Luke Chapter 8:4-8

This next passage is the Parable of the Sower. The original intent was to take the whole thing, parable and explanation in a single chunk straight through. This seemed reasonable since we’ve been through it twice already, so it seemed that, barring any unexpected deviations from the other two, the content of the story should not require much comment. Indeed, since we’ve been through it a couple of times, I thought I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything new and exciting to say about this. Cooler heads have prevailed and it’s been split into Parable and then Explanation.

I determined on this course before reading the passage below; for better or for worse, that is my chosen approach. The idea is to look at these stories and passages with eyes as fresh as possible. That way, I can–with luck–not simply see what has been seen for the past several centuries. So much of NT “scholarship” is sclerotic; conventions have been settled, translations have been chosen, and words are taken for granted. This is not how scholarship should work. The text has to be mined, repeatedly. With Greek history, much of the academic debate focuses on what the text actually says; Thucydides is the best/worst example of this, and scholars continue to go over each word looking for fresh insights. And this continued contention is good. We all know about angels and baptism and salvation, so we decided, a long, very long, time ago that the evangelists used the words as we do today. This is simply and horribly wrong, a very bad method for reading any text.

So the original approach seemed all well and good; however, like so much theory, it didn’t survive contact with reality.  Some new aspects have presented themselves. Overall, what I am finding is that having Luke as the third point really allows me to define the plane in a way not possible with just a comparison between Mark and Matthew. With three texts, triangulation becomes possible. Differences between the three stand out in much sharper relief.

So, let’s not make a short passage longer and go straight to the


4 Συνιόντος δὲ ὄχλου πολλοῦ καὶ τῶν κατὰ πόλιν ἐπιπορευομένων πρὸς αὐτὸν εἶπεν διὰ παραβολῆς,

5 Ἐξῆλθεν ὁ σπείρων τοῦ σπεῖραι τὸν σπόρον αὐτοῦ. καὶ ἐν τῷ σπείρειν αὐτὸν ὃ μὲν ἔπεσεν παρὰ τὴν ὁδόν, καὶ κατεπατήθη καὶ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατέφαγεν αὐτό.

6 καὶ ἕτερον κατέπεσεν ἐπὶ τὴν πέτραν, καὶ φυὲν ἐξηράνθη διὰ τὸ μὴ ἔχειν ἰκμάδα.

7 καὶ ἕτερον ἔπεσεν ἐν μέσῳ τῶν ἀκανθῶν, καὶ συμφυεῖσαι αἱ ἄκανθαι ἀπέπνιξαν αὐτό.

8 καὶ ἕτερον ἔπεσεν εἰς τὴν γῆν τὴν ἀγαθήν, καὶ φυὲν ἐποίησεν καρπὸν ἑκατονταπλασίονα. ταῦτα λέγων ἐφώνει, Ὁ ἔχων ὦτα ἀκούειν ἀκουέτω.

A large crowd and those having traveled into the city towards him he spoke through a parable, (5) Went out a sower of seed with his seeds. And some fell upon the road, and it was trod under and the birds of the heaven ate it. (6) And other fell upon the rocks, and grew it was withered because it did not have moisture. (7) And other fell in the middle of the acanthus, and it grew and the thorns strangled it. (8) And other fell on the good soil, and grew it made fruit one hundredfold. Having said these things, he spoke “The one having ears to hear, let him hear.”

That is the basic story. The interesting thing about it is the comparison. This is the shortest version; Mark’s is the longest. IOW, this runs contrary to what I’ve been saying about how legends grow over time. This one appears to be shrinking. What’s up with that? Am I wrong? Well, more wrong than usual?

It comes down to “always” and “never”. Never say always; alway avoid never. Almost nothing about human experience is binary, yes-or-no, black-or-white. If you’ll recall, Matthew’s version of the Gerasene demoniac was also shorter than Mark’s version. What we are witnessing is, I believe, the expectation that the reader would be familiar with, or have reference to the long version available in Mark. Neither Matthew nor Luke saw the need to repeat verbatim a story that had been told elsewhere. And this gets back to the issue of “why does one write a gospel?” Or even more, “why does one write a second/third gospel?” My theory about Mark is that he wrote in reaction to the fall of Jerusalem. An important–the important–centre of the proto-Christian world had been obliterated and the traditions started to fragment, or the fragmentation was growing worse. Mark sought to step into that breach and pull some of the most important aspects of the tradition into a united source. Mostly he succeeded, and marvelously, even if the seams do show. That can’t always be helped. Mark, as I see him, was more journalist than literary figure. 

What has been eliminated, both by Matthew and Luke are some of the incidental details, like the plants withering because they lacked moisture because of the sun. Blaming the sun is a tad redundant; it can be assumed. Matthew drops some of these, Luke some more. For example, both Mark and Matthew say that the good soil yielded 100, 60, or 30. Luke leaves it at one hundred. The other two numbers don’t add that much of significance. One last point: Matthew says that Jesus left his house to begin this parable; this would mean that he had moved to Caphernaum, which Matthew states explicitly. Luke rejects this move, telling us just as explicitly that Jesus lived in Nazareth, sounding for all the world like he is correcting Matthew. So Jesus cannot leave his house and to to the seaside because Nazareth is not on the Sea of Galilee, while Caphernaum is.

