DID JESUS ERR ABOUT THE SIZE OF MUSTARD SEEDS? A Case Study in How to Do Serious Evangelical Apologetics

©2015, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

 

 Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

 

THE PROBLEM

 The words of Jesus in Mark 4:30-32 are widely seen as a locus desperatus for evangelical Christians, for herein Jesus seems to make a clear error of fact by mistakenly asserting that the mustard seed “is smaller than all the seeds on earth.”  The smallest seed on earth is actually the orchid seed, which is about 1/300 of an inch.  The begonia seed (1/100 of an inch) and the petunia seed (1/50 of an inch) are also smaller than the mustard seed (1/20 of an inch), and all three of these flowers grow in Jerusalem.[1]  One critic summarizes the matter as follows:

Fact: The mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds. The smallest seed is from epiphytic orchids and measures about 1/300th of an inch, compared to the mustard seed at 1/20th of an inch.

Some will say Jesus was talking only about the seeds in the local area at the time, despite that this isn’t what he said. Regardless, the mustard seed would not have been the smallest seed in Jerusalem either. They include the begonia at 1/100th of an inch, the petunia at 1/50th of an inch, as well as the orchid previously mentioned.”

Then one would read the troubling passage in Mark 4:30-32:

30 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 of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

This makes clear that Jesus referred to the mustard seed as the smallest seed anywhere on earth.[2]

Prima facie, it seems that Jesus did make an erroneous statement.  That certainly is a problem.

 

 

FAILED ATTEMPTS TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM

The problem is readily acknowledged by evangelical commentators, who strive mightily to concoct a solution to it.  John MacArthur, for example, writes, “the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds in existence, but it was in comparison to all the other seeds the Jews sowed in Palestine.”[3]  MacArthur is not the only one who tries this gambit; Dr. DanielWallace includes “σπέρμα is used, indicating a sown seed; the mustard seed is the smallest of all sown seeds[4] in his list of approaches to this problem.

This attempted solution is a clear failure, however, as it relies on changing what Jesus said to something else, from “seed” to “sown seed,” and that is not legitimate.[5]  As Wallace points out, “σπέρμα is … the typical word for seed, whether sown or not.”[6]  Nor does the industry-standard BDAG lexicon allow for σπέρμα to be translated in the restricted sense of “sown seed” rather than seed in general.[7]

In fact, all of proposed solutions put forth by evangelical scholars and apologists are failures.  Answers in Genesis (AiG) for example, boldly insists that Jesus’ apparently problematic statement “need not, and has no reason to, be interpreted as contradictory to scientific evidence.”[8]  Why not?  Because, they say, “the class of seeds with which the mustard seed is associated is the garden herb group (lachana) which may possibly be interpreted as being the ‘all the seeds’ category to which reference is made in the earlier part of the statement, ‘all’ there being limited to the specific group (lachana) under consideration in the total context of the verse.”[9]

Like MacArthur’s gambit, this is a plea to redefine “all seeds” as seeds only of the lachana group of plants.  However, as we have seen, the meaning of σπέρμα does not allow for any such restriction of the type of seed encompassed by Jesus’ words πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων, and there is nothing “in the total context of the verse” that would allow us to so redefine it.  It is simply wishful thinking on the part of AiG, then, to plead that “With ‘all the seeds’ being understood as limited in this way by the context, the minute orchid seed need not be considered as being included by Jesus in His statement.”[10]

Matt Slick of Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM ) also frankly admits the problem and tries a different gambit, saying,

No, the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds.  Jesus was speaking proverbially. That is, He wasn’t making a statement of absolute fact but using a proverbial style of communication … Jesus used the mustard seed in illustrations in the style of proverbs to illustrate a point and that He was not speaking in a scientifically accurate sense.[11]

The liberal skeptic will of course gladly agree that Jesus “was not speaking in a scientifically accurate sense”; He was making a scientific mistake and that’s the problem, they will point out.  And Slick’s plea does not solve this. First, the statement “It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth” is not a fictitious statement invented for a parable, as is, for example, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30).  The comment about the size of mustard seeds is not part of a fictitious world inside the parable but an actual fact about the real world.  The parable would, of course, have worked just as well had Jesus said, “It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is very small.”  It was not at all necessary for the parable for Jesus to have said, “It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth,” but inasmuch as He did, we are told that He made a scientific error.

Hank Hanegraaff of Christian Research Institute (CRI) begins aggressively, stating that “A tired old canard making the rounds these days is that the gospel of Mark and the God-man Messiah were both mistaken about the size of mustard seeds.”[12]  Now, a canard is a false or baseless report or story, and Hanegraaff has not even begun to show that the claim that Jesus was mistaken about the size of mustard seeds is false or baseless; on the contrary, as the text reads it clearly seems to be true.  Hanegraaff gives no reason, then, that we should consider this a “canard.”

