Grace Theological Journal 9.3 (1968) 3-11

          Copyright © 1968 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                       MATTHEW 13:32


                                         W. HAROLD MARE

                Professor of New Testament Language and Literature

                                  Covenant Theological Seminary


     It is to be recognized that the Bible is not intended to be a textbook on science

but rather is a written revelation of God's redemptive history, involving the

fulfillment of that redemptive history, involving the fulfillment of that redemptive

plan in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


However, presupposing a God of truth who has revealed a rational and inerrant

written communication to his rational creature, man, we have the right to expect

that this communication, the Bible, when touching on science and secular, historical

matters will express such material accurately and meaningfully.


How, then, for example, is the statement of Jesus in Matthew 13:32 to be

understood, a verse which sets forth the mustard seed as being "the least of all the

 seeds"? Is this statement scientifically accurate, the phrase seeming to express in

the language and understanding of that day the fact that the mustard seed was the

smallest seed, a statement which might well be disputed by a modern day botanist?1


The Greek text of Matthew 13:32 which is to be examined in the light of the

linguistic and historical sitz im leben is as follows:



ho2 mikroteron men estin panton ton spermaton, hotan de auxethei, meizon ton 

lachanon estin kai ginetai dendron, hoste elthein ta peteina tou ouranou kai kataskenoun

en tois kladoi autou.


This paper was presented at the Thirteenth General Meeting of the Midwestern Section

of the E. T. S., April 19, 1968, in response to a paper by Dr. Daniel Fuller entitled,

“Banjamin Warfield's View of Faith and History" (Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological

Society, Vol. 11, No.2 [Spring 1968], pp. 75-83).  Dr. Fuller rejects Warfield's views

of Biblical inerrancy and believes that Jesus "deliberately accommodated his language

in non-revelational matters to the way the original readers viewed the world about them,

so as to enhance the communication of revelational truth."  For example, he insists

that "although the mustard seed is not really the smallest of all seeds, yet Jesus referred

to it as such because to the Jewish mind of Jesus' day, as is indicated by several passages

from the Talmud, the mustard seed denoted the smallest thing the eye could detect" (p.  hing the eye could detect" (p. ___________________________________81).



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It is well to observe how Matthew 13:32 is translated by some of the more modern

versions.  They fall into three basic categories as follows:




“Which indeed is the least of all seeds…it is the greatest among herbs, and

becometh a tree…”(KJV).


“It is the smallest of all seeds…it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a



"It is the smallest of all seeds…it is the largest of plants and grows into a tree…”



"welches das kleinste ist unter allen Samen…so ist es das grosseste unter dem Kohl,

und wird ein Baum…" (Luther).





                           BUT THE SECONDONE AS COMPARATIVE


"It is the smallest of all seeds…it is bigger than any plant and becomes a tree…”



"This indeed is the smallest of all the seeds;…, it is larger than any herb and becomes a tree. .."

(Roman Catholic Confraternity Edition).






                             AND THE SECOND WORD AS COMPARATIVE


"Which indeed is less3 than all seeds;…it is greater than the herbs and becometh a

 tree…" (ASV).


"It is less than any seed on earth…it is larger than any plant, it becomes a tree…”



It is evident from the variation in these translations sampled that there is a

struggle to find adequate words with which to express the meaning of the

Greek words.

            THE SMALLEST MUSTARD SEED – MATTHEW 13:32                             5





In contrast to the rather distinct and separate categories occupied by the comparative

and superlative in classical Greek,4 these two forms of comparison in the New Testament are

less distinctive and tend to overlap.  Actually the superlative form is on the decline in the

New Testament.5


As to meaning and function Robertson, in noting a blurring of distinction between the

comparative and superlative in the New Testament, observes that the comparative can be

used when three things are compared (I Cor. 13:13) as well as be found in its usual sense

of comparing two things (I Cor. 12:23, Luke 7:42f).6


It is to be observed further that as the New Testament superlative, besides having

the normal superlative sense, like biggest, fastest, etc., can have the elative force of "very,"

 so the comparative also may be used in the elative sense (Acts 24:22; 25:10; II Tim. 1:18;

