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The Parable of the Leaven

Chapter One

The Parable of the Leaven

by Susan Marie Praeder
from The Word in Women's Worlds, Four Parables
Published in 1988 by Michael Glazier, Inc. Wilmington, Delaware.
Published on our website with the necessary permission

Mt 13:33 He told them another parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of wheat flour until the whole of it was leavened.” Lk 13:20-21 And again he said, “To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of wheat flour until the whole of it was leavened.”

This chapter approaches the parable of the leaven in Mt 13:33 and Lk 13:20-21 as an account of bread production and as an illustration of the kingdom. In the first part of the chapter I survey production of dough ingredients, bread dough, and baked loaves of bread in ancient times and roles assumed by men and women as bread producers during the same period. The second part of the chapter is an analytic and interpretative study of the parable of the leaven as an illustration of the kingdom. In the interpretative part of the study I discuss accepted and alternative scholarly interpretations of the parable.

Bread Production in Ancient Times

Bread production in ancient times involved production of dough ingredients, bread dough from dough ingredients, and baked loaves of bread from bread dough. In its illustration of the kingdom, the parable of the leaven alludes to some of the traditional ingredients and recipe procedures used in the production of leavened dough. In Matthew and Luke a woman includes the traditional leaven and wheat flour as ingredients in her dough. According to the recipe for leavened bread, she then allows the dough to leaven thoroughly or wholly. Other ingredients, procedures, and stages in the production of leavened bread are omitted from the illustration.

The basic ingredients in leavened bread were flour, leaven, salt, and water. In unleavened bread flour, salt, and water were used. Production of leaven and wheat flour, the two ingredients indicated in the parable, formed a regular part of commercial and domestic bread production. Wheat flour was “stone-ground,” milled from whole grains ground in flour mills made of stone. A matched set of two stones sufficed for a primitive sort of flour mill. A man or a woman sitting or standing at one of the two stones would grind the grain on this stone with the other smaller, manual stone. An improved structure of two round millstones, one rotating and the other stationary, was in use in NT times. Grain supplied to this mill was ground into flour by turning the top rotating stone. Stone-ground flour was sifted, and the grades of sifted wheat flour, the traditional bread flour of the Greeks, Jews, and Romans, ranged from coarse to fine.(1)

The traditional production of leaven took place on a daily basis. Some of the fresh dough was set aside to ferment for a day. This fermented dough or sourdough was used as leaven in the following day's fresh dough. Leaven was also produced from barley and water, millet and must, and wheat bran and white grape must, and some varieties could be stored and used for months. (2)

Recipe procedures for mixing, kneading, leavening, and shaping were used in the production of bread dough. The dough ingredients were mixed together in a trough: flour and water were mixed first, and then salt or leaven and salt were mixed in with them. The resulting dough mixture was kneaded in the trough or turned out on a kneading board, table, or trough. Kneaded dough for leavened bread was allowed to proof or rise for a period of time, traditionally the period from night until morning. Leavened and unleavened doughs were shaped on the board, table, trough, or other surface. A man or a woman would pull off pieces of dough and roll out round loaves or other shapes suitable for baking.(3) The parable's account of the production of leavened dough abbreviates the mixing procedure, and omits the kneading and shaping procedures.

Loaves of bread were baked in ovens or over pits. The common bread oven of NT times was a pottery construction resembling an oversize container or vessel. A fire was kindled in the oven while leavened dough was being produced, and it was only after the fire had died down that the oven was ready. Forerunners of our cooking and frying pans were used for baking bread over preheated pit stoves. Commercial and domestic bread production also relied on the furnace oven, and if ovens and utensils were lacking, preheated flat stones of the proper size could serve in their stead. The styles or types of ancient bread included the flat, round, leavened or unleavened loaves of “Pita Bread” in Palestine and the fuller, round, leavened loaves of pull-apart “Romerbrot” in Pompeii.(4)

The parable of the leaven portrays a woman as a bread producer working with two of the ingredients for leavened dough. This portrayal, as commentators on the parable point out, reflects one of the work roles assigned to women in ancient times, “Baking was women's work.”(5) Although their characterization of the portrayal is true in general terms, archaeological and literary sources allow for a more complete and more complicated characterization of the portrayal and of the role or roles of women in bread production. Since women were involved in the production of dough ingredients, bread dough, and baked loaves of bread, the portrayal is a selective representation of their work. Moreover, women were not the only bread producers, and there were women who were not involved in bread production. Domestic bread production was carried out by freeborn women, freedwomen, and slaves of both sexes, but commercial baking was considered men's work. Women who resided in cities with commercial bakeries or who retained domestic slaves did not need to bake. A survey of some of the archaeological and literary sources for bread production in ancient times brings into view previously uncharted areas of research such as the social status and work situation of the woman in the parable.

