Barry Newman's Blog

November 30, 2012

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part XV)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 10:20 pm

In Conclusion

John the “immerser” came announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  Jesus came and proclaimed the same.  God had already been working throughout history fulfilling his purposes through those before Abraham and then through such as Abraham, the Fathers of Israel, Moses, David, the prophets, Israel herself.  But now the time had come for the kingdom of God to burst in upon history with the coming of the king.  It would have small beginnings – the Messiah and his followers.  But the kingdom would soon take on enormous proportions even only 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This parable must have been or should have been of enormous encouragement to the believers in the early days when persecution began to rear its ugly head and when it might have been thought that the kingdom was in danger of collapsing. Paul knew of the greatness of the kingdom as the gospel was preached around the world and many became believers, no matter how great the difficulties to be endured by him and others.

Through the centuries that followed, in spite of the distortions that were introduced into the gospel, the kingdom continued to flourish, through thick and thin.  In the devastating times and places of today, the kingdom continues to expand.  There are believers in what once may have been considered or today are considered the most extraordinary of places – Siberia, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Mongolia, Nepal, Thailand, East Timor, Japan, Mexico, Ecuador, China, Zambia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Libya, Niger, Cambodia, even Great Britain, the United States, New Zealand and Australia!

People of God, take heart, no matter what your circumstances. The Kingdom of God has always been growing and growing vigorously.  It had the smallest of beginnings but it is the kingdom of God.  It had to develop enormously as people from every tongue and tribe have been pouring into the kingdom, willingly submitting to the great king and saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.  His dominion of loyal subjects has been ever only expanding.  Praise be to him.


November 28, 2012

The Sacraments (Full Series PDF)

Filed under: Baptism,Holy Communion,Lord's Supper,The Sacraments — barrynewman @ 11:59 pm

Here is the full series.

The Sacraments (part XXVII)

Filed under: The Sacraments — barrynewman @ 8:47 am

Are the Sacraments of “Baptism” and “The Supper of the Lord” ordained by Christ?

No one should doubt the extraordinarily significant practice of genuine baptism.  No one should question the richness of reflecting with the people of God on the death of the Lord Jesus Christ – the death “for many”.

However what is the answer to the question?  If the question entails the notion that Christ has commanded that one ceremonial practice be undergone by all those coming to be believers and that the other ceremonial practice be observed  by believers on an ongoing basis, and that these practices are thereby obligatory, the answer seems to be “no”.  Regardless of what we might find was practised and believed in the early church beyond New Testament times, an examination of the New Testament itself does not seem to support the answer, “yes”.  The idea that certain ceremonies are mandatory would appear to be contrary to the gospel as portrayed in the New Testament and contrary to the notion of freedom from such regulations inherent in the gospel. Indeed surely we do not want to be condemned, even if only by implication, with the words of Yahweh uttered against the people of Jerusalem, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29: 13) – words, quoted by Jesus in his vitriolic response to the Pharisees and the Scribes expressing their concern for ritual observance, according to the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15: 8, 9).

If the practices of undergoing water baptism and partaking in the Lord’s Supper, are not understood as formal religious rites arising from a command of the Lord Jesus, but, to the contrary, as ceremonies freely engaged in by his followers, this arguably would result in:

highly regulated religious practices receiving less attention, the grace of God displayed in the glorious gospel being better understood, the necessity of the righteous life being more soberly apprehended, the judgement of God being held in greater awe, the love of God portrayed in the death of Jesus the Christ more deeply appreciated, his Son being much more deeply loved and wondered at, his resurrection being better understood as the catastrophic world cracking sign of all times, proclaiming the word of God, the message of God, being given greater urgency and clarity, the expectation of the second coming of Jesus the Lord in all his glory being much more to the fore in our thought and speech, the difference between the gospel and all other world beliefs being seen to be so much greater as to defy comparison and God being the more greatly honoured.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Part XIV)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 8:46 am

An Interpretation

In the light of the considerable discussion above, the interpretation of the parable turns out to be a simple one – embarrassingly simple, given the length of this paper.

The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God has very small beginnings.  But it is God’s kingdom. It will grow, expand, and develop into something of enormous proportions.  And many will come into that kingdom and find shelter there.

And what is said to happen in the future has already happened.

