Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Shift from Seed to Person (Matt 13:19)

I was reading through the Parable of Sower and noticed something strange. It isn’t a big think, but isn't it nice when Greek slows you down and you start to notice God’s words?

The parable starts with the emphasis on what was sown. “And as he sowed, some seeds (ἃ) fell along the path” (Matt 13:4). “Seeds” is assumed from the relative pronoun. The antecedent is not explicit, but it is implicit from the infinitive (ἐν τῷ σπείρειν αὐτὸν).

And yet, why is it neuter. Notice that the neuter continues in the word ἄλλα (vv 5, 7, and 8). One of the things I learned latter in my Greek career is that often a word’s form can be explained by a word that has been omitted in the sentence. The trick is to find the implied word being referenced by the explicit words.

The checked BDAG and one Greek word they define as “seed” is κόκκος, but it is masculine so it can’t be the word Jesus has in mind. Later in v 24 we see σπέρμα, which is repeated in v 27, and it is neuter so this must be the word Jesus has in mind.

Of course, it could be something much simpler, like the article with an infinitive (τῷ) is always neuter.

In v 19, however, Jesus partially switches from the seed, the message of the kingdom, to the one who hears the message, and these forms are masculine. When anyone hears the message about the kingdom (παντὸς ἀκούοντος τὸν λόγον τῆς βασιλείας) and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown (τὸ ἐσπαρμένον, neuter) in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path (οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν σπαρείς, masculine, v 19, NIV).

Why the switch from neuter to masculine? In v 20 we read, ὁ δὲ ἐπὶ τὰ πετρώδη σπαρείς, οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τὸν λόγον ἀκούων. Some translation say the first ὁ is still the seed, and the second ὁ is the person who hears. “And the one sown on rocky ground—this is one who hears the word” (HCSB). Other translations make the awkward shift to identifying the seed with the one who hears. “The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word” (NIV, ESV, NRSV, NET, NLT), which is a struggle since ὁ is masculine and cannot grammatically refer to the seed.

I am not sure how to explain the shift from neuter to masculine other than to say that in v 19 Jesus starts to shift focus from the seed to the listener, and this shift is hinted at the shift from neuter (seed) to masculine (listener).


Bill, interesting post. I agree totally that one of the things that reading the Greek, because it is so different linguistically, is that is does often make one stop and look with fresh eyes at a passage. Two quick thoughts on the above: 1) You mention early on that there is a masculine word for seed (κόκκος), could it be that the writer here has just used (or, more accurately, implied) a synonym, taken a break from σπέρμα? 2) You talk about Jesus saying this, but is it likely he was speaking Greek at the time? If not, what could the underlying original be? Can this explain any of the difficulties here (and I am way out of my depth to even hazard an answer to that question)?

I don't know Aramaic, so I can't answer that. Sorry.