I New Testament
In the NT the mustard seed – κόκκος σινάπεως – appears several times in parables of Jesus in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matt 13:31–32; 17:20; Mark 4:30–32; Luke 13:18–19; 17:6; cf. Gos. Thom. 20). The contrast between its inconspicuous beginnings and the eventual size of the fully grown plant (cf. Seneca, Lucil. 4.38.2; Philo, Aet. 100) offers a point of simile to the kingdom of God. The mustard seed in the NT most likely refers to a species known as black mustard (brassica nigra), belonging to the family of cruciferous plants (cruciferae). A possible reference to white or yellow mustard is less likely, because their seeds are bigger. Black mustard grows wildly and is cultivated extensively in order to produce not only mustard for condiment purposes but also for oil, and sometimes for medicinal uses. It is found in Galilee, e.g., in the region around the lake of Gennesaret. The seeds are extremely small (around 1 mm in size and 1 mg in weight). The annual plant has a strong main stem with branches, large leaves at the base and many small yellow flowers. It may grow up to a height of 1.5–3 m.
The remarkably small size of the seed makes it proverbial for something very tiny, not only in the NT (Matt 17:20) but also in the Mishna (mNid 5:2; mToh 8:8). Mark 4:32 refers to mustard as the greatest of all vegetables (μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων) while Luke 13:19 (probably an independent Q passage) calls it a tree (δένδρον). Matt 13:32 seems to combine both versions talking of mustard as “the greatest of shrubs” and a “tree.” All three synoptic gospels substantiate the size of what is more likely a large shrub by mentioning that “birds of the air make nests in its branches” (cf. Ezek 17:23). Only in Matt 17:20 does Jesus use the proverbial size of the mustard seed to criticize his disciples for their little faith, as they were not able to cast out a demon (Matt 17:19). By hyperbolic analogy he tells them that faith the size of a mustard seed would move a mountain (cf. Mark 11:22–23; 1 Cor 13:2; see also Isa 54:10).
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A Patristics through to Medieval Times
Although mustard seed is mentioned in two NT texts and contexts (Matt 13:31; Mark 4:31; Luke 13:18 and Matt 17:20; Luke 17:6), it features in several writings of the church fathers. The interpretations of the seed in these writings, however, reflect different factors than those in the NT. In fact, for some writers, the identification of mustard seed with faith in Matt 17:20 and Luke 17:6 was the control on how to read the parabolic use of mustard seed in Matt 13:31 et al. Thus, the kingdom of heaven, which is identified as a mustard seed in the parabolic context, must be faith or some manifestation of it. Ambrose is explicit in stating the two texts are linked in this way (Exp. Luc. 7.176). Others recognized this relationship between the two texts, though in a less explicit way, when they wrote of faith or of the faithful as the object in view in Matt 13:31 et al. (Ephrem of Nisibis, Exp. in Euangelia 29; Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. Bas. 42.9; Augustine, Quaest. ev. 1.11).
A second strand of reception is to identify the mustard seed with preaching. In these writings of the church fathers, the proclamation of the gospel begins, in a small way, with the Jewish community only, then expands to include the Gentiles (Eusebius of Emesa, Serm. 11.6; Hilary of Poitiers, Comm. Matt. 13.4). To John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 46, and the Greek catenae that followed him, the mustard seed is the preaching of the apostles. At first, their preaching was hindered by the weakness or feebleness of the their faith; after Jesus’s ascension, the apostles’ preaching was strengthened and so spread to the whole world. Jerome, too, Comm. Matt. 2.13.31, identified the mustard seed with preaching “this tiny gospel,” but he also merged the contexts of both Matt 13:31 and 17:20 (et al.) in saying that it is faith which moistens the ground, facilitating the growth of this preaching. This link between preaching and faith suggested to him, furthermore, that the mustard seed was the seed identified in Jesus’s earlier parable – the seed that the farmer scattered onto four different kinds of soil. He also saw a link to 1 Cor 13:2, in which the task (of the mustard seed) of preaching, nourished by faith, is to be expressed in love towards the hearers of the message.
A third strand of reception identified the mustard seed with small things, warning their readers not to despise good things that sometimes come in small presentations. Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. Bas. 39.16, employed Matt 13:31 et al. in this way. He observed that the gift of the Holy Spirit, depicted as a small dove at Jesus’s baptism, is a source of great power. So, Gregory argues, if we despise baptism because it is a gift of the (small) Spirit, then we should likewise, to be consistent, despise the kingdom of heaven, because it is compared to a grain of mustard seed. Similarly, in Hymn. de fide 63, Ephraem the Syrian exhorts readers to celebrate the humility of Jesus, as it was expressed, in part, through teaching in parables, even parables about mustard seeds.
