“Four Types of Hearers” Complex

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Read the Four Soils parable in what may have been its original literary context.

Revised: 9-April-2019

In his book Jesus, Rabbi and Lord,[1] Robert Lindsey proposed that the Four Soils parable originally belonged in a narrative-sayings complex that consisted of the following pericopae:

  1. Yeshua, His Mother and Brothers (Matt. 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21)
  2. A Woman’s Misplaced Blessing (Luke 11:27-28)
  3. Four Soils parable (Matt. 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8)
  4. Four Soils interpretation (Matt. 13:10, 18-23; Mark 4:10, 13-20; Luke 8:9, 11-15)
  5. Wise and Foolish Builders parable (Matt. 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49)

Lindsey believed that, by analyzing synoptic pericopae for common themes and distinctive vocabulary, it is possible to reconstruct literary complexes that once existed in the original Hebrew biography of Jesus (i.e., the Life of Yeshua). These complexes were characterized by narrative incidents that gave rise to teachings from Jesus and that concluded with illustrations (often in the form of twin parables[2] ) that drove home the point of Jesus’ lesson. In Lindsey’s view, these literary complexes that originated in the Hebrew Life of Yeshua remained intact in the Greek translation of this Hebrew biography, but they were subsequently broken apart by the Anthologizer, who separated teachings from incidents and parables from teachings and grouped the constituent parts according to genre.

We accept Lindsey’s premise that such narrative-sayings complexes can be reconstructed from the fragments that remain in the Synoptic Gospels, and many of the individual complexes Lindsey proposed are convincing.[3] However, we find this particular reconstructed complex containing the Four Soils parable to be faulty.

Lindsey’s Stemma. (Graphic created by Pieter Lechner.)

At first glance, Lindsey’s proposed complex containing the Four Soils parable appears to fit the literary pattern of complexes he described, with one major exception: intruding between the concluding illustrations is a teaching section in which Jesus interprets the Four Soils parable for his disciples. Otherwise, the complex consists of narratives (Yeshua, His Mother and Brothers; A Woman’s Misplaced Blessing), each of which contain an element of teaching, followed by two illustrations in the form of parables. But upon closer examination, the conformity of Lindsey’s proposed reconstructed complex to the literary pattern he outlined breaks down. Lindsey’s proposed complex contains two distinct narratives, both of which elicit a brief teaching from Jesus. Consequently, the narrative→teaching→narrative→teaching sequence of Lindsey’s proposed complex does not conform to the literary pattern Lindsey’s own hypothesis teaches us to expect. Moreover, while Lindsey maintained that the Anthologizer was in the habit of separating narratives from teachings and teachings from parables, he never suggested that the Anthologizer broke narrative units into smaller pieces. Therefore, the fact that Yeshua, His Mother and Brothers is not linked to A Woman’s Misplaced Blessing in any of the three Synoptic Gospels casts serious doubt on the theory that these two pericopae were ever united as a single narrative at any stage of Gospel transmission.

Another challenge to Lindsey’s reconstructed complex is the fact that all three Synoptic Gospels are clear that with the Four Soils parable Jesus opened an address to the crowds. In other words, there is no need to search for a narrative incident that could have led into a teaching discourse that included the Four Soils parable, since the Synoptic Gospels already provide the Four Soils parable with a narrative introduction.

A further difficulty with Lindsey’s reconstructed complex is the dissimilarity between the concluding illustrations. The Four Soils parable describes the fate of four groups of seed that landed in four different environments. In three of the environments the seed fails to produce a crop, but the seeds that fell on fertile soil produce a crop that more than compensates for the wasted seed at the time of sowing. The Wise and Foolish Builders parable, on the other hand, contrasts the fate of a house built on a rock with that of a house built on sand. The one house survives a storm, but the other collapses. Thus, in Four Soils we have three failures contrasted with one success, while in Wise and Foolish Builders we have one success contrasted with one failure. The schemes are entirely different, the two parables share no distinctive vocabulary that might unite them, the two parables are addressed to different types of audiences, and the parables illustrate different points.[4] In other words, Four Soils and Wise and Foolish Builders do not meet any of the criteria that would identify them as twin parables.[5]

The Sower by Jean-François Millet (ca. 1865). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Lindsey’s reconstructed complex does not explain why the Four Soils parable required an interpretation. If the Four Soils parable had been delivered as an illustration of Jesus’ teaching—as Lindsey’s reconstruction suggests—then the fact that the parable required interpretation is proof that the parable had failed in its purpose of illustration. Rather than illuminating Jesus’ teaching and providing it with a successful conclusion, the illustration itself had to be explained with additional teaching. On the other hand, if the Four Soils parable served not as the conclusion of a discourse, but as the opening of Jesus’ address to the crowds—as, in fact, the Gospels indicate—then the need for the parable to be interpreted was intentional. Jesus would have used the parable to capture the attention of the crowd, to draw them in and engage them in doing the very thing the parable itself was designed to encourage: active listening to words of Torah.[6] It was not until the parable was over that Jesus gave his audience a clue as to what the parable was about (“The ones who have ears to hear, let them hear!”), and having given them the key to the parable’s interpretation Jesus explained what each image in the parable corresponded to in the real world.

According to the Gospel of Luke, the incident of Yeshua, His Mother and Brothers (Luke 8:19-21) is a kind of epilogue to the public discourse that opened with the Four Soils parable (Luke 8:4-8) and continued with the Four Soils interpretation (Luke 8:9, 11-15). As Jesus taught the crowds about the importance of putting what is heard into practice, he was informed that his mother and brothers had just arrived. “My mother and my brothers,” Jesus responded, “are excellent examples of the seed that fell on good soil. They hear the word of God and do it.” We believe this order of events is original.

It appears that the First Reconstructor supplemented this original core with additional sayings (Luke 8:16-18) intervening between the Four Soils interpretation and Yeshua, His Mother and Brothers.

The author of Luke, who copied this block of material from the First Reconstruction (FR), further supplemented this block of material by inserting the Mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven saying (Luke 8:10) into the Four Soils interpretation.[7] In doing so, the author of Luke attempted to provide his readers with an explanation of why Jesus used parables in his teaching.

The author of Mark added additional sayings and parables to the block of material Luke had taken from FR.

Finally, the author of Matthew expanded Mark’s collection of seed parables into one of the major discourses of his Gospel.

Since our ordering of pericopae in “Four Types of Hearers” does not follow the literary pattern of narrative→teaching→illustrations, it may not be quite fair to refer to this unit as a “complex.” Nevertheless, “Four Types of Hearers” does have a logical sequence that makes it a complete and coherent literary unit. It opens with a narrative introduction (crowds gather around Jesus), continues with a teaching address to the crowds (the Four Soils parable and its interpretation), and concludes with a narrative epilogue that reiterates the point of Jesus’ lesson.


Click on the following titles to view the Reconstruction and Commentary for each pericope in “Four Types of Hearers.”

Four Soils parable

Four Soils interpretation (Newly Published!)

Yeshua, His Mother and Brothers (Coming Soon!)


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