Hanegraaff then presents his own version of the “proverbial communication” gambit, informing us that “in order to interpret the Bible literally we must pay special attention to what is known as form or genre,”[13] after which he expends energy unnecessarily explaining to us that Jesus is here speaking a parable (an extended simile, he calls it),[14] a fact that is obvious from the text (Mark 4:33).

After that, Hanegraaff goes off the rails, asserting that

the danger is to interpret extended similes in a strictly wooden literal sense. The kingdom of God is obviously not like a mustard seed in every way. Nor does Jesus intend to make his parable “walk on all fours.” A kingdom does not look like a mustard seed, nor is a mustard seed the smallest seed in the kingdom. Rather the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed in the sense that it begins small and becomes large (cf. Daniel 2:31–45) …an orchid seed would have been profoundly inept for the purpose of the parable. Jesus used the smallest seed familiar to a Palestinian farmer—a small seed that unlike an orchid seed grows to have “big branches that the birds in the air can perch in”—to illustrate that the kingdom of God began in obscurity but would one day “fill the earth.”[15]

In sum, Hanegraaff plainly admits that Jesus’ statement about the size of the mustard seed is wrong, and his bluster cannot excuse that away.  The fact that “a kingdom does not look like a mustard seed” is not a reason for making a factually erroneous statement about the size of a mustard seed.  The fact that “an orchid seed would have been profoundly inept for the purpose of the parable” explains why Jesus did not use an orchid seed in the parable; it does not explain why He erroneously identified the mustard seed as the smallest seed on earth.

Hanegraaff, as we see, also imbibes of the error we saw earlier, saying that “Jesus used the smallest seed familiar to a Palestinian farmer[16]; as we have seen, Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων, “pantōn tōn spermatōn”), not merely the smallest seed “familiar to a Palestinian farmer.”

Hanegraaff’s also warns us against interpreting this parable “in a strictly wooden literal sense” and to avoid “to avoid the dangers of … hyper-literalism.”[17] This is nonsense; there is nothing “wooden[ly] literal” in expecting a clear statement about the real world to correspond to reality; to suggest that this is “hyper-literalism” is risible.  So Hanegraaff, too, has failed to solve the dilemma before us.

Creation Ministries International’s (CMI) efforts are no better.  In an article titled “Ian Plimer’s Bloopers (a selection),” an unidentified CMI writer avers

Mustard seed? Taking it in context, which Plimer rarely does with the Bible, the parable refers to the smallest seed that a Jewish farmer would sow in his field. Plimer has misquoted the latter verse, which says that it would grow into the greatest of all herbs (KJV) or garden plants (NIV, NASB), not all plants. Plimer is missing the point anyway. Jesus was teaching that out of something tiny, something huge can grow.[18]

So the CMI writer tries the same failed gambit we have seen before, maintaining that “in context” Jesus in this parable “refers to the smallest seed that a Jewish farmer would sow in his field,”[19] whereas “in context” Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων) and so manifestly does not restrict his comment to seeds “that a Jewish farmer would sow in his field.”

Meanwhile, the comment that “Plimer has misquoted the latter verse, which says that it would grow into the greatest of all herbs (KJV) or garden plants (NIV, NASB), not all plants” is an inadvertent red herring, for the problem is not about the comparison between the grown plant and other plants; it is about the comparison of the size of the mustard seed to “all seeds.”  Therefore, Plimer’s error about the grown plant is irrelevant to the issue of the “Mustard seed?[20] which is what the CMI writer is supposed to be addressing.

Finally, the CMI writer carps that “Plimer is missing the point anyway. Jesus was teaching that out of something tiny, something huge can grow.”[21]  Actually, it is the CMI writer who is missing the point; Jesus may indeed have been “teaching that out of something tiny, something huge can grow,”[22] but that does not obviate the fact that He has apparently made an error about seed sizes, and that is the issue here; it cannot be sidestepped.

CMI golden child Lita Cosner also takes a crack at this problem, avowing, “In first-century Palestine, if you wanted to say something was really tiny, it was ‘like a mustard seed’. It was the smallest seed someone would come in contact with, and the fact that it grew into a large plant also makes it good for contrasts. Jesus was speaking proverbially in this passage.”[23]  This is the same failed litany we have already discussed; Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων), not “the smallest seed someone would come in contact with,” the fact that its growth into a large plant “makes it good for contrasts” neither necessitates nor excuses an error about the size of the seed, and neither does the fact that “Jesus was speaking proverbially in this passage.”