B Modern Europe and America
In modern European and American Christianity, the term mustard seed is used in two senses: (1) prognostically, to hope for God’s promise despite rare, if any, rational evidence for a positive future; (2) retrospectively as a surprising experience of divine providence and benevolence. Apart from being used ironically, the first meaning also appears without any explicit Christian perspective in various human and religious contexts. The second meaning is less common.
As a precursor to modern writers, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) underlines the foolishness of this kind of hope (see Stultitiae Laus or Moriae Encomium [1509, The Praise of Folly], ch. 3), but at the same time suggests this hope may contain within it a special kind of “reason.” Highlighting the notion of being a fool in Christ, Gerhart Hauptmann (1862–1946) praises the selflessness of the mustard seed in the field of humanity (Der Narr in Christus Emanuel Quint, 1910 [The Fool in Christ Emanuel Quint], ch. 27). Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) uses the image to emphasize the general human desire for a perfect future world (Herder: 422). In the work of Julius Langbehn (1851–1907), the mustard seed is referenced as illustrative of the impact of the gentle man whose words grow in peoples’ soul (Rembrandt als Erzieher, 1890 [Rembrandt as Educator], ch. 24). Gerhart Hauptmann refers to the mustard seed to praise the suffering of motherhood as the origin of mankind (Marginalien [Hauptmann: 942]).
Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) invoked the biblical symbolism of the mustard seed repeatedly. Zweig declared, for example, that he could not find “any mustard seed of faith” in Dostoevsky’s works (Drei Meister: Balzac – Dickens – Dostojewski, 1920, Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostojewski, ch. 12), and that Nietzsche was a tragic figure because he had failed to receive any mustard seed of gratitude (Der Kampf mit dem Dämon: Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche, 1925, Nietzsche, ch. 38). According to Zweig, Calvin symbolizes Christian mercilessness in his fight against Castellio (Castellio gegen Calvin [1936, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin], ch. 7): “What for a mustard seed of benevolence for a heretic?” In Healing through Spirit (1931, Die Heilung durch den Geist, vol. 3, ch. 37), Zweig asserts that for Freud, life is always tragic because everything truthful inevitably includes a mustard seed of bitterness and skepticism.
Karl Barth (1886–1968) offered more hopeful references to the mustard seed, invoking it as symbolic of hope expressed by his theology of grace (Church Dogmatics II.2: 495). The mustard seed completes the doctrine of reconciliation, and through it the Christian serves as a waking placeholder for “God and sleeping mankind.” Thus, the Christian lives the hope he has been liberated for (IV.3,2: 1072).
For Joseph Ratzinger (b. 1927), the “sign of the mustard seed” is a symbol for the future of the church, which must leave behind the idea of a people’s church to become a small minority. As a minority, the church will then resist evil and bring god into the world (17).
A new, subtly nuanced meaning may be found with Cardinal Bea (1881–1968) in his rethinking of the history of “Nostra Aetate” during the Vatican Council. In the end, many birds (i.e., religions) found their nests in this tree (Relatio, November 1964, Acta Synodalia III/VIII, 650). Divine providence made this development possible: “Had I foreseen all the difficulties we were facing, I do not know, if I had had the courage to go down this way” (Schmidt: 641).
Other early modern examples of the use of “mustard seed,” including ironic ones, exemplify meanings still in use. For example, Martin Luther (1483–1546) exhorts preachers to preach in a very simple way because Jesus himself used a peasant-like and unsubtle vernacular imagery (Luther: 447). Luther declared this a high art of preaching.
In Cervantes’s famous novel, the squire Sancho does not want to reign over a mustard seed for he is dreaming of an empire (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha 2.42, 1615). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare (1564–1616) gives the floor to a “Mustard Seede,” which Bottome greets as follows: “Good master Mustard seede, I know your patience well …” (3.1). Washington Irving refers to the mustard seed when ironizing Wilhelmus Kieft, who would wrestle with a mustard seed as if it was his task to move a mountain (1809, A History of New York, book 4, ch. 6).
Within the theology of religions, J. G. Hamann (1730–1788) considered anthropomorphosis and apotheosis to be the mustard seed hidden in the heart and mouth of any religion (1:192).
In the modern age, the metaphor of the mustard seed continues to refer to the two same separate meanings, forecasting hope in God’s promise in the face of dwindling or absent evidence of a viable future and less commonly, as a reflection on the unexpected experience of God’s merciful providence and loving kindness.
