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“It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” ‭‭Mark‬ ‭4:31‬ ‭

The mustard seed is not the smallest seed on the earth today, so how can this be reconciled with Jesus speaking the truth? Or was He wrong?

  • Is it that mustard seeds were the smallest at the time but evolutionarily other seeds became smaller
  • Is it a hyperbolic use of language opening the gateway to discredit many other sayings of Jesus as inaccurate
  • Is the smallest harvestable seed, making it technically the smallest but not necessarily related explicitly in the text
  • Is it something else, related to translation possibly

What is the explanation?

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Parable as Teaching

30 And He was saying, “How should we liken the kingdom of God, or with what parable may we present it?— 31 as a seed of a mustard-plant, which when it is sown upon the soil is being smaller than all the seeds upon the soil. 32 And when it is sown, it goes-up and becomes larger than all the garden-plants. And it makes large branches so that the birds of the heaven are able to be nesting under the shade of it”. (Mark 4 DLNT)
30 καὶ ἔλεγεν πῶς ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἢ ἐν τίνι αὐτὴν παραβολῇ θῶμεν 31ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς 32 καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν

The mustard seed is used in a parable which is "the putting together of one thing along side of another by way of comparison or illustration." It can be an analogy:1 In his commentary of Mark, D.E. Nineham explains the use and purpose of parables:

Parables were constantly used by the rabbis at and after the time of Our Lord, and the very numerous examples of their parables which have been preserved make it clear that they used them for the sole purpose of clarifying and driving home their teaching. When we observe the very close similarity of many of these rabbinic parables to Our Lord's - both in form and subject matter - it seems natural to suppose that he used parables in the same sort of way, and with the the same purpose, as the rabbis. That is to say, his general purpose in using parables was to make the truth as fully understood as possible; he may well have used parables, as the rabbis did, to provoke reflection and so bring his hears to a recognition of the truth.2

Obviously, the parable does not mean the kingdom of God is literally "like a mustard seed" regardless of the relative size. Rather, it is meant to teach something by way of comparison. The main point of the teaching is found in comparing the mustard seed and the plant it grows to the kingdom of God, not to other seeds.

The Intended Meaning of μικρός
"Smaller than" in the parable is from μικρός which may convey small in size. It is also the word used to mean "small" in age, quantity, rank, or influence. It is used to describe Benjamin:

We are twelve brothers, sons of our father; the one is no more, and the smaller one is with our father today in the land of Canaan. (LXX-Genesis 42:32 NETS)
δώδεκα ἀδελφοί ἐσμεν υἱοὶ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν ὁ εἷς οὐχ ὑπάρχει ὁ δὲ μικρότερος μετὰ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν σήμερον ἐν γῇ Χανααν

Like the Greek μικρός, the Hebrew, קָטָן is used for small in size or age. It is possible Benjamin was the "smallest" as the NETS translated the passage, but that is the translator's speculation. Without question Benjamin was the youngest and the best reading of the passage understands age (i.e. youngest) is intended. A similar situation is found in the New Testament:

Whoever causes one of these little (μικρῶν) ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. (Mark 9:42 ESV)

As with Benjamin, it is possible to claim Jesus is using μικρός to describe size. Yet the passage is universally taken as reference to age or maturity. In Mark μικρός is also used to describe a distance (cf. Mark 14:35) and a period of time (cf. Mark 14:70). Therefore, if one wants to reject the possibility Jesus is using hyperbole or a rabbinic approach in order to make a comparison, there are other meanings of μικρός which should be considered before reaching a conclusion Jesus was wrong or there is some contradiction in His teaching.

Literal Truth in the Parable
"Small as mustard seed" is a rabbinic expression for the smallest amount possible (Tractate Berakhot 31a).3 The mustard seed was an accepted way to describe the smallest amount which is significant (i.e. droplets of blood smaller than a mustard do not make a woman unclean).4

Mark opens Chapter 4 with the parable of the sower (4:1-8). After explaining the purpose of parables (4:10-25), Jesus tells another parable of how a seed grows (4:26-29) before ending with the mustard seed. Here is a comparison of the seeds and soils in the three parables:

Parable         Soil             Seeds
Sower           Different soils  Same seed
Growth          Same soil        Same seed     
Mustard seed    Same soil        Different seeds

In the preceding parables, the focus is on a harvest from a single type of seed sown. In the last parable other seeds sown in the same soil are compared. The mustard seed does not result in a harvest; rather it produces shade which allow birds of heaven to nest.

