Christianity

Christianity was formed from the roots of Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman culture as well as the religious beliefs of Judaism. To fully appreciate how trees influenced the world’s largest religion, it is important to understand the tree stories that influenced the world Jesus was born into and how these trees stories evolved over time.

6 BCE – 33 CE – Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshua) – lived in the land of Galilee (present day Palestine and Israel.) He was born into a Jewish family when the Romans ruled the land and controlled the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The trees that thrived in this region were Oak, Olive, Pistachio, Myrtle, Date Palm, Pomegranate, Almond, Cedar, Cypress, Acacia, Plane and Sycomore Fig plus others.

Very little is known of Jesus’s early life. Most of what is known is found in the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One of the first trees to be mentioned in the New Testament is the Sycomore Fig, often confused with Sycamore, which is actually a Plane tree.

Matthew 2:13-23 – An angel warns Mary and Jospeh to flee Bethlehem and travel to Egypt because King Herod wants to kill the infant Jesus. According to legend Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus rested under a large Sycomore Fig tree near Cairo, Egypt. This “miracle” tree provided them with nourishment in the form of liquid and fruit along with a shady place to restSycomore Fig, Ficus sycomorus, is an ancient species of fig tree native to Africa and Southwest Asia. Its figs were known as the “Figs of the Pharaoh”. Their Egyptian name was Nehet – meaning “refuge”.

Luke 19:1-10 – “And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature. And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, for so much as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

25 – 30 CE – Near the age of thirty, Jesus began teaching that the “Kingdom was within.” This was contrary to Jewish belief and Roman law. His message inspired Jews, Gentiles (half-Jews) and Samaritans (non-Jews) to seek the divine within. He taught non-judgment, humility, compassion and forgiveness.

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Orthodox Icon of “I am the Vine.” Jesus with his 12 Apostles.

Jesus often communicated his message in parables by using nature as a metaphor.

John 15:5 – 8 – “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 

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Matthew 13: 31-32 – “He set another man before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.”

Many saw Jesus as a teacher or Rabbi, to others he was a charismatic rebel.

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Sermon on the Mount – Jan Brueghel the Elder. Belgium 1598.

Mark: 15-20 –  “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

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Fresco at Scrovegni Chapel. Artist – Giotto di Bondone, 1304.

30 – 33 CE – Jesus traveled with his apostles to Jerusalem for the annual Jewish Passover Festival. According to the Book of John he was greeted with branches of Date Palms.

John 12: 12-13“On the next day when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

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“Jesus in the Garden” Gustav Dore 1832-1883.

While he was in Jerusalem he often walked among the olive trees, which were symbolic of the dynamic push and pull between victory, peace and war.

Luke 22:39-46 “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, Pray that you will not fall into temptation. He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

He was arrested and brought before the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate who asked him if he was the King of the Jews. Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate crucified him for challenging Roman authority.

After Jesus’s death some of his followers called him “Christ” and they became known as “Christians.” But, most Jewish leaders felt that Jesus had not fulfilled the Messianic prophecy foretold in the Tanakh. It was at this point that Judaism and Christianity began to separate from each other into separate yet related religions.

31 CE – Pilate was ordered back to Rome to stand trial for cruelty and oppression, particularly on the charge that he executed men without proper trial. Pilate then killed himself on orders from Emperor Caligula in 39 CE.

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Mosaic of Jesus as the Tree of Life at St. Paul’s Church in Rome.

95 CE – The book of Revelations was written by an early Jewish Christian prophet named John.

Revelations 2:7 – “To him who overcomes, to him I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. The tree of life is here again offered to man. Due to the fall the tree of life was closed to him. Throughout the redemption of Christ, the way to touch the tree of life has been reopened.”

Revelations 22:2 – “On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

The story of Jesus being crucified on a cross, has been seen as the living embodiment of the Tree of Life,  for it represents the past separation of man from god, man from nature and man from himself. It is a symbol of resurrection, rebirth and reconnection.