The OT story of Abimelech and the synoptic apocalypse in Matthew contain examples of the association of milling with women and their work. It is a woman of a besieged city who all but kills Abimelech with a millstone. (Jg 9:53; 2 Sam 11:21). The coming of the Son of Man will surprise men and women still occupied with their traditional daily tasks, “Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left” (Mt 24:40-41) (6). Milling was also the work of animals and men who were prisoners or slaves. Samson is said to have “ground at the mill in the prison,”and the synoptic gospels mention the immense millstone turned by asses, horses, and mules (Jg 16:21; Mt 18:16; Mk 9:42; Lk 17:2). For women, freeborn, freed, and slave, milling was at worst difficult domestic work. Classical sources report that women sang songs while working at the mill, “Grind, mill, grind;....”(7) For animals and men, however, milling could be a dreadful form of forced labor. Animals wore blinders and were beaten for stopping or taking a false step. Prisoners and slaves worked in shackles.(8)

Terracotta figurines portray women as producers of bread dough and baked loaves of bread. Single figures are portrayed bent over kneading or shaping troughs and sitting in front of ovens. Striking group figures are represented among the Greek terracottas of the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.E. One such figure portrays four women working at a kneading or shaping table while a man or a woman standing at one end of the rectangular table plays flute music for them. Another figure represents a group of women working around an oven. Two women are accompanied by children, and one of these women clearly has both hands occupied: she is caring for a child and carrying a piece of firewood toward the oven. Four other women are busy with various baking chores: carrying a round loaf on a baking sheet or bread board, pouring rolls into a storage bin, and, so it seems, laboring over dough in a trough. The figure also includes an interested dog and a stack of bread.(9)

Literary portrayals of women as bread producers are short on details. As is the case in the parable of the leaven, a concise or selective account seems to suffice. There is no account, however, that contains the same selection of details as the parable: taking, hiding, and leavening. The OT story of Saul and the woman of Endor includes a short account of taking, kneading, baking, and serving of unleavened bread, “and she took flour, and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, and she put it before Saul and his servants; and they ate” (1 Sam 28:24-25). Taking, kneading, shaping, baking, and serving of “cakes” or loaves of pan-style bread are summarized in the story of the rape of Tamar, “So Tamar went to her brother Ammon's house, where he was lying down. And she took dough, and kneaded it, and made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. And she took the pan and emptied it out before him, but he refused to eat” (2 Sam 13:8-9). The Mishnah alludes to kneading, shaping, baking, and slapping in its list of teachings on the ordering of women's roles in production of oven-baked, unleavened loaves at Passover:

Rabban Gamaliel says: Three women may knead dough at the same time and bake it in the same oven one after the other. But the Sages say: Three women may occupy themselves [at the same time] with the dough, one kneading, one rolling it out, and one baking. R. Akiba says: All women and all kinds of wood and all ovens are not equal. This is the general rule: if the dough swells let her slap it with cold water (Pesah 3:4)

Men were in charge of bread production in commercial bakeries, and in cities such as Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome baking was one of their daily work roles. Jerusalem's bakeries supplied the prisoner and prophet Jeremiah with his daily bread, “and a loaf of bread was given him daily from the bakers’ street, until all the bread of the city was gone” (Jer 37:21). Pliny the Elder reports that commercial bread production was introduced to Rome in the second century B.C.E. Although commercial bread production by men was the rule in first-century C.E. Rome, domestic bread production by women persisted in other places, “The citizens of Rome themselves used to make bread, and this was principally women’s work, as it is even now among most peoples” (Nat. 18.107). To complicate matters, the Mishnah attests to the fact that commercial bakeries did not always eliminate domestic bread production by women, “If a baker made leaven to distribute [to buyers] it is liable to Dough-offering. If women gave [dough] to the baker from which to make leaven for them, and none [of the portions of dough] was of the prescribed measure, it is exempt from Dough-offering” (Hal 1 :7). In Athens the introduction of commercial bakeries created a work role for women outside the domestic sphere: selling bread in the marketplace. Bread selling was not a respected profession, as the comic imagination of Aristophanes reveals, “It isn’t right to revile men poets as if they were breadsellers” (Ra.857-58).(10)

Inscriptional and literary sources suggest that most commercial bakers in Rome were freeborn men and freedmen of simple means. Slave men labored in commercial bakeries and supervised domestic bread production in the households of the rich.11 M. Vergilius Eurysaces, a baker in first-century B.C.E. Rome, rose to a position of local prominence. The inscription and scenes on his tomb tell us that he employed animals and slaves and operated under a state contract.12. Bakers and baking families could climb the social ladder but only at the risk of calling attention to themselves and their professional histories. Martial mocks a certain Cyperus, a baker turned trial lawyer, and the gossipy sources cited by Suetonius consider it something of a scandal that bakers are represented in the family tree of the emperor Augustus (Mart, 8.16; Suet. Aug. 4)

Freeborn women, freedwornen, and slave women worked as bread producers. Freeborn women and freedwornen with slaves could relegate some or all of the stages of bread production to the men and women under their charge. The bread producers in Greek terracotta figurines are usually dressed as slaves. The Mishnah names baking and milling as two of the domestic responsibilities of married women, but a married woman with one or more slave women could let them carry out these tasks for her:

These are works which the wife must perform for her husband: grinding flour and baking bread and washing clothes and cooking food and giving suck to her child and making ready his bed and working in wool. If she brought him in one bondwoman she need not grind or bake or wash; if two, she need not cook or give her child suck; if three, she need not make ready his bed or work in wool; if four, she may sit [all the day] in a chair.. (Ketub. 5:5)

Our study of archaeological and literary representations of men and women as bread producers indicates some of the questions that need to be asked about the parable’s portrayal of woman in the same role: What is her status, freeborn, freed, or slave? Where is she working, in city, town, or country setting? Why is she working, in the interest of commercial profit or out of domestic responsibility? Although these questions cannot be answered with the assurance of certainty, they do allow us to sketch some characterizations according to the woman’s social status and work situation. In all probability she is a domestic bread producer rather than a commercial bread producer. Her use of leaven also makes it unlikely that she is a cultic baker. She could be conducting her work in a city, town, or country setting, but in some cities commercial baking supplanted or supplemented domestic baking. If she is a freeborn woman or freedwoman, then she is relatively poor by ancient standards, presuming that her family does not possess slaves for domestic chores. If she is a slave, then she is working for someone else and probably to fulfill another woman’s domestic responsibilities. Although the parable is silent about the woman’s social status, it is worth noting that other sayings in Matthew and Luke reflect some awareness or experience of master-slave work relationships.13 “

