What is the ‘Mustard Tree’ in Mark’s Account of the Gospel?
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Lynne
Posted on: November 28, 2006

Which plant do you consider is the most likely "mustard tree" referred to in Mark’s account of the Gospel?

The reference to the mustard tree occurs in Mark, chapter 4, in which Jesus uses the parable of a mustard seed growing up to become a tree on which birds can rest to describe the Kingdom of God and the sustenance it offers to believers:

4:31. It is as a grain of mustard seed: which when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that are in the earth:

4:32. And when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches, so that the birds of the air may dwell under the shadow thereof.

A similar account is found in chapter 13 of Matthew:

13:31. Another parable he proposed unto them, saying: The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field.

13:32. Which is the least indeed of all seeds; but when it is grown up, it is greater than all herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come, and dwell in the branches thereof.

The problem, of course, is that the common species of mustard that we know today that are used for making condiment are not trees: rather they are non-woody annuals grown as field crops. And the seeds of the various mustard species are not particularly small. Certainly, none of the common mustard species known to us today fit the description in the parable.

So to what plant was Jesus referring? Perhaps the parable was recounted incorrectly by the Gospels or it was subsequently transcribed or translated inaccurately. Or was Jesus was referring to another plant? Or perhaps he used poetic license to create a metaphor that did not necessarily relate to a real plant but nonetheless conveyed meaning.

I am by no means an expert on biblical plants but it is my impression that most scholars believe Jesus was referring to the black mustard, Brassica nigra, despite the discrepancies. Still, many are not satisfied that the story ends with mustard, and are proposing other plants. An example is the toothbrush tree, Salvadora persica, which grows in present Israel. This is a tree with leaves having a warm, pungent taste and smell not unlike cress or mustard. For a discussion on this plant as a candidate for the "mustard tree" see:

http://www.sover.net/~hkfamily/Pages/GardenQuestions.html

The problem with Salvadora is that it is not typically grown as a field crop in the manner described in Matthew’s account.

I don’t think it is possible to make any known plant fit the parable as recounted by the Gospels. I think that the parable only works if it refers to a commonly known and used seed -- the mustard -- but then, allowing for a certain degree of license such as that might have been readily accepted by the faithful at the time, proceeds to the metaphor of a tree giving refuge and sustenance to birds, which not coincidently might be compared to members of the flock of the faithful.

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