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that the cross was made from a combination of three evergreen trees Cedar, Cypress and Pine.  Evergreen trees are thought to be symbolic of the Tree of Life for they are “forever green”. All of these trees were considered sacred to early Sumerian cultures and were indigenous in the Middle East.

Later legends associated the cross with deciduous trees that represented the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

One of those stories is the Hawthorn tree which was used to create the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross. According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail shortly after Jesus’s crucifixion. It was here that he planted his walking stick made of hawthorn in Somerset, England. The legendary Glastonbury thorn, Crataegus monogyna ‘biflora’ miraculously blooms twice a year, once in winter and again in spring as a symbol of Jesus’s resurrection.

During the Victorian era the Dogwood tree, with its cross-shaped blossoms became symbols of the resurrection of Christ. Some believed that dogwoods once grew as large as oaks and that its wood was used for the cross of Jesus, which made the dogwood tree sad. This legend tells the tale that Jesus then transformed it into small, crooked tree so it could hide.

Neither Hawthorn or Dogwood are indigenous to the area where Jesus lived.

108 CE – Father Ignatius wrote a letter that used the word Katholike to describe the formation of this early church: “Where so ever the father shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal katholike church.”  The word “Katholike is a word created by Aristotle (384–322 BCE) meaning “throughout the whole – of the four winds.”

150 CE – St. Irenaeus wrote a letter based on the four winds and associated them with the four evangelists: “There are four gospels and only four, neither more nor less: four like the points of the compass, four like the chief directions of the wind. The Church, spread all over the world, has in the gospels four pillars and four winds blowing wherever people live.”

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Spinello Aretino, the Four Evangelists with their Symbols. Sacristy of San Miniato al Monte

The Four Evangelists and how they were related to the winds, directions, archangels and elements.

East – Matthew – Gabriel – Man – Messenger – Earth

South – Mark – Michael – Lion – Guardian – Fire

West – Luke – Raphael – Ox/Bull – Healing – Water

North – John – Uriel – Eagle – Serpent of Light – Air

210 CE – Origen of Alexandria, strongly opposed the celebration of Christ’s birth. Pointing out that only Pharaohs and Herod celebrated their birthdays in the Bible. Origen argued that birthdays were for pagans, not Christians.

313 CE – Constantine, the Western Roman Emperor, and Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, which finally ensured religious tolerance for Christians. The agreement granted freedom of worship to all, regardless of deity, and brought an end to the Age of Martyrs, which had begun after Jesus’ death.

325 CE – Roman Emperor Constantine gathered the First Council of Nicaea in Iznik, Turkey to debate and define who Jesus was. They named him Christ, the Son of God. They identified Jesus’s resurrection as the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 20th, the nominal date of the Spring Equinox. This was done so it would never fall on the Jewish day of Passover or the Spring Equinox. The year-to-year sequence is so complicated that it takes 5.7 million years to repeat. They created the Holy Trinity of Father/Son/Holy Ghost. Named Sunday as the holy day of rest replacing the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday.

326-328 CE – Constantine appoints his mother Empress Helena to go to Palestine on a pilgrimage to locate relics for the newly emerging Catholic Church.

She is credited with identifying the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem where she orders the construction of the Church of the Nativity.

She went on to identify where Jesus was crucified and buried outside Jerusalem’s city walls in Calvary, also known as Golgatha.

A temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Venus (Aphrodite) stood on the site that she chose. Venus was honored as an important Goddess in Roman culture associated with the planet/star named for her Venus. Lucifer, is Latin for “light-bringer,” or morning star. Its opposite was Vesper, the evening star. In fact, they were both aspects of the planet Venus. The apple was considered to be a sacred tree to Venus and Aphrodite. As the brightest planet, Venus was associated with Mesopotamian deities such as Ishtar and Astarte, which inspired the word “star” and the ongoing dynamic of new life each morning and rebirth at night.