John 13:27).7



Robertson observes that the comparative has both the ideas of contrast or duality (Gegensatz)

 and of the relative comparative (Steigerung), the latter idea being the dominant thought in

most of the New Testament examples, the notion of duality, however, always being in the

 background (cf. Matt. 10:15; II Pet. 1:19; I Cor. 11:17; I Cor. 1:25).8




In the discussion of the meaning of the words important to the understanding

of Matthew 13:32, mikroteron is the first to be considered, being a comparative form

used five times in the New Testament, two of which occurrences are used similarly

in parallel passages, Matthew 13:32 and Mark 4:31. Two other uses are likewise in

parallel passages, Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28, in which Christians are compared

in greatness to John the Baptist, with the thought that, although none humanly born

is greater (meizon) than John, yet he who is "smaller" (mikroteros), or "smallest" is

 greater (meizon) than he.9  The comparative sense of mikroteros here is to be preferred,

for the comparison involves a duality between John the Baptist and another individual

who, on the one hand, is considered smaller and, on the other, greater than John.

Cullmann presents an interesting thought that mikroteros in Matt. 11: 11 (and Luke

7: 28) should be translated "younger," this being a reference to Christ as John's greater

 successor,10 an idea which fits the concept of John 3:30.11


The last New Testament use of mikroteros is found in Luke 9:48 where

"the smallest" one (ho mikroteros) among all the disciples is declared to be great

 (megas).  The article used here may make the superlative translation preferable

 by specifying the one among all, but if this were the idea exclusively, it would

seem that the comparative or superlative12 form would more likely have been used

 than megas in the conclusion of the thought.

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The comparative, meizon, is common in the New Testament, occurring some

fifty times,13 often used in comparing two things (as Matt. 23:17, 19; Luke 12:18; John

4:12), sometimes comparing more than two things (as John 10:29, etc.)14 and sometimes

having a superlative meaning when comparing a number of things or persons (as Matthew

18:1, 4; Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46). Thus, it is evident that the testimony is mixed as to

the specific usage of meizon, the context alone having to determine its meaning whether

comparative, "greater," or superlative, "greatest.”  In the context of Matthew 13:32

the seed, when grown (auxethei, effective, punctiliar aorist passive) is declared to be

meizon with respect to the lachana, not necessarily in respect to every lachanon, nor

"greater" in every way, but greater by becoming dendron, tree-size,15 the duality

concept16 being emphasized between the mustard seed which grows larger and the

other garden herbs which at maturity are not so large.


Regarding sinapi, it is difficult to determine specifically the exact species of

mustard seed called in the text kokkos sinapeos,17 it being identified by most as

being brassica (or, sinapis) nigra (black mustard), but also claimed as being sinapis

alba (white mustard, a view held by Dalman), sinapis orientalis (Pratt), sinapis

ar:venis (Dalman), salvadora persica (Royle), phytolacca decandra (pokeberry)

(Frost), and phytolacca dodecandra (an Abyssinian species of pokeweed).18 At any

rate, Jesus identifies it with sperma, a seed from which anything springs, but in

the botany area, a seed from which a plant germinates,19 in the context being further

compared not only with all spermata generally, but in particular with the lachana,

a vegetable species of plants, the garden herbs, in contrast to the wild plants.20


The dendron here need not be considered the timber tree, but can include tall

plants (Hdt. 1.193) and such small trees as the olive tree (Ar. Av. 617). The mustard

seed here would be that plant which would grow to small tree size, up to ten feet in height.21


Thus, this verse conveys the thought that a small seed, some species of the

mustard seed, of the biological phylum, the spermatophyta,22 of which there are

more than 126,000 species,23 of that subdivision of seeds called the garden, or

cultivated, herbs, has the unusual characteristic of developing from a very small size

to that of tree size, not the largest tree category, but to a height considerably

larger24 than that to which herb seeds usually grew.  Such a comparison from smallness

to largeness was a fitting illustration to express an aspect of the kingdom of heaven,

that is, although seen to be extremely small in its beginning, it develops into an

organism of considerable size.





Some, as Daniel P. Fuller, have understood that such passages as Matthew

13:32 involve scientific error. Fuller says that Jesus found it necessary to illustrate

the small beginnings of the kingdom of God, referring to what His hearers considered to be the smallest seed

(Matt. 13:32; 17:20). Although the mustard seed is not really the smallest

of all seeds, yet Jesus referred to it as such….


