Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark
Mustard & Leaven
Matt 13:31-35 // Mark 4:30-34
// Luke 13:18-20
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Which source hypothesis
has a simpler explanation of this data?
Any source theory needs to be supported by redaction
criticism. It must be able to account for both narrative transpositions as
well as any parallels or variations in content. To be
considered plausible, a hypothesis should be consistent with each gospel's editorial tendencies at other points.
In the case of this particular pericope, an
adequate explanation of why Luke decided to introduce the parable of the
mustard (& the leaven) in a
narrative context that differs from that
provided by both Matthew & Mark is in order.
A hypothesis that presupposes that Matthew
is the primary literary source of the synoptic material (Augustine or
Griesbach) must also be able to account for the fact that both Mark
A hypothesis that presupposes that Mark is
the primary synoptic literary source needs to explain why both Matthew
& Luke agree in material not recorded by Mark. Most
Testing the Theories
Casual comparison of this section of the
synoptic gospels seems to favor a source theory that presupposes the priority
of Matthew. For Matthew's version has most of the details associated
with the parables of the mustard seed & the leaven presented by either
Mark & Luke, particularly.:
Thus, the material in this pericope might
be cited as evidence supporting Augustine's claim that Matthew's gospel was
the ultimate literary source of this material. The shorter parallels in
Mark & Luke could then be interpreted as selective revisions of the
Augustine's characterization of Mark as an epitome
of Matthew, however, is not an accurate description of the actual
details of these passages. True, there are 25 fewer Greek words in Mark
4:30-34 than in Matt 13:31-35. Yet, this relative verbal economy is
achieved not by Mark's condensation of the Matthean narrative but,
rather, by Mark's omission of whole elements from Matthew's
As this table shows, the Markan versions of
both the parable of the mustard & the narrator's summary are actually longer
than the parallel passages in Matthew. Therefore, if Mark
edited Matthew he chose to elaborate on these two elements of this section of
Matthew while dropping two others.
One can, of course, suggest plausible reasons
for omission of the parable of the leaven & the citation of Ps 78 in Mark
- the metaphor of leaven does not fit well
with the seed motif of the three prior parables; &
- Mark does not often quote from Jewish
Therefore, if Mark knew the text of
Matthew, his omission of these elements could be viewed as a deliberate
editorial decision to make this section more consistent with both the dominant motif in this section on parables &
with Mark's own general style.
Likewise, Mark's omission of Matthew's
description of the mustard plant as a "tree" can easily be viewed as
an editor's elimination of surrealistic details from the Matthean version to
keep the imagery of that parable in conformity with nature.
If Mark exercised such sound critical
judgment, however, in polishing this section of Matthew, then the rhetorical
& grammatical lapses in his presentation of the parable of the mustard
seed are all the more difficult to explain. For if Mark rewrote
Matthew's parable of the mustard he would have
- doubled the length of the
to the analogy of the mustard seed by replacing Matthew's succinct
declaration "The kingdom of heaven is like..." with two
rhetorical questions ("How shall we compare...? What parable shall we
use...?") that are redundant & out of place at this point in his
- replaced Matthew's grammatically correct
Greek (two complete well-formed sentences) with a very clumsy
construction (an incomplete sentence -- with no explicit
subject or main verb -- beginning with a free-floating prepositional phrase
["As a grain of mustard"]
followed by a hodge-podge of relative & independent clauses); and
- introduced redundant wording that was not
derived from the text of Matthew: i.e., "when it is sown...yet when
it is sown" [Mark 4:31-32] &
"upon the earth...upon the earth" [Mark
Such rhetorical & grammatical clumsiness is
hard to reconcile with the claim that Mark edited Matthew. For Matthew's constructions are more literary than are Mark's. If Mark
had direct access to a copy of the gospel of Matthew, it is a complete mystery
why he took so much liberty in replacing Matthew's polished wording with
flourishes that are both stylistically inferior & logically superfluous.
Thus, the Augustinian hypothesis of Markan
dependence on the text of Matthew results in portraying Mark as a literary
butcher, who, instead of summarizing his supposed source, inflated it with
superfluous wording that ruined the clarity of the Matthean text.
