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I got the idea for this question from:

Have any biblical scholars investigated the question of why Luke was getting a better price on his sparrows than Matthew?—@browserdotsys on Twitter

The tweet included images of two parallel passages:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.—Matthew 10:29 (ESV)

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.—Luke 12:6 (ESV)

So while the basic message is the same, they include slightly different prices per sparrow. (Matthew reports half a penny and Luke reports 2/5 a penny, which is slightly cheaper.) Presumably a buyer could find sparrow vendors who would offer a variety of prices, so the minor fluctuation in price isn't really a huge concern. More interesting is how they each quoted Jesus' words differently. If you accept Markan priority, this passage is probably from the presumed Q source.

Did Luke do market research to determine a more accurate sparrow price? Or is Matthew doing his thing were he prefers to talk about two things rather than 5 in this case?

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There is no reason to believe that Jesus used the sparrow analogy exactly one time in his ministry. As a preacher who went from town to town, he likely repeated many of his messages and had no reason to keep the examples strictly identical to one another. In Matthew, the sparrow analogy is in the context of the sending of the 12 apostles. In Luke, the message was preached to crowds. The simplest explanation is that Jesus spoke different words on one occasion than another.

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    Another possible suggestion is the the disciples were sent in ministry pairs. The two sparrows worth a penny could correspond to the pair of apostles. In Luke, it's in the context of a crowd so there's no reason to focus on the number two Mar 15 '18 at 4:23
  • Matthew also just loves the number two.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 15 '18 at 14:19
  • While Luke and Mark were written by close companions of apostles, Matthew was an apostle, and I imagine that the fact of the apostles being paired up before being sent had a pretty important effect of him. Imagine if you were personally commissioned by the Messiah and given a partner to do that work. Mar 15 '18 at 14:22
  • To clarify, this answer assumes that for this passage, Matthew and Luke weren't using a hypothetical common source? Or could they be using the same source and Matthew made sure to use the price that emphasizes that he's talking to pairs of disciples?
    – Jon Ericson
    Mar 15 '18 at 17:47
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    The answer doesn't depend on how you answer the sourcing questions. If Matthew and Luke did use a common source, there is nothing to say that this hypothetical source didn't have both accounts, neither account, or one or the other. Or perhaps Matthew wasn't drawing on a source but rather his own experiences. Regardless of the source question, I think there is an internal textual reason for Matthew's "two sparrows" based on the immediate context. My hermeneutic is that I don't want to look for outside for speculative knowledge when I have a more ready answer from the text itself. Mar 15 '18 at 17:58
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In Matthew's record of Jesus' words, sparrows are so cheap that you get two for a penny, not one. And if one of such insignificant items falls to the ground, the disciples' Father knows of it.

In Luke's record of Jesus' sayings there is a further bargain available. Buy two pennies' worth, instead of one, and you get a further sparrow thrown in for free. This indicates a further example of how cheap and insignificant these little creatures are in the world of commerce.

But the further example of cheapness draws an even greater example of care from God, the Creator. For not only when they fall to the ground do they draw the attention of the Father, but when they are still flying around, God does not forget them, at any time !

But, to answer the OP fully, I would add that Matthew and Luke are reporting the words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth and it would seem, from context, that they are reporting different occasions of speech in which Jesus gave slightly different emphases to the same topic.

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  • Hmmmm... Are you suggesting that Luke purposely made sparrows cheaper relative to Matthew? I suppose that would amplify the message of God's care for them (and by extension us). But it also seems like a trivial change. Two for a penny is already pretty cheap. Do you have any evidence that Luke was using Matthew here rather than some common source?
    – Jon Ericson
    Mar 14 '18 at 17:13
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    The two are not contradictory. Two for a penny or five for two pennies is a common marketing principle. 'Buy one get one free' as it were. Or, in this case, buy two pennies' worth and get an extra one. I know nothing about sources, only that Matthew recorded what he did and that Luke recorded what he did and that the two do not contradict one another.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 14 '18 at 17:29
  • This is an inventive attempt to harmonize the two texts, but it reads as purely speculative. GLuke doesn't record a 'further bargain', because GLuke says nothing about an 'original bargain'. Can you show your work how you arrived at this explanation, whether it's an exegesis of the text or a citation of some academic work?
    – user2910
    Mar 15 '18 at 3:20
  • @MarkEdward I have no idea what 'GLuke' means. And I do not know what 'work' to show you. I do not understand you.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 15 '18 at 3:49
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    Nigel J: Your answer is correct there is no contradiction. + 1 Mar 28 at 6:32
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When you but 2 sparrows it's one copper coin. But hey I have plenty... hence so if you buy 4 I'll give you the 5th for free. Just good business