The mustard seed can rightly be understood as the least significant seed to be sown in a garden. Not only is there no harvest, it grows up to shelter birds who, based on the other parables, will be a detriment to the garden. From the perspective of a planting a garden, the mustard seed ranks last among all seeds because there is no reason to want a mustard plant in the garden.5


1. D.E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark, The Seabury Press, 1963, p. 126
2. Ibid., p. 128
3. Rabbi Barney Kasdan, Matthew Presents Yeshua, King Messiah, Lederer Books, 2011, p. 140
4. Smaller drops of blood are possible and do exist but they don't "matter" for this purpose.
5. The smallest known seed is of an orchid but even they would be more desirable than the mustard plant. They are attractive and do not provide a place for birds to nest.

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    That’s still a truthful statement. God bless. Thank you for the response. Jan 18 at 5:01
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When someone says "I was at the party last night and everyone was there", and then a questioner objects "No, 7 Billion people weren't there", then the objector is being argumentative, and everyone (see what I did there) immediately realizes this, because "everyone" refers to people in a given social circle who could reasonably be expected to apply in that situation, not all people everywhere on earth, or even people living on other planets in the universe that we don't know about, or perhaps in other universes, etc.

If you think I am being absurd, then that's the point -- you have to have a well-defined 'universe' over which 'all' runs as a quantifier, and that universe will be taken from the context of the discussion. Note that this is not considered to be an exagerration, it is just how language works.

The universe of a reader in Brazil somewhere is not going to be the same as a listener to Jesus in first century palestine. In fact, if you read carefully, you'll find other examples where only jews were included in 'all', even though they lived among non-jews, as that was the relevant 'universe' of people that was being discussed in that context. At other times, 'all' can refer only to adult men, or levites, etc.

All of this is obvious. Do we need to go back and understand how language works or will we continue to be confused at every turn? Language exists in order to express ideas. Exegesis means trying to understand what those ideas are, rather than trying to find fault with how those ideas are expressed.

But when people ask these questions of the Bible, these basics are often thrown out the window. Please don't do this if you are seriously investigating the Bible, trying to do honest exegesis in order to understand what it says.

Back to the topic at hand, the Greek here is more literally translated as "the smallest of all the seeds that are [on|in] the ground".

So there is an ambiguity even in the greek as the word γῆ can mean both "ground, earth (as in soil)", and "(planet) earth".

Thus "all" has to be understood in the context of the seeds regularly available to the hearers that he was addressing, and moreover those seeds that they were in the habit of cultivating -- e.g. putting in the ground -- not all possible seeds including the orchid seeds that grow in the jungles of Brazil (which are the smallest known seed).

Now why the mention of "ground" -- here the point is that the seed has to fall into the ground, a symbol of death, before it can bring forth new life that is so great that much larger animals take shelter in its branches, and even the birds of the air -- that are the enemies of the seed because they eat it (mustard seed is a favorite of birds) -- take shelter in the leaves of one who sacrifices what he has and is planted into the ground. God will reward even the little bit of faith with a mighty new life, if only it is planted into the ground.

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  • The parable is a riddle speaking of Christ. As the seed of the woman, Jesus was the least of all the seed because he served us all on the cross. Mustard in Greek sounds like 'bruised by anger' in Hebrew. He had the bruised heel. He grew to be the great teacher, then the tree/cross.
    – Bob Jones
    Jun 24 at 12:48
  • Everyone knew there were smaller seeds. This forces the interpretation into riddle. Why would he say it is the smallest when we all know it isn't? Grass was given to the cattle to eat, and herbs given to men to eat. What is the greatest thing men can eat/learn? the cross. He became the cross, and those who live in the Spirit, rest in the cross.
    – Bob Jones
    Jun 24 at 13:05
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Botanically, with modern research, the mustard seed is obviously not the smallest seed. [Orchids and vanilla plants have smaller seeds.] Christ's statement about the mustard seed being the smallest can be understood in various ways that are compatible with the text:

  • The mustard seed is the smallest seed compared to the size of the tree
  • It is the smallest seed of the commonly farmed, edible crops
  • It is the smallest of the seeds planted in soil to produce of tree

As with many of the common agrarian statements in the Bible, we must allow some latitude and degree of literary licence for an unscientific world.

