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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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 

All hypotheses that presuppose a literary source have to account for the fact that

  • Luke deviates from details of setting & parable in Matthew & Mark, where both are virtually identical,
  • but Luke's aphorism about hearing echoes an unnecessary infinitive in Mark that is not in the oldest mss. of Matthew.

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 plausible.

Any hypothesis that Matthew is the basic source (A & B) needs to explain why Mark & Luke both

  • regularly changed Matthew's plural forms to singular,
  • added superfluous verbs [teal text] about growth & yield, and
  • inserted an unnecessary break between parable & aphorism.

Any hypothesis that Mark is the basic source (C & D) only has to explain why Matthew & Luke

  • both changed Mark's characterization of the crowd from "very large" to "great," &
  • otherwise edited Mark's text in different directions.

A hypothesis that presupposes that Luke used Matthew as a secondary source (C) must also explain why Luke used only one of the editorial changes introduced by Matthew. A hypothesis that Matthew & Luke edited Mark independently (D) need only explain why the descriptions of the setting in Matthew & Luke share a single word ("great") that is not found in the oldest mss. of Mark.

Thus, the Two Source hypothesis (D) has the simplest task in accounting for the patterns of parallels & omissions in the synoptic reports of the parable of the sower.

Testing the Theories


Did Mark edit Matthew? 

This pericope does not support Augustine's hypothesis that Mark abbreviated Matthew, because Mark's version is actually 21 words longer than Matthew's in the original Greek. In fact, each segment in Mark is longer than Matthew's:

Greek words  Matt 13:1-8   Mark 4:1-8 
Setting 40 46
Parable 87 99
Aphorism 4 7
Whole Pericope 131 152

Moreover, Matthew's version is rhetorically more refined than Mark's. If Mark edited Matthew, he butchered the text he was copying by

Editors generally polish a text by eliminating unnecessary verbiage & smoothing logical transitions. So, Mark's clumsy narration cannot be adequately accounted for as an epitome of Matthew's text.


Did Mark conflate Matthew & Luke? 

This pericope is even more problematic for Griesbach's hypothesis that Mark conflated Matthew & Luke, since

  • Luke's version is even more succinct than Matthew's &

  • none of Mark's clumsy rhetorical constructions in the setting & parable are reflected in Luke's refined grammar.

The only details of Mark's account that are closer to Luke's version rather than Matthew's are:

  • singular subjects [crowd, seed] & verbs, where Matthew's are regularly plural;

  • 1 preposition in the parable ["into"], where Matthew has another ["on"];

  • 2 verbs near the conclusion of the parable ["growing" & "increasing"] that were not used by Matthew;

  • 2 verbs in the aphorism ["he said" & "to hear"] not found in Matthew.

These parallels are too few & insignificant to use as evidence that Mark revised Matthew in the light of Luke. In fact, the differences between setting & parable in Mark & Luke are great enough to make it clear that Mark did not base his account on the details of Luke's version. If Mark ignored the bulk of Luke's differences from Matthew's version of this parable, it is all the more difficult to envision him borrowing trivial variations in Lukan wording.

This pericope also disproves claims by proponents of Griesbach's hypothesis that Mark tended to preserve only material where the texts of Matthew & Luke agreed, since

  • Mark has extensive parallels to Matthew's version precisely where Luke deviates; &

  • Mark's version contains many superfluous statements in both setting & parable that are based on neither Matthew nor Luke:

    4:1 "And again he began to teach..."
    4:1 "...on the sea...beside the sea"
    4:2 "...and in his teaching..."
    4:2 "Listen!"
    4:7 "...and it yielded no grain"
    4:8 "...and increasing..."

Thus, in this case Griesbach's hypothesis does not predict the patterns of verbal variation actually found in the synoptics.


Did Luke use Matthew? 

Farrer's thesis that Matthew edited Mark is better able to account for the rhetorical patterns in these two versions of this pericope than any hypothesis that assumes the priority of Matthew. For Matthew's version is a more polished literary work than Mark's. But the parable of the sower does not support Farrer's contention that Luke used Matthew as well as Mark. For Luke's version deviates from Matthew even more than it does from Mark.

  • Mark uses the colloquial conjunction "and" (Greek καὶ) a monotonous 17 times in the 5 verses of this parable. Matthew reduces this elementary copulative to 5 instances by substituting the rhetorically more elegant particle δε as the normal sentence transition (6 times). Though Luke's version of this parable is about 2/3 as long as Mark's or Matthew's, it retains 9 instances of καὶ & not a single δε.

  • Mark describes the productive seed as falling into the earth. Matthew corrects the preposition to "on." Yet, Luke preserves Mark's phrase unchanged.

  • Mark concludes the parable with a cascade of words that produce a motion picture of organic expansion. A single seed produces grain that grows up to yield first 30, then 60 then 100 times itself. Matthew's omission of most of the verbs & inversion of the sums so that the parable ends with the emphasis on 30 rather than 100, almost ruins the point. Luke, on the other hand, eliminates the lower tallies to focus (like Mark) on the hundredfold harvest. But more significant from a source critical perspective is the fact that Luke paraphrases the Markan verbs of growth that Matthew omitted & omits the Markan phrase that Matthew preserved.

Add to this the fact that Luke's version of the concluding aphorism is closer to the text of Mark than Matthew & one has conclusive evidence that Luke did not consult the gospel of Matthew in making his revision of Mark. To speculate that Luke knew the text of Matthew but just chose not to use it at this point is to admit that this pericope provides no evidence that Luke was familiar with the gospel of Matthew at all.


Are Matthew & Luke independent revisions of Mark? 

Mark presents the longest and most colloquial version of this pericope. Instead of being a literary revision of any text, Mark's version of the parable of the sower reads like a transcript of an oral performance. His preference for simple transitions ["and," "again"] & strings of similar words to stress a point are effective rhetorical devices of dramatizing a story for hearers but become monotonous for readers. Thus, the simplest explanation of the fact that much of Mark's superfluous wording is not found in one or both of the other synoptics is that his is the earliest written record of this passage.

Matthew & Luke each independently turned Mark's material into better literature. Matthew edited Mark conservatively, polishing Mark's grammar & narrative movement but preserving the substance of both setting & parable. Luke, on the other hand, recognized that most of the details of Mark's description of the setting (sea, boat, shore) were distracting & dispensable. The sole element relevant to a parable about broadcasting that concluded with a general invitation to hearers was the presence of a crowd of some size. The fact that Luke, like Matthew, substituted the normal Greek adjective describing a collection of many (πόλυς) for Mark's use of the superlative form (πλείστος) is only evidence that both authors considered Mark's term too exaggerated (literally: "most" or "greatest"). There is no sign that Luke knew Matthew's version of this pericope, since he uses Mark's singular term "crowd" rather than Matthew's plural & otherwise follows Mark's wording of the parable & aphorism instead of Matthew's. Thus, this pericope supports the basic premise of the Two Source hypothesis: that Matthew & Luke edited Mark independently.

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last revised 11 December 2019


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