THE SMALLEST MUSTARD SEED - MATTHEW 13:32                             7


Surely God and Jesus subserved the interests of truth more by accommodating

themselves to the people's understanding of botany than they would

have by being as careful to be inerrant in this non-revelational matter as

they were in revelational ones.25



Jesus' statement in Matthew 13:32 about the size of the mustard seed

need not, and has no reason to, be interpreted as contradictory to scientific evidence for

the following reasons.


In the first place, although, as noted above, the orchid seed may be the smallest,

 or one of the smallest plant seeds, and thus smaller than the mustard seed, it is not necessary

to consider Jesus' statement in Matthew 13:32 as containing scientific error since the class

of seeds with which the mustard seed is associated is the garden herb group (lachana)

which may possibly be interpreted as being the “all the seeds” category to which reference

 is made in the earlier part of the statement, "all" there being limited to the specific group

 (lachana) under consideration in the total context of the verse.26 Since the mustard seed

probably was cultivated in Palestine in ancient times, for its oil,27 it may be argued that

Jesus, when speaking of this type of seed, was talking about it in a comparison with

all those seeds which were planted by farmers for food. Since panton is used with the

lachana group in the parallel passage in Mark 4:31, it may be further argued that the

panton ton spermaton group in both Matthew 13:32 and Mark 4:31 is intended to mean

only the lachana species, the "all the garden herb" group. In this limited context of garden

 herbs then, Jesus speaks of the mustard seed as extremely small.


With "all the seeds" being understood as limited in this way by the context, the

minute orchid seed28 need not be considered as being included by Jesus in His statement.

 It is to be observed that if Jesus had said, "The mustard seed is smaller than the orchid

seed, "He would have seemed to have spoken erroneously; but this He did not say.


Secondly, that the expression comparing smallness with the size of mustard

 seed was a common Jewish saying29 argues for the fact that scientific literalness and

preciseness need not be pressed upon it, it being able to be understood then, as

men certainly understand it now, as a general and popular expression of smallness.

Compare such sayings as, "the four corners of the earth" (Isa. 11:12; Ezek. 7:2),

and "the sun rises" (Matt. 5:45) which also must not be pressed as being expressions

of a technical scientific nature, being understood by all today as describing in general

what men from their localized and limited positions in a material world see and experience.


However, it is to be realized that Jesus, in using the common Jewish

proverbial expression of the mustard seed as a figure of smallness, did so only

because the proverbial expression so used was a true and accurate statement,

including those implications involving scientific data regarding the mustard seed,

both as to its very smallness as a seed and to its moderate largeness when grown.


In positing the doctrine of total Biblical inerrancy, two basic principles

are always to be found together (as is seen to be true in Matthew 13:32) in Biblical

statements and propositions:



8                                                          GRACE JOURNAL


1. The words and concepts used are understandable to the hearers and readers.

(Compare Paul's use of aner in Acts 17:31, a term understandable to the

Athenians, instead of the term huios tou anthropou which would rather be

meaningful to those who were exposed to the Old Testament Scripture and its


2. Those words and concepts used are likewise true and accurate, containing

no error of fact, doctrine or judgment.


It is not that one or the other of these principles applies, but that both of

them are true at the same time in all Scriptural statements, as is the case in Matthew 13:32.


Furthermore, the phrase in which mikroteron is found in Matthew 13:32 may be

translated as follows, “a grain of mustard seed…which is a smaller of all the seeds," or,

better expressed, "a smaller group (or, example) from, or, out of, the total group of all

 the seeds,” this translation and/or paraphrase being possible because the phrase can

be taken as a partitive or ablatival genitive after the comparative,30 and because the form

mikroteron is anarthous31 even as kokkos sinapeos is anarthrous and translated "a grain of

mustard seed,"32 and, being comparative in form, it can be taken as a true comparative in

meaning, such as certain other New Testament comparative forms elsewhere are to be taken,

as has been seen above.33


If the assumption be made that the comparison expressed in Matthew 13:32

involves more species of seeds than just the garden herb group, and, if the mikroteron

phrase is translated, "a smaller group (or, example) out of all the seeds," then, in such

a context, the mustard seed species would compare favorably with the orchid seed

species, as being another example, along with the orchid, of "a smaller seed group.”