Then there’s Matthew. We see that his versions of this story and the Gerasene demoniac (and probably others) are shorter than Mark’s. But we also see that his version of the Temptations of Jesus is longer than Mark’s. Why the apparent contradiction? Because it’s more apparent than contradiction. Matthew added material to Mark when he had material to add (the source of the material to be discussed separately; Q is a valid discussion). When he didn’t, he either maintained or shortened what he found in Mark. The salient point about this subtraction is why? My impulse is, as suggested above, that Matthew expected that his audience knew of Mark, and so repeating certain things was, as he knew, redundant. If this is correct, it gives us insight into Luke as well. Luke omitted parts of Matthew, as well as parts of Mark because he knew they had been covered elsewhere. So Luke provides an alternative because he knew what was in both Mark and Matthew. 

Of course, this cannot be “proven”. Almost nothing about the NT can be “proven” in any way that the hard sciences or a court of law would recognise as “proof”. This statement is true about historical research in general, especially when discussing history before the 19th Century, becoming increasingly true the farther one goes back. We can say that the NT was written of course, but we cannot with any solid confidence say when or by whom it was written. Sometime between 70 and 120 seems reasonable, but that’s a mighty big span of time, like saying something was written between 1910 and 1960. A lot of stuff happened in the interim; however, the pace of change was much slower in the ancient world. In any case, history becomes a question of which set of probabilities seems the most likely. To me, it makes more sense that Luke shortened this story as much as he did because he knew about the other two versions. Now, Luke will add material to the triple tradition (the Synoptic material, in M/M/L); see the calling of the first disciples, with the addition of the Miraculous Catch of Fish.

The other thing I’m starting to suspect about triple tradition material is that it has the most potential to be something that can trace back to Jesus. This story is a perfect example. I think there is a greater likelihood that Jesus told this parable than that he gave the Sermon on the Mount. A much greater likelihood, in fact. One of the things we have to face is the possibility that Jesus was not the teacher that we believe he was, that he didn’t give speeches like the Sermon on the Mount. We have to face the possibility that Mark’s Jesus is much closer to the real thing than Matthew’s is, and that by the time of Luke all the new stuff is pretty much fiction that we can’t use to triangulate the “truth” about the historical Jesus. Always, always, always recall that Paul said almost nothing about Jesus as a teacher, focusing almost entirely on Jesus as the Christ who had been raised from the dead. If you start from that place, the additions of Matthew and then Luke seem pretty clearly to be later additions; then, since the additions of Matthew and Luke are just that, the point of Q is largely lost.

The last injunction about letting those with eyes/ears see/understand I think gets dismissed too readily as pro-forma. I say that because I have pretty much dismissed it a pro-forma until about a minute ago. If we take this in the context of Christian thinking, perhaps it is pro-forma; however, if we look at it from a proto-Gnostic perspective, it may take on a different set of implications. It may help that I’ve been translating something called Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men/Humans. It is now classified as a Gnostic text, and it probably dates to the mid Second Century, perhaps eight or nine decades after Mark. I mention this because there are several strains of thought that have become explicit in that text that were only implicit in Mark. It’s also interesting to note that this was taken as a legitimate bit of Christian writing for a while; obviously, it never made the cut to canonical status, but a number of Second and possibly even Third Century Christian thinkers accepted it as orthodox. The injunctions that Jesus speaks are eminently Gnostic in approach; or perhaps better to say they were taken up wholly by later Gnostics. What are they, after all, but admonitions to learn, actually to see what is before us, and to understand what we hear. The technical term for this is “paying attention”, or perhaps “learning”.  And what do we learn? Knowledge. And what does Gnosis mean? Knowledge. 

Now in a strictly Christian setting, these injunctions can be explained in completely orthodox fashion. After all, “Narrow is the gate” that leads to the kingdom. Not all will make it. Some would, and have, said that most, in fact, will not make it through the gate. Why? Because they did not learn the lessons Jesus taught them. They did not actually see, nor did they understand what they heard. So Jesus’ words here watered what became two very different traditions; or are they so different? That is the point I’m trying to make here. A shade here, a shade there, and two can start from the same point–let him with ears understand–and end up in rather different places, whether the kingdom of God or Enlightenment, for want of a better term. And then we have additional implications. The message of  the Gospel of Thomas is very clearly Gnostic, rather than Christian. Regarding this, it must be kept in mind that this separation really did not exist in the First Century; it only came into being in the Second. And here is where historical training pays off, because it looks at concepts diachronically, through time and as they develop. Textual analysis tends not to pay attention to this development through time of the content of the text. This is why I do not, and cannot, accept a date in the First Century for the Gospel of Thomas; this is has implications for Q; The discovery of Thomas was seen as a huge victory for the Q position, since it demonstrated the existence of a sayings gospel of the sort that Q was purported to be. By pushing the date of Thomas back to the 50s of the First Century, it could be claimed that Thomas proved that a gospel like Q could have existed in the 50s; it showed that the first gospels were, in fact, sayings gospels rather than narrative gospels like Mark. Unfortunately for the Q position, a date anywhere in the First Century for Thomas is unsustainable on the grounds of content. Just as the Q proponents ignore the content of stories–does the healing of the centurion’s slave really fit in the 30s?–so they ignore the content of Thomas when assigning dates–is such a fully developed Gnostic attitude possible in the First Century? In my opinion, the answer to both is “No”. A resounding “No”.

4 Cum autem turba plurima conveniret, et de singulis civitatibus properarent ad eum, dixit per similitudinem:

5 “Exiit, qui seminat, seminare semen suum. Et dum seminat ipse, aliud cecidit secus viam et conculcatum est, et volucres caeli comederunt illud.

6 Et aliud cecidit super petram et natum aruit, quia non habebat umorem.

7 Et aliud cecidit inter spinas, et simul exortae spinae suffocaverunt illud.

8 Et aliud cecidit in terram bonam et ortum fecit fructum centuplum”. Haec dicens clamabat: “Qui habet aures audiendi, audiat”.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on September 4, 2017, in Chapter 8, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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