Friday, April 25, 2014

Jesus Christ on the Tree of Life

Burne-Jones' mosaic of the Crucifixion was unveiled in November 1894. It shows Christ on the Tree between Adam and Eve, for by his death on the Cross he undid their death from the Tree of Eden.
Acts 5

29 ¶Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to aobey God rather than men.

30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and ahanged on a tree.

31 Him hath God exalted awith his right hand to be a bPrince and a cSaviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and dforgiveness of sins.

32 And we are his awitnesses of these things; and so is also the bHoly Ghost, whom God hath cgiven to them that obey him.

The apostle Peter in this passage refers to the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified as a tree. Perhaps Peter's purpose in doing this was to equate the cross with the tree of life. When Nephi was shown his father's vision of the fruit bearing tree of life he asked to know the meaning of the tree. In response Nephi was shown a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus, bearing the Christ-child in her arms. Ancient Judea had a tradition of an ancient mother goddess who was known as Asherah, Astarte and Wisdom among other names and who was the mother of the son of God. Her symbol was a tree. Nephi, who was a product of this culture, instantly recognized the symbolism and saw that the tree in his dream was a symbol of Mary (who was the earthly embodiment of the archetypical heavenly mother) and the fruit of the tree was a symbol of the son of God. Jesus, being depicted as hanging on a tree during his crucifixion draws upon this mother-goddess symbolism. He is the fruit of the tree of life. (For more on this I highly recommend a fascinating article by Daniel C. Peterson entitled "Nephi and His Asherah" published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.)

In Proverbs 8 this divine mother (Wisdom) speaks in the first person as the tree of life and teaches about her fruit:

19 My fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold; and my revenue than choice silver.

The name Asherah is the feminine Hebrew form of the word asher which means "happy" and Lehi in the account of his dream may have been engaging in word play when he said the following (1 Nephi 8:10):

10 And it came to pass that I beheld a atree, whose bfruit was desirable to make one chappy. (emphasis added)

Just as the fruit was partaken by Nephi and his faithful followers in his dream we as Latter-Day Saints also partake of emblems of Jesus Christ every week in our sacrament service. When we eat food we assimilate it and it becomes part of us (you are what you eat). Metaphorically the Lord intends for us to partake of the Savior's divine nature and take upon ourselves his identity.

Judean terracotta figurine
Additionally, it is interesting to note that anciently the mother-goddess was also associated with bread. Archaeologist in the Holy Land have found hundreds of terracotta figurines depicting females which scholars have identified with Asherah. They all date roughly to the time of Nephi and before and some have been found clasping a round object to their breast. This object is sometimes interpreted as a tambourine but William Dever has interpreted the objects as loaves of bread (see here for his statement regarding this. The discussion begins at about 17:45). Jeremiah 44 mentions that the people of his day were baking cakes to the queen of heaven and that they attributed their good fortune to this practice.

During the Savior's mortal ministry he associated himself with bread and identified himself as the "bread of life" in John 6 and associated the sacramental bread with his body during the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26). Likewise, its easy to see an analogy between bread baking in an oven and an infant in his mother's womb and this may have been part of the divine mother/son iconography.

Tree of Life = the Mother = the Cross


  1. This is great; I had a thought, what did the "burning bush" represent figuratively. I posed this question in my Gospel Doctrine class. I thought that the "bush" smbolized the Tree of Life which is a representation of Christ, and the "burning" was His own presence, his Shekinah. What do you think?

    1. Hi Ramona, thank you for your comment. I agree with your comment to a certain extent. I believe that on one level the tree of life/burning bush etc. can symbolize Jesus Christ - and I don't think that it's wrong to look at it that way. It's an entirely appropriate interpretation particularly for a Gospel Doctrine class. What really interests me and what the purpose of the post is an attempt to determine what the authors of these texts intended by these symbols. There is very compelling evidence to suggest that the authors understood these images to be feminine symbols, including, incidentally, the Shekinah which is a feminine Hebrew word. It is my personal belief that our Heavenly Mother plays a far more prominent role in the lives of her children than we give her credit for, and that she probably participated in most if not all the great theophanies recorded in scripture (ancient and modern). I believe there is nothing in LDS doctrine that would conflict with that idea. It's all very fascinating to contemplate, but again thank you for your comments and thank you for taking the time to read my blog!

    2. Matt
      Thank you. I am a recent convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS. The concept of a Heavenly Mother ( a logical concept ) is fascinating to me. I had attended Protestant churches, and a short affliation with the Catholic church, before joining the LDS Church. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother was not taught specifically, but the idea that Mary fit that role was unofficially talked about. I must say that before I joined the LDS church, I did not think I had a chance to "die and go to heaven" so to speak. I am African American, and in my world growing up in the South, it was not taught that "I" would would be saved. (seriously). Is the doctrine of Heavenly Mother taught in this church, or is it just "lore". Is there proof, and I ask these questions as an "investigator".
      Thank you

    3. That's interesting thank you for sharing that with me - It's wonderful to know that God in fact is not capricious like that, that we are all his children regardless of our ethnic background, gender, national origin etc. The idea that our skin color would have any bearing on our salvation to me is absurd and offensive.

      Likewise, I think it's tragic that the understanding of women's inherent divinity was lost from Christianity for so long. Women have just as much divine potential as men if not more so.

      Regarding your question whether the doctrine of Heavenly Mother is a legitimate teaching of the Church I'm going to refer you to a fairly recent article in BYU Studies that surveys teachings by leaders of the Church about our Heavenly Mother. Here is the link: