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#81 - Is the biblical "mustard seed" the same as the spice sold at the grocery store?
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Is the mustard seed in McCormick's spice bottle the one mentioned by Christ Jesus? According to Dummelow's Commentary (pp. 673) it is the herb or plant, not of the tree. I wonder if McCormick's mustard is from the tree? I showed it to Sunday School children as the mustard seed in the parable. I may need to correct it."
Today's term "mustard" as contained in McCormick's spice bottle is defined as "a pungent powder or paste prepared from the seed of the mustard plant." (Random House Webster's College Dictionary, page 865.) In the gospels (Mat 13:31; 17:20; Mar 4:31; Luk 13:19; 17:6), the Greek word that is translated in the KJV and other versions as "mustard" is sinapi (Strong's #4615). In the Mat 13:32 and Luk 13:19), the Greek word that is translated in the KJV and other versions as "tree" is dendron (Strong's #1186). However, both Matthew's and Luke's version of the parable are based upon Mark's version, which does not refer to the mustard seed as producing "trees" but as "herbs" (KJV), "shrubs" (NRSV), "garden plants," or simply "plant/s" (NAB, REB, TEV).
The United Bible Society's Fauna and Flora of the Bible (NY: UBS, 1980, pages 145-146) writes:
The seed described in the parable of Jesus as 'the smallest of all seeds' is considered by most translators to be the common black mustard seed, Brassica nigra.
Brassica nigra is now an annual garden herb, but in former days it grew wild in the fields of Palestine; the Jews sowed it in their fields and not in their gardens (Mt 13.31…).
In our day the seeds of mustard, which are contained in linear pods, are not considered to be the smallest of all seeds (a distinction held by the orchid). But in the days of Jesus the smallest quantity of something was proverbially compared with 'a mustard seed' (Mt 17.20)…
The mustard plant does not usually grow as tall as a tree, but travellers relate that they have passed through mustard fields in which all the plants exceeded the height of a man, and where birds were actually sheltering in the 'branches'. The stem of the mustard plant may be as thick as a man's arm. The description of it as a 'tree' in the parable is, therefore, not misleading.
Some commentator have suggested that the seed mentioned in the parable was not that of the black mustard, but of a different plant, Salvadora persica. But this is found in the valleys of the Jordan river, not in the fields. Moreover, its seeds are too large to fit the description given in the Gospels.
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 3 (pages 476-477), adds:
If the text must be rendered "make nests in its branches" (so RSV), the exaggeration would be immediately apparent to even the common man. Botanists avoid this problem by insisting that the verb translated "make nests" means only "settle upon" or "light upon" (cf. Amer. Trans. "roost"), referring only to small birds. The apparent allusion to Dan. 4:11-12, 20-21, seems to support the RSV translation, in which case the only solution is to take the expression as hyperbole (cf. Matt. 17:20).
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer