The theology of the temple is recorded in symbols and stories. These are not primitive attempts at Bronze Age or Iron Age theology; they are the way profound issues were expressed in a culture that had storytellers rather than philosophers. The furnishings of the temple, for example, were the setting within which great questions were debated. Irenaeus,1 who opposed the heresies of his time, wrote a manual of essential Christian teaching, The Demonstration of the Gospel; and for him, material based on temple symbolism was the first essential. Origen,2 the greatest biblical scholar in the early church, emphasised that certain key teachings had been handed down unwritten and were encoded in the temple furnishings. Only Aaron and his sons had seen the furnishings (i.e., had knowledge of this tradition), and Origen emphasised that there were similar unwritten teachings in the church that had been "handed down and entrusted to us by the high priest and his sons." 3 The fragrant tree was one of those temple symbols, gathering around itself a whole complex of sophisticated theology expressed in subtle stories and vivid pictures.
The Two Trees of Enochic Tradition
On his second heavenly journey with the archangels, Enoch saw a fragrant tree set among other trees but surpassing them all. Its fragrance was sweeter than that of the other trees; its leaves, wood, and blossoms did not wither; and its fruit hung in clusters like the fruit of a palm. The fragrant tree stood by a mountain that was like the seat of a throne, and there were three other mountains on each side of it (1 Enoch 24:1–25:7). The lesser mountains were made of coloured precious stones and pearls, but the central mountain was made of antimony and capped with sapphire (18:6–8).4 Enoch was amazed at the tree and the mountain, and Michael explained to him what he saw: the mountain was the throne of the Great Holy One, and the tree would one day give life to the chosen ones (24:5–25:5). The tree is not named, but we assume it is the tree of life because it is depicted as being the source of life.
This section of 1 Enoch (Ethiopic version) describes several heavenly journeys, and it is not always clear how they relate to each other. On another journey, Enoch saw huge fragrant trees growing in the Paradise of Righteousness, one of which was the tree of knowledge, the source of great wisdom. This tree was also fragrant, with fruit like clusters of grapes and with leaves like those of a carob tree. The archangel Raphael explained that this was the forbidden tree from which Adam and Eve had eaten before they were driven from the garden (32:1–5). The two trees—the tree of life and the tree of knowledge—did not stand in the same garden, as they do in the Genesis story. The Enoch tradition was careful to distinguish between them.
In both cases, Enoch cried out in delight. When he saw the tree of life, he said: "How beautiful this tree is, and fragrant! And pleasant are its leaves, and its blossoms are a pleasure to behold!" (1 Enoch 24:5). When he saw the tree of knowledge, he said: "How beautiful this tree is! What a delight to the eye!" (32:5), echoing the story of Eve, who saw that the tree was good for food and a delight to the eyes (Genesis 3:6), even though it had been forbidden. The trees were very similar.
The visionary journeys went in different directions. When he saw the tree of life, Enoch was looking towards a range of mountains in the south. There are considerable problems in the text here, but if this central mountain was the throne of God, to which he came when he visited the earth (1 Enoch 25:3), it must have been the mountain described also in 1 Enoch 18:8, the throne of God in the south.5 The dwelling of the Great One in the south is known elsewhere in 1 Enoch: he comes forth to dwell on the earth on Mount Sinai (1:4), and the south is so called because the Great One dwells there, wordplay on the word for "south" (77:1).6 The mountain and the throne are usually located by scholars in the north, but recovering the southern location is important. After the Great Judgement, said the archangel Michael, the tree of life would be transplanted northwards, to a holy place beside the House of the Lord (25:5). In other words, the tree of life, or whatever it represented, was seen by Enoch to the south of Jerusalem but was destined to be set in the temple. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which Adam and Eve had eaten, was in the east. Enoch passed over the Erythraean Sea (the Persian Gulf) before he saw it, standing among other huge trees (32:1–5).
What tree might have belonged in the temple, which was associated with the heavenly throne? Its fruit was to feed the chosen ones, but the tree was not, at the time of Enoch's journey, in the temple. Had the fragrant tree perhaps been removed from the temple? In the book of Revelation, the tree of life is seen in the temple, in the holy of holies, beside the throne (Revelation 22:1–2), and its fruit was food for the faithful (v. 7). The tree of life in the temple (perhaps restored to the temple?) was an important part of early Christian belief.
The temple represented the Garden of Eden, and the tree of life had certainly been there. Throughout the era of the monarchy, however, there had been a struggle over what was appropriate furnishing for the temple/Garden of Eden. In the northern kingdom of Israel as well as in Jerusalem, there had been struggles over the asherah, a treelike symbol that had been constantly set up and then removed and destroyed (1 Kings 15:13; 16:33; 2 Kings 13:6; 17:16; 18:4; 21:7; 23:6, 15). The asherah had been a tree or piece of wood 7 set beside the altar (Deuteronomy 16:21). Asherah was the name of a Canaanite goddess, and this is the form of the name that appears, for example, in 1 and 2 Kings, works that are hostile to the temple and most of the kings and that link Asherah and Baal. In the random survivals among Hebrew inscriptions, however, the name has the form Ashratah and is associated with Yahweh.8 The Lady in Israel may have been identified by her enemies as the Canaanite Asherah rather than by her own name.
The greatest triumph of those opposed to Asherah was the cultural revolution in the time of King Josiah. The asherah was removed from the temple, burned by the brook Kidron, and then beaten to dust and cast on common graves. It was utterly desecrated. Why this fury? The same event was described by Jewish refugees in Egypt as abandoning the Queen of Heaven, who had protected them and their city and given them food (Jeremiah 44:16–19). Enoch described the event as abandoning wisdom (1 Enoch 93:8). Since the tree of life was identified in the Bible as wisdom (Proverbs 3:13–18), the accumulated evidence makes it likely that the asherah that was removed from the temple and destroyed had represented the tree of life.
