The Genesis of the Synoptic Parables

[In what follows I treat only the narrative meshalim, not the aphoristic meshalim. The former are far more extensive, and therefore easier to characterise. The latter are often mere images, so that it is often hard to distinguish them as a class from the ubiquitous imaged speech of the gospels.]

In this essay I intend to show firstly that there is a recognisable pattern of variety between the evangelists in the parables, the parables of each corresponding to his own general theological and literary traits. Secondly, some explanation of this must be attempted.


In his various publications from 'The Character of the Parables in the Several Gospels' (JTS 19 68), followed by Midrash and Lection in Matthew (1974) and Luke - a New Paradigm (1989), Michael Goulder has shown that the parables in each of the synoptics gospels have a distinct character. One cannot do better than summarise his evidence.

1. Mark's and Matthew's parables are, claims Goulder, like OT and rabbinic parables, indicative rather than imperative, with the sole partial exception of the conclusion of the Unmerciful Servant. That is, they indicate what an existing situation is, rather than attempting to influence or exhort. This is certainly the case with Mark's parables (Sower, Seed Growing Secretly, Mustard-Seed, Wicked Husbandmen); even the Watchful Servants is not an exhortation to watchfulness, but an indication of the unpredictability of the Day.

It is perhaps worth adding that Jn's parables also are of this kind: the vine and the good shepherd merely describe a situation in Church life.

Mk is, of course, extremely sparing of parables. His only two major parables are the Sower and the Wicked Husbandmen. Each of these highlights one of the main themes of Mk's gospel. The Sower is important in Mk for its interpretation. This interpretation attaches the parable firmly to the missionary context of the Church, just as the preceding section on the Reason for the Parables is directed towards the missionary experience of the disciples rather than to Jesus' own experience. The chief impediments in the interpretation are wealth and persecution, neither of which seems to have been a bar during Jesus' earthly ministry, but each of which abounded in the missionary field. It is clear from Mk's treatment of the disciples that lack of commitment and inability to tolerate persecution was a particular worry in Mk's community.

Mk's other major parable is the Wicked Husbandmen. The purpose of this is to show the bankruptcy of Judaism, between the purging of the Temple and the passion-narrative, in which all the blame is fastened firmly upon the Jewish authorities. It is, therefore, the key to this final part of the gospel.

Mk's other two little parables, the Mustard Seed and the Seed Growing Secretly, concern the Kingdom, the main object of Jesus' teaching.

Of Mt it is less clear that the parables are indicative rather than imperative. His parables are indeed indicative in form, but they, like Jotham's Fable and unlike Nathan's, do often present a situation in such a way that the hearer is influenced to shift his position. Mark's parables provide an imaged description of a situation in the past or present (and so unchangeable), or in the fixed future. The Playing Children describes a situation with sorrow, but the Two Builders and the Wedding Garment, as well as the Unmerciful Servant, are designed to influence action. Matthew has his eye too clearly on the coming judgement to forebear warning and exhortation. It is not enough for Goulder to say that they have only the general moral, Watch (Midrash, p. 50).

However with Lk's own parables the situation is entirely different, e.g. the Unjust Steward and the Pharisee & the Tax-Collector. Perhaps the best indication of the difference concerns the Lost Sheep: in Mt this is an image of God's love of every individual (paired with the saying on guardian angels) while in Lk it is an exhortation to repentance.

2. The second of Goulder's contrasts is less convincing: he contrasts nature-parables and those concerned with human situations. He then maintains that the first 3 of Mk's 5 parables are exclusively nature-parables, 'the farmers in the first two are background figures who are incidental' (p. 51). In any case this thesis cannot be maintained for the other two parables. In fact the useful contrast in this sphere concerns human relationships, and is a direct consequence of the first contrast. Mark's parables reflect on the situation of Jesus' ministry (the Sower on his failure with the crowds and success with a devoted few; the Seed Growing Secretly is a reply to complaint from within or without at the unpretentiousness of the Kingdom; the Mustard-Seed reflects on the huge growth of the Kingdom from small beginnings; the Wicked Husbandmen on the opposition from the leaders of the people, and the Watchful Servants on the final consummation), whereas at least many of Mt's and Lk's give lessons for human behaviour. By Gerhardsson's reckoning over half of Mt's are on the coming judgement and the preparation for it.

