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.

When Did Jesus Call the 12 Apostles, Minister to the Masses, and Teach the “Sermon on the Mount”?

There are at least four portions of Scripture that overlap on various details of Jesus:

  • calling the twelve apostles,
  • healing a crowd, and
  • teaching what is commonly called, “The Sermon on the Mount”[1] [2]

These four sections comprise the columns of the chart below. Each relevant element is on its own row alongside the matching elements within the other passages.

Matt. 4:24 – 7:29 Matt. 12:9-30 Mark 3:1-27 Luke  6:6-7:1
  Healed withered hand on Sabbath Healed withered hand on Sabbath Healed withered hand on Sabbath
Crowds gathered   Crowds gathered  
Went on mountain   Went on mountain, called 12 apostles Went on mountain, called 12 apostles
  Crowds gathered Crowds gathered (again) Crowds gathered
Taught “Sermon on the Mount”     Taught “Sermon on the Mount”
  Controversy with Jews: “house divided” Controversy with Jews: “house divided”  

Studying this chart reveals the following general sequence of events as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

  1. Jesus healed the man with the withered hand on a Sabbath.
  2. After crowds gathered, Jesus ascended a mountain and appointed 12 apostles.
  3. Crowds gathered (again) around Jesus, where He taught the, “Sermon on the Mount,” and responded to antagonistic Jews, saying things like, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

At the end of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand on a Sabbath, Matthew writes, “He [Jesus] withdrew from there…” (12:15), and goes on to describe the crowds gathering and the Jews antagonizing Him as events that happen afterwards.  Similarly, Mark ends the story of the healing of the withered hand by saying, “But Jesus withdrew with His disciples,” (Mark 3:7).  He also goes on to say that crowds gathered, Jesus appointed the twelve apostles, and the Jews antagonized Him after the story of the withered hand.  And though Luke does not include time identifiers after the withered hand story, he also follows the same pattern in writing about the other stories after the withered hand was healed.  Thus, it seems safe to mark the healing of the withered hand as happening before the other events.

However, Jesus ascending the mountain, Jesus calling the twelve apostles, and various episodes related to the gathered crowds do not have the same certainty regarding their sequence.  In fact, Mark states clearly that the crowds gathered at multiple times (before and after Jesus ascended the mountain, cf. Mark 3:7, 20).  Similarly, it is very possible that Jesus would have ascended the mountain multiple times, and even that He could have repeated the same teachings multiple times (if there were different people in attendance, for instance).  Thus, we must be content to say that the fluidity of these other events makes it impossible to know exactly what chronological sequence was followed in the stories recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Instead, we can simply say that at around the same time period, Jesus had crowds gather, healed and delivered many, taught the, “Sermon on the Mount,” (and similar teachings), ascended a mountain, and called the twelve apostles to follow Him. 

Recognizing these caveats, we tentatively order these events as:

  1. Crowds gathered around Jesus, and He healed and delivered many.
  2. Jesus withdrew to the mountain, where He called the twelve apostles to follow Him (perhaps the pressing demands of the moment catalyzed this, at least from a natural standpoint).
  3. Jesus and the newly appointed apostles went into a house (Mk. 3:19).
  4. The crowd started gathering again, so Jesus and the apostles went to a level place that was still up on the mountain. 
  5. From this level place on the mountain, Jesus taught the, “Sermon on the Mount.”[3]
  6. Over time (whether hours or days), the crowd would have developed and drawn the attention of antagonistic Jews who gathered to challenge Jesus on some of His teachings and practices.  This could have happened at the same place as the, “Sermon on the Mount,” or in a separate location.

As indicated above, other sequences are also very plausible.

Finally, some may object to our claiming that Matthew refers to the same time period on two separate occasions in his gospel without indicating that the time periods overlap (see chart above, and compare Matt. 4:24-7:29 with Matt. 12:9-30).  However, one author referring to the same event from multiple angles should not be seen as odd when you consider that:

  1. The gospels are filled with repeated content from different angles[, and yet have one author: God.
  2. Paul’s conversion is discussed in numerous places, even by the same author (Luke) at times (cf. Acts 9; 22; 26; Gal. 1), but very different things are emphasized in some accounts as opposed to others,
  3. More currently, three of the popular Jason Bourne movies (The Bourne Supremacy [2004], The Bourne Ultimatum [2007], and The Bourne Legacy [2012]) cover overlapping time periods in their stories, and usually focus on completely different aspects in each telling.

Such examples do not show discord or prove they were talking about different events, but reveal that it is acceptable for a writer to do exactly what we submit Matthew as doing in telling the same story multiple times from different angles.


[1] It also may be that Matt. 10:1-4 overlaps these events in its description of Jesus calling the twelve apostles.

[2] This title derives from Matt. 5:1, where Jesus’ sermon contained in Matt. 5-7 is said to be preached “on a mountain,” (Mt. 5:1).

[3] I also think Jesus taught the contents of the “Sermon on the Mount” multiple times, and so do not want to place this preaching in only one location and time.