The Parable of the Sower and Information Theory


This article takes a simple look at the unique aspects of Jesus's Parable of the Sower in terms of basic Information Theory. In this discussion, I will be referring to the basic system of communication defined by Claude Shannon in his pioneering work on communication. I will be, of course, leaving out all the math even though Shannon are related theories are primarily mathematical, but we cannot understand any of this without discussing probability, at least a little.

First, we should understand that the best translation of the Greek term translated in the Bible as "word." logos, is "message" or "idea." You can see an article about this word here. A "message" is what communicates information and ideas. "Ideas" are a specific form of information that is actionable. Ideas spark action. While a message can just provide information, Jesus's message was one of ideas, designed to motivate actions.

Let us look at the parable in terms of Shannon's information diagram (shown above).  Just to make things simple, I will put all of Shannon's terms in italics. A sower sows his seeds. The Sower is Shannon's transmitter. However, Jesus doesn't explain this in explaining the Parable of the Sower, but when he later explains the Parable of the Weeds. The seed is the encoded message. As defined by Jesus, rather than Shannon, the seed is the one hearing of the message not the message itself. In Jesus's terms, the message doesn't exist unless there is someone to hear it. Shannon would agree that we cannot call something a message unless the whole system exists, from source to destination.  In the diagram, the message is represented by the arrows between the boxes. 

Jesus didn't use the Greek word for "word," despite the Biblical translation (again see this article). He called the information in his message, "the idea." Shannon's source is the Divine, who encodes the message for the transmitter.  The seed falls on different types of ground. The ground is the receiver. The birds that snatch away the seeds are the noise. However, most of what happens to the seeds depends on the type of ground on which they fall, that is, on problems with the receiver. Shannon's focus was on the channel, but Jesus's parable focuses much more on the receiver.

In Jesus's parable, he uses a word that is translated as "receive" in Matthew 13:20 (rocky ground), Matthew 13:21 (among thorns), and Matthew 13:23 (good ground). Notice, however, that in Jesus does not use that word in the first part of this explanation Matthew 13:19 (along the path). Hear, he says simple "hears." This is because the "noise" (the birds) over power the message before it is received.

Notice also that in all these verses, the Greek word translated as "understand" is not the common word translated as "understand." It is a specific Greek word, syniemi, that means "put together." The symbols that make up all messages must be assemble and put together before they can be understood.The task of "putting together" is something that must be done between the receiver and Shannon's destination.  In Shannon's system, both the source and destination are people, those who can code and decode a message.  In the Jesus's system, the destination for the seed is described in terms of actions: to sprout, grow into a plant and produce fruit, but what is its physical destination? That was easier for the people of Jesus's time to see than ours, but it was the sky, the source of light and air. Of course, the sky was central to Jesus's message (see this article).

Scientifically, the plant is made from light, falling water, and air, all from the sky, not the soil. The soil is a medium, a receiver of seeds and water, not the destination. All plants are made almost entirely of carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air, combined with the hydrogen in the water, hydrogen dioxide to make hydrocarbons with the power of sunlight. Men and animal feed on those hydrocarbons (to Jesus, "bread") and water.

In Jesus's parable, the destination is discussed in terms of action: to produce fruit, but the physical destination from Jesus' view of humanity was also the sky. The key aspect of the sky is the "air" or, more specifically, the "breath," which  the Bible translates as "spirit." The body is the receiver of the message, which needs to be communicated to the "sky" inside us all, our spirit. Like physical fruit, human fruit also requires "light," "water," and "air," that is "spirit." Note that Jesus describes himself both as a source of endless water and as the "light of the world."

Let us leave Shannon's analysis for a moment and discuss some aspects of his model that are interesting in terms of human communication. In human communication, errors creep into the process at every juncture. People do not put their ideas into words well. The words are not always spoken clearly. Noise interferes with them. What is spoken is not heard correctly. What is heard is often misinterpreted. Human communication is inherently flawed. Shannon's analyzes the channel, but in our lives, the problems occur at every juncture. And they don't submit easily to analysis.

However, Jesus isn't dealing with human to human communication. He is dealing with the problems of the Divine communicating to humans.Jesus proposes that a "trinity" is needed to use a divine message. That trinity consists of water, air, and energy. For plants, the energy is light. For animals, that energy is food.  Two of Jesus's great symbols, light and food are thereby joined. When Jesus says that man does not live by bread alone, he is referring to the need for an energy source. This energy is needed to transform the water and air which are the coding system of the message. The simplest way to think about water and air in information theory is as the zeros and ones of the simple binary coding system. This is an over simplification because the hydrogen and oxygen of the water and the carbon and oxygen of the air are active elements, but let us simplify our analysis here to think of them simply as information, that is, elements of coding.

In the process of Divine communications, there are no errors in the source or transmitter of the message. Both the universe and the Bible work or they would not have survived until now. The problems for them working in any given situation are in the channel and in receiver, our physical selves. Their truth is canceled or rather confused by noise, that is, interference with the message. That interference takes three forms:

  • a lack of soft ground on the hard path, which is like hardness of hearing, a deaf receiver, that cannot hear the message. The receiver is not strong enough to "get" the message. The word Jesus uses literally means "get" or "receive." Jesus praises "softness" in a number of verses, but most famously in the third Beatitude where the concept is translated as "meekness." Notice the criticism here is not about the "power" of the message, which is one of Shannon's concerns, but the sensitivity of the receiver.
  • a lack of moisture on the rocky ground, where there is a lack of water, one of the needed along with light and air. This is the rocky ground. If we are thinking of the water and air as ones and zeroes, this is the inability to process the ones. If we think of the "ones" as the things we must do, not knowing what to do will dry us up. Without purpose, we will not be able to use the energy of life productively.
  • a lack of air, notice that for the seed among the weeds, those seeds do not block the light, they "chock" the plant, cutting off its air. . If we are thinking of the water and air as ones and zeroes, this is the inability to process the zeroes. If we think of the "zeroes" as the things we must not do, not knowing what to avoid will strangle us. Without spirit, will not be able to use the energy of life productively.

In general information theory, all signals do not have the same expectation. This is how we tell a signal from noise. A message is improbable while random noise is more likely because noise is a random, without order. Shannon's math deals with the probabilities involved. From these probabilities, he calculates the carrying capacity of any channel.

In Jesus's system, this view is simplified, but the receiver must be sensitive to the power level of the transmitter. Insensitivity might be characterized as being tuned to the wrong "channel." However, even if tuned to the right channel, the receiver must be able to receive both the zeroes and ones, the don't and the dos. Since the

There is more to learn here in terms of Jesus's theory of information communication, but rather than quote a lot of Jesus's words to clarify his thinking here, I will work this out in future articles. The next article will related this part of Jesus's information theory to the Lord's Prayer.