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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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MUSTARD.—In a simile the word (σίναπι) occurs in Matthew 13:31, Mark 4:31, Luke 13:19; as a bold metaphor, in Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6. It used to be strongly contended that the mustard referred to is not any of the familiar wild species of the Holy Land (such as the Sinapis nigra), but an arboreal plant (Salvadora persica) found in the extreme south or sub-tropical part of Palestine, and said to be called among the Arabs by the same name (Khardal) as mustard. This theory, however, may now be said to be exploded (cf. Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Mustard’). The passages concerned clearly suggest, not a perennial shrub, but an annual sown among and comparable with other garden herbs; and if the expression ‘tree’ be a difficulty (‘great’ in Luke 13:19 is of weak authority, cf. Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ), it is to be remembered that, when Jesus spoke to the multitude, it was in popular language. He meant that the tiny seed became to all intents a tree. An accurate botanist (Dr. Hooker) found the black mustard on the banks of the Jordan ‘ten feet high, drawn up amongst bushes, etc., and not thicker than whipcord.’ And Dr. Thomson says that he has seen it ‘on the rich plain of Akkâr as tall as the horse and his rider’ (LB [Note: The Land and the Book.] , p. 414).

Equally prosaic is the criticism that the mustard is not ‘the least of all seeds’ (Mt.), or ‘less than all the seeds that be in the earth,’ i.e. annuals (Mk.). Enough, as before, that the language is not absolute and scientific. The mustard was probably the smallest a gardener ordinarily sowed. But the fact is, the saying is proverbial (found as such in the Talmud and in the Koran), and in good proverbs there is often the suppressed note of poetic licence (cf. the Semitic form of poetry in the introductory verse of the passage Mark 4:30, Luke 13:18). The broad effect of the image is plain, that out of a speck of seed there was to come in due course marvellously great growth—a plant towering among the pulse and pot-herbs like a Titan, and with branching sprays on which the birds of the air find shelter and rest.

The Arabs are given to special cultivation of mustard as a condiment (Hooker), and there is clearly emphasis on the statement that it was ‘a grain, (not a handful) which was taken ‘by a man’ (Mt. and Lk.) and cast ‘into his own garden.’ (Luke 13:19 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 )—the garden (‘field’ in Matthew 13:31) being a place where, as observation attests, wild plants attain more than the normal size. Elsewhere this is the thought of Jesus—that God’s Kingdom is taken from the world and developed on lines of its own (cf. the fig-tree favoured by being put in the choice and carefully protected place usually devoted to vines, Luke 13:6).

The essential point in the application is not any seeming rapidity of growth; rather it is the striking contrast between the initial insignificance and the amply beneficent result. Jesus, the spokesman of the coming Kingdom, was derided in His teaching, persecuted in His Person, doomed to violence and degradation; but He felt, and knew, and here affirms that the cause was supremely great, and that its greatness should be manifested to the world.

The remaining passages (Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6) describe the wonder-working power of faith, which, within its own sphere, produces miraculous results (cf. art. Faith in vol. i. p. 569).

George Murray.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mustard'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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