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Insights and Evidences for the Allegory of the Olive Tree

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00.200] - Jack Welch

Welcome. This week, as Lynne and I were talking about Jacob Chapter 5, we thought it would be good to pause and give a brief presentation about scholarship and resources on the Allegory of the Olive Tree. I also wanted to share with you an interview I had with David Seely about a book that you can download for free about this topic. I hope you find this scriptural topic as interesting as I and many of my colleagues do. While olives were fabulous sources of food, cooking oil, scented lotions, and the main source of oil in the lamps of just about every home in the biblical and classical worlds in antiquity, olives simply don't grow in most parts of the world. And so most people today don't automatically know or understand the powerful and valuable meanings attributed to olive cultivation in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. I've had an interest in olives since the time when I was a young teenager in southern California. We had several wild olives in our neighborhood, large trees used for landscaping. They grew like weeds, and that was part of the problem. They always needed to be pruned, and they made huge messes.

[00:01:17.350] - Jack Welch

But when we needed a couple more olive trees, we could simply cut some shoots off of the trunk of the tree, strip the bark, and stick those shoots in pots, which we did. To my amazement, they sprouted roots and grew. Then we planted them literally in the lower, nethermost part of the gully in front of our house, and those trees thrived. So you can understand my fascination as I read Jacob 5 in Seminary. It all made so much sense. But then coming to BYU and going to Germany on my mission, I found that most people knew nothing about olive botany, horticulture, harvesting, storage, historical significance, and scriptural symbolism related to the olive. FARMS was then founded in 1980. And in 1992, we convened a symposium on the Allegory of the Olive Tree. We published a book that's more than 600 pages long in 1994 on that one chapter. Over 20 people participated. David and I were able to sit down and talk about this book and discuss some of the olive practices in ancient times.

[00:02:34.050] - Jack Welch

I'm really happy to have with me today David Seely. David, you remember back in the day when we did this conference? That was 30 years ago.

[00:02:41.970] - David Rolph Seely

It's hard to believe. Some days it seems like yesterday, and some days it seems like 30 years ago.

[00:02:46.670] - Jack Welch

And what have you been doing in the last 30 years since this book was published?

[00:02:50.310] - David Rolph Seely

Well, in the 30 years since then, we've been studying lots of things, but including the Book of Mormon. And it's really fun to open this volume again and recall and remember all of the things that are in that book that have helped us to tie together the scriptures.

[00:03:04.200] - Jack Welch

You and Joann have been, of course, continuing your professional responsibilities teaching at BYU Jerusalem. Think with me for just a minute about the olive trees and the olive groves that you may have encountered. Did you ever take students to walk through an olive grove?

[00:03:19.410] - David Rolph Seely

Of course, we do it all the time. But we have an olive grove at the Jerusalem Center. And every fall, we get our students together, we find out what kind of character they're made of, and we pick all the olives on our property, and we bring them together and we have... Actually, we have ancient olive presses at the Jerusalem Center. And so we take our olives and we crush them. Then we watch how the oil separates from the water, and then we produce olive oil. And at the end of the semester, we take our olive oil over to the Orson Hyde garden and we dedicate it. Each one of us brings home a little bottle of olive oil that we've helped manufacture through the process of olive trees. So olive trees is central to our experience in Jerusalem, and it was central to the lives of the ancients who lived there.

[00:04:02.250] - Jack Welch

What kind of things did they use the olive for?

[00:04:06.850] - David Rolph Seely

Well, the olive, of course, is the staff of life in a certain sense there because it provides the oil which is used for food, right? And cooking, and they use the oil to produce light. It was particularly the cups in the temple where by the light of the olive, olive oil was in the cups of the menorah at the temple.

[00:04:25.440] - Jack Welch

Olive oil is the oil in those lamps.

[00:04:27.880] - David Rolph Seely


[00:04:28.220] - Jack Welch

And we don't often think of it that way because we just use it mostly for cooking.

