The parable of the sower: an encoded account of the reception and growth of messianism in first-century Judaism

In his article The harvest and the kingdom: An interpretation of the Sower (Mk 4:3b-8) as a parable of Jesus the Galilean, E. van Eck1 discusses the history of interpretation of this well-known parable and then allows us his own analysis. In it, he mainly focuses on the political, social and economic realities of first-century Galilee. However, not anywhere, not in the scholarly interpretations discussed by him and not in his own contribution, does van Eck contemplate a fully political interpretation of this parable./ I believe politics to be the only subject of this parable, as I hope to show below.

I will build my case based on the short verse 14: The sower sows the word, the first sentence of Jesus’ explanation of the parable, and which I consider to be the essence of Mark 4:1-34.
Verse 34, the final verse, explains that the parables in the preceding section are narrative constructions that cover up sensitive information, as can be inferred from the phrase ‘privately to his own disciples he [Jesus] explained everything. How then could the explanation of the central verse 14 have sounded in unveiled terms? The current translation of the Greek noun λόγος (logos) as ‘word’ is an utterly poor translation of this frequently used word in the New Testament. From the first chapter of the gospel of John, from Revelation (1:2 and 9; 19:13) and also from Mark 2:2 it becomes clear that logos may be an encoded term for ‘messiah’. In keeping with the imagery of this fragment, the act of sowing can be considered as the dissemination of a message and the sower as its propagator. A single sower is likely to represent multiple propagators in reality. The seed that is sown can then be interpreted as the message of the future messiah. This future king (or emperor in the imperial context of that era) will rule the world in God’s name, and this rule is called the ‘kingdom of God’ throughout the gospels. In Luke 4:16-21 we see an example of Jesus as the propagator of messianic messages, an example that may be representative for the work of the leading messianists.
In summary, verse 14 says that the propagators of the messiah spread ‘the messiah’ in the sense that they propagate the ideology of the impending arrival of the messiah. This messianic ideology is political as it offers the prospect of world dominion by the Jews as successors of the Romans who they will first have to defeat.

The word ‘logos’ is repeated in verse 33a: With many such parables he spoke the word to them. This sentence makes clear that speaking of ‘the messiah’ (in the sense of the messianic ideology) is not an activity that bears the light of day under Roman occupation. So in fact this verse says: With many such encoded stories he told them of the messiah.

Against this background we can now turn to the parable itself in verses 3 to 8 and its explication in verses 14 to 20. It is possible the four recipients of the seed represent four groups within first-century Palestine society and their attitude to messianic ideology.
The first group of recipients is described in the parable as the birds that come and devour the seed that falls along the path. Van Eck refers to Jesus, justice and the reign of God: A ministry of liberation pp. 193-195 in which Herzog interprets the predators (birds) as a symbol for Herodian aristocrats who exploit the peasantry through taxes. The seed falling along the path is explained as follows in verse 15: When they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. Like in many other cases throughout the New Testament Satan refers to the Roman emperor. With the appearance of birds representing Herodian taxation (for themselves and for the Romans) in verse 4 and Satan in verse 15, the picture becomes clear. The Herodians were closely connected to the court of the Roman emperors (Herod Agrippa II for example was educated at the court of emperor Claudius), so it is obvious that the messianic ideology didn’t stand a chance in Herodian circles. The Herodians were so interwoven with the center of Roman power that even if they were dreaming of independence, their close relationship would immediately suppress any move in that direction.

The second group, then, may be the Sadducees. In verse 17 they are described as ‘the temporary ones’, those ‘who have no scion in themselves’, probably referring to their rejection of the immortality of the soul, afterlife and resurrection. This party, consisting of the Judean priestly aristocracy, had the greatest interest in maintaining the political status quo and they collaborated with the Romans to achieve this goal. Of course they didn’t want to risk loosing their social status and wealth by supporting a revolutionary anti-Roman movement.

In verse 19, Mark depicts the third group as people who love money, and this connects with Luke 16:14: The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, … Maybe the ‘desire for other things’ of this group refers to the Pharisees’ predilection for supplementary rules, as Josephus also states in Antiquities XIII:297: For the present I wish merely to explain that the Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses. This group was too preoccupied with the worries of the present to heed a messianic ideology that concentrated on and was prepared to struggle for a better future.

Finally, the fourth group is the only group that lends its ear to the messianic message and accepts it. This group is presented as a growing and thriving movement. From the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is clear that the Essenes were the great propagators of messianism, so this fourth group are the Essenes.

The three small pericopes following Mark’s explanation of the parable of the sower seem to be elaborations that concentrate on the ambitions of the messianic faction. Verses 21-22 about the lamp under a bushel seem to address the transition from a secret faction to a movement operating in the open. Verses 26-29 on the spontaneous growth of the grain seems to indicate the unstoppable progress of the messianic movement that will culminate in a pivotal moment termed harvest. At this critical moment, Roman world dominion will be replaced by universal Jewish/Essene rule. The parable of the mustard seed (verses 30-32) describes the spectacular growth of the Essene messianic party.

In summary we can say that Mark 4:1-34 discusses the messianic positions of the four political (or religious-political) factions of first-century Judaism, of which only one, the Essene-Zealot faction, is truly dedicated to this liberation ideology and the struggle against the Romans. The last part of this text offers some of the characteristics of the messianic party: its transition from a secret to a public organization, its steady growth culminating in the overthrow of the Romans, and the enormous expansion of the movement.

  • Van Eck, E., 2014, ‘The harvest and the kingdom: An interpretation of the Sower (Mk 4:3b−8) as a parable of Jesus the Galilean’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 70(1), Art. #2715, 10 pages. http:// dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts. v70i1.2715