Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 020 A parable of a mustard seed
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 20
Subheading: This page explores modern interpretations of the Gospel according to Thomas, an ancient text preserved in a Coptic translation at Nag Hammadi and Greek fragments at Oxyrhynchus. With no particular slant, this commentary gathers together quotations from various scholars in order to elucidate the meaning of the sayings, many of which are rightly described as “obscure.”
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(20) The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like. He said to them: It is like a grain of mustard-seed, the smallest of all seeds; but when it falls on tilled ground, it puts forth a great branch and becomes shelter for the birds of heaven.
(20) The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the kingdom of heavens resembles.” He said to them, “What it resembles is a grain of mustard seed. It is smaller than all other seeds, but if it falls upon plowedplough terrain it puts forth an enormous foliage and is a shade for birds of heaven.”
23 . The disciples say to Jesus: “Tell us what the Kingdom of heaven is like!” He says to them: “It is like a grain of mustard: it is smaller than all the <other> seeds, but when it falls on ploughed land it produces a big stalk and becomes a shelter for the birds of heaven.”
• Ezek 17:22-24 KJV
• Dan 4:20-22 KJV
• Matt 13:31-42 KJV
• Mark 4:30-32 KJV
• DialSav 88-89 (Dialogus Saluatoris)
Joachim Jeremias writes: “The conclusion of the parable of the Mustard Seed in the Gospel of Thomas (20) runs as follows: ‘. . . it produces a large branch and becomes shelter (sceph) for the birds of heaven’. This is possible a free allusion to Dan. 4.9, 18; Ezek. 17.23; 31.6; 3.9, 18 Th., while in Matthew (13.32) and Luke (13.19) it is a free quotation from Dan. 3.18 Th. The unrealistic description of the mustard-seed as a tree, which only occurs in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark or the Gospel of Thomas, is also derived from Dan. 3.17.”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “In the Gospel of Thomas (20), too, a similar introduction to the parable of the Mustard Seed: ‘The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like’, is secondary by comparison with Mark 4.30, where Jesus himself puts the question, since such questions from the disciples are characteristic of the Gospel of Thomas.”
Helmut Koester writes: “The emphasis upon the contrast of the small seed and the large plant is missing in the Q form of this parable (Luke 13:18-19), which differs from the Markan version also in other respects: it speaks of the ‘garden’ into which the seed is thrown, and it says that it becomes a ‘tree’ (dendron) and that ‘the birds are nesting in its branches.’
Mark and Thomas use the appropriate term ‘vegetable’ (laxanon), and they correctly describe birds as nesting under the branches. One could also argue that the contrast ‘small seed / large plant’ is a structural element of the original parable that is lost in Q/Luke’s version. In any case, Thomas’s parallels with Mark do not require the assumption of a literary dependence; what both have in common are original features of the parable.”
Funk and Hoover write: “The Fellows judged the version in Thomas to be the closest to the original. It was therefore given a red designation. The three synoptic versions have been accommodated to a greater or lesser degree to the apocalyptic tree theme and so were designated pink. This parable is a good example of how the original Jesus tradition, perhaps shocking in its modesty or poorly understood, is revised to accommodate living and powerful mythical images drawn from the Hebrew scriptures.”
J. D. Crossan quotes Pliny’s Natural History 19.170-171 as saying: “Mustard . . . with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
J. D. Crossan comments: “There is, on other words, a distinction between the wild mustard and its domesticated counterpart, but even when one deliberately cultivates the latter for its medicinal or culinary properties, there is an ever-present danger that it will destroy the garden. And, apart from those domesticated types, such as brassica nigra or sinapis alba, there is, as Douglas Oakman emphasizes, the wild mustard, charlock, or sinapis arvensis, whose ‘plants have from time immemorial been found as weeds in grain fields’ (1986:124).
The mustard plant, therefore, is, as domesticated in the garden, dangerous and, as wild in the grain fields, deadly. The point is not just that it starts small and ends big but that its bigness is not exactly a horticultural or agricultural desideratum.”
J. D. Crossan concludes: “The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired.
And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses – if you could control it.”