Mighty misconceptions from little seeds do grow
I WAS still in bed when the BBC Radio news slipped gently into Sunday Worship, to which I listen as a sort of masochistic learning process; also it’s a favourite for railing at the radio. Not far in the priest said something that really woke me up. His voice showed no sign of wavering as his message made its shambolic departure from basic general knowledge and common sense. It was as though he didn’t notice he was saying something daft. I trust there’s no need to explain.
The theme of our worship today is the kingdom that grows among us – like a tree which grows from a humble mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, into a tree in whose branches many find shelter.
Further into the service it dawned on me he was paraphrasing a holy text, the lesson yet to come that underpinned the theme of the service wherein lay the source of his error. From its origin this passage was intended to be metaphorical, Jesus lining out a parable to the common throng with the underlying message: one day our new religion will prevail over the whole world. The service – rather feebly, I thought – tried to link the burgeoning Christian Kingdom of Heaven (2,000 years and still only sort of burgeoning) with Queen Elizabeth’s sixty-year-old Kingdom of Britain.
Our Gospel reading is taken from Matthew Chapter 13. Jesus put before them a parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
In my judgement, the reverend gentleman might have noticed Jesus’ wonky botany beforehand or even stopped mid sentence to enquire (imagine Kenneth Williams’ voice):
’Ere. Just who wrote this rotten script?
Mind you, if you are familiar with C of E services, you’ll know that it’s quite usual for the preacher to drone through his scripted routine (think Alan Bennett: “But my brother Esau is an hairy man …”) while the congregation don’t really listen, vacuously chant the responses and drag joyfully through the hymns oblivious to the inanity of the words.
The botanical gaffe wasn’t the priest’s own. He was parroting a mistake first articulated by Jesus; who was, we are assured, the embodiment of God himself, the creator of all things. God is also reputed to be omniscient, so may we not expect Him to remember, or at least have rapid access to, correct information about the nature of everything, including plant life histories? Since, they tell us, God himself wrote the Bible through its human authors, the priest’s script writer must have been God himself.
Jesus got a bit carried away with his superlatives in this parable. The parable that succeeds it – of the woman with her flour and yeast – is elegantly concise, convincingly descriptive and factually viable. He would have done well to stick to this second parable and ditch the mustard seed episode – or later ask his stenographer quietly to delete that bit. [Oh. I forgot. The Gospels are hearsay, written down some 50 years to a century after the event. Maybe Matthew, trying to recall what happened that day, more than likely some time after his death, got it wrong. Doesn’t the Bible present us with some awkward paradoxes?
Compare the already internally paradoxical “Jesus died to save us from our sins” with the perplexing contradiction “Jesus Lives!” I know the Christians have their rationalisations that go something like, “All you just need is faith – I have faith!” which means just stop thinking and does precious little to diffuse the paradox. To unbelievers, the mysterious ways in which God moves are exceeding mysterious.]
So Jesus reckoned mustard has the smallest seed, becomes the greatest of shrubs and then grows into so mighty a tree that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches? Actually, that doesn’t have to be as big a tree as we might infer Jesus is making out. Many birds happily nest in bushes, even atop a telegraph pole or among pebbles on the beach.
Even so, a mustard tree? Was it Dendrobrassica rapa perhaps, or Sinapis arborea? I can’t find either in the Flora Palaestina. Joking aside, what mustard species grew in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago? A study of today’s local flora could be misleading, thanks to the worldwide proliferation of invasive non-native weeds.
Mustards have precisely the sort of lifestyle required for invasion, so any there today might not have been present in biblical times. Does archaeology have anything to say about mustard cropping in the Holy Land of Jesus’ time or is it, like many other factoids, just assumed from the bible? Information sources that discuss this puzzle are usually Christian and desperately trying to reconcile the parable with reality. The botany they cite tends to be bible-sourced and optimistic.
I think we should consider that “mustard seed” might be one of those translations of convenience in which the plant originally named in ancient Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek wasn’t known to the translators and wouldn’t be recognised by most English speaking bible readers anyway. That’s how the trombone, an Italian invention of c1450, found its anachronistic way into the King James Bible. In early 17th century England the trombone was a familiar musical instrument known as the saggbut or sackbut, which got inserted four times into Daniel 3 when the ancient text was Englished, 1604-1611. Some sort of lyre seems more likely, but nobody knows.