It seems that first-century tellers of the parable of the leaven and their hearing and reading audiences would have understood the portrayal of “a woman” as a portrayal of a domestic worker of modest means in a selective account of bread production. She is occupied with the domestic responsibility of producing bread, the basic food in the diet of ancient peoples. Someone, possibly the woman herself, had to tend to fermenting of the leaven and grinding and sifting of the wheat flour. Of the situations, stages, and styles of bread production, only domestic production of leavened dough is included in the account and deemed relevant for the illustration of the kingdom. Baking, production of unleavened bread, and bread production as a commercial enterprise conducted by professional bakers and their assistants are not part of the illustration.

Analysis and Interpretation of the Parable

My analysis of the versions of the parable of the leaven in Mt 13:33 and Lk 13:20-21 considers the introductions to the parable, “the kingdom of heaven,” “the kingdom of God,” and “is like,” and the virtually identical accounts of bread production. The introduction “He told them another parable” integrates the parable of the leaven into the parables discourse in Matthew 13. In this discourse Jesus tells four parables to the crowds and three parables to the disciples. Only the parables told to the crowds are identified by literary form. Matthew introduces the parable of the sower as one of the tellings “in parables,” and each of the other tellings, the parables of the wheat and tares, mustard seed, and leaven, as “another parable” (vv 3, 24, 31, 33). It seems that Matthew is calling attention to parabolic speech as a form that conceals the secrets of the kingdom from the crowds.(14) Jesus links his use of parabolic speech to their lack of spiritual insight and understanding, and special instruction in the discourse, including parable interpretations and scriptural citations, is reserved for the disciples or the gospel’s readers (vv 10-23, 34-43, 51-52). In Luke, as in Matthew, the parable of the leaven is preceded by the parable of the mustard seed. The introduction “And again he said” indicates that the parable of the leaven is the second of the two sayings. Although both sayings are parables, Luke does not allude to their common literary form.

In the parable of the leaven Jesus tells of the kingdom, termed “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew and “the kingdom of God” in Luke. In Matthew “the kingdom of heaven” is a characteristic term in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, including his proclamation of the kingdom in parables. (15) It initiates the course of certain parables and is clustered in the series of teachings in Matthew 13 (13:11, 24, 31,33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1). In contrast, “the kingdom of God” is common in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom in Luke. (16) It is not at all characteristic of the parables and occurs as the initial topic of comparison only in the parables of the mustard seed and leaven (13:18, 20). “Of heaven” is an indirect reference to God, and “of God” is an equivalent direct reference.

In the synoptic gospels the kingdom is a multidimensional symbol for the universal relationship of God and the people of God. The Greek term basileia and its English translation “kingdom” suggest a single dimension, a place, realm or royal territory of God, but these spatial renderings represent only one dimension of the synoptic kingdom. In Matthew and Luke the kingdom and the relationship it symbolizes take on christological, constitutive, spatial, and temporal dimensions. In the christological dimension Jesus is a pro-claimer of the kingdom and plays a special role in the relationship of God and people. An odd collection of outcasts constitutes the people of God; Gentiles, the persecuted, poor, and possessed, and prostitutes and tax collectors are all included in the kingdom. The language of entrance and exclusion designates the kingdom as a spatial dimension; some people will enter into it, and others will be excluded from it. The temporal dimension of the relationship is present and future; the kingdom has come and is still to come.(17)

As symbols, “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God” supply the basic orientation for our analysis and interpretation of the parable of the leaven. They indicate that there is more to the parable than an account of bread production; it is an illustration of the relationship of God and the people of God. More importantly, as multidimensional symbols, they do not reveal to us the precise topic or topics of comparison. Is the parable an illustration of the christological, constitutive, spatial, or temporal dimension of the kingdom? Or does it outline still another dimension of the kingdom, a parabolic dimension? Or should the kingdom be interpreted as a modern symbol, for example, as a personal, interpersonal, or political realm? It is up to us to form the answers to these and other interpretative questions. Analysis of the parable supplies questions and possible answers, but it does not support a set answer or interpretation. There must be multiple interpretations of the kingdom as the topic of comparison. The ambiguity of the parable accommodates them, and the universality of the relationship of God and people mandates them.(18)

The parable of the leaven is a comparison of likeness or “similitude.”19 In Matthew and Luke Jesus claims that the kingdom “is like” leaven, and in Luke this claim is styled as a response to his question about a suitable comparison. The other kingdom parables in Matthew and Luke also involve comparisons of likeness in which Jesus reveals what the kingdom “is like” without revealing what it “is.” On the basis of the Aramaic construction used in such comparisons of likeness or the objects of comparison in the kingdom parables, it can be concluded that the comparison of likeness in our parable is not strictly limited to the leaven.(20) “ It is not simply the case that the kingdom is like leaven, the object of the comparison; it is also the case that the kingdom “is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of wheat flour until the whole of it was leavened.”

