Old Dominion University
A to Z Index  |  Directories

Plant Site

Bible Plants


Brassica (alba?). Mustard. Hula Swamp, Israel. Brassicaceae

This is an exceptionally large mustard plant (probably Sinapis alba or S. arvensis). But is it large enough to support birds?


Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke




A Bible expositor is usually not a trained botanist, nor is the average botanist trained in Bible exposition. Botanical expertise is usually not a problem in Bible exposition except when it comes to explaining Bible portions in which plants play a prominent part, e.g. in some of the parables told by our Lord. The largely agrarian audience addressed by Jesus can be assumed to have enough knowledge of plants to understand the substance and nuances of his teachings involving plants. Most modern Bible readers, on the other hand, may miss or misinterpret some of these teachings through a lack of acquaintance with nature in the Holy Land. "With many authors a wall of partition has been erected between nature and Scripture, this double divine revelation," as has been correctly observed(1). This conflict has occasioned the present writers, a Bible scholar and a botanist, to cooperate in the study of Bible plants, resulting in a series of booklets, "Plants of the Bible" (2), and numerous other publications in Dutch, English, and French. This paper is the result of our on-going research into plants of the Bible.

Mustard in the teaching of Christ

The Lord Jesus is the perfect Teacher! Through parables, He was able to present profound spiritual truths to simple people. His examples were always relevant and He was quick to identify with His audience by using familiar examples from everyday life. The mustard plant, mentioned only in the New Testament, is one of these examples. It would have been abundantly clear to Jesus' audience what He meant - they had asked questions about the tares, but not the parable of the mustard seed. For modern, western readers the parable of the mustard seed may be harder to understand. While mustard is one of the best known of all Bible plants, there is no indication of how ancient Hebrews actually used it(3). From interviews of Palestinian farmers, it seems to follow that they use the seeds or eat the vegetative portions of the plant similar to ways we have seen relatives of mustards used in Jordan(4). Perhaps the leaves were used as a vegetable like many members of the mustard family, a family which includes such well known plants as cabbage, turnips, and broccoli.

Botanical problems: what is meant by mustard?

The Greek word for mustard is sinapi (Matth. 13:31; 17:20; Mark 4:31; Luke 13:19; 17:6), and the Hebrew equivalent would be chardal. Mustard would be, according to Theophrastus and Pliny(5),grown in gardens, but would not need any cultivating, as it sprouts all by itself (nulla cultra, quoniam semen cadens protinus viret).

The Jewish tradition (in the Mishnah(6)), however, states that it is not a garden vegetable, but that it is grown in fields. It has been suggested that Salvadora persica is meant(7) as the Arabs are reported to call this tree chardal. But there are very strong arguments against this thesis. First, Salvadora persica is a shrub very much unlike any member of the mustard family. Second, it is never cultivated although the shoots and leaves can be eaten by humans and camels(8). Third, it has a very restricted distribution in the Holy Land, being found only in deserts. Lastly, the fruits are large and would hardly fit the picture of being among the smallest of seeds as the imagery intended by the parable. The most probable candidates which remain are the black mustard (Brassica nigra), the white mustard (Sinapis arvense or Sinapsis alba) and possibly Sinapsis jun cea All four belong to the Cruciferae (also known as the Brassicaceae), the mustard family. All four have small seeds and are characterized by rapid germination and seedling growth and are annuals which flower in the late spring. Modern commercial mustard is prepared by grinding the seeds of black and white mustard and mixing them together.

Fonck(9) quotes Maldonatus about his findings in Spain as to Sinapsis: In calidioribus locis longe supra humanan staturam assurgit, ut ubi copia est, silva esse videatur. But it can (as Bruijel rightly remarks(10)) hardly be yellow mustard, as this is not sown in gardens or fields. So the logical conclusion seems to be , as many experts agree, that the parable points to Brassica nigra.

The seed of both black and white mustard is similar in size, about 1.0 to 3.0 mm (1/8 inch)(11) so it is not the smallest seed but it is the smallest seed of those which "you plant in the ground" clearly indicating that the Lord was not comparing the mustard seed to all plants but only to those which were commonly grown. There would be numerous plants familiar to His audience with smaller seeds, of which the best example would be the seed of the black orchid. But there are few plants which grow so large in one season as a mustard, and few plants would be characterized by such rapid germination of the seed. Mustard planted one day could begin growing the next.

