Mustard Trees and the Parables of Jesus

Mustard Trees and the Parables of Jesus October 27, 2018

Two things became clear as I taught my class about parables and the historical Jesus this semester.

One is that my botanical knowledge is limited. OK, I knew that. But I didn’t grasp the full implications of it, or its relevance to what I teach, until students drew my attention to mustard trees.

The Greek word used in the Gospels, σίναπι, seems to clearly refer to the plant that is essentially a weed (as I recall John Dominic Crossan highlighting in a documentary), which has tiny seeds and is nothing like a tree. And so I had always had it explained to me that the differences among the Gospels as to whether the mustard seed in the parable grows into a large plant in the shade of which birds nest, or a large tree in the branches of which birds make their nests, reflect different understandings of the nature of the parable (and perhaps of the kingdom of God). Does the parable tell of something ordinary or something extraordinary when the mustard seed turns into a tree?

Well, the students threw me a curve ball, perhaps in part as a result of Google’s image search results. Apparently there is a tree that has become known as a “mustard tree,” the salvadora persica. Its branches were apparently used as chewing sticks in the ancient world, but there’s no evidence I know of that it was called by the same Greek word that is used for “mustard” in the parable, or that the same word is used for mustard shrubs and the tree in Aramaic or Syriac either for that matter.

I trust that everyone reading this will find this horticultural information as fascinating as I did. But do any of you have information about how these different plants were referred to in ancient Greek and Aramaic, just so that I can make sure that there is no real likelihood that Jesus was talking about a plant that could naturally turn into a tree? The information that I have found satisfies me that Jesus was talking about the shrub, the very technical name of which is related to the Greek word used in the Gospels. But I’d still like to know more. Is the tree’s English name based on the aroma of the fruit, or the parable of Jesus, or something else? Was it associated with mustard in ancient times or only more recently?

Another question that arose for me in exploring this topic is whether Jesus had a set of material related to mustard seeds, and the extent to which the various sayings may or may not interpret each other as a result. See my earlier discussion of Jesus’ sayings about camels for a sense of what led me to wonder about this.

Your thoughts about mustard, horticulture, botany, agriculture, and/or Jesus are much appreciated!


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  • John MacDonald

    I looked it up and, etymologically, “Mustard” is from “Must,” meaning “new wine,” Old English must, from Latin mustum (also source of Old High German, German most, Old French moust, Modern French moût, Spanish, Italian mosto), short for vinum mustum “fresh wine,” neuter of mustus “fresh, new, newborn,” perhaps literally “wet,” and from PIE *mus-to-, from root *meus- “damp”

    • Erp

      But that is the English word. The Greek is σίναπι (sinapi) which gives its name to a plant genus (Sinapis) including the plant that produces the condiment.

      The mustard tree, salvadora persica, seems to produce berries so the seeds might not be obvious. This does depend on what was included in the class of ‘seed’ in the first century (mustard seeds in modern terms not being considered particularly small).

      • John MacDonald

        Yes, but the Jewish people of that time were under Roman control, so the Latin sense may be pertinent. I thought the notion of vinum mustum “fresh wine” was interesting in the Jesus context.

        Our English word mustard is from mustum, grape juice, and ardens, burning. The Romans mixed grape juice or wine with mustard powder, ground from seeds, to make a condiment for meat. Hippocrates, slapped pungent mustard plasters on wheezing chest as a cure-all for bronchitis.

        • Erp

          First, they were in the Greek half of the Roman world. The local people would have spoken Aramaic first, Greek second, and Latin third. Note that Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans in Greek.

          Second English ‘mustard’ and its ancestors are late. The OED states “Compare also post-classical Latin mustardum (frequently in British sources from mid 13th to early 14th centuries)” but nothing earlier. Mustard is derived from Latin but was created as a word well past the time of the New Testament. The Vulgate uses “grano sinapis” for grain of mustard.

          • John MacDonald

            Oh well, when you’re right you’re right. lol

    • Jon-Michael Ivey

      Mustard is from “mustum ardens,” or “burning must.” The word “mustum” most often referred to the mashed up grapes that could be fermented to make wine, but it could refer to a paste made from mashing up any sort of fruit. A must made from mustard was known for its burning spiciness.

  • james warren

    Jesus teaches that God can be found in our sworn enemies. In his day the Samaritans were the illegitimate heirs of normative Judaism.
    Leaven concealed into bread dough by a woman [!!!] was considered unclean and corrupt.
    The mustard plant was a noxious weed that had dangerous take-over properties in a first-century farmer’s garden.
    Jesus found God in a dinner party with the destitute and cast-offs in his culture and was attacked for it.

    The God of Jesus is found in the unclean and the corrupt.
    In other words, God comes to us from unexpected places.

    • Summers-lad

      That is interesting, and it relates to something I have heard (whether the Greek supports this I don’t know), which is that Jesus was not meaning that the mustard seed grows into a tall tree but into a plant which covers the ground and spreads everywhere. In terms of churches therefore, the simple church or house church model (which was the most common form in New Testament times) more closely resembles this image than the large institutional church or megachurch. I suppose it could also portray the Kingdom coming into the lives of a whole wide range of people.

      • Maybe I needed to provide more background information. Across the Gospel tradition, sometimes the mustard seed is said to grow into a tree, and sometimes it isn’t. And so that is the key question here – was Jesus talking about something that mustard seeds naturally did, or something unexpected emerging from the seed?

  • I tend to zero in on the kingdom being ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως/“like a mustard seed”—similar to such a tiny seed, but not literally that seed. Because a literal mustard seed isn’t the very smallest of all seeds in one’s herb garden, and doesn’t grow into trees. I suspect Jesus brought up mustard seeds because they were at hand, but only spoke of a hypothetical plant—representing a real kingdom.