Friday, January 1, 2016

THE SMALLEST SEED IN MARK 4:31 ~ Examining a Difficult Bible Verse

In Mark 4:30-32, Jesus says: "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade" (NIV). Or did he say that? Did Jesus really claim that the mustard seed "is the smallest of all seeds on earth"? This is how the NIV (New International Version) translates these verses. But could they have been translated better?

This seems to be one of those perennial questions. It often stumps believers who come upon it. And of course, skeptics relish the opportunity to say Jesus made a mistake or the Bible has errors. Recently, this issue has come up a couple of times in a Facebook group that I am a part of. The second such discussion was introduced using a blog article by John Tors at "Truth In My Days." The article is titled: "DID JESUS ERR ABOUT THE SIZE OF MUSTARD SEEDS? A Case Study in How to Do Serious Evangelical Apologetics." 

The author does a good job of surveying the popular internet solutions to the problem (even if he does not seem to fully understand them). And I truly appreciate his passion and sympathize with his concerns. But the arrogant and caustic tone of the article bothers me as he castigates prominent scholars and then declares that he alone has the answer to this problem. If he had studied more carefully, he would have seen that all of  the suggestions he surveys have merit and contribute to our understanding of this passage. And the one he begins with is indeed the best scholarly solution (and not the "gambit" that he declares it to be).

Tors is correct in noting that the word that the NIV translates as "earth" (ges = γῆς) can be used to mean simply agricultural land or soil. Even in English, the word "earth" can be used to mean our planet OR a handful of soil. But after castigating Daniel Wallace for limiting the meaning of "seed" (sperma) to "sown seed", Tors determines that "earth" should be "that limited area of ground for agricultural use"--by which he means to say that the word refers to a specific piece of property or a certain field. But that is not what Bauer is indicating in his Greek lexicon. It is a valid interpretation of the word in context but it is not the straightforward meaning given by Bauer. So my point here is NOT that Tors is in error by doing this (context can narrow the meaning of a word), but rather that he is doing exactly the thing that he castigates Wallace for doing (or at least what he thinks Wallace is doing, which we shall see is not really the case).

Tors whole argument hinges on his determination that any interpretation must rely on a straightforward reading of a Greek dictionary, and in this case, Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. But dictionaries are produced by humans. Bauer's (BAGD) is the standard Greek lexicon, but it is not perfect. Bauer was a great Greek scholar and no one has surpassed his work as a number one go-to reference for the meaning of Greek words. One reason is because it is so exhaustive in scope. But it still has weaknesses. Bauer was a human being and not on some ethereal plane far above Wallace and the rest of us. (Interestingly, Tors is simply pitting Bauer's Greek reference work against Wallace's Greek reference work.) In this case, Bauer did not see the need to differentiate between "seeds used for agricultural purposes" and "seeds of plants in general." The other weakness is that Bauer does not give any etymologies (studies of word origins). I realized early on in my study of Greek that it is immensely helpful to consult more than one reference work when trying to sort out a difficulty with the meaning of a Greek word. This is why I have several Greek reference works on my shelves (one has 3 volumes and another has 10 volumes, while Bauer is a single volume); and I have ready access to at least three more on my computer. If Tors had consulted a few more reference works (he only consults Bauer and Wallace--whom he rejects), he would have seen that Wallace is right on the money, and the problem would have instantly dissolved.

So let's look at this verse in Mark 4:31: "It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth" (NIV):


The NIV (New International Version) does a terrible job of translating this verse. Going to the Blue Letter Bible, we can quickly see that all of the other versions do a much better job and include the phrase that modifies mustard seed: "WHICH WHEN PLANTED ON THE SOIL." This is in fact, in the original Greek and an important part of the context, but the NIV does not translate it at all. The NASB does the best job of all here (though it is not always the best, contrary to NASB fans): "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,...." 

For the sake of convenient reference, let me repeat their translation with the key Greek words inserted: "It is like a mustard seed (κόκκῳ = kokko = Masculine Singular Dative of kokkos), which, when sown (σπαρῇ = spare = 3rd Person Singular Aorist Passive Subjunctive of speiro) upon the soil (γῆς = Feminine Singular Genitive of ges), though it is smaller than all the seeds (σπερμάτων = spermaton = Neuter Plural Genitive of sperma) that are upon the soil (γῆς = Feminine Singular Genitive of ges),...."

 As Tors rightly notes, the context here is agriculture. And context is THE most important issue in interpretation of language. We can see that this parable is about agriculture in the immediate context (in the phrase that the NIV totally leaves out): "sown (speiro) upon the soil." We can also see this context in the very next verse: "Yet when planted (speiro, same word as in 4:31), it grows and becomes THE LARGEST OF ALL *GARDEN PLANTS* (λαχάνων = lachanon), with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade" (NIV). Fortunately, the NIV gets this verse right. If we look beyond this parable, we see that it is also part of the larger context of Mark 4, as Jesus tells two other explicitly agricultural parables immediately prior to this one.

But what about that word "seed" (sperma) which Wallace maintained should be translated as "sown seed" (but which Tors said was incorrect). Consulting other references besides Bauer (BAGD), I immediately found distinctions that Bauer failed to make.  

(i.) Kittel (the 10-volume work, which is really the number one place to go when investigating the range of meanings for a Greek word) groups words into cognate groups. So immediately we see that "seed" (sperma) is from the group of Greek words that include "sown" (speiro, which is used in verse 31 and again in 32), "sowing" (spora), "sowing, seed" (sporos) and "sown" (sporimos). These are all of the cognates of "seed" (sperma) and they all have an agricultural meaning. (Checking Verbrugge gives the same results but adds nothing further.) So it is easy to see that this group of words are all words used in agriculture and so THE PRIMARY MEANING (not just a possible meaning) of "seed" (sperma) is "SEED USED IN AGRICULTURE" (or as Wallace put it: "sown seed"). 