3. The most striking difference between Mt's and Mk's parables lies in Mt's use of contrasts. In Mk the only two parables where contrast enters in, and then not strongly, are the Sower and the Mustard seed. Matthew strengthens the contrast in the Sower by introducing me sunientos at the beginning and sunies at the end. Part of the reason for his substituting the Tares for Mk's Seed Growing Secretly must be the possibility of contrast thus achieved. He adds to the end of Mk's Wicked Husbandmen the contrast of the nation which does yield fruit. Of all Mt's 21 parables, Gerhardsson reckons that only 3 do not have any contrast (presumably the Leaven, the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl). This is all in line with Mt's general stress on contrast. Goulder has shown that pairs of contrasting images are a major vehicle for Mt. From the Infancy stories onwards Herod is set against the Magi and Pilate against his wife.

For Lk contrast is not important. There is none in the Friend at Midnight, the Rich Fool, the Watchful Servants, The Burglar, the Defendant, the Barren Fig-tree, the Closed Door, the Tower-Builder, the Warring King, the Lost Coin (added by Lk to the more contrasted Lost Sheep), the Unjust Steward, the Servant's Reward, the Unjust Judge. It is, how ever, true that the Pharisee & the Tax-Collector is built upon a contrast, and others of Lk's own parables make use of contrast, e.g. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Rich Man & Lazarus. The great difference, however, is that, as in so many of Lk's parables, the interest is in the interplay of characters. Whereas Mt has stock figures who display little or no individual character (a study of the adjectives in Mt brings up only stock value-judgement adjectives of the good/bad class), so that his figures are almost skeletal caricatures, Lk's figures are carefully sculpted and memorable personalities, who make speeches and reveal their thoughts (the deliberative question of the anti-hero is quite a feature: the Rich Fool, the Prodigal, the Unjust Steward, the Unjust Judge, the Pharisee). An instructive piece of realism occurs in Lk's changes to the Two Builders: one can visualise the builder in Lk fussing around and taking real trouble (and also it is the river, having burst its banks, that sweeps the house away, rather than Mt's stylized 'rivers' and 'winds' - can winds in Palestine blow any house down?).

Indeed, realism, as Goulder points out, is not a strong point with Mt. Rather he moves in the rabbinic world of dramatic exaggeration. His sums of money are astronomical: the Unmerciful Servant owes some 30,000,000; the 5 Talents represent more than twice the annual tribute of Peraea, hardly to be counted a 'small thing' (incidentally, Derrett reckons that the unmerciful servant must be a tax-farmer who has failed to meet his contract - only so are the sums reasonable). The king surely overreacts when he sends his private army to burn the city of the reluctant guests, and again by his punishment of the man without a Wedding Garment. The envoys to the Wicked Husbandmen come in groups rather than singly (though this may be allegory of the early and later prophets). The splendid scene of the Last Judgement resembles the visions of Daniel rather than the simple countryman's world of Mk. Although Mt's character-studies are less interesting than those of Lk, it cannot be denied that the inventiveness of such stories as the Labourers in the Vineyard or the Ten Virgins goes far beyond that of Mk. Of course Lk outstrips them both in inventiveness, especially if his Prodigal Son is Lk's own version of Mt's Two Sons, and if the Good Samaritan is evolved from the little story of the Samaritans on a journey in 2 Chr 28.15 (compare, perhaps, the development of the Woman who was a Sinner over the anointing at Bethany).

4. Allegory is a point on which Goulder finds marked variation between the evangelists. On the proportion of story-elements to which the evangelist ascribes a meaning Mark achieves an overall figure of 0.75 (incidentally Goulder gets his maths wrong; he erroneously includes the Fig-tree as a parable, which should give him a figure of 0.79 on p. 58). It is obvious that the rabbinic Mt has a greater interest in allegory, substituting the Tares for the Seed Growing Secretly, working in such details as the son's death outside the city in the Wicked Husbandmen, and delaying the Great Feast while the city of the reluctant guests (=Jerusalem) is burnt by hostile armies. It is only surprising that Goulder's figure is no higher than 0.82. Luke's glee at telling a good story is too great for him to bother equally about allegorical correspondences (thus in the Wicked Husbandmen he omits the killing of the prophet /envoys in order to bring the death of the son into greater relief), and anyway some of his parables are morally exemplary tales, too direct to need any allegory (the Rich Fool, the Samaritan, the Rich Man & Lazarus and the Pharisee & the Tax-Collector). His overall mark is 0.6. On occasion, however, he does introduce his own allegories: the successive calls to Jews and gentiles in the Great Feast, and the complicating factor of the nobleman going to receive his kingdom in the Pounds (is this an historical allusion to Herod Antipas, or an allegory of Jesus?).


