Mustard: Big issues with a small seed
Are there scientific errors in how mustard seeds and plants are talked about by Jesus?

Mustard plants growing wild (3 to 5 feet tall) in the fields around the Sea of Galilee


A question that has come to us in both written and verbal forms is in regards to the mustard seed. A seemingly insignificant subject, it is frequently granted paramount stature by those who seek to discredit Scriptures. It then becomes a symptom of the world and its desire to find excuses to ignore the plain teachings of Scriptures concerning the salvation found only in Jesus Christ. For reference, forms of these mustard questions (or statements) include:

  1. Isn't it true that the Bible (or Jesus) makes a mistake in calling the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds?

  2. The Bible (or Jesus) is wrong in stating that mustard seed grows into a tree.

  3. Even if the Bible (or Jesus) is using the mustard seed as a figure of speech, doesn't this prove that the Bible shouldn't be used as a science book, since it clearly is bad science?

Since each of these questions or statements does not specify what passage of Scriptures they are referring to, the five references which pertain, all from the gospels, are as follows:

Matthew 13:31-32 He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." (NIV)

Matthew 17:20 He replied, "Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. a" (NIV)

Mark 4:30-32 Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 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." (NIV)

Luke 13:18-19 Then Jesus asked, "What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches." (NIV)

Luke 17:5-6 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 6 He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. (NIV)

The first passage (Matthew 13:31-32) was specifically quoted in King James English, by one writer of the Atheist Alliance, as he attacked God...

"The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed... Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree" Matt. 13:31, 32. The mustard seed is not the least of all seeds; many plants, such as the orchid, have smaller seeds. How could the Christian god fail to know basic biology? -- Science and Religion by Steven Morris, PhD.

In dropping part of the quotation, Steven Morris knowingly dropped part of the context. Apart from context, virtually any statement can be misconstrued or misused in a fashion unintended by the writer. For example, if you had a transcript of your own words on pretty much any given day, drawing a single arbitrary paragraph out of the pages could be used to have you assenting to, or disagreeing with, something you had no intention of doing.

I'm quite sure that Dr. Steven Morris has at some time referred to the setting or rising of the sun. Using his standard, this would discredit him from ever speaking on scientific subjects... every scientist knows that the sun doesn't move relative to the earth! In fact, with proper observation and context, we readily recognize these statements as figures of speech and would never use them as indictments on his scientific abilities. (If he did stand up in a scientific forum and claim that the sun orbits the earth, the context would have us justly proclaim him as a scientific loon). Hosts of additional passages could be cited as examples of the figures of speech incorporated throughout Scriptures, including Psalms 18:2 & Psalms 141:3. These and similar passages do not teach that God is literally a rock, a fortress, a shield, or a horn, or that we have a literal door over our mouths - each employs imagery which would engage the mind of the hearer rather than stand up to some unintended "scientific" standard.

Since context becomes exceedingly important, let's examine Matthew 13:31-32 again, still in King James English (KJV), re-supplying (and noting) the statements ommitted by Morris.

A) Matthew 13:31a [missing] Another parable put he forth unto them, saying,
B) Matthew 13:31b The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed,
C) Matthew 13:31c [missing] which a man took, and sowed in his field:
D) Matthew 13:32a Which indeed is the least of all seeds:
E) Matthew 13:32b but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs,
F) Matthew 13:32c and becometh a tree,
G) Matthew 13:32d [missing] so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.

A quick listing of facts established within the full context and passage include...

  1. This teaching was a parable. (A)

  2. The seed referenced was cultivated (C) mustard seed (B) known to, and used by, people of the region as a gardening seed (C).
  3. This was the least, or smallest, of the seeds meeting the criteria of point 2. (D)
  4. It grows to become the greatest of the herbs meeting the criteria of point 2. (E)
  5. It is a tree in contrast to all the other herbs (points 2 and 4)
  6. It grows large enough that birds can come and rest on its branches.

Because this teaching was a parable, it is important to understand what a Scriptural parable is.

Parable: A metaphor or simile, usually as a short allegorical narrative, utilizing popular sayings or commonly known circumstances to illustrate a spiritual truth through the use of comparison.

Extra-biblical sources, close to the period, also confirm that "small as a mustard seed" was a common saying of the era, again showing that the statement was intended to be understood by the immediate hearers, in context, not to be used as a world-wide all encompassing and absolute statement. It certainly was the the smallest garden seed, or seed that yielded a crop, in that region. For example, Jewish Rabbinical writings use the phrase to mean the least amount in regards to the smallest drop of blood, the smallest remnant of sunshine in the evening sky, and in terms of the slightest defilement.