Is there also a reference in the parable to peoples from many nations finding security in the kingdom of God?  If there is no allusion to the Ezekiel 17 parable one might reply, “Maybe, maybe not”.  But if the Ezekiel 17 passage is in mind, the answer may well be “Yes”. That all three “parables” – those in Ezekiel 31, Daniel 4 and Ezekiel 17 may well set the “birds” in an especially significant light adds further weight to the idea that in the parable told by Jesus the birds are meant to have special significance also. It is possible that the parable that Jesus told, together with the parable of Ezekiel, to which it may well allude, do together, what on their own, they could not do. My own view is that the parable has overtones of Ezekiel 17, though somewhat muted. My guess is that if anyone had some reasonable knowledge of that parable it would be odd for it not to come to mind upon hearing Jesus tell his parable, no matter whether one’s language competency was in that of Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek.  Provided people had some reasonable theological astuteness they would sense the idea that the parable that Jesus told was referring among other things to “peoples from every tribe and tongue” finding their rest under the rule of God.

But what if they did not have such astuteness?  Would the situation be similar to that which existed for so many other parables – that hearing people did not hear and that seeing they did not perceive, for their hearts were hardened so that they did not understand?  Probably, “Yes”!

The Oddities of the Parable

For many what seems to stand out as an oddity of the parable is the fact that in reality the mustard plant is neither all that large nor all that high, yet it is spoken of as though it was fairly substantial, one way or another. As a herb, it is substantial.  As a tree, it is not large at all. And it has branches – large branches (Mark) when in reality they appear to be what you might expect with a bushy shrub – not all that large.  The mustard seed is very, very small – but not the smallest of all seeds.  Did Jesus know that?  Birds of the air might shelter in its shade but is it just a little too much to say that they lodged there?  I am not sure.  In the final analysis, if there are oddities, it is simply Jesus dictating theological truths which if needs be, must distort reality, rather than his telling a story about nature to which he must fit theological truths.

November 25, 2012

The Sacraments (part XXVI)

Filed under: The Sacraments — barrynewman @ 7:23 pm

The Sacraments, the Gospel and freedom (part 2)

In the New Testament the gospel is referred to in many ways and it is obvious that it contains many facets.  One way of deciding how the gospel is to be understood or not to be understood is to examine how the Greek words, “euaggelion”, often translated “good news”, and “euaggelizomai”, often translated “proclaiming” or “proclaiming the good news” or similar, function in the New Testament. Almost all instances of each of these words relate to that great news concerning the Lord Jesus.

What part do the ceremonies, water baptism and something akin to the Lord’s Supper, play in the glorious and great gospel?  Actually, not at all with respect to “euaggelion.” The noun occurs 75 times in the New Testament but never once in any association with either ceremony.  The verb occurs 52 times in the New Testament and on only one occasion is there any connection being made with it to either of the ceremonies.  In 1 Corinthians 1: 17, Paul writes, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.”  The verb “euaggelizomai” is used in conjunction with baptism but in a negative sense!

In the New Testament the greatest concentration of “euaggelion” and “euaggelizomai” taken together occurs in Galatians. This is the letter that is fundamentally concerned with the believers being led into living under a false gospel – a gospel where the observance of the ceremony of circumcision was regarded as mandatory and where the observance of special days also seems to have become extremely important.  It would seem very odd for Paul to write in his letter to the Galatians, that with respect to the gospel, the obligatory observance of water baptism and something akin to the Lord’s Supper were exceptions to his general concern.  Of course, he makes no such statement.  To the contrary, this letter would seem to rule out of order any claims that such ceremonies were necessarily to be observed.

In that letter, Paul writes: “You observe days and months and seasons and years!  I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain” (4: 10, 11). And continues: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5: 1).  “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail but faith working through love” (5: 6).  “You were called to freedom brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be slaves of one another” (5: 13). “Walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16).  “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (5: 25). “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation (6: 14, 15).  And in another place he writes, “Don’t let anyone judge you with regards to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day … or by what you eat and drink” (Colossians 2: 16)

Indeed, Paul, the learned Jew, once exceedingly zealous for the law and its observance including the observance of its ceremonial aspects proclaims a concept of freedom as an aspect of the gospel that we seem to find great difficulty in comprehending. For Paul it did not matter whether one was circumcised or not.  It did matter if one thought it necessary for acceptance by God. It did not matter whether one observed certain regulations concerning the type of food one ate.  What did matter was the concern one had for the spiritual welfare of a brother. It did not matter whether or not one treated one day differently to another.  But observing them as though such observance was fundamental did matter. The things that Paul considered as of importance were such as “turning to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus who rescues us from the wrath to come” and “admonishing the idle, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, being patient with all the brethren and not repaying evil with evil but always seeking to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 1: 9, 10; 5: 14, 15).

