Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

2. The Sower
Matt 13:1-9 // Mark 4:1-9 // Luke 8:4-8

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     variants 

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Significance of Setting

This pericope has 3 separate segments:

These segments are only loosely linked by the gospel writers. Unlike a pronouncement story, the details of this scene do not explain what Jesus says there. Note that Luke gives this parable in a different setting than Matthew & Mark.

Matthew & Mark simply repeat the same story. Note that, except for the opening transition, they describe this scene in the same words with only minor stylistic variations. Both, for instance, make the same generalization: "he ____ them many things in parables" with all Greek words the same except for the verb (Matthew: "told"; Mark: "taught"). Independent witnesses might report something they heard in the same terms, but two accounts of what separate witnesses saw would be worded quite differently. When narrators use the same wording there are only two likely explanations:

  • one is echoing the other; or
  • both are quoting the same source.

It is not necessary to suggest a separate source in this case, since comparison of Matthew & Mark provides ample evidence that one writer edited the text of the other. The source for this pericope was clearly a written text, since the parable does not presuppose the setting Matthew & Mark describe.

Form: Parable

Like any story, a parable is a window into the mind of the author. People describe only what they can imagine; and imagination depends on what a person has seen, heard or read about. In this case the agricultural image of sowing seed indicates the rural perspective of both the speaker & original audience.

Here the speaker describes a process called broadcasting: taking handfuls of seed and scattering it to the wind rather than depositing it directly in prepared soil. This method of planting was widely used in primitive agriculture, particularly in hilly regions like Galilee where rocks that could destroy a cast-iron plow often lay just below the surface. Since geological pressures cause subterranean rocks to migrate upward, farmers cannot be sure from year to year just where the rocks and the fertile soil are located. Finding & removing all rocks would be inefficient & time-consuming. So each spring Mediterranean grain farmers simply scattered the relatively inexpensive seed across their fields. Of course some would be lost to the unpredictable forces of nature: birds, weeds, hard ground, lack of rainfall. But there was always enough good soil to insure a harvest. So, from time immemorial broadcasting was the normal process of planting in the eastern Mediterranean.

Thus, the parable of the sower describes an annual ritual that any ancient rural audience was bound to recognize. The only unusual detail is the size of the harvest. In a good year a farmer might reap 5 to 10 times what he planted. So, ancient people familiar with normal yields would certainly have been particularly struck by this parable's prediction of a bumper crop 10 times ordinary expectations.

This parable is, therefore, a description of a common event with an extraordinarily optimistic outcome. The exaggerated details of the punch line indicate that expectation of an abundant harvest is the point that the person formulating this parable intended to stress. All the other details about losses simply prepare the audience for the dramatic contrast at the end. So the point built into the logical structure of the parable of the sower is that the benefits of broadcasting more than compensate for anything that is lost in the process.

Performance Variations

Although this is usually regarded as a seed parable, Luke is the only writer to use the word "seed." Matthew & Mark fail to specify what the sower is broadcasting. Translators have supplied "seed" in English versions of Matthew & Mark [square brackets] to clarify their vague Greek pronouns.

The wording of this parable in Matthew & Mark is so close [blue & teal text] that it is easy to miss their differences:

  • Matthew uses the plural form of pronouns & verbs; Mark uses the singular. Note that Luke also uses the singular.

  • Mark states the obvious by stressing that seed choked by thorns yields no grain, while seed in good soil does. Matthew omits these superfluous phrases [black text].

  • Mark presents the yield of grain in ascending order (30-60-100); Matthew has a descending sequence (100-60-30).

Luke presents a paraphrased version of this parable,

  • expanding it with clarifying phrases at some points [the fate of the seed on the path & the reason for others withering] &

  • condensing it at other points [the plight of seed on rock & the yield of seed in good soil].

The only place Luke echoes Matthew's wording (except for phases that are also in Mark) is in characterizing the size of Jesus' audience: as "great" rather than "very large." Otherwise his wording is consistently closer to Mark. This is particularly noticeable in the conclusion of the parable (where Luke echoes Mark's superfluous verbs of growth & yield) & the summons to hear, where both Luke & Mark have an unnecessary reference to the speaker ["he said"] & a redundant infinitive ["to hear"] that are not in Matthew.

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


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