Seidensticker Folly #25: Jesus’ Alleged Mustard Seed Error

Seidensticker Folly #25: Jesus’ Alleged Mustard Seed Error October 8, 2018

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18“I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?”

He also made a general statement on 6-22-17“In this blog, I’ve responded to many Christian arguments . . . Christians’ arguments are easy to refute . . . I’ve heard the good stuff, and it’s not very good.” He added in the combox“If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” Such confusion would indeed be predictable, seeing that Bob himself admitted (2-13-16): “My study of the Bible has been haphazard, and I jump around based on whatever I’m researching at the moment.”

I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes if I am able, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply. It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. But don’t hold your breath. He hasn’t yet uttered one peep in reply to my previous 24 installments.

Bob (for the record) virtually begged and pleaded with me to dialogue with him in May 2018, via email. But by 10-3-18, following massive personal attacks against me,  encouraged by Bob on his blog, his opinion was as follows: “Dave Armstrong . . . made it clear that a thoughtful intellectual conversation wasn’t his goal. . . . [I] have no interest in what he’s writing about.” Be that as it may, what is one to make (whatever he thinks of me) of his great (and perhaps in due course total) unwillingness to defend his ideas and opinions against my numerous serious critiques?

Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or in my sidebar search (near the top).

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In his article, “Debunking 10 Popular Christian Principles for Reading the Bible” (3-2-15), Bob — ever the scrupulous Bible scholar — opined:

I say that the context of a verse is the entire Bible. . . . Don’t tell me that a verse says something without assuring me that the rest of the Bible never contradicts it.

To illustrate this problem, we’re given the example of the mustard seed, which Jesus calls “the smallest of all seeds.” . . . don’t tell me that Jesus is quoted giving the correct information when the Bible says he doesn’t. And don’t tell me to read a verse in its correct context when you won’t do that yourself.

He mentioned this flawed and fallacious “argument” again, nine months later:

The Bible betrays its uninformed roots when it says that . . . the mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth (Matt. 13:31-32). (12-2-15)

I’m delighted that Bob now wants to consider biblical context. It’s a new concept for him, but we all live and learn. One aspect of that context of the entire Bible is use of various literary genres and figures of speech, etc. These include many non-literal usages.

The parable of the mustard seed is an example of hyperbole, or exaggeration, which was very common in ancient Hebrew culture (and indeed, in most — if not all — cultures in the world and throughout history). First, let’s look at the relevant passages:

Matthew 13:31-32 (RSV) Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; [32] it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (cf. Lk 13:18-19)

Mark 4:30-32 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? [31] It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; [32] yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 

Matthew 17:20  He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

Luke 17:6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, `Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 

Bible scholar E. W. Bullinger catalogued “over 200 distinct figures [in the Bible], several of them with from 30 to 40 varieties.” That is a a statement from the Introduction to his 1104-page tome, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London: 1898). I have this work in my own library (hardcover). It’s also available for free, online. Bullinger continues, in the Introduction:

All language is governed by law; but, in order to increase the power of a word, or the force of an expression, these laws are designedly departed from, and words and sentences are thrown into, and used in, new forms, or figures.

The ancient Greeks reduced these new and peculiar forms to science, and gave names to more than two hundred of them.

The Romans carried forward this science . . . 

 These manifold forms which words and sentences assume were called by the Greeks Schema and by the Romans, Figura. Both words have the same meaning, viz., a shape or figure. . . . 

Applied to words, a figure denotes some form which a word or sentence takes, different from its ordinary and natural form. This is always for the purpose of giving additional force, more life, intensified feeling, and greater emphasis.

Bullinger devotes six pages (423-428) to “Hyperbole; or, Exaggeration”: which he defines as follows:

The figure is so called because the expression adds to the sense so much that it exaggerates it, and enlarges or diminishes it more than is really meant in fact. Or, when more is said than is meant to be literally understood, in order to heighten the sense.

It is the superlative degree applied to verbs and sentences and expressions or descriptions, rather than to mere adjectives. . . . 

It was called by the Latins superlatio, a carrying beyond, an exaggerating.

I shall cite some of his more notable and obvious examples (omitting ellipses: “. . .” ):

Gen. ii. 24. — “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” This does not mean that he is to forsake and no longer to love or care for his parents. So Matt. xix. 5.

Ex. viii. 17. — “All the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt”: i.e., wherever in all the land there was dust, it became lice.

I Sam. xxv. 37. — Nabal’s “heart died within him, and he became as a stone”: i.e., he was terribly frightened and collapsed or fainted away.

I Kings i. 40. — “So that the earth rent with the sound of them.” A hyperbolical description of their jumping and leaping for joy.

Job xxix. 6. — “The rock poured me out rivers of oil”: i.e., I had abundance of all good things. So chap. xx. 17 and Micah vi. 7.

Isa. xiv. 13, — “I will ascend into heaven”: to express the pride of Lucifer.

Lam. ii. 11.— “My liver is poured upon the earth, etc”: to express the depth of the Prophet’s grief and sorrow at the desolations of Zion.

Luke xiv. 26. — “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother”: i.e., does not esteem them less than me. So the verb to hate is used (Gen. xxix. 31. Rom. ix. 13).

John iii. 26. — “All men come to him.” Thus his disciples said to John, to show their sense of the many people who followed the Lord.

John xii. 19. — “Behold, the world is gone after him.” The enemies of the Lord thus expressed their indignation at the vast multitudes which followed Him.

