The Parable of the Sower
Jesus frequently taught using parables - but not always. Sometimes he used
aphorisms (short, punchy sayings). Most scholars seem to think that the
introduction to the Parable of the Sower is "editorial". That is, it's
written up as the kind of situation one could expect Jesus to be in. Which
is not to say, of course, that it's an improbable setting but rather that
it's not historical in the same way as the parable it introduces.
This parable is likely to be very close
to what Jesus actually said. Matthew's version is almost identical
(13.3-8). Luke's is very similar (8.5-8a) and possibly from an independent
source. There's some linguistic evidence that the version in the Gospel of
Thomas may be closer to the original oral version upon which they are all
Mark indicates that its meaning isn't
obvious and needs explaining. This is something of a puzzle. We know from
the Old Testament and contemporary Rabbinic sources that the parable form
of story was almost always designed to make meaning clear. There's every
reason to think that Jesus used parables to help listeners understand his
message. Why should Mark think the opposite?
Many scholars think that parables were
given meaning by the context in which they were told as much as by the
details in them. The problem with the oral versions of parables upon which
Mark almost certainly based much of his Gospel is that they had probably
lost their contexts by the time he used them.
Mark here offers an allegorical
interpretation of the parable. We are used to this treatment of the
otherwise enigmatic parables. It has persisted throughout Christian
history to this day. In Mark's time allegory was a standard way of
approaching explanation. Each feature of an allegory represents some point
of truth. The meaning is "coded" and interpretation is thus made point-by
Mark's "decoding" could well have been
given for early Christians who didn't understand what this parable meant,
just as we can't be certain what Jesus is teaching. The Gospel of Thomas
doesn't have an interpretation, indicating that the parable first
circulated without a second part.
We can be almost certain that Mark's
interpretation in 4.13-20 did not come from Jesus. It's internally
inconsistent, for a start. In one part the seed is the Word; in another
it's various types of human response. The interpretation also probably
reflects concerns of the early Christian community. As one interpreter
remarks, it is "a sermon on the parable as text".