Does mustard produce the smallest seeds? No. We may confidently assume that Jesus didn’t own a microscope, which He would have needed to see the smallest seeds, and rumours that He ever travelled outside the Middle East are less reliable than Chinese whispers. So we must forgive Him for not knowing that certain tropical orchids produce seeds so tiny that approximately 850 laid end-to-end would cover a distance of just 1 millimetre. In contrast, if you tried to fit just two mustard seeds on a millimetre, one of them would fall off.
All right. So he was speaking in metaphors, understandably referring to the limited knowledge of a desert people 2,000 years ago. Does that excuse word-for-word, uncritical repetition in 2012 when such passages sound so utterly unconvincing, assuming you have your brain switched on? It’s that “uncritical repetition” that says so much about the Christian church of today. How can an intelligent clergyman trot out a passage that is so obviously barmy, with not a trace of discomfort, and why does his flock listen to such unmitigated balderdash without asking:
How do you mean, a mustard seed grows into a tree, Your Reverence?
The culprits are those two dubious virtues faith and respect. Because of those it matters not one whit whether something is true or false, sensible or silly; they believe it because of their choice simply to have faith in and respect for the authority: Jesus (ie God), channelled through His earthly messenger, the priest.
There are, of course, Christians who swear the bible is literally true, every word. They even go so far as to deny facts that stare them in the face, smack them round the chops, get stuffed down their throats and even begin the slow, gooey, hopeless journey in the direction of their cerebral cortex, if those facts contradict their Bible.
By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record – Creation Ministries International.
The science should never determine the Biblical framework – Answers in Genesis and others.
The Bishop who gave today’s sermon briefly alluded to the lesson when he pronounced:
… a life which is open to us all is the essential ingredient, the mustard seed from which the Kingdom, God’s plan for the human race, grows.
God’s plan for the human race? Metaphorically presented or not, I think Christians would do well to notice that Islam proposes exactly the same message and rather more robustly: “Death to all infidels!” versus mustard seed and yeast. They claim the same god, but follow an alternative and irreconcilably different religion. In the same way that two one-and-only gods can’t both exist; and neither can one god among the several thousand gods that people believe are one-(or-more)-and-only; so also can no two religions exclusively dominate the world.
Somebody’s gotta be right and somebody’s gotta be wrong, and all the rival religions insist that they are right (whilst at the same time protesting their mutual tolerance). They create a state of affairs in which there’s room for only one true god and only one true religion, and they fight over it while the rest of us look on bewildered, like Brian watching the various comical Liberation Front’s squabble to the death in the catacombs beneath Pilate’s palace (Life of Brian).
If the Bible really is literally true, then it must be true that mustard seed is the smallest seed of all – we know it isn’t – and that any mustard plant of any of several brassicaceous species – that we know are non-woody herbs growing no more than a metre or so high – is the greatest of shrubs that becomes a tree.
So are we to understand there is a difference between real truth and biblical truth, and the latter trumps the former or else? Some people, oblivious to the inbuilt incongruity, say yes. We all know religious people who, unlike us, can accommodate pairs of contradictory beliefs in their brains – fact versus faith – blissfully unaware of the logical inconsistency. If that is pointed out, they maintain that faith is sufficient for them and if only we would open our minds and take the leap of faith, we too could … sigh … well, you know this stuff that sets us to wearily joking about minds so open your brains fall out.
In Matthew 13 we find not only several classic parables (including the familiar stony ground one) but it is also where Jesus makes it perfectly clear what happens to those of us who stray from His path of compulsory righteousness. The disciples want to know why He speaks in parables instead of giving it to them straight. Jesus explains that He is patiently making His message easy lis’nin’ for those of limited academic advantage:
10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, 13 This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
He does his best to help the poor common folk get a grip of what he is saying, but if they don’t, there’s the nastiest sting in the tail ever devised by God (actually, rather obviously, by man):
40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. 41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity [i.e. don’t do as I tell them]; 42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Note that it is the Son of man who shall send forth angels. Here we have another logical irregularity that baffles non-believers. I infer that Jesus is referring to Himself, reputed to be the son of Joseph and Mary yet said also to be the Son of God, which I suppose He must have been if his mother was divinely inseminated by the third trinity member, the Holy Spirit. In this sort of context “man” (nb lower case “m”) generally means human.
