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A Grain of Truth

January 20, 2012

Just a quick word about that good old mustard seed thing, since it came up in a forum thread somewhere. I thought I’d post it here rather than bury it in that thread. It’s ridiculously simple, but still it continues to live on… the idea that Jesus made an error of fact by stating the mustard seed was the smallest plant seed in existence. He didn’t, as I think I can demonstrate.

The parable occurs in all three synoptics: Matthew 13:31-33; Mark 4:30-32; and Luke 13:18-19.

Luke doesn’t include the “smallest” reference. So we’ll concentrate on Matthew and Mark.

It really should be enough to point out that he is telling a parable, but there is more we can say.

I’m going to cite from the ESV. In this case, to show, sadly, that the translation does us no favors, and I think obscures the meaning.

Matthew 13:31-32

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

The Greek behind “It is the smallest of all seeds” reads:

μικρότερον μέν ἐστιν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων

ho mikroteron men estin panton ton spermaton

which smaller -0- is of-all the seeds

(A few technicalities: here is a comparative form functioning as superlative, apparently. Also note an etymological connection between “sowed” (espeiren < speiro) and “seed” (spermaton < sperma), etymologically sper-ma, “a sowed thing.” This probably indicates that “seed” is not exactly equal to sperma, and Jesus is specifically referring to the class of seeds sown by farmers.)

The principal thing I wish you to note is the presence of the article, Lit. “all the seeds.” Now, “all seeds” could be a reasonable way to translate this. But so could “all the seeds.”

Listen to the difference this would seem to make in English at least:

a. It is smaller than all seeds.

b. It is smaller than all the seeds.

If you think reading a makes it sound like a universal statement, while reading b indicates merely all the seeds in a particular class–for example, all the seeds the farmer has to sow–I think you are understanding this correctly. It seems to me that is all the language of the parable is doing, out of all the man’s seeds the mustard grains are the smallest. By contrast it grows larger than any other plant in his garden. (Not any plant in any garden on earth.) This is all just talking about a particular garden. It’s not really that complicated either.

Fine, you say, but look at Mark. You can’t get out of that one so easily. Well, I’m not trying to get out of anything, of course, just showing you what is actually going on. But I do admit, the ESV rendering of Mark 4:30-32 appears to give us a worse case:

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Aha! “All the seeds on earth.” If that’s not universal. I don’t know what is. Right?

Note first of all, this time the ESV translators gave us the definite article “the.” Following their lead from Matthew, I suppose they could have said “the smallest of all seeds on earth.” I’m not sure it makes a big difference here, in view of “on earth,” but it does make me wonder why the article doesn’t appear in the Matthew version.

But I invite you to make a little observation about the text. More Greek, sorry.

First let’s look at the phrase “when sown on the ground.”

ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

hotan spare epi tes ges

when sown on the earth

Note the use of ge “earth” in the sense of “ground.” (Daniel will like that.) Obviously, Jesus means the man sows the seed where seed goes when it gets sown, onto the soil, on the ground.

Now let’s look at the phrase rendered “is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.”

μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

mikroteron hon panton ton spermaton ton epi tes ges

smaller being of-all the seeds the on the earth

You, being astute and observant, will want to say: “Wait, there’s epi tes ges again. The exact same words. Didn’t they mean, two nano-seconds ago, “on the ground”? Why are they now supposed to mean “on earth”?

I think that’s a very good question. Can two similar forms have disparate meanings in close proximity? Sure. But is the local context a reasonable guide for which way to take the intended sense. Uh, yeeee-ah.

Someone please tell me why it is more likely that Jesus here means “on the earth” (a universal statement) than simply “on the ground” where the seeds go to grow into a plant. Can’t think of a reason? Me neither.

So for the life of me, I cannot understand why the ESV translators took it the way they did.

Now, if we adapt our ESV reading, let’s see if this changes our perception:

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the ground, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Poof, the “problem” disappears.

Understand, I’m not presenting this because I think it “solves the problem,” but because I think it shows more accurately what’s actually going on in the text. There is no “problem” and there never was.

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