Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

4. Understanding The Sower
Matt 13:18-23 // Mark 4:13-20 // Luke 8:11-15

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     parable     analysis     source hypotheses  

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Which source hypothesis has a simpler explanation of this data?

Theory Relationship
 A   Augustine   Mark condensed Matthew; Luke drew on both
B  Griesbach   Luke edited Matthew; Mark condensed both
C  Farrer   Matthew expanded Mark; Luke drew on both
D  Two Source    Matthew & Luke independently edited Mark & Q 

Any source theory needs to be supported by redaction criticism. For only a hypothesis that is consistent with each gospel's editorial tendencies at other points can be considered plausible.

Any hypothesis that Matthew is the basic source (A & B) needs to explain why Mark & Luke both

  • regularly changed Matthew's singular forms to plural,
  • omitted Matthew's reference to "the kingdom," &
  • altered syntax & wording of Matthew's well-constructed opening sentence [Matt 13:19].

Any hypothesis that Mark is the basic source (C & D) only has to explain why Matthew & Luke

  • omitted both rhetorical questions in Mark's introduction,
  • otherwise edited Mark's text in different directions.

A hypothesis that presupposes that Luke used Matthew as a secondary source (C) must also explain why Luke deviates from wording where the texts of Matthew & Mark are virtually identical. A hypothesis that Matthew & Luke edited Mark independently (D) need only explain why their explanations of the seed on the path share a single word ("heart") that is not found in Mark.

Thus, the Two Source hypothesis (D) has the simplest task in accounting for the patterns of parallels & omissions in the synoptic reports of the parable of the sower.

Testing the Theories


Did Mark edit Matthew? 

Mark's version of this pericope is longer than Matthew's. So it does not support Augustine's claim that Mark abridged Matthew.

If Mark got this interpretation of the parable of the sower from the gospel of Matthew, he deliberately

  • inserted a preface that, contrary to Matthew's text, raises questions about the ability of Jesus' disciples to understand this or any of Jesus' parables; &
  • dropped Matthew's explicit equation of "the word" with Jesus' message about God's kingdom; &
  • butchered the grammar & logic of Matthew's well-constructed initial sentence of the parable interpretation [temporal clause + main clause with singular subjects & objects] -- by
    • turning it into 3 loosely linked non-parallel clauses [the last with a temporal clause];
    • beginning the 2nd clause with a plural demonstrative pronoun ["these"] that has neither precedent in Matthew nor a proper grammatical antecedent in Mark, since both subject & object in the preceding clause ["sower" & "word] are singular.

Instead of clarifying the parable of the sower, the Markan interpretation actually introduces confusion by leaving the reader unsure as to what detail in the parable his 2nd statement ["these are the ones along the path"] refers to. The only plural item "along the path" in Mark's own version of the parable was the birds. But Mark's "these" cannot refer to them, since he goes on to interpret the birds as a singular subject ("Satan") who removes a singular object ("the word") that was "sown in them" (plural). 

On reflection one might conclude that the plural pronouns refer to an unexpressed identification of the path with some group of hard-headed hearers who are impervious to instruction. But Mark himself does not make this clear; and his explicit identification of "these" as those who are along [Greek para, lit.: "beside"] the path, leaves one uncertain as to what image he has in mind.

By contrast, Matthew's opening statement [Matt 13:19] is as logically lucid as it is grammatical. The seed [i.e., the "word of the kingdom"] is what is sown along the path. When anyone does not grasp this meaning, the word is easily removed before its message can be taken to heart. 

If Mark could read the text of Matthew, it is hard to see his reason for turning Matthew's clear statement into a grammatical & logical mess that makes the parable interpretation more confusing than the parable itself.

Thus, instead of clarifying the actual contents of these texts, Augustine's source theory only creates imponderable puzzles. 


Did Mark conflate Matthew & Luke? 

Griesbach's source hypothesis is able to account for more of the details in the various versions of this pericope by identifying Luke as the editor who condensed & paraphrased the text of Matthew & Mark as a synthesizer of these two texts.

Luke, like Matthew, writes literate Greek, where Mark's syntax is clumsy & at points confusing. But rather than simply copy Matthew's syntax Luke clearly preferred to present his interpretation of the parable of the sower as a string of equations. 

Since Mark's version contains a substantial proportion of Matthew's wording & some of Luke's [teal text], it seems plausible to regard it as a conflation of the two.  Mark's clumsy grammar might be explained as the result of his imperfect skill in combining material from sentences with different syntax.

As plausible as this may sound in general, however, the Griesbach hypothesis only shifts responsibility for several of the problematic aspects of the Augustinian theory from Mark to Luke. For if Luke paraphrased Matthew, he deliberately

  • suppressed any reference to "the kingdom" [Matt 13:19]; &

  • introduced two confusing plural subjects that have no grammatical precedent in Matthew or clear point of reference in the parable of the sower:

    • "the ones along the path" [Luke 8:12],

    • "the ones on the rock" [Luke 8:13].

If Mark then conflated the texts of Matthew & Luke, he obviously preferred Matthew's version since he generally agrees with that wording of this parable interpretation. Yet, he would have deliberately 

  • adopted both of Luke's problematic plurals & added two more [Mark 4:18 & 20] where both Matthew & Luke had a singular subject; &

  • followed Luke in suppressing mention of the "kingdom"; &

  • interpolated a preface -- suggested by neither Matthew nor Luke -- that explicitly questions the disciples ability to understand Jesus' parables.