[00:04:33.020] - David Rolph Seely

And in the story of the Good Samaritan, you remember when the man is beat up and the Samaritan comes along, he anoints him with wine and with oil because they use those two products for healing as well.

[00:04:46.930] - Jack Welch

And the wine had some alcohol in it, which would have cleansed. And the olive oil, the Greek there says that the Samaritan didn't just put on a few drops. It says he gushed out oil on the wound. He was going to do everything he could to help that fallen person.

[00:05:07.870] - David Rolph Seely

Right. And of course, you go to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and there's olive presses there, but it's called the press of oil, the place where olive oil is. And of course, Truman Madsen has eloquently expressed how that is a symbol of the atonement, of the pressing of the oil.

[00:05:24.350] - Jack Welch

How long do olives live there?

[00:05:26.780] - David Rolph Seely

Well, they live for centuries and centuries. And unfortunately, Unfortunately, the Romans, when they came through in 70, destroyed all the trees. So almost all the trees in Jerusalem, probably all of the trees in Jerusalem, are not as old as Jesus. But there's olive trees there, probably from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries that are still alive. And they're alive in a wonderful way that they continue to propagate themselves, like the branches and the roots, as in the allegory in Book of Isaiah chapters.

[00:05:52.990] - Jack Welch

And the grafting.

[00:05:53.880] - David Rolph Seely

And the grafting, right. All that. The trees can live a long time. We get to watch these in Jerusalem We just walk around our grounds. We always were aware of these wonderful olive trees.

[00:06:04.670] - Jack Welch

As a part of the economy, this is probably a cash crop as well.

[00:06:08.010] - David Rolph Seely

Yeah, that's right.

[00:06:09.360] - Jack Welch

Olive oil would be, in terms of the market, somebody has to make all those ceramic pots to hold the olive oil.

[00:06:19.840] - David Rolph Seely

They process it, and they, of course, can send it around, sell it, market it.

[00:06:25.480] - Jack Welch

It has many uses, and you can understand why they would think of the olive tree as a kind of, their tree of physical life. I bet you really enjoyed walking around those groves, either on the Mount of Olives, of course, it's right there, but all over Galilee.

[00:06:44.950] - David Rolph Seely


[00:06:45.310] - Jack Welch

Even today, it's ideal for the raising of olives. We think that Zenos came from the northern part of Israel. And so, he would have known this kind of image, and it would have meant a lot more, at least a lot more readily, it would have meant things to his people and to Lehi and his people. But by the time we get to Jacob, they probably don't have many olives that have survived the journey.

[00:07:18.480] - David Rolph Seely

Right. It's probably survived mostly in tradition, right? But they have the scriptures. They have the scriptures.

[00:07:23.980] - Jack Welch

To begin, let's remember the conference and the people that we had at this conference. What do you remember about the conference? Was this the only conference that we had in those years, in the early '90s?

[00:07:38.670] - David Rolph Seely

The '90s was a decade of... We were bravely facing lots of new things. We had this tradition in FARMS, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, that we would hold periodic conferences on specific aspects of the Book of Mormon. And the reason these were so wonderful is because we were able to collect lots of expertise across not just campus, but other Latter-day Saints scholars that were willing to come and participate. And so these were times of great celebration, two or three days. We'd all get together and we'd prepare and deliver our papers. So this volume contains, for me personally, the memory of an experience, experience of the celebration of the Book of Mormon, of exploring the text from lots and lots of different angles, of going to be enlightened. But always at the end of the conference, we were turned back to the text of the Book of Mormon because we knew that that's a rich source of lots and lots of wonderful things.

[00:08:35.910] - Jack Welch

Who were some of those people that actually came out for this Allegory conference?

[00:08:40.740] - David Rolph Seely

I will just read you some of my favorites. The first piece, actually, "The Olive Press: A Symbol of Christ," was by Truman Madsen. This could have actually been a summary of the whole conference in a certain way. But he eloquently expressed and described how this symbol continues from the Old Testament to the New Testament, to the doctrine of as a great symbol of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

[00:09:02.980] - Jack Welch

And remind people what Truman Madsen's role was at the BYU Jerusalem Center.