If He was who He said He was, then Son of man belies His divine ancestry. You can be confused by this, or dismiss it as tosh or, in the way Christians do it, avoid intellectual inconsistency of this sort by just accepting whatever arrives at the brain without question and defending it by screeching that any reasoned dissent is blasphemy.
Any road, Jesus doesn’t give His audience much choice but believe that a mustard seed will grow into a mustard tree, unless they don’t mind being “cast … into a furnace of fire [and the associated] wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He doesn’t call it hell, but it sure as hell is the hell option, later outrageously elaborated by generations of priests and theologians, and the cause of misery to gazillions of people for centuries in the wake of Jesus’ parable club meeting.
If Jesus was the Mr Nice Guy we are told he was and if had he had had any idea what his priests would do with what was possibly a casual aside (thinks: “I’ll try fear on ’em this week. That might recruit a few more.”), no doubt He have been a bit more careful about what He said when He ad libbed.
There are plenty of bible stories that fly in the face of the facts as we know them. The creation, Noah’s flood, virgin birth, resurrection and miracles are so obviously contrary as to require no elaboration. Here are two of my favourites that are less well-known.
Genesis 30: 25-43 After Rachel had given birth to Joseph, her husband Jacob asked Laban if he, his wives and children could return to their homeland.
Laban begged him to stay and work for him, inviting him to name his wages. Jacob said, “Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-coloured lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages.” Laban agreed.
Next the really clever, if incredible, bit: Jacob took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. He placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink.
When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. Jacob had outwitted Laban who had to make do with the weak offspring of his flocks while Jacob hung onto the strong ones.
In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
If the Bible is irrevocably correct, then (therefore) Jacob’s stripped twig method of selective stock breeding must itself be completely correct and the way farmers have always bred animals must be false. Alternatively, if reality is true, then the Bible is wrong and we can’t have that, can we? [I can hardly believe I wrote that: if reality is true … but that’s what happens when you try to reconcile religion and reality.]
I thank the theoheretical physicist Prof Laurence Krauss for exposing the following breathtaking discrepancy between scripture and reality – next.
1 Kings 7: 23-25
For the temple furnishings in his new palace, King Solomon sent to Tyre and brought Huram, a bronze founder who [among other great works] “… made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.”
Being circular (“completely round” in the King James Version) this sea would have had other dimensions that can be calculated according to standard mathematical laws. The circumference of a circle is Pi d. If the diameter was ten of any units then the circumference of Huram’s sea would have been 10 x 3.14 = 31.4 not 30. This “sea” was massive: five cubits thick, supported by twelve bulls and holding two thousand baths, so the corresponding error would have been anything but negligible. In this universe – I can’t speak for parallel others in the multiverse – Pi is immutable and its value is demonstrably not three.
Three is, however, the number of possible explanations for this conundrum:
- Huran’s measurements were approximate. If so, the bible is also approximate. We can’t have that.
- The “sea” wasn’t circular, but the scale of the project suggests that Huran’s error should have been catastrophic. It wasn’t. The bible is pretty emphatic that the “sea” was circular, so somebody’s not telling the truth. But the Bible is true, so circular it has to be, but then biblical Pi = 3 is wrong. We can’t have that either.
- Maybe the author of 1 Kings was ignorant about Pi so the bible could be wrong. Surely in the case of a universal law, mathematics should be allowed to determine biblical interpretation? Heaven forefend! We can’t have that either.
There is a possible way to get round these obstacles to understanding: faith. Ask no questions, ignore inconvenient facts and let the story slop around in your brain unchallenged. While you consider that, I’m wondering how Huran, even if he had advice from Solomon the oh-so-wise, managed to fit 2,000 baths, presumably for bathing people-size people, onto a circular plinth with an area (Pi r2 this time) of only 22 square meters?