Barry Newman's Blog

March 17, 2013

The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep (part VIII)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 12:59 am

 “The mountains”, “the desert” and what the parables do and do not say.

Before turning to our understanding of the two parables, some attention will be devoted to “the mountains” of Matthew and “the desert” of Luke and what the parables do and do not say, independently of what commentators believe were the realities that lay behind the parables.  Though at first it might seem unnecessary to devote much attention to these matters, it could be important to do so in order to better understand what the parables might or might not be alluding to.

         “The Mountains”

Matthew reports that in the parable, Jesus refers to the shepherd leaving the 99 in the mountains, “oros” being the Greek word used.  “Oros” is used 63 times in the New Testament and the NIV translates it, “mountain” or similar 56 times (“mountain” [20 x];  “mountains” [10 x]; “mountainside” [8 x]; “mount” [18 x][1] and “hill” or similar 7 times (“hill” [2 x]; “hills” [3 x]; “hillside” [2 x]).

The mountains of the Bible are not all that great in height. While Mt Sinai is over 2000 m high, Mt Zion and the Mt of Olives are around 800 m, with the Mt Carmel range being around 500 m. Twice in the New Testament, a mountain is described as “high” (the transfiguration mountain), once as “very high” (the mountain to which Satan took Jesus) and once as huge (the visionary mountain of Revelation 8: 8).

The word, “bouvos” meaning a hill or a mound is only found twice in the New Testament and both times in conjunction with “oros” – Luke 3: 5, where the reference is to a text from Isaiah: “every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low” and Luke 23: 30 where the reference is to a text from Hosea: they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us” and to the hills, “Cover us”. The two terms are used as though they had something in common (i.e. the notion of height) while being actually different (i.e. with respect to “how high”) Given the choice of deciding between “mountain” or “hill” when translating “oros”, “mountain” would normally seem to be the preferred choice. And the NIV has proceeded that way in most instances.

The exceptions in the NIV are: the city on a hill not being hidden (Matthew 5: 14), the town of Nazareth being built on the brow of as hill (Luke 4: 29), a demon possessed man living among the hills (Mark 5: 5), the demons possessing the pigs on the hillside (Mark 5: 5 and Luke 8: 32), the seven hills on which the woman sits (Revelation 17: 9) and the hills of the parable under discussion Matthew 18: 12. It cannot be dogmatically argued that in each of these cases, the translation should have referred to “mountain” or similar nor that in every other case, a translation of “mountain” or similar was rightly made instead of “hill” or similar.  Hills grade into mountains.  However, the New American Standard Bible, contrary to the NIV refers to “mountains” in Matthew 18: 12, Mark 5: 5 and Revelation 17: 9 and “mountain” in Mark 5: 11 and Luke 8: 32.

Foerster in his article on “oros[2]  writes, that concerning Palestine, in days beyond the Old Testament, “the mountains, most of which are not much over 3000 ft., were in general denuded of trees.  … In the main we find only pasture … the mountains offer extensive views in general. … But the mountains of Palestine with their ravines, were then, as now, an obstacle to communications.  … They are lonely.” He further writes, “Oros in the NT means both the single ‘mountain’ … and also the ‘mountain range’” and in a specific reference to the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew, he says, “the shepherd leaves the 99 epi ta ore, i.e., in dangerous isolation.”

Black may be correct when he suggests that the word (oros) translated mountain may have been influenced by an Aramaic word (see under Kistemaker earlier) which can mean either “mountain” or “country” but to go so far as to suggest that the latter would imply “open country” seems to be a jump too far.  Jeremias, with his view that “hill country” is the notion that lies behind the Aramaic word, is more conservative in his judgement. Ultimately all we have is a Greek word, which should generally be understood to mean “mountain” or “mountains” or “mountainside” etc., even if not a very high mountain or very high mountains. The word, “oros” occurs 16 times in Matthew, on two occasions being a reference to the Mount of Olives. 5 times it is incorporated into direct speech uttered by Jesus. It would be rather odd if we were to understand that in only one of these instances (Matthew 18: 12) is the Greek influenced by an Aramaic word that suggests that a translation such as “country” or even “open country” would be appropriate.  In at least three of the texts (Matthew 5: 14, 17: 20 and 21: 21) the notion of a raised entity seems obviously in mind.  Perhaps understanding “oros” in Matthew 18: 2 as “hill country” is about as far as one can go using this approach.  On the surface what we seem to have is an attempt by some to have Jesus tell a story in which the sheep are left in reasonably pleasant circumstances.

With this in mind one can understand the NIV preference for “hills” in Matthew 18: 12, the sense of “pasture lands in a pleasant place” being thereby conveyed.  This is however, as implied above, interpreting the parable in a certain way before the translation takes place. Viz.: the shepherd leaves the 99 in not so foreboding circumstances, while he searches for the one that has wandered away.  Understanding “oros” in its more usual sense of “mountain” (“ore” as “mountains”) is the more cautious approach unless there appear to be good reasons to the contrary. That is, in the parable, the shepherd leaves the 99 in a place where there was indeed pasture, but where the terrain was here and there rugged and the situation one of isolation.


[1] In three instances where the literal expression reads, “the mount called Olives, the NIV translates the phrase as, “the hill called the Mount of Olives”.  In the analysis I have ignored the reference to “hill”.  Most of the usages of “Mount” are in the name, Mt of Olives, with a few being in the name, Mt Sinai and a couple in the name Mt Zion.

[2] Foerster, W., oros in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume V, (trans. and ed. Bromiley, G.W.), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1967, pp. 475-487.

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