Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

3. Why Parables?
Matt 13:10-17 // Mark 4:10-12 // Luke 8:9-10

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     appendix 

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This pericope focuses on a cryptic & perplexing pronouncement about the purpose of parables. In form it is like an oral chreia that could be repeated anywhere. Yet, there is no evidence that it was ever cited outside its literary context in the synoptic gospels. In Matthew, Mark & Luke it is sandwiched between the parable of the sower & its allegorical interpretation; & there is no parallel passage elsewhere. This synoptic sandwich cannot be traced to oral tradition, since the discussion of the purpose of parables in general disrupts the natural memory link between the preceding parable & its explanation. Thus, this sequence of material was created by one of the gospel authors & simply echoed by the others.

The scene is structured as a dialog with three basic elements:

The details of this dialog, however, complicate the task of identifying the source text(s).

Edited Contents

The great variation in the length of the three versions of this passage makes it obvious that it underwent extensive editing.

  • Mark has the most verbose & awkward introduction of the question about parables [the Greek is actually even more awkward than the RSV English: "And when it happened he was alone, when..."]. The parallel verse in both Matthew & Luke is more grammatical & succinct.

  • Matthew, on the other hand, presents a much fuller & more lucid explanation of purpose ["because..."], complete with a typically Matthean quotation of a prophetic oracle from the standard Greek translation of the OT (commonly called the Septuagint). Mark & Luke's versions of this pericope omit most of this.

  • Luke's account is characteristically the most concise & focused of the three. Note that, like Mark, Luke explains Jesus' use of parables with a purpose clause ["so that..."] rather than a causal clause ["because..."] like Matthew.

Beside the quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10, Matthew presents 2 aphorisms here that are found elsewhere in the other synoptic gospels:

Thus, any source hypothesis has to account for the fact that Mark & Luke both omit some elements of Matthew's explanation of why Jesus speaks in parables & present others in a totally different context.

Conflicting Goals

Though each synoptic narrator presents those who were close to Jesus ["disciples" or "those around the 12"] as raising the question about the parable(s), the reply indicates that parables were not composed for them. Jesus insists that his inner circle has already been given the secret(s) of the Deity's regime. The two aphorisms that only Matthew presents at this point underline this positive note by

The absence of these aphorisms in Mark & Luke (particularly the second) focuses attention on people who are not followers of Jesus & ends those versions of this pericope on a more ominous negative note.

The primary logical problem in this pericope, however, is created by the difference of a miniscule subordinating conjunction.

  • In most mss. of Matthew, Jesus tells parables to people outside his circle because [Greek: hoti] they do not yet know what his disciples know. Thus, Matthew represents the parables as visual aids for those who are slow to understand. This denseness of the general populace is the condition that Jesus' parables are designed to correct.

  • According to Mark & Luke, however, Jesus tells parables so that [Greek: hina] people outside his immediate circle will not understand what his disciples do. Thus, Mark & Luke make public confusion the goal that Jesus' parables are designed to achieve.

Parables are usually composed as illustrations rather than puzzles (even though later interpreters may be puzzled by them). So if either Mark or Luke knew Matthew's version of this passage it is odd that neither echoed his reading at this point.


In Matthew's logic, the characterization of hearers as slow to comprehend justifies Jesus' pedagogical practice of composing graphic parables. Yet, like a good scholar, the Christian scribe who composed this gospel also explicitly points out that this description of Jesus' audience parallels a passage in a previous scriptural text: Isaiah's characterization of his fellow Jews. Neither Mark nor Luke note this parallel.

