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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Tree of Life

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1. Sources.-There are three sources for our knowledge of the idea of the tree of life: the OT, Jewish apocalypses and Jewish theology, and ethnic legends.

(1) In the OT the tree of life appears neither in Psalms nor in the Prophets, but only in Genesis and Proverbs. The Genesis story (Genesis 2:9; Genesis 3:22) intimates that there are two objects which man would grasp at-knowledge and immortality. It has been maintained, however, that in Genesis 2:9 the tree of life is a later addition, and was inserted only when the idea of the under world had suffered such a change that immortality became an object of desire (K. Budde, Die biblische Urgeschichte untersuch?, Giessen, 1883, p. 53 f.; but cf. A. Dillmann, Genesis, Eng. translation , Edinburgh, 1897, i. 121 f.). In any case, by reason of his sin man was not permitted to eat of the fruit of this tree, which signified fullness of life. Driven out from the Garden of Eden, he was effectually debarred from this Divine good. In Proverbs (Proverbs 3:18; Proverbs 11:30; Proverbs 13:12; Proverbs 15:4) wisdom, the fruit of the righteous, desire fulfilled, and a wholesome tongue are each a ‘tree of life.’ The reference is not to the recovery of a lost, or to the winning of a future, but to the enjoyment of a present, good (cf. Budde, op. cit., p. 85f.).

(2) In Jewish apocalyptic three constant factors are associated with the tree of life: it is in Paradise; the righteous have access to its fruit; it will be available only after the judgment. Its first appearance is in Enoch, xxiv. 1-6, xxv. 4-6, xxxi. 1-3 (cf. Slavonic Enoch, viii. 3-5, 4 Ezr_7:123; Ezr_8:52, Pss.- Son_14:3, Test, of Levi, xviii.-a Christian interpolation [?]). According to Jewish theology, its branches cover the whole of Paradise, and it has 500,000 kinds of taste and smell (F. Weber, Jüd. Theologie2, Leipzig, 1897, p. 346; A. Wünsche, Die Sagen vom Lebensbaum und Lebenswasser, Leipzig, 1905).

(3) All Oriental religions which have risen above the nature stage have their legends of a tree of life. Sometimes it appears in a simple, at other times in a fantastic, form; but whoever, even a god, partakes of its fruit or its sap renews and preserves his life (cf. E. Schrader, Jahrbücher für protestantische Theologie i. [1875] 124 ff.; W. W. von Baudissin, Studien zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte, ii. [Leipzig, 1878] 189 ff.; Friedrich Delitzsch, Wo lag das Paradies?, Leipzig, 1881, p. 148 f.). In the Babylonian-Assyrian circle this tree was date-palm, cedar, or vine (F. R. Tennant, The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin, Cambridge, 1903, p. 49; T. G. Pinches, The OT in the Light of the Historical Records and Legends of Assyria and Babylonia2, London, 1903, p. 71 ff.). In the Gilgamesh Epic the hero obtained a scion from the ‘plant of life’ which healed his mortal illness (cf. B. Meissner, Ein altbabylon. Fragment des Gilgamosepos, Berlin, 1902; A. Jeremias, Die babylonisch-assyrischen Vorstellungen vom Leben nach dem Tode, Leipzig, 1887, p. 93). In the Zend-Avesta the tree of life is the white Haoma-death-destroyer-similar to a grape vine, with plentiful buds and jasmine-like leaves; whoever eats of the fruit becomes immortal (SBE [Note: BE Sacred Books of the East.] xxiii. [1883] 20; cf. Rigveda, X. xcvii. 17). The Hindu tree of life grows in the midst of water; whoever looks on it is made young.

Much that is fantastic and unreliable has been written by Assyriologists concerning the tree of life. Two facts, however, stand out as incontestable: there was throughout the ancient world a worship of trees, and man’s dependence on particular trees for support of life offered the basis for a profound religious suggestion. ‘The tree had always been the seat of Divine life and the intermediary between Divine and human nature.… In the holy tree the Divine life is bringing itself closer to man’ (W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, London, 1904, p. 248).

2. In Revelation.-The dependence of the idea of the tree of life in Revelation (Revelation 2:7; Revelation 22:2; Revelation 22:14) upon earlier, especially Jewish, conceptions is evident. The legend has been traced to an Arabian or North African oasis, thence to Babylon, where the habitat of the tree became a garden; thence the Hebrews derived it (G. A. Barton, A Sketch of Semitic Origins, New York, 1902, p. 95 f.). With the shifting fortunes of Jerusalem, the garden was transformed into a city. The apocalyptists show this transformation under way. They picture the future as a garden (Enoch, xxiv., xxv.); then as a city-Jerusalem (Pss.- Solomon 17:33 f.; J. R. Harris, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon, Cambridge, 1909); finally, it is a city indeed, but with a garden enclosed (Revelation 21; Revelation 22:2; cf. also R. H. Charles, The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, Oxford, 1912, p. 53). Ezekiel 47:12 has been influential here. In the prophet’s vision, on each side of the river grow all trees bearing new fruits according to their months, which shall be for food, and their leaves for healing. The picture in the Revelation is of a city, in the midst of which is a garden; through this flows a river, on each bank of which is the tree of life (a word used collectively)-a row of trees bearing either twelve manner of fruits (Authorized Version , Revised Version ) or twelve crops (Revised Version margin). In the garden of God, then, grows the tree of life. For those who have been purified by faith, the doom man brought on himself in Eden, of prohibition from its food, is repealed. All that Judaism had lost, or mythology dreamed of, or Christianity awakened in the soul in the way of immortal longing was restored and fulfilled in the world to come. Not only is the fruit for food, but even the leaves have healing virtue. How this therapeutic property of the leaves is to be available for the ‘nations’ (cf. Revelation 21:24-27, Isaiah 60:3; Enoch, xxv. 4-6)-those not yet belonging to the New Jerusalem-is problematic. It may suggest the present functions of the Church in respect of social ills, or imply that after the Parousia the citizens of the city will have a ministry towards those outside, or, yet again, indicate that the writer had not fully assimilated the ideal proposed by Ezekiel (cf. C. A. Scott, Revelation [Century Bible], London, n.d., p. 297).

C. A. Beckwith.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Tree of Life'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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