The mustard seed "problem"

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blakerussell

Puritan Board Freshman
In one of Jesus' parables, Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. In the passages (Both Matthew 13:31-2, and Mark 4:30-1 more specifically), Jesus calls the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds. From a botanical stand point, this is not true. I'm sure you all have heard of this a number of times. I was wondering how you personally respond to this "problem." I've done my homework and written on the issue, but I want to see how you guys look at it.

Seeking Him,
-Blake.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Jesus was speaking proverbially, not giving a science lecture. And the mustard seed was the smallest seed that his immediate audience would have been familiar with.
 

Miss Marple

Puritan Board Junior
Consider my son's shoe. It is the stinkiest of shoes. . . have I made a categorical, world-encompassing statement? No, I am using the superlative. I assume the superlative is common in every language?

Consider my grandma's blackberry pies. It is the best of all pies. . . have I tasted all pies ever made?

The statement about the mustard seed is not a literal doctrinal instruction, nor an historical statement. It is a superlative comparison, meant to communicate the idea of the moment to the people Jesus was speaking to at the time.

"The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose." Ecc 1:5. Does the sun, scientifically speaking, rise? No. But that is how it appears, and we all know what God is talking about when He says that.
 

jambo

Puritan Board Senior
I don't really care about the size of a mustard seed other than that it is very small yet so thankful that Jesus said faith that size was enough. It is such an encouragement as sometimes I feel my faith, after all these years, is still no bigger than a mustard seed.
 

Zach

Puritan Board Junior
I would tell them if they really want to nitpick they should start with something a little more substantial. Maybe like the fact that he claimed to rise from the dead.
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
Alfred Edersheim in his "Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" says that in rabbinic teaching the mustard seed was proverbially small and used to indicate smallness in the parables of the rabbis.
 

DMcFadden

Puritanboard Commissioner
I agree with the explanation in Post #2. This was, however, one of the things, if memory serves me, prompting Dan Fuller to come up with his "modification" to the Hodge-Warfield definition of inerrancy proposing a distinction between "revelational" and "non-revelational" Scriptures, sometimes labeled a "partial inspiration" theory. His proposal in '67 came just a few years before "the seminary in Pasadena that must not be mentioned" abandoned inerrancy, dropping it from their doctrinal statement in 1972.

So, while, the answer seems pretty self-evident, it can (and has) trip up smart guys with two doctoral degrees, including one under guys like Barth and Cullmann.
 

baron

Puritan Board Graduate
I had a friend many years ago when we were new to the christian faith who had a problem with this verse. I tried as best I could to explain that we needed to understand the parable as those in the audiance would of understood it. My friend did not agree and took it as an absolute statement regarding botany. He threw away his bible and left the christian faith.
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
I agree with the explanation in Post #2. This was, however, one of the things, if memory serves me, prompting Dan Fuller to come up with his "modification" to the Hodge-Warfield definition of inerrancy proposing a distinction between "revelational" and "non-revelational" Scriptures, sometimes labeled a "partial inspiration" theory. His proposal in '67 came just a few years before "the seminary in Pasadena that must not be mentioned" abandoned inerrancy, dropping it from their doctrinal statement in 1972.

So, while, the answer seems pretty self-evident, it can (and has) trip up smart guys with two doctoral degrees, including one under guys like Barth and Cullmann.
It's strange how some people's minds work; this was a parable after all, so it's in a proverbial context.

John
I had a friend many years ago when we were new to the christian faith who had a problem with this verse. I tried as best I could to explain that we needed to understand the parable as those in the audiance would of understood it. My friend did not agree and took it as an absolute statement regarding botany. He threw away his bible and left the christian faith.
It sounds like he sadly already "had his bags packed", and wanted any excuse to turn away.
 

Eoghan

Puritan Board Senior
As I read it it is the smallest of the seeds that would have commonly been used. I don't think it is a tree though but a shrub.
 

