of the lost coin, while Matthew does not. Perhaps Matthew and Luke were trying to make up different versions of the story to support their themes. Another possibility is that Matthew and Luke received different versions of the same parable, and that Jesus told the story multiple times, perhaps giving a different version of the parable in each retelling to keep the story relevant to his audience.
Some scholars assume that “Q” is a document. However, we do not have this document, and there is no evidence that such a document existed other than the fact Matthew and Luke record the same events even though they were written independently of each other. While each of these Gospels are very similar and even word-for-word at times, the differences between the parallels make sense when one considers the likelihood that “Q” was actually the oral tradition present at the time, or maybe a collection of several written works. This hypothesis would help explain why wording can differ substantially between Matthew and Luke, and yet the content can be so similar, such as in the parable of the lost sheep. Maybe Luke and Matthew weren’t copying exactly the same source after all, thus, lending further support to the likelihood that Jesus told this parable multiple times, each time with slight (or not so slight) variances in wording, but retaining the same message.
Luke mentions that he has carefully investigated and asked eyewitnesses for their testimony (Luke 1:1-4). It is likely that much of the oral tradition was universally agreed upon, while details might have been disputed. The disputes likely originated from the fact that the truth can be obscured when told multiple times as we all learn in the game “telephone.” This is Ehrman’s view. An alternative explanation for the disagreement on details is the likelihood that Jesus told the same parables multiple times. Traveling teachers rarely give the same sermon or lecture only once. If one was to interview two different students who attended the same lecture at two different times, it is almost guaranteed that the interviewer will receive two different testimonies from these students. The interviewer can then conclude that these students have sinister motives and are trying to twist the lecture to fit with their individual agendas. Or, perhaps more likely, the lecturer slightly altered his lecture (either intentionally or unintentionally) so each student received slightly different versions of it. It’s the same lecture, but the details changed. Jesus often traveled and spoke to different people. It’s very likely he told the same parables multiple times, and being human, the details probably changed just by the fact he retold them. It could also be he intentionally changed details or added another version to the story (like in Luke with the lost coin) in order to address the needs of his audience.
We see support for the probably of Jesus’ multiple retellings of the parables by the fact that Jesus often repeated himself within the same Gospel. For example, in Matthew, Jesus is recorded multiple times as giving the analogy of a tree not bearing good fruit and being thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10, 7:19). In Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33-34 Jesus repeats the prophecy that the Son of Man will suffer, die, and rise again. Luke 8:17 and 12:2 also show Jesus repeating himself when explaining how nothing is secret. In John, Jesus also repeats himself in 7:7 and 15:8 when talking about the hatred of the world. There are many more examples from each of the four Gospels where Jesus repeats himself, and this makes sense. After all, Jesus was a traveling teacher. Teachers and speakers repeat themselves when they present their doctrine to new audiences. Indeed, it would be strange if Jesus only told a parable once. Additionally, since Matthew and Luke were thought to be written independently of each other and in separate Christian communities, it makes sense that they each would have heard a different telling of the parable from Jesus.
Further, if Matthew and Luke are blatantly attempting to manipulate the text of Q, it is curious why Matthew did not include the Pharisees in the story as did Luke. One of Matthew’s major themes is polemics against the synagogue. Why did Matthew not take advantage of the opportunity to attack the Pharisees? Perhaps it is because the presence of the Pharisees did not lend itself to a strong enough portrayal of them in a negative light. After all, they were indeed listening to Jesus, even if they were also critical of Him. Another possibility is that Matthew wanted to make the disciples Jesus’ audience because that would advance Matthew’s theme of the disciples being “honor students.” I find it likely that Jesus simply told the parable multiple times. If Matthew really was trying to advance an agenda, it is unlikely he would waste the opportunity to attack the Pharisees. Luke goes ahead and includes the Scribes, Pharisees, and sinners in the story, perhaps to advances his theme of ambivalence toward Judaism and his theme of possessions, or maybe just because Jesus really did tell the parable of the lost sheep and the coin to an audience of Scribes, Pharisees, and sinners. This is consistent with the independent source of Mark, which also describes the Scribes and Pharisees listening to what Jesus taught on multiple occasions.
|Gospel of Thomas|
The Gospel of Thomas takes this parable and deviates quite substantially, as it completely changes the moral of the story. Whereas in Matthew and Luke the sheep is no different from the rest of the flock, Thomas says that the sheep that goes astray is actually the largest, which implies that it is also more valuable, since the larger a sheep, the more fleece is could produce. The parable ceases to be about God’s love for all of the believers and his will that none should be “lost.” In Thomas, the parable instead is focusing on the spiritual giants, the most capable believers, perhaps the ones who have the “secret knowledge.” Similar to the canonical versions of the story, however, is that the shepherd still represents God, and the sheep still represent the believers.
Since Thomas’ version is so different and even contradictory to the versions in Matthew and Luke, it is highly unlikely that Jesus actually told this parable. Rather, Thomas’ version of the parable seems to be redacting “Q” in order to fit with the themes Thomas wants to advance. The largest sheep is actually the good gnostic, and this sheep is leaving the ninety-nine who are following the ways of the world unquestioningly. Thus, when the shepherd (God) seeks after this “lost” sheep and finds it, he says to the sheep that he loves it more than the ninety-nine. By “going astray” and diverting from the ways of the world, the “sheep” finds favor with its master.
This telling of the parable fits right in with other themes in Thomas and the entire book as a whole, such as asceticism and being “disturbed” by truth so that one may find the answers and claim salvation by internal understanding. Indeed, this parable is very similar to Thomas’ 8th Gospel saying, where the fisherman throws out all of the small fish and only keeps the largest. Just as the shepherd (God) loves the largest and “lost” sheep more than the rest, so too does the fisherman (God) reject the masses and find the most pleasure in the largest of the catch. Both of these parables challenge the reader to be like the largest sheep and the largest fish. Don’t just follow the crowd, don’t go with the flow, depart from the world, and find favor with God; find salvation by leaving behind the ways of society, and living a life of asceticism. This will lead to internal understanding: the key to salvation.
All of these different versions of the parable can make one wonder if Jesus really told this story at all. The fact that all three of these Gospels include this parable, suggests that Jesus really did, in fact, tell a parable about a lost sheep, and possibly a lost coin as well. The canonical versions of the parable do not conflict with any other teachings of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, and fit in quite well. Indeed, in Matthew, the several verses directly prior to the parable transition smoothly into the story of the lost sheep, and even include the same language.
It is unlikely, on the other hand, that Thomas’ Gospel portrays an accurate account of what was actually said. Not only does the Gospel of Thomas conflict with Matthew and Luke (which share versions very similar to each other), but the Gospel of Thomas was found outside the Roman world, and is therefore far removed from the witnesses who actually heard Jesus give the parable.
While the meaning of the parables in both Matthew and Luke can be determined fairly easily, there are deeper repercussions behind their meanings that I would like to investigate further. However, each of these Gospels tell the same story, only each one has its own spin on the telling, perhaps in order to support their individual themes, but more likely because they received different accounts based on multiple retellings. The fact that we have so many examples of this story, and from an early source, makes it likely that Jesus actually did tell this parable. What is more, the language and message of the parable (even though there are two different versions of it in the Biblical Canon) is compatible with other teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. While we may not be able to historically reconstruct word-for-word what Jesus said, we can picture Jesus telling this story. Jesus really did tell the parable of the lost sheep and coin.