The principal interpretative problem arising from the proposed likeness of kingdom and production of leavened dough concerns the role of the elements in the account of bread production in the illustration of the kingdom. Do all the elements contribute to the illustration of the kingdom? Or are some more like the kingdom than others? Or do all or some of the elements serve to illustrate a special idea about the kingdom, an idea separate from the elements themselves and not stated in the parable? Our answers should be formed on the basis of analytic study of the elements: the leaven, the three measures of wheat flour, and the leavening of the whole of the wheat flour.(21)

The position and repetition of “leaven” and “leavened” are of interest, insofar as they call attention to the object and course of the comparison by framing the concise account, “leaven.. .until the whole of it was leavened.” The only special item of information in the frame is the fact that fermentation spreads throughout the whole of the wheat flour. (22) The further significance of the frame elements is a function of our interpretative imaginations. Among the critical controls and sources for interpretation of these elements are the ideas commonly associated with leaven and leavening in ancient times.

One idea was that the amount of leaven in dough was small in proportion to the amount of flour. As Paul reminds his readers in 1 Cor 5:6 and Gal 5:9, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” of dough. Pliny the Elder reports, “The Greeks have determined that two-thirds of a pound of leaven suffices for two half-measures of wheat flour” (Nat. 18.102). The Roman pound was a little less than the similarly named measure in use in the United States, and the two Roman half-measures or one Roman modius equaled about a peck of flour. If the proportion of one-third Roman pound to one Roman half-measure cited by Pliny was something of a standard, then the parable’s three measures of wheat flour, equaling about nine Roman half-measures, would call for three Roman pounds of leaven.23 This is not a small amount of leaven; it is small only in proportion to the amount of flour. The related idea that leaven increased in size, from small to large, is represented by a comparison in Aristotle’s investigation of fish eggs, “The cause closely resembles the cause in the case of leaven. For leaven becomes large from a small beginning,...” (GA 755a 17-18).

Leaven and leavening were also associated with corrupting influence, ritual uncleanness, and spoilage. A speaker in one of Plutarch’s treatises sees corruption and leavening as parallel processes. Ultimately, the leavening process produces spoiled dough, “They say that wheat flour leavens better during full moons. In fact, leavening is not that much different from putrefaction. And if the proper measure is not observed, it produces the same corruption by rendering the dough light and porous” (Mor. 659 B). Jewish ritual forbade the use of leavened products in animal sacrifices and cereal offerings:

You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread,... (Ex 23:18). No cereal offering which you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven; for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as an offering by fire to the Lord (Lev 2: II).24“

Plutarch reports that the Roman priest of Jupiter was forbidden to touch leaven, a product of corruption producing corruption and spoilage in flour (Mor. 289 E-F). The Mishnah distinguishes two stages in the leavening process in its discussion of the burning of leavened dough and the punishment for consumption of leavened dough during Passover

Dough beginning to ferment (si’ur) must be burnt; but he that eats it is not culpable. Dough wholly fermented (sidduk) must be burnt and he that eats it is liable topunishment by Extirpation. What is si’ur? [Dough on which streaks appear] like the horns of a locust. And sidduk? [Dough] on which the cracks are all entangled together. So R. Judah. But the Sages say: If a man ate either [of these] he is liable to punishment by Extirpation. But what is si’ur? [Dough] whose surface turns pallid [sic] like a man’s face when his hair stands on end (Pesah. 3:5).25“

In the synoptic gospels Jesus cautions against “the leaven” of the Pharisees and their allies (Mt 16:6, 11-12; Mk 8:15; Lk 12:1). In Matthew the disciples conclude that the leaven refers to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and in Luke it is associated with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

Paul’s ideas about community “leaven” and “unleavened” community in 1 Cor 5:6-8 deserve verse-by-verse consideration. The proverbial reminder in v 6 is something of a parallel to the frame of the parable:

a little leaven leavens the whole lump,

leaven.. .until the whole of it was leavened.26.“

Vv 7-8 are dominated by ritual associations and the contrast leaven/unleavened. In v 7 Paul demands that the Corinthians rid themselves of the “the old leaven,” their residual immoral and worldly ways. The ideal is “a new lump,” a community of the “unleavened.” According to v 8, the conduct of the Christian community should resemble the Passover observance of celebrating “not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Corrupting influence, ritual uncleanness, smallness, spoilage, wholeness: all these associations seem to be in Paul’s mind, if not in his words. The cluster of ideas in his discussion suggests some points that need to be taken into consideration in analysis and interpretation of the parable of leaven. One point is the possibility that the parable incorporates several ideas about leaven and leavening. Another possibility is that the parable opposes traditional understandings of the holiness and purity of the people of God.27.“

The significance of leaven and leavening in the parable can be pursued along several lines of interpretation. One line of interpretation stays strictly to the frame elements. Since the ideas of corruption and proportional size are not applied to leaven and leavening in the parable, they should not be included in interpretation of these elements. The parable itself is interested in the wholeness of the leavening process. All other lines of interpretation try to understand the parable in relation to the outside ideas of corruption and proportional size. As one of the ideas commonly associated with leaven and leavening, corruption or proportional size did not need to be identified as the controlling idea in the parable. The association was obvious to tellers of the parable and their audiences. Broader attempts to understand the parable are ready to accommodate the ideas of corruption, proportional size, and wholeness.28“

