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Note of the Day – July 23

This is the first in a brief series of daily notes centered on the (Synoptic) saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 par:

“To you has been given the secret [musth/rion] of the kingdom of God…”

I will start with this saying in the context of the Synoptic Gospels, before proceeding to examine the use of the word musth/rion (myst¢¡rion) elsewhere in the New Testament.

Mark 4:11 / Matt 13:11 / Luke 8:10

Here is the complete saying from Mark 4:11:

“And he said/related to them, ‘To you [pl.] has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those outside all th(ese thing)s come to be in (illustration)s cast alongside”

The word translated “secret” is musth/rion (myst¢¡rion), presumably from the verb mu/w (“to close, shut”), i.e. something which is closed, hidden, etc. In the ancient Greek (religious) context, it implies something about which people are to keep silent. This is certainly the case in the so-called mystery cults (of Demeter, Dionysus, Isis, etc). The special (divine) knowledge and hidden things revealed to initiates during the ceremonies were not to be disclosed to outsiders. This is part of the reason that so little information survives about the mystery rites. Early Christians adopted a similar approach to the sacraments—the Lord’s supper/table and the initiatory rite of Baptism—though there is little of this emphasis yet in the New Testament itself. The religious theme of withholding ‘secret’ knowledge and revelation is almost entirely absent, with one notable exception—in the (Synoptic) Gospels, Jesus repeatedly commands that knowledge regarding his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and Son of God not be made public (Mark 1:44; 8:30; 9:9, 30-31 par, etc). In the case of the unclean spirits which made (or might make) such a declaration, he specifically orders them to be silent (Mark 1:34; 3:11-12 par, etc).

The saying in Mark 4:11 par is set in the context of parables told by Jesus in chapter 4 (similarly in Matthew 13 and Luke 8:4-18). The English “parable” is a transliteration of the Greek word parabolh/ (parabol¢¡), from the verb paraba/llw (“cast, throw alongside”); the parabolh/ is thus something thrown alongside (i.e. set beside), often in the sense of offering a comparison. In English idiom we might also speak of setting something “side-by-side for comparison”. A parable, properly speaking, is a saying or short story which illustrates a particular topic or point by way of figure—i.e., “this is like…” Most of Jesus’ parables are meant to illustrate and describe the kingdom of God—”the kingdom of God is like what, then? with what shall I liken it?” (Lk 13:18). A similar statement begins several of the parables in Mark 4—”thus the kingdom of God is as (if)…” (v. 26), “how shall we liken the kingdom of God, or in what parable shall we set it?” (v. 30). This occurs more consistently with the parables in Matthew 13 (vv. 44-45, 47, 52, also in Matt 20:1; 25:1, and cf. Matt 18:3-4 par). Here is outline of Mark 4, which comprises a distinct narrative unit:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
  • Parable of the Sower (vv. 3-9)
  • Explanatory saying (vv. 10-12)
  • Explanation of the Parable of the Sower (vv. 13-20)
  • Parable of the Lamp (vv. 21-25)
  • Parable of the Seed (1) (vv. 26-29)
  • Parable of the Seed (2) (vv. 30-32)
  • Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)

Matthew 13 contains additional parables and other material (vv. 24-30, 33, 34-35, 36-43, 44-50, 51-53), including a second explanation (with Scripture quotation) as to why Jesus taught using parables (vv. 34-35 [quoting Psalm 78:2]). Luke’s account (8:4-18) is shorter, corresponding to Mk 4:1-25 (but cf. also Lk 13:18-21). Mark 4:11 par is set between the parable of the Sower and its explanation:

And when he came to be down (where he was) remaining [i.e. ‘at home’, alone], the ones around him, together with the Twelve, asked him (about) the (illustration he) cast alongside [i.e. the parable]. And he said/related to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, all th(ese thing)s come to be in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables], (so) that ‘looking they might look and (yet) not see, and hearing they might hear and (yet) not put (it) together, (that) they might not ever turn (back) upon (God) and it be released for them [i.e. their sin be forgiven]’.”

There are three parts to this saying:

  • The notice of the disciples asking Jesus about the parable (v. 10)
  • The saying (v. 11), and
  • The citation from Isaiah 6:9-10 (v. 12)

Matthew and Luke both follow the same pattern as Mark’s account, but with a few notable differences:

  • The notice of the disciples asking Jesus about the parable
    Matt 13:10: “And coming toward (him), the learners [i.e. disciples] said to him, ‘Through what [i.e. why] do you speak to them in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables]?'”
    Luke 8:9: “And his learners [i.e. disciples] asked him ‘What could this (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] be?'”

Matthew and Luke both omit any reference to the disciples coming to Jesus privately (i.e. alone). In Matthew’s account, they simply ask Jesus why he speaks in parables (the answer being given both in vv. 11-15ff [by Jesus] and vv. 34-35). Luke generally follows Mark, but specifically indicates that they are asking about the meaning of the parable.

  • The central saying
    Matt 13:11: “And judging from (this) [i.e. answering] he said to them, ‘(In) that it has been given to you to know the secrets of the kingdom of the Heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given'”
    Luke 8:10: “And he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to the rest (of them only) in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables]'”

Matthew and Luke agree in several details: (a) use of the plural “secrets” (musth/ria), (b) the expression “given to know [gnw=nai]” instead of simply “given”, and (c) no mention of the others as being “those outside”. Matthew characteristically uses the expression “kingdom of the Heavens” instead of “kingdom of God”; he has also included here another saying (v. 12), presumably moved from a separate location (Mk 4:25 / Lk 8:18, and cf. Matt 25:29 par) and joined to v. 11 by ‘catchword bonding’.

  • The citation of Isaiah 6:9-10
    Matthew (13:14-15) cites the LXX literally and in full, along with a characteristic citation formula (v. 14a). Mark’s version, which is an abridgment of Isa 6:9-10, is more likely to represent Jesus’ actual words as preserved in the tradition. Luke’s version (8:10b) is even simpler:
    “…(so) that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not put (it) together [i.e. understand]”
    The Markan form remains closer to the LXX:
    “(so) that looking they might look and (yet) not see, and hearing they might hear and (yet) not put (it) together, (that) they might not ever turn (back) upon (God) and it be released for them [i.e. their sin be forgiven]”

In omitting Isa 6:10 altogether, Luke has removed the (problematic) mention of conversion and forgiveness from the quotation.

The meaning and significance of this Synoptic passage will be discussed further in the next daily note.

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