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    ”we must allow some latitude and degree of literary licence for an unscientific world.” that would be acceptable of regular people, highly unacceptable of the Truth, the one through whom, by whom and for whom ALL things were created, especially when this gives liberal theologians license to discredit the divinity and inspiration of the Bible, discounting all supernatural occurrences and instituting so called scientific “axioms” such as evolution to judge the Bible out of real world application, by a simple labeling, backwards and unscientific, hence wrong untrustworthy and irrelevant to life Jan 17 at 23:37
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    @NihilSineDeo - that is understandable. Unfortunately, we have many of such things such as: Gen 1 - lights in the firmament between the upper and lower waters, etc. We must allow people from the time to speak the language of their time.
    – Dottard
    Jan 18 at 0:26
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    @NihilSineDeo the Truth became incarnate and used our body, our language, our thought processes, our shepherding habits, etc. to connect with us for the sake of Love. I once saw a Muslim pamphlet that denied all these facts about the incarnation because "such mixing with humanity is unworthy of the Perfect One, the Divine Majesty". Our religion is not one where God refuses to come to our level for the sake of abstract technicalities like identifying the smallest seed. The point is our spiritual lack. For a spiritual parallel see Paul's "I am the worst of sinners": "I am the smallest of seeds." Jan 18 at 5:09
  • @NihilSineDeo I don't know which denomination you come from, but the Doctrine of Accomodation may interest you: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accommodation_(religion)
    – Nacht
    Jan 18 at 5:24
  • Could we please have a link to your claim about 'orchids and vanilla plants' ?
    – Nigel J
    Jan 18 at 5:43
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There's at least one more and simpler option: The gospel was probably written around 70 CE, at a time when not a single person could know which seed, plant, or animal was the smallest or largest on earth. The author choose the example of a mustard seed to the best of their knowledge.

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  • Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for your contribution. Please remember to take the tour (link below) to better understand how this site works. Can you provide any references to support your anser?
    – Dottard
    Jan 22 at 10:09
  • Thank you. I had read the paragraph about the specifics of this SE site before posting. As to your request, I'm not sure what aspect of my answer you're referring to. I did not state to be able to prove it to be correct (though for me simplicity is a hallmark of a plausible explanation). Nor do I think the facts that the text originated centuries ago or that people generally can refer only to their own knowledge (but not to things discovered centuries later) require any support.
    – Pida
    Jan 22 at 15:31
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The metaphor of the mustard seed may have been proverbial. This excerpt was used in another discussion on this forum and seems relevant here as well:

Thus, as regards the first of these two Parables, the seed of the mustard-plant passed in popular parlance as the smallest of seeds. In fact, the expression, ‘small as a mustard-seed,’ had become proverbial, and was used, not only by our Lord, but frequently by the Rabbis, to indicate the smallest amount, such as the least drop of blood, the least defilement, or the smallest remnant of sun-glow in the sky. (Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus)

The smallness of the seed conveys the idea that the kingdom of God grows from that which is small and humble. Also, use of the superlative seems consistent with other verses that echo a similar message:

  • “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (Lk 9:48)
  • So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Mt 20:16)
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There is no reason for the two phrases ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, to have different meanings in Mark 4:31. Thus, translations which translate them the same appear to be more accurate. In English (but definitely not for the Hebrew) the tendency is to avoid redundancy. But if translated with different words, these two same phrases in the same verse should have the same meaning.

“It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE.” (Mark 4:31–32, NASB1995)

Translated differently, but same meaning:

It’s like a mustard seed that, when sown in the soil, is smaller than all the seeds on the ground.  And when sown, it comes up and grows taller than all the vegetables, and produces large branches, so that the birds of the sky can nest in its shade.” (Mark 4:31–32, HCSV)

Translation that eliminates redundancy:

It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:31–32, NIV84)

The King James Version does translate both phrases the same:

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth:  But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. (Mark 4:31–32, KJV).

So, if earth means ground in the first phrase, why doesn't it mean ground in the second?

Jesus' illustration in his parable was based on vegetable gardens of his audience, not on all the seeds in the world. It is also worth noting that the New Testament authors used κόσμος for world while γῆ for the planet less often than the the LXX. The LXX used κόσμος less often for world.

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Virtually nothing Jesus is quoted as saying in the Gospels is beyond what a well-educated person of his time and place would believe on most subjects - botany, biology, astrophysics, chemistry, and so on.

Rather, in terms of what he says, his insight is in morality and spirituality.

I don't know if there was an error in transcription, interpretation, if it was hyperbole, whether it was a trope, whether he had a mistaken botanical belief, or what have you. However, I do know that none of that really matters to what the Gospels are really about.

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  • How then can we be certain what the gospels are about if we can dismiss certain verse out of hand? We can’t. Either it’s accurate and true or it’s not. Jan 18 at 13:10
  • @NihilSineDeo Do you apply that standard to any other book? Jan 18 at 17:14
  • Other book in the Bible or other book outside the Bible? I apply it to anything claimed to be of God, including prophecy Jan 18 at 17:31
  • @NihilSineDeo Pretty straightforward that something can be inspired by God but contain some errors. Why wouldn't you judge the importance and usefulness of the Gospels by the main, broad features of their message, instead of by a (possible) trivial error? Jan 18 at 17:52
  • I don’t but liberal theologians use these “trivial errors” to discredit the whole Bible. So now we are left to dispel the “trivial errors” and decide if indeed they are errors at all. Jan 18 at 17:59

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