[00:09:09.110] - David Rolph Seely

Well, for a while in the mid '90s, he was actually the director of the Jerusalem Center.

[00:09:13.380] - Jack Welch

You think he had something to do with putting the olive-

[00:09:16.300] - David Rolph Seely

Yeah, I think he did.

[00:09:18.280] - Jack Welch


[00:09:18.350] - David Rolph Seely

And- Yeah, he did.

[00:09:19.600] - Jack Welch

The Gethsemane there?

[00:09:22.090] - David Rolph Seely

Yeah, he had a vested interest in that. We had Noel Reynolds talk about "Nephite Uses and interpretations of Zenos." We had Grant Underwood, his... a church historian talked to us about how Jacob 5 fit with the 19th century. We had Paul Hoskisson. We had Royal Skousen come and talk to us about the text. We had a wonderful piece, Arthur Henry King, and he wasn't part of a crowd that usually participated in a Book of Mormon symposium for us. So that was a real treat to have him come talk about language themes.

[00:09:49.550] - Jack Welch

Let me mention that several of these projects, Grant Underwood. This is the early 1990s. We haven't begun working on the Joseph Smith Papers yet. But Grant Underwood is very interested in the cultural environment that Joseph Smith lived in. I knew that and I asked him if he would tell me how Jacob 5 was understood by Latter-day Saints in Joseph Smith's day and after that. When you look at Royal Skousen, of course, Royal is famous today for a whole lifetime of work on the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. But we knew that Royal had begun working on this, and we went to Royal and said, How about if you focus just on the text of Jacob 5 and give us a report on that? So here we have Royal in process developing a lot of these things, and it's very exciting to see.

[00:10:50.170] - David Rolph Seely

Of course, Jack Welch has several pieces in here. We had John Gee and Dan Peterson tell us about how olive culture was in premodern Mediterranean.

[00:11:00.560] - Jack Welch

David, look at the title that's given to the paper by John Gee and Dan Peterson, "Graft and Corruption."

[00:11:08.310] - David Rolph Seely

Yeah, there you have it.

[00:11:09.460] - Jack Welch

Does that sound like a Dan Peterson title to you? That does. Yeah, he's clever with words, and of course, grafting here has an ambiguous usage.

[00:11:19.370] - David Rolph Seely

Yeah, that's right.

[00:11:20.330] - Jack Welch

Where, and corruption, the tree decays and you have to have grafting to revive the tree. But he wants to show how in the Mediterranean world, both in Greece and in Rome, life was as complicated then as it is today, let's just put it that way. But the olive still provides great lessons for us as it did to the ancient world as well.

[00:11:45.530] - David Rolph Seely

We had John Hall come talk to us, who was a great Roman historian, talk to us about "The Olive in Greco-Roman Religion." Don Parry, "Ritual Anointing with Olive Oil in Ancient Israelite Religion." We had a piece I wrote on the allegory, "The Allegory of the Olive Tree and the Use of Related Figurative Language in the Ancient Near East and the Old Testament," a more broad view of this symbolism. We went to Romans 11, which is what we all have thought is what the ancients knew about the olive tree. We had James Faulconer come give us a paper on this. We had Gary Gillium work his magic on the bibliography. And then John Tvedtnes has two wonderful, wonderful pieces. One, "Borrowing from the Parable of Zenos," but one on the "Olive Oil: Symbol of the Holy Ghost." Too often, we don't realize that central to the symbolism of the olive tree in the ancient world was the Holy Ghost. That when kings were anointed, King Saul and King David, it says that the Holy Spirit came upon them, the association of the olive oil with the Holy Ghost and also its usage in the temple. Stephen Ricks talked to us about olive cultures in the Second Temple era.

[00:12:53.970] - David Rolph Seely

And then we had some botanists, Wilford Hess, Daniel Fairbank, John Welch, Jonathan Driggs talked to us about "Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to Jacob 5." We had Jack Welch, "The Last Words of Cenez and the Book of Mormon." I wrote a piece with Jack, "Zenos and the Texts of the Old Testament," in which we explored at some length the power of the imagery of the trees, but also specifically the olive tree throughout the Old Testament.