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part XIII)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 7:22 pm

The Construction of the Parable

If Jesus had the Ezekiel 17 “parable” at the back of his mind he is not simply going to repeat that parable if he wishes to make a particular point that is not present or not as sharply made in that parable.  He will make his own point in his own way but with allusions to the Ezekiel parable, if thought appropriate.

The parable that Jesus creates focuses on the smallness of the mustard seed. The twig in Ezekiel 17 is small, but the mustard seed is much smaller, very small. Possibly, speaking proverbially, it is the smallest of all seeds.  Jesus then describes, similarly to the description in the Ezekiel parable, how it becomes a great tree!  Well, not really.  Haven chosen the mustard seed for its very small size, Jesus can but acknowledge the limitations of the mustard plant. Its seed will not develop into an enormous tree. That Mark makes no mention of a “tree” may indicate that originally Jesus made no reference to a “tree” as such. None the less Jesus wishes to say that it will develop into something quite substantial.  It becomes the largest of (all) herbs, almost a tree, large enough to be called a tree (by Matthew and Luke) anyway!

And birds come to lodge in it. Well, normally, small birds do. It is only a mustard tree after all. But according to the parable, they come to lodge in it, not to fly in and out, which many in reality might well do. In Ezekiel there is no restriction on size.  In that parable the tree will cope with birds of all sizes and in real life, some may well lodge there.

Why do the birds come and lodge there? With respect to this matter Mark may reflect the original words of Jesus better than the other Gospels.  They come to be sheltered from the sun, they come for the shade.  The Ezekiel parable also has the birds coming for the shade. It may be that in both parables one could imagine that they come for other things, for example to nest and in the parable that Jesus told, that they come to be safe from predators or to eat the fruit.  But Jesus simply says they lodge there with only the one reason being given, the one that appears in Mark.

Jesus could have concluded his parable at that point where he describes that the plant becoming the largest of (all) herbs, having large branches (Mark) even a tree (Matthew and Luke).  And what appears to be his main point would still have been made.  That he then referred to the birds of the air lodging in its branches may have been because he also wanted there to be an allusion to the Ezekiel tree.

But why did Jesus not refer to “the birds of every wing” rather than “the birds of the air” if he wished to make the allusion to the Ezekiel parable obvious?  Perhaps, because, as discussed above, with respect to the mustard “tree” one would not find “birds of every wing”.  In the main, they would only be small birds and only birds of certain types. To speak of “birds of every kind” would stretch the “reality” being portrayed too far.  It could be that it was being stretched enough as it was.

And if Jesus wanted any allusion to the Ezekiel parable to be obvious, why after concluding his parable did he not refer to other “kingdoms” recognising the greatness of the kingdom that God would establish?  In a sense there was no need to.  Any Jew of the time of Jesus would have assumed as much anyway.  The parable that he told was cryptic, plainly told and complete within itself.  The listener was required to “connect the dots” if “dots” there were.

In the end what drives the parable that Jesus told is the smallness of the mustard seed and if there are allusions to the Ezekiel tree they will have to suffer a little if necessary.

November 23, 2012

The Sacraments (part XXV)

Filed under: The Sacraments — barrynewman @ 8:19 pm

The Sacraments, the Gospel and Freedom (part 1.)

If being baptised and partaking in something like the Lord’s Supper are obligatory, what part do they play in the gospel? One could argue that under the old covenant there was the compulsory sign of circumcision.  Under the new covenant, the corresponding compulsory sign is baptism.  Similarly it might be claimed that under the old covenant there was a compulsory festive meal.  Under the new covenant, the corresponding compulsory meal is the Lord’s Supper.

In the Old Testament the matter of partaking in the Passover celebration is clearly declared necessary by an express command of God.  In the New Testament, if what Jesus said at the Last Passover meal was indeed a command then it would seemingly apply to future Passover meals, if such were to be celebrated in the future.  Besides, as argued above, what Jesus said could be in the indicative mood.  However, even if it is understood as being in the imperative mood then what was said could be understood as Jesus informing the disciples that in future they are to see the Passover meal in a new light rather than his issuing some “commandment” to so view it.  Whatever the case, there is certainly no injunction in Scripture that there is to be some meal that is somewhat reflective of a Passover meal and that it is to be partaken of a number of times throughout the year.  Anything like the Lord’s Supper does not appear to be of the same status as the Passover meal of the Old Testament.

