Is the mustard seed really the smallest seed there is?
Let us review the biblical references to what Jesus said in respect to the mustard seed.
We read in Matthew 13:31-32: “Another parable He put forth to them, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.’” (Also compare Mark 4:31 and Luke 13:18-19.)
The only two other references to the mustard seed in the Bible are in Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6 when they are used in the context of faith.
We read on the website personpaper.com about which is the smallest seed in the world:
“There are 300,000 species of seed-bearing plants in the world that we know of. Among these, the smallest seed belongs to an orchid known as Aerides odorata. This flowering plant lives in areas across China, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines, preferring a rainforest-type habitat. The seed of the Aerides odorata is only 0.2 millimeters in length. That may be a little hard to picture, so here is more of a visual: It takes over three million Aerides odorata seeds to make up one gram–3,300,000, to be exact! The seed is truly miniscule–almost microscopic!”
From this information, we note that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world, and so how do we understand what Jesus was saying? There are those who might reason that if Jesus was wrong about this, what else might He have been wrong about?
In the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges Commentary, we read:
“‘Small as a grain of mustard seed’ was a proverbial expression among the Jews for something exceedingly minute. The mustard-seed is not the least of all seeds in the world, but of all which the husbandman was accustomed to sow, and the ‘tree,’ when full grown, was larger than the other herbs in his garden.”
On the Wikipedia website, we read about the mustard seed and its religious significance: “Jewish texts compare the knowable universe to the size of a mustard seed to demonstrate the world’s insignificance and to teach humility. The Jewish philosopher Nachmanides mentions the universe expanded from the time of its creation, in which it was the size of a mustard seed.”
Of course, it seems that the comments by Wikipedia are incorporating the false concept of the Evolution Theory. God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning in a beautiful state; the universe did not “evolve” and expand due to the “Big Bang” idea.
From the comments, quoted above, it would follow that Jesus used a proverbial expression among the Jews, rather than making a statement of biological fact.
The Benson Commentary agrees and observes: “[It] is like to a grain of mustard-seed — Small and contemptible in its beginning. Which is indeed the least of all seeds — That is, of all those seeds with which the people of Judea were then acquainted. Our Lord’s words are to be interpreted by popular use. And we learn from this gospel, Matthew 17:20, that like a grain of mustard-seed was become proverbial for expressing a small quantity.”
The Christian Post addressed this question in 2003 as follows:
“Please note that Jesus was not comparing the mustard seed to all other seeds in the world, but to seeds that a local, Palestinian farmer might have ‘sowed in his field,’ i.e., a key qualifying phrase in verse 31. And it’s absolutely true that the black mustard seed (Brassica nigra = Sinapis nigra) was the smallest seed ever sown by a first-century farmer in that part of the world.
“It’s also true, as many modern-day encyclopedias will tell you, that the black mustard seed in Israel will typically grow to heights of 3.7 meters, or twelve (12) feet) — plenty large enough to hold a bird nest.
“It’s important to remember that the Bible often uses everyday terminology in order to communicate simple truth. Even today, we might refer to a ‘sunset’ when, technically, scientifically, we know that the sun never actually ‘sets,’ i.e., it’s the earth that revolves.
“The context of Matthew 13 makes it quite clear that Jesus was addressing a local lay audience, not an international conference of botanists. It seems that no reasonable person would therefore insist for very long that this text provides a viable basis for questioning either Jesus or the Bible, when it comes to getting the facts straight — scientifically, historically, or technically.”
It is true that the Bible sometimes uses “hyperbole” to stress a spiritual point. As we saw in our three-part series about hyperbole in January 2021, E W Bullinger, a 19th Century English clergyman, biblical scholar, and theologian wrote a book entitled “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.” He claimed that there were over 200 different types of figures of speech, and hyperbole was one of them. Hyperbole is, put simply, an exaggeration to make the point and not to be taken literally.
Likewise, a proverbial expression amongst the Jews would be another figure of speech. Also, this could be considered colloquial. The website of literarydevices.net states: “Colloquial language is language that is informal and conversational. A colloquialism is a word or expression that is commonplace within a specific language, geographic region, or historical era. Colloquialisms are useful in many ways as literary devices.”
We should also note that, according to Scripture, it was God the Father who created all things through Jesus Christ (compare Ephesians 3:9), and Jesus, as Creator, would know His creation. We read in John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word [Logos in Greek, meaning Spokesman], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” We know that the Word became Jesus Christ as we read in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In Colossians 1:16-17 we read: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” And Hebrews 1:2 states: “[God] has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds…” and it adds in verse 10, referring to Jesus Christ, the Son of God: “‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands.”
