ABOVE: Etching of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed from the Bowyer Bible, after a sketch by Jan Luyken, who also did the images for the great 1685 edition of the Martyrs Mirror, a revered book in Anabaptist circles. When Jesus described the mustard seed as “the smallest of all seeds,” was he lying? (image source)
Was Jesus a Liar?
“By accepting evolution and billions of years, Christians are making Jesus into a liar.” That’s a very strong claim, but prominent young-earth creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) endorses it, along with other similar statements. Why do they say this?
One of the main biblical texts used to support this claim is Mark 10:6, “But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’” According to AiG, here Jesus clearly stated, “that the first marriage between man and woman (Adam and Eve) came at the beginning of creation.” However, “If the earth is indeed billions of years old, then the first male and female came nowhere near the beginning of creation. This is a major theological problem. Either Christ is a liar in that view, or Christ told the truth and man-made evolution is a lie.”
In context (Mark 10:1-12), Jesus was simply answering a hostile question from the Pharisees: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Conceding that Moses had permitted divorce “because of your hardness of heart,” Jesus emphasized that divorce was nevertheless contrary to God’s intent. God had instituted marriage “from the beginning of the creation,” and, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” The Pharisees’ question had nothing to do with the age of the earth, and neither did Jesus’ answer. AiG’s use of this verse as a proof text for a recent creation seems to be a stretch in the context of Mark chapter 10.
Suppose, however, that we take AiG’s point for the sake of argument. Regardless of the context, does Jesus’ language in Mark 10:6 state or imply that the Earth is only a few thousand years old? In Greek, the word for “beginning” is arche. This is the same word used in John’s Christ-centered retelling of creation in the first chapter of his Gospel, which opens with the words, “In the beginning was the Word.” It’s also the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word bereshith, the first word in the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”).There is broad scholarly agreement that Genesis 1:1 has an introductory purpose, and that the creation of the heavens and the earth is the subject of the whole chapter, not just the first verse.. It could be paraphrased as saying, “Here is what happened in the beginning, when God made everything.” So the word “beginning” refers to the whole timeline of creation. When Jesus portrays the creation of humankind as happening “in the beginning,” he’s simply quoting Genesis in a way that would have made sense to his Hebrew readers. He isn’t differentiating between various parts of the creation or the order in which they were made. In fact, if Jesus was indeed commenting on the timeline of creation, it would be problematic for the young-earth view, since the creation of humankind happens at the end of the creation week, not the beginning.
A defining characteristic of modern young-earth creationists is their refusal to acknowledge that interpretations of Genesis other than their own may have legitimacy. Thus, it is not surprising that they would see any reference to Genesis by Christ as support of their position, since they believe theirs is the only one that upholds the authority of Scripture. But BioLogos also believes that Genesis is God’s Word, so Jesus’ quotation of Genesis does not threaten or challenge our position in the least. And to the extent that young-earth creationists think it does, perhaps they do not adequately understand our position.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Let’s consider a different case involving Jesus’ words. All three synoptic gospels contain Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed: Matthew (13:31–32), Mark (4:30–32), and Luke (13:18–19). The version in Matthew is of particular interest, because it’s the one where Jesus describes the mustard seed as “the smallest of all seeds.” A straightforwardly literal interpretation of Jesus’ words creates a conundrum, since several other seeds are actually smaller, especially those of certain tropical orchids. Does this make Jesus a liar? What do our YEC friends say about this?
Surprisingly, AiG has very little to say, as far as I can tell—they have a massive website, yet various searches produced just a single column devoted to this interpretive question. Nor can I find any discussion in the many books written by Henry Morris, the founder of modern creationism. (We would be glad to have readers help us out with more references in the comments below.) In her cleverly titled piece for AiG, “Seeds of Dissent,” Stacia McKeever simply refers readers to an article from 1968 by the late biblical scholar W. Harold Mare of Covenant Theological Seminary. Mare argues that Jesus might be comparing the mustard seed only with the seeds of other “garden herbs” (lachana in Greek), not with every single seed. While that might perhaps work for the passage in Matthew, the parallel passage in Mark goes even further, saying that the mustard seed “is less than all the seeds that be in the earth,” which seems to rule out this possibility.
Mare gave himself an out that makes more sense. Since “the expression comparing smallness with the size of mustard seed was a common Jewish saying”—as readers of the Mishna and Talmud will testify—we need not look for “scientific literalness and preciseness” in these passages, since Jesus was simply using “a general and popular expression of smallness.” Having just said this, however, Mare suddenly seems to reverse himself: Jesus borrowed that expression “only because the proverbial expression so used was a true and accurate statement, including those implications involving scientific data regarding the mustard seed, both as to its very smallness as a seed and to its moderate largeness when grown” (italics added for emphasis). Mare and AiG can’t have it both ways. Either Jesus’ words are scientifically accurate, or they aren’t. Either Jesus was content to speak in a popular manner without worrying about scientific accuracy, or he wasn’t.
YEC philosophers Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds, both of whom are Fellows of the Discovery Institute, draw a very different conclusion about the hermeneutical implications of this passage for creationists. In their view, “the most natural interpretation” of Matthew 13:32 is that the mustard seed was thought to be the smallest seed. Since we now know otherwise with certainty, “Scripture must be reinterpreted if it is to remain ‘true.’” In many other cases, however, the scientific evidence falls short of certainty, so we should maintain the literal sense. For example, they think that Galileo’s opponents correctly held to the literal sense of Scripture (which in some places seems to speak of the Earth as stationary and of the Sun as in motion) until it became “mathematically and observationally ‘hopeless.’” Their comments on the age of the Earth offer a fascinating counterpoint to AiG’s position. Given the present state of the evidence, they “admit that as recent creationists we are defending a very natural biblical account, at the cost of abandoning a very plausible scientific picture of an ‘old’ cosmos. But, over the long term, this is not a tenable position.” Thus, they call on their fellow YECs to “develop better scientific accounts” in order “to remain [a] viable” view. Unfortunately, I see no evidence that this is happening.
Overall, AiG seems to display an inconsistent attitude toward these two teachings of Jesus. On one hand, the language in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is taken entirely out of context and made to imply that he denied the great antiquity of the Earth, when he actually said nothing about it. In effect, AiG is putting unspoken words in Jesus’ mouth, while claiming to take him literally. On the other hand, Jesus’ language in the parable of the mustard seed is said to be scientifically accurate when properly understood, even though he was just using a popular expression whose literal sense is not scientifically accurate. In effect, AiG is putting different words in Jesus’ mouth, while claiming to take him literally.
So, if I take Jesus literally in both instances, am I making him a liar?
The Creation Museum near Cincinnati is the single most powerful statement of the young-earth creationist perspective. I visited it shortly after it opened ten years ago. My next column is about a recent book, in which an historian and a rhetorician present their analysis of the museum.