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 first discusses the history of interpretation of this well-known parable, followed by his own analysis in the second part. Therein he mainly focuses on the political, social and economic realities of first-century Galilee. Nor in the scholarly interpretations the author discusses, nor in his own contribution a fully political interpretation of this parable is given. In my opinion politics is the single subject of this parable, as I hope to show below.

I will build up my analysis from the short verse 14: The sower sows the word, which is the first sentence of the explanation of the parable, and which I consider to be the core of Mark 4:1-34.
The final verse 34 explains that the parables in the preceding section are narrative constructions that cover up sensitive information, as in this verse is told that Jesus privately to his own disciples [he] explained everything. How then could the explanation in current speech of the central verse 14 have sounded? 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 the imagery of this fragment we can see the act of sowing as the dissemination of a message and the sower as its propagator. Probably one single sower represents the reality of multiple propagators. 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’ messianic ‘sowing’ or propagating activity that may be representative for the work of the leading messianists.
In summary verse 14 tells 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 holds out the prospect of world dominion by the Jews as successors of the Romans who they will have to defeat first.

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 an activity that does not tolerate daylight under Roman occupation. In current speech 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 verse 3 to 8 and its explication in verse 14 to 20. The four parts of the seed possibly represent four groups within first-century Palestine society and their reception of messianic ideology.
The first group of recipients is described in the parable as the seed that falls along the path, with the birds that come and devour it. Van Eck refers to Jesus, justice and the reign of God: A ministry of liberation p. 193-195 in which Herzog interprets the predators (birds) as an encoded symbol for the 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 is the encoded term for the Roman emperor. With the appearance of birds of prey 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 the emperor Claudius), so it is obvious that the messianic ideology didn’t have any chance in Herodian circles. The Herodians were so interwoven with the center of Roman power that, even if they were dreaming of independence, this close connection 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 did not take the risk to lose their social status and their 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 with 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 concerned with the worries of the present to give priority to a messianic ideology that concentrated on and was prepared to struggle for a better future.

The fourth group then is the only group that lends his 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 features of the messianic faction. Verse 21-22 about the lamp under a bushel seems to address the transition from a secret faction to a movement that works in public. Verse 26-29 on the spontaneous growth of the seed seems to indicate the unstoppable progress of the messianic movement that will culminate in a pivotal moment, called harvest in the parable. At this critical moment Roman world dominion will be replaced by universal Jewish/Essene rule. The parable of the mustard seed (verse 30-32) describes the spectacular growth of the Essene messianic party.

The last part of this text gives some features 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