The matter of (males) being circumcised is also clearly declared necessary in the Old Testament by an express command of God.  While being baptised obviously has symbolic character as did circumcision they are entirely different ceremonies. There is however a text of the New Testament where circumcision and baptism appear to be linked.  Colossians 2: 11, 12 reads: “In him (Christ) also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ and you were buried with him in baptism ‘en to(i) baptismo(i)’, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Whatever Paul is referring to by his references to “circumcised” and “circumcision”, the concept of circumcision is being used metaphorically, none the less to describe very significant realities.  “Buried with him (Christ)” and “raised with him” are phrases also having a metaphorical character, again, none the less descriptive of very significant realities.  Is the reference to “baptism” here meant to be a reference to a literal water ceremony?  If so, it is a piece of literalism without metaphorical character in the midst of metaphorical allusions.  If so, it also bespeaks of an extraordinary importance to be attached to the water baptism ceremony for it would appear that in that very physical act, the burying with Christ and the raising with Christ take place.  Given this understanding one can see the extraordinary importance attached to water baptism by certain believers and the concern they have for anyone who not having been baptised still claims to be in Christ.

Translating the phrase ‘en to(i) baptismo(i)’ as “in baptism” automatically steers us towards understanding the words to refer to a literal water ceremony.  However it could be translated in such a way as to convey the metaphorical sense of “immersion” or “envelopment”.  Such a translation would simply be as one with the metaphorical elements which precede it and follow it. Besides, this is not Paul indicating that the rite of circumcision is to be replaced by a ceremony of water baptism.  He has referred to circumcision metaphorically whatever one thinks he is referring to by ‘baptismo(i)’.

 Circumcision and baptism are indeed different ceremonies though both do operate as signs indicative of entering into a distinctive relationship with God on the one hand and Jesus the Son of the Father on the other.  Again, it should be noted even if Matthew 28: 19 is thought to constitute a commandment regarding a water ceremony, a position which has been argued against, it is not a command to be baptised but a command for his disciples to baptise.  It does not have the status that the instruction by God for the males of his people to be circumcised had.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part XII)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 8:17 pm

Old Testament Allusions? (part 2)

That the Ezekiel 17 parable refers to “every bird of every wing” or even simply “every bird” could be understood to suggest that the birds referred to have some special significance.  As mentioned above I suspect that the reference is to “peoples of all nations”. The birds of Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4 could also be understood to have special significance. In one case the reference is possibly, if not probably, to other nations and in the other the reference is possibly, if not probably, to supporters of the monarch.  That all three parables can be understood as portraying the birds as especially significant lends weight to the idea that the reference to “birds” in the parable that Jesus told is also especially significant.

However, if Jesus wanted to make a clear allusion to Ezekiel 17 why did he refer to a mustard seed and not a twig from a cedar tree and to “birds of the air” rather than “every bird of every kind.”?  Does the answer lie in his choice for the parable of “the grain of mustard”, “the smallest of all seeds” (Matthew and Mark)?

Yet a further matter to consider is the context of the Ezekiel 17 parable of the great cedar. .  Prior to the parable, the prophet writes of how Lord (Yahweh) in judgment will bring the king (Zedekiah) to Babylon. The king has broken his covenant with the Babylonians (by making an alliance with Egypt against Babylon)), a covenant which is spoken of as a covenant with the Lord.  That is, the kingdom associated with Zedekiah, shall fall.  It is then that the parable of the great cedar is introduced – a parable which at hearty conveys the idea that God will establish a kingdom of his own making.  At the conclusion of the parable, the prophet writes of Yahweh saying, “And all the trees of the field shall know that I Yahweh bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.”  This seems to be a reference to other kingdoms recognising the power of God as he removes a kingdom and replaces it with one that has an inauspicious beginning but indeed flourishes.  The parable that Jesus told makes no reference to others perceiving what God does yet it does contain the idea of greatness coming from small beginnings.  Again, there are aspects of the Ezekiel 17 parable which are paralleled in the parable that Jesus told and there are aspects that are not so reflected.