The parable’s portrayal of the woman is limited to two events: her taking and hiding of leaven in wheat flour. As our study of archaeological and literary sources suggested, the portrayal points to domestic bread production by a woman of modest means, freeborn, freed, or slave. “Took” is an all-purpose term, here implying that the woman takes the leaven in hand. In “took and hid,”as in “took and sowed” in the parable of the mustard seed, it functions as part of a storyteller’s formula. “Hid” and “sowed” would have sufficed by themselves. “Hid,” enekrypsen in Matthew and ekrypsen or enekrypsen in Luke, is not part of the standard terminology for the mixing of dough ingredients.29 The simple verb kryptõ translates as “bury, conceal, cover, hide, keep secret” and its compound egkryptõ, probably the correct reading in both gospels, as “conceal (in)” or “hide (in).” The compound seems to carry the connotation of the concealment of a smaller unit in a larger unit. A striking example occurs in one of the similes in Homer’s Odyssey, “As when someone hides (enekrypse) a firebrand in black ashes / out on a field, its farthest boundary, and far from others, his neighbors;/preserving a spark of fire so as not to need to bring it from somewhere else— /thus Odysseus lay concealed (kalypsato) in the leaves” (5.488-91). Other examples occur in Apollodorus’ telling of the story of Demophon, the boy discovered buried or hidden in fire (Bibl. 1.5.1), and Aristotle’s description of a Scythian bird who concealed her eggs in fox and rabbit skins (HA 619b 33).

Although the proportion of leaven to wheat flour is that of a smaller unit hidden in a larger unit, the compound egkryptõ is still an odd choice for an account of bread production. The same could also be said of kryptõ. In addition, “hid” stands out as the only verb identifying the woman’s role in the production of the leavened dough. Why is it said that she hid the leaven? It could be because hiddenness is supposed to be seen as a common characteristic of the kingdom and the leaven. In the synoptic gospels hiddenness is only an occasional theme in Jesus’ proclamation, a fact that neither contradicts nor strongly supports the proposed connection.(30) In Matthew 13 the kingdom is likened to “treasure hidden in a field,” and hiddenness and parables are linked in a citation of Ps 78:2, “I will open my mouth in parables,/ I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (vv 35, 44), A parallel or similar interest in hiddeness is lacking in the setting for the parable of the leaven in Luke.

The parable reckons the principal dry ingredient at “three measures of wheat flour.” The translation “measures” is a generic rendering of sata, the plural of saton, itself a Greek rendering of the Hebrew dry measure sĕ’ãh, plural sĕ’im. According to Josephus, one saton was the equivalent of 11/2 Roman modii (Ant. 9.4, 5§85) Three sata would be 4 l/2 Roman measures, roughly four to five pecks or an amount of wheat flour yielding bread for more than a hundred people at one sitting. (31) “Wheat flour,” aleuron, suggests the ordinary grade and traditional type of sifted flour. A finer grade of sifted wheat flour, semidalis, was used in cultic and specialty baking. Wheat flour was the preferred traditional type of flour in ordinary bread production. Barley flour was also used but yielded inferior loaves sometimes considered as“poor people’s bread.” (32)

Most commentators on the parable understand three measures as an ordinary recipe measure representing about as much as a woman could work with at one time. 33 This understanding seems to derive from the old idea that the parables represent ordinary occurrences. Saton or sĕ’āh is a rarely attested measure, and Gen 18:6, the only other portrayal of a woman working with three such measures of flour, clearly accompanies an extraordinary occurrence. (34) In Gen 18:1-8 God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham instructs Sarah to make cakes of bread for their guests from three sĕ’îm of finely sifted wheat flour, “And Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, ’Hurry, knead three measures of fine wheat flour and make cakes of bread’” (my translation). Since three sĕ’îm equaled one ĕpāh the latter term, a more commonly attested OT dry measure, would also have made sense in the account. The insistence of Abraham and the storyteller on three sĕ îm seems to be related to the fact that the wheat flour is for three men, one measure per man. This extraordinary recipe measure, far exceeding the allotment required per man, is intended to supply an equally extraordinary meal, a meal fit for God.(35)

Given the rarity of the measure and the representation of three measures in Gen 18:6, it is possible that the parable’s three measures are meant as an allusion to some characteristic of the kingdom and that the Genesis passage is the source of the allusion. Sarah used three measures in an account of a revelation of God; so too a kingdom parable calls for a woman to use three measures. It is not that the woman is a Sarah-figure but that the parable concerns revelation of “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God.” (36) Assuming that there is an allusion, then it is not based on the LXX Greek text, which offers a generic rendering of sĕ’îm as metra, “measures.” Only a Hebrew text or a literal Greek text or translation could have suggested sata. (37) The parable’s choice of aleuron can be seen as a partial correspondence to a Hebrew text or a literal Greek text or translation. The Hebrew MT reads qemah sõlet for “fine wheat flour.” This is a peculiar collocation of two contrasting terms usually rendered as aleuron and semidalis. (38) Finally, as a more remote possibility, the parable’s choice of egkrypto could be a play on egkryphias, the Greek term for loaves baked “hidden” in ashes and the reading of the LXX for “cakes of bread” in Gen 18:6.39.

All interpretations of the woman’s taking and hiding of leaven in three measures of wheat flour proceed from corresponding orientations toward the role of these elements in the parable. Readings oriented toward hiding and three measures as elements in an account of bread production interpret them as recipe items. Readings oriented toward their role as elements in an illustration of the kingdom lead to interpretative considerations of hiddenness and revelation. Thus, once again, analytic study of the parable of the leaven points to a set of interpretative options, not a set interpretation. With these interpretative options in mind, it is time for us to turn to a discussion of accepted and alternative interpretations of the parable in modern parables scholarship.