Venus and the Apple Tree

Helena ordered that this temple of Venus be destroyed and excavated. During the excavation three different wooden crosses were discovered. One of these crosses was deemed to be the “True Cross”. Constantine then ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be built on this site.

She identified the Mount of Olives as the place where Jesus ascended into heaven and had the Church of Eleona built here. This site was once a vast olive grove. It has been used as a Jewish cemetery since 1000 BCE.

339 CE – Constantine declared that the Winter Solstice, which celebrated the birth of the “Sun”, would now celebrate the birth of the “Son” as God. This celebration was eventually known as Christmas. The Romans incorporated their celebrations of Saturn and Mithras. Saturn is the Roman God of Harvest and Agriculture who was  worshiped during a festival called Saturnalia. The Saturnalia festival started on December 17 and lasted for seven days, ending before the Winter Solstice December 25th. It was a celebration marked by carnivals, exchange of gifts, feasting, and a cessation of all public works. Mithras, “invincible Sun god” who dies and rises again, god of Vegetation, born from stone. Mithra was originally a Persian and Indus Valley god. The worship of Mithras emphasized correct behavior in this world, which was the only way to win favor with god in the next. The Winter Solstice was celebrated on Dec 25th at the end of Saturnalia.

379 ACE – Theodosius became the Roman Emperor and ordered the destruction of all Gods and Goddesses created by Romans, Greeks and Egyptians.  He expelled Pagans and Gnostics and destroyed the Library and School in Alexandria, Egypt.  To be Pagan meant you were from nature and soon became associated with evil and heresy.

In 590, Pope Gregory the Great began forcing the conversion of pagans by building churches on their sacred sites.  Pope Gregory also identified Mary Magdalene, as Mary of Bethany the “sinful” woman and led people to believe she was an adulteress or prostitute repenting for her sins.  From this point on women were seen as inferior to men within the church.

650 AD – The earliest written form of the Germanic word God comes from the Christian Codex Argenteus. The English word itself is derived from the Proto-Germanic word “ǥuđan.” The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form “ǵhu-tó-m” was  based on the root * ǵhau(ə)-, which meant either “to call” or “to invoke” the sound of wind through the trees.

Enlil, the ancient Sumerian “Lord of Wind” and protector of forests, became known as El, Elohim and Elah, meaning “most high” or “mighty” by the Hebrews. In Hebrew Elah means oak tree.

This understanding was reinforced over 4000 years ago based on the Oaks of Dodona, in Epirus Greece. In 2000 BCE the Oaks of Dodona were known as wise oracles that offered wisdom when the sound of wind rustled through their leaves. This sacred grove of oaks was associated with the great earth mother Gaia/Asherah. By 800 BCE, the Oaks of Dodona were seen as aspects of the Greek gods Dione & Zeus. In Latin, Dione was dios or dei, as the female counterpart to Zeus, whose name was deus or deiwos. In Sanskrit, they are Devi Mata (divine mother) and Dyeus Pater (divine father) the “shining ones in the sky.” These “shining ones” inspired the word “deity” were actually the: Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Saturn & Jupiter.

When the Bible was translated from Latin into German the original names of El, Elohim, Elah, Adonai, Yahweh etc., were reduced to one word –“god”. This word was inspired by the Germanic words gheu, ghuto and gudan; meaning, “to invoke the sound of the wind”.

This occurred because Germanic Saxons also saw trees as divine beings. Their language evolved from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets into the runes of the Elder Futhark (150-800 CE).

The first letter “A” in today’s English alphabet is directly related to the rune Ansuz. Ansuz literally meant “breath” or “mouth” of an ash or oak. The Anglo-Saxon’s later split the Ansuz rune into three vowels/sounds: “o” (mouth), “ac” (oak) and “ae” (ash).