Enoch's heavenly journeys probably identify two communities: those of the tree of knowledge, who lived in the east, and those of the tree of life, who lived in the south. Only the tree of life was destined to be taken to (i.e., returned to) the temple. When the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, descended to earth, he would sit on his mountain throne by the tree of life; and after the great judgment, the fruit of the tree would give life to the chosen ones. They would rejoice in the holy place and live long and happy lives, and their very bones would be permeated with the fragrance of the tree (1 Enoch 25:2–6). Those who continued to honor the Queen of Heaven, the tree, and who longed for its return to the temple had fled south. Some had been refugees with Jeremiah in Egypt; others had been temple priests who settled in Arabia. As late as the fourth century CE, people remembered that the priests who had opposed Josiah's purges had fought with Nebuchadnezzar against Jerusalem and then settled in Arabia.9
After seeing the tree of life, Enoch traveled to the centre of the earth—that is, to Jerusalem—and saw the holy mountain. From its eastern side, water issued and flowed to the south by way of the Gihon Spring and the brook Kidron (1 Enoch 26:1–3). This means that for Enoch the holy mountain was not the area we nowadays call the Temple Mount. It must have been the hill to the southeast of it, the Ophel, from which the Gihon gushes. Before Hezekiah built the tunnel that brought its water into the city (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:30), the water of the Gihon probably created a real stream in the Kidron Valley. It is interesting that Enoch's journey describes accurately the geography of Jerusalem before the time of Hezekiah,10 that is, in the early ministry of Isaiah. Enoch knew the temple on a different site, and this is where the tree would be transplanted. What he saw was a blessed place in which there were living branches that had survived from a felled tree. The text does not say that it was the tree of life, but the vision of the surviving branches follows immediately upon the vision of the tree that was to be planted (again) in the temple.
The two heavenly journeys and the two trees suggest that the Enoch tradition was preserved by a community that had moved to the south, had not been tempted by the tree of knowledge, and had lived with the hope that they and their tree of life would return to the temple. This community could have been people who emigrated to Egypt, perhaps those who built the temple at Yeb/Elephantine around 600 BCE. The "branches" remembered a holy site that was not the Temple Mount. The other group was in the east, which suggests the exiles in Babylon. They had with them the tree of knowledge that had led to the loss of Eden, to the loss of their angel state, and to a world of dust and death, thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:17–19).
Memories of the Tree of Wisdom
The community of living branches appears in the Qumran Hymns, and its members apparently saw themselves as the guardians of true teaching who were preserving, or who were, the true temple. In the era of wrath, after Israel had been given into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, in 597 BCE, a faithful remnant had survived (Damascus Document I). The singer of one hymn rejoices that he has been placed among these branches of the council of holiness (Thanksgiving Hymns XV). Another voice—possibly the same person—gives thanks that he has been set by a fountain of streams, by a spring of waters, beside a watered garden (XVI). The Lord had established a plantation of trees beside this water source, and these trees had produced a shoot of the everlasting Plant. Beasts and birds had devastated the shoot, but it had been hidden and protected by "spirits of holiness and the whirling flame of fire" (XVI). The hymn is enigmatic, but the imagery recalls Eden. The precious shoot was guarded in the same way as the tree of life had been guarded in Eden, by cherubim and a flaming sword. In the biblical story, the angels guard the tree of life to prevent Adam and Eve from having access; in the Qumran hymn, the angels protect the tree from those who might harm it. The speaker seems to be the one who irrigates the garden with his teaching: "Thou O God hast put into my mouth as it were rain . . . and a fount of living waters that shall not fail" (XVI).
The voices from Qumran, if they represented one community, frequently used this image of planting. They were, in some sense, Eden, and in their midst a plant sprang up (Damascus Document I). The Rule of the Community expresses a similar idea: the Council of the Community is the Everlasting Plantation, a House of Holiness for Israel. In other words, this Edenic place was the true temple (Rule of the Community VIII). Eden as the temple is a well-known image.11 Adam was the original high priest, set in the garden to tend it, and the word for "tend," ʿabad, is the same as that for temple service (Genesis 2:15). Adam and Eve driven from Eden was, as we shall see, a description of why the priests were driven from the temple: they had chosen to eat from the wrong tree; they had rejected the tree of life.
The "branches" appear in the later prophecies of Isaiah. An anointed figure—possibly the prophet himself—has been called to proclaim good tidings, to give to those who mourn in Zion "a garland instead of ashes" and "the oil of gladness" (Isaiah 61:3).12 They were to be called the oaks of righteousness and the planting of the Lord. They would build up the ruins and restore the devastation, and they would be recognized as priests of the Lord (v. 6). If the second temple had already been built by that time (66:1), were the ancient ruins the original temple that the anointed one would rebuild? Rebuilding the temple was a task for the Messiah (Zechariah 6:12–13). And would the ousted priests (those banished by Josiah) be returned to their former status? These could have been Enoch's community of branches around the original holy site.
The first Christians hoped to join this blessed company of trees and branches. In one of the Odes of Solomon, a collection of early hymns, the singer tells how his eyes were enlightened and his face received the dew, how his breath/soul was refreshed with the fragrance of the Lord (Ode 11:14–15). Then he was taken to paradise, where he saw wonderful, fruitful trees watered by a river of gladness. "Blessed O Lord are they who are planted in your land" (v. 18).13 The description of paradise is like that in 2 Enoch, where Enoch, having ascended to the third heaven, saw the trees of paradise in full flower, with ripe and pleasant fruits. Four streams—of honey, milk, oil, and wine—flowed from paradise, and at the centre was the tree of life, where the Lord used to rest when he entered paradise. It was the most fragrant of all and the most beautiful, red and gold, looking like fire. It spread far out over paradise, and it had "something of every orchard tree and of every fruit" (2 Enoch 8:1–4).14
It is important to note that the tree of life did not resemble any one tree. Ben Sira's description of Wisdom, when she compares herself to a tree, is similar: "I grew tall like a cedar . . . like a cypress . . . like a palm tree . . . like rose plants . . . like a beautiful olive tree . . . like a plane tree" (Sirach 24:13–14). One of the Nag Hammadi texts, whose modern title is On the Origin of the World, describes the tree of life in the north of paradise, standing beside the tree of knowledge: "The colour of the tree of life is like the sun, and its branches are beautiful. Its leaves are like those of the cypress, its fruit is like clusters of white grapes, its height rises up to heaven" (Coptic Gnostic Library II,5 110). The tree of life also marked the place where the Lord's throne rested in paradise. In the Apocalypse of Moses 15 the Lord returned to paradise on the chariot throne, which rested by the tree of life (22:4).
