035 Commentary

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This page forms part of the resources for 035 The Mustard Seed in the Jesus Database project of FaithFutures Foundation

Crossan Inventory | 035 Literature | 035 Parallels | 035 Commentary | 035 Poetry | 035 Images


John Dominic Crossan

Crossan [Historical Jesus] (276-79) treats The Mustard Seed as one of 5 parables and 7 other items that comprise a list of 12 multiply-attested complexes that refer to the kingdom of God. He notes that this is the only extant parable with triple independent attestation.

He notes three "converging vectors" along which the tradition has adapted the parable as it was handed on:

  • developing the original contrast between seed and plant to emphasize the transition from smallness to greatness;
  • transformation of the mustard plant into a substantial tree (as in Sayings Gospel Q); and
  • intertextual links with the biblical traditions such as Ps 104:12; Ezek 31:3,6; Dan 4:10-12

Crossan cites the comments on the mustard plant by Pliny the Elder (fl. 23-79 CE) in his Natural History 19.170-71:

Mustard ... with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.

Citing his own earlier work on the parable ([In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus]. Harper & Row, 1973), Crossan points out:

When one starts a parable with a mustard seed one cannot end it with a tree, much less the great apocalyptic tree, unless, of course, one plans to lampoon rather crudely the whole apocalyptic tradition.

After noting the way in which mustard plants tend to proliferate in both field and garden with negative results for both, so that the Mishnah (around 200 CE) would regulate its cultivation, Crossan cites with approval Douglas Oakman's observation: "It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately likens the rule of God to a weed."

In the end, Crossan concludes:

The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover qualities. Something you would want only in small and carefully controlled doses -- if you could control it.

International Q Project

The [IQP] proposal for the Q version of this parable is:

What is the kingdom of God like, and with what am I to compare it? It is like a seed of mustard which a person took and threw into his [garden]. And it grew and developed into a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches. [Hermeneia]

Jesus Seminar

The decisions of the Seminar can be represented as follows:

  • Thom 20:2-4
  • Thom 20:2-4
  • Luke 13:18-19
  • Luke 13:18-19
  • Matt 13:31b-32
  • Matt 13:31b-32
  • Mark 4:30-32
  • Mark 4:30-32

On some occasions a text was reconsidered at more than one session of the Seminar, sometimes resulting in a different color grading.

The Seminar accorded a Red vote to the Thomas version of this saying [Five Gospels, 59f] because it shows no influence of the tendency to adapt the original metaphor of the mustard plant (as a parody of the cedar of Lebanon; see Ezek 17:22-23) under the influence of the apocalyptic tree image derived from Daniel. The apocalyptic tree reaches to heaven, and its branches cover the earth, providing shelter to the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky (Dan 4:12,20-22).

Gerd Lüdemann

Lüdemann [Jesus] (32) consider the parable to be authentic (criteria of difference and coherence), but understands it as a parable about the sure coming of God's kingdom in the near future: "It should be emphasized once again that the prospect of the future is an original element of Jesus' teaching."

Brandon Scott

Scott argues that the Q form the parable, which he identifies with Luke version, is to be preferred over the Thomas version (contrary to his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar). He also sees the heart of this parable to be its opposition to a convention mytheme of greatness:

The four extant versions of A Grain of Mustard Seed offer a fascinating look at how early performers responded to the implied mytheme that the parable itself attempts to subvert. Although there are significant variations aong the four variations (sic), for the most part the differences do not seem to derive from the performers' ideologies but from an expectation that the kingdom is more appropriately mighty. [Hear Then the Parable] (373)

Scott notes that the natural metaphor of mustard as a plant that spreads quikly and acquires a tenacious grip of a garden plot is not taken up in this parable. Rather, the counter image of a majestic tree as a symbol for empire is evoked (and challenged) by the citation of key terms from the more familiar image:

The implicit "quoting" of the cedar of Lebanon juxtaposes in the parable the image of the weed-like mustard plant with that of the mighty cedar. It doesn't turn the mustard bush into a "real" tree, much less a mighty cedar, but it draws a contrast in expectations. It raises the question, What should an empire be like: a mustard plant or the nible, mighty cedar?
The answer is clear. An empire is more like a cedar of Lebanon. But Jesus' parable burlesques this assumption. It pokes fun at our expectation that an empiure must be a migfhty anything. caesar's empire or Herod's client kingdom might have such pretensions. But for Jesus, God's empiure is more pervasive than dominant. It is like a pungent weed that takes over everything and in which the birds of the air can nest; it bears little if any resemblance to the mighty, majestic, and noble symbol of empire of Israel or Caesar. Take your choice, says the parable. [Re-Imagine the World] (39)

Scott concludes by reflecting on the fate of this parable in later tradition. It succumbed to the opposite interpretation, and became the very model of conventional wisdom as generations of performers used it to promote the idea that great and powerful achievements can spring from the tiniest of beginnings. Scott blames Jesus for this failure, since his own choice of metaphor involved such a challenge to

the fundamental assumoptions of his society - and nearlty every society - about how God acts. How are we to imagine God's activity? As leaven or unleavened? As a mustard seed or a mighty cedar? The tradition either pretended or preferred not to hear in parable his re-imagined God.[Re-Imagine the World] (40)