November 21, 2012

The Sacraments (part XXIV)

Filed under: The Sacraments — barrynewman @ 9:23 pm

The Sacraments and History

There are a number of relatively early references to water baptism practices to be found in the writings of the Early Fathers and other Christian sources: Justin of Caesarea (middle 2nd century), The Didache (early 1st century to early 3rd century?), Irenaeus (late 2nd century), The Apostolic Tradition (early 3rd century ?) Tertullian of Rome (early 3rd century). Though it is difficult to say in every instance exactly what such a practice entailed, it is clear that, similar to what is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, new believers underwent a water ceremony meant to indicate a profound allegiance to Jesus.  However what was practised seems to have differed widely. Tertullian makes it clear that he believed that Jesus had made a reference to the necessity of a water ceremony being performed[1], although it was probably so believed from fairly early times.

One of the earliest references to something like a “Lord’s Supper” is made by Ignatius of Antioch[2], though generally it is in terms of what he calls “the eucharist”. He makes explicit reference to celebrating “one eucharist” because “one is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup of union through his blood and one the altar”[3].  Justin of Caesarea in a passage where he quotes Jesus saying “Do this in remembrance of me”[4] probably indicates that he believes this to be a commandment of his, obedience to which was being made evident in a perhaps weekly participation in a Eucharistic celebration. Most likely this understanding was held from earlier times. As mentioned above, the two Greek words often translated, “the Lord’s Supper” appear only once before the 4th century[5].

Given that there seems to be fairly early evidence that Christians believed that being baptised and participating in a celebration associated with the death of Jesus were mandatory, why would one doubt that such a perception was incorrect?  Surely, their understanding must be accepted as correct over and above any later but different understanding. Three matters which should be considered before adopting that position as a conclusion to the debate:  Firstly, it is clear that at the same time that the Early Fathers seem to indicate that they saw participation in these ceremonies as mandatory there were disagreements amongst themselves as to how baptisms should be conducted and there were statements about the nature of the bread and the wine in Eucharistic services that evangelicals at least would claim to be in error. The Early Fathers cannot have “gotten it all right”. Secondly it is also clear that even as early as the 50s and 60s Paul is struggling to combat various false teachings of such significant character as to warrant his giving extensive instructions in attempts to undermine them– witness his letter to the Galatians.  False views made their mark from the very early days.  Thirdly, that something was written as early as, 100  years, nay let’s be really generous, 10 years after the gospels in one form or another had been circulating is absolutely no guarantee that any understanding of gospel material in such a writing is correct.  For historical reasons, at least, the textual material of the New Testament is the bedrock for our understanding of the issues which concern us and it needs to be treated with respect and examined on the basis of its own merits.

If the early Christians did misunderstand what Jesus said, how would that have happened?  One can only guess.  But there are some plausible possibilities.  One is as follows: There seems to be a natural tendency in human beings, if they are conscientiously religious, to create regulations. If the regulations are followed it enables people to be satisfied that they have done what needs to be done, to feel assured that God or the gods, spirits or demons will be pleased or at least satisfied, and to be more confident that God or the gods, spirits or demons are more likely to make one’s life more bearable, even happier as a consequence.  If the regulations are not followed it can drive people to strive to do better in the future and it provides for them an understanding that why their life is not as good as it could be since they have failed God or the gods, spirits or demons.  Setting up mandatory regulations to be observed in early Christian communities would have been simply mirroring this tendency.

Another possible explanation, not to be divorced from the above, focuses on what one might consider a basic difference between a Greek way of relating to the gods and a Roman way of so relating.  The early Christians lived in a world dominated by Graeco-Roman culture.  The culture was infused with both recognisably Greek and Roman perspectives.  Speaking generally, when it came to the gods, it seems that the Greek way was not nearly as “rite” bound as the Roman way. It appears that one was at greater liberty to carry out one’s religious duties in one way or another, living as a Greek than if living as a Roman.  The word “rite” derives from the Latin word, “ritus”.  There does not appear to be a single word, carrying the concept, “rite” in the Greek language. This was drawn to my attention by E.A. Judge.  If Christianity was to go badly astray and the writings of Paul, let alone those of the Early Fathers, indicate that was not only likely but happened, then conceivably there were two tempting pathways.  It could go the Greek way or the Roman way. If it were to go the Greek way, from a human point of view, then the gospel would indeed be lost, Jesus would be viewed as just another deity among the myriads to be worshipped as you pleased.  If it were to go the Roman way, the gospel in main substance could be preserved – partly preserved by means of focussing on mandatory rites and partly preserved by setting up fairly rigid systems of governance.  If there is any substance to this theory, one might argue that it was necessary to have gone the Roman way in order to preserve the gospel.  However, Paul would have loudly proclaimed, “Not so!”  He had greater confidence in the gospel itself, provided believers adhered to it, and the God of the gospel, provided they abided in him.

