For millennia, the tree of life has been one of the most used symbols by religious writers, artists, and architects worldwide. With its soil, roots, trunk, branches, leaves, fruit, and seeds, the tree of life motif is rich in allegorical potential, making it easily adaptable for religious meanings in virtually all religious traditions, and Christianity is certainly no exception. The tree of life is prominent in the texts and art of ancient, medieval, and modern Christianity, where it is used to communicate metaphorically the life, messages, and atonement of Jesus Christ. Although the book of Revelation contains the only explicit New Testament references to the tree of life, other New Testament passages richly echo tree of life motifs. As early as the second century, Christian authors became more explicit in their use of the tree of life as a Christian metaphor—a use that has continued into modern times.
Three areas of study reveal the use of the tree of life as a metaphor in early Christian textual and artistic traditions: the New Testament, patristic writings, and early and medieval Christian works of art. In each of these fields, the vitality and importance of the tree of life in Christianity becomes increasingly evident, as this motif has been used to represent six important themes: (1) salvation and eternal life, (2) Christ himself, (3) personified wisdom, (4) the cross of Calvary, (5) Christian peoples, and (6) the cosmic world tree. These themes are rarely used in discrete, single-meaning ways but instead overlap and interrelate, especially in medieval art, which typically imbued its subjects with multiple levels of meaning.
Several excellent studies discuss the tree of life in the ancient Near East and examine its connection to Judaism and ancient Christianity.1 Regarding the meaning of the tree of life in Christianity, Stephen Jerome Reno's book, The Sacred Tree as an Early Christian Literary Symbol: A Phenomenological Approach, is the most comprehensive and in many ways the best treatment of this subject, even though it was not produced by a main academic press.2 Reno studied the corpus of patristic texts and distilled major, recurring themes of the sacred tree in early Christian writings along the lines of several of the categories listed above. This chapter expands upon Reno's framework particularly by tracing back into the New Testament the genealogy of tree of life motifs used by the church fathers and by sampling the way medieval artists have represented these concepts.
Symbol of Salvation and Eternal Life
The tree of life in the Garden of Eden possessed the regenerative power to allow Adam and Eve to live forever (Genesis 3:22).3 Drawing on this imagery, Christians readily saw in the resurrection of Jesus Christ the culmination of this same saving and immortalizing power. Thus, the symbolism of the tree fit snugly together with the gospel message of the earliest Christian writers, not as a later addition to Christian iconography but from the times of the New Testament.
The best-known Christian use of the tree of life is in the book of Revelation, where, as noted earlier, the only two explicit New Testament references to this tree are found. In Revelation 2, John crowns his message to the church at Ephesus with a promise similar to formulas found in royal victory decrees: "To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree (xylou) of life that is in the paradise of God" (v. 7, my translation)—a tree that he actually sees later in vision.4 Near the end of the book of Revelation, John saw the return and reestablishment of Eden and the heavenly Jerusalem, next to which ran a "river of living water, bright as crystal, flowing out of the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life having twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (22:1–2, my translation).5 This passage contains striking parallels to the vision in Ezekiel 47, in which Ezekiel also saw a river, a tree on both banks, monthly fruit, and leaves for healing (v. 12), in connection with his vision of restoration of the house of the Lord, the healing of the Dead Sea (47:8), and the ultimate presence of the Lord (48:35).6 In his concluding benediction at the end of the book of Revelation, John writes, "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that it will be authorized for them to come to the tree of life and to enter the city through the gates" (22:14, my translation). Then he warns that alteration of his text will lead God to "take away" that person's "share from the tree of life" (v. 19, my translation).
To John the Revelator, then, the tree of life was of central importance to his vision and the vision's Christology, soteriology, and martyrology. The fruit of the tree was available to all Christian disciples who conquered evil, which at the time meant particularly such things as enduring persecution (Revelation 2:10; 6:9),7 avoiding sexual sin (2:14), refusing to worship Roman deities (v. 14), and shunning heretics among the Christian ranks such as the Nicolaitans, Balaam, and the prophetess Jezebel (vv. 6, 14, 20).
The Greek wording for the phrase "the tree of life" in these New Testament passages, ho xylon tēs zōēs, merits attention, for it shows that the author clearly had Genesis 3:25 in mind here.8 The Greek translation of Genesis in the Septuagint speaks of "a fiery sword to guard the way (tēn hodon) of the tree of life (tou xylou tēs zōēs)." The word xylon is especially evocative and indicative, being a fairly rare word in the New Testament. It is used about eighteen times and connotes "wood" or "timber," more distinctive than the more generic word for "tree" (dendron). Indeed, whenever xylon appeared in the Septuagint, it was an open invitation for early Christian writers to think of both the tree of life and the cross of Jesus.
For example, when the children of Israel came upon the bitter waters of Marah, "the Lord shewed [Moses] a tree (xylon), which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet," whereupon the Lord promised to heal the people from the diseases that had been brought upon the Egyptians (Exodus 15:23–26). The intertestamental Jewish/Christian text known as the Biblical Antiquities (most likely written as early as the time of Jesus) goes on to state that the tree that Moses used was "the tree of life, from which he cut off and took and threw into Marah, and the water became sweet" (Pseudo-Philo 11:15). This is consonant with Peter's and Paul's uses of the word xylon in making explicit reference to the cross of Christ (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).
For centuries, Christian liturgy and art have linked the fruit of the tree of life with the mysteries and ritual ordinances associated with salvation and eternal life. The eucharistic sacrament of partaking of the blood and body of Christ is itself a metaphor—a literal one in some traditions—of partaking of the fruit of Jesus's passion. Strong precedents linking salvation with the eating of the "daily" or living bread (epousion arton) and seeing this bread as Jesus himself reach again into the New Testament (Matthew 26:26; John 6:32–35). This was more than enough invitation for some early Christians to see in the tree of life a powerful symbol of salvation and eternal life. In his commentary on the Syriac Jacobite Liturgy, Mesopotamian bishop Moses Bar-Kepha (ca. 813–903) related various interpretations of the liturgical altar, including the following: "Saint Dionysius says that the altar signifies Emmanuel himself, who is the tree of life." In commenting on the same liturgy, George of the Arabs about that same time wrote, "The bread and wine which are upon it [signify] the body of God the Word, wherein was blood also, and they are the fruits of the tree of life." 9 And speaking of the "daily bread" (epousion arton) in the Lord's Prayer, Origen taught, "This daily bread appears to me to have been called by another name in Scripture, namely, 'tree of life', upon which 'whoever puts forth his hand and takes of it shall live forever.' " 10
Jesus as the Tree of Life
More than thinking of the tree of life as eternal life itself, early Christians identified Jesus as that tree. This identification begins with a poignant saying of Jesus on his fateful way to Golgotha. Along the way to the Place of the Skull, Jesus was followed by a large group of mourners, largely women according to Luke. During the painstaking procession, Jesus told those mourners: "If they inflict these things upon a green, moist, living tree (hygrōi xylōi), what will be the case with a dry one (xērōi)?" (Luke 23:31, my translation). It would appear that Jesus's statement here echoes the vision of the last days in Ezekiel 17:24 LXX because of the unusually similar combination of words in these two texts. This verse in Ezekiel reads prophetically: "I have dried up the green tree (xylon chlōron), and have made the dry tree (xylon xēron) to flourish," referring to Babylon as the formerly verdant valley tree and to Israel as the formerly dry mountain tree. With his statement, Jesus refers to himself as a living xylon. In doing so, he seems to be saying, "My accusers acted so quickly, they moved before I, the living wood, was even dry." His quip holds out a prophetic warning to all Jerusalem: "If these chief priests are so eager to burn green wood, what are they likely to do to the 'dry wood' [meaning all the people planted in the mountain of the Lord]? At least God will wait in righteousness and mercy until after the harvest and after the wood has had time to dry; but when he comes, the tinder will be dry and it will burn as stubble."
On another occasion, Jesus referred to himself in terms of two other salient features clearly associated with the tree of life in the book of Genesis—"the way" and "the life." During the last supper, Thomas asked Jesus how the apostles could find the way to Jesus's Father's house, to which Jesus responded, "I am the way (hē hodos), the truth, and the life (hē zōē)" (John 14:6). These terms have their corollaries in the garden narratives of Genesis 2–3 (see especially 3:22–23). One can see protological allusions to the Garden of Eden as well as the eschatological goal of eating the fruit of the tree of life in Jesus's tripartite self-identification: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Inasmuch as the tree was a physical manifestation of the powers of life, so the tree of life symbolized the incarnation of the Son of God in the flesh.
