Is the mustard seed the smallest of seeds?
Alleged Biblical problem
I n Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus said that the mustard seed was “smaller than all other seeds,” but that when it was full grown, it would be large enough for birds to nest in its branches.
Today, we know that there are seeds even smaller than the mustard seed. For instance, the orchid seed is so small and fine that it’s almost dust-like. There are those who would also question whether a mustard seed could ever grow into a tree that is large enough to hold a bird nest.
Now, if Jesus (who claimed to be God) was wrong about the mustard seed, why should we trust anything else that He said? And on what basis can the Bible be considered reliable on any scientific or historical matter?
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 12 (twelve) 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.
When people come to visit us here in north central Maine, we might take them on a drive, passing a good number of lakes and ponds, to Moosehead Lake, which I will describe to them as being “the largest lake of all.” Of course, our guests will usually realize that I’m speaking locally, not globally. They don’t often question my credibility.
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.
Relevant principles for dealing with Bible difficulties
Keep the text in context. Failing to consider the historical and Biblical context of a particular verse or passage may be the most common mistake of all. But it’s crucial to an accurate understanding of the text. The Bible doesn’t approve of everyone whom it quotes or talks about.
Subject the obscure to the straightforward. The Bible is clear about many things, so always allow the which is clear to be a guide in unraveling that which is not clear. In other words, trust the perspicuity of Scripture. As the old adage goes, “Let the main things be the plain things, and the plain things be the main things.”
Allow for partial accounts, quotes, and particular points of view. Don’t always assume that a report or quote is wrong just because it happens to be less than 100% complete.
Acknowledge the difference between citations and quotations. Many times a passage from the Old Testament may be referenced in the New Testament without necessarily being quoted. Why shouldn’t a writer be allowed to cite the essence of a text, just as we often do today, without offering an exact word-for-word quote?!
Remember that the Bible employs literary devices. Metaphors, analogies, types, allegories, hyperboles, and similes would all be examples of this.
Hard Sayings of the Bible, edited by Kaiser, Davids, Bruce, and Branch (Intervarsity Press, 1996).
Bible Difficulties Solved, by Larry Richards (Revell, 1993).
More Information About the Bible
How do we know the Bible is true? Answer
INFALLIBILITY—How can the Bible be infallible if it is written by fallible humans? Answer
When we say that the Bible is the Word of God, does that imply that it is completely accurate, or does it contain insignificant inaccuracies in details of history and science? Answer
Matthew 13:31-32 reference concerning the mustard seed being smaller than all other seeds. Resolving Bible difficulties.
What is the smallest seed in the world?
HINT: It’s not the mustard seed!
The orchid Gomesa crispa.
The world’s smallest seeds, which have no endosperm and contain underdeveloped embryos, are produced by certain epiphytic orchids (family Orchidaceae) in the tropical rainforest. Some seeds are only 1/300th of an inch (85 micrometers) long, which is below the resolving power of the unaided human eye. One seed weighs only 1/35,000,000th of an ounce (0.81 micrograms). Orchid seeds are dispersed into the air like minute dust particles and come to rest in the upper canopy of rainforest trees, where they eventually germinate.
On the other hand, the seed of the begonia plant is about 1/100th of an inch in size, that of the petunia plant about 1/50th of an inch, and that of the mustard plant (family Brassicaceae) about 1/20th of an inch.
By the way, this is what Jesus of Nazareth said about the mustard seed:
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth ; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4.30-32) [emphasis added]
Some have argued, despite the clear language of the quote, that Jesus was only referring to the seeds known to his audience. Well then, was the mustard seed the smallest seed known in Palestine? No, not even in Jesus’ time. There would be numerous plants familiar to his audience with smaller seeds, of which the best example would be the seed of the black orchid. And just for the record, the mustard seed doesn’t grow to be the greatest of all the shrubs on Earth, either.
The point of this observation is not to attack Jesus of Nazareth; the point is to attack those who would put words in his mouth. Jesus was not a scientist. Keeping in mind the fact that the Bible has been copied and translated so many times that it is likely we will never know for sure what he actually said, I think we can agree that Jesus spoke allegorically and not literally when he said that the mustard plant has the smallest seed on Earth, and that it is the largest shrub on Earth. Nor did Jesus ever claim that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago with species unchanging and in their modern forms – he did not declare evolution to be false.
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HINT: It's not the mustard seed! The world's smallest seeds, which have no endosperm and contain underdeveloped embryos, are produced by certain epiphytic orchids (family Orchidaceae) in the tropical rainforest. Some seeds are only 1/300th of an inch (85 micrometers) long, which is below the resolving power of the unaided human eye. One seed weighs…