These later texts have an uncertain pedigree, but they do preserve interesting and consistent memories about the tree. It was huge, with wide-spreading branches that bore many sorts of fruit. It was fiery, red and gold, and it stood near the throne of God. In the book of Revelation, the tree of life stood by the throne of God and bore twelve kinds of fruit (22:1–2). If the temple had represented the Garden of Eden, what had represented the tree of life? The most obvious answer would be the menorah. The prescriptions for the tabernacle menorah (recorded in their present form in the Second Temple period and therefore almost certainly influenced by memories of the first temple) say that the lamp was golden, with seven branches on which were cups and flowers like almonds. This was the fiery tree.
There is, however, a problem about its location. The menorah stood in the main part of the tabernacle, on the south side (Exodus 40:24); but in the book of Revelation the tree stood in the holy of holies, by the throne. And there is another problem: descriptions of the first temple do not mention the menorah, but the prophet Zechariah saw a sevenfold lamp that represented the watching presence of the Lord (Zechariah 4:2, 10). Since he prophesied before the second temple had been built, this must have been a memory of the earlier temple. The form of Zechariah's lamp may not have been the familiar menorah; he seems to be describing a single lamp bowl with seven wicks, but this too could have represented the tree.16 The asherah was described as a pole, so a pillar lamp would have been similar.
Where was the tree of Wisdom? In which community? Ben Sira, writing in Jerusalem about 200 BCE, claimed that Wisdom had taken root in Zion and was still there, growing like a mighty tree and watering her garden with her teaching. She had been identified with the law of Moses, and what had originally been a poem in praise of Wisdom had been transformed into a eulogy of the law (Sirach 24:1–34). Baruch 3–4 is similar. Why was Israel in exile, growing old in a foreign land? The people had forsaken Wisdom (3:12). Wisdom appearing on earth was the giving of the law, because "she is the book of the commandments of God" (4:1). The Enoch tradition disagreed: Wisdom had found no dwelling place on earth and so had returned to her place among the angels (1 Enoch 42:2). In her place the thirsty earth had drunk the water of iniquity.17 Enoch saw the tree—Wisdom—far away in the south, among the trees around the throne of God.
Memories of the first temple persisted for centuries, as did hopes for the true temple to be restored in the time of the Messiah. At that time the menorah, the ark, the spirit, the fire, and the cherubim would be returned (Rabbah Numbers XV:10). There had been a menorah in the second temple; it was among the Roman loot carried away from the devastated temple in 70 CE and is famously depicted on the Arch of Titus. In what way, then, was this not a genuine menorah? It could have had a different form or meaning, or it could have stood in a different place in the temple. There are other mysteries: in the late Second Temple period, the menorah was widely employed as a Jewish symbol, and yet the Rabbis forbade its use.18 No passage in the Talmud 19 or in the great commentaries (Mekilta, Rabbah Exodus) explains its symbolism. Why was the tree/lamp such a sensitive matter?
The asherah also remained a threat. As late as the Mishnah,20 there were detailed rules defining the asherah—how it can be recognized as a tree grown or pruned for idolatrous worship. It could pollute even the unwary; its wood was forbidden to fuel an oven or make a weaver's shuttle, and nobody could sit in its shade.21 Objects that Jews described as asherahs were all over Palestine in the sixth century; they may have been Christian crosses since the tree and the cross were symbols that coalesced 22 and Jesus reigning from the tree was a natural development from the idea of the throne of God beneath the tree of life. The Letter of Barnabas 23 alludes to the tree as the throne: "the royal realm of Jesus was founded on a tree"; and Justin Martyr 24 maintained that the Jews had removed certain key texts from the Hebrew scriptures, for example, part of Psalm 96:10, which had originally read, "The Lord reigns from the tree" (Dialogue with Trypho 73).25 Since one of the synagogue frescoes at Dura-Europos shows the Messiah enthroned in a tree, this could well have been the original text. Irenaeus, setting out his system of Old Testament and Christian counterparts (known as "recapitulation"), taught that the cross had been a remedy for the ills brought by the tree of knowledge (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 33–34). The cross as the tree of life was widely used in Christian art, as in the apse mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome (see fig. 12).
The Counterclaim of Nonbiblical Books
Embedded within 1 Enoch is a short, stylised history known as the Apocalypse of Weeks (93:1–10; 91:11–17, the Ethiopic text being disordered). Each era of history was a "week." In the first week Enoch was born; in the second, Noah was saved from the flood; in the third, Abraham was born as the chosen plant whose descendants would also be righteous plants. In the fourth week, the law was given; in the fifth, the temple was built; and in the sixth, those in the temple lost their spiritual sight. They rejected Wisdom, and the temple was burned. A man ascended during this week, possibly Isaiah,26 who saw the throne of God in his temple vision (Isaiah 6). Thus the rejection of Wisdom and the loss of vision represented the struggle to remove the tree. After the temple was burned, the race of the chosen root was scattered. The seventh week saw an apostate generation, who, as we learn elsewhere in 1 Enoch, built the second temple; 27 but at the end of that week the chosen ones from the eternal plant were called as witnesses to righteousness and given sevenfold wisdom. The Ethiopic version of 1 Enoch at this point inserts a wisdom poem28 detailing what knowledge would be restored to the chosen plants. It was the esoteric knowledge revealed to Enoch on his heavenly journeys and widely attested elsewhere: knowledge of the works of heaven, the stars, the spirits, the whole pattern of the world (1 Enoch 93:11–14).
The Apocalypse of Weeks raises several questions, not least of which is, where is Moses? There is no reference to the exodus, and the section about giving the law does not mention any one figure. Most summaries of history in the Hebrew scriptures focus on Moses and the exodus and omit Sinai.29 They are, in fact, the exact opposite of the Apocalypse of Weeks, which emphasises Abraham and his children and the fate of the first temple. This is confirmed by the curious "Animal History" in 1 Enoch, which tells the story of Israel as an animal fable. From Adam to Isaac, the patriarchs are described as bulls, but Esau is a black boar and Jacob a white ram. Moses is a sheep, and Israel is a flock of sheep, until the corrupt second temple is destroyed and the new temple built. Then a new Adam is born, in the form of a white bull, and all the other animals—sheep as well as the unclean ones—are transformed into bulls. In other words, when Eden is restored, the Moses religion is transformed, along with all others, into the original faith of Adam and Abraham.
Nonbiblical texts emphasise that many of the important laws and customs did not derive from Moses. They should not be seen as "rewriting" the biblical version of the story, but rather as a counterclaim to the origin of the traditions and customs of Israel by those who denied that they came from Moses. The prescriptions in Jubilees, for example, a text found at Qumran, are usually read as rewritten Genesis, the normative biblical text. According to Jubilees, Noah learned from his ancestors about the firstfruits and the Sabbath year (7:34–39), and he himself recorded angelic teaching about healing with herbs (10:13). Abraham followed the teachings of Enoch and Noah (21:1–26), shunning idols, offering sacrifices in the correct way, and observing food laws and rules for ritual washing. Isaac passed these instructions to his grandson Levi (Testament of Levi 9:1–14). Ancient Noachian texts are embedded in 1 Enoch, 30 and 2 Enoch has the wife of Noah's brother Nir giving birth miraculously to Melchizedek (70–71). These are all echoes of the first temple, the time before the great flood, which now encodes the disaster that swept over Jerusalem in 597 BCE. Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Melchizedek represented older traditions that the Second Temple–era compilers of the Pentateuch attributed to Moses.
According to 2 Esdras, when the canon of Hebrew scriptures was defined, "Ezra" restored the lost scriptures to his people. The story is set in the time of the biblical Ezra, but there are indications (e.g., 2 Esdras 3:1) that the actual date was thirty years after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Ezra sat under an oak tree and heard a voice from a nearby bush (14:1–2) telling him that the scriptures, lost in the recent war and destruction, would be restored through him. In a state of rapture, Ezra then dictated ninety-four books. God Most High told him to make twenty-four books public but to keep the other seventy only for the wise: "For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of Wisdom and the river of knowledge" (vv. 45–48). These seventy other books sound remarkably like the teaching claimed by the community of the living branches. By definition, they are not in the Hebrew canon, and so we probably have to look outside the Old Testament for the teachings associated with the fragrant tree and its branches.
Eden and the Fallen Priests
The Bible begins with the story of creation and then the Garden of Eden. It is one of the more curious aspects of the Old Testament that this story, which apparently sets the stage for all that follows, is not mentioned elsewhere. There is another Eden story in Ezekiel 28:12–19, where a heavenly figure was expelled from Eden, the holy mountain garden of God, because of pride and corrupted wisdom. The heavenly figure was no longer an angel but profane (v. 16), and the sanctuaries that were profaned as a result were burned. This heavenly being, who was reduced to a mortal state and died as ashes on the earth, is currently described as the king of Tyre, but this could be an example of a reworked and reused prophecy.31 The original seems to have been about the ruler of Zion, since Tyre and Zion can look very similar in Hebrew.32 What is certain is that the Greek text of Ezekiel 28:13 is longer and lists, in correct order, all the precious stones of the high priest's breastplate, as they appear in the Greek text of Exodus 28:17–20. The translator of Ezekiel knew that the splendid figure thrown from Eden was the high priest. Adam was remembered as the original high priest, and so this was Ezekiel's way of telling the story of how and why the high priest was driven out of Eden—thrown down because of pride and corrupted wisdom.
Isaiah knew the same story. "Your first father sinned, and your *** transgressed against me. Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary, and I delivered Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling" (Isaiah 43:27–28). Thus in the Hebrew, where *** represents a word with several meanings ("interpreter," as in Genesis 42:23; "a mediator," as in Job 33:23, where the word is in parallel with angel; or "one who mocks," as in Isaiah 29:20, with the noun form in Habakkuk 2:6), Isaiah's style often includes wordplay, and so all these meanings are probably intended here. Those who should have been the angel mediators for the people (i.e., the priests) had become mocking transgressors, and so the Lord had profaned the princes of the sanctuary,33 reducing them from their angel state to that of mortals, exactly the fate of the heavenly being in Ezekiel's oracle. As a result, Jacob/Israel was destroyed. The Greek text here is different: "Your first fathers and rulers transgressed against me, and the rulers desecrated my sanctuary. And I delivered Israel to destruction." The meaning is the same. Something had happened to the priests and to the temple, such that the Lord destroyed both.
The Genesis story of Eden has two trees, but neither is described in any detail (we do not know about any fragrance, for example). Only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden, which implies that the Wisdom of the tree of life had been intended as food for Adam and Eve. Eliphaz's mocking words to Job imply this: "Are you the first man to be born? Have you listened in the council of God? Are you the only one with Wisdom?" (Job 15:7–8, my translation). The great restoration described in the book of Revelation also implies this: the faithful Christian will once again eat from the tree of life (2:7); the blessed have access to the tree of life (22:14). The story of the Garden of Eden is often interpreted simply as a story of disobedience, of Adam and Eve breaking the one commandment they had been given. It is far more than that. The story of Adam and Eve is about people who chose the knowledge of good and evil and then discovered that they could no longer have access to the Wisdom of the tree of life. The grand narrative of the Bible is about rejecting the tree of life and then regaining access to its fruit.