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    Hi David! That does make sense: volume discount. That said, this site is looking for answers backed up by sources or evidence. Was this how the sparrow market worked in the first century AD?
    – Jon Ericson
    Mar 27 '20 at 21:49
  • @JonEricson, generally I'd agree with you, but in this case I think this one contains the essence of the best possible answer. The other answers are far too overthought. The idea of "ten cents each or a dozen for a dollar" has likely existed since long before Jesus's day. Mar 29 at 21:27
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I agree that it is unsurprising that sparrow prices could vary. What is more intriguing to me though is the tie back to the synoptic problem in the OP.

Why is it that Matthew & Luke (which almost all students of the synoptic problem acknowledge have some form of literary relationship) get their information either one from the other or both from a common source, and this seemingly trivial detail is different? Let's look at a few synoptic hypotheses and how they may or may not make sense of this.

Q Source

I don't think Q does anything to simplify this problem. With or without Q, the problem remains. Somebody changed the price of the sparrow whether they got it from another Gospel or from Q. And it won't do to say there were 2 different versions of Q floating around, because then all we've done is shift the same problem back one step in the chain--we still have to explain the change, whether it was made by Matthew, Luke, or Q.

Another difficulty with appealing to Q is that, as with many synoptic questions, because it is hypothetical we can make it say anything we want. Since we do not know what it said (if it existed), hypothesizing a particular reading in Q just means we've added one more unknown to the equation, thereby increasing the number of places in our analysis where we can get it wrong. Now it's not just why did Luke change Matthew's account, but did Luke change Q, or did Matthew change Q, or did Q 2.0 change Q 1.0, or all of the above, etc.

The hypotheticals multiply quickly. Appealing to Q requires us to answer more questions than do other hypotheses. I believe that the more occasions we give ourselves to guess, the more occasions we will get the answer wrong.

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Farrer or 2-Gospel Hypotheses

Both of these hypotheses reject Q and claim that Luke used Matthew as a source. In this case, Luke repeats Matthew's account and keeps a number of details, but changes the price.

At least on this assumption we have a pretty good idea where the change was made. But why would Luke have changed the price? I suggest that without additional information we can only speculate. Luke's attention to detail (how deep was the water again?) suggests it's at least possible that he checked the prevailing price and sparrows and "corrected" Matthew's account. But if he believed Jesus said it, why correct it just because the price changed?

Surely he must have known not all merchants charged the same price for sparrows all the time.

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A possible clue from the Hebrew language

This is by no means a certain explanation. But it appears to me to be the simplest one.

We may have a clue available in the Hebrew of Shem Tob Matthew. If Shem Tob Matthew is not a translation from Greek, but rather a descendant of an original Hebrew Matthew (as many of its prominent students have argued) that has been corrupted but never translated, then Shem Tob Matthew 10:29 is very interesting with respect to this question.

Both Greek Matthew & Greek Luke reference the coin known as an "assarion" (sometimes called an "as"). This was an actual monetary denomination that, depending on the time period, represented some fraction of a denarius. There's a nice summary of the coinage on Wikipedia, which also points out that the assarion "was the lowest valued coin regularly issued during the Roman Empire".

The Hebrew of Shem Tob does not reference a specific denomination of coin. The word is בפרוטה, which George Howard carefully rendered as "for a small coin." (see here p. 31).

Now the Hebrew Matthew that was handed down to Shem Tob might have just dropped the reference to the Roman coinage over the years...but it's worth pointing out that this theory runs contrary to the balance of the evidence: the Greek Gospels continued to reference a Roman coin long after the empire was gone.

