Zenon and the wicked tenants
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is such a shocking story that for a long time it did not seem real. C.H. Dodd in 1935 recognized that the parable described real social and economic conditions where Gentile landlords owned large first century estates in Palestine.
Martin Hengel writing in 1968 provided a detailed analysis of agrarian conflict evidenced in the Zenon archive. The Zenon Papyri of the third century B.C.E. disclose that the Hellenistic monarch of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus (283-246 B.C.E.) had granted property in Baitianata in Galilee to his finance minister Apollonius. The estate, which he owned as an absentee landlord, appears to have been a large holding of grain fields and a vineyard of 80,000 grapevines. It is estimated that a workforce of at least 25 people was required to carry out the work that was involved in such a large operation, but this seems to be a minimal figure.
Hengel argued the essential details of the story are thoroughly credible. Land was in fact awarded to officials of the state who derived their income from it by leasing it to the peasantry for a stipulated rent to be paid in the form of agricultural produce, money or labor. As Hengel pointed out, the terminology used for the violent action in the Zenon papyri is similar to that in Luke’s version of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.