Grace Theological Journal 1.1 (1980) 37-42

          Copyright © 1980 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                     THE PROBLEM OF THE

                              MUSTARD SEED



                                               JOHN A. SPROULE


In this article the author seeks to demonstrate exegetically and

botanically that our Lord Jesus Christ was not merely using the

language of accommodation or even proverbial language, necessarily,

when he referred to the mustard seed as the "least" of all seeds. The

author appeals to the language of the text, the context, and to expert

testimony in the field of botany to show that the mustard seed was

indeed the smallest garden-variety seed known to man in Bible times.




            Matt 13:32 (and its parallel in Mark 4:30-32) seems to be a

favorite target for opponents of the inerrancy of the autographs of

Scripture. In the context of this passage, Jesus, in a parable, describes

the phenomenal growth of the Kingdom of Heaven. He compares

that growth with the growth of a grain of mustard (sina<pewj) which

is sown in a field and grows to be larger than any of the garden herbs

(laxa<nwn). Jesus refers to the mustard seed as the least (mikro<teron)

of all seeds (sperma<twn).

            Daniel Fuller of Fuller Theological Seminary, arguing for cul-

tural accommodation, states that Jesus referred to the mustard seed

as the smallest of seeds when, in fact, the mustard seed is not the

smallest seed known botanically to man.1 He argues that Jesus was

accommodating his language to the knowledge of the people. In

short, what Christ said was inaccurate, but it met the need. Harold

Lindsell refers to one of Fuller's public lectures and writes:


            Dr. Fuller alleges that botanically we know that there are smaller seeds

            than the mustard seed. And that is true. Then he argues that Jesus

            accommodates Himself to the ignorance of the people to whom He was


            1. D. P. Fuller. Evangelism and Biblical Inerrancy (unpublished monograph,

Dallas Theological Seminary, n.d.) 18. This work first came to this writer's attention in 1968.


38                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


            speaking, since they believed this. But it constitutes an error, and the

            presence of one error invalidates the claim to biblical inerrancy.2

            Lindsell, in offering suggested solutions to the apparent problem,

appeals to a suggestion made nearly a century ago by John A.

Broadus. Lindsell writes:

            The American Commentary says of this passage that it was popular

            language, and    it was the intention of the speaker to communicate the

            fact that the mustard seed was "the smallest that his hearers were

            accustomed to sow." And indeed this may well be the case. In that

            event there was no error. If the critics of Scripture wish to use the

            intention of the writer, this is one place it can be used ill favor of


            An alternative appeal is made by Lindsell to Matthew Henry's

suggested reading of the passage--the mustard seed "which is one of

the least of all seeds.”4  Lindsell does not believe that the Greek is

sufficiently clear at this point to affirm that Jesus actually was saying

that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. He


            He [Jesus] was saying it is less than all the seeds. What must be deter-

            mined is what the words "all the seeds" mean here. If Jesus was talking

            about the seeds commonly known to the people of that day, the effect

            of His words was different from what they would have been if He was

            speaking of all the seeds on the earth.  When the possibility exists for a

            translation that fulfills the intention of the speaker and does not

            constitute error, that passage is to be preferred above one that does the

            opposite. And when two possibilities exist; why should not the benefit

            of any doubt be given in favor of the one that fulfills what the

            Scripture teaches about inerrancy? To choose the other route leaves

            behind the implication that one is seeking out error and trying to

            establish it on flimsy grounds.5


            Lindsell is certainly right in his position that the Bible, with such

few apparent errors still unresolved, should be given the benefit of

any doubts. However, his two suggested solutions to the problem do

not go into sufficient detail as they stand, although they are certainly

moving in the right direction. All that seems to be needed is a more

detailed extension of both of his suggestions.


            2. H. Lindsell, The Battle For The Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 169.

Lindsell cites an unpublished paper delivered by D. P. Fuller at Wheaton College,

Wheaton, Illinois. Quite likely this is the same work by Fuller referred to above.

            3. Ibid, Lindsell cites J. A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

(Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886) 296.

            4. Ibid.

            5. Ibid.



            Several years ago (1968-69), this writer investigated the "prob-

lem" of the mustard seed.6  It is the purpose of this article to suggest a

solution which is more satisfactory than most of the suggested

solutions and which squares with the Greek text, the context, com-

mon sense, and the Bible's teaching concerning its own inerrancy.




            In the NT there is a blurring of distinction between the compara-

tive and superlative forms of the adjective.7  The comparative form  

mikro<teron appears to serve for both the comparative and superlative

forms of the adjective mikro<j, and only its usage in the immediate

context, as Jesus understood and used it, and its use in the parallel

passage, Mark 4:30-32, can determine how it is to be translated.

Alford argues that the word should not be taken as a superlative and

that the phrase should not be pressed too literally since the mustard

seed was proverbial of anything small.8  Mare, in a scholarly treat-

ment of this text and of the modern translations of the comparative

forms in it, also argues for the comparative use here.9  He appeals

to the anarthrous construction of mikro<teron in arguing his case,

but such an appeal is inconclusive. Significant here is Robertson's



            The comparative form, therefore, has two ideas, that of contrast or

            duality (Gegensatz) and of the relative comparative (Steigerung),

            though the first use was the original. Relative comparison is, of course,

            the dominant idea in most of the NT examples [italics mine], though as

            already remarked, the notion of duality always lies in the background.10


            Thus, since relative comparison is dominant with the comparative

and in consideration of the immediate context (where it could be taken

as comparative but combined with the idea of totality, i.e., "less than

all seeds," making it essentially superlative, it seems best to regard

mikro<teron as superlative. Mark's addition of tw?n e]pi< th?j gh?j in the

parallel passage (Mark 4:31) would further support this. Let it be


            6. J. A. Sproule, An Exegesis of New Testament Passages Cited As Errant By

Evangelicals (unpublished Master of Theology Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1969)


            7. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of

Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 668.

            8. H. Alford, The Greek Testament, rev. by E. F. Harrison (4 vols.; Chicago: Moody,

1958), 1. 144.

            9. W. H. Mare, "The Smallest Mustard Seed -Matthew 13:32," Grace Journal 9

(1968) 3-11.

            10. Robertson, Grammar, 663.

40                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


granted then that Jesus did declare the mustard seed to be the least of

all seeds. Is error involved?

            The problem of error finds its solution in the kind of seed to

which Jesus was referring. The mustard seed referred to was most

likely the Sinapis (sina<pi) nigra, or "black mustard," cultivated to

produce a useful product, namely, mustard and colza oil.11  Botani-

cally, the smallest of all seeds is the orchid seed. However, the

smallest garden-variety seed (la<xanon) in Palestine, or the entire

eastern world, at the time of Christ was the mustard seed. This is true

today. Shinners writes:


            The smallest of all seeds are those of orchids. The account under

            "ORCHIDS" in L. H. Bailey's Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture

            has this statement: The seeds of orchids are minute and extremely

            numerous, the number in a single capsule have been estimated for

            different species from several thousand to over a million. There are 13

            genera with a total of 61 species of this family described in the Flora of

            Syria. Palestine and Sinai, Vol. 2, by George E. Post (2nd ed. by John

            Edward Dinsmore, 1932). These are not the huge florist's kinds that the

            ordinary person thinks of first..., but they are large enough to be

            noticeable as wild flowers...the mustard seed would indeed have

            been the smallest of those likely to have been noticed by the people at

            the time of Christ. The principal field crops (such as barley, wheat,

            lentils, beans) have much larger seeds, as do vetches and other plants

            which might have been present as weeds (the biblical tares) among

            grain….There are various weeds and wild flowers belonging to the

            mustard, amaranth, pigweed, and chickweed families with seeds as

            small or smaller than mustard itself, but they would not have been

            particularly known or noticed by the inhabitants. Mustard occurs both

            wild and planted. The seeds of basil (Ocium basilicum, in the mint

            family) are nearly as small as those of mustard, and the plant was used

            in ancient times, though not so much as in later periods (medieval and

            modern). The only modern crop plant of importance with smaller seeds

            than mustard is tobacco, but this plant is of American origin and was

            not grown in the Old World until the 16th century and later....In

            absolute terms, the number of species in Christ's time was almost the

            same as at present, the chief differences being the disappearance of

            some (mostly in quite modern times), and the development of hybrids

            or garden varieties (which aren't true species).12


            11. H. N. and A. L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible (Waltham: Chronica Botanica,

1952) 59.

            12. L. H. Shinners, private interview held at the Herbarium at Southern Methodist

University, Dallas, Texas, June, 1968. Dr. Shinners received the Ph.D. degree in

Botany from the University of Wisconsin in 1943. He has served as Research Associate

at the Milwaukee Public Museum and is a founding member of the Southwestern

Association of Naturalists. He is the founder, editor, and publisher of the journal,

                                    SPROULE: THE MUSTARD SEED                                    41


            Shinners, an expert in the field of botany, has been quoted at

length to show that the mustard seed in Bible times was the smallest

garden-variety seed and, with the exception of tobacco, remains so

today. That Jesus was referring to garden-variety mustard seed is

evident from the context. His analogy is between the growth of the

Kingdom and the growth of an intentionally planted seed, i.e.,

garden-variety ("…which a man took and sowed in his field"). In

every NT instance where spe<rma is used botanically, it is used in an

agricultural sense of being sowed (cf. Matt 13:24, 27, 37; Mark 4:31;

2 Cor. 9: 10). Also, on every such occasion, it is used in connection with

the verb  spei<rw which means "to sow." The derivation of  spe<rma

from spei<rw further augments the argument that Jesus' use of spe<rma

in Matt 13:32 referred to that which was planted by man. This

conclusion is fully supported by both classical usage and the papyri


            This argument is further buttressed by the obvious association

between sperma<twn and laxa<nwn ("herbs") in the text. Liddell and

Scott describe λάχανον as occurring mostly in the plural and refer-

ring to garden herbs, potherbs, vegetables, and greens, in opposition

to wild plants.14  Bomkamm defines la<xanon as "edible plants,"

"vegetables," which are grown in the field or garden.15




            Therefore, it may be concluded that when Jesus called the

mustard seed the least of all seeds, the reference was to garden-variety

seeds, and Sinapis nigra was the smallest of all such seeds.16  This is a

reasonable conclusion and it squares with both the Greek and the

context of the disputed passages.



            A second defense against the claim of errancy is that Jesus was

speaking proverbially, since the great contrast between the very small.


SIDA Contributions to Botany. Dr. Shinners has been guest lecturer at the Annual

Symposium on Systematics at the Missouri Botanical Gardens and at the Smithsonian

Institute. He presently serves as Director of the Herbarium at Southern Methodist

University, the largest herbarium in the southwest, containing more than 318,000

botanical specimens from all parts of the world.

            13. H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (7th ed.; New York:

Harper & Bros., 1889) 1414; for the papyri evidence, see J. H. Moulton and G.

Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton,

1930) 583.

            14. Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 879.

            15. G. Bornkamm, “la<xanonTDNT 4 (1968) 65.

            16. Mare, "The Smallest Mustard Seed," 7.

42                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


mustard seed and its ultimate herb was proverbial of great growth.17  

Proverbial language is not errant language. Scientific precision need

not be expected of proverbial expressions, just as today, when

newspapers announce official "sunset" and "sunrise" times without

evoking a cry of "error!" Both arguments presented herein adequately

show that no error is involved in Matt 13:32.


            17. H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament

aus Talmud und Midrash (4 vols.; Munchen: C. H. Beck, 1961), 1. 669.



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