to Matthew, Mark & Luke

7. The Harvest
Matt 13:24-30; Mark 4:26-29

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Other Versions

Thomas 57 Thomas 21
     8  "Let there be among you
      a person who understands.
    9 When the crop ripened
      he came quickly
      carrying a sickle
      and harvested it."
 1  "The Father's kingdom is like    
  a man who had good seed.    
 2  During the night his enemy came    
  and sowed weeds among the good seed.    
 3 The man did not let    
  the workers pull up the weeds,    
  but said to them,    
  `No; lest you go to pull up the weeds    
  and pull up the wheat along with them.    
 4  For on the day of the harvest    
  the weeds will be conspicuous    
  and be pulled up and burned."    

Whose Echo?

The Coptic gospel of Thomas preserves  sayings with elements parallel to each of  the harvest parables recorded by Matthew and Mark.  While these do not have any direct bearing on the synoptic problem itself, they pose redactional questions about the relationship of Thomas to the synoptic texts. Since each of these parables is preserved elsewhere by different authors---the weeds & wheat only by Matthew and the self-growing seed only by Mark---,

  •  is the fact that both are found in Thomas evidence that the editor of this sayings collection knew & used our canonical gospels? or
  • is Thomas the kind of written collection of Jesus' sayings that both Matthew and Mark drew their parables from? or
  • are Thomas & the synoptics independent transcripts of oral Jesus tradition?

There is enough verbal similarity of the sayings in Thomas to the canonical gospels to infer that there are echoes here.  The challenge is to pinpoint the source(s). 

Differences

Both sayings in Thomas are less than half as long as the synoptic parables with parallel elements.  Compare the word counts in the Greek and Coptic pericopes:

 Saying   Matt   Mark   Thom 
 Weeds  142

--

45

 Sickle

--

60

21

Thom 57 exhibits the same form &  narrative structure of Matthew's version of the parable of the weeds.  But it differs in the following details:

  • the "kingdom" is qualified as belonging to "the Father" rather than "the heavens";

  • the enemy comes "at night" rather than "while men were sleeping";

  • the growth of crop and weeds is not mentioned;

  • the workers' words are not reported;

  • there is no instruction to let weeds & good grain co-exist;

  • there is no mention of the gathering of the grain.

Thom 21:8-9, on the other hand, has no resemblance to Mark's harvest parable in either form or narrative structure:

  •  it is not a parable;

  • there is no comparison to any kind of "kingdom";

  • there is no reference to a sower or seed;

  • there is no description of the automatic process of botanical growth.

The only parallel between Thom 21 & Mark is an allusion to a sickle-bearing reaper "when the crop is ripe." Moreover, unlike Mark, Thomas recalls this saying in a cluster of eschatological warnings about robbers.  

 

Dependence?

Both of these pericopes in Thomas contain clues that they are condensed fragments of Jesus sayings that contained elements the editor of this collection has omitted:

  • In the parable of the weeds, the master's words are reported as a direct response ("No, lest you...") to a unexpressed question that has to be inferred from the previous sentence.
  • In the other saying, the spokesman for Jesus invites the auditors to ponder the meaning of the image of an unidentified subject's swift reaping at harvest time.

In both cases the parallel canonical saying reports details that Thomas' version presupposes:

  • Matt 13:28 presents the worker's question as direct speech, precipitating the master's direct reply.
  • Mark 4:26-28 equates the reaper with a sower who has patiently waited for the harvest and presents this image as an analogy for God's reign.

Thus, these sayings in Thomas can easily be interpreted as partial paraphrases of sayings that are better reported by Matthew on the one hand and Mark on the other. 

It is equally obvious, however,  that the compiler of Thomas did not copy either of these sayings directly from the literary text of either canonical gospel, since in both cases:

  • the narrative & logical syntax of the Thomas version is rougher than that of either Matthew or Mark;
  • the context in which Thomas records these sayings is more random than the extensive network of catchwords & images that characterize the synoptic parable collections; &
  • wording that is typical of Matthew (e.g., "kingdom of heaven") or Mark (e.g, "at once") is missing from Thomas' version of these sayings.

Thus, the compiler of Thomas could hardly be convicted of literary plagiarism. If there is any dependence of Thomas on the synoptic versions of these sayings, it is at best distant & indirect, mediated by an imperfect aural memory rather than a fresh visual inspection of the canonical gospels.

But even if the literary evidence indicates that

  • Thomas' wording of these sayings is the product of some kind of imperfect secondary orality, &  
  • the narrative syntax of the Matthean & Markan versions of these sayings is more pristine,

the thesis that written gospels of Matthew & Mark are the ultimate sources of these sayings in Thomas remains unproven.

That would be a necessary conclusion only if it could be demonstrated that Matthew created the parable of the weeds & wheat & that Mark also created the parable of the self-growing seed. The narrative syntax of this cluster of sayings in both Matthew & Mark, however, is more that of a compilation than of a fresh composition. Thus, it remains theoretically possible that Matthew & Mark did not create their respective harvest parables ex nihilo, but rather adapted them from some prior oral source.  If the synoptic harvest parables were formulated & circulated orally prior to the composition of the canonical synoptic gospels, then it is always possible that the real source of these sayings in Thomas is pre-synoptic oral tradition rather than the texts composed by Matthew & Mark.  The fact that Thomas does not echo any compositional traits of either synoptic gospel favors the latter hypothesis.

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last revised 21 December 2015

 

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