It certainly seems, then, that evangelical apologists have no reasonable answer to this apparent problem.  The farrago of equivocation, special pleading, red herring, and bluster they offer is utterly unconvincing.  No wonder the well known evangelical-turned-agnostic Dr. Bart Ehrman says so confidently, “When Jesus says later in Mark 4 that the mustard seed is ‘the smallest of all seeds on the earth,’ maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t.[24]

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the popular apologist Dr. William Lane Craig offers the following:

We may need instead to revise our understanding of what constitutes an errorNobody thinks that when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4.31) this is an error, even though there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds.  Why?  Because Jesus is not teaching botany; he is trying to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God, and the illustration is incidental to this lesson.   Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm.  This raises the huge question as to what the authors of Scripture intend to affirm or teach.[25]

The mind boggles at this one.  The statement that “Nobody thinks that when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4.31) this is an error, even though there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds” is obviously wildly wrong, so wrong that it is difficult to see how Craig has the chutzpah to make itEvery skeptic thinks that this is an error, and so do the evangelical apologists, else they would not be offering equivocations, special pleading, red herring, and bluster to explain the matter.  In fact, this is not even open to debate; to say that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth is undeniably an error.

But Craig actually suggests that “We may need instead to revise our understanding of what constitutes an error.”[26]  Unfortunately for Craig, we are not living in Alice’s Wonderland, where we can say with Humpty Dumpty, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”  An error is a statement, as if of fact, that does not correspond to reality.  The statement that the mustard seed is smaller than all seeds on the earth is an error, inasmuch as it does not correspond to reality, since orchid seeds, petunia seeds, and begonia seeds are smaller.  Thus, contra Craig, we cannot “revise our understanding of what constitutes an error” to obviate this apparent error.

Craig concludes, “Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm.  This raises the huge question as to what the authors of Scripture intend to affirm or teach.”[27]  It really does not; the authors intend to teach and affirm as a fact anything that is presented as a fact.  That is Exegesis 101.  If Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on the earth, He intends to affirm that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on the earth; there is no “huge question” here, or, in fact, any question at all.

So we seem to face a Hobson’s choice between accepting a farrago of equivocation, special pleading, red herring, and bluster (which in combination do not solve the problem) or altering our understanding of inerrancy to allow for errors.  Neither seems acceptable.  Fortunately, it is a choice we do not have to make.  There remains the option of thinking more carefully.

 

THE SOLUTION

The mustard seed is assuredly not the smallest seed on the earth; therefore, to say that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth is certainly an error. Yet we are told that Jesus said “a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31). Evangelical apologists have tried hard to explain that this is not an error, but they have failed.  And they will continue to fail – because, in point of fact, this is an errorThere is no way around it; this is an error.

But did Jesus actually say this?  The relevant text reads as follows:

Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Καὶ ἔλεγεν τίνι ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἢ ἐν ποὶα παραβολῇ παραβάλωμεν αὐτὴν ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς μικρότερος πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων ἐστὶν τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται πάντων τῶν λαχάνων μείζων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν

Consider first that Jesus begins the parable with

a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground

κόκκῳ σινάπεως ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

The phrase “on the ground” translates the Greek “ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς” (“epi tēs gēs”), where ἐπὶ (“epi”) is the preposition “on,” τῆς (“tēs”) is the article “the” (in the genitive case) and γῆς  (“gēs”) is the genitive form of γῆ (“gē”).  The crucial question is, what does γῆ mean?

Like many nouns in Greek (or other languages), the noun γῆ (“gē”) has more than one meaning.  The industry-standard BDAG lexicon lists the following:[28]

  • Surface of the earth as the habitation of humanity, earth
  • The inhabitants of the earth, people, humanity
  • Portions or regions of the earth, region, country
  • Dry land as opposed to the sea, land
  • Earth-like surface that forms the bottom of a body of water, ground, bottom
  • Earth w. ref. to limited areas and the material that forms its surface:
  •        –of earth surface, ground
  •        –of ground for agricultural use, soil, earth, receiving seed

Which of these best fits the context in “It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the γῆ …”?  If I were sowing seed to grow plants, would we say that I was sowing seed on the planet earth?  No. Would we say I was sowing seed on the country of Canada?  No.  Nor would I be sowing seed on the bottom of a body of water.  We would say I was sowing seed on “ground for agricultural use, soil, earth and, in fact, the ground would necessarily be of a limited size.  This is why the verse is translated “It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground”; the three-word prepositional phrase ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (“epi tēs gēs”) in the context should be translated as “on the ground” (specifically a “limited area” of ground for agricultural use).

Now, consider the passage in the original Greek:

 Καὶ ἔλεγεν τίνι ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἢ ἐν ποὶα παραβολῇ παραβάλωμεν αὐτὴν ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς μικρότερος πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων ἐστὶν τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται πάντων τῶν λαχάνων μείζων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν

We see a second occurrence of ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (“epi tēs gēs”), a second appearance of precisely the same three-word prepositional phrase, in the very same sentence, but this time it is translated as “on earth.” We have to ask WHY? Why is the very same three-word preposition in the same sentence translated in two different ways?

