Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Baffling Reign of God

Below is my rough translation of Mark 4:26-34. Frankly, I am baffled by this chapter. It is almost as if Mark discloses, then takes it back. We get the sense that parables might help to explain the Reign of God, then we are told that parables are for those on the outside,who do not have ears to hear. We are then told parables that help to explain, then told that Jesus has to explain the parables to the disciples - who supposedly have ears to hear. 

I know that some people speak very confidently about what this chapter means, but I get the feeling that, when they do, they are ignoring some of the tensions and intriguing translation issues in the text itself. 

As someone in our text study group said after discussing this pericope: Parable 1; Us 0.

As usual, there is the text, my translation in bold, and my comments in blue. Anything in red is to show some structural parallels in the text. Enjoy and please feel free to help a brother out on this text! 

Mark 4:26-34

26Καὶ ἔλεγεν, Οὕτως ἐστὶν  βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς ἄνθρωπος βάλῃ τὸν 
σπόρον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς 
And he said, “In this manner is the reign of God as if a man would throw the seed on the earth
ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain  1b) to teach 
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
βάλῃ: AASubj 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls  1a) to scatter, to throw, cast into  
A key interpretive question here is the construction of the words Οὕτως … ὡς. Οὕτως can be “thus,” or “in this manner,” or “in this way,” etc. ὡς can be “as if,” or something like that. The question is, to what does the Οὕτως refer? The KJV says, “So is the K of G, as if …” implying that the Οὕτως points forward to the ὡς. The ESV and NRSV ignore Οὕτως, only picking up on the “as if” of the ὡς.
I think it would be helpful to see the Οὕτως as pointing backwards, connecting what follows to what has just been said. Instead of seeing this as introducing a new idea about the reign of God, it would be an description of how the reign of God is, in order to explain the parable of the sower, the use of parables, and the words about hiding a lamp under a bushel.
Curiously, the word for ‘seed’ here is sporos, not sperma. Vv.26-27 are the only 2 times Mark uses this word. The “Parable of the Sower” never mentions seed (although some translations insert it); and the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” uses kokkoi, which is more like a grain that sprouts.
It is also the case that this many simply ‘throws’ the seed on the earth. It is not the verb for ‘sowing’ that is used elsewhere. (Might it be inadverdent? The result of getting rid of something unwanted that – unbeknownst to the person who threw it out – has seed that germinates and grows? The answer might depend on how we read what it is that the man ‘has not known’ in the next verse.

27καὶ καθεύδῃ καὶ ἐγείρηται νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, καὶ  σπόρος βλαστᾷ καὶ 
μηκύνηται ὡς οὐκ οἶδεν αὐτός.
and would fall asleep and be raised up night and day, and the seed would sprout and would grow as if he has not known.
καθεύδῃ: PASubj 3s, καθεύδω, 1) to fall asleep, drop off to sleep
ἐγείρηται: PPSubj 3s, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake
βλαστᾷ: PASubj 3s, βλαστάνω, 1) to sprout, bud, put forth new leaves  2) to produce
μηκύνηται : PMSubj 3s, μηκύνω grow up,to make long, in NT middle, to lengthen one's self, that is to say, grow up, spoken of plants.
οἶδεν: PerfAI 3s, εἴδω, ἴδω, Lat. video, an obsol. form of the present tense, the place of which is supplied by ὁράω. The tenses coming from εἴδω and retained by usage form two families, of which one signifies to see, the other to know.
The word-by-word translation here is very wooden and awkward. It does, however, posit the man’s falling and rising into/from sleep with the seeds sprouting and growing, apart from the man’s awareness. When is the last time you heard a church growth analyst make use of this verse?
The word ὡς is an issue in this verse, just like in the last verse. It appears again in v.31. ὡς can be translated in a variety of ways. The interpretive question here is whether it is used consistently or varied in this pericope. Most translations have it: “as if” in v.26; “how” in v.27; and “like” in v.31. Maybe this really is an intentionally flexible word, but I have to wonder if Mark is using it consistently, and I will try translating it that way.
Ergo, if we translate it “as if” (instead of “how”), it modifies the man’s ignorance. It is not that he doesn’t know ‘how’ the seed grew; it could be that he does not know that what he threw to the ground was seed, that it germinated, and that it was growing while he was going about doing his business of sleeping and rising, as if he doesn’t even know that it is happening.
The options here strike me these ways:
If we translate ὡς as ‘how,’ then the man sows, he lets nature run its course without any idea how it works, then he harvests in due season.
If we translate ὡς as ‘as if,’ then the man is actually surprised by the whole appearance of the harvest at all; still, he is able to put the sickle to it and harvest it.
Either way, the harvesting is a far cry from the kind of agricultural engineering that we often associate with good farming.

28 αὐτομάτη  γῆ καρποφορεῖ, πρῶτον χόρτον, εἶτα στάχυν, εἶτα πλήρη[ς] 
σῖτον ἐν τῷ στάχυϊ.
Of its own accord the earth bears fruit, first blade, then ear, then full grain in the ear.
 καρποφορεῖ: καρποφορέω, 1) to bear fruit  2) to bear, bring forth, deeds  3) to bear fruit of one's self
The word αὐτομάτη , transliterated as ‘automated’, emphasizes the man’s complete lack of engineering or even participation in this fruit-bearing.
[Curiously, The Christian Science Monitor has this verse at the top of its Opinion pages. I’ve always wondered what they mean by that.]