Continuing this understanding of the tree of life motif in the New Testament, New Testament apocryphal and other early Christian writings also interpreted the person of Christ as the allegorical and typological motif of the tree of life. Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine all saw Christ in this way.11 The Acts of Peter has Peter crying out during his own execution, "Now whereas thou hast made known and revealed these things unto me, O word of life, called now by me wood (or, word called now by me the tree of life)." 12 And in the fourth-century writings of Ephrem the Syrian, we read, "Our Savior typified his body in the tree, the one from which Adam did not taste because he sinned." Another Ephrem text reads, "The tree of life which was hidden in paradise grew up in Marjam [Mary] and sprang forth from her, and in its shade creation hath repose, and it spreadeth its fruits over those far and near. Extremely mournful was the tree of life when he saw concerning Adam that he was hidden from him. In the virgin earth he plunged and was hidden, and he arose and shone forth from Golgotha." 13
This last description of Christ, which sees him as growing as a literal tree of life inside the womb of the Virgin Mary, was also used by Christian artists of the fourteenth century, most famously by the Italian painter Simone dei Crocefissi. He painted at least two works depicting the Dream of the Virgin (a popular medieval legend about the Virgin's prophetic dream of Christ's passion and death), wherein a tree of life cross grows out of the Virgin's midsection. In the version owned by the National Gallery in London (see fig. 10), the cross has been morphed into a resplendent golden tree with broad leaves. A hand reaches from below the tree into limbo to rescue Adam and Eve—symbols of all humanity—from the bondage of death. Christ is, therefore, crucified on a golden tree of life, instantaneously reversing the fall of Adam and Eve through his passion and resurrection.
In the Dream of the Virgin owned by the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Italy (see fig. 11), a nested pelican sits atop the tree of life along with other birds as well as angels. The birds in this and other images of the cross as the tree of life are reminiscent of passages in Ezekiel 17:22–23, Daniel 4:10–12, and Matthew 13:31–32. For example, in the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew writes, "When it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and take shelter in its branches" (13:32, my translation). The pelican is especially important; it was commonly used as a symbol of Christ because legend taught that pelicans pierced their breasts to feed their young with their own blood. Also, some translations of Psalm 102:6 read, "I am like a pelican in the wilderness." 14
The Tree of Life as Wisdom and the Logos
Christians in the first few centuries after Christ interpreted the life and ministry of Jesus through Jewish Wisdom literature as well as through the Torah and the Prophets,15 and the connection between Wisdom and the tree of life opened up another avenue for Christian symbolism, beginning once again on the pages of the New Testament. The preface to the Gospel of John—likely an early christological hymn—contains one of the most famous of these connections: "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God" (John 1:1). Thus, Christ is the preexistent source of true wisdom.16 As Ben Witherington III writes, "It is the use of the Genesis material in the hymnic material about Wisdom both in the Old Testament and in later Jewish sapiential writings that provides the font of ideas and forms used in creating this hymn." 17 Because of connections like these, some scholars also see wisdom personified as "the way" in Jesus's declaration that he is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).18
This association of the tree of life with the Word, wisdom, or knowledge became more explicit as Christian literary traditions developed throughout the Mediterranean region. Asterius, for example, wrote (probably in Palestine between AD 385 and 410) 19 in the Commentary on the Psalms, "The Word is the tree planted by the water's edge which the Father has begotten without intermediary, laden with fruit, flourishing, tall, fair-branched. . . . It was of this tree that Adam refused the fruit and fell victim to its opposite. Christ is the tree of life, the devil the tree of death." 20 Along the same lines, Hippolytus of Rome (ca. AD 170–236) wrote, "In this Paradise were found the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. In the same way today, there are two trees planted in the Church, the Law [the tree of knowledge] and the Word [the tree of life]." 21
Christ as a personification of wisdom may also be found, although indirectly, in other New Testament passages, including Matthew 11:19 and Luke 11:49. This seems only natural since the Old Testament and popular Jewish writings in the first century often personified the idea of wisdom. The description of personified wisdom in Proverbs and in the "The Praise of Wisdom" in chapter 24 of Sirach are some of the best examples of personified wisdom in Second Temple Judaism.22
Most directly related to a discussion of the tree of life is Proverbs 3:18: "[Wisdom] is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her." The book of Proverbs continues: "The Lord by wisdom hath founded the earth" (v. 19). Wisdom was created "in the beginning of his way" (8:22). Wisdom says, "Blessed are they that keep my ways . . . , watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life" (vv. 32–35). And Proverbs 11:30 reads, "The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life."