The writer of Genesis is more sympathetic to the fallen priests than are Ezekiel and Isaiah. The prophets described their sins as pride, abuse of wisdom, mockery, and defiling the holy place. The writer of Genesis recognized that they had been deceived, and in the telling of the story we see what was at stake. "God knows that when you eat of [the fruit of the tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). This is exactly the opposite of the Enochic account of the sixth week, when the temple was destroyed. The eyes of the priests were closed, and they abandoned Wisdom (1 Enoch 93:8). They chose the wrong tree. They were the first victims of the rebel angels who came to earth to offer knowledge in rebellion against the Great Holy One. Mortals then had knowledge and skills without the constraint of morality, and the result was bloodshed and cries of despair (9:1–2). The fallen angels also taught how to "change the world" (8:1), which traditional Ethiopian commentaries explained as changing a man into an animal.34 This sounds like a memory of the original tradition in which a "man" indicated an angel and an "animal" indicated a mortal. Great heroes were born as animals and became "men." Noah was born a white bull and became a man (89:1). To turn men into animals meant reducing angels to mortals, which is exactly what the fallen angels did. Adam and Eve were tempted by the leader of the fallen angels, and as a result they left the garden and learned they were mortal.
The two trees represented two ways of knowing, perhaps two attitudes to knowledge, and the state that arises from each. The tree of life represented Wisdom, and those who ate from it were angels, "men." The other tree represented knowledge that could be used for good or for evil, and those who ate from it were mortals, "animals." The story of the two trees is the story of a clash of cultures: the life of the angels or the life of mortals. The Gospel of Philip, an early Christian text, shows that these ideas were known in the church. Unfortunately, the relevant part is damaged, and so some parts are uncertain. "There are two trees growing in Paradise. The one bears [animals], the other bears men. Adam [ate] from the tree which bore animals. He became an animal" (Coptic Gnostic Library II,3 71).35
The Tree in Isaiah's Temple Vision and Mysterious Oracle
The conflict over the tree breaks the surface in some Old Testament texts and can be detected in the earliest parts of the writings of Isaiah, who prophesied in the reigns of four kings: Uzziah (also called Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Uzziah "did what was right in the eyes of the Lord" (2 Kings 15:3); Jotham too "did what was right in the eyes of the Lord" (v. 34), although the writer noted that both of them allowed the high places to remain, clearly something of which he disapproved. Ahaz "did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord . . . and even sacrificed his son" (16:2–4), but Hezekiah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, removing the high places and cutting down the asherah; he followed the religion of Moses (18:3–7). These accounts in 2 Kings, however, were written by someone who inclined to the Mosaic element in Israel's religion.
Isaiah saw things differently. Ahaz was not condemned for sacrificing his son but chided only for lack of faith (Isaiah 7:4). Hezekiah was seen as the one who had destroyed the altars of the Lord rather than purified the religion of his kingdom (36:7). He was smitten with plague, a sure sign of divine wrath (38:1), but was miraculously restored to health. His recovery probably inspired the Fourth Servant Song (52:13–53:12).36 And something had happened during the reign of Uzziah that had been heavy on the conscience of Isaiah. In his great vision of the Lord enthroned in the temple, the prophet cried out, "Woe is me, for I kept silent" (6:5).37 His lips were then purified by the seraph with a coal, suggesting that it was a sin of his lips that had caused his anguish. What was the silence that Isaiah so regretted?
From his attitude towards Ahaz and Hezekiah, we can guess that Isaiah was not sympathetic towards the changes in Jerusalem, the purges that the writer of Kings regarded as "doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord." His guilty conscience may indicate that he had not spoken out about similar events in the reign of Uzziah, a king who "did what was right in the eyes of the Lord." Uzziah had been in conflict with the temple priesthood (2 Chronicles 26:16–21), and there is good reason to believe that Isaiah himself was a temple priest.38
The punishment prophesied for Jerusalem and Judah after Isaiah's temple vision suggests what Uzziah had done. The people would be condemned to hear but not understand, and to see but not perceive, so that they would not turn and be healed (Isaiah 6:10). Had Uzziah rejected the tree and its wisdom, this would have been the result, not so much a punishment from the Lord as allowing the people to experience the consequence of their choice. Understanding, biynah, and perception/knowledge, daʿat, were the fundamentals of wisdom teaching, as can be seen in Proverbs 1:2. "That men may know [ladaʿat] wisdom and instruction, understand [lehabiyn] words of insight." According to the Apocalypse of Weeks, the ascension of a man in the "sixth week" was linked to the priests (those who "live in the temple") abandoning wisdom and losing their spiritual sight (1 Enoch 93:8). This man is usually said to be Elijah, but Isaiah is more likely, as his call vision—his ascent to stand before the throne—is linked to the loss of wisdom. "All who lived in it lost their sight" is very similar to "Hear, hear and do not understand; see, see and do not perceive" (Isaiah 6:9).
