Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
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 based.

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 -point.

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".

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