Did Mark conflate Matthew & Luke?
Griesbach's synoptic theory can resolve one of
the problems with the traditional Augustinian source hypothesis by crediting
the non-Matthean rhetorical questions that
introduce Mark's parable of the mustard seed to the influence of Luke.
In Luke 13, those questions about an appropriate parable for the kingdom of
God are perfectly in order. For, unlike Matthew & Mark, Luke does not
append the parable of the mustard to other seed parables or kingdom
sayings. Rather, Luke deliberately distanced the analogy of the mustard
seed from his presentation of Jesus' discussion of the parable of the sower
(Luke 8) by introducing it five chapters later. [For
the precise relative position of these pericopes in each gospel, see my synoptic
In fact, since Luke reports none of Matthew's parables of the kingdom except
the parables of the mustard & leaven, it makes eminent sense for him
to introduce this pair of parables with Jesus' twofold question about a fit
analogy for the kingdom. So, Mark's decision to preface the parable of
the mustard with rhetorical questions might be interpreted as evidence
of his knowledge of Luke.
Why Mark would borrow this particular
Lukan rhetorical flourish, however, is a redactional mystery. For, like
Matthew but not Luke, he
Thus, Jesus' invocation of these rhetorical
questions at this point in Mark represents a mental lapse on the part of both
author & subject. For it is a logically awkward & unnecessary
interpolation in the Markan narrative that creates the impression that Jesus
was a speaker who could not remember what he had just said.
A further problem with Griesbach's hypothesis
is that none of the other details in this segment support the idea that Mark
conflated the other synoptics, since Mark regularly omits elements that
are the same in both Matthew & Luke's versions of this pair of parables.
Not only does Mark not report the parable of the leaven at all -- despite
the fact that practically all the wording in the other two synoptics are virtually identical
--, his version of the parable of the mustard seed also lacks phrases in
which Matthew & Luke's texts are in virtual verbatim agreement:
While there are 18 Greek words that are
identical in Matthew's & Luke's versions of the mustard seed parable, only
6 of these --
("grain of mustard seed") &
τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ
οὐρανοῦ ("birds of the
air") -- are found in Mark. In fact, aside from the pair of
rhetorical questions introducing this parable, Mark does not share any
wording with Luke that is not also found in Matthew. Moreover, Mark's
formulation of these rhetorical questions differs from that found in
So there is no clear verbal evidence in
this pericope to support the idea that Mark was in any way dependent upon the
written text of Luke. Not only does Mark introduce the parable of the mustard
seed at a point in his narrative syntax that is parallel to Matthew rather than
Luke, the Markan wording of this parable is much closer to the Matthean
version. In cases where Luke diverges from Matthew, either by omitting words
or presenting variants, Mark's wording regularly parallels Matthew's. For
example, both Mark & Matthew
- describe the mustard seed as
"sown" (Luke has "tossed")
- characterize it as "the smallest of all
seeds" (not in Luke)
- characterize the full grown plant as
"the greatest of shrubs" (not in Luke)
- conclude "so that (not in Luke)
the birds of the air...make nests" (Luke uses a past tense).
Moreover, since Mark omits phrasing common to
Matthew & Luke, Griesbach's hypothesis forces one to conclude that Mark
was so opposed to the Lukan version of this parable that he used it as a
negative filter, deliberately deleting from Matthew most of the details that
Luke reports (except for mustard seed & birds) & leaving only elements
of Matthew's description that had no parallel in Luke.
