Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

11. The Trained Scribe 
Matt 13:51-53 

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses  

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Source: Matthew

This parable asserts the authority of an ancient scribe to alter a text by interpolating new material that was not found in the text he was copying. There are no parallels to this pericope elsewhere. So, Matthew is the sole source for its contents.

Which source hypothesis has a simpler explanation of this data?

Theory Relationship
 A   Augustine   Mark condensed Matthew; Luke drew on both
B  Griesbach   Luke edited Matthew; Mark condensed both
C  Farrer   Matthew expanded Mark; Luke drew on both
D  Two Source    Matthew & Luke independently edited Mark & Q 

Any source theory needs to be supported by redaction criticism. For only a hypothesis that is consistent with each gospel's editorial tendencies at other points can be considered probable.

Hypotheses that Matthew wrote first & was a source for the other synoptic gospels (A & B) must provide a plausible explanation of why Mark & Luke deliberately omit this passage. Hypotheses that Mark was the primary source for the other synoptics (C & D) only have to explain why Matthew decided to add it.

A theory that Luke used Matthew as a secondary source (C) must still explain, however, why Luke chose to omit this passage. A theory that Matthew & Luke independently supplement Mark with other material (D) need only explain Matthew's motives for adding this parable that he knew, but apparently Mark & Luke did not. So, the Two Source hypothesis (D) clearly presents the simplest explanation of the synoptic evidence for this passage.

Testing the Theories


Did Mark edit Matthew? 

Mark's omission of this pericope might seem to support Augustine's theory of gospel relationships. If Mark edited Matthew, he must have decided to omit whole sections of the Matthean narrative: e.g., two chapters on Jesus' birth & family background (Matt 1-2), three chapters of Jesus teaching in the sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7), & many Matthean parables (Matt 13:24-30 & 33-53), etc. Yet, this parable authorizes a Christian scribe to introduce "new" items, not to omit "old" material. So, Mark may have deliberately dropped it because it did not support his wholesale suppression of key elements of Matthew's portrait of Jesus.

Such reasoning is circular, however, since it presupposes the very point in question: the hypothesis that Mark edited Matthew. The absence of the parable of the trained scribe in Mark is a demonstrable fact that is open to two quite opposite explanations. Either Mark omitted a pericope that Matthew reported, or Matthew introduced a pericope that Mark did not report. Since this Matthean pericope presents Jesus as explicitly authorizing a Christian scribe to introduce fresh material, its very logic favors the conclusion that Matthew added it to Mark (to justify his own expansion of the Markan text) rather than the alternative.

If one could demonstrate that Mark was a conservative scribe opposed in principle to the very idea that Jesus authorized the introduction of novel elements into his preaching of God's kingdom, then one might argue that Mark had a cogent reason for deliberately suppressing the parable of the trained scribe. But the text simply does not support that conclusion. For Mark reports several kingdom sayings with logical elements that are not paralleled in Matthew.

For example, compare Matthew & Mark's versions of Jesus' inaugural message:

Matt 4   Mark 1 
12  Now when he heard  14  Now 
  that John had been arrested,   after John was arrested, 
  he withdrew into Galilee;    Jesus came into Galilee; 
    preaching the gospel of God,

From that time

  Jesus began to preach,   
  saying, 15 and saying,
  "Repent,*   "The time is fulfilled,
  for the kingdom of heaven    and the kingdom of God 
  is at hand."   is at hand;
    and believe in the gospel."

If this Markan text is interpreted as a revision of Matthew's, then Mark deliberately added new wording (black type) that had no basis in its alleged source. On the hypothesis of Matthean priority, not only would the scribe who wrote Mark have changed Matthew's "kingdom of heaven" to "kingdom of God," he would have introduced novel themes -- i.e., the time of fulfillment & belief in the gospel -- that were not part of Matthew's report of Jesus' message. 

Compare, also, the following: 

Matt 16   Mark 9 
   1  And he said to them, 
 28  "Truly, I say to you,    "Truly, I say to you, 
  there are some standing here    there are some standing here 
  who will not taste death   who will not taste death
  before they see   before they see
  the Son of man    that the kingdom of God
  coming   has come
  in his kingdom."   with power."

If Mark edited Matthew, he has clearly altered his alleged source by introducing a new motif (the coming of the kingdom of God) into a Jesus saying that predicted a somewhat different vision (the appearance of the Son of man).

Furthermore, if one endorses the theory of Matthean priority, one must conclude that Mark deliberately replaced Matthew's harvest parable (the weeds & the wheat) with another non-Matthean parable (the self-growing seed) that makes quite a different point about God's kingdom.

Thus, the theory of Matthean priority does not offer a coherent explanation of the editorial decisions that it presupposes Mark made.  For if Mark edited Matthew, he frequently did precisely what the parable of the trained scribe claims Jesus authorized. So it is not at all clear why Mark would have omitted this parable. if he knew it. 


Did Mark follow Luke? 

Griesbach's synoptic hypothesis provides Mark with a cogent reason for omitting the parable of the trained scribe that Augustine's does not: its absence in Luke.  Assuming, for argument sake, that Luke was first to edit Matthew, it is relatively simple to explain his omission of the parable of the trained scribe, narrative since here he does not introduce “something new” but instead selects only a few of the pericopes that Matthew clusters in this chapter on parables.

Yet that would not explain why he chose not to report it elsewhere.  For Matthew’s analogy of the trained scribe provides perfect justification for Luke’s own introduction of himself and his purpose in composing his gospel:

Luke 1
 1  "Inasmuch as many have undertaken
  to compile a narrative of the things
  which have been accomplished among us,
2 just as they were delivered to us
  by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses
  and ministers of the word,


it seemed good to me also,
  having followed all things closely for some time past,
  to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus


that you may know the truth
  concerning the things of which you have been informed.

Here Luke presents himself as a well-informed Christian scribe who is familiar with the narratives of many other early Christian writers but feels compelled to compose his own “orderly” account so that his intended reader (Theophilus) – who has already learned something about the Christian movement – will have a better understanding of Christian origins. He writes to set the record straight. Luke apparently thinks that older accounts are not adequate, so he dedicates himself to producing something new.


Did Luke use Matthew? 

Any source theory that presupposes the priority of Mark can explain the absence of the parable of the trained scribe from that gospel more cogently than theories that assume that Mark edited Matthew. But Farrer’s thesis that Luke mined Matthew for material to add to a Markan core is even less cogent than Griesbach’s in explaining the omission of this particular parable from Luke.  For while Luke offers the reader much “old” information that parallels Mark and/or Matthew, from beginning to end he presents many new details that neither of his alleged sources reports. For instance: 

  • the background and birth of John the Baptist
  • the kinship of Jesus’ and John’s mothers
  • a historical setting for Jesus’ birth that differs from Matthew’s
  • Jesus’ circumcision & bar mitzvah in Jerusalem’s temple
  • John’s ethical teaching
  • Jesus’ pedigree that differs from Matthew’s
  • Jesus’ age at his baptism
  • Jesus’ synagogue sermon at Nazareth
  • Jesus revives a widow’s son at Nain
  • Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem through Samaritan territory
  • the mission of the 70
  • Jesus entertained by Mary & Martha
  • more cases of sickness that Jesus cured (dropsy, scoliosis, lepers, blind)
  • many more parables (the Samaritan, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the shrewd manager, the Pharisee & tax-collector, the tower builder, the unjust judge, the rich fool, the barren fig tree, the rich man & Lazarus)
  • Jesus hosted by the tax-collector Zaccheus at Jericho
  • Jesus’ examination by Herod Antipas
  • Resurrection appearances of Jesus at Emmaus & Jerusalem
  • Jesus’ ascension

Add to these the fact that Luke’s account of Jesus’ teaching which is reported by Matthew but not Mark differs widely from the Matthean text in both wording & location. So if Luke recalled Matthew's parable of the leaven almost verbatim in a totally different context, it is odd that he of all people overlooked or deliberately omitted this little parable authorizing a scribe who is familiar with Jesus and his message to manage and supplement his sources. Farrer's synoptic hypothesis, therefore cannot easily explain Luke's failure to report this particular parable.


Are Matthew & Luke independent revisions of Mark? 

The two source hypothesis is the only synoptic theory that can easily account for the omission of the trained scribe from the gospels of both Mark and Luke.

  • Mark wrote first without any apparent knowledge of the parable of the trained scribe.
  • Matthew revised Matthew's gospel and introduced this parable to justify his insertion of a string of parables that were not part of Mark's earlier account.
  • Luke also revised and expanded Mark's gospel without basing his changes on Matthew's work.  While other pericopes -- like the parable of the leaven -- show that Luke knew and valued much of the same non-Markan Jesus tradition that Matthew had used, the fact that he did not include the parable of the trained scribe adds to the evidence that the canonical gospel of Matthew was not the "treasury" from which he derived that material.

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last revised 03 September 2020

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