The Wisdom writings of Ben Sira are likewise rich in tree of life imagery. He wrote that Wisdom "dwelt in high places, and [her] throne is in a cloudy pillar" (Sirach 24:4). The chapter goes on to say that Wisdom is found praising herself as a tree that took up residence in "the beloved city" of Jerusalem:
And I took root in an honourable people, even in the portion of the Lord's inheritance. I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus, and as a cypress tree upon the mountains of Hermon. I was exalted like a palm tree in En-gaddi, and as a rose plant in Jericho, as a fair olive tree in a pleasant field, and grew up as a lane tree by the water. I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon and aspalathus, and I yielded a pleasant odour like the best myrrh, as galbanum, and onyx, and sweet storax, and as the fume of frankincense in the tabernacle. As the turpentine tree I stretched out my branches, and my branches are the branches of honour and grace. As the vine brought I forth pleasant savour, and my flowers are the fruit of honour and riches. I am the mother of fair love, and fear, and knowledge, and holy hope: I therefore, being eternal, am given to all my children which are named of him. Come unto me, all ye that be desirous of me, and fill yourselves with my fruits. For my memorial is sweeter than honey, and mine inheritance than the honeycomb. They that eat me shall yet be hungry, and they that drink me shall yet be thirsty. He that obeyeth me shall never be confounded, and they that work by me shall not do amiss. (Sirach 24:12–22)
Early Christian authors inherited and incorporated a rich fabric of multilayered interpretative traditions and metaphors. Christ was the Son of God, he was the Messiah, and he was the Great High Priest. He was the embodiment of wisdom and also the tree of life. For example, as early as the second century, Clement of Alexandria wrote in his Stromata: "Now Moses, describing allegorically the divine prudence, called it a tree of life planted in Paradise, which Paradise may be the world in which all things proceeding from creation grow. In it also the Word [Christ] blossomed and bore fruit, being 'made flesh', and gave it to those 'who had tasted of His graciousness'; since it was not without the wood of the tree that He came to our knowledge." 23
In the Symposium of the Ten Virgins, by Methodius, a ninth-century Byzantine archbishop of Moravia, the tree of life is the firstborn of all wisdom. As Christ is the Firstborn, he is also the tree of life. " 'She [Wisdom] is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her', says the prophet [in Proverbs], 'and she is a secure help to them that rest on her as on the Lord'. The 'tree which is planted near the running waters which brings forth its fruit in due season', is none other than instructions and charity and understanding, such as is given in 'due season' to those who come to the waters of Redemption. He who does not believe in Christ and does not perceive that he is the first principle, the tree of life, and is unable to show to God his tabernacle adorned with the loveliest of fruit, how will he be able to rejoice?" 24
The Cross of Calvary as the Tree of Life
As is commonly affirmed in Christian theology, acceptance of Christ's crucifixion makes it possible to partake of the tree of life. Retrieving Deuteronomy 21:23—"you shall hang him (kremasēte auton) upon a tree (epi xylou), but do not leave his body upon the tree (epi tou xylou) over night" (LXX, my translation)—Stephen, Peter, Paul, and Luke saw "the tree" (xylon) as the cross. The following New Testament passages connect Deuteronomy 21:23 with the cross of Calvary.
• Cursed is everyone who is hung upon a xylon (Galatians 3:13)
• Bear our sins in his own body on the xylon (1 Peter 2:24)
• Whom ye slew and crucified upon a xylon (Acts 5:30; 10:39)
• Took him down from the xylon (Acts 13:29)
The further connection between the wooden (xylon) cross and the tree (xylon) of life was perhaps linguistically irresistible but also theologically compelling. The cross itself was soon interpreted and represented as the tree of life in Christian texts and art. Because the cross was made from a tree, this relationship was easy to correlate and depict. The cross, made of wood, lifted Jesus up so that "whosoever believeth in him should not perish [through the effects of the tree of death or of knowledge of good and evil], but have eternal life [through the tree of eternal life]" (John 3:15). Justin Martyr, Origen, Ambrose, Leo the Great, John of Damascus, and many others elevated the cross from pieces of hewn wood to an effulgent tree of life. A few examples will suffice.
The repeated use of the word xylon and the popularity of this way of describing the cross upon which Jesus hung gave readers a specific open invitation to connect the cross not just with execution and death but with the xylon tēs zōēs, the tree of life. In the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr writes, "Now gentlemen, I want you to understand how he whom the Scriptures announce as about to return in glory after the crucifixion was symbolized . . . by the tree of life." 25 The symbol is added to in the New Testament apocryphal work Acts of Andrew, in which this tree connects the earth below with heaven above. The following is an excerpt from Andrew's martyrdom speech:
O cross, . . . thou art planted in the world to establish the things that are unstable: and the one part of thee stretcheth up toward heaven that thou mayest signify the heavenly word . . . : and another part of thee is spread out to the right hand and the left that it may put to flight the envious and adverse power of the evil one, and gather into one the things that are scattered abroad . . . : and another part of thee is planted in the earth, and securely set in the depth, that thou mayest join the things that are in the earth and that are under the earth unto the heavenly things. . . . O cross, planted upon the earth and having thy fruit in the heavens! 26
