Mustard Seed Mistake or Misunderstanding?
In Matthew 13:31-32, the apostle recorded a brief parable that Jesus taught regarding His heavenly kingdom. “The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said, “is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” The central truth of Jesus’ lesson was that the kingdom of heaven (i.e., the church; Matthew 16:18-19; Colossians 1:13), would be very small in the beginning (Acts 2), but in time would become very large. Rather than be a movement that died with its leader (cf. Acts 5:33-39), history shows that Jesus was exactly right in His prophecy: since His death and resurrection 2,000 years ago, multiplied millions of people have become citizens of this heavenly kingdom of which Jesus foretold.
Rather than acknowledge Jesus’ impressively fulfilled prophecy, His critics allege that He blundered in His reference to the mustard seed being “the least of all the seeds” (or as Mark words it, “smaller than all the seeds on earth”—4:31). Since other plant seeds technically are smaller than mustard seeds (e.g., epiphytic orchid seeds found in tropical rainforests), critics claim that Jesus made a scientific mistake (Wells, 2011; McKinsey, 2000, p. 263).
Although the Bible has shown itself to be historically and scientifically accurate time and again over the last 2,000 years (see Butt, 2007), the reader must bear in mind that, just as we often do in modern times, Jesus and the Bible writers frequently used figures of speech. They sometimes used numbers as names instead of literal numbers (e.g., calling the apostles “the twelve” after Judas had died—1 Corinthians 15:5; see Lyons, 2002). They oftentimes referred to things as they appeared instead of as they actually were (e.g., Christians who had died were said to have “fallen asleep”—1 Corinthians 15:6). They used Hebrew idioms, even when writing in the Greek language (e.g., “three days and three nights”—Matthew 12:40; see Lyons, 2004). And, just as we communicate truths in the 21st century through easily interpreted exaggeration (e.g., “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”), Jesus and the Bible writers also made use of hyperbolic expressions. For example, when Paul noted in his letter to the church in Colosse that the Gospel “was preached to every creature under heaven” (1:23), readers understand that Paul is not technically saying that every living thing on Earth heard the Gospel. He’s not even saying that every person, including every infant, invalid, and mentally-ill person, heard the Gospel. Paul was obviously using a figure of speech to communicate an astounding truth: the then-known world (of both Jews and Gentiles) had been exposed to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So what about Jesus’ comment regarding the mustard seed being “the least of all the seeds” (Matthew 13:32)? Was Jesus scientifically inaccurate? Only in the same sense that people are today when they refer to it “raining cats and dogs” during heavy precipitation, or “burning up” during a heat wave. The fact is, Jesus was speaking proverbially in this parable. In Palestine, mustard seeds were used comparatively when talking of very small things. For example, when Jesus taught about how the smallest amount of faith could bring about great results, He referred to this “faith as a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20). Since the Jews were very familiar with the mustard seed, Jesus referred to what they could understand and appreciate. In their world, where they lived, planted, and harvested, they understood that the mustard seed was the smallest of the seeds they normally planted. And still, it could germinate, take root, and flourish, eventually becoming an 8- to 10-foot tall shrub (Lane, 1974, p. 171).
Similar to how we might say to someone, “everyone knows that two plus two is four,” Jesus told His Palestinian peers that the mustard seed is “the least of all the seeds.” Do most people on Earth likely know that two plus two is four? Yes. But millions of infants are ignorant of this mathematical fact, as are many mentally-ill individuals. Thus, the term “everyone” would be used in a limited sense. Likewise, when Jesus spoke of the mustard seed, He was speaking hyperbolically in a limited sense. The mustard seed “was the smallest usually sown in Jewish fields” (McGarvey, 1875, p. 121, emp. added).
Butt, Kyle (2007), Behold! The Word of God (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Lane, William (1974), The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Lyons, Eric (2002), “The Twelve,” http://apologeticspress.org/articles/148.
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Three Days and Three Nights,” http://apologeticspress.org/articles/570.
McGarvey, J.W. (1875), Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight AR: Gospel Light).
McKinsey, C. Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Wells, Steve (2011), The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/mt/sci_list.html.