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A simple reconstruction of what was said

This opens up what to me is a very intriguing and decidedly simple conclusion: the original statement by Jesus did not specify a denomination of coin (and therefore didn't quote a market price), but merely pointed out that at a minimal cost a pair of sparrows could be purchased. Shem Tob then would be preserving the statement as originally rendered.

Luke comes along, writing to educated Greek-speakers, and adds the actual name of the lowest-denomination coin. To his audience the 1st century version of "for a penny" would probably come off better than "for a small coin". But now he has made a generic statement into an actual price and, if he knows what sparrows sell for, he includes the actual cost.

The message went from an original statement that was generic (they cost less than a small coin) to a subsequent rendition that was specific (they cost 0.4 assarions).

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The effect of translation

If Matthew was originally written in Hebrew then what we have in Greek is a translation. When Matthew was translated into Greek:

  • The translator faithfully preserved the two-for-one statement in the document he was translating (ie the translator is being accurate).
  • The translator was aware that either in oral retelling (in Greek), or already documented in writing by Luke, or both, the word assarion was used in place of בפרוטה when recounting this story.
  • The translator did not concern himself with the latest market value of sparrows, he was just translating what his source said and used the word assarion because it was a familiar and appropriate way to render in Greek the idea of a small or low-value coin.

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Conclusion

The solution I have offered is not a deductive proof; it's an effort to offer the simplest possible explanation--not multiplying entities beyond necessity--based on the words used in the surviving Hebrew & Greek texts.

I suggest that Jesus taught this message without quoting prices or names of Roman coins (his message was about value not price). In presenting the passage in Greek Luke added both details for purposes of precision, and the translator of Matthew stayed faithful to the sense of the original, while using the actual Greek word that had been previously used by Luke.

The kicker for me is this: these passages in Matthew & Luke are the only places in the entire Bible where forms of ἀσσάριον (assarion) are used.

This suggests that one of the Evangelists got their fractions from somewhere else (like maybe Hebrew Matthew), but one Greek Gospel directly borrowed the word assarion from the other. For one to have followed the other so closely in one detail (the coinage) suggests that the divergence in the related detail (the fractions) sitting right next to it on the scroll, requires something like Hebrew Matthew to allow for a clean explanation.


P.S.

I should acknowledge that for me this hypothesis presents no significant challenge because I already believe, on other grounds, that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. A summary of my thoughts on how Hebrew Matthew relates to the Greek Gospels can be found here, and a very detailed discussion is here.

I also acknowledge there are other viable hypotheses. I've simply tried to reconstruct a viable hypothesis using only known textual variants.

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    This is a very useful explanation. It doesn't require Matthew to be originally in Hebrew, however. It seems likely Jesus taught in Aramaic and his teachings translated into Greek for a Gentile audience. That said, Jesus tends to use concrete imagery. It seems unlikely that he said "sparrows are cheap" when he could name a price. Could it be that the price he quoted was the price paid in the temple and it was converted into a more familiar currency?
    – Jon Ericson
    Mar 29 at 4:25
  • @JonEricson (1/2) thanks, and thank you for coming back to look at an answer on an old question. To be sure, I don't suggest Jesus said "sparrows are cheap" (forgive the colloquial language used as an aside), but that He said something pretty close to "2 sparrows are sold for a small coin". Could He have named an actual coin? I have to grant it's at least possible. But I think it's easier to explain this passage if He didn't. Mar 29 at 4:48
  • @JonEricson (2/2) an interesting modification to my proposal...I'll have to think about this one. I can make sense of the scribal behavior in translating a written document from one language to another...I'm not sure my "effects of translation" section works if the translation doesn't involve written documents on both sides. Food for thought though, thanks for the suggestion. I guess we could add in more hypothetical sources (e.g. Lindsey hypothesis), one in a Semitic language, but I'm personally not a fan of hypothetical documents if plausible alternatives are available. Mar 29 at 5:01
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There are several reasons plausible why the accounts of both Luke and Matthew could be correct:

  • The two accounts are of the same sermon preached on different occasions and Jesus modified the price because of the different localities he preached
  • Jesus actually said both things but each account summarized the sermon by deleting different material. [It is clear that each Gospel is not exhaustive as John explicitly declares in John 21:25.]

In any case, the point is clear - God loves the insignificant and lowly and greatly cares for them.

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