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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Mustard Seeds and the Limits of Jesus’ Knowledge

The parable of the mustard seeds creates a little bit of difficulty for us as we consider the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  In this short parabolic statement Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven with a mustard seed which, he says, is the “smallest of all the seeds.” (Matthew 13: 31 – 32) 

But botanists can demonstrate that this isn’t exactly true, that there are several types of seeds smaller than the seeds of the mustard plant.  Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest; we know that is not true.  So what are we to think about this? Some possibilities:

Did he lie?  Whoa. Whoa. Whoa there.  There’s no reason to jump to a malicious intent to deceive.

Was he speaking proverbially?  That is, was Jesus with his divine omniscience know that there were other, smaller seeds, but tailor his message to his audience – the mustard seed was the smallest that they knew of…  ?  I have no real problem with this answer, though I think that Matthew’s gospel doesn’t really attribute these kind of divine characteristics to Jesus – that’s more like John’s gospel. 

But though I’ve heard some of my fellow Christians give this explanation, I’ve heard them reject exactly this same kind of explanation in other parts of the gospel story.  For example:  when discussing the boy afflicted by a demon whose conditions sound a lot like epilepsy, It has sometimes been suggested that Jesus (with his divine knowledge) knew that it was a physical condition, but spoke to the people of demons and supernatural afflictions because that’s what the people understood.  But my evangelical friends are quick to reject this; if Jesus said demons, he really and truly meant demons. 

So if Jesus said smallest of all seeds, he really and truly meant the smallest of all seeds… So we’re still stuck with a problem.

Was he mistaken?  This is the most likely possibility. That the very human Jesus of Nazareth spoke the truth within the bounds of his human limited knowledge.   But I doubt that very many of my evangelical friends would be willing to allow that Jesus could be mistaken about anything.   That idea rubs too hard against understandings of biblical inerrancy and Jesus’ divinity. 

(Of course this whole conversation assumes that Matthew (whoever he was) accurately recorded an authentic statement of Jesus…)


  1. I feel for sorry for anyone questioning the Bible. Especially one calling themselves a Christian. Do you think yourself smarter than God? Obviously you do. As for your post today 8/17/14, about some quotes made in public, who cares what these two murdering, lying, cheating (etc) said or didn't say! Their track records leave nothing to the imagination, whereas God's unfailing love & teaching is infallible & in black & white for all to see May God have mercy on your soul. I'll be praying for you.

    1. Of course I question the bible. That's how one learns. Do I think I'm smarter than God? of course not, and it's presumptuous of you to suggest that I do. There are parts of the bible that need questions. It is a fool who blindly accepts things without examination.

      as for my post on 8/17/2014 -

      You ask -who cares what these two said or didn't say? why, anyone interested in truth, that's who. If a person is evil, then there should be no reason to lie and to exaggerate the claims of their wickedness. Spreading lies does not help the cause of truth.


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