It is to be observed that the elative sense, "very,” is a possible interpretation

of comparatives in some contexts, but not in this case, since the comparative here is

used with a following genitive rather than as an adverbial modifier of the verb, as is

 seen in the elative comparatives in Acts 24:22; 25:10; II Tim. 1:18; John 13:27

(also MS D, Acts 4:1634 and 10:28), where the idea of “very" fits.


An additional argument for taking mikroteron as comparative in meaning is

that it is thus parallel in meaning, as well as form, with the succeeding comparative,

 meizon, which a number of the versions take also as comparative in meaning,

translating it, "bigger," "larger,” "greater,"35 the complete comparative picture in

the verse thus agreeing with Robertson’s thought that "the notion of duality always

lies in the background" of the comparative.36


Even if mikroteron be taken as superlative in meaning, the verse still need not

be interpreted as teaching that the mustard seed is exhaustively the smallest of the seeds,

 inasmuch as being anarthrous, it may be translated, "a smallest group out of all the seeds."


At any rate, mikroteron taken either comparatively or superlatively in the manner

suggested above may, together with the whole ho relative clause, be properly interpreted

as teaching that the seed mentioned sinapi, whatever its specific nature,37 is to be thought of as

THE SMALLEST MUSTARD SEED - MATTHEW 13:32                 9


a seed group which develops into a plant larger than the garden herbs (lachana) with

which class it seems to be a part, and also which begins in its growth as a very small

seed (as presumably other lachana begin) being "a smaller" or "a smallest" seed of all

 the seed groups (panton ton spermaton).38


Therefore, on the basis of the above discussion, it is not necessary to

consider that Matthew 13:32 in its sitz im leben includes a botanical scientific error,

 since the text can be culturally, historically and linguistically interpreted as describing

scientific phenomena in general, but accurate, terms which agree with current Greek

syntax and are readily understandable In this terminology as presenting that which

men ordinarily see and experience in the material world, this text being an accurate

and adequate expression of truth coming from a God of absolute truth who has revealed

Himself through the propositional truth of the Bible.







1.         Compare Moldenke's remarks about the orchid seeds "now usually regarded as the

            smallest in the world, being actually as fine as powder."  H. N. Moldenke and A. L.

            Moldenke, Plants of the Bible (Waltham, Mass.:Chronica Botanica Company, 1952), p.61.

2.         Mark 4:31 in the parallel passage has the masculine relative pronoun, hon, which strictly

            agrees grammatically with the masculine, kokkos, whereas Matthew is evidently thinking

            more of to sperma and so uses the neuter, ho.  See W. C. Allen, Gospel According to S. Matthew,

            in the International Critical Commentary (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907) p. 151.

            The text of Mark 4:31 is much the same in Greek, but it is to be noted that panton there is

            also used with ton lachanon.

3.         Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 5th edition says under "less," "syn. less, smaller, fewer.

            Less (opposed to greater, more) refer esp. to degree, value, or amount; smaller (opposed

            to larger) esp. to size, dimensions, or amount….”

4.         H. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar, rev. by G. M. Messing (Cambridge: Harvard University

            Press, 1963), pp.278-283.

5.         F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament, translated and

            revised by R. W. Funk (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 33. A. T.

            Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research,

            3rd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919), p. 28.

6.         Robertson, op. cit., p. 668; and J. H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek,

            3rd ed., Vol. I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908), p. 236.

7.         Compare the superlative, elachistos, in Luke.  Moulton, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 236.

8.         Robertson, op. cit., p. 663.

9.         These two passages are identically word for word in the Greek text except that Matt. 11: 11

             has ton ouranon instead of tou theou found in Luke 7:28.

10.       Blass-Debrunner, op. cit., Par. 61, p. 33, notes this idea of O. Cullmann,

            Con. Neot. 11 (1947) 30, which they say was also the concept of Franz  Dibelius.

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11.       Compare Luke 22:26 where D it vg (cl) sy sa have mikroteros instead of neoteros,

             providing the interesting suggestion that the former word in the comparative might

             be considered equivalent to the meaning in neoteros.

12.       Regarding comparison forms of megas, Moulton (op. cit., Vol. I, p. 78) observes that

             megistos "is practically obsolete in Hellenistic: its appearance in II Peter is as significant

             as its absence from the rest of the New Testament."