Through the visual representation of the cross as the tree of life, artists also created works with multiple levels of metaphorical meaning. The apse mosaic of San Clemente in Rome is one of these works (see fig. 12). The dark-colored wood cross is set in the midst of the Garden of Paradise. It grows out of a large acanthus plant, from which flow the four rivers of paradise. Stags, sheep, birds, and other animals come to drink from the life-giving waters that originate in the four rivers under this "cross-tree." Birds are nested all over the crossbar of the cross, which now has grown into branches, making this entire image reminiscent of Ezekiel 17:23: "In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit . . . : and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell." In this magnificent portrayal, the Calvary of death has become the Eden of life, and the tree of Christ's cross has become an axis mundi planted in the navel of the earth.27
Another impressive artwork is a fourteenth-century painting by Pacino da Bonaguido entitled Tree of Life (see fig. 13). In this image, Christ hangs on an elaborate tree with six leafy branches radiating from each side in parallel fashion. Medallions with miniature scenes (Pacino being one of the founders of Miniaturism) depict events from the life of Christ. The four evangelists are at the bottom of the work recording what they see on the tree. And the narrative of Adam and Eve is depicted underneath the tree, again placing the tree in Eden. The hosts of heaven preside over the scene atop the painting with the Virgin and the Son enthroned.28 Images as multilayered and meaning-laden as this one possess not just narrative illustration but what Jaime Lara, professor of Christian art and architecture, has spoken of as "visual Christology." The work is theological, protological, eschatological, and anagogical at the same time. The tree of death has become a tree of life, and because the events of Christ's life are connected to the branches of the tree of life, his life's narrative as recorded by the evangelists at the bottom of the page has become a wellspring of life, not just his person. Christ's ministry is the fruit of the tree of life. His death reversed the fall of Adam, thus once again making immortality possible. And as the cross of Calvary is placed atop the Cave of Adam and the Garden Tomb, it supplants the old with the new and that in a golden heaven. Out of two tragedies comes new life—the fall and the crucifixion have, in Pacino's work, become the soil from which the multivalent tree of life springs.
Christian Disciples as Trees of Life
Not only Christ but every true Christian can lay claim to being a tree of life. The tradition of seeing the righteous as trees of life has its roots deep in Israelite soil. Psalm 1:3 promises the blessed obedient, "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither." Psalm 92:12–14 reads, "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing." Isaiah 61:3 promises, "They might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified." And Jeremiah 11:16 reads, "The Lord called thy name, A green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken." 29
Following this and other imagery, early Christians saw the faithful and the blessed not only as partakers of the fruit of the tree of life but also as trees of life themselves, who in turn become continual bearers of the fruits of Christ. In this vein, Matthew 7:17 speaks of individuals as trees. Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, after mentioning two now-familiar companions of the tree of life, namely the apagousa hodos (the narrow way) that leads unto life (eis tēn zōēn), Jesus turns directly to tree imagery: "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit" (Matthew 7:16–17). Man having partaken of the tree of knowledge, his life becomes a quest to find the way back and righteously partake of the fruit of the tree of life and live forever. Echoes of the tree of life and of temple and eschatological imagery are discernible in those words of Jesus:
These good trees are trees of life. One only lives forever by partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life (see Genesis 3:22). Accordingly, the tree is an important feature in the landscape of all temple literature. It is, therefore, natural and logical that Jesus' thoughts should turn to the imagery of the Tree of Life immediately after he has described the path "which leadeth unto life" (3 Nephi 14:14). . . .
. . . Jesus equates individual people with the Tree, for by partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life, or by planting the seed of life in oneself, each disciple grows up into a tree of life, as the Prophet Alma describes (see Alma 32:41–42). Each good tree of life has a place in God's paradise, growing up unto eternal life and yielding much fruit—powerful imagery also present in the Old Testament Psalms (see Psalm 1:1–3) and in the earliest Christian hymns. "Blessed, O Lord, are they who are planted in Thy land, and who have a place in Thy Paradise; and who grow in the growth of Thy trees" (Odes of Solomon 11:18–24). In other allegories, there is only one tree, Jesus being the root and righteous people becoming the branches (see John 15:1–5; Jacob 5).30
Although not as explicit as they will become in later Christian writings, the metaphors of seeds, herbs, and trees are used throughout the Gospels and in the writings of Paul. For example, consider the parable of the mustard seed. Should it not be seen as a tree of life parable? The small seed, "when it is grown, . . . is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof" (Matthew 13:32). This is certainly reminiscent of the cosmic tree that is home to birds of the heaven in Ezekiel 17:23.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes about bodies, like seeds, being planted in corruption but rising in incorruption and how one cannot tell by looking at a seed what the resultant plant will look like: "What is sown is perishable (phthorai), what is raised is imperishable" (15:42, my translation; see vv. 38–44). One might ask, is Paul drawing on the image of the seeds from the tree of life planted in God's Garden of Paradise that will grow up in us, or as us, as heirs of eternal life and glory? Either way, the metaphor of people being sown and growing is reminiscent of other treelike parables and tree of life motifs in general.