Finally, rather than reproduce Matthew's
succinct syntax, Mark introduces redundant wording & altered imagery not
found in either of his alleged sources:
- "when it is sown...when it is
- "on the earth...on the earth"
- "it rises up and becomes"
- "and puts forth large branches"
- "in its shade" [Mark
These variants combine with Mark's redundant
non-Matthean rhetorical questions to inflate his version of this parable,
making it longer & rhetorically more cumbersome than those presented by
either Matthew or Luke. Thus, this pericope does not confirm
Griesbach's contention that Mark "tried to be brief", or that he
"followed Luke." If Mark was trying to be brief, he should
have followed Luke's shortest version of the mustard seed parable
itself, introduced it like Matthew without redundant rhetorical
questions & refrained from adding superfluous wording of his own
invention. The fact that he did none of this indicates the difficulty of
accounting for the evidence in this pericope on the basis of the Griesbach
Since Mark presents the most grammatically
awkward version of the parable of the mustard seed & lacks the parable of
the leaven, any synoptic source hypothesis that presupposes Markan priority is
easier to defend than those that posit Matthean priority. For polishing &
insertion of thematically relevant material are normal editorial practices.
In Matthew the mustard seed parable
& the generalizing summary regarding Jesus' use of parables are worded
more economically than the parallel elements in Mark [see
chart above]. Yet Matthew
includes logical elements not derived from Mark:
The fact that the first two of these elements
& the non-Markan parable of the leaven are found virtually verbatim
in Luke may seem to favor Farrer's
thesis that Luke knew & used the gospel of Matthew. Yet that hypothesis is the
simplest solution only in accounting for added
non-Markan wording common to Matthew & Luke. If one supposes, that Luke used the text of Matthew as well as that of Mark,
then one must also be prepared to explain
- why he omitted elements in the
parable of the mustard seed shared by both Matthew & Mark [see
- why he placed this pair of parables in a
narrative context far removed from that of both his alleged
For a source hypothesis is only as cogent as
its ability to support a plausible explanation of all the alterations
an author ostensibly would have made to the texts on which he was allegedly
Luke obviously decided not to preserve Mark's formulation or use
of the mustard seed parable. For Luke's own description of the growth of the mustard plant
- differs in
practically every detail from Mark's
- is introduced five chapters after Luke had quit
following the Markan discussion of Jesus' teaching in parables.
Thus, the "dependence" of Luke's
version of this parable on the text of Mark is far from obvious. True,
there is a formal parallel between the pair of rhetorical questions
about an appropriate analogy for the kingdom of God that introduce the mustard
seed in both gospels. But aside from their common reference to the
"kingdom of God" the Lukan & Markan formulae are phrased quite
differently. The level of verbal agreement between Luke's & Mark's
versions of the mustard seed analogy is even lower. Thus, Luke's version of
this parable is not even a paraphrase of Mark's. If Luke recalled the
abstract rhetorical structure of a formula that Mark cites in a different context, why
did he not recall or
choose to use any of the details of description of the growth of the
mustard seed stressed by Mark?
The fact that the
phrases invoked by Luke to describe the mustard plant echo only
insertions introduced in Matthew's alteration of the Markan parable
makes Luke's failure to follow Mark all the more problematic. For Luke's version of the mustard seed analogy is more succinct than
Matthew's precisely because it omits elements of the description that Matthew
simply copied from Mark ("the smallest of seeds" becoming "the
shrubs"). So, if Luke
based his wording of this parable on the canonical text of the gospel of Matthew, then he must have used Mark's
version as a negative
filter, deliberately deleting most of the wording that Matthew & Mark had
in common. Moreover, his opposition to the Markan presentation of this parable
must have been so strong that he decided to transfer it (along with Matthew's non-Markan parable of the
leaven) to a narrative context that had none of the catchword
motifs found in either of the other synoptic gospels.
Yet, Luke did not simply favor all of Matthew's
alterations of Mark either. For instead of echoing Matthew's single
declarative statement introducing the mustard seed analogy, he chose rather to
preface it with a pair of rhetorical questions -- a rhetorical strategy also
used by Mark. Thus, if one
presupposes that Luke derived his material from Matthew as well as Mark, his
version of the parable of the mustard seed seems to be a bizarre hybrid, a
fragment of a Matthean parable, purged of Markan elements yet sporting a Markan preface, planted in a
conceptual field totally unrelated to either alleged source.
If the only presumed sources for
Luke's version of the parable of the mustard seed were the canonical gospels
of Matthew & Mark, then Luke deliberately
- decided not to use it in the same
narrative context where both Mark & Matthew recorded it,
- introduced it at a later point where it had no
evident relevance to surrounding material his narrative,
- roughly paraphrased the rhetorical questions
that introduced Mark's version of the parable yet
- chose not to repeat any detail of
Mark's description of the growth of the mustard plant, but rather
- recalled Matthew's description of the
mustard minus all phrasing that Matthew got from Mark, & then
- reproduced Matthew's parable of the leaven
almost word for word, after paraphrasing its preface.
Such a puzzling picture of Luke's editorial
activity is made more problematic by the
observation that it does not follow Luke's normal redactional practice. Luke
often paraphrases & condenses or omits Markan material & sometimes
relocates a Markan passage to a logically preferable point in his narrative
(see "Jesus' true kin").
Yet he usually keeps closer to Mark's verbal formulae rather than revisions
introduced by Matthew (see "why
parables"). Why would he have suddenly abandoned such an editorial
strategy in the case of a parable where Matthew supports Mark's wording?
common Markan & Matthean elements that are missing from Luke's description of
the mustard plant (a "shrub" with bird "in its shade") are
more accurate than the surrealistic details
that he shares with Matthew (a "tree" with birds nesting
"in its branches"). On the other hand, the scenarios of parables peculiar to Luke --
e.g., the Samaritan & Prodigal Son -- are quite realistic in detail. Luke
regularly portrays Jesus as using parables as pedagogical examples. Thus, to
imagine that he deleted credible naturalistic
elements from an analogy designed to illustrate the kingdom
of God which he found in two gospels & preserved only a fantastic image extracted from only one of them
is to suggest that in this particular instance Luke was not only
uncharacteristically capricious in revising his sources but pedagogically perverse.
Finally, if Luke
deliberately performed radical surgery on Matthew's version of the mustard
seed parable to highlight its unrealistic details, why did he take over the
mundane Matthean analogy of the leaven virtually verbatim? What plausible philosophical or aesthetic rationale could have
prompted such editorial inconsistency on the part of Luke?
The hypothesis that the extant canonical text of
Matthew was Luke's direct source for the parables of the mustard seed &
the leaven creates more puzzles than it solves. So, Farrer's solution to the synoptic
problem is not as simple as it first seems.
Are Matthew &
Luke independent revisions of Mark & another source?
which presupposes that the only sources available to the author of a
synoptic gospel in the 1st c. CE were other canonical gospels that are still
extant today is bound to have difficulty explaining the rationale for Luke's
version of the parables of the mustard
& leaven. For it must account for editorial decisions in Luke's
alleged revision of the text of Matthew that border on the irrational.
The Two Source hypothesis
offers a far simpler solution to the complex relationship of these synoptic
parables by assuming
- that Matthew & Luke probably had access
to a source (Q) containing
sayings of Jesus other than Mark &
- that each independently added
material from that source to the narrative framework provided by Mark.
Luke's lack of dependence on the text of
Matthew is shown by the simple observation that he does not follow
Matthew's presentation of the parables of the mustard & leaven.
Addition is always a simpler operation to
subtraction. In the case of this pericope, it is fairly
obvious what material Matthew probably added to Mark. Completely non-Markan elements that
Matthew inserted are:
Both are easily accounted for on
the basis of strategies of composition that are characteristic of Matthew. For
Matthew often traces a detail in the story of Jesus to fulfillment of some quotation
from Jewish scripture that is not cited in other gospels (e.g. Isa
6:9 in his version of Jesus' rationale for using parables). He also
frequently presents other sayings in a context where neither Mark nor Luke
locate them (e.g., the paradox
of the haves & have-nots, blessing
of eyes that see, lamp
If one notes the web of
catchwords & motifs common to Matthew & Mark, it is easy to understand
why Matthew chose to insert the analogy of the leaven where he did.
Following Mark, Matthew
presented three consecutive parables
about seeds (sower, harvest
two of which (harvest &
mustard) are introduced as analogies of the kingdom of Heaven ( =
two of which (sower &
mustard) stress phenomenal growth.