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The mustard seed (Arab. ḥabba min khardal) appears twice in the Qurʾān in identical formulations. Sūra 21:47 describes the exactitude of the scales on judgment day, which will account for deeds weighing as little as a mustard seed. The significance of the smallest acts mirrors the characterization of faith in Luke 17:6 and Matt 17:20. At S 31:16, the sage Luqmān reminds his son of God’s ability to discern and reckon a deed the size of a mustard seed. This is underscored at S 6:59, where the type of seed is not specified.
In S 2:261 spending in God’s cause is likened in a similitude (mathal) to a seed of grain that sprouts seven ears that yield a hundred seeds each. The image is like Jesus’s description of the kingdom of heaven in the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:31 // cf. Matt 13:31 // Luke 13:19) as a small mustard seed that grows into a large tree.
In one Ḥadīth, anyone with the weight of a mustard seed of pride risks forgoing paradise (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1:53); in another, anyone bound for hellfire with a mustard seed’s weight of faith shall be rescued (al-Bukhārī: 53). Classical and medieval authors (e.g., Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī; see Endress: 175) follow the Qurʾān and the prophet Muḥammad in using mustard seeds as a metaphor for something diminutive or belying immensity. One 13th-century cosmographer writes that if the archangel Michael opened his mouth, the heavens would be like a mustard seed (khardala; al-Qazwīnī: 85).
The mustard seed, though only invoked metaphorically, is included in Sharjah’s Islamic botanical garden of fifty plants (www.visitsharjah.com) mentioned in the Qurʾān and Sunnah. The Size of a Mustard Seed (2009) is the title of an urban fiction novel by Black American Muslim author Maryam Sullivan (writing as Umm Juwayriyah).
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The biblical representations of the mustard seed have been used in literature to convey three main ideas that stem from the NT. First, the mustard seed passages found in Matt 17 and Luke 17 have been alluded to in literature by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bret Harte, and Washington Irving to play on the idea that a lot can be achieved with even the smallest amount of faith, which is often associated with the notion of moving mountains. Dostoevsky alludes to Matt 17 and Luke 17 in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and uses a continued metaphor to mention the ability to move mountains (118). Likewise, Harte mentions the mustard seed and moving the “mountain of quicksilver” together in ”The Story of a Mine” (1877: 51). Furthermore, Washington Irving mentions both moving mountains and mustard seed in A. Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809) to emphasize the relationship between achieving great things and having faith (246).
Secondly, mustard seed has been used as a symbol and example of small size. Jules Verne uses the mustard seed to describe the size of planets in ch. 5 of All Around the Moon (1870). Similarly, Cervantes uses mustard seed in ch. 41 of part 2 of Don Quixote (1615) to describe the earth as miniscule. While still using mustard seed as a symbol for small size, Nathaniel Hawthorne takes the allusion further by implying that something as small as a mustard seed may have significance regardless in Rappaccini’s Daughter (1848: 43). The mustard seed is most commonly alluded to in literature to represent small things that have the potential to become great or significant.
Images of trees, shrubs, and branches are used in each of the three mustard seed parable versions found in Matt 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13 to symbolize the kingdom of God and signify strength and protection in literature. These images are alluded to in The First Christmas of New England (1856) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, O.T.: A Danish Romance (1836), “Olé, the Tower Keeper” (1860) by Hans Christian Andersen, and Desperate Remedies (1871) by Thomas Hardy. The images that each of these works share are captured by Stowe as she writes,
The wisdom of the Spirit seeth the grain of mustard-seed, that is the least of all seeds, how it shall become a great tree, and the fowls of heaven shall lodge in its branches. Let us, then, lift up the hands that hang down and the feeble knees, and let us hope that, like as great salvation to all people came out of small beginnings of Bethlehem, so he work which we shall begin to-morrow shall be for the good of many nations (118).
Finally, the mustard seed is also used to signify belittlement or diminution. Victor Hugo mentions the mustard seed in a diminutive manner, comparing a mustard seed under a grindstone to animals under God’s power in his collection of poems, La Légende des siècles (1877: 188). Furthermore, in Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë, Rochester uses “mustard seed” as a term of diminutive endearment for Jane (249). According to Shifra Hochberg, this allusion to the mustard seed has often been debated and attributed to the character Mustardseed in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as he is a fairy servant and has a very small part. However, Hochberg argues that this is rather an allusion to the biblical mustard seed used in Matt 17 and Luke 17. Jane’s smallness is noted by the term “mustard seed” but by the end of the novel, she becomes a stronghold for Rochester, having had the potential to become so from the beginning. This mention of the mustard seed takes the biblical imagery depicting the kingdom of God further by also including the images of birds as well as those of trees and branches that are found in Matt 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13.
