Negotiating Paternal Authority and Filial Agency: Fathers and Sons in Early Rabbinic Parables

Research output: Types of ThesisPhD ThesisAcademic


This study argues that father-son relationships in early rabbinic parables are characterized by a dynamic interplay between the authority of the father and the agency of the son. Using the perspectives of masculinity, agency, and emotion, it contributes to the theoretical and methodological development of the as yet limited scholarship on Jewish children in late antiquity. Its focus on agency connects with recent advances in ancient history, biblical studies, and Jewish studies, in which methods have been developed to study the perspective of children in sources that are predominantly produced by adults. The focus is on early rabbinic parables. These sources have their origin in the context of the rabbinic movement, a Jewish network of rabbis and disciples that developed in Roman Palestine from the end of the first century CE onwards. After a period of oral transmission, the parables were collected in larger rabbinic sources over the course of the third and fourth centuries. Rabbinic parables consist of a short narrative concerning a situation from daily life that sheds light on an interpretative issue in the biblical text by means of a comparison or contrast. Parent-child relationships, often fathers and sons, appear in 67 parables. Generally, these fathers and sons represent, respectively, God and Israel in the application. Focusing on the themes of child provision and filial behavior/misbehavior and paternal reward/punishment, this study describes and explains the representation of father-son relationships in early rabbinic parables. Among other things, this examination demonstrates the multifaceted exercise of authority by fathers, for both carative and punitive purposes. A father’s exercise of authority determines the agentival space of the son, but the way the son behaves within this agentival space and affects his father’s masculinity and honor depends on the son’s aims and wishes. This study makes clear that the parabolic representation of father-son relationships reflects norms, values, and customs in the Roman and rabbinic contexts of the parables, and interrelates with the message which the parable’s application seeks to convey about God and Israel. Throughout the study repeatedly demonstrates that the dynamic relationship of fathers and sons in early rabbinic parables is colored by a normative perspective. In particular, the behavior of sons is implicitly or explicitly approved or disapproved of by means of characterization, reward or punishment, and comment. With this normative perspective, the parables influence their audience’s assessment of the attitude of fathers and sons in their narratives and of God, Israel, and other figures in their applications. This normative perspective will have contributed to the social organization of the rabbinic movement, the confirmation of rabbinic authority, and the development of rabbinic ideals of masculinity. With their parables, the rabbinic elite created, communicated, and affirmed their distinct identity in the pluralistic context of Roman Palestine. The present study therefore concludes that questions about the what and the how of ancient literary representations of childhood cannot be separated from questions about the for whom and the for what reason.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Fathers and Sons in Early Rabbinic Parables
  • Meyer, Birgit, Supervisor, External person
  • Merz, A.B., Supervisor
  • Ottenheijm, H.L.M., Supervisor, External person
Award date12 Mar 2021
Place of PublicationUtrecht
Print ISBNs978-94-6103-085-6
Publication statusPublished - 12 Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • children
  • family
  • rabbinic Judaism
  • parables
  • agency
  • masculinity
  • identity
  • Conceptual Blending Theory

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