Barry Newman's Blog

November 11, 2012

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part VI)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 8:26 pm

Where the Mustard “Tree” is Sown

For Matthew, a man took and sowed (speiro) the seed in his field (agros). For Mark, the seed has been sown (speiro) upon the earth (ge) .For Luke a man took the seed and cast (ballo) it into his garden (kepos).  Mark has adopted the more general term for where the seed is sown, whereas Matthew and Luke have chosen the more specific terms, “field” and “garden”, respectively. There is a Jewish tradition that mustard is grown in fields and the “Jewish” Gospel Matthew is consistent with that tradition. There is a Greek and Roman reference to it being sown in gardens and the “Gentile” Gospel Luke is consistent with that position[1].  Mark may have based his Greek on the original Aramaic word that Jesus uttered, but we cannot know whether that is true or not.  By and large it seems unimportant which Greek word is used.  However, for Luke, that the seed is sown in a garden suggests that the tree that develops could be viewed as a “garden tree”, not necessarily all that large in size or girth.

That it is sown or cast is unimportant, although “casting” (i.e. “throwing”) is suggestive of spreading seed, as one might do when sowing in a field.  It could be that Luke endeavours to retain something of the sowing tradition and in spite of his reference to a “garden”, considers that referring to “throwing” is a little more appropriate.  Alternatively, Luke could be reflecting a Greek and Roman claim that the plant needs no cultivation but grows readily. Perhaps the idea is that the seed can simply be thrown on the garden soil.  With such little effort it will still readily germinate.

The Smallest of Seeds

Matthew reports Jesus speaking of: a grain (kukkos) of mustard that is the smallest of all the seeds (sperma), Mark: a grain of mustard that is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, Luke: a grain of mustard.

Medema and Musselman maintain, “There would be numerous plants familiar to (Jesus’) audience, with smaller seeds of which the best example would be the seed of the black orchard.” However, they also state that, “It is the smallest seed ‘you plant in the ground’”[2] and that is what Jesus had in mind.   This latter claim may be true but in no Gospel is that made clear and in Mark’s Gospel the reference to “all the seeds on earth” would seem to contradict that claim.  It may have been that in Israel, there was no great interest in the seeds of plants growing in the wild and no great knowledge of the sizes of such seeds.  The situation may have been that proverbially or otherwise, a grain of mustard was actually considered to be the smallest of all seeds.  Whatever position we take on this issue, for the purposes of the parable a grain of mustard is a very small seed.


[1] For these Jewish and Greek and Roman perspectives see Medema, H.P. and Musselman, L.J. ibid.

[2] Medema, H.P. and Musselman, L.J. ibid

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