At the close of the sixth week, the temple was burned and the "entire race of the chosen root" was scattered.39 The next part of Isaiah's prophecy was similar: "How long, O Lord?" (Isaiah 6:11). How long would this spiritual blindness continue? "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away" (vv. 11–12). "Until the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land" is the usual translation of the next line, and this makes good sense. But the same Hebrew words can also be read: "Until the Deserted One is great in the midst of the land." The Deserted One would have been Wisdom, the female figure in the Jerusalem temple cult. She was described and represented in many ways: as the city, as the bride, as the heavenly mother of the Davidic king, and as the tree. Isaiah's use of the same vocabulary in later oracles suggests that Isaiah 6:12 was indeed about the Lady. Deserted, ʿ azubah, is used elsewhere to describe the city as the forsaken wife of the Lord (Isaiah 54:6), the forsaken city, depicted as an abandoned woman (60:15), the name she is to use no more once she has been restored (62:4). Her land will no longer be called desolate, šemamah, as it was in Isaiah 6:11b. In the future she was to be called hephşiybah, "my delight is in her," the name later used for the mother of the Messiah.40
The variety of translations offered for Isaiah 6:13 gives an idea of the problems it presents. It is about a tree that has been felled, "a tenth," and the holy seed surviving in the stump of the tree. The Deserted One is linked to a tree. The Authorised Version offers this reading: "But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof." The Jerusalem Bible reads, "Though a tenth of the people remain, it will be stripped like a terebinth of which, once felled, only the stock remains. The stock is a holy seed." The New English Bible reads: "Even if a tenth part of its people remain there, they too will be exterminated [like an oak or a terebinth, a sacred pole thrown out from its place in a hill-shrine]." The word tenth, ʿaśryh, is a suggestive set of letters, being very similar to the word asherah, the treelike object commonly associated with the Canaanite worship. Reference to a terebinth and an oak confirms that the verse is about a tree, and the New English Bible term sacred pole shows that the translators also had this association in mind. This was the tree that had been abandoned in Isaiah's time, the tree that represented Wisdom.
If Isaiah 6:13 refers to the fragrant tree, the various translations for that verse echo what we find in 1 Enoch. If the "tenth" was originally the name asherah, then the Authorised Version would read, "In it shall be the sacred tree, and it shall return and be eaten"—the words of Michael to Enoch on his heavenly journey. The Qumran Isaiah has a different reading in 13b, mšlkt, "throw, fling, cast," instead of Masoretic Text bšlkt, "in the felling." "Shedding" is the reading assumed by the Authorised Version, and since the ancient versions reflect this idea of shedding/spreading, the Qumran text may be the original.41 In addition, ʾašer, "which," could also once have been asherah. That line would then read, "Like a terebinth or an oak tree, asherah sheds her leaves/spreads her branches." The Greek omits any mention of the holy seed, but the other ancient versions knew this line. The Targum interpreted the seed as the future of Israel: "So the exiles of Israel shall be gathered together and return to their land, for a holy seed is their plant." Symmachus the Ebionite 42 and the Vulgate both understood that the holy seed was within her, that is, the tree.
Isaiah's temple vision and mysterious oracle refer to the tree and those who had abandoned her. The tree was the symbol of Wisdom, and Isaiah had kept silent when she was abandoned. There had been disputes over the tree symbol for generations before the time of Isaiah: King Asa had removed a tree symbol from the temple (1 Kings 15:9–15) some 150 years before the time of Isaiah's call in 742 BCE, "the year that King Uzziah died" (Isaiah 6:1). The Queen mother had had a special devotion to the sacred tree and had set up an asherah. We are not told it was in the temple, but her son cut it down and burned it. It must have been restored, because King Hezekiah also removed the asherah in the time of Isaiah (2 Kings 18:4).
Further Tree and Branch/Shoot Imagery
The clearest description of the tree of life is found in the book of Proverbs, where a short poem describes Wisdom as the tree of life (3:13–18). The poem begins and ends with play on the word asherah, which would not have been appropriate had this not been legitimately linked to the tree of life. Asherah is very like the Hebrew word ʾašar, which means "happy/blessed/walking the straight path." 43 Thus the poem describes the happy person who finds wisdom: "How happy/blessed/on the straight path is the human who finds wisdom, the human who gets understanding." The word for "human," here and in Genesis, is Adam: "How blessed is Adam who finds wisdom." Wisdom is more precious than jewels; she gives long life, wealth, and honour, and her ways are the paths of pleasantness and peace.44 "She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; he who holds her is made happy/blessed/set on the straight path" (v. 18, my translation).
Isaiah described the Messiah as a shoot, hoter,45 from the stump of Jesse, and as a branch, nezer, from his roots (Isaiah 11:1). The stump here is the royal house, but the tree image persists. The Messiah and the Davidic king were both described in branch/shoot imagery.46 They were (and they held as a sign of their office) a branch from the tree. Ezekiel described the great mother vine, planted by water and full of branches. Her strongest stem was the ruler's sceptre. But she had been uprooted, stripped of her fruit, and left with no strong branch to be a ruler (Ezekiel 19:10–14). Isaiah foresaw a day when the branch, şemah, of Yahweh would be beautiful and glorious in Zion (Isaiah 4:2). Jeremiah prophesied of a righteous branch, şemah (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15). Zechariah looked for the branch, şemah, the Servant of the Lord who would build the temple (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12).47
Various words are used to describe the Branch, just as many trees combine to form the tree of life, suggesting an origin in a pre-written stage of the tradition. The Branch could also be neşer, as in Isaiah 11:1, and this may account for the otherwise inexplicable statement in Matthew's account of the Christmas story, in which Jesus is said to have fulfilled the prophecy "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matthew 2:23). We know of no such prophecy, but there is the prophecy that the Messiah would be called the neşer, sufficiently similar in sound to have been a wordplay on "Jesus from Nazareth." The Branch could also be described as the "stock," kanah, planted by the Lord's right hand (Psalm 80:15), a word not found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. It sounds very like qaneh, the word used to describe the branches of the menorah (e.g., Exodus 25:32) and also the Suffering Servant of the Lord. Qaneh literally means "reed" or "hollow stem" and so is appropriate for the branches of the lamp; it is usually translated "reed" in Isaiah 42:3, where the Servant is a bruised reed who will not be broken. Given the context—"a dimly burning wick"—the image in this poem is of the Servant as a broken branch of the great lamp. The lines can then be translated as "A bruised lamp branch, he will not be broken off; a spluttering wick, he will not be put out." 48 Here the Messiah figure is a branch of the lamp that represented the tree. Since the menorah was an almond tree, Aaron's high priestly rod that blossomed and bore almonds must have been another branch of the tree (Numbers 17:8). And Jeremiah saw an almond branch and knew that the Lord was watching (Jeremiah 1:11–12, NIV).49
Anointing Oil from the Tree of Life
The tree was fragrant, and the early Christians said that this fragrance had been replicated in the anointing oil. In the Clementine Recognitions, attributed to Clement, the bishop of Rome at the end of the first century, Peter teaches Clement about the oil:
Among the Jews, a King is called Christ. And the reason for the name is this: although He was the Son of God and the beginning of all things, He became man. God anointed him with oil taken from the wood of the tree of life, and from that anointing he is called the Christ. He Himself also, as appointed by His Father, anoints with similar oil every one of the pious when they come to His kingdom . . . so that their light may shine, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, they may be endowed with immortality.
