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Toxic Tares: The Poisonous Weeds (ζιζάνια) in Matthew's Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13.24–30, 36–43)*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 June 2015

J. R. C. Cousland*
Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, University of British Columbia, C230 - 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z1, Canada. Email:


This article examines the poisonous characteristics of Lolium Temulentum L., the weed that is generally identified with the tares (zizania) mentioned in Matthew's Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt 13.24–30, 36–43). It identifies the weed, examines its pervasiveness in antiquity, as well as the nature and degree of its toxicity, and establishes that the tares of the Palestine of Jesus' day were likely poisonous. With this in mind, it considers whether the tares' toxicity is a factor in understanding the parable and its interpretation, concluding that it is very likely presupposed by both.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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Much of the research for this article was conducted under the auspices of the Theology Faculty of the Humboldt Universität in Berlin. I would particularly like to thank Professor Christoph Markschies and his personal assistant Barbara Sarouji for graciously facilitating this research when I was a visiting scholar there.


1 For recent, representative examples, see Hultgren, A. J., The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000)Google Scholar 296; Roloff, J., Jesu Gleichnisse im Matthäusevangelium (BTS 73; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2005)Google Scholar 55; Snodgrass, K., Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008)Google Scholar 198. Notable exceptions can be found in the substantial discussions in von Gemunden, P., ‘Ausreissen oder wachsen lassen? (Vom Unkraut unter dem Weizen) Mt 13,24–30.36–43 (EvThom 57)’, Kompendium der Gleichnisse Jesu (ed. Zimmermann, R.; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2007)Google Scholar 409, and eadem, Vegetationsmetaphorik im Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt: Eine Bildfelduntersuchung (NTOA 18; Freiburg/Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993) 234–49.

2 G. Dalman, Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina (7 vols.; Gütersloh: ‘Der Rufer’ Evangelischer Verlag, 1928–42); I. Löw, Die Flora der Juden (4 vols.; Veröffentlichungen der Alexander Kohut Memorial Foundation iv; Vienna/Leipzig: R. Löwit, 1926–33).

3 The excellent article by Thomas, H., Elisabeth Archer, J. and Turley, R. M., ‘Evolution, Physiology and Phytochemistry of the Psychotoxic Arable Mimic Weed Darnel (Lolium temulentum L.)’, Progress in Botany 72 (2011) 80Google Scholar, devotes an entire page to the multiplicity of names for Lolium temulentum L. in various world languages, including some seventeen names in English. Cf. also Löw, Die Flora der Juden, i.723–29; L. H. N. and Moldenke, A. L., Plants of the Bible (Waltham, MA: Chronica Botanica Co., 1952) 133–4Google Scholar, 282–3.

4 Holm, L. G. et al. , The World's Worst Weeds: Distribution and Biology (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1977) 318–19Google Scholar.

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6 E.g. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 296; Roloff, Jesu Gleichnisse, 55.

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8 Chantraine (DELG s.v.) and Liddell and Scott (LSJ s.v.) plausibly suggest that the word goes back to the Sumerian zizân ‘wheat’. For more on its semitic derivation, see Dochhorn, J., ‘ζιζανιον/ζιζανια’, Glotta 80 (2005) 1819Google Scholar; DBAG s.v.; and Lewy, H., Die Semitischen Fremdwörter im Griechischen (Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1895)Google Scholar 52.

9 LSJ s.v.

10 Musselman, L. J., ‘Zawan and Tares in the Bible’, Economic Botany 54 (2000) 538CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Compare the much earlier discussion by Ascherson, P.: ‘Cephalaria syriaca, ein für Menschen schädliches Getreide-Unkraut Palästina's und die biblischen ζιζανια (Matth. 13,25–30)’, ZDPV 12 (1889) 152–6Google Scholar.

11 Musselman, ‘Zawan’, 537–41.

12 Musselman observes that Arab farmers distinguish the two weeds by calling Lolium temulentum L. ‘zawan’ and C. syriaca ‘black zawan’ (‘Zawan’, 539). Cf. Ascherson, ‘Cephalaria syriaca’, 155.

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18 Senda, T., Ohsako, T., Tominaga, T., ‘Interspecific Differentiation and Phylogenetic Relationships of Poison Ryegrass (Lolium temulentum L.) and Persian Darnel (L. persicum Boiss. & Hohen. ex Boiss.)’, Canadian Journal of Plant Science 85 (2005) 963CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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20 Galen (Alim. Fac. vi 552–3 Kühn); and cf. Theophrastus (Hist. pl. 8.7.1). This viewpoint was also widespread in rabbinic thought. GenR 28.8; yKil. 1 26d, 34.

21 ‘Now, while it is not the nature of any other of these seeds to degenerate and change into something else, they say that wheat and barley change into darnel, and especially wheat; and that this occurs with heavy rains and especially in well-watered and rainy districts’ (Theophrastus, Hist. pl. 8.7.1; LCL).

22 Tominaga, T. and Yamasue, Y., ‘Crop-Associated Weeds: The Strategy for Adaptation’, Weed Biology and Management (ed. Inderjit; Amsterdam: Kluwer, 2004)Google Scholar 49.

23 Tominaga and Yamasue, ‘Adaptation’, 47–63.

24 Dalman, Arbeit und Sitte, ii.250, 325.

25 Dikici, H. and Dündar, G. D., ‘Wheat-Weed Competition for Nutrients in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey’, Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences 9 (2006) 343Google Scholar. They specify calcium, sodium and iron.

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27 Dalman, Arbeit und Sitte, ii.249.