In the allegory of the olive tree in Romans 11, Paul discusses the grafting of Gentiles into Israel and draws on a tradition that saw the tree of life as an olive tree—a tree that produces the oils of mercy and anointing and of the Holy Spirit. As part of that olive tree, people become connected to the only root that can make them capable of bearing good rather than bitter fruit.
In explaining baptism as a similitude of death, Paul tells the Christians in Rome that through baptism they are "buried with [Christ] by baptism" (Romans 6:4). He goes on to say, "For if we have been planted together in the likeness [homoiōmati] of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection" (v. 5). And through the rejection of sin, which leads to death, the Christian reconciled to God will be made "alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (v. 11).
In the earliest known collection of Christian hymns, the Odes of Solomon, Syriac Christians sang: "Blessed, O Lord, are they who are planted in Thy land, and who have a place in Thy Paradise; and who grow in the growth of Thy trees." 31 In the Epistle to Diognetus, we read, "Those who love [God] rightly . . . become a paradise of delight, a flourishing tree, rich in every fruit, growing up in them, and adorned with various fruits." 32 And in his Commentary on the Psalms, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote that the righteous "may be likened to a tree whose roots are situated near the waters from which streams he is completely watered by spiritual things." 33 Cyprian of Carthage was more specific about the waters: these people would be nourished "with four rivers, . . . with the four gospels." 34
Optatus of Milevis, a fourth-century bishop in North Africa, also expounded on people as trees of life in De Schismate Donatistorum. He writes, "The Church is a paradise, in which garden God sets out small trees. . . . Certainly the plantings of God are different seeds by virtue of different precepts. The just, the continent, the merciful and the virginal, are spiritual seeds: from such as these God plants small trees in paradise. Grant to God that his garden is long, broad and extensive." 35 Hippolytus of Rome described a "new garden of delights, planted towards the East"—a new Eden—in which "may be seen every sort of tree, the line of patriarchs . . . and prophets . . . the choir of apostles . . . the procession of virgins . . . the order of bishops, priests, and levites." And similar to Cyprian's statement that the Gospels water the trees, Christ himself is the river that waters "God's spiritual garden" in Hippolytus's new Eden.36
The medieval Parisian Book of Hours illustrated by the Rohan Master depicts this idea (see fig. 14, also pl. 3). God is a bearded man with the moon behind his head doubling as a halo. Barefooted in a garden, he is planting a tree a couple feet taller than he. Instead of branches growing from the six stumps on the side, six people are growing out of the trunk of the tree. Only their heads are showing, revealing the people's infancy in the garden of life.37
The Tree of Life as the Cosmic Tree of the World
Finally, the tree of life stands at the center of the universe, and so it was understood that Jesus came and stood at the meridian of all things. The Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis paves the way for this understanding when it says that God made the tree of life grow "in the midst of the garden" (Genesis 2:9). The word midst should be understood as meaning "middle" or "center." Although the narrative is clear that the garden was planted in the east of Eden, Christians saw the Garden of Eden as the center of the world; and because some interpreted Golgotha as the center (Cyril of Jerusalem writes, "Golgotha is the very center of the earth"), the two locations were syncretized.38 Early and medieval Christians, therefore, came to see Jesus, the cross, and Jerusalem as the axis of the universe (axis mundi).
The cosmic world tree was seen by ancient artists as the embodiment of the source and regulator of life; as the giver of living water and immortality; and as the personification of the Creator and the dying and rising deity, victor over death and eschatological hope, who came at the midpoint (the meridian) of all time and eternity. New Testament references readily come to mind, proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the divine, firstborn Son of God in each of these cosmic, representational tree of life senses.
Early Christian authors also cast the tree of Christ's cross, the events of the passion, and the connection with the Garden of Eden as central to the cosmos. The Syriac Book of the Cave of Treasures, for example, says, "That Tree of Life which was in the midst of Paradise prefigured the Redeeming Cross which is the middle of the earth . . . (After Adam's death, his son Shem took his body) and . . . when they arrived at Golgotha, which is the center of the earth, . . . and when Shem had deposited the body of our father Adam upon that place, the four quarters of the earth separated themselves from each other, and the earth opened in the shape of a cross, and . . . the four quarters drew quickly together, . . . and that place was called the Place of the Skull." 39
The apse mosaic in San Giovanni Laterano in Rome depicts the cross as tree of life and cosmic tree in the center of the world (see fig. 15, also pl. 2). The cross is golden, jeweled, and set against a field of intertwining vines. It is set in the Garden of Eden, from which flow the named four rivers of Paradise (Genesis 2:10). In the garden, a cherub is seen guarding the walled Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve inside. With heaven above and the spirit of God descending, the cross links the world to the waters below. The elements of imagery are further brought together as the mosaic labels the river that runs in front of the cross as the River Jordan. Mary and John the Baptist face the cosmic cross. This world cross is more than the tree of life, for the tree of life is here below, with the archangel guarding the entrance and the way to the tree of life behind the walls of the garden. The cross has become a cosmic tree.