In the present life, Aaron, the first high priest, was anointed with a blended oil which was made as a copy of the spiritual oil of which we have spoken. . . . If this temporal grace, blended by men, was so powerful, consider how potent was the oil extracted by God from a branch of the tree of life.50
We do not know the age of this belief, but it seems to be as old as the tradition about the tree. Anointing conferred the gifts of Wisdom, and the anointed one was Wisdom's "child." 51 The Branch from the roots of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1; compare Revelation 5:5; 22:16) was given the manifold Spirit of the Lord: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. This was the gift of Wisdom, given to the Branch from the tree. His delight/pleasure/breath 52 would be the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:3). The Hebrew word is reyah, "perfume." The anointed one gave forth the fragrance of the tree from which he had been anointed. Paul wrote of the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ that was spread by Christians who were themselves his fragrance. An enigmatic line follows that seems to refer to the two trees. Contrasting those who are being saved and those who are perishing, Paul says that the fragrance for those being saved is "a fragrance from life to life," a reference to the tree of life and its gift (2 Corinthians 2:14–16).
There was a Jewish tradition that the oil had been kept in the holy of holies 53 but had been hidden away in the time of Josiah.54 This would be consistent with the tree having disappeared from the temple in the time of Josiah, if the tree had been the source of the oil. The only biblical account of making a high priest in the postexilic period, the vesting of Joshua (Zechariah 3:1–10), does not mention that he was anointed. The anointing oil was perfumed with spices, predominantly myrrh (Exodus 30:22–33), and it was absolutely forbidden to use it outside the sanctuary. It was compared to dew (Psalm 133:2–3), and this comparison opens up the complex of theology associated with the oil.
We have seen that the perfume was intended to imitate the perfume of the tree and that the oil was "extracted" from the tree. It transformed the recipient into an angel, a son of God. This explains the presence of dew in the otherwise opaque text of Psalm 110:3. The human king became the divine son "in the glory of the holy ones," that is, in the holy of holies, among the angels; and the Greek text enables us to see what the impossible Hebrew once read: "I have begotten you"—and dew was part of the process. The human being became a Melchizedek priest. A text in 2 Enoch gives more detail. Enoch—a high priest figure—ascended and stood before the throne; that is, he was in the holy of holies. The archangel Michael was told to take Enoch from his earthly clothing, from his human body, and dress him in garments of the Lord's glory.55 Michael anointed him: "And the appearance of that oil is greater than the greatest light . . . like sweet dew, and its fragrance like myrrh; and its shining like the sun. And I gazed at all of myself, and I had become like one of the glorious ones, and there was no observable difference" (22:8–10).56 Enoch the high priest had been anointed and become an angel. He had received the gift of Wisdom, who was herself the oil, according to Ben Sira. He described her as "like cassia and camel's thorn . . . like choice myrrh I spread a pleasant odour" (Sirach 24:15). John wrote: "You have been anointed by the Holy One and you know everything" (1 John 2:20). Memories of the gift of Wisdom from the oil of the fragrant tree appear in a variety of early Christian texts.57
My eyes were enlightened and my face received the dew,
And my breath [or soul] was refreshed by the pleasant fragrance of the Lord.58
He anointed me with his perfection,
And I became one of those who are near him.59
[The oil] spreads its sweet fragrance into their mental reception. . . . The transcendent fragrance of the divine Jesus distributes its conceptual gifts over our own intellectual powers.60
The fruit of the fragrant tree was the intended food for Adam and Eve, made in the image of God. Decoding all this theological symbolism is a lengthy and complicated process, but what we uncover are extraordinary insights into the role of knowledge/Wisdom in the temple tradition that passed into Christianity.
Where is the Wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge that we have lost in information? 61
Margaret Barker read theology at Cambridge, England, specializing in Hebrew. Over many years of independent research, she has developed a new way of doing biblical theology, now known as "Temple Theology." She is a former president of the Society for Old Testament Study and has been for many years a member of the Ecumenical Patriarch's symposium "Religion, Science and the Environment." She was awarded the Lambeth Doctorate in Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury for her research in Temple Theology and is currently writing her fifteenth book. Material relevant to her paper in this volume can be found in The Revelation of Jesus Christ (2000), The Great High Priest (2003), and Temple Theology (2004).
1. Irenaeus wrote in the late second century CE.
2. Origen died in 253 CE.
3. Origen, On Numbers, homily 5.
4. There are problems translating the names of the precious stones. The Ethiopic text says the throne was alabaster, but the word looks like a transliteration of the Hebrew/Aramaic word for "antimony." See Daniel Olson, Enoch: A New Translation (North Richland Hills, TX: Bibal Press, 2004), 52.
5. See Olson, Enoch: A New Translation, 266–68; and Roger T. Beckwith, "The Earliest Enoch Literature and Its Calendar: Marks of Their Origin, Date and Motivation," Revue de Qumran 39 (February 1981): 395–96.
6. Olson, Enoch: A New Translation, 160, suggests wordplay on drwmʾ (south) and dʾr rbʾ (the Great One dwells). Robert Henry Charles, The Book of Enoch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912), 165, suggested that the wordplay was on yered ram (the Great One will descend).