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34 D. Brinton, F.R.C.P., ‘An Unusual Form of Epidemic Food-Poisoning with Neurological Symptoms’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 39 (1946) 174.

35 Guérin, ‘L'ivraie’, 230–8.

36 Freeman, M. P., ‘The Seed-Fungus of Lolium temulentum L., the Darnel’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 196 (1904) 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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40 Albert Hofmann (Wasson et al., The Road to Eleusis, 11) hypothesises that the Claviceps ergot, which grows on tares, could have been the agent which promoted the mystical experiences of the initiands at the Eleusinian Mysteries. For a different assessment, see S. Aaronson, ‘Fungal Parasites of Grasses and Cereals: Their Role as Food or Medicine, Now and in the Past’, Antiquity 63 (1989) 250–2.

41 Thomas et al., ‘Evolution’, 91. For a survey of proposals, see 93–5.

42 Gundel, P. et al. , ‘Neotyphodium Endophyte Infection Frequency in Annual Grass Populations: Relative Importance of Mutualism and Transmission Efficiency’, Proceedings of the Royal Society B 275 (2008)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed,, accessed 9.3.2015.

43 Sampson, K., ‘The Presence and Absence of an Endophytic Fungus in Lolium tementulum and L. perenne’, Transactions of the British Mycological Society 20 (1933) 337–43Google Scholar.

44 Freeman, ‘Darnel’, 20.

45 Lexicon der Ägyptologie, s.v. ‘Flora’, 274; Löw, Die Flora der Juden i.724–5.

46 The work on Nabatean agriculture is a component of a medieval treatise entitled Picatrix; cf. Bakhouche, B., Fauquier, F., Pérez-Jean, B., eds., Picatrix: Un traité de magie médiéval (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 350: ‘La graine d'ivraie est nuisable à la tête, voile les yeux, supprime même la vue et fait dormir.’ Galen would further attribute skin ulcers or other signs of an unhealthy state in the humours to tares (Alim. Fac. vi 553 Kühn).

47 Amigues, S., ‘Le crible à ivraie d'Aristophane Fr. 497 K.–A.’, Revue de philologie, de littérature et d'histoire anciennes 77 (2003) 1722Google Scholar.

48 See for instance the seminal article by Jeremias, J., ‘Die Deutung des Gleichnisses vom Unkraut unter dem Weizen (Mt. xiii 36–43)’, Neotestamentica et Patristica (NovTSup 6; Leiden: Brill, 1962) 5963CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which argues that the interpretation is not dominical. For an opposing view, see Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 207–12.

49 Contrast the Parable of the Sower, where the thorns choke the wheat (Matt 13.7).

50 If the tares in Matthew's day were non-toxic, it may simply be that the landholder wants a harvest with the least admixture of tare-seed. Nevertheless, the pronounced emphasis placed on separating the wheat and the weeds is revealing.

51 Nolland, J., The Gospel of Matthew (NIGTC 1; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 2005)Google Scholar 547 #76 cites GLAE 2.4; 7.2; 25.4; 28.3; 3 Bar 13.2; Test. Dan 6.3; Test. Job 47.10.

52 On ὁ πονηρός in Matthew, see Sim, D. C., Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew (SNTMS 88; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 7783CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 BDAG s.v. πονηρός.

54 G. Stählin, ‘σκάνδαλον’, TDNT vii.345; H. Giesen, ‘σκάνδαλον’, EDNT iii.249; Jones, I. H., The Matthean Parables (NovTSup 80; Leiden: Brill, 1995) 214 #135CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 Nolland, Matthew, 560–1; cf. BDAG s.v.

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58 Though when these options are taken allegorically, a question that needs to be asked is how much of a difference there is between causing a brother to stumble and corrupting his production of good fruit.

59 Matthew 3.7 is derived from Q, though it is more likely that Luke's addressees – the crowds – were the original recipients of the Baptist's invective (Luke 3.7). Cf. Luz, U., Matthew 1–7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) 169–70Google Scholar. The other two references to vipers (Matt 12.34; 23.33) are both Matthean.

60 BDAG s.v.

61 W. Foerster, ‘ἔχιδνα’, TDNT ii.815. Cf. Davies, W. D. and Allison, D., The Gospel according to St Matthew, vol. i (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991)Google Scholar 304: ‘The intended reference is … to an evil and destructive and repugnant chararacter: the serpent is poisonous (cf. Herodotus 3.109; Ps 58.4; Mt 12.34; T. Abr. 19; m.’Abot 2.10).'

62 Gitter, S. and De Vries, A., ‘Symptomatology, Pathology, and Treatment of Bites by Near Eastern, European, and North African Snakes’, Venomous Animals and their Venom, vol. i (ed. Bücherl, W. and Buckley, E.; New York: Academic Press, 1968) 363–4Google Scholar, cited in Scarborough, John, ‘Nicander's Toxicology. i: Snakes’, American Insititute of the History of Pharmacy 19 (1977) 22Google ScholarPubMed #99.

63 Strictly speaking, a snake's venom is not poison (in the sense of something ingested), but it is doubtful whether this distinction would have been significant for Matthew's hearers and readers.

64 A passage in 1QH 13.26–7 provides an illustrative parallel: ‘They plot evil in their heart, m[en of Be]lial have opened a lying tongue, like viper's venom that spreads to the extremities.’ Translation from F. García Martínez and Tigchelaar, E., The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition, vol. i (Leiden/Grand Rapids: Brill/Eerdmans, 2000)Google Scholar 173.