Gospels

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 Eck (1) begins his discussion with the history of the interpretation of this well-known parable and then provides his own analysis. In it, he focuses on the political, social and economic realities of first-century Galilee. However, van Eck does not contemplate a fully political interpretation of this parable anywhere, not in the scholarly interpretations discussed by him and not in his own contribution. I believe politics to be the only subject of this parable, as I hope to demonstrate below.

I will build my case based on the short verse 14: The sower sows the word, which already offers the key to explaining the parable, and which I consider to be at the core of Mark 4:1-34.
The final verse, verse 34, 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.’ So what, then, could verse 14 have sounded like in plain speech? The current translation of the Greek noun λόγος (logos), which is frequently used in the New Testament, as ‘word’ or ‘Word’, is weak. It becomes clear from the first chapter of the gospel of John, from Revelation (1:2 and 9; 19:13) and also from Mark 2:2 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 the messianic message, an example that may be representative of the work of the leading messianists.
In summary, verse 14 states 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’ 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 about 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.
In the parable the first group of recipients is described as the seed that falls along the path; then the birds come and devour the seed. 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 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. As 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 did not stand a chance in Herodian circles. The Herodians were so interwoven with the centre 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 did not want to risk losing 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 characteristics 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 germination and growth of the seed 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 organisation, its steady growth culminating in the overthrow of the Romans, and the enormous expansion of the movement.

(1) 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