7. The Hebrew 'eş means either a tree or a piece of wood, and one has to guess from the context which meaning is appropriate. Revelation 22:2 keeps the ambiguity by using xulon (which usually means "wood" but can mean "tree") rather than dendron, which means simply "tree."
8. Graham I. Davies, Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 1:8.017, 8.021; 81.
9. Jerusalem Talmud Taʿanit 4.5.
10. Olson, Enoch: A New Translation, 70.
11. See my book The Gate of Heaven: The History and Symbolism of the Temple in Jerusalem (London: SPCK, 1991), 57–103.
12. All scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
13. Translation in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 2:74. There is a similar line in Psalms of Solomon 14:3: "The Lord's Paradise, his trees of life, are his devout ones," in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:663.
14. Translation in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:114.
15. The Apocalypse of Moses is a Greek text that corresponds to a large degree to the Latin text The Life of Adam and Eve.
16. See Robert North, "Zechariah's Seven-Spout Lampstand," Biblica 51 (1970): 183–206. "All experts agree" that the earlier menorah was not like the lamp depicted on the Arch of Titus (p. 206).
17. Olson, Enoch: A New Translation, 84, suggests that Wisdom leaving the earth may be the Enochic version of Genesis 6:3, "My Spirit shall not abide with human beings for ever."
18. Babylonian Talmud Menaḥot 28b, ʿAboda Zarah 43a, Roš Haššanah 24ab.
19. See Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York: Pantheon Books, 1954), 4:88.
20. Compiled from earlier tradition about 200 CE.
21. Mishnah ʿAboda Zarah 2:7–9.
22. Suggested by Robert L. Wilken, The Land Called Holy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 211.
23. Late first century CE.
24. Mid-second century CE.
25. The Greek is xylon, literally "wood," but xylon appears in Revelation 22:2 with the meaning "tree," reflecting the ambiguity of the underlying Hebrew ʿeş, which can mean either "wood" or "tree."
26. The man is usually identified as Elijah, but there is no compelling reason to make this identification.
27. 1 Enoch 89:72–74 describes the return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple as a time of polluted and impure worship when the people and their leaders lost their sight.
28. This poem is not in the Qumran fragments at this point, so it must have been from another version of 1 Enoch.
29. Gerhard von Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, ed. E. W. Trueman Dicken (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1966), 1–78.
30. Identified by Charles, Book of Enoch, p. xlvii, as 1 Enoch 6–11; 54–55:2; 60; 65–69:25; 106–7.
31. The original heavenly being of the Ezekiel account seems to be feminine, hence my attempt not to use masculine or feminine pronouns.
32. Tyre is şwr, and Zion is şywn, and Hebrew r and n are similar forms.
33. The "princes of the sanctuary" appear in the Qumran Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. Consider, for example, "The sovereign princes . . . the seven priest[***] in the wonderful sanctuary" (4Q403 1.II) and "The princes of those marvellously clothed for service, the princes of the Kingdom . . . in all the heights of the sanctuaries of His glorious kingdom" (4Q405 23.II).
34. E. Isaac, 1 Enoch, in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:16.
35. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, trans. James M. Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
36. See my article "Hezekiah's Boil," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 95 (September 2001): 31–42.
37. Usually translated "I am lost," but the Hebrew verbs dmh, "be destroyed," and dmm, "be silent," are identical in some forms. Symmachus the Ebionite, that is, a Jewish Christian, read it as esiopēsa, "kept silent," as did the Vulgate, tacui.
38. His call vision, for example, is set in the temple (Isaiah 6). Even though he may not have been physically in the temple, he was familiar with the interior where only the priests could go.
39. Olson, Enoch: A New Translation, 221.
40. In the Book of Zerubbabel, a Jewish apocalypse from the sixth or seventh century CE, Hephzibah is obviously the Jewish counterpart to the Byzantine Mary, the Mother of God. This was suggested by Martha Himmelfarb in Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature, ed. David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990), 69.
41. Targum, "when their leaves fall"; Symmachus, "when the leaves have been shed"; Vulgate, "which spread out their branches."
42. Late second century CE.
43. Isaiah 9:16 is an example of ʾašar meaning "set on the straight path": "the leaders . . . they that are led."
44. The Greek adds that righteousness comes from her mouth, that she carries the law and mercy on her tongue.
45. The word hoter in Phoenician means "sceptre." See Geo Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion (Uppsala, Sweden: Lundequistska bokhandeln, 1951), 50.
46. The imagery later applied to the Messiah derived from the original royal cult. Memories of the anointed king became prophecies of the future Messiah.
47. Similar imagery appears in the Damascus Document I.7 and in the Testament of Judah 24:4.
48. For detail see my book The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1987; Sheffield, England: Phoenix, 2005), 229.
49. There is more to this image than just the prophetic wordplay on šaqed, "almond," and šoqed, "watching."
50. Clementine Recognitions 1.45, 46, as found in F. Stanley Jones, An Ancient Jewish Christian Source on the History of Christianity: Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, 1.27–71 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995), 75–78.
51. Compare Luke 7:35, the children of Wisdom.
52. Revised Standard Version, Good News Bible, and Jerusalem Bible, respectively. The New English Bible omits the word and explains it as an insertion.
53. Tosefta Kippurim 2:15.
54. Babylonian Talmud Horayot 12a.
55. This was the purpose of the high priest's vestments. They were for beauty and glory (Exodus 28:2).
56. Translation in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:139. In Proverbs 1:23, Wisdom says, "I will pour out my Spirit on you," translating literally.
57. See my book The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 129–36.
58. Odes of Solomon 11:14–15; in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:745.
59. Odes of Solomon 36:6; in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:766.
60. Dionysius, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 476b, 477c; in Colm Luibheid, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987).
61. T. S. Eliot, chorus 1 from The Rock, in T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909–1935 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936), 179.