Note, however, that Mark's version of Jesus' explanation of his motive for using parables concludes with a cautionary clause ["lest..."] that is grammatically parallel to the conclusion of the passage Matthew quotes from Isaiah 6. Yet, the logical function of these clauses is almost diametrically opposite. In Isaiah, the prophet is forewarned that his audience will not heed him since they deliberately close their eyes to keep themselves from seeking God's help. In Mark, the the logic of the grammatical syntax ["so that...lest..."] makes the cautionary clause refer to the Jesus' motive for speaking in parables rather than to the stubbornness of the audience. Taken literally Mark 4:12 seems to say that Jesus composes parables that hide his message of God's kingdom from outsiders in order to prevent them from repenting & being forgiven.

From the perspective of a Christian who knows Jesus' message of forgiveness, the logic of Mark 4:12 makes it one of the most difficult & perplexing passages in the NT. So, it is not at all surprising that Luke has no parallel to the cautionary clause in Mark.

Echoed Word Patterns

Note: The RSV translation of this pericope has been modified at several points to indicate the actual parallels in the original Greek wording.

  • Where the RSV uses the same English word to represent different Greek words or verb forms the variant term has been presented in black type in square brackets: e.g., [and].

  • Where I have replaced the RSV translation with more literal wording, the text is presented in pointed brackets: e.g., <seeing>.

The patterns of identical phrasing in this mini-dialog are complex. So the line of literary dependence between these works is not immediately self-evident. There are few words beyond Jesus' distinction between his associates & others that are common to all versions of this pericope [blue text]. But each pair of texts (Matthew/Mark, Mark/Luke, or Matthew/Luke) has some features [teal text] that are not found in the 3rd.


Each narrative diverges from the others in a few fine points:

Matthew poses the question of parables as a direct quotation, whereas both Mark & Luke refer to it only indirectly.

Mark introduces this dialog with a change in scene from the setting of the parable of the sower, while Matthew & Luke do not. Note that Mark's characterization of those who pose the question also differs from the other synoptics. Matthew & Luke identify them simply as "disciples." Most mss. of Mark, however, use a more oblique & obscure designation: "those about him with the 12."(Yet note: in some early mss. Mark, Matthew & Luke do not differ at this point).

Luke's narrative preface differs in two minor grammatical details from Matthew & Mark:

  • In Matthew & Mark the pericope opens with the common copulative "and" [Greek: kai ]; Luke has a more literate transition [Greek: de].

  • Luke refers the question to a single parable; where in both Matthew & the earliest mss. of Mark the term is plural (in the Byzantine recension, however, the term in Mark is singular like Luke rather than Matthew).


Note that in most respects Luke's version of Jesus' reply is closer to Mark than to Matthew.

  • Mark & Luke identify the "kingdom" as belonging to "God" rather than "Heaven" (the difference is one of terminology rather than meaning).

    • The Greek word basileia, which is usually translated "kingdom," refers to the office or extent of a supreme ruler's authority rather than to spatially defined territory.

    • In Matthew's usage "Heaven" is a circumlocution for the name of God rather than the designation of a place.

  • The climax of Matthew's version of Jesus' pronouncement specifies what others "have not been given" (secrets); Mark & Luke focus instead on what they have (parables).

  • Neither Mark nor Luke introduce the aphorism about haves & have-nots at this point in the sequence of Jesus sayings (but present it instead at the same point in a later cluster).

Non-Markan Parallels

There are 3 small details, however, in which Luke's version of Jesus' reply (8:10) parallels Matthew (13:11) rather than Mark (4:11):

  • In introducing Jesus' saying, Matthew & Luke use an aorist (timeless) form of the verb "to say" [usually translated in English as a simple past tense], while Mark uses an imperfect.

  • Matthew & Luke have the infinitive "to know," while Mark does not.

  • Matthew & Luke use the plural "secrets," while Mark has the singular.

Like all other verbal echoes, points where Matthew & Luke have parallel wording where Mark does not cannot be ignored in tracing the relationship of the synoptic gospels. But given a gap of more than a century between our oldest mss. & the original version of these gospels, these minor agreements in wording are not automatic proof that one text (Matthew) was the direct source of similar phrasing by another author (Luke).

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     appendix 
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last revised 21 December 2015


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