Ae forms the words aether as “luminous air”, “divine breath,” or Od (Odic force) which is seen as all-pervasive. In Hebrew, Ruach meaning spirit, was seen as the wind or “breath of life.” Ruach Elohim literally means, “spirit of the most-strong (oak/ash).

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750-785 CE – Boniface and Charlemagne chopped down the sacred oaks of the Saxons to force conversion of these Germanic pagans to Christianity.

800 – Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day (Winter Solstice) to solidify the imperial protection of the papacy.

800 – Islam conquers 50% of what was the Roman Empire

800 – Germanic invaders pillaged many parts of Rome, including the catacombs. Popes of the era removed the valuable relics of martyrs and saints for safekeeping.

810 – The Christian Church absorbed many Celtic beliefs to aid in their conversion. Pagan temple sites became the location of cathedrals such as Notre Dame, which was built on a temple dedicated to Jupiter (Jove) also known as Zeus.

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1437 – The First bible was printed using the Guttenburg Press in Germany in Latin

1534 – the Bible was translated from Latin to German.

The ancient names of Anu, El, Elohim, Adonai, Yahweh and Jehovah were replaced with the proto-germanic word Guden, meaning: “to invoke.”  

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Genesis 3:8:And they heard the sound of the Jehovah walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” 

The “cool of the day” is interpreted as the evening winds.  When the Bible was eventually translated into English, the word Guden was replaced with the shorter English Gud, which was associated with the concept of good.

Fir trees and other evergreens were ancient symbols of eternal light associated with the Winter Solstice and the return of the Sun. Evergreen wreaths decorated doorways during the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which led up to the Winter Solstice in honor of Saturn the Roman god of Agriculture. Germanic people brought evergreen boughs into their homes during the mid-winter festival of Yuletide. When early Christians chose December 25, the date of the Winter Solstice, to celebrate Jesus’s birth many of these ancient nature-based traditions were incorporated into Christianity.

In the 1500’s fir trees were brought into Christian German homes on December 24 to celebrate the religious feast day of Adam of Eve. Known as “Paradise Trees” they were decorated with apples to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Candles were added to symbolize Jesus as the bringer of light the next day.

Firs were also still seen as “Yuletide” trees until the 1800’s, when an illustration of Queen Victoria and Prince Edward’s candle-lit fir in Windsor Castle was featured in a magazine and the term “Christmas Tree” became accepted. Today, Balsam fir, Nordmann fir, Fraser fir and noble fir are all prized Christmas trees.

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Painting by Franz Kruger

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the astronomical date of the Winter Solstice from December 25 to December 21. The Sun’s true position had changed since the Julian calendar was enacted in 42 BCE, this separated the old “pagan” traditions from the new celebration of “Christ’s Mass”.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe the old Celtic and Roman traditions endured. Holly became known as “Christ’s Thorn” its prickly leaves represented Jesus’s crown, while its red berries were his blood.

The 1800’s British Christmas carol The Holly and the Ivy  weaves these stories together, with Jesus as the holly and the Virgin Mary as the ivy. Holly was the most famous choice for traditional Christmas decorations as seen in the opening line of the 1860’s Welsh song Deck the Halls… with boughs of holly.

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Easter Egg Trees – The origins of the word “Easter” come from Eostre, the Germanic Celtic goddess of Spring, Rebirth, Fertility and New Beginnings. Before this “Easter” was referred to as Resurrection Sunday. Easter Eggs were originally celebrated in the Germanic Celtic tradition for fertility. Christians view the Easter eggs as symbols of joy and celebration (as they were forbidden during the fast of Lent) and of new life and resurrection. A common custom is to hide brightly colored eggs for children to find. Eggs were hung primarily on Apple trees  in counties across Europe as symbols fo new life.

Trees are mentioned throughout the New and Old Testaments of the Bible more than any other living thing next to God and Jesus. Trees are symbols of life, death, knowledge, hope, forgiveness, charity and so much more. Their stories hold insights into the everlasting essence of our soul.