While scholars have explored the symbol of the tree of life in limited ways in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, such exploration of the symbol of the tree of life in ancient apocalypse is even more scant. Yet the tree of life plays an important role in several ancient apocalypses. This chapter will explore the use of tree of life symbolism in 4 Ezra 2:12, 8:52 (2 Esdras 2:12, 8:52); the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 2.11–14, 5.21; the Apocalypse of Sedrach 4.4, and the Apocalypse of Elijah 5.6. Using conceptual metaphor theories developed by Giles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, this chapter will demonstrate how the tree of life functions alongside other metaphors and symbols in these texts including birthing/mothering, creational/paradisal, and agricultural metaphors. By mapping the relationship of these metaphors and symbols, this chapter will examine the impact of these metaphorical connections to understanding the role the tree of life plays in these writings and within ancient apocalypse more broadly.
The “Tree of Life” or Sacred Tree is a multivalent image with layers of meaning accrued over time, and whose development as an iconographic motif is intimately connected to the history of the region. Examining the Sacred Tree as a consistent motif against the backdrop of ever-shifting contexts highlights the fluid nature of its symbolism across Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Egypt. Through the third and second millennia BCE, the image is a symbol of the nurturing aspects of the divine, primarily the mother-goddess. In the first millennium, the association with the mother-goddess remains while other associations are added, most notably the theme of kingship.
The phrase “tree of life” rarely occurs in extrabiblical literature, but terms such as “plant of life,” “sacred tree,” and “cosmic/world tree” appear more frequently and attest to the regional concept of a tree with life-giving properties. However, do the extrabiblical terms compare with each other and with the biblical tree of life? This essay examines the terms as they appear in the literature of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant. Applying the criteria of taxonomy and function to the various terms distinguishes a number of plants that were used for medicinal, ritual, and political purposes as well as for obtaining eternal life.
This paper studies Christian commentary on the tree of life under three descriptions: as a physical plant in Eden (Genesis 2.8–3.22); as a moral metaphor (Psalm 1.3 and Revelation 2.8) and as an eschatological symbol at Revelation 22.2. These correspond roughly to the somatic, moral and spiritual senses which were distinguished in scriptural exegesis by Christian allegorists from the time of Clement and Origen, although it will be shown that in many commentaries the biblical passages overlap, as therefore do the levels of exegesis.
A tree identified as the tree of life appears in 1 En. 24.3–25.6; 2 En. 8.3–7; 3 En. 5.1; 23.18; 48D.8. In (Ethiopic) 1 Enoch, this tree is not called the tree of life, but it is described in such sublime terms that scholars at least since Dillmann have identified it as such. The tree is located at the earthly throne of God. It is superlatively fragrant and inaccessible until the judgement day, after which the righteous and holy will enjoy it, and it will be planted toward the house of the Lord. The tree’s fragrance shall give the righteous long life on earth. In 2 (Slavonic) Enoch, the tree of life is indescribably and incomparably excellent and sweet-smelling. This cosmic tree is in the paradise in the third heaven (8.1), where the Lord rests. In 3 (Hebrew Apocalypse of) Enoch (5.1), the tree of life provides shelter for the cherub upon whom the Shekinah dwelled after the expulsion of Adam. The righteous and godly are to inherit the garden of Eden and the tree of life (23.18). The tree is one of the creations made by the secret of Metatron (48D.8).
The tree of life appears briefly and enigmatically near the beginning and end of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 2–3, but goes unmentioned in the main body of that narrative. Modern scholars have taken both diachronic (oriented toward literary prehistory) and synchronic (oriented toward the received text) approaches to addressing the perplexing questions raised by this tree’s presence in the Eden story. While diachronic approaches respond to genuinely problematic textual phenomena, they create additional difficulties that require ever more speculative solutions. By contrast, a synchronic approach yields a coherent reading that satisfactorily interprets the same phenomena.
Gnostic literature provides a fascinating context for the development of the tree of life theme due to (1) the varieties of Gnostic texts, (2) the unique hermeneutical approaches to biblical themes, and (3) the positive import of the tree of the knowledge as a source of enlightenment just as the tree of life is a source of immortality. The relationship between tree of knowledge (gnosis) and tree of life themes are traced in eight Nag Hammadi tractates, noting the nuances evident in the diverse texts and traditions. Patterns of special note are the progression from gnosis to life through the partaking of the fruit of both trees, the deceptive actions of Yaldabaoth and the archons in preventing access to the trees, the identity of the female spiritual principle (Eve/Epinoia) or Jesus as the tree of life itself, and the positive actions of various forces and figures to reveal the true origin, nature, and destiny of humanity and, hence, bring about human rescue.
References to the Tree of Life in Jewish and Christian legendary texts lack thematic cohesion as well as chronological, geographic, or linguistic consistency. Despite the limitations of the corpus, there are several common expansions of the Tree of Life in the works of Pseudo-Philo, 4 Baruch (Paraleipomena Jeremiou), 4 Maccabees, and the various versions of the Life of Adam and Eve. In the Jewish and Christian legendary texts, there are three common themes of the Tree of Life worthy of further examination: 1) the functionality of the Tree as a sign of eschatological renewal or individual healing; 2) the association of the Tree of Life with God’s presence; and 3) the promise of the Tree of Life as a source of life/immortality for the righteous. In addition to these future functions of the Tree of Life in these legendary narratives, the Tree of Life is also given explicit purpose in revised versions of the garden of Eden and expulsion narratives where the Tree of Life was previously inert or inactive.