Modern scholarly interpretations usually understand the parable of the leaven as “a parable of contrast” or “a parable of growth” illustrating the spatial and temporal dimensions of the kingdom. The spatial dimension is a demonstration of the increase or increasing size of the kingdom. In its initial stage, the kingdom is insignificant or small. In contrast or at the conclusion of its growth, the kingdom is realized in its full greatness. The lapse of time “until” the conclusion of the leavening period suggests the temporal dimension in its present and future stages from the ministry of Jesus to the parousia or from the ministry of Jesus over the period of the church to the parousia. The size of the leaven, “until,” and the leavened wheat flour are the elements deemed to be of primary significance for the illustration of the kingdom. (40)

These spatial and temporal interpretations have been formed by the interests, methods of analysis and interpretation, and presuppositions of modern parables scholarship. The focus on the temporal dimension is a function of the interest of twentieth-century scholars in the role of present and future in the proclamation of Jesus, Matthew, and Luke. There is no trace of present or future in the parable; the story it tells is set in past time. Nevertheless, readers already interested in the temporal dimension can interpret “until” as an indication of a sort of parabolic present and future. Throughout this century the parables of the mustard seed and leaven have been analyzed and interpreted as a pair. As a pair, they are supposed to illustrate the same or similar idea, and the slightly longer account in the first parable is used to fill in the supposed gaps in the second parable. Matthew contrasts “the smallest of all seeds” and “the greatest of shrubs,” and both Matthew and Luke report that the seed grows into a tree. The ideas of contrast and growth, although absent from the account of bread production, are used to orient analysis and interpretation of the parable of the leaven. The parable of the mustard seed and leaven are a pair, but this does not mean that the first parable should determine or dominate study of the second parable. It is possible that the parable of the leaven illustrates a complementary or separate point such as proportional size or wholeness. Since it is difficult to relate the woman’s taking and hiding of leaven in three measures of wheat flour to the spatial and temporal dimensions of the kingdom, the significance of these elements is usually dismissed or doubted. (41)

In modern scholarship the christological dimension of the parable of the leaven is reduced to the introductory portrayals of Jesus as a teller of parables or sayings. Since most NT scholars assume that Jesus is the teller, not the topic, of his parables and are primarily interested in the parables as told and understood by Jesus, christological interpretation of the parables has long since fallen out of style. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the parables can be made to accommodate christological readings. The evidence for this extends from the gospels throughout the history of interpretation to popular and spiritual interpretations of the present day.(42)

The presuppositions that Jesus could not possibly have been so bold as to liken the kingdom to a force or process of corruption, uncleanness, and spoilage and that the kingdom should be understood as a positive development have combined to prevent constitutive interpretation of the parable of the leaven. Matthew and Luke, however, do portray Jesus as someone so bold, both in his practice and proclamation of the kingdom. The kingdom itself is not so much a negative or positive development as a subversive force or process, at least in respect to the inclusion of outcasts and the accompanying transformation of the people of God or the whole world. Interpreters who choose to play by the rules of modern scholarship, reading the parable according to the synoptic dimensions of the kingdom, must consider the constitutive dimension as a possible factor in the illustration. Leavening is a process including leaven and wheat flour and “corrupting” wheat flour into wholly leavened wheat flour. Similarly, the kingdom involves a leavening process of sorts, a “corrupting” of the people of God through the inclusion of outcasts or the subversive transformation interpretation of the of the world.(43)

Although constitutive interpretation appears to offer a viable alternative to spatial and temporal interpretation, I do not intend to pursue this issue by pitting interpretation against interpretation. Inevitably, arguments in favor of constitutive interpretation would run into the same problems that trouble accepted scholarly interpretations. Instead I intend to outline an alternative mode of interpretative study that aims at comprehensiveness and self-critical reading of the parable of the leaven. In its comprehensiveness the alternative mode can be described as a parabolic interpretation; it seeks the kingdom in a parable and in so doing takes into consideration all the elements in the comparison of likeness. In outlining this latter task I rely on the analytic study in this chapter. It is self-critical reading in that it requires interpreters to identify problems of interpretation and factors inside and outside the parable that call into question, influence, or support their choices or solutions—if there are solutions. I include indications of my reading not as a model of interpretation but as a small demonstration of the need for self-critical readings.

The interpretative options for leaven and leavening are corruption, proportional size, and wholeness. I am inclined to include all three options in my interpretation of the parable, but there is considerable doubt in my mind about the role of corruption in the illustration of the kingdom. At times I interpret leaven and leavening as a natural or neutral ingredient and result. By implication the kingdom is like a natural or neutral process or result of fermentation. In this reading I am influenced by the findings of modern parables scholarship. At other times I submit to the influence of various outside factors: the associations of leaven and leavening with corruption, uncleanness, and spoilage in ancient sources, Paul’s ideal unleavened community in 1 Cor 5:6-8, the radical or scandalous teaching of Jesus and certain strands of Jesus tradition, and my understanding of the divine realm as something all-inclusive and subversive. Then the kingdom is like the corrupting, unclean, or spoiling force of fermentation, the opposite of the “ideal” community, radical and scandalous in its dimensions, the all-inclusive and subversive God and people of God. The frame elements, selectivity of the parable, and the pair parable of the mustard seed can be interpreted as support for this reading. The position and repetition of “leaven” and “leavened” suggest a special emphasis of some sort, and the selective account focuses on the production of leavened dough, not on the other stages and styles of bread production. Parabolic interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed raises the possibility that the kingdom plant or tree is a comic antitype to the world empire represented by the cedar of Lebanon in the OT.(44) Perhaps the leavened kingdom in the pair parable is a not-so-comic antitype to traditional ideas about the holiness, purity, and wholeness of the people of God.