As E. O. James has written, "In the third century A.D. the Tree of Life was described poetically as growing to an immense height, its branches stretching out to encircle the whole world from its centre on Calvary, with a bubbling spring at its foot. Thither all nations would resort to drink its sacred water and ascend to heaven by way of the branches of the tree." 40 The Shepherd of Hermas bears out this point. In its eighth similitude, this text describes a large willow tree, "and under the shade of the willow all those called in the name of the Lord had come." The author goes on to interpret the metaphor, saying that the willow is seen as a cosmic tree that spreads over the whole world, "symbolizing," according to E. O. James, "the Son of God." 41
In a third-century Easter sermon, Hippolytus described the cosmic tree: "This tree, wide as the heavens itself, has grown up into heaven from the earth. It is an immortal growth and towers twixt heaven and earth. It is the fulcrum of all things and the place where they are at rest. It is the foundation of the round world, the centre of the cosmos. In it all the diversities in our human nature are formed into a unity. It is held together by invisible nails of the Spirit so that it may not break loose from the divine. It touches the highest summits of heaven and makes the earth firm beneath its foot, and it grasps the middle regions between them with immeasurable arms." 42
The image of the tree of
life is a powerful, beautiful, multifaceted, and pervasive Christian symbol.
This imagery is not merely decorative or tangential to later Christian
traditions; it is part of the fabric of the Christian message from the time of
the New Testament apostles. The tree of life assumed many forms, representing
various stages of life in the unfolding of God's plan of salvation. This study
has explored six ways in which the motif of the tree of life has been used in
Christianity: to represent salvation and eternal life, Christ himself,
personified wisdom, the cross of Calvary, Christian peoples, and the cosmic
tree of the world. In
these ways, the tree has represented both God and man,
life and death, heaven and earth, the single individual and the totality of the
cosmos. This complexity is appropriate, for it instantiates the manifold
abundance of the fulness of the Christian message of bringing to pass the
immortality and eternal life of mankind and the renewal of this earth to its
John W. Welch is the Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, where he teaches various courses, including Perspectives on Jewish, Greek, and Roman Law in the New Testament. Since 1991 he has also served as the editor in chief of BYU Studies. He studied history and classical languages at Brigham Young University (BA, MA 1970); Greek philosophy at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford (1970–72); and law at Duke University (JD 1975). As founder of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, one of the editors for Macmillan's Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and codirector of the Masada and Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at BYU, he has published widely on biblical, early Christian, and Latter-day Saint topics.
1. E. O. James, The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study (Leiden: Brill, 1966); Benedikt Otzen, "The Paradise Trees in Jewish Apocalyptic," in Apocryphon Severini: Studies in Ancient Manichaeism and Gnosticism Presented to Soren Giversen, ed. Per Bilde et al. (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1993), 140–54; Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vols. 7–8, Pagan Symbols in Judaism (New York: Pantheon, 1953); Robert Starke, "The Tree of Life: Protological to Eschatological," Kerux 11/2 (September 1996): 15–31; Daniel K. K. Wong, "The Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7," Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (April–June 1998): 211–26; Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, "The Tree of Life and the Tree of Death: A Study of Gnostic Symbols," Religion 17 (1987): 337–53; Roger Cook, The Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos (London: Avon, 1974); Robert Masson, ed., The Pedagogy of God's Image: Essays on Symbol and the Religious Imagination (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981); Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990); Simo Parpola, "The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52 (July 1993): 161–208.
2. Stephen Jerome Reno, The Sacred Tree as an Early Christian Literary Symbol: A Phenomenological Study (Saarbrücken, Germany: Homo et Religio, 1978). This work appears in a little-known series on anthropology and religious research.
3. Scriptural citations are to the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise specified.
4. Although the reference to Genesis 2:9 and 3:22 is clear, some scholars see another possible contemporary connection to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which was built on a primitive tree shrine. See Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 783; Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (New York: Oxford, 1990), 202; and Wong, "Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7," 215.
5. Saint Bonaventure wrote that each leaf corresponds to "one of the mysteries of Jesus' origin, passion, and glorification" and that the river of water originated in Christ's pierced side, making the water efficacious through the incorporation of Christ's blood. John Borelli, "The Tree of Life in Hindu and Christian Theology," in Masson, Pedagogy of God's Image, 185–87.
