A Question I Was Asked:

Is the Mustard Seed Really the Smallest of all Seeds?

Is the mustard seed really the smallest of all seeds? I have heard that it is not. Wouldn't our Lord have known His horticulture?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, you are referring to a Bible text occurring in Matthew 13:31, Mark 4:30 and Luke 13:19. Let us look at it:

"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches," (Matthew 13:31; see also Mark 4:30; Luke 13:19).

I know about mustard seeds because I sometimes use them in cooking, believe me, they are small! The mustard seed, however, is not the smallest of all seeds, but Jesus was speaking in a proverbial/parable style. He wasn't making a statement of absolute horticultural fact, nor was He giving a lecture on the various principles of horticulture, or on growing mustard; rather, He was using a proverbial style for the purposes of teaching. However, in general, and compared with other seeds which farmers of the Holy Land sowed, the mustard seed is pretty small.

Various attempts have been made to positively identify the type of mustard which Jesus was referring to - there are several possibilities which can grow in the area - but this is probably a pointless exercise. The Baker Encyclopedia states the following:

"While the seeds of the mustard are not the smallest known, they were probably the smallest familiar to the common people who comprised Jesus' audience in Galilee." (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. IV, 1988, page 1716).

Also, notice that Jesus says that when it (mustard) is full grown it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree so that the birds nest in it. Here Jesus was simply pointing out that, fully grown, a mustard plant can grow larger than many "garden plants," however, He was not comparing it to other trees from a pure size point of view. Obviously, there were - and are - many shrubs and trees in Israel which were much larger, including various palms and the olive tree, of course. Jesus certainly knew this but we need to understand that He was not making any sort of botanical statement. Instead, Jesus was drawing attention to the comparison of the "smallest" to the "largest" and using it to illustrate how the Kingdom of heaven will expand in the world from a very small beginning to a huge presence.

This is not the only place where Jesus used the mustard seed as an example of a very small seed.

He replied, "Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, 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." (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6).

There is, of course, also just the possibility that - in the area of Galilee - what the local people thought of as "mustard" back in the first century was something totally different to what we would now call 'mustard' in the modern West. Even today many cultures have varying names for garden plants, which is why botanical nomenclature (official plant names as rendered in Latin) later became established.

Robin A. Brace. August 20th, 2015.