A grown black mustard would still be a herb, botanically speaking, but sometimes a very big herb, popularly considered a shrub. There are wild mustard plants over ten feet tall near the Jordan River, and even in moderate climate a mustard plant may grow that tall, provided it gets enough sunshine. It must, moreover, be remarked that generally trees in most parts of the Holy Land do not reach a large stature. The stem of a mustard plant also becomes dry and wood-like, which gives it the aspect of a tree. Many have pointed to another problem: that this plant, or any mustard, could not support roosting birds. It seems questionable whether the Gr. Kataskènoun has to mean this, as many have thought, partly also on the argument that kataskènoosis in Matth. 8:20 & par. does unquestionably mean "nest."(12) But a very important point is overlooked: by the end of the summer, when the plant has reached its peak in growth, the time for building nests is long past.(13) The word may simply mean 'rest' or 'lodge',(14) which is the more probable as Mark 4:32 says 'under its shadow.'

In summary, the three features of the mustard plant emphasized by the Lord are the small size of the seed, the large size of the plant in relation to the seed, and the rapid growth. This will help us as we consider the controversies that have arisen as to the exegesis of this parable.

Normal growth, or aberrant?

What did the Lord Jesus mean by this parable? Does it speak of the miraculous, Divine growth of the Kingdom of God, as many exegetes(15) have contended? Many dispensationalist expositors on the contrary, following a line suggested by J. N. Darby and C. I. Scofield, have made a strong case for a negative meaning: 'a garden-shrub out-doing itself;'(16) 'the mustard-seed shows an unnatural, an abnormal growth and the birds lodging there bring defilement. Such is Christendom with its worldly ambitions and its unsaved masses.'(17) 'Christianity ... becomes in the hand of man a great power on the earth.'(18) 'The birds are used as a picture of evil powers,(19) with a reference to Rev. 18:2, where Babylon is said to be a cage for every unclean and hated bird'(20). The position is well summarized by William Kelly in a paper published in his magazine The Bible Treasury(21).

Thus the Lord lets us know in this parable that, in the face of His revealed will, Christendom would soon manifest a portentous change, and from its primitive low estate vie with the powers of the world in earthly grandeur and influence.

More recent exegetes in the dispensationalist school are not as strong (22), but still do not confront the real problem, which is, to our mind: what is the force of the imagery that is used in this parable?

The problem in the parable of the mustard seed is whether (as the older dispensationalist exegesis runs) the growth of mustard into a tree is really abnormal. If the Lord wanted to speak of something aberrant, grotesque, why did He use a picture of a mustard tree? Surely his hearers would not consider the growth of such a plant into the stature of a tree unnatural. It should be noted that it does not say that the mustard seed became bigger than all the trees, but the biggest among herbs, and growing into a tree, i.e. approaching the size of a tree. If the Lord would have wanted to say that the Kingdom had to remain in its incipient beauty and smallness, than a lily of the field would be a much more telling figure of speech - especially in view of the oriental love for hyperbole. Moreover, the mustard seed does not grow tall by the hands of man, as the explanation would presuppose: it only does so by an extraordinary amount of sunshine and by other favorable circumstances(23) .

A small beginning

In the old English of the so-called Pepysian Gospel Harmony the Parable of the mustard-seed is summarized in a way which might well be the real meaning(24):

(...) and afterwards he seide it ferd of hem as of a greyne that groweth wonderlich heighe, theigh it be litel whan it is a kyrnel.

Surely the mustard seed was not really the smallest because the seed of the black orchid is smaller, as already noted in medieval times by, e.g., Albertus Magnus. But the mustard seed was, in Jewish tradition, proverbial for smallness(25)

. It does not seem, though, that growth towards greatness is so much the point. D. A. Carson has convincingly argued that the greatness of the Kingdom would be no surprise for Jesus' audience - they were born and bred in a religious background were this Messianic magnificence of the age to come was taught with much emphasis. On the contrary, a real novelty in the teaching of Jesus was the perspective of the smallness of its beginning(26). This line pervades the whole chapter: a sower sows a small seed, the enemy introduces tiny germs of evil, a minute lump of leaven permeates the whole loaf, an invisible treasure turns out to be the real value of a piece of ground, one very precious pearl is worth more than all the possessions of a merchant, an invisible net is drawn through the depths of the sea, and (in the eighth parable(27)) a scribe discovers things hitherto unseen in his treasure. Things that seem small, inconspicuous, hardly worth obser vation, invisible, turn out to be by far the greatest things. The strangeness of the symbolism, according to Dupont,(28) is just the point that Jesus makes. One does not need to think of birds (in the parable of the mustard-seed) or leaven (in the next parable) to be suggestive of evil; this may be the meaning of such symbolism elsewhere, but not necessarily here. Carson, in quoting Dupont, points to a similar imagery: the coming of the Kingdom like the coming of a thief in the night (Matth. 24:43). The birds may well be indicative of Gentile nations (Ezek. 17:23; 31:6,13; Dan. 4:12, 14 [12:21 MT])(29), and thus point to the shelter found by many beneficiaries in the Kingdom. The parable of the mustard seed would, then, point to the extensive growth of the Kingdom, while the parable of the leaven would speak of its intensive growth(30). The contexts in Mark and Luke seem to favor this interpretation. In Mark 4 the point seems growth, connected with the previous parable of the seed growing untended. In Luke 13, the Lord is speaking in the context of a healing in the synagogue, as contrasted to the judgement on the fig-tree in the vineyard (clearly speaking of Israel); and after these parables, Luke adds the saying of Jesus as to the narrow door through which one can enter into the broadness of the Kingdom, where they will come from east and west and north and south.