(ii.) If we consult Brown's 3-volume Dictionary of New Testament Theology, we see the same cognate group. And the very first sentence of the article begins: "In secular Gk. the sperma group is commonly used in the literal sense of sowing plant seeds...." 

(iii.) Consulting Liddell & Scott's lexicon, the very first definition given for this word "seed" (sperma) and therefore the most common sense of the word is: "that which is sown." So we immediately see that three of the best Greek reference works available agree that this word refers to seed used in agriculture.

(iv.) For those of you who do not have access to all of these reference works, you can go to Blue Letter Bible (or other online Bibles) and use the tools there and discover the same thing. Blue Letter Bible provides the meanings from Thayer's lexicon and Strong's concordance. Thayer's is not as clear here, but if you look closely you will find the phrase ("of the grains or kernels sown"). If you use the etymological tool (which relies on Strong's), you will see that this word "seed" (sperma) is derived from the "root word" speiro (which means to "sow" or "scatter seed": again, the word "sown" that is used in the parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4:31, 32). Furthermore, the Blue Letter Bible gives you all the New Testament occurrences of the word (scroll down), so you can quickly read through and see for yourself how the word is used in the New Testament. If you do that, you will see that the New Testament writers only use this word in an explicitly agricultural context, except when it is used in its figurative sense referring to human descendants. But when referring to plants, it is always seed that is "sown" and usually makes explicit mention of a farmer.

(v.) It is also important to note that these are the kinds of categories that people in the ancient world put things. They used practical categories. They did not use the same kinds of scientific means for categorizing living things that we do. This way of classifying things has only been developed in the last 500 years. So, bats are put in the same category as birds because they fly. And whales in the same category as fish, because they swim in the water. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. It is just a different way of sorting.

(vi.) Now that you have a better understanding of what the Greek word for "seed" (sperma) means, let me point out one more thing: The first word that Jesus uses for "seed" is kokkos. He then shifts to sperma when noting the realm in which the mustard seed is the smallest.

So let's summarize the data that we have gathered:
(i.) Jesus says that the mustard is the smallest of "seeds" (sperma). Sperma is part of a group of words that are all have a meaning related to sowing seed for agricultural purposes. This is conclusive evidence that the word sperma originally referred only to seed that was to be sown for the purpose of agriculture. It is possible for the meaning of words to change over time and occasionally take on a completely different meaning, particularly among certain groups of people. This is why Greek references (such as Kittel) that explore the range of meaning for a word not only offer etymologies but also give brief studies of how the word was used in particular eras and by certain groups (e.g., classical Greek, the Septuagint, the New Testament). But I could find no indication that sperma took on any different meaning (except when used figuratively of human descendants, which does not affect our discussion here). Certainly, in the New Testament, whenever sperma is used in reference to the seeds of plants, it refers to seed that is being sown for agriculture.

(ii.) This is all confirmed in the broader context (Jesus' previous parables and rural setting) and the immediate context of Mark 4:31-32, which is filled with agricultural terms: "When the mustard seed (kokkos) is sown (speiro) upon the soil (ges), it is the smallest of agricultural seeds (sperma) sown (probably an assumed verb here based on sentence structure) on the soil (ges) but grows and becomes the largest of agricultural plants (lachanon)."

(iii.) So what word would be used if the ancients wanted to refer to just any seed (whether wild or domesticated)? As we already noted, there is the word kokkos. So Jesus' shift from kokkos to sperma only reinforces the fact that it is the smallest of agricultural seeds sperma and that it is NOT being compared to all seeds, including wild seeds (kokkos).

Therefore the clear meaning of Jesus' words in Mark 4:31-32 is as follows: "It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the other agricultural seeds that are sown upon the soil, grows and becomes the largest of all the agricultural plants." This is the most natural meaning of Jesus' words here. 
Furthermore, in the context, Jesus is not trying to make a botanical or horticultural point here. When interpreting what someone is saying, you also need to consider the genre being used, the recipients, and the intention. Here Jesus is speaking to a crowd of Jews and speaking a parable about the kingdom of God. So that context narrows the meaning even further. He is not saying it is the smallest agricultural seed that has ever been sown or ever will be sown. He is simply talking to them about what they are familiar with and using that as an analogy to how the kingdom of God grows. Therefore, Jesus' words in context might very well be translated as: "It is like a mustard seed, which when you (you Jews listening to me) sow upon the soil is the smallest seed you sow upon the soil, grows and becomes the largest of the plants in your fields and gardens."

So, no. Jesus did NOT claim that the mustard seed was the smallest seed of any plant in the history of the world past, present or future....or on other planets or in other universes! He simply was using an analogy that the people that he was talking to would understand: "Of all the seeds you sow in your fields and gardens, the mustard seed is the smallest, but then it grows and becomes the largest."

*Contradictions in the Bible?


  1. Hi Brad, this is Chris from England. I wanted to extend my prayers and thoughts to you and your family for 2016. Your 2016 will be your best year, yet in Jesus Christ. Also, thanks for all your info.Oh, by the way, when you have time, could you check out my latest Blog and let me know if you could re-post it on FACEBOOK, if you like it.The address is:

    1. Thanks, Chris! And I will try to find time to check it out.