In What Order Did Jesus Tell His Parables (in Matt. 13; Mark 4; Luke 8)?

Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8, all agree that Jesus started his series of parables with, “The Parable of the Sower,” (Mt. 13:1-23 = Mk 4:1-20 = Lk. 8:4-15).  After that, however, it is unclear when He told the other parables (see the chart below).

Matthew 13 Parables Mark 4 Parables Luke 8 Parables
1. Sower
2. Wheat and Tares
3. Mustard Seed
4. Hidden Leaven
5. Treasure in a Field
6. Pearl of Great Price
7. Dragnet
1. Sower
2. Lamp Hidden
3. Measure Used
4. Man Sleeps
5. Mustard Seed
1. Sower
2. Lamp Hidden
3. Measure Used

Though it would be wrong to insist on the precise ordering of these parables where no clear indicators exist, there are some pieces of evidence that do suggest certain orderings of parables over others.  Here are a few of those clues:

  1. As shown above, “The Sower,” is the first parable recorded by all 3 writers. Thus, we can begin our ordering with:
Order Parable
1 “The Sower”
  1. After Matthew records his 4th parable (“Hidden Leaven”), he writes, “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them,” (v. 34).  Mark likewise records a virtually identical statement after describing all of his parables (see 4:33-34).  These words seem to give a conclusion to the parables recorded before that point.  In fact, after Matthew makes this statement (13:34), he shows Jesus interpreting some of these parables, which clearly shows they were taught before this point (Matt. 13:36-43). All of this indicates that Jesus told Matthew’s 2nd-4th and Mark’s 2nd-5th parables before telling Matthew’s 5th-7th parables.  Thus, our updated ordering is:
OrderParable
1“The Sower”
2-7“Wheat and Tares,” “Mustard Seed,” “Hidden Leaven,” “Lamp Hidden,” “Measure Used,” or “Man Sleeps”
8-10“Treasure in a Field,” “Pearl of Great Price,” or “Dragnet”
  1. The Greek words “tote” (then) and “palin” (again) may suggest chronological sequencing[1].  The only place these words are used within these parables are between Matthew’s 4th and 5th parables (palin and tote), 5th and 6th parables (palin), and 6th and 7th parables (palin).  This could indicate that Matthew’s 4th parable (“Hidden Leaven”) marks the end of one sequence of parables (as indicated above), and that Matthew’s 5th-7th parables were recorded in exact chronological sequence following his 4th parable. Though these Greek words alone do not prove they were told in that order, this is also how Matthew placed them, and thus we have no reason to think they are arranged out of sequence. Thus, we update the probable sequence to:
OrderParable
1 “The Sower”
2-7 “Wheat and Tares,” “Mustard Seed,” “Hidden Leaven,” “Lamp Hidden,” “Measure Used,” or “Man Sleeps”
8 “Treasure in a Field”
9 “Pearl of Great Price”
10 “Dragnet”
  1. Matthew and Mark both record the same parable (“Mustard Seed”), and there are interesting similarities between the parable preceding the “Mustard Seed” in both gospels (see chart):
Matthew’s Parables Mark’s Parables Similarities:
“Wheat/Tares” “Man Sleeps” Starts with man sowing seed
Next, man/people sleep
Harvest marks the conclusion
“Mustard Seed” “Mustard Seed” (same parable)

Though this does not mean that Matthew’s 2nd parable (“Wheat and Tares”) is the same as Mark’s 4th parable (“Man Sleeps”), it does show a similarity that may suggest we group those two parables together, before the “Mustard Seed.” 

Further, since Mark records other parables as happening before “Man Sleeps” (in the precise order Luke recorded those same parables), it is reasonable (though not conclusive) to believe they happened in the sequence Mark/Luke describe, with Matthew’s, “Wheat/Tares,” parable happening around the time of Mark’s, “Man Sleeps.”

And finally, as Matthew records the “Hidden Leaven” as happening after the “Mustard Seed” parable, it is also reasonable to assume those are in the chronological ordering he listed. This leaves us with an updated order of:

Order Parable
1 “The Sower”
2 “Lamp Hidden”
3 “Measure Used”
4-5 “Wheat and Tares,” or “Man Sleeps”
6 “Mustard Seed”
7 “Hidden Leaven”
8 “Treasure in a Field”
9 “Pearl of Great Price”
10 “Dragnet”

In summary, using the various clues we have, we can construct a tentative sequence for the parables, with one unknown remaining: Did Matthew’s, “Wheat/Tares,” parable come before or after Mark’s, “Man Sleeps”? 

And since we have no clues that say one way or another, we are content to arbitrarily put Matthew’s “Wheat/Tares” before “Man Sleeps” (to follow the arbitrary ordering method used throughout this harmony that puts Matthew before Mark before Luke before John). 

And thus, we order the parables as:

Order Parable
1 “The Sower”
2 “Lamp Hidden”
3 “Measure Used”
4 “Wheat and Tares”
5 “Man Sleeps”
6 “Mustard Seed”
7 “Hidden Leaven”
8 “Treasure in a Field”
9 “Pearl of Great Price”
10 “Dragnet”

[1] See Reconciling Matthew’s and Luke’s Temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness.

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