Hiding and three measures are indications of the proportional size of the ingredients. The smaller leaven is concealed in the larger wheat flour. The idea of wholeness is represented in the fermentation of the whole of the wheat flour. In this case the kingdom is like smaller and larger ingredients; one is integrated into the other, or one spreads throughout or takes over the other. Wholeness is not immediate but occurs at the conclusion of an unspecified period time, “until.” Spatial and temporal readings are oriented toward the smaller and larger ingredients and “until” as elements that summarize the history of first-century Christianity. In contrast, parabolic interpretation tries to understand the role of these elements in the story world of the parable.

Reading of the woman’s taking and hiding of leaven in three measures of wheat flour as an illustration of the kingdom involves solicitation of support from outside sources. The parable does not specify the woman’s social status or work situation, but outside sources suggest that she is a domestic worker and a woman of relative poverty. Is the kingdom also like a situation of a domestic worker and the status of a freeborn woman, freedwoman, or slave, woman? Yes, if we are willing to read archaeological and literary sources into the parable. No, if we are unwilling to do so. In this case I see nothing wrong with a little reading into the parable, provided that we are also aware that this is what we are doing.

In the ancient sources available to me, “hid” is not a recipe term. This creates the suspicion that the woman’s taking and hiding are supposed to illustrate the hiddenness of the kingdom. It is also possible that “hid” is an odd or unattested recipe term and, as such, is not at all related to the illustration of the kingdom. Gen 18:6 and other OT sources suggest that there is something extraordinary, revelatory, and ordinary about the three measures of wheat flour. The absence of this dry measure from other ancient sources can be used as an argument ex silentio for the parable’s allusion to Gen 18:6. If there is such an allusion, then its purpose seems to be that of a reminiscence of bread production in a situation of revelation. Three measures are an extraordinary amount, but wheat flour is an ordinary ingredient. Interpreted as an illustration of the kingdom, the three measures of wheat flour reveal a realm of extraordinary and ordinary design.

An antitypical kingdom or a neutral kingdom, a kingdom filling the story world of the parable or reflecting the history of first-century Christianity, a kingdom informed by the account of bread production alone or a kingdom supported by outside sources: these are some of the problems identified in the course of our parabolic interpretation. My scholarly response to these problems is one of complete openness. I see and support the possibility of multiple readings of the parable of the leaven. Personally, I am intrigued by readings of the parable as an illustration of an antitypical kingdom. It is particularly in these readings that I perceive something of the radical novelty and revelatory nature of the divine realm. The supposedly neutral kingdom that ultimately triumphs by increase of size reminds me a little too much of the overly revealed kingdoms of the world.


1. H. Blümner, Technologie and Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künsie bei Griechen und Römern (4 vols.; 2d ed. of vol. 1; Leipzig: Teubner, 1912; repr. ed.; Hildesheim: Olms, 1969) 1.20-55; G. Dalman, Arbeit und Sine in Palästina (6 vols.; Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1928-39; repr.ed; Hildesheim: Olms, 1964) 3.208-12, 225-30; Mau, “Bäckerei,” PW 2.2735-37, 2739.

2. Pliny Nat, 18.102-4; H.F. Beck, “Leaven,” IDB 3.104-5; H. Blümner, Technologie1.58-60; S. Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie (3 vols.; Leipzig: no pub., 1910-12;repr. ed.; Hildesheim: Olms, 1966) 1,99-100.

3. H. Blümner, Technologie, 1.60-66; G. Dalman, Arbeit, 4.51-59, 107-10; S. Krauss, Archäologie, 1.100-101.

4. G. Dalman, Arbeit, 4.34-38, 41-45, 66-73, 96-104, 116-26. 128-29, 138; Mau, “Bäckerei,” 2739-40; J. F. Ross, “Bread,” IDB 1.462.

5. E.g., A. Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (2 vols. in 1; Tübingen: Mohr, 1910; repr. ed; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963) 2.577. He recognizes that baking was a work role assigned to women in families of modest means.

6. For further illustrations of milling as women’s work and two women working at the mill, see Str-B 1966-67. The parallel passage in Lk 17:34-35 foretells the taking and leaving of two people in bed and of two working at the mill.

7. Plutarch Mor. 157 E; H, Blümner, Technologie, 1. 32 nn. 4-5.

8. Apuleius (Met. 9.11-13) and a poem in the Appendix Vergiliana (Mor. 19-31) describe the working conditions of animals and men and milling as work for one man. See also A. Hug, “Mylĕ (Mühle) 1,” PW 16.1067-68.

9. H. Blümner, Technologie, 1.66-70. For further interpretation of the figurines, see J. Ebert, M. Blumentritt, et al., Die Arbeitswelt der Antike (Vienna: Böhlau, 1984) 85-87.

10. Cf. Lucian Demon. 63 Artokopissa, a Greek term for “woman baker,” is attested in a fragmentary fourth-century C.E. papyrus (Poxy 1146.8-9). Pistrix, its Latin equivalent, occurs in a fragment of the second-century B.C.E. satirist Lucilius (1268-69 [ed. W. Krenkel]). The woman so described seems to be a domestic slave.