The parable of the mustard seed continues to be a part of world literature as Emeka Aniagolu shows with his novel Black Mustard Seed (2002). Recounting the violence that exists among ethnic groups in Nigeria, Aniagolu alludes to the Parable of the Mustard Seed to demonstrate the nation’s potential to grow. “Wazobia’s mustard seed, as in the Holy Bible, has been planted and is finally taking root in the rich soil of the regenerative faith of her youth” (308). While allusions to the mustard seed have varying purposes and significance, there are recurring themes of growth, strength, and prosperity that all reside in the NT parable.
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The NT texts on “mustard seed” seem not to have led to a substantial musical reception. Some composers reference mustard seed in work titles, such as the Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola’s (b. 1958) opera Sinapinsiemen (The Mustard Seed, 2000), which “tells the story of an 18th-century lay preacher” (Oramo). The German language poem (in spite of its Latin title) Granum sinapis (“Mustard Seed”) attributed to Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260–1328) does not directly reference the NT texts on mustard seed. The poem has been set in music by several composers under different titles, among them the French composer Pascal Dusapin (b. 1955) in a grand-scale work for chorus. Dusapin used the title Granum sinapis (1992–97; Griffiths; see also Meister Eckhart website under “Texte,” Granum sinapis, and further under “Anm. Musikalische Bearbeitungen”).
Klaus Huber’s Senfkorn (“Mustard Seed,” 1975), setting Isa 11:6–7 together with a text by Ernesto Cardinal (see also “Isaiah [Book and Person] VIII. Music”), incorporated also into his oratorio Erniedrigt-Geknechtet-Verlassen-Verachtet (Debased-Suppressed-Abandoned-Despised; 1975–78, rev. 1981–82), does not explicitly reference the biblical “mustard seed” either, except through its title. Its use of the aria “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is finished”) from J. S. Bach’s cantata BWV 159 (Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, “Behold! We go up to Jerusalem”) is an example of musical metaphoric, appropriating Bach, distanced from its original text, into the new context provided by Huber’s music and his choice of text (Brunner: 240). The title provides a further biblical perspective on the political and biblical utopia in both the Isaiah and Cardinal texts.
However, Stephen Oliver’s cantata The Vessel (1990) is direct in its biblical reference to the mustard seed, including “a magnificent flowering for chorus and soloists telling the Parable of the Mustard Seed” (Oliver: 144; see also Rye).
Searching Hymnary.com for “mustard seed” and “Senfkorn” one finds a small number of hymns referencing Matt 13:31–32 par. Among them “O Gottes Sohn, Herr Jesu Christ” by David Denicke (1603–1680). Stanza 6 begins “Wär auch mein Glaub wie Senfkorn klein / und daβ man ihn kaum merke / wollst du doch in mir mächtig sein” (Even if my faith was small as a mustard seed, so that one hardly noticed it, you will become powerful in me). The hymn is included in numerous German hymnals. Another hymn “The Mustard Seed” by Mary Bridges Canedy Slade (1826–1882) to a melody by Robert M. McIntosh (1836–1889) opens “Like the kingdom to the springing, / Springing of smallest seeds we know.”
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The three movies The Gospel of Matthew (2014), The Gospel of Mark (2015), and The Gospel of Luke (2015), all directed by David Batty (US/UK/MA), use the same footage when illustrating the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30–32//Matt 13:31–32//Luke 13:18–19). As a narrator tells the parable in English, Jesus speaks in Aramaic in the background, and viewers see a hand plucking a tiny seed from a pile. Next, a large mustard tree/bush appears on screen. In The Gospel of Matthew, the narrator recites Jesus’s observation about faith the size of a mustard seed (Matt 17:20) while viewers watch an afflicted boy being cured. In The Gospel of Luke, Jesus’s observation (Luke 17:6) is accompanied by visuals of Jesus holding his thumb and forefinger together to show how small a mustard seed is.
In the documentary From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians - Part 1 (dir. William Cran, 1998, US), biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan remarks on the oddness of Jesus’s comparison of the kingdom of God to a mustard plant. Crossan, imagining the reaction of Jesus’s audience to the parable, says:
You mean the kingdom is big? But you just said it’s a big weed. So why don’t you say a big cedar of Lebanon? Why a big weed? And besides, this mustard: we’re not certain we like this mustard. It’s very dangerous in our fields; we try to, we try to control it. We try to contain it. What do you mean that the kingdom is something that people try to control and contain?
Crossan’s point is that the parable is not simply contrasting the size of the seed with the size of the bush but is also saying that the kingdom, like mustard, can be unwieldy and disruptive.
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- Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception
- Mouse, Mice – Nefesh
- Herausgegeben vonEdited by
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- De Gruyter | 2022
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