AThornquist

Puritan Board Doctor
"The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose." Ecc 1:5. Does the sun, scientifically speaking, rise? No. But that is how it appears, and we all know what God is talking about when He says that.
Interestingly enough, there are some people on the PB who believe that the earth is the center of the universe and that, in fact, the sun DID literally stop its orbit around the earth according to Joshua and that the sun literally does rise and go down. I do wonder if they would argue that the mustard seed is the smallest "BECAUSE THE BIBLE SAYS IT!!!!"
 

Mushroom

Puritan Board Doctor
So, Andrew, straighten those luddites out and tell them just where the center of the universe is, exactly...
 

MarieP

Puritan Board Senior
Alfred Edersheim in his "Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" says that in rabbinic teaching the mustard seed was proverbially small and used to indicate smallness in the parables of the rabbis.
You mean the Bible was written in history, and we can't just make it say what we want it to? Meanie! :p

Next thing you know, you'll be telling me that turning the other cheek had a context as well!
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I do wonder if they would argue that the mustard seed is the smallest "BECAUSE THE BIBLE SAYS IT!!!!"
I am sure they would allow the Bible to be interpreted according to its figures of speech, and would recognise that the mustard seed does not need to literally be the smallest of seeds in order for the parable to work. Anyone who stumbles over the rock of biblical infallibility on that point is in need of the faith of which the parable speaks. However, once the Bible has been interpreted according to its figures of speech, and it is clear that the literal meaning of the biblical revelation is that a miracle occurred when the sun stood still, one is not at liberty to explain away the literal meaning.
 

AThornquist

Puritan Board Doctor
Unless it being "the smallest" was in relation to the experience of the original audience, in which case it would be very similar to the sun standing still in relation to the experience of those present.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Unless it being "the smallest" was in relation to the experience of the original audience, in which case it would be very similar to the sun standing still in relation to the experience of those present.
Then the interpretation that this was relative to the experience of those who witnessed it would merely be relative to the experience of the interpreter rather than an interpretation of what the text intended to say.
 

blakerussell

Puritan Board Freshman
Thanks for all the replies. Here's what I came up with prior to the post.

Sorry if it's a little long winded.
1. This passage is a parable. Parables were short stories/illustrations (hypothetical situations) used to unpack spiritual truths. Clearly this is a parable where Jesus is using an illustration. The Kingdom of God is like...
2. Jesus is not teach biology here. He is teaching about the Kingdom of God. Though the mustard seed is not the smallest seed biologically, the smallness of the mustard seed was used in many parables at the time. This is why Jesus uses it in another illustration in Matthew 17:20.
3. This parable also states the mustard plant "is the largest garden plant." And, it grows into a "tree" that birds can nest in. Literally, this is not true. It would not have grown bigger than olive trees (which were likely found in gardens at the time), and did not grow into a tree either. Jesus exaggerates about mustard plants to make His point about the Kingdom of God (small beginnings-Big endings). This literary device is called hyperbole. Is Jesus not allowed to use it? It was and is used as a common teaching device. We aren't to take Jesus literally here, in a biological sense. We're to take the illustration about the Kingdom of God literally, as spiritual truth.

Objection: Why wouldn't Jesus just use the giant orchid as his example? Orchids have the smallest seeds of any known plant, and grow to similar proportions as the mustard plant.

Answer: The orchid was likely not known to the immediate audience. The mustard seed most obviously was, as it was used in proverbial teachings at the time. Why would Jesus take time to explain to the audience about the nature of a plant foreign to them when the mustard plant would serve the same purpose? Secondly, Jesus might have also used the mustard plant for how it grew. (I took this from wikipedia) "Some have identified a "subversive and scandalous"[6] element to this parable, in that the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it a "malignant weed"[6] with "dangerous takeover properties".[6] Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (published around AD 78) writes that "mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once."[9]
Ben Witherington notes that Jesus could have chosen a genuine tree for the parable, and that the mustard plant demonstrates that "Though the dominion appeared small like a seed during Jesus' ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out."[7]


So yeah, that's the answer I more or less had to my own question. I appreciate reading all of your replies, and would love for conversation on the topic to continue. Would also love any critiques to my answer.
 
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