11. A. Hug, “Pistor,” PW 20.1825-26.

12. H. Blümner, Technologie, 1.40; H. Gundel, “M. Vergilius Eurysaces 5,” PW 8A.1019-20.

13. Weiser, “douleuõ,” EWAT 1.848-50.

14. J.D. Kingsbury, The Parables of Jesus in Matthew 13: A Study in Redaction Criticism (London: SPCK, 1969) 31.

l5. For the kingdom of heaven in Matthew, see U. Luz, ”basileia,” EWNT 1.487-89.

16. For the kingdom of God in Luke, see ibid. 1.489-90.

17. Ibid., 1.481-92. According to N. Perrin (Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in NewTestament Interpretation [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976]), the kingdom “is not an idea or a conception, it is a symbol. As a symbol it can represent or evoke a whole range or series of conceptions or ideas” (pp. 33-34, his emphasis).

18. M. A. Tolbert (Perspectives on the Parables: An Approach to Multiple Interpretations [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979] 39) concludes that multiple interpretations are “the necessary consequence of the parable form itself.”

19. R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (rev. ed.; Oxford: Blackwell, 1972) 172

20. J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (3d rev. ed.; London: SCM, 1972) 100-102. In his view the comparison looks to the completion of the leavening period.

21. J. Breech (The Silence of Jesus: The Authentic Voice of the Historical Man [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983] 66, 77-78, 80-81) includes the parables of the leaven and the lost coin among the “phonodramatic parables” describing women and their worlds but not the dimensions of the kingdom. R. W. Funk (“Beyond Criticism in Quest of Literacy: The Parable of the Leaven,” Int 25 [1971] 153-54) observes that modern scholarship tends to interpret the parables as historical (Dodd and Jeremias) or moral (Jülicher) lessons limited to one or two points.

22. In Greek the reference to wholeness follows the verb: zymĕ ... heõs hou ezymõthõ holon. The final position of holon could signal some special emphasis.

23. See further below, pp. 27-28.

24. For exceptions, see Lev 7:13; 23:17.

25. “Extirpation” follows the instructions in Ex 12:15.

26. The common elements are forms of zymĕ, the noun “leaven,” zymoõ, the verb “leaven,” and holos, “whole.” The proverbial reminder is part of a sentence question.

27. For Paul’s references to leaven, see C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Black’s New Testament Commentaries; London: Black, 1968) 127-30; F. Mussner, Der Galaterbrief (HTKNT 9; Freiburg; Herder, 1974) 356-57.

28. Modern scholarly interpretations tend to focus on increase in size. This quite the same as proportional size.

29. H. Blümner, Technologie, 1.60-61.

30. R.W. Funk (“Beyond Criticism,” 158-59, 163) interprets the hiddenness of the leaven as a parabolic sign of the mysterious nature of the kingdom.

31. J. Jeremias, Parables, 147; J.D. Kingsbury, Matthew 13, 85.

32. H. Blümner, Technologie, 1.49-55, 74-89.

33. G. Dalman. Arbeit, 4.56: A. Jülicher. Gleichnisreden, 2.577. J. Jeremias (Parables, 147) eventually came to the conclusion that “no housewife would bake so vast a quantity of meal.”

34. For other references to sĕ āh see 1 Sam 25:18; 1 Kg 18:2; 2 Kg 7:1, 16, 18

35. G. von Rad (Genesis: A Commentary [OTL; Philadelphia; Westminster, 1956] 201) observes that the meal is much more substantial than Abraham’s initial offer of bread and water.

36. R. W. Funk (“Beyond Criticism,” 159-61) associates the three measures with the measures of flour in the epiphanic situations in Gen 18:6 Jg 6:19, and 1 Sam 1:24. E. Waller (“The Parable of the Leaven: A Sectarian Teaching and the Inclusion of Women,” USQR 35 [1979-80] 99-109) suggests that the woman in the version of the parable in Gos. Thorn. 96 is a Sarah-figure, See also J. Jeremias, Parables, 147.

37. For the translation sata, see the critical apparatus at Gen 18:6 in J. W. Wevers, Genesis (Septuaginta Vetus Testamentum Graecum 1; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974) 184.

38. C. Westermann, Genesis (BKAT 1 /2; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1981)338.

39. E.Waller, “Leaven,” 104.

40. For various approaches, see N. A. Dahl, “The Parables of Growth,” ST 5 (1951) 132-66; D. Ellena, “Thematische Analyse der Wachstumgleichnisse,” LB 23-24 (1973) 48-62; J. Jeremias, Parables, 147-49; J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew 13, 84-88.

41. For interpretations of the parables of the mustard seed and leaven as a pair, see J. Dupont, “Le couple parabolique du Sénevé et du Levain,” Jesus Christus in Historic und Theologie: Neutestamentliche Festschrift für Hans Conzelmann (ed. G. Strecker: Tübingen: Mohr. 1975) 331-45; J. Jeremias, Parables, 90-92; A. Jülicher, Gleichnisreden, 2.569-81; O. Kuss, “Zum Sinngehalt des Doppelgleichnisses vom Senfkorn und Sauerteig,” Bib 40 (1959) 641-53.

42. For a summary of the history of parables, see A. Jülicher, Gleichnisreden, 1.203-322.

43. For similar interpretations, see R. W. Funk, “Beyond Criticism,” 149-70. esp. p. 162; F.. Lohmeyer, Das Evangelium des Matthäus ed. W. Schmauch; Kritisch-exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament; 3d ed.; Göttingen: Vartden-hoeck & Ruprecht, 1962) 220-21. See also C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (Welwyn: Nisbet, 1961) 154-55.

44. R. W. Funk. “The Looking-Glass Tree Is For the Birds.” Int 27 (1973)3-9.

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