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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Online review only, listed in Volume 58, 2010

JOHN S. KLOPPENBORG, The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006). Pp. xxix + 651. Hardback.

John Kloppenborg approaches parables by exploring the “social, legal and economic practices which [they] engaged and presupposed.” K. structures the book around three sets of interrelated problems: (i) the parable’s history of interpretation and the effect of ideology on texts and their interpreters (Chapters 1 and 2); (ii) source-critical problems concerning the tradition history of the parable’s four textual versions (Chapters 3 through 8); and (iii) the socio-economic and cultural conflicts that revolved around ancient viticulture (Chapter 9). Scholars of diverse critical persuasions will appreciate K.’s clear account of the parable’s “history of habitual readings,” his unusually detailed textual analyses of selected Greek and Hebrew texts, and the wealth of primary source material about ancient viticulture compiled in the appendices.

Chapter 1 provides a sobering account of how allegorical interpretations of the parable were used to legitimate dispossessing Jews and ‘pagans’ of their material and spiritual inheritances in the fourth and fifth centuries; to support royalist ideology in seventeenth-century England; to justify British sovereignty and private land ownership in nineteenth-century colonial India; and, over a prolonged period, to demand submission to the church and its delegates. K. finds it curious that a parable the Synoptic writers used “to record Jesus’ challenge to the priestly powers of his day” has been so consistently used to defend the dispossession and domination of subordinate populations (29).

Chapter 2 argues that “ideologically freighted features” of Mark’s parable make it “extraordinarily congenial” to the ideological interests of those who wield social power (11). K. locates the problem in Mark’s allusions to the LXX, none of which he finds in the Gospel of Thomas. He argues that these intertexts inscribe into the parable assumptions that normalize the pattern of land-ownership, tenure and inheritance reflected in the parable; condone the use of violence to defend, retain or regain property; condemn the use of violence against socio-economic superiors; and legitimate hierarchies of status and power.

Chapters 3 to 5 analyse interpretations of the parable in early Christian tradition and in modern scholarship. Questions raised in Chapters 3 to 5 form the basis for Chapters 6 to 8. Chapter 9 compares the parable with available historical evidence about ancient viticulture and how it operated within and affected broader socio-economic relations. In the light of this evidence, K. revisits the question: How realistic are the various details in the parable? He concludes that “the four details that Mark shares with Thomas—a wealthy owner, absenteeism and the use of agents to supervise the holding, the ubiquity of conflictual labor relations, and the use of the personal presence of a family member as a strategy for negotiating conflict—all have the ring of verisimilitude” (348). Unsurprisingly, the elements Koppenborg identifies as unrealistic are those introduced by the allegedly “allegorizing” allusion to Isa 5:1–7.

Despite his careful argumentation, K. does not persuade me. On my reading, most of K.’s major contentions depend on several interrelated assumptions and assertions, frequently reiterated and nowhere adequately defended:
  1. That a parable can be allegorical or realistic but cannot be both allegorical and realistic. K. finds readings that attempt to combine realistic and allegorical approaches as “incoherent” and “unconvincing” (80–86, 131–47).

  2. That the “Christological” purposes of the synoptic writers are inherently incompatible with Jesus’ primary communicative purpose in telling the parable (3–4, 35–36, 177, 241, 275).

  3. That the parable’s coercive ideology is concealed “in what the text takes for granted in the assumptions about the world without which the reader cannot make sense of the narrative but which the reader is not invited to reflect upon or question” (10–11, 38–41, 279–80, 347, 350). This assumes that parables affirm the practices it portrays.

  4. That the allusions to Isaiah 5:1–7 in the synoptic parables necessitate reading the story allegorically (68, 348); introduce “unrealistic” details into the story (2, 334); compel auditors/readers to view the owner and his actions positively and the tenants negatively (35–36); and undergird the material relationship of ownership, tenancy and inheritance “with divine authority”(35–36).
I will mention two other concerns. K.’s survey of modern scholarship includes no scholarship by women or from places other than Europe and North America. The bibliography does not include scholars who read synoptic parables as realistic fictional stories within the narrative contexts the evangelists provide (Mary Anne Beavis, Teresa Okure, Luise Schottroff), permit the allegorical allusions to Isaiah’s vineyard to enhance its realism and challenge (Kenneth Bailey, Ched Myers, Luise Schottroff), or draw on insights gleaned from contemporary communities whose lives and livelihoods are eroded by analogous dynamics (Daniel Smith-Christopher, Elsa Tamez, Justin Ukpong). A more diverse range of conversation partners may have suggested that the coercive ideologies that shaped the more pernicious traditions of interpretation of this parable are as likely to have accompanied certain of its interpreters to the interpretive process as they are to “lurk just beneath the surface of [its] text” (49).

Finally, K. does not consider how the traditions of Israel and the imperial ideologies of Rome may have influenced the experience of, and resistance to, the expansion of viticulture in Jewish Palestine. K. never mentions the possibility that the allusion to Isaiah might bring with it the whole ethical freight of Israel’s prophetic tradition and, thus, amplify the dissonance between Israel’s vexed experience of leadership and the promise/command of God. It is certainly possible to hear the canonical parable as a critique rather than an endorsement of an elite whose “acquisitive practices … violate the principles of the old Israelite ideology of the land” (133–34).

Review by
Deborah Storie
Melbourne College of Divinity
Whitley College