 The answer is: it shouldn’t be translated in two different ways.[29]  The second ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς should be translated in the same way as the first ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, as “on the ground,” specifically a “limited area” of ground for agricultural use, the same “limited area” of ground referred to by the first ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (“epi tēs gēs”).

 With this correction made, Mark 40:30-32 reads as follows:

Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on the ground; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”

The sense would be:

Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on a limited area of ground for agricultural use, is smaller than all the seeds on that limited area of ground for agricultural use; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”

Now, if Jesus had said, “a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth,” He would indeed have been in error, and all of the attempts by evangelical apologists to explain that this is not an error would fail, as we have seen.  But He did not say that; He said a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on the ground.”  So Jesus was not comparing the size of the mustard seed to “all the seeds on earth” but to “all the seeds” sown in a “limited area” of ground for agricultural use – which is no error at all.[30]

Our critic, then, who claimed that it is “clear that Jesus referred to the mustard seed as the smallest seed anywhere on earth[31] is wildly wrong.  Why evangelical apologists readily accept that Jesus did say such a thing while trying to explain why He didn’t really mean that is difficult to understand.

 

 

[1]https://www.reddit.com/r/DebateReligion/comments/1x7fca/to_all_how_did_jesus_get_it_wrong_about_mustard/

[2] ibid. (Bolding and underlining added, except the bolding in Mark 4:31, which is the original author’s)

[3] MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible. Nashville, London, Vancouver, and Melbourne: Word Publishing, 1997, p.1467 (Bolding and underlining added)

[4] Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996, p.301 (Bolding and underlining added)

[5] It smacks of the logical fallacy of equivocation.

[6] Wallace, op.cit., f.n. 21

[7] Bauer, Walter, W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Third Edition (BDAG). Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker.  Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 937.  It is true that the text reads “when it is sown on the ground,” but the issue is not about the seed sown in the parable, but with what it is being compared to, i.e., “all the seeds” (πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων).

[8] McKeever, Stacia. “Seeds of Dissent: Was Jesus wrong in Matthew 13:31-32 when He said that the mustard seed was the ‘least of all the seeds’?” Posted on November 10, 2008, at https://answersingenesis.org/jesus-christ/jesus-is-god/seeds-of-dissent/

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] Slick, Matt. “Is the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds?” Posted at https://carm.org/is-mustard-seed-smallest-of-all-seeds (Bolding and underlining added)

[12] Hanegraaff, Hank. “Was Jesus Wrong? Is the Mustard Seed Really Smallest?” Posted on April 22, 2014, at  http://www.christianity.com/blogs/hank-hanegraaff/was-jesus-wrong-is-the-mustard-seed-really-smallest.html

[13] ibid. (Bolding added)

[14] ibid.

[15] ibid. (Bolding and underlining added)

[16] ibid. (Bolding and underlining added).

[17] ibid. (Bolding added)

[18] “Ian Plimer’s Bloopers (a selection),” posted at http://creation.com/ian-plimers-bloopers-a-selection

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

[22] And, no, this is not the lesson of the parable.  Jesus was speaking specifically about the kingdom of God, not giving an anodyne message about how big things can come out of little things.

[23] Cosner, Lita. “Did Jesus believe Genesis?” Posted on July 11, 2015, at http://creation.com/jesus-genesis

[24] Ehrman, Bart. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: Harper San Francisco,  2005, pp.9-10  (Bolding and underlining added)

[25] Craig, William Lane. “What Price Biblical Errancy?” Posted on July 1, 2007, at  http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-price-biblical-errancy (Bolding and underlining added)

[26] ibid.

[27] ibid.

[28] BDAG, op.cit., p.196

[29] It is not impossible that the context could sometimes require the same word or phrase to be translated differently in one sentence, there is nothing in the context here to require such a thing.

[30] There is no reason a plot of land in which such comestibles as mustard are planted should have flower seeds in it.

[31]https://www.reddit.com/r/DebateReligion/comments/1x7fca/to_all_how_did_jesus_get_it_wrong_about_mustard/  (Bolding and underlining added, except the bolding in Mark 4:31, which is the original author’s)

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3 Responses to DID JESUS ERR ABOUT THE SIZE OF MUSTARD SEEDS? A Case Study in How to Do Serious Evangelical Apologetics

  1. Vincent Lerma says:

    Thank you so much for this! I myself have considered pursuing a career in apologetics. God Bless!

  2. Mark Twain says:

    Your solution is worst than all. You tried to change what Jesus actually says and fault all experts in all the English Bible translations without really solving the problem.

    • John Tors says:

      As you know, the God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) New Testament Scriptures were originally written in Greek, not English, and that is what I was going by. Thus, I did not change what Jesus said, but went exactly by what He said according to these God-breathed Scriptures. And it seems to me that by doing so, the problem is indeed fully solved.

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