29ὅταν δὲ παραδοῖ  καρπός, εὐθὺς ἀποστέλλει τὸ δρέπανον, ὅτι 
παρέστηκεν  θερισμός. 
Yet when the fruit would yield, immediately he sends the sickle, because the harvest has provided.”
παραδοῖ: AASubj 3s, παραδίδωμι, 1) to give into the hands (of another)  2) to give over into (one's) power or use  
ἀποστέλλει : PAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  2) to send away, dismiss
παρέστηκεν: PerfAI 3s, παρίστημι, 1) to place beside or near  1a) to set at hand  1a1) to present  1a2) to proffer  1a3) to provide 
Now we get to the sower’s participation. It might be in the sowing. It certainly is not in the growing, but it is in the harvesting what has been grown.

Apparently, this is what the reign of God is like. And, per my note in v.26, this may explain the parable of the sower, the use of parables (which are not simply illustrative or explicative), and the parable of the lamp under a bushel.

30Καὶ ἔλεγεν, Πῶς ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ,  ἐν τίνι αὐτὴν 
παραβολῇ θῶμεν; 
And he said, “How shall we liken the reign of God, or in what parable shall we place it?
ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain  1b) to teach 
*ὁμοιώσωμεν : AASubj 1p, ὁμοιόω, 1) to be made like  2) to liken, compare  2a) illustrate by comparisons
*θῶμεν: AASubj 1p, τίθημι, 1) to set, put, place  1a) to place or lay  1b) to put down, lay down  1b1) to bend down  1b2) to lay off or aside, to wear or carry no longer  1b3) to lay by, lay aside money  1c) to set on (serve) something to eat or drink  1d) to set forth, something to be explained by discourse
* These are hortatory subjunctives
Now, we seem to be going back to the question that v.26 seems to be attempting to answer with the parable of the spores that grow unawares. What is the reign of God like, and why is Jesus couching it in these terms – not “How do we describe it,” but “In what parable shall we place it?” Is the assumption that the reign of God must be described via a parable? Or, is it a reality that cannot be disclosed in plain speech because it is ‘mysterious’ by its very nature (v. 11, μυστήριον)?

31ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως, ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, μικρότερον ὂν πάντων 
τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς,
As a mustard grain, which when it would be sown into the earth, being smaller than all of the seeds in the earth,
σπαρῇ: APSubj 3s, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed  2) metaph. of proverbial sayings 
ὂν: PAPart, nsn, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
It seems that most translations turn the participle ὂν into the simple verb ‘is.’ I’m trying to keep it as a participle ‘being’, but this kind of ruins the parallel structure between this verse and the next.

32καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ, ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ 
ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους, ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ 
τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν. 
and when it would be sown, rises and becomes largest of all of the shrubs and produces large shoots, which it by its branches the birds of the heavens are enabled to nest.
σπαρῇ: APSubj 3s, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed  2) metaph. of proverbial sayings 
ἀναβαίνει : PAI 3s, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up  1b) to rise, mount, be borne up, spring up
γίνεται : PMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 
ποιεῖ : PAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc. 
δύνασθαι : PMInf, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and  resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable  circumstances, or by permission of law or custom
κατασκηνοῦν: PAInf, κατασκηνόω, 1) to pitch one's tent, to fix one's abode, to dwell 
John Dominic Crossan is very informative on the mustard seed’s output, noting that it is not so ‘large’ as it is ‘invasive’ and therefore its shoots take over (perhaps like the kudzu that is menacing the Southeast of the US.)

33 Καὶ τοιαύταις παραβολαῖς πολλαῖς ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον, καθὼς 
ἠδύναντο ἀκούειν: 
And in many such parables he was speaking to them the word, just as they were enabled to hear;
ἐλάλει : IAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound  2) to speak  2a) to use the tongue or the faculty of speech  2b) to utter articulate sounds
ἠδύναντο : IMI 3p, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and  resources, or of a state of mind,
ἀκούειν: PAInf, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear 
The verb  is usually ‘able’ or something like that. I have translated it here as ‘were enabled,’ because it is in the imperfect middle voice. I’m not sure if that is a solid choice, but it at least keeps me mindful that it is not simply the active voice.

34 χωρὶς δὲ παραβολῆς οὐκ ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς, κατ' ἰδίαν δὲ τοῖς ἰδίοις μαθηταῖς 
ἐπέλυεν πάντα. 
Yet apart from parables he was not speaking to them, with a sense of the sense he explained all things to disciples.
ἐλάλει : IAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound  2) to speak  2a) to use the tongue or the faculty of speech  2b) to utter articulate sounds
ἐπέλυεν : IAI 3s, ἐπιλύω, 1) to unloose, untie  2) to clear (a controversy), decide, settle  3) to explain (what is obscure and hard to understand) 
The phrase “a sense of the sense” is awkward, but picks up on the redundancy of ἰδίαν δὲ τοῖς ἰδίοις.


  1. Thanks for your work. The edynanto of v. 33 is a deponent passive, I think, and probably means "wanted to hear" or "were able to listen" as in John 6:60. So it's not that they can't understand, but that they're turned off. The idiois of v. 34 refers to "his own" disciples, an attributive of mathetais.

  2. Father Doug,
    Thanks for your comments. I'm not familiar with deponent passives, so this is helpful.
    Thanks again.


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