1. L. Fonck, Senfkörnlein, Tollkorn und höhere Parabelkritik, Zeitschrift für kath. Theologie, XXVI (1902), p. 13-22, quoting C.E. van Koetsveld, De Gelijkenissen van den Zaligmaker, Schoonhoven 1869, 1,p.80.

2. L. J. Musselman and H. P. Medema, Laat de aarde het u vertellen, Vaassen 1993; id., Van U is ook de aarde, Vaassen 1993.

3. J. G. Vaughan and J. S. Hemingway, The Utilization of Mustards, Economic Botany 13 [2] (1959), p. 196-204

4. L. J. Musselman, unpublished

5. Theophr. Hist. Plant., VII, 1,1ff.; Pliny, Hist. Nat. XX, 22, 236

6. T. Kil., 3,2; T. Maas, III, 7 (84); see other quotations in Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum NT aus Talmud und Midrasch, München 1922-1928, I.p. 669; cf. also the reffs. by C.-H. Hunzinger, in TDNT, VII 287ff.

7. See the authors mentioned by Fonck, o.c. p. 21. and also by R. Trench, Notes on the Parables of our Lord, Westwood NJ 1953, p. 108

8. eg, Salvadora in Zohary, Flora Palaestina, II, p 303; L. J. Musselman, Unpublished observations in Sudan.

9. I.c. p. 18

10. F. J. Bruijel, Tijden en jaren: het natuurjaar in de Bijbel, Baarn z.j., p. 149

11. UBS, Helps for Translators: Flora and Fauna of the Bible, London-New York-Stuttgart, 1980; D. Smit, Planten uit de Bijbel: hun herkomst en gebruik door de eeuwen heen, Amsterdam 1990.

12. W. Michaelis, TDNT VII, p. 389 nt. 11; cf. Bauer in loco.

13. As rightly observed by M.O. Tolbert, Luke in: The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, London 1971, p. 115

14. So A.B. Bruce in The Expositor's New Testament, on Matthew 13.

15. e.g. A. Schlatter, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, Stuttgart 1987 (repr.), p. 218; H.N. Ridderbos, Mattheüs, in: Korte Verklaring, Kampen 1974 (repr.), Matthew Henry (in loco), and many others.

16. F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible, at Matth. 13:31

17. A. C. Gaebelein, Gaebelein's Concise Commentary, Neptune NJ 1985, p. 778; in a similar way, but more extensive his Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew, New York, n.d.

18. Hamilton Smith, The Gospel of Mark, in: The Serious Christian Series, Books for Christians, Charlotte NC, n.d., p. 17

19. S. Prod'hom, Simples Entretiens sur les Évangiles, Vevey n.d., p. 119

20. W. MacDonald, Believers Bible Commentary, New Testament, p.73

21. W.Kelly, The Mustard Seed, in: The Bible Treasury, vol. XX, p. 355F.

22. e.g., L. Barbieri in the Bible Knowledge Commentary, Wheaton 1983, p. 51; John D. Grasmick, ibid., p. 121. The connection with the previous portion, as observed by John A. Martin, ibid.. p. 240, does not prove the point, it is quod erat demonstrandum.

23. See also J.D. Kingsbury, The Parables of Jesus in Matthew 13: A Study in Redaction Criticism, London 1969

24. The Pepysian Gospel Harmony, ed. M. Goates, London 1922

25. M. Niddah, 5:2 cf. Matth. 17:20, also in the Koran, Sura 21, 48.

26. D. A. Carson, Matthew, in: The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Grand Rapids 1976

27. As correctly argued by H. Lockyer, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York n.d.

28. J. Dupont, Le Couple parabolique du senéve et du levain: Mt 13:31-33; Lc 13:18-21, in: G. Strecker, Jesus Christus in Historie und Theologie, Tübingen 1975, p. 331-345

29. So e.g. C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York 1936, p. 136ff.

30. R. Trench, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 109