The Three-Ring Parable

tales of
Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 920E
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2008


  1. Melchizedek Avoids a Trap (abstracted from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron).

  2. Of the Triple State of the World (Gesta Romanorum).

  3. The Parable of the Three Rings (abstracted from Nathan der Weise, a drama by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing).

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Melchizedek Avoids a Trap

Giovanni Boccaccio

Through acts of generosity and the costs of waging war, Saladin depleted his treasury. Caught by a sudden need for money, he thought of a wealthy Jew, Melchizedek by name, who lived in Alexandria. But Melchizedek had a reputation for miserliness, and he would never voluntarily surrender the vast sum needed by Saladin, nor was the Sultan prepared to take the money by force. At last Saladin devised a plan whereby he would embarrass the wealthy Jew, who would then redeem himself with money.

Accordingly, Saladin summoned Melchizedek to his palace, then stated, "Men speak highly of your wisdom. What conclusion have you reached concerning the ways of God? Which of the three great religions is the truly authentic one? Judaism, Christianity, or Islam?"

Sensing that with this question Saladin was seeking to lead him into an unwinnable quarrel and thus gain advantage over him, Melchizedek answered, "That is an excellent question, my lord. I can best explain my views on the subject with the following story:"

I have heard that there was once a wealthy man whose most prized possession was a precious ring. He bequeathed this ring to one of his sons, and by this sign, the latter was known as the head of family. Succeeding generations followed this tradition, with the principal heir always inheriting the cherished ring from his father. But, to make a long story short, the ring finally came into the possession of a man who had three sons, each the equal of the others in obedience, virtue, and worthiness. Unwilling to favor one son over the others, the father had a master artisan make two copies of the valued ring, and he bequeathed a ring to each son.

Following the father's death, each son laid claim to the deceased man's title and estate, showing the inherited ring as proof. However, a careful inspection of the three rings could not reveal which of them was the authentic one, so the three sons' claims remain unresolved.

The same is true with the three great religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The adherents of each religion consider themselves to be the legitimate heirs of God's truth. But as was the case with the rings, their claims too remain unresolved.

Saladin, recognizing that the Jew had escaped his trap, decided to ask him directly for a loan. Melchizedek gladly provided him with the sum he needed. The Sultan later repaid the debt in full, and Saladin and Melchizedek remained friends as long as they lived.

Of the Triple State of the World

Gesta Romanorum

A certain knight had three sons, and on his deathbed he bequeathed the inheritance to his firstborn; to the second, his treasury; and to the third, a very valuable ring, of more worth indeed than all he had left to the others.

But the two former had also rings, and they were all apparently the same.

After their father's death the first son said, "I possess that precious ring of my father."

The second said, "You have it not -- I have."

To this the third son answered, "That is not true. The elder of us has the estate, the second the treasure, and therefore it is but meet that I should have the most valuable ring."

The first son answered, "Let us prove, then, whose claims to it have the preeminence."

They agreed, and several sick men were made to resort to them for the purpose. The two first rings had no effect, but the last cured all their infirmities.


My beloved, the knight is Christ. The three sons are the Jews, Saracens [Muslims], and Christians. The most valuable ring is faith, which is the property of the younger, that is, of the Christians

The Parable of the Three Rings

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

An uneasy peace ruled in Jerusalem. Saladin's victory against the Crusaders had cost the Muslims dearly, both in the loss of troops and in the depletion of the royal treasury. Saladin was resolved to rule with civilized humanity as far as possible. But it was an uneasy peace, with Jews, Christians, and the newly victorious Muslims all suspicious of one another.

Thus when Saladin requested an audience with Nathan, a leading Jewish merchant, the latter was very apprehensive about the Sultan's motivation. Nathan was known far and wide not only for his successes in commerce, but also for his skills in diplomacy and negotiation. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike called him Nathan the Wise.

Nathan's suspicions were well founded, for Saladin was indeed looking to replenish his exhausted coffers with a loan or a gift from his wealthy Jewish subject. Too civil to openly demand such a tribute from the peace-loving Nathan, the Sultan instead masked his request in the form of a theological question.

"Your reputation for wisdom is great," said the Sultan. "You must have studied the great religions. Tell me, which is the best, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity?"

"Sultan, I am a Jew," replied Nathan.

"And I a Muslim," interrupted Saladin, "and between us stands the Christian. But the three faiths contradict one another. They cannot all be true. Tell me the results of your own wise deliberations. Which religion is best?"

Nathan recognized the trap at once. Any answer except "Islam" would offend Saladin the Muslim, whereas any answer except "Judaism" would place his own integrity under question. Thus, instead of giving a direct answer, Nathan responded by relating a parable to Saladin:

In the Orient in ancient times there lived a man who possessed a ring of inestimable worth. Its stone was an opal that emitted a hundred colors, but its real value lay in its ability to make its wearer beloved of God and man. The ring passed from father to most favored son for many generations, until finally its owner was a father with three sons, all equally deserving. Unable to decide which of the three sons was most worthy, the father commissioned a master artisan to make two exact copies of the ring, then gave each son a ring, and each son believed that he alone had inherited the original and true ring.

But instead of harmony, the father's plan brought only discord to his heirs. Shortly after the father died, each of the sons claimed to be the sole ruler of the father's house, each basing his claim to authority on the ring given to him by the father. The discord grew even stronger and more hateful when a close examination of the rings failed to disclose any differences.

"But wait," interrupted Saladin, "surely you do not mean to tell me that there are no differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity!"

"You are right, Sultan," replied Nathan. "Their teachings and practices differ in ways that can be seen by all. However, in each case, the teachings and practices are based on beliefs and faith, beliefs and faith that at their roots are the same. Which of us can prove that our beliefs and our faith are more reliable than those of others?"

"I understand," said Saladin. "Now continue with your tale."

"The story is nearly at its end," replied Nathan.

The dispute among the brothers grew until their case was finally brought before a judge. After hearing the history of the original ring and its miraculous powers, the judge pronounced his conclusion: "The authentic ring," he said, "had the power to make its owner beloved of God and man, but each of your rings has brought only hatred and strife. None of you is loved by others; each loves only himself. Therefore I must conclude that none of you has the original ring. Your father must have lost it, then attempted to hide his loss by having three counterfeit rings made, and these are the rings that cause you so much grief."

The judge continued: "Or it may be that your father, weary of the tyranny of a single ring, made duplicates, which he gave to you. Let each of you demonstrate his belief in the power of his ring by conducting his life in such a manner that he fully merits -- as anciently promised -- the love of God and man.

"Marvelous! Marvelous!" exclaimed Saladin. "Your tale has set my mind at rest. You may go."

"Sultan, was there nothing else you wished from me?" asked Nathan.

"No. Nothing."

"Then may I take the liberty to make a request of you. My trade of late has brought me unexpected wealth, and in these uncertain times I need a secure repository. Would you be willing to accept my recent earnings as loan or deposit?"

The Sultan gladly acceded to Nathan's wish.

And thus Saladin gained from his wise Jewish subject both material and spiritual benefit, and Nathan the Wise found a safe haven for his wealth and earned the respect of the Islamic Sultan.

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Revised March 19, 2013.