Problem: Jesus makes a mistake about seeds
Verses: Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32; Status: Minor

There's a parable in which Jesus appears to make a scientific error. This is Matthew 13:31-32:

He put another parable before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (ESV)

The problem is that the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds. The 1984 New International Version gets around this by adding the word "your" so the passage becomes "the smallest of all your seeds". This is a rather questionable move, because the word "your" does not appear in the original Greek. The 2010 revision of the NIV no longer does this.

Still. I don't believe it's totally unreasonable to think that Jesus might have been talking about all the seeds in the field belonging to the farmer in the parable; i.e. all the seeds available to farmers of his own time and place.

We also have to deal with the same story in Mark 4:30-32:

And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (ESV)

"On earth" could mean "on the soil" of course. It's a little harder to read Jesus' words here as being about the seeds available at that time and place, but perhaps not impossible. The NIV again adds the word "you", which isn't in the Greek. Of all honest translations, the NASB is probably the one that most allows the above solution to work.

Updated: 2010-12-24

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