6. Wong, "Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7," 212.
7. Although John warns his readers of a specific persecution—"Do not fear what you are about to suffer" (Revelation 2:10, my translation)—no extant data from Asia Minor reveals what his concern was. As Leonard Thompson writes, "It is conceivable that the Book of Revelation was written in response to an otherwise unknown crisis in Asian Christianity, in which Christians were being—or about to be—persecuted in large numbers, but such a crisis does not fit with our other sources for this period." Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (New York: Oxford, 1990), 172. Although some of the references to the martyrs could be to past events, Adela Collins has called the situation "a perceived crisis." See Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 84–110.
8. Wong, "Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7," 222–23.
9. R. H. Connolly and H. W. Codrington, trans. and eds., Two Commentaries on the Jacobite Liturgy (Farnborough, England: Gregg International, 1913), 34, 17.
10. Origen, De Oratione 27.10, in Die griechische christliche Schriftsteller der ersten, 3:359; also J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 11:513, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 108.
11. Otzen, "The Paradise Trees in Jewish Apocalyptic," 140.
12. Acts of Peter 39, cited in Montague R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), 335.
13. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 120. Bracketed interpolation per Goodenough. For more on the tree in the writings of Ephrem, see Tryggve Kronholm, "The Trees of Paradise in the Hymns of Ephraem Syrus," in Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute (Leiden: Brill, 1978): 11:48–56.
14. George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford, 1959), 9.
15. For a survey of Wisdom literature in Israel, see Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).
16. For a discussion of Wisdom Christology in John 1, see Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 282–94; and Sharon H. Ringe, Wisdom's Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 46–53. Also see Wisdom excerpts in Sirach 24:21 and Wisdom of Solomon 9.
17. Witherington, Jesus the Sage, 284.
18. See, for example, John Ashton, "Riddles and Mysteries: The Way, the Truth, and the Life," in Jesus in Johannine Tradition, ed. Robert T. Fortna and Tom Thatcher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001).
19. See Wolfram Kinzig, In Search of Asterius: Studies on the Authorship of the Homilies on the Psalms (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990).
20. Cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 105.
21. Hippolytus, Commentary on the Book of Daniel 17, in Griechische christliche Schriftsteller, 1:29, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 108.
22. Other references to personified wisdom in Hebrew literature include Proverbs 1:20–33; 8–9; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22–26; and Baruch 3:9–4:4.
23. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5.11; Otto Stählin, Griechische christliche Schriftsteller 2:374–75, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 106–7.
24. Methodius, Symposium of the Ten Virgins 9.3, in Griechische christliche Schriftsteller, 27:117, lines 20–24; see Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 18:181–86; and also Herbert Musurillo, Ancient Christian Writers (Westminster, MD, 1958), 136, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 103.
25. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 86.1, in Edgar J. Goodspeed, Die ältesten Apologeten (Göttingen, Germany, 1914), 199–200, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 106.
26. Acts of Andrew, in M. R. James, Apocryphal New Testament, 359–60.
27. For an exhaustive study of San Clemente, see Joan Barclay Lloyd, The Medieval Church and Canonry of S. Clemente in Rome (Rome: San Clemente, 1989).
28. John Howett, "Two Panels by the Master of the St. George Codex in the Cloisters," Metropolitan Museum Journal 11 (1976): 94–96.
29. See also Psalms of Solomon 14:3–4.
30. John W. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount: A Latter-day Saint Approach (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 75–76; revised and enlarged edition, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 94.
31. Odes of Solomon 11:18–24.
32. Epistula ad Diognetum 12.1–3, in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, 2:1185–86; see also Ad Diognetum, ed. H.-I. Marrou, vol. 33, Sources chretiennes (Paris, 1951), cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 95.
33. Eusebius of Caesarea, Commentary on the Psalms 1.3, in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 27:77, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 102.
34. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistuale 73.10, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, ed. W. Hartel (1871), 3:2, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 96.
35. Optatus of Milevis, De Schismate Donatistorum, in Migne, Patrologia Latina, 11:964–66, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 94.
36. Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 1.17–20, in Griechische christliche Schriftsteller, 28, lines 16–18, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 98.
37. The Rohan Master: A Book of Hours (New York: George Braziller, 1973), plate 10.
38. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 13.28, in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 33:806, cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 181.
39. E. A. Wallis Budge, trans., The Book of the Cave of Treasures (London, 1927), 62–63 and 126–27, as cited in Reno, Sacred Tree, 145.
40. E. O. James, Tree of Life, 161–62.
41. Carolyn Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 194–200, stating, "That the tree is God's law (v. 2), or rather, that the law is compared to a tree of life, is a common Jewish image," 203. Similitude 8 is cited and discussed in E. O. James, Tree of Life, 162.
42. Hippolytus, De Pascha Homilia, in E. O. James, Tree of Life, 162.