The Problem of the Mustard Seed -- By: John A. Sproule

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 01:1 (Spring 1980)
Article: The Problem of the Mustard Seed
Author: John A. Sproule

The Problem of the Mustard Seed

John A. Sproule

In this article the author seeks to demonstrate exegetically and botanically that our Lord Jesus Christ was not merely using the language of accommodation or even proverbial language, necessarily, when he referred to the mustard seed as the “least” of all seeds. The author appeals to the language of the text, the context, and to expert testimony in the field of botany to show that the mustard seed was indeed the smallest garden-variety seed known to man in Bible times.

I. The Problem

Matt 13:32 (and its parallel in Mark 4:30–32) seems to be a favorite target for opponents of the inerrancy of the autographs of Scripture. In the context of this passage, Jesus, in a parable, describes the phenomenal growth of the Kingdom of Heaven. He compares that growth with the growth of a grain of mustard (σινάπεως) which is sown in a field and grows to be larger than any of the garden herbs (λαχάνων). Jesus refers to the mustard seed as the least (μικρότερον) of all seeds (σπερμάτων).

Daniel Fuller of Fuller Theological Seminary, arguing for cultural accommodation, states that Jesus referred to the mustard seed as the smallest of seeds when, in fact, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed known botanically to man.1 He argues that Jesus was accommodating his language to the knowledge of the people. In short, what Christ said was inaccurate, but it met the need. Harold Lindsell refers to one of Fuller’s public lectures and writes:

Dr. Fuller alleges that botanically we know that there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed. And that is true. Then he argues that Jesus accommodates Himself to the ignorance of the people to whom He was

speaking, since they believed this. But it constitutes an error, and the presence of one error invalidates the claim to biblical inerrancy.2

Lindsell, in offering suggested solutions to the apparent problem, appeals to a suggestion made nearly a century ago by John A. Broadus. Lindsell writes:

The American Commentary says of this passage that it was popular language, and it was the intention of the speaker to communicate the fact that the mustard seed was “the smallest that his hearers were accustomed to sow.” And indeed this may well be the case. In that event there was no error. If the critics...

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