An explanation of this series of marked differences between the parables in the various gospels must be sought. Is it only that each of the evangelists selects and treats Jesus-material, drawing on a pool of Jesus' parable-stories, according to his own theological and literary methods? Does the material show sufficient homogeneity to be the story-quiver of one narrator? Certainly one can see each evangelist forming the material somewhat according to his wishes; the variations between the evangelists on one parable, such as the Sower or the Wicked Husbandmen, not to mention the much wider variation between Mt and Lk on the Great Feast or the Talents/Pounds, show that they are not mere parrotted repetitions of the words of Jesus. On the other hand, Gerhardsson stresses the evidence for a Hebrew/Aramaic linguistic background to the parables in their lack of adjectives (except in Lk), for these languages are poor in adjectives; the same background is indicated by the colourlessness of verbs of speaking. The question is how widely the evangelists interpret the role of the scribe in the kingdom of heaven who brings out of his storeroom new things as well as old (Mt 13.51).

One important area of modification is that of post-resurrection theology. But the crucial question is not where such interests are present, but whether any of the parables falls apart without them. The universalism shown by the Matthean addition to the Wicked Husbandmen, and just touched even in Mk's version, can be excised without spoiling the parable; Jesus could well have applied Isaiah's parable of the Vine to his own situation. Similarly Lk's allegorisation of the second invitation of the Great Feast to the gentiles need not be original; the basic parable could have existed without it, more in the Matthean form. The remarks about one rising from the dead in the Rich Man & Lazarus must be post-resurrectional, but in any case appear artificial and uncomfortably bound into the story. In short, the post-resurrectional elements in the parables are not enough to demonstrate that any parables must have been invented after the resurrection.

More persuasive is the idea that at least the parables not shared by Mt and Lk (the Q parables) are evolved by their evangelist. To work first through Mt:

The Tares plausibly replaces Mk's Mustard-Seed, one of the two pericopes to which Mt would otherwise have no equivalent. It leaves so much more room than does the Mustard-Seed for Mt's favourite allegorisation and his theme of warning against judgement.

The Hidden Treasure and the Pearl, paired in the Matthean manner, could be based on Mk's saying that nothing is hidden but will be revealed (4.22) plus Jesus' word to the would-be disciple that the kingdom is a treasure for which he needs to sell everything he has (Mk 10.21).

The Dragnet pairs with the Tares, making a nice chiasmus and reinforcing its lesson. It's interpretation-verses are full of Matthean words, and the story-verses sprinkled with them (sapros fits fruit but not fish).

The Unmerciful Servant is Matthean in every way, as is already clear. It expands the only lesson which Mt saw fit to stress and repeat at the end of the Lord's Prayer, mutual forgiveness.

The Wedding Garment is a Matthean addition to the Great Feast, using the figure of a white garment used by R. Johanan ben Zakkai, a contemporary, as 'keeping precepts, good deeds and Torah', a typical Matthean warning, replete with plenty of Matthean words.

The four parables 24.42-25.30, the Burglar, the Servant in Authority, the Ten Virgins, the Talents, palpably expand Mk 13.34-37

The Burglar expands v.35a, but not too aptly: it is all right to keep awake if you don't know the hour at which the Master will come (he is out for the evening), but less sensible if you don't know the day, as in Mt v.42.

The Servant in Authority pairs with the Burglar and expands Mk v.34 into a typically Matthean warning of hell, with characteristic exaggeration (it is no good both cutting the servant in half and giving him a share with the hypocrits).

The Ten Virgins expands Mk v.35b with a harshness which is perhaps more characteristic of Mt than of Jesus. The story does not fit the moral too well, for it is not sleepiness but improvidence which trips them up, a Matthean lesson already seen in the Wedding Garment. The parable pairs with the Burglar, female with male, but makes a longer and more memorable story. Boismard attributes its composition to the 'ultime redacteur mattheenne'.

The Talents (a Q parable) expands Mk v.34, pairing with the Servant in Authority, but again making a fuller and more memorable story. We have already outlined its Matthean characteristics. This therefore suggests that our division between Q and non-Q parables is incorrect. The same operation might be worked on the Q parables as on the M parables.

The Last Judgement is again a palpably Matthean conclusion to the series, built for its morality on the Sermon on the Mount.

The striking result of this survey is that the stress falls so frequently upon the mixed character of the Church and on the threat of judgement. These are two heavy Matthean emphases, present also in other additions to the Markan message. In Mk, on the other hand, there is no suggestion of sinfulness in those called to follow Jesus. And if there is no corpus mixtum, then there is no need for judgement on members of Jesus' company. The Markan Jesus rejoices in the spread of the Kingdom, and his parables are of wonder at its growth. Perhaps most significant of all is the reversal of numbers at the end of the Sower. In Mt there is a cautious decrescendo, 'some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty'. In Mk there is growing wonder, 'the yield was thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold'.

In composing his parables Matthew must have derived the stories and imagery from somewhere, no doubt often from his own fertile imagination. The question is whether it was from Jesus' perceptive eye and Jeremiah-like penetration of the God-related qualities of phenomena (as Jeremiah sees the potter to be an image of God and his creation), as we assume the Markan parables to be. In some instances one can suggest sources, such as Mark, in others Jewish tradition (R. Johanan reflects this for the Wedding Garment). This leaves a large body of stories without any obvious derivation: they could be from Jesus, from Matthew or from some unknown but pre-existing source. The more fitting they are to Mt's special emphases, which are not attested in Mk, the more likely becomes the thesis that they are not derived from a floating reserve of Jesus -parables. It is striking that such a large proportion of the narrative material in Mt, to which there is no parallel elsewhere, is parable-material: was ability as a moshel, able to bring out both new and old by telling stories, one of the chief qualities which led the community to single out Mt to write a gospel?

Can the same treatment be given to Lk? Are his non-Q parables such that they are more likely to be his invention than to come from a floating reserve of Jesus-parables?

The Two Debtors (7.41-42) could be Lk's version of Mt's Unmerciful Servant. Goulder, p. 400-402, points out the many Lukan features of the short parable, and the whole composition betrays Lk's hand, not least in the illogicality: 'whoever loves little is forgiven little' is the wrong way round. In the larger scene the intensity of love should be the cause of the generosity of the forgiveness (Simon shows little love, so little awareness of need for forgiveness), whereas in the parable it is the result.

The Good Samaritan has already been suggested to be drawn from 2 Chr.

The Friend at Midnight is typically Lukan in its short formulation. full of typically Lukan words, between two 'Q' passages on prayer and a perfect dramatisation of the second.

The Rich Fool is a dramatisation of Sira 11.18-19 in the Lukan mode, with Lukan words and the Lukan monologue of the anti-hero.

The Watchful Servants is Lk 's version of Mt's Ten Virgins.

The Barren Fig-Tree is Lk's version of the story in Mk 11.

The Closed Door is a story built on Mt's Ten Virgins and Mt 7.22-23.

The Wedding Guests is a dramatisation of Prov 25.6-7.

The Tower-Builder and the Warring King are characterised by Boismard as parables of popular wisdom, but they are not without foundation in Mt, and contain the typically Lukan motifs of shame and direct speech.

The Lost Coin is an easy pair for the Lost Sheep, female with male.

The Prodigal Son, so utterly Lukan, is a more colourful version of Mt's little parable of the Two Sons.

The Unjust Steward corresponds to Mt's Unmerciful Servant, but with Lukan characterisation, monologue of anti-hero, and scaled down to reasonable proportions. Only the practical good sense is new.

The Rich Man & Lazarus, a Lukan example-parable such as does not exist in Mk or Mt, combines the fate of Mt's Unmerciful Servant with the reversal of fortune for the poor in Isaiah 61.1-7.

For the Servant's Reward there is no obvious precedent, but the Lukan vocabulary is unmistakable (tis ex humon, the unnecessary rushing, eating-&-drinking, thanks).

The Unjust Judge is the opposite of God, the just judge in Sira 35.12-15. It has the typically Lukan motif of doing right for the wrong reason, as the Unjust Steward and the Friend at Midnight.

The Pharisee & the Tax-Collector is another example-parable, contrasting Pharisee and justified sinner, with Lukan characterisation and soliloquies. If an exact parallel is required it might be found in the story of a contemporary, R. Nechonias: 'I thank you, my God, that you give me my part with those who sit in the School and not at the street corners. I race for eternal life, and they for the pit of the grave' (b. Ber. 28b).

The picture of Luke which emerges is of a inventive story-teller, able to develop his stories from a chance hint in Mt or the Old Testament. The same talent appears also outside the parables, e.g. in the Ten Lepers (developed from Mt's cure of a single leper) or the Widow's Son at Nain (developed from Jairus' Daughter with allusions to 1 Kgs 17.8-24). He shows little need for any developed body of floating Jesus-parables.

N.B. This essay leaves untouched two much-discussed problems:

1. The Sitz im Leben of the parables. This is well treated by C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom and J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus.

2. The Reason for the Parables and the problem of Mk 4.10-12. This is most recently discussed in Heikki Raisanen, The 'Messianic Secret' in Mark.


M. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew, chapter 3

id., Luke - A New Paradigm, passim under each parable

HW, Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition (1991), article by B. Gerhardsson

Parable Check-List (Gerhardsson's Narrative Meshalim)

pericope listed, story-verses bracketed


1. The Sower, 4.1-20 (3-8)

2. The Seed Growing Secretly, 4.26-29

3. The Mustard-Seed, 4.30-32

4. The Wicked Husbandmen, 12.1-12 (1-9)

5. The Watchful Servants, 13.32-37 (34)


1. The Two Builders, 7.24-27

2. The Playing Children, 11.16-19 (16-17)

3. The Sower, 13.1-23 (3-8)

4. The Tares, 13.24-30, 36-43 (24-30)

5. The Mustard-Seed, 13.31-32

6. The Leaven, 13.33

7. The Hidden Treasure, 13.44

8. The Pearl of Great Price, 13.45-46

9. The Dragnet, 13.47-50 (47-48)

10. The Lost Sheep, 18.10-14 (12-13)

11. The Unmerciful Servant, 18.21-35 (23-34)

12. The Labourers in the Vineyard, 20.1-16 (1-15)

13. The Two Sons, 21.28-32 (28-30)

14. The Wicked Husbandmen, 21.33-44 (33-41)

15. The Great Feast, 22.1-10 (2-10)

16. The Wedding Garment, 22.11-14 (11-12)

17. The Burglar 24.42-44 (43)

18. The Servant in Authority, 24.45-51

19. The Ten Virgins, 25.1-13 (1-12)

20. The Talents, 25.14-30

21. The Last Judgement, 25.31-46


1. The Two Builders, 6.46-49 (47-49) 17. The Great Feast,14.15-24

2. The Playing Children, 7.31-35 18. The Tower-Builder,14.25-30

3. The Two Debtors, 7.36-50 (41-42) 19. The Warring King,14.31-33

4. The Sower, 8.4-15 (5-8) 20. The Lost Sheep, 15.1-7

5. The Good Samaritan, 10.25-37 21. The Lost Coin, 15.8-10

6. The Friend at Midnight, 11.5-10 22. The Prodigal Son,15.11-32

7. The Rich Fool, 12.13-21 (16-20) 23. The Unjust Steward,16.1-13

8. The Watchful Servants, 12.35-38 24. Rich Man &Lazarus,16.19-31

9. The Burglar, 12.39-40 (39) 25. Servant's Reward,17.7-10

10. The Servant inAuthority,12.41-46 26. The Unjust Judge,18.1-8

11. The Defendant, 12.58-59 27. Pharisee &Publican,18.9-14

12. The Barren Fig-Tree, 13.6-9 28. The Pounds, 19.11-27

13. The Mustard Seed, 13.18-19 29. Wicked Husbandmen,20.9-19

14. The Leaven, 13.20-21

15. The Closed Door, 13.23-30 (24-27)

16. The Wedding Guests, 14.7-11 (8-11)