The tree of life is a richly evocative symbol seen in sacred art, architecture, houses of worship, and literature throughout the ages and around the world. With its roots reaching downward and its branches extending upward, this tree signifies a mystical, primordial linkage between heaven and earth that is the locus of manifold blessings reflective of a culture's deepest yearnings—be it unity with the gods, wisdom, wholeness, renewal, peace, or everlasting life in God's presence. The tree's precious fruit carries similar connotations, such as the pure love of God, eternal joy, and triumphal entry into the eternal realms. Perhaps no other religious motif is so rich in allegorical potential or so accommodating of spiritual meanings for so many religious traditions.
The concept of the sacred tree is widely diffused. Rooted in the world's oldest cultures, tree imagery crops up in the myths, symbols, and rites of ancient and modern religious institutions throughout the world. It is found among the Assyrians, Babylonians, and others of the Levant (greater Eastern Mediterranean area); various groups in Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, and Greece; the Aborigines and Warramunga of Australia; the Coorgs and Khasiyas of India; and several other Asian religions (especially Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism). Furthermore, sacred trees serve to characterize North American native religions, including the Kwakiutl of the Pacific, the Karok in the Northwest, and the Seneca of the Northeast, as well as the Haida, the Salish, the Kiowa, the Zuni, the Navaho, the Mandan, the Lakota, and the Oglala Sioux. South American and Mesoamerican sacred tree mythologies are also prominent and include the Uyurucares of Bolivia, the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Warao.
The tree of life is prominent in the Old Testament, most strikingly in Genesis, with its reverberations extending figuratively into Sinai's burning bush and Aaron's budding rod, and literarily into passages in scriptural books such as Proverbs, Psalms, and Isaiah. In the New Testament, the tree is a significant part of the temple in heaven: "And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:1–2).
Ancient Jewish lore features the tree of life, as do the teachings of Jewish Kabbalah, which seeks to explore ontological relationships and the mysterious Creator. The tree also burgeons in Christian tradition, especially in medieval art and architecture, where the cross and the tree of life are intertwined.
The deep religious meaning of the tree of life intrigues Latter-day Saints as much as, if not more than, any other people on earth. Latter-day Saints encounter this image in the Old and New Testaments, the books of Abraham and Moses, and the Book of Mormon, where it figures prominently in the visions of Lehi (1 Nephi 8) and Nephi (1 Nephi 11; 15:22–36), in the words of Alma the Younger (Alma 12:21–26; 32:40–42), and elsewhere.
Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a more vibrant, enduring, accommodating, powerful, and universally meaningful religious symbol than the tree of life. In Jewish thought and Christian art, architecture, and literature, this potent symbol embraces many religious ideas and represents an elusive and curious complexity regarding its historical interpretation and development. Beyond its roles in the Judeo-Christian tradition, questions regarding its development only multiply, making this subject all the more fitting as an object for scholarly inquiry in the field of religious studies.
The contents of this volume explore many of the roots and branches of this persistent and expansive religious symbol. These published papers derive from the Tree of Life Symposium held at Brigham Young University on September 28–29, 2006. Sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, this event brought together specialists from various disciplines and institutions who shared the fruits of their research on the religious, cultural, scriptural, and artistic aspects of the tree of life motif.
Our survey begins in the Garden of Eden with Donald Parry's analysis of Hebrew meanings underlying the description in Genesis 3:24 of the path leading to the tree of life. Parry discusses this path in terms of sacred space, identifies the critical "gestures of approach" needed to safely reach the tree of life, and thereby likens temple ritual to a return to Eden and its temple. Andrew Skinner finds tree of life symbolism persisting throughout Israelite and Jewish history while it acquired added meanings, such as wisdom and wholeness, in keeping with prominent religious issues of the day. By decoding complex theological symbolism in biblical and extrabiblical texts, Margaret Barker shares valuable insights on the role of Wisdom in the Garden of Eden and in the temple tradition that passed into Christianity.
From there our survey moves into the New Testament and early Christian traditions, where the cross of Christ's death is transformed into the verdant, victorious tree of resurrection and life. John Welch pursues the tree of life as a vibrant, multifaceted metaphor in early Christian textual and artistic traditions; and Wilfred Griggs focuses on the Gospel of John as fertile ground for the development of several images derived from the tree of life motif. Picking up where the fruitful boughs spread abroad to the New World is Charles Swift, who finds in Lehi's vision of the tree of life the perfect archetype for conveying the Book of Mormon's theme of coming unto Christ. Also in the New World, we find the World Tree of the ancient Maya cosmically connecting the earth with the heavens as Allen Christenson describes how that tree was the ultimate expression of how the Maya could escape the harrowing of the underworld by tapping the tree's sacred power. Jaime Lara discusses the tree of life in the Catholic religious imagination and how the friars used it in the New World to establish common ground for converting the Aztecs to Christianity.
Back in the Old World, the tree of life is seen to have influenced Islamic thought as well through its appearance in the Qurʾan. Daniel Peterson explains significant differences between the biblical and Qurʾanic versions of the Garden of Eden narrative and its mystical trees. John Lundquist finds the Cosmic Tree in the far reaches of Southeast Asia, where it is an integral part of the "primordial landscape" that is reproduced architecturally and artistically in ancient temple traditions, such as in images of the Buddha attaining enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi tree.
Our survey ends with a multicultural array of depictions of the tree of life in Mormon art around the world. Richard Oman shows how Latter-day Saints everywhere have expressed their yearnings and testimonies as they celebrate the joyous thought of pressing forward through the mists of adversity and finally partaking of the sweet and delicious fruit of this tree in the garden of God's love and abundance.
The pages of this volume turn over only a few of the many leaves of this vast subject. Much earlier work has been done on this topic, as is evidenced by the bibliography assembled by Daniel McKinlay at the end of this book, and much work remains to be done to further illuminate the origins and development of this nourishing and nurturing symbol.
We especially thank Andrew S. Skinner and M. Gerald Bradford, former executive director and associate executive director of the Maxwell Institute, respectively, for their overall support and encouragement, and S. Kent Brown, former director of FARMS, for organizing the symposium. We owe a deep debt of thanks to Don L. Brugger for masterfully editing the manuscripts and overseeing the production process, Alison V. P. Coutts for skillfully typesetting this volume and for producing the indexes, Jacob D. Rawlins for creatively laying out its pages, Paula W. Hicken for obtaining permission for all the images, and Shirley Ricks, Charlotte Wood, Rebekah Atkin, and Julie Davis for essential help with proofreading, copyediting, and indexing.
John W. Welch
Donald W. Parry