Barry Newman's Blog

November 9, 2012

The Parable o the Mustard Seed (part V)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 8:56 pm

The Size of the Mustard “Tree”

If we have the “black mustard” or “white mustard” in mind, the seed is about 1 – 3 mm in size. The mature plant that develops from such a mustard seed, where it has space to grow, is a large dense bushy shrub with an extensive number of small branches, and having a roundish shape.  Where it has little space to develop it can become a thin slender plant with a few small spindly branches, being supported largely by the surrounding bushes. In an environment unhindered by other plants and when grown under reasonable climatic conditions, the seed develops into a reasonably large shrub.

In Matthew Jesus is recorded as saying, “When it has grown it is the greatest of herbs (shrubs) and becomes a tree.” That it is a “greatest of herbs” and yet becomes a tree, might suggest that it is stretching reality a little to call it a tree.  Mark has Jesus saying, “It grows and becomes the greatest of all herbs (shrubs) and produces large branches.” He makes no mention of it becoming a tree. Given that Mark’s account could be the more original description of what Jesus said, the absence of reference to “tree” may have some significance.  It may have been that for whatever reason both Matthew and Luke (see following) felt the need to state that it becomes or became a tree. The reference by Mark to “large branches” (Matthew and Luke only refer to “branches”) suggests that Mark wishes to indicate that Jesus is portraying the mature plant as something reasonably substantial in size, even if not referred to as a tree. Luke simply has Jesus narrating, “It grew and became a tree.” (Some manuscripts have “a great tree”).  What readers would have made of Luke’s account we do not know.  Perhaps many of them would have been familiar with a variety or species of mustard “tree” that in not uncommon favourable conditions did grow to such a height to be called unquestionably, a tree.

On any account, however, the Greek word, “dendron” (tree) may have been understood to include in its reference largish shrubs as well as those much larger plants that we would normally call trees.  None the less there seems to be an effort by the Gospel writers to convey an image of the mature plant that suggests it is fairly large and substantial, while still acknowledging (at least in the case of Matthew and Mark) that it is after all, the size of a shrub.  The matter of it being described as a tree and the reference to its having branches will be discussed again later.

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