Parallel Texts in Matthew,
Mark & Luke
Matt 13:24-30; Mark 4:26-29
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Which source hypothesis
has a simpler explanation of this data?
Any source theory needs to be supported by redaction
criticism & account for any parallels or variations in content. Only a
hypothesis that is
consistent with each gospel's editorial tendencies at other points can be
The fact that the parables
presented here by Matthew & Mark share several characteristics (i.e.,
comparison of the divine kingdom to a farmer anticipating a harvest &
other key words) suggests some genetic
relationship. Theoretically they may be siblings generated at
different moments in the oral Jesus tradition; or one may be the direct
of the other.
Still, Matthew chose to
present only one & Mark only the other at approximately the same point in
their narratives. So, the primary questions relevant to the synoptic
problem are: which of these two harvest cycle parables is likely to have
been substituted for the other & why?
A second set of questions concerns the source of the details of the substituted
parable. Is one parable simply the product of one synoptic author's
creative revision of a theme presented by the other's text? Or can the variant
be credited to some other source that is no longer extant?
A theory that envisions the synoptic authors using some source for Jesus' sayings outside our canonical
clearly has more options available to explain their divergent treatment of
these harvest parables than any hypothesis (A,
B or C) that regards all differences in
Matthew, Mark & Luke as simply the result of the later writer's innovative
reworking of one or more earlier synoptic narratives.
Testing the Theories
The fact that Mark's
harvest parable is less than half the length of Matthew's
might seem to support Augustine's view that Mark abbreviated Matthew. Yet, the
crucial differences in plot make it impossible to interpret the scene portrayed
by Mark as simply a less verbose version of that recorded in Matthew.
If Mark edited Matthew, then he
Why Mark would have decided to make these
editorial changes here in a parable designed to illustrate the kingdom of God
is unclear. For the details of Matthew's parable fit well within Mark's own representation of
Elsewhere Mark repeatedly associates the theme of God's kingdom
with an eschatological crisis, in which some are saved & others destined
to be consumed or destroyed. He introduces Jesus'
public career with the proclamation:
||"The time is fulfilled!
||The kingdom of God
is at hand!
||Repent! and believe in the gospel."
Mark follows this announcement
with scenes in which Jesus expels unclean spirits. Then, just before this section on
parables, Mark presents this response by Jesus to charges by skeptical scribes that
he performs exorcisms as an agent of the "prince of demons":
||And he called them to him,
||and said to them in
||"How can Satan cast out Satan?
||If a kingdom
is divided against itself,
||that kingdom cannot stand...
||And if Satan has risen up against
||and is divided, he cannot stand,
||but is coming to an
Then, after presenting Jesus' assurance
that some of his disciples will live to see "that the
kingdom of God has come with power" [9:1], Mark cites this dire warning:
||"And if your eye causes you to sin,
pluck it out;
||it is better for you to enter the kingdom
of God with one eye
||than with two eyes to be thrown into
||where their worm does not die,
||and the fire
is not quenched."
Finally, Mark concludes Jesus'
preaching with a promise that in the end the chosen will be saved:
||"And then he will send
out the angels
||and gather his
elect from the four winds
||from the ends of the earth to the ends
So, Mark obviously regarded Jesus as herald of God's kingdom who rid the world of
spirits planted by Satan. And he clearly thought that those who were not
gathered into God's kingdom were destined to be consumed by fire. Why, then, would
the imagery of Matthew's harvest parable or replace it with an
illustration of God's kingdom that does not mention an eschatological
separation of God's chosen seed from those planted by the Adversary? Though Matthew's insistence that the weeds be
left undisturbed until the time of harvest does not exactly fit Mark's
own urgent eschatology, that still does not explain why the Markan version of
a harvest parable fails to mention the weeds & their destruction at all.
Moreover, Mark regularly contrasts Jesus'
knowledge of the true nature of God's kingdom with misunderstanding on the
part of his disciples [e.g., Mark 4:13].
The only thing Mark represents Jesus as not knowing is the exact time of the
final gathering; that, he stresses, is known only to God [Mark 13:32].
The contrast between the master's clairvoyance & his servants' faulty
understanding & misguided zeal in the Matthean harvest parable [Matt
13:27f] would, therefore, provide a
perfect illustration of a characteristically Markan motif that Mark himself
introduced only a few lines earlier: that is, Jesus' own disciples failure
comprehend what their master himself understood. So, if Mark edited
Matthew, it is a complete mystery why he deliberately
- eliminated the figures of the perplexed
- replaced Matthew's portrayal of the farmer's
wisdom with an explicit declaration of his ignorance [Mark
Thus, the Augustinian theory of synoptic
redaction does not adequately account for the details of the gospel narratives at this point.
Did Mark conflate Matthew & Luke?
Griesbach's view of the relationship of the
synoptic gospels hardly offers a better basis than Augustine's source theory
for explaining the differences between the harvest parables in Matthew &
Mark. Since Luke does not report any harvest parable, Mark's divergence
from Matthew at this point cannot be attributed to Lukan influence. If
Mark knew that Luke omitted Matthew's harvest parable he had three editorial
- he could follow Luke and omit Matthew 's
- he could ignore Luke and copy Matthew's
- he could edit Matthew's parable to
illustrate his own view of God's kingdom better.
But it is obvious that he has done none of
these. Rather, he presented a harvest parable that not only differs from
Matthew's but stands in dramatic tension
with his own eschatology, as well as his previous interpretation
of the parable of the sower. For the
Markan harvest parable has no hint of an urgent crisis. Nor does it suggest concern about lost seed of any
kind. Instead, it compares God's kingdom to a farmer who simply waits while
the grain he sowed slowly matures until he can reap it. In sharp contrast to
Mark's own presentation of Jesus' initial proclamation of God's kingdom [Mark
1:15], the Markan parable makes no claim that the time of harvest is
at hand. So, the scene of automatic growth described by Mark
- does not stress the Markan chronology
of God's kingdom &
- lacks details of the crisis
at the center of Matthew's parable of the
weeds that are consistent with motifs that Mark himself stresses
And it is clearly independent of anything in
Luke. Thus, the synoptic
gospels' pattern of reporting these harvest parables fails to support the Griesbach
It is clearly easier to view Matthew's harvest
parable as an editorial replacement for Mark's than vice versa. For, as noted in our prior
Matthew's harvest parable is less problematic than Mark's as an analogy for
the divine realm.
So, it is easy to see why Matthew would have preferred a harvest parable that
compares the kingdom of Heaven to a wise farmer rather than repeat the Markan parable, which likened God's kingdom to
one who was ignorant.
Also, the Matthean parable -- unlike its Markan
parallel -- provides a good illustration of the eschatological views of
the writer of the gospel in which it is recorded. For Matthew -- and only
Matthew -- concludes Jesus' public preaching with another parable in which
conflicting species are separated at the last judgment [Matt
25:31-46]. In that case "sheep" "inherit the kingdom"
[25:34], while "goats" are cast "into the eternal fire
prepared for the devil & his angels" [25:1]. Since it is clear
that Matthew typically associated the divine kingdom with motifs of a
final separation & a fiery consumption of those opposed to God, the fact
that he alone reports the parable of the weeds presents no redactional
Thus, any source theory that regards the gospel of
Matthew as a revision of Mark is better able to account for the variant
harvest parables in these two gospels than a theory that views Mark as editor
But what about Luke's source(s)? Since Luke
reports neither the Markan nor the Matthean harvest parable, his narrative
clearly does not follow either of the other synoptic gospels at this point.
But the question is whether Luke's silence at this point indicates his
deliberate suppression of these parables.
In Luke, Jesus does not associate God's kingdom
with either a period of waiting or a climactic separation of a select group
from others are to be consumed. Rather, he publicly denies that the kingdom he
envisions is marked by some dramatic future event:
||Being asked by the Pharisees
||when the kingdom of God was coming,
||he answered them:
||"The kingdom of God is not coming
with signs to be observed;
||nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!'
||for, behold, the kingdom of God is in
the midst of you."
Thus, Luke would have good reason not
to copy Matthew's harvest parable, even if he knew it.
The problem with this redactional
scenario, however, is that one author's knowledge of another's text cannot
simply be taken for granted. Rather, any theory of literary dependence needs
to be demonstrated by a clear pattern of verbal agreement between
documents, which is precisely what is lacking in this case. If it could
be shown from surrounding passages that Luke's narrative was directly
dependent on Matthew's version of these pericopes, then one might hazard
a suggestion that he probably decided to omit the parable of the
harvest, because it did not fit his interpretation of Jesus' proclamation of
God's kingdom. But other explanations for an author's failure to reproduce a
passage are possible, and in this case are more likely:
either Luke did not use Matthew as a
or, if he did, his copy of Matthew did not
contain this particular passage.
While it is true, that Luke's
failure to cite the Matthean parable cannot be cited as evidence that he had no
knowledge of it, it is just as true that his silence makes the opposite
conclusion -- that he knew it but just chose not to report it -- unprovable. Add to that, the fact that Luke's version of all the
surrounding pericopes [Luke 8:4-18] is demonstrably closer to the parallel
passages in Mark than to those in Matthew, and the simplest conclusion is
that, for whatever reason, Luke did not use any material in this
section of Matthew.
Are Matthew &
Luke independent revisions of Mark?
The simplest way to account for the differences
between the synoptic gospels in reporting these harvest parables is to assume
- Mark wrote first &
- Matthew & Luke edited Mark without
reference to each other's work.
Mark composed his gospel without a
previous literary model by collecting originally independent oral chreiae
& grouping them either by type or similar motifs. In previous chapters
he strung healing & controversy stories together, while he devotes this
segment of his narrative to Jesus' teaching in parables [Mark
4:2], which he associates with the message of God's kingdom [Mark
4:11]. The fact that the first parable Mark recalled focused on the
figure of a sower scattering seed prompted
him to recall a second parable that began with the same motif [Mark
4:26], even though this parable was not of particular use in
preparing readers for the imminent crisis that he usually associated with
Jesus' proclamation of God's kingdom [see passages cited above].
In refining the Markan narrative, Matthew had
already made several substantive revisions of this segment on parables before
he came to this point, inserting several sayings to clarify the
explanation of Jesus' use of parables [Matt
13:14ff] & omitting others (e.g., aphorisms of the lamp
& the measure) that fit better in other
contexts. He acted consistently, therefore, in omitting a parable that
was theologically problematic (because it compared God's kingdom to a farmer
who was ignorant of the processes of nature) & inserting another
that explained the farmer's inaction between sowing & harvest.
Luke also decided to drop this parable &
the surrounding sayings in his revision of Mark. But the fact that he failed
to use Matthew's harvest parable makes it clear that his editorial activity
was quite independent of any knowledge of the Matthean redaction
of this passage.
11 December 2019