Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

11. The Trained Scribe 
Matt 13:51-53 

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses  

Turn off Pop-up blocker to insure hyperlinks work properly.


This pericope concludes the first block of parables in Matthew & prepares for a change of scene (from the shore of the sea of Galilee to the synagogue at Nazareth, about 20 miles to the west). In the first 50 verses of this chapter Jesus:

The much briefer parallel sections in the other synoptic gospels sport different narrative conclusions:

  • Mark--- who has the same first 3 seed parables, a briefer explanation of purpose, & just 1 allegorical interpretation--- concludes with a vague generalization that Jesus explained everything to his disciples in private;

  • Luke---who reports a single parable (the sower) & its interpretation, with an even more succinct explanation of Jesus' purpose---eliminates the need for a transition by presenting the visit of Jesus' kin at this point. [See the gospel outlines for a more detailed comparison of the contents of these passages].

Narrative Logic

There are 3 elements in this pericope:

The sequence in Matthew's text obscures the fact that details of each element are not directly related to the data in the others.

  • The 1st element presupposes oral communication. Jesus' disciples explicitly affirm that they comprehend everything he told them. They are represented as passive recipients of Jesus' instruction.

  • The 2nd element presupposes the interpretation of a written text. With proper preparation a scribe is authorized to introduce both old & new teaching. He is represented as the active instructor.

The logic of Matthew's narration makes the parable the direct conclusion ("Therefore") of the disciples' declaration of comprehension. So the parable is designed to explain the teaching activity of a Christian scribe --- a follower of Jesus --- rather than Jesus himself.

Form: Parable

The narrator invokes Jesus' authority to draw a sweeping comparison of  

  • the activity of "every" scribe with training focused on the "kingdom of Heaven" 

  • to a homeowner who has "treasure" which he can draw upon 

  • to produce both something "old" and something "fresh."

The catchwords "treasures" (θησαυρούς) & "kingdom of Heaven" (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν) account for Matthew's introduction of this parable as a sequel to the parable of the buried treasure. But this analogy more likely invokes the graphic image of a storehouse -- for produce or wine. For it is incongruous to think of anyone extracting something new from a chest buried for some time in a field.

The analogy presupposes that the scribe also has a treasure from which he can produce something fresh & novel in addition to what was old. A scribe's most obvious "treasure" is his books. So, this parable gives blanket authorization to any scribe who has been properly trained about "the kingdom of Heaven" to produce new interpretations -- something "fresh" -- that were not explicitly recorded in any previous text. 

This parable is in line with the ancient presupposition that scribes had the ability to decipher & interpret sacred texts. Although the scribe's own words may not have any direct basis in the text being interpreted, they were granted to have equal authority since the scribe was assumed to have the type of training & knowledge to explain passages whose significance was difficult to understand. This assumption was the basis for the Pharisees' principle that the oral Torah was of equal weight with the written Torah.  And it is still the principle of education that underlies all modern scholarship. The educated writer who has been trained in his (or her) discipline -- i.e., who has earned a degree -- is supposed to have the ability to invoke previous scholarship ("something old") and to contribute insights that no one else had previously recorded ("something new").

Matthew's ascription of this parable to Jesus portrays Jesus as authorizing every student who understands the focus of his message -- "the kingdom of Heaven" -- to introduce new elements that were not recorded in any previous text. The clear implication of this is that the Christian scribe was not bound by the letter of sacred scripture or limited even to repeating the words of Jesus. Rather, as one who could claim to have a clear idea of the subject that Jesus was teaching, the Christian author could introduce any new material that reflected his own views about the kingdom of God. Thus, this parable explains the freedom with which early Christian scribes paraphrased sayings of Jesus & revised the texts of earlier Christian writers.

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses  
  previous pericope     index  

last revised 12 July 2020


Copyright 1997- 2020 by Mahlon H. Smith
All rights reserved.

an American Theological Library Association Selected Religion Website 
OCLC World catalog no. 60769417

Educational freeware.
Links to these WebPages are welcome.
But they may not be mirrored or posted elsewhere.
Nor are the contents to be distributed commercially.

Reproduction of all or part of these pages in print form is permitted provided
the author is credited & the internet URL properly noted.

This website was accessed more than 2,000,000 times in its first 20 years on line.