Demonstrating their spiritual blindness, the many skeptics of Scriptures continue to cite this and other equally dubious "mistakes of Scriptures." Even when one such individual grudgingly acknowledged the context and contemporary usage of the passage, he still claims it as proof of the irrelevancy of Scriptures.

[First citing Matthew 13:31-32] It is a well known fact that the orchid seed is the smallest seed in the world, not the mustard seed. To be fair, it is arguably true that in the Palestinian area, the mustard seed could be called the smallest commonly used seed. In the interest of general application, I am willing to accept that someone would have referred to the mustard seed calling it the smallest seed only by way of teaching a moral lesson about his kingdom, as Jesus supposedly did. In other words, it would be absurd to fault the New Testament writers for not having Jesus say, "The world's smallest seed is really the orchid seed which is a seed far away from here and to it I liken the kingdom!" This would be pointless since the gospel writers wanted to use something (a common seed) to which all listeners at that time could relate. I simply list it here as a scientific inaccuracy to emphasize the point that the bible text offers nothing remarkable or divinely insightful in the least. Had the orchid seed been referenced in this text as the world's smallest seed, bibliolaters would be holding this verse up in our faces as "proof" that an all-knowing God inspired the bible! Theists want the bible to be as accurate as a science book and reveal unknown truths about the world, and yet when push comes to shove, and we skeptics demonstrate that no such evidence exists, we are told "the bible is not a science book!" Not only is the bible far from being a science book, it is only filled with references that qualify it only to be a mere writings of the time that reflect the views of the day in which it was written. (JH)

For the record, the Bible is accurate on every subject to which it speaks. When statements are made concerning history, science, faith or God, they are factual and correct. Using figures of speech or illustrative word imagery in some passages, does not discredit the statements intended to be taken as direct or supporting statements of truth. Context and intent is still the key. Hold the entirety of today's scientist's to the skeptic's impossible standard of having never used any figurative language and there would be no one left. (I could talk till I'm "blue in the face," or until the "cows come home," or just keep on being "a pain," but "my money's on them" not finding someone who hasn't "dropped" a few phrases or "salted" their speech with a "pinch" of non-literal expressions. Go figure!)

Wild mustard in February at Galilee

Returning to the text of the parable, other skeptics (including one unbelieving guide in Israel) claim a mistake in Scriptures regarding the mustard seed growing into a tree. Again, remembering that the purpose of a parable is to paint a memorable word picture, drawing on the images and knowledge of the listeners, the wording was to specifically contrast mustard with other garden herbs or plants. In no way was Jesus trying to compare it with an oak or cedar tree, the context specifies what the contrast was to be. In fact, the grown mustard seed plant has much of the appearance of a tree, especially in comparison to most other garden herbs or plants. This brings us to the birds...

Mark 4:32 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." (NIV)

Mark 4:32 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. (KJV)

Typically citing the King James translation, the skeptics are quick to point out that the full grown mustard plant is too small for birds to nest in. This, they assume, is the only meaning for the word translated as "lodge." While the Greek word ("kataskenoo") could be used to imply a longer duration (i.e. nest), it does not have to mean this. It likewise can mean "to rest" or "to seek shelter," something which is readily observed, with birds stopping on the branches of the plant to eat the seeds growing there. The New International translation better reflects this understanding and usage of the term. Comparing the kingdom of heaven to this seed and plant would have great pictorial value as the listeners would readily understand it to be something miniscule that would grow to be larger than all other planted kingdoms (i.e. the other garden plants), providing shelter (and sustenance) to all who would rest on its mighty branches.

Wild Sinapsis arvensis mustard towering over other plants in a field

For the more scientifically inclined, it must be noted that there are three species of the mustard plant common to the region of Israel. Two of these readily grow wild, namely Sinapsis arvensis and Sinapsis alba. (The USDA actually characterizes arvensis, or wild charlock mustard, as "a prohibited noxious weed"). The black mustard, Sinapsis nigra, is specifically singled out and cultivated as a condiment. Each of these species produces an extremely small seed, and all of them in favorable soil conditions and climate grow to an impressive size. While four feet tall is an average maximum height, noted examples of the Sinapis nigra have been in the range of ten to fifteen feet in height. Certainly this would qualify as a tree in comparison to other garden herbs and plants! Travelers to the Middle East (Charles Leonard Irby and James Mangles), about two centuries ago (1817-1818), noted that black mustard they observed was as high as the horses' heads. Another writer (Dr. Thompson, published 1902) from later that century took note that he saw wild mustard growing as tall as a horse and rider in one rich plain area. Unquestionably, the language used by Jesus was appropriate.


Another field of wild mustard near the Tell of Beth Shean