Is the mustard seed the smallest seed?

In trying to show the Bible can not be trusted in the area of science, someone asked “do you believe, as Jesus taught, that the mustard seed was the smallest seed in the world (Mark 4:30-32)?”

To be able to answer this, we need to look at the text itself.

The NIV renders the text in this way:

30Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with uch big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

The KJV renders the text in this way:

30And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it?  31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: 32But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.

The NASB renders it,

30And He said, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it?  31“It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE.”

Now, we need to look at the meaning of certain words to ensure we have a good understanding of what is being said. First we will look at the word that is translated as ground, earth, and soil – Ge.  We will use the NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon to do so.

The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon

 Strong’s Number:   1093  Browse Lexicon 
Original Word Word Origin
ge contracted from a root word
Transliterated Word TDNT Entry
Ge 1:677,116
Phonetic Spelling Parts of Speech
ghay   Noun Feminine

  1. arable land
  2. the ground, the earth as a standing place
  3. the main land as opposed to the sea or water
  4. the earth as a whole
    1. the earth as opposed to the heavens
    2. the inhabited earth, the abode of men and animals
  5. a country, land enclosed within fixed boundaries, a tract of land, territory, region



 NAS Word Usage – Total: 250
country 2, earth 165, earthly 1, ground 20, land 46, soil 16


Note that this word means arable land (land capable of producing crops), the ground, land, earth, a country, land within boundaries, a tract of land, territoy, and region.

Now we will look at the word translated as garden plants or herbs – Lachanon.

The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon

 Strong’s Number:   3001  Browse Lexicon 
Original Word Word Origin
lavcanon from lachaino (to dig)
Transliterated Word TDNT Entry
Lachanon 4:65,504
Phonetic Spelling Parts of Speech
lakh’-an-on   Noun Neuter

  1. any pot herb, vegetables



 King James Word Usage – Total: 4
herb 4

Note that this word means vegetables, or herbs planted in pots. 

Thus, the text is not saying that Jesus thought the mustard seed was the smallest in the world. This is either saying it was the smallest in the region, or the smallest they planted (in which case, I think the NIV has the most readable text), or the smallest planted in a garden (in which case the NASB has a good rendering as well).

So, yes, in context, the mustard seed was the smallest seed – but certainly not the smallest in the world.

The Bible must be read using a historical, cultural, grammatical, contextual hermeneutic. It must be understood in context, otherwise you miss the message being given to the original audience. If you don’t get the message being given to the original audience, it will be very hard to ascertain the timeless theological principle. If you don’t get the timeless theological principle, then you will certainly have a hard time applying it to the issues of today.


8 Responses

  1. So in the end, the “mustard” seed being “the” very smallest was not the issue, but growth and faith in the Kindgom of God. This is a parable, story and lesson. And very Jewish I might add. No modern science here, but as you note…spiritual and theological truth!
    Fr. R.

  2. I agree, whether it was the smallest in the world was never the issue. It was the smallest planted for herbs at that time and place. But it was the theological concept that is the faith the size of a mustard seed can produce great things that Christ was focusing upon.

    Even so, I don’t think one could say that Christ was wrong from a scientific point of view, given the context.

  3. wb,
    Just a friendly question, but do you think that issue really matters here? So you think Holy Scripture really engages in scientific truth and questions? If so enlighten me, please…when and where? i.e. to science alone
    Fr. R.

    • The reason I think it DOES matter is because there would be those who would/could use it as a reason to not trust what God has written. While it may be merely a pretext, I would remove any reason to distrust God, as best I can. I desire for all to be saved, and if mistrusting the BIble (because of what for all intents and purposes are truly trivial issues like this) could cause someone to disbelieve God and/or not trust in Christ, then I would be remiss if I did not address that one issue. Especially when its so easy to address.

    • Its not so much the science (I really dont think science is addressed specifically in the Bible, just that that what God has written is not wrong, taken contextually, historicall, culturally, grammatically…). It is more that knowing there are people who will take any pretext to disbelieve.

      I know it is God who calls them and prepares them, but if its such a little thing as to show the validity of what God has written, why not show it?

      Sometimes people will present reason after reason to not trust God – but eventually, they come to the point where they have no excuse. I dont expect to argue people into trusting God. I only want to remove as many obstacles as possible, and for some people (those who value the rational and coherent more than most anything) that sort of thing IS an obstacle. Since I can show its not something to get hung up, then its not a bad thing to show.

  4. wb
    >>>I really dont think science is addressed specfically in the Bible>>>

    This was the answer to my question! I understand the rest also. It is “your” presupposition. Which is fine. This is really faith based, and also fine. I too have my presuppositions, and always based too on my conviction of ‘faith that seeks understanding’.

    Do you believe and understand the aspect of “genre” in scripture?

    Fr. R.

    • Yes, I under the concept of genre in scripture. I also think that there are certainly times when what is written is abundantly obvious to be things like hyperbole. There are certainly cases when artistic license is taken, such as in poetry or prophecy, or when the context has to be taken into account (ie. “the sun was setting” does not refer to a sun sitting on a chair). But the question is then begged: which parts of the Bible are to be taken as such?

  5. wb,
    Well quite naturally the context, but also always the theology itself also, the Scripture is about covenant and redemption, and the People of God therein. But always too, the nature and doctrine of God! Indeed, EW Bullingers book: the Figures of Speech Used In the Bible, was well ahead of its time, and even now has not been matched as a biblical tool! Oh for the biblical exegete! They have been few in the Church of God really. But the biblical exegete is also a pastor-teacher in the Church of God! (1 Cor. 4:15)
    Fr. R.

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