Barry Newman's Blog

November 6, 2012

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part IV)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 8:38 pm

The Height of the Mustard “Tree”

One of the central problems that the exegete confronts is the height that a mustard “tree” might reach.  When reading the parable there could be a tendency in the reader to envisage the mustard tree, which begins as a very small seed, reaching a considerable height when fully grown.  That when it develops “it is the largest of herbs”, even “the largest of all herbs”, with the addition description “and becomes a tree” (Matthew ) or the simple statement that “it became a tree” (Luke), does not seem to be the description of a plant adequate for the depiction of what we think is at the heart of the parable – something very small becoming something very large. A search of some literature dealing with the parable reveals that commentators feel they have to have the height of a mustard “tree” as great as possible. While there is a claim that it grows to 8 feet, others mention “over 8 feet”, “up to nine feet”, “10 feet”, “greater than 10 feet”, “10 to 15 feet” and even “10 to 20 feet”.  There are appeals to “favourable soil”, “warm climate” “enough sunshine” and “a tree like plant” “a very large plant” and “approximating the size of a tree”.

Though there are a few different species of mustard “tree”, the reality is that they don’t grow to a great height.  There is a prevailing view that what Jesus had in mind was the species known popularly today as “black mustard” or alternatively the species “white mustard”.  The Greek word used in the Gospels, translated “mustard”, is simply, “sinapi”. Of course people of his day did not think in terms of “species” as we might do so today. Jesus simply referred to “a mustard seed” that develops into a substantial plant, whether or not the mustard seed he had in mind was of the black, white or any other “variety”.  One assumes that his hearers would have had a reasonable idea as to what seed he was referring to and that it was quite small and that they would understand how it normally developed.

Apparently the mustard seed can germinate rather soon after planting or sowing and in its early stages can develop quite quickly. It might be thought that these particular aspects of the mustard seed and plant lie behind the idea in the parable that the seed develops into a large shrub[1], even a tree. However, in the text no such notion is apparent. To claim that its rapid germination and growth is somehow behind the idea of the plant obtaining a large height or size is simply to read that idea into the text.


 [1] The Greek word, translated “herbs” is “lachnon”.  It really is a reference to herbs or vegetables, items that someone might grow in a garden or cultivated in a field. However, because we normally understand by “herb” a plant of fairly small dimensions, in this paper, reference to a mature mustard plant will sometimes be in terms of it being a shrub.

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