It is important to re-emphasize the point that the One who was the Creator would have known all about the earth He created and all that was in it. What would His hearers have thought if He had said something along the following lines?:
“The kingdom of heaven is like an aerides odorata seed which is only 0.2 millimeters in length and it takes over three million aerides odorata seeds to make up one gram–3,300,000, to be exact! The seed is truly miniscule–almost microscopic, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
His audience wouldn’t have known what He was talking about. So, based on what has been stated so far in this Q&A, Christ would have chosen an example, using the current Jewish vernacular so that all who heard Him could understand that He was expressing a spiritual message. In any event, Christ wanted to show with His message how from small beginnings great things would be achieved, and by extension to the future, as we read in Habakkuk 2:14: “For the earth will be filled With the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea.”
Rather than pointing the finger and criticising what at first reading could be seen as a basic scientific or biological mistake, we have to view the parable in context, and it is clear that a message was given to the local people at that time by the One who had created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, to make a spiritual point and to convey spiritual truth.
However, having said all of this, we need to refer to a Q&A about the mustard seed, in which we explained that Christ was “ALSO very accurate from a ‘biological’ and ‘scientific’ standpoint.” We said the following:
“As the translation of the New King James Bible [of Matthew 13:31-32] shows, He spoke of the ‘least’ of the seeds and the ‘greatest’ of the herbs–not necessarily of the ‘smallest’ and the ‘largest.’ When Christ said that the mustard seed was the ‘least’ of all seeds, the Greek word for ‘least’ is ‘mikros.’ When using the phrase that it would become the ‘greatest’ of all herbs, the Greek word for ‘greatest’ is ‘meizon.’
“Thayer defines ‘mikros’ as follows: ‘small, little: … of size… length… space… age… time… quantity [and] of rank or INFLUENCE.’ Strong’s defines the Greek word ‘mikros’ as ‘small (in size, quantity, number or (figuratively) dignity): – least, less, little, small.’
“Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words states that the word ‘mikros’ literally means, ‘small’ or ‘little,’ (in regard to age, quantity, size or space), but that it is sometimes translated as ‘the least’ (for example, in Acts 8:10 and in Hebrews 8:11), with reference to rank and INFLUENCE. We see, then, that the word ‘mikros’ can be translated as ‘little’–it does not even HAVE to be translated as “the least.” In addition, the Greek word ‘mikros’ does not HAVE to address size at all, but it can refer to ‘influence’ or ‘dignity.’
“Likewise, the Greek word for ‘greatest’–‘meizon’–can be translated as ‘greater’–by comparison. It does not have to address size; it can also refer to IMPORTANCE or INFLUENCE. Young’s defines the word ‘meizon’ as ‘greater’ or ‘larger.’ The meaning is primarily one of COMPARATIVE IMPORTANCE, and not necessarily of size. In Matthew 18:1, the same Greek word ‘meizon’ is used to describe IMPORTANCE, STATUS or RANK (‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven…’); the same is true in Matthew 23:11 (‘But he who is greatest among you…’). Paul uses the word likewise to address IMPORTANCE, in 1 Corinthians 13:13, when he says: ‘the greatest of these [faith, hope and love] is love.’
“We might also note that there is by no means unanimity as to how to translate Matthew 13:31-32.
“Here are some alternative renderings: ‘… which indeed is LESSER among all the seeds; but when it is grown is GREATER than the herbs, and becometh a tree…’ (The New Testament from the Greek Text, edited by Ivan Panin, Toronto, 1935). ‘Though it is the smallest of all YOUR seed [Christ was addressing His audience in Judah], yet when it grows, it is the largest of GARDEN PLANTS and becomes a tree…’ (NIV; similar Rotherham and Zuercher)…
“All that Christ was doing was to compare the growth of the Kingdom of God–-and its increasing importance and influence for man—with the growth and increasing usefulness and importance of the mustard seed… Christ knew very well what He was saying, and even though He used a PARABLE to convey a SPIRITUAL LESSON, He did in no way state something which was biologically or scientifically incorrect.”
We also said this in the above-mentioned Q&A:
“The spiritual application of this parable is very clear. Christ compared the Kingdom of God with a very small seed, as it begins in a very small way. It is like a little bit of leaven, which will ultimately leaven the whole world (Matthew 13:33). Today, the gospel of the Kingdom of God is not accepted by very many, and very few—the firstfruits—respond to its message and become converted. Once they receive the Holy Spirit, they are begotten children of God and of His Kingdom—which is the Family of God that will rule on this earth, when Christ returns. Ultimately, the knowledge of God will cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea. The government of Christ will increase and will have no end (compare Isaiah 9:7). The Nelson Study Bible explains: ‘… the number of people who will inherit the kingdom of God will be very small at first. But though it begins like the smallest of seeds, the nucleus will enjoy growth completely out of proportion to its initial size.’”
The Church of God has to continue to fulfil its commission to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God in all the world as a witness, and then Christ will return to establish the Kingdom and Government of God on this earth. Then, the Kingdom of God will grow in that more and more members will be added to the God Family.
Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link