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Blanks and Gaps in the Markan Parable of the Sower

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image of Biblical Interpretation

David Stern has helpfully applied to rabbinic parables Meir Sternberg's distinction between a "blank," an accidental transmission of confusing narrative signals, and a "gap," a deliberate ambiguity in a narrative. This distinction may also be applied to Mark. The confusing stage directions of chapter 4, for example, are a blank, whereas the failure to explain why Jesus forbids publicity about himself is a gap. The Parable of the Sower provides an example of both types of ambiguity. The identity of the seed is a blank; 4:14 explicitly identifies it as the word, but 4:15-20 implies that it is the people who hear the word, a confusion which may partly reflect different history-of-religions backgrounds. The failure to identify the sower, on the other hand, is a gap. Various narrative signals suggest that he is God, Christ, or the Christian preacher. It would help, in trying to decide between these possibilities, if one knew whether his sowing technique was logical or illogical, but that is another blank or gap. Mark probably wants the reader to conclude that the sower is all three of the figures suggested; "the word" is at one and the same time the word of God, the word of Jesus, and the word of the Christians. This sort of composite identity corresponds to apocalyptic thinking: speech is not a simple, autonomous human action, but a complex event in which human and supernatural factors are inextricably mixed up together.

Affiliations: 1: University of Glasgow


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