Note that in Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6, cited above, a double hyperbole is used: 1) faith only as large as a small mustard seed (even just a wee bit!), can bring about 2) mountains and trees being uprooted and moved. Bible scholar Kyle Butt, in an article on biblical hyperbole, compares the biblical usage of this type of figurative language to the same kind of application today:

We who use the English language are quite familiar with the use of hyperbole, even though we may not be as familiar with the term itself. When a teenager explains to her parent that “everybody” is going to be at the party, does she mean that literally the world’s population of 6.6 billion people will be there? Of course she does not. She is intentionally exaggerating to make a point. When a teacher explains to his class that “everybody” knows who the first president of the United States was, does the teacher believe all toddlers can correctly answer the question? No. Once again, the teacher is simply using a well-understood figure of speech to convey a point.

In a similar way, the Bible uses hyperbole on numerous occasions. Take John 4:39 as an example. In this passage, a Samaritan woman spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (emp. added). Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point.

Gary Amirault highlights more biblical examples in a similar article:

[T]is verse is a hyperbole, an exaggeration for effect:

“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:24, NIV)

It is not too difficult to determine that this is a hyperbole, an exaggeration. Because the English language is full of Bible terms and phraseology, this Hebrew idiom has become part of the English language. Therefore most English speaking people know the real meaning of that phrase: “You pay close attention to little things but neglect the important things.”

However, here is a hyperbole that the average Bible reader may miss and formulate doctrine from which may end up being harmful to themselves and others.

“Everything is possible for him who believes.” (Mark 9:23b, NIV)

The Bible is full of exaggerations like the one above which are not to be taken literally. Careful attention, comparing scripture with scripture, knowing the Bible and its author thoroughly, making certain not to necessary apply things to ourselves which weren’t meant for us individually and some basics about the original languages are needed to prevent us from misinterpreting various scripture verses like this one. . . . 

“If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…” Matt. 5:29 (I met a Christian who actually tried to pluck out his right eye because he had a lust problem. This is an example the kind of problem a Bible translation can cause if one is not informed of the various figures of speech found in the Bible.)

Understanding all this now, and getting back to the passages on the mustard seed, we now accurately understand their intention and meaning. J. Timothy Unruh explains, in his article, “The Parable of The Mustard Seed and its alleged contradictions”:

The subject question of this study deals with another one of the infamous “apparent contradictions” found in the Scripture, this one regarding the physical characteristic of the mustard seed in the above quoted parable, namely the size of the seed itself. The passage refers to the seed as being “the least of all seeds” which is to say, the smallest of all seeds. Given this information from the Scripture, an objection has been raised that there are other seeds which are smaller than the mustard seed, among these are the petunia, the begonia and the orchid. While the mustard seed is about 1/20th of an inch in size, with the smaller petunia seed about 1/50th of an inch and the yet smaller begonia some 1/100th of an inch in size, the even yet smaller orchid seed is so tiny that a 10 to 30 power microscope is required for the eye to see it in any detail. Furthermore, the microscopic spores of mushrooms, lichens, and molds, which also are seeds, are so tiny and lightweight that even the slightest currents of air may carry them vast distances aloft. These too are seeds for the word spore itself means “seed.” Therefore the mustard seed is technically not the smallest seed of all. The objection has been pressed even further to say something like, “Since the mustard seed isn’t the smallest of all seeds then Jesus was wrong, and if Jesus was God and made everything, He should have known that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed! . . . 

[W]e next turn our attention to an evaluation of the intent in the parable itself and then make a decision as to whether or not the Lord was trying to be technical or non-technical in His usage of the seed as an illustration. Naturally, any gainsayer would relish the technical interpretation at this point because therein he sees his opportunity to overthrow the integrity of the Bible. We must look at the passage in context of the objection and ask ourselves whether the parable is designed to be a lesson in botany, or a lesson of a much deeper significance and importance. To the casual reader with even an elementary understanding of the Word of God it should be rather apparent that the Lord had the latter purpose in mind. The parable of the mustard seed exemplifies the principle often exercised in Scripture which makes use of one thing in order to illustrate the meaning of a greater truth. In other words, an object lesson is being given here. Such is the mechanism which makes a parable so workable and meaningful. The Proverbs of Solomon are full of such illustrations. . . . 

Jesus himself is known for speaking in hyperbolic or parabolic statements, hence the parable. We should not think that people were any different thousands of years ago. It should, as well, be realized that the expression “the least of all seeds” is figurative and oriental, and that in a proverbial simile no literal or technical accuracy is to be expected. It was a hyperbolic expression to emphasize “very small.” Of course, we know there are many seed types smaller than the mustard seed. It is thus quite evident that the Lord, in His popular teaching, adhered to the popular language, and the mustard seed was used proverbially to denote anything very minute. Very likely, in Israel the mustard seed was the smallest of all garden seeds. In such case the literal truth about the comparative size of the mustard seed in the parable still holds after all. The Scriptures simply do not find it necessary to make a habit of championing such careful and superfluous elaborations. The tiny orchid seed was not likely known, let alone planted, in ancient Israel. The mustard seed was simply a familiar convenience to draw from in order to make an important point.

The frequent use of such hyperbole throughout Holy Scripture (including often by Jesus) quite adequately explains this use of “mustard seed.” If it wasn’t intended absolutely literally, with surgical accuracy and rationalistic, scientific precision, but rather as a poetic exaggeration, the “problem” vanishes. To mangle a popular metaphor, Bob “can’t see the forest for the seed.” If he would take a day or two to study biblical literary genre and various figures of speech, he would avoid many embarrassing errors in the future.

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Photo credit: carlfbagge (4-15-17) Wild Mustard in Bloom: Shoreline Park, Rancho Palos Verdes, California: 2.5 meters (8 feet, two inches) tall [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]

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