The leaven is also explicitly identified as a parable
about the kingdom of Heaven & the large
volume of flour in which it is placed (about 30 pounds) implies phenomenal
growth. Moreover, Mark's sharp contrast (echoed by Matthew) between the
minute size of the mustard seed & the huge size of the full-grown plant
provided a perfect memory link for recalling a similar contrast between the little
leaven & the inflated volume of a lot of flour.
The fact that parables of the mustard &
leaven are recorded in tandem in the gospel of Matthew illustrates the natural
tendency of the human mind to compose material by associating similar wording
or images. This is a common phenomenon that is no more characteristic of
Matthew than of any one else. Thus, the mere fact that Luke also links
the parables of the mustard & leaven is not sufficient evidence to
conclude that he derived this pairing directly from the canonical gospel of
The differences between Luke's version
of these parables & Matthew's are extensive enough to make any claim that
the latter is the direct source of the former questionable.
- The mustard & leaven are woven into the
surrounding fabric of the gospel of Matthew by an intricate network of
catchwords; the parallels in the gospel of Luke are not.
- Luke introduces both parables with
rhetorical questions; Matthew does not.
- Matthew stresses the contrast between the
small size of the mustard seed & the large size of the full-grown
plant, Luke does not.
- Luke does not echo any of the
narrative prose that Matthew uses to introduce either the mustard
or the leaven.
The similarity between some of the
wording in both versions of each parable is great enough to suggest some kind
of dependence upon a common literary source. Yet it is hardly enough to prove
that that text was the gospel of Matthew.
It would be clear that Luke used Matthew only
if it was certain that Matthew himself invented the parable
of the leaven & the surrealistic changes to Mark's description of the
growth of the mustard plant (a tree with birds nesting in its branches).
But that is hardly the case.
Matthew repeatedly stresses that Jesus'
teaching fulfilled the Torah & the Prophets. The Hebrew prophet
Hosea, however, represented God as comparing the corruption of Israel's
leaders to the rising of leavened dough:
||"When I would heal Israel
of Ephraim is revealed,
||and the wicked
deeds of Samaria;
||for they deal falsely
||the thief breaks in,
||and the bandits raid outside...
||They are all adulterers;
||they are like
a heated oven,
||whose baker does not need to stir the
||from the kneading of dough
||until it is
Is it likely, then, that Matthew would have
deliberately created an analogy for the kingdom of Heaven that focused on a
profane process that Hebrew scripture used as a metaphor for moral
If Matthew did not fabricate the
parable of the leaven de novo, then he must have gotten it from some
source that identified it as a saying of Jesus. Such a sayings source -- which
could be called "Q" --
would presumably have been known by other early Christians than Matthew. The
parallels in Luke's presentation of the parables of the mustard seed &
leaven support this conclusion, while the differences in Matthew & Luke's
performances suggest that each author used this common sayings source
- The pairing of the parables of mustard seed
& leaven is a compositional feature that can be credited to Q.
- Likewise, the description of the mustard
plant as a tree with birds nesting in its branches is traceable to Q.
The simplest explanation of the differences
between the Matthean & Lukan presentation of parables of the mustard &
leaven is that each
author inserted this pair of Q sayings into his narrative framework without
using the work of the other.
- Matthew wove Q's description of the mustard
plant together with Mark's to produce the bizarre image of a plant that
became both a shrub & a tree. Since Mark had no parable of the leaven,
Matthew simply copied that parable from Q.
- Luke omitted Mark's version of the parable
the mustard seed but later inserted this pair of Q parables in a context
where he was not following the outline of Mark's narrative.
Since Luke did not try to integrate the mustard
seed & leaven into Markan material, his version of these parables is
probably rhetorically closer to the original wording of Q than is Matthew's
grafted hybrid. Thus, the Two
Source hypothesis is the one leading solution to the synoptic problem that
does not require one to suppose that Luke performed elaborate inexplicable
surgery on the text of the other synoptic gospels. Rather, it simply supposes
that he respected the integrity of the Jesus sayings he copied from one source
(Q) as much or even more than the material he got from another (Mark).
03 September 2020