What would have given Mark the impression that Jesus' disciples did not understand his message is unclear.  For Matthew asserts precisely the opposite [Matt 13:51] & all the synoptics -- including Mark -- had just presented Jesus' claim that his disciples already knew the secret(s) of God's kingdom. Thus, if Mark added the questions about the disciples' inability to comprehend Jesus' parables to the interpretation of the parable of the sower that he found in Matthew & Luke, he would not only have contradicted both his sources, he would have called into question Jesus' own ability to gauge the intelligence of his followers.

Hence, the Griesbach hypothesis actually creates more problems than its solves here.


Did Luke use Matthew? 

Mark's presentation of the interpretation of the parable of the sower is the most problematic from the standpoint of both grammar and logic.  So it is easy to view Matthew's & Luke's versions of this pericope as attempts to polish Markan grammar & resolve questions that confront readers of the Markan text. 

By suppressing the rhetorical questions that preface Mark's allegorical exegesis, Matthew & Luke were able to avoid questions about both the disciples' intelligence & the accuracy of Jesus'  earlier expression of confidence in what they knew (Mark 4:11).  Each also tried to bring the interpretation more into line with imagery of the parable itself by dropping Mark's problematic plural pronouns [i.e., "these" (Mark 4:15 & 16), "others" (Mark 4:18), & "those" (Mark 4:20)] which lack any proper grammatical or logical antecedent.

Luke's revision of this passage in Mark, however, is quite different from the changes introduced by Matthew. Apart from wording shared by all three gospels [blue text], there are only two minor points where Luke's version of this parable interpretation agrees with Matthew's verbal constructions:

Yet, even that observation is misleading. For the similarity between Matthew & Luke at these points appears greater in English translation than it does in Greek. Apart from words common to all three synoptics, Luke does not use any of the Greek verbal formulae preferred by Matthew: 

  • Matthew describes the word as "sown in his heart" [dative with singular possessive pronoun].  In Luke, however, the prepositional phrase is linked to description of the devil [a term not used here by Matthew] taking the word away "from their heart" [genitive with plural possessive pronoun].
  • Matthew (like Mark) uses a masculine form for what was sown "among thorns" & "upon good soil," while Luke prefers a neuter construction.

Therefore, while it is true that at these points Luke & Matthew have introduced similar revisions of Mark, this pericope provides no evidence to support Farrer's hypothesis that Luke's text reveals his knowledge of the written gospel of Matthew. If Luke knew Matthew, he deliberately chose both (a) to alter Matthew's alterations of Mark [e.g., Matt 13:18-19 // Mark 4:14-15] & (b) to alter wording where Matthew & Mark were in total agreement [e.g., Mark 4:16-17 // Matt 13:20-21 teal text].  Not only does this force one to imagine Luke as an editor who ignored one or both of his alleged sources, it leaves one with the impossible task of trying to prove plagiarism where there is no clear textual evidence.  


Are Matthew & Luke independent revisions of Mark? 

The simplest explanation of the fact that Luke does not echo Matthew's wording of this pericope which is not found also in Mark is that Luke's redaction of Mark was made without regard for Matthew's.  Mark's version of this text presents enough logical & grammatical problems that it should not be surprising to find Matthew & Luke omitting or altering the same lines in Mark. For instance, both

  • drop the rhetorical questions that imply the disciples did not understand Jesus [Mark 4:13]; &
  • simplify the awkward syntax of Mark's introduction of the thorn-choked & productive seed [Mark 4:18, 20].

This just shows that both were good literary editors. The fact that in the second case both substitute similar grammatical constructions proves only that each wrote better literate Greek than Mark. The fact that neither reproduces the other's corrections of Mark verbatim indicates that their revisions were probably made independently.  And the observation that Luke sticks close to Mark's syntax even where Matthew's syntax is grammatically superior confirms the impression that Luke did not use Matthew as a source for his redaction of Mark.

The only textual evidence that might lead one to suspect that Luke may have known Matthew's version of this pericope even remotely is his use of the word "heart" to interpret the fate of the seed that fell on the path [Luke 8:12 // Matt 13:19].  But that conclusion would be necessary only if one could prove that 

  • the author of the gospel of Matthew was the first to insert the word "heart" at this point in the interpretation of the parable of the sower; &  
  • before Luke edited Mark only texts of Matthew mentioned "heart" in this context. 

Neither of these conditions, however, is probable.  For the redaction history of the text of Mark at this point is ambiguous.  The majority of Greek texts  -- those of the Byzantine & Western recensions -- have, in fact, some prepositional phrase with the word "heart" in Mark 4:15.  Only some -- not all -- Egyptian mss. of Mark omit heart from this verse. So, even though the oldest extant versions of Mark are of the Egyptian type, it is unclear whether Luke's own copy of Mark omitted "heart" from this verse.  That would be probable only if Luke was himself writing from someplace in Egypt or the south-eastern Mediterranean.  Since Luke was almost certainly from the northern Mediterranean -- the region that produced the Byzantine recension -- it remains quite possible that his copy of Mark already included "heart" in verse 4:15.  Because we have no copies of the gospel of Mark before the middle of the 3rd c. CE it is impossible to determine exactly when this word was first inserted into Mark's allegorical interpretation or by whom. 

Thus, the fact that Luke & Matthew share a single word that is omitted from modern critical reconstructions of the original wording of Mark is too ambiguous a detail to be cited as substantial evidence that Luke must have known & recalled the gospel of Matthew. Since all other linguistic evidence in this pericope indicates that Luke did not follow the text of Matthew, the Two Source hypothesis remains the simplest source theory for interpreting these parallel versions of the allegorization of the parable of the sower. 

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last revised 21 December 2015


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