13.       Robertson, op. cit., p. 277.

14.       However, this usage could be interpreted as expressing duality, two classes again being

            compared, the Father on the one hand, all other beings and forces on the other. Compare

            also in this connection John 14:12; Hebrews 11:26; III John 4.

15.       Compare J. .A. .Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew       

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

16.       Robertson, op.cit., p. 663.

17.       W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament,

            4th revised edition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), “sinapi”; A. 

            Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Matthew (London:

             Robert Scott Roxburghe House, 1915), p. 194.

18.       Moldenke, op. cit., pp. 59-61.

19.       J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, rev. (New York:

           American Book Company, 1889), "sperma.”

20.       Lachanon is from lachaino, to dig; thus developed the idea of herbs grown on cultivated

             (dug-up) land. Thayer, op. cit., "lachanon."

21.       Thayer, op. cit., "sinapi"; Moldenke, op. cit., p. 60.

22.       Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed., unabridged (Springfield, Mass.:

             G.& C. Merriam Co., 1956), “plant.”

23.       Webster, op. cit., "spermatophyta."

24.       It is not necessary to assume that the sinapi when grown was large enough and

            strong enough to be a nesting place for birds. All the verb kataskenoo ("settle") need

            imply is that small birds temporarily perched on its branches. See Moldenke, op. cit., p. 61.

25.       Daniel P. Fuller, "Benjamin B. Warfield's View of Faith and History," pp. 10, 11, a paper

            presented at the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society,

            Dec. 27-29, 1967, Toronto Bible College, Toronto, Canada, and published in the

            Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 11, No.2 (Spring, 1968), pp.

            75-83 (see pp. 81 and 82).

26.       Compare, for example, "all" limited by the context in John 6:37 and John 12:32.

27.       Moldenke, op. cit., pp. 59, 61.

28.       A number of kinds of orchids were known to be native to Palestine. Moldenke,

             op cit., p .61.

29.       Plummer (op. cit., p. 194) says, "'small as a mustard seed' was a Jewish proverb

            to indicate a very minute particle." See also H. Alford, The Greek Testament, Vol. I,

            (New York: Harper and Bros., 1859), p. 132; H. A. W. Meyer, The Gospel of Matthew

            (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1884), p.259; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck,

             Kommentar Zum Neuen Testament, 4th unchanged ed., Vol. I (Munchen: C. H.

             Beck’she Verlagsbuchhandlung, (1965), p. 669.

30.       Actually the partitive and ablatival genitives frequently blend into one another.

            See Robertson, op. cit., p. 519. Examples of the partitive genitive are tous ptochous ton

THE SMALLEST MUSTARD SEED -MATTHEW 13:32                  11


hagion (Rom. 15:26) and hoi loipoi ton anthropon (Luke 18:11);and, of the ablatival

genitive used after the comparative form, which construction is common in the

New Testament are, ischuroteros mou (Matt. 3:11) and mikroteron hon panton

ton spermaton (Mark 4:31), this latter example suggested by Robertson being

in the parallel passage on the mustard seed. Robertson, op. cit., p. 516.

31.       The other three uses of mikroteros{aside from Matt. 13:32 and its parallel,

             Mark 4:31) to which reference has been made above, Matt. 11:11, Luke 7:28; 9:48,

             all have the article and are to be translated, "the smaller" (possibly, "younger,"

             Matt. 11: 11), or “the smallest."

32.       It is to be noted that the anarthrous form, kokkos, in Matt. 13:31 is generally

            translated "a grain…," as is evidenced by the KJV, RSV, Luther, R. C. Confraternity

            Edition, and the ASV.

33.       Compare meizon used in the true comparative sense in Heb. 11:26; and John 14:12.

34.       Moulton, op. cit., p. 236.

35.       See the fo1lowing English versions: Berkeley, Roman Catholic Confraternity Edition,

            ASV, and Moffatt's translation.

36.       Robertson, op. cit., p.663.

37.       H. Alford, The Greek Testament, Vol. I (New York: Harper and Bros. 1859), p. 132.

38.       Blanchan has said, "…the comparison between the size of a seed and the plant's

            great height was already proverbial in the East when Jesus used it…” Through

            Moldenke, op. cit., p. 60.




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