[1] Tertullian, On the Soldier’s Crown, 3.3

[2] For example, Ignatius of Antioch, To the Smyrnaeans, 7.1 and 8. 1, 2 and To the Philadelphians 4.1

[3] Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans 7.3

[4] Justin of Caesarea, Apology I, 66

[5] See Note 11

The parable of the Mustard Seed (part XI)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 9:21 pm

Old Testament Allusions? (part 1)

If there is an allusion to an Old Testament passage or passages in the parable of the mustard seed, possible contenders as references to which the allusion could be made would be those “parables” found within Ezekiel 31, Daniel 4 or Ezekiel 17.  The Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4 texts both contain references to a tree and “the birds of the air” in that tree.  However both conclude with the tree being destroyed.  And in one case the birds become birds of prey and in the other, the birds flee.  In the parable of the mustard seed there is no hint of the tree being destroyed or “the birds of the air” changing their relationship to the tree.

What of the tree referred to in Ezekiel 17 (verses 22- 24)?  In Ezekiel 17 the tree is planted by Yahweh which has some parallel with the tree that developed from the mustard seed for the parable of the mustard seed concerns the “kingdom of heaven”.  It does not concern the kingdom of the evil one or of any earthly potentate. Furthermore, the tree of Ezekiel is planted on a high and lofty mountain – the high mountain of Israel and in parallel, the kingdom of heaven of the parable that Jesus told obviously has its roots in Jesus himself and his 12 disciples – the members of the true Israel. The Ezekiel tree begins as a mere twig, while the mustard “tree” begins as a very small seed. While in the Ezekiel parable the birds are not described as “the birds of the air” they do come to dwell in the shade of its (dangling) branches and there are a lot of them – every bird of every wing – probably meaning every bird of every kind. In the parable that Jesus told, “the birds of the air” perch in its branches (Matthew and Luke) or perch in its shade (Mark).  The tree in Ezekiel 17 brings forth boughs and becomes a stately cedar.  In the parable, the seed develops into the greatest of (all) herbs (Matthew and Mark) and produces large branches (Mark) even becoming a tree (Matthew and Luke).  The tree of Ezekiel 17 is a good contender as a reference to which an allusion is being made in the parable of the mustard seed.

Yet there are some difficulties. The birds that might relate to the tree that develops from a mustard seed are not normally going to be large birds.  The tree could not cope with large birds.  They will be small ones, whereas the tree of Ezekiel has birds of every kind. Yet in the Ezekiel 17 passage the Hebrew word translated “birds” is “tsippor” and the suggestion has been made above that the word can refer to “small birds” or “hopping birds”. The Authorised Version translates “tsippor” in Psalm 84: 3 and 102: 7 as “sparrows”. However, it is not being suggested that in the Ezekiel passage the birds there are all small birds of every kind. That would go against the general impression being conveyed that there was a multiplicity of different kinds of birds.  Furthermore, Jesus could have referred to “small” birds” but he did not.  The size of the birds does not seem to be an issue in either parable.

Another matter to consider is how the parable is related in the Septuagint version. There the text reads, “Every bird (“orneon”) shall rest beneath it and every bird (“peteinos”) shall rest under its shadow; its branches (“klema”) shall be restored.” (17: 23).[1] In the parable of the mustard seed, the translation “birds” is based on the Greek word “peteinos” but in the Septuagint the birds of any kind are not explicitly said to be dwelling in the shade of its branches. They simply “rest under its shadow”; though presumably that means they are in the branches which provide the shade.  This aspect is not unlike the relevant part of the version of the parable told by Jesus as recorded in Mark.

[1] In the Greek Septuagint, what is “tsippor” in the Hebrew text is sometimes “peteinos” (e.g. Ezekiel 39: 4) and sometimes “orneon” (e.g. Ezekiel 39: 17)

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