[00:13:33.220] - Jack Welch

Here's this book that I referred to on the Allegory of the Olive Tree. In one chapter, David and I discuss Old Testament passages related to the olive tree, such as Exodus 15 or in Psalm 52:8, "I am like a green olive tree in the house of God: I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever." In the same Psalm, the Psalmist sings, "God shall likewise destroy thee for ever, he shall take thee away, and pluck thee out of thy dwelling place, and root thee out of the land of the living. Selah." A Psalm like this would resonate with people if they understood something like Zenos's prophecy in Jacob 5. Psalm 80 also contains in verses 8 through 19, many references to and echoes of the olive tree. It begins in verse 8 by saying, "Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt." A vineyard where grapes are usually grown, and an orchard where olives are usually grown, are often spoken of with the same vocabulary because the two, the vines and the orchard grow together. Sometimes in classical literature, we even find the two intertwined and the vines growing on the olive trees themselves.

[00:15:07.040] - Jack Welch

Psalm 80 continues, "She sent out her boughs unto the sea and her branches unto the river." I think that the Nephites would have understood exactly what that Psalm was talking about. In verse 15, "And the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch which thou hast made strong for thyself. It is burned with fire, it is cut down." Again, the writing of a song like this that was sung in the temple would have been most meaningful if this kind of imagery and the understanding of olive horticulture was already widely understood. Hosea 14 also celebrated the loving mercy of God and used some of the imagery of the olive tree and the way in which olive trees must be tended so carefully to help people understand the love of God for his people. Isaiah 5, talking about a vineyard or an orchard on a very fruitful hill. And in verse 4, you hear Isaiah lamenting, "What could have been done more to my vineyard?" Again, another phrase that corresponds closely with Jacob 5. We can't always tell which came first. Jacob 5, or some of these prophecies, but the fact that there are so many of these allusions to and utilizations of Jacob's vocabulary in the Old Testament would seem to say that they are all drawing upon a common source, which would be Zenos's Allegory, rather than somehow Zenos later pulling these little strands together and creating the long allegory, which itself has so much coherence and integrity as a text by itself. It doesn't appear to be a derivative text, but one upon which people would have relied and would have had great influence throughout ancient Israel.

[00:17:22.910] - Jack Welch

But let's finish this video with some final words from our interview with David Seely.

[00:17:28.480] - Jack Welch

David, as we look back on this whole collection, is there any book like this anywhere in biblical literature, that focuses for over 600 pages on the olive culture and its importance and meaning?

[00:17:45.180] - David Rolph Seely

Well, not that I know of.

[00:17:46.680] - Jack Welch

Not that I know of either. Of course, we have Jacob chapter 5.

[00:17:50.630] - David Rolph Seely

Right, which is a great impetus, starting point.

[00:17:52.790] - Jack Welch

So we're motivated to understand it. That's the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon. So do you think it's fair that the commentary is one of the longest books.

[00:18:02.730] - David Rolph Seely

Well, it certainly does show our commitment to honoring this text with providing studies about it from all different kinds of angles.

[00:18:11.130] - Jack Welch

David, thank you very much for this trip down memory lane.

[00:18:15.100] - David Rolph Seely


[00:18:15.580] - Jack Welch

Thirty years ago, celebrating the publication of this book that is still worth its weight in olive oil. With this discussion, you may wonder how you can get a copy of this book, which is still available in used book stores. Of course, it's out of print and long since has been out of print. But because we live in a digital age, this book has been digitized. It is in the archive on Scripture Central. If you, again, just sign on to the Scripture Central homepage and go to Research and then click on Archive, which is just another word for the Library. You can find there this book, just search Allegory of the Olive Tree, and you'll have not only a PDF of the whole book, but also chapter by chapter, you can open the HTML versions as well. So, I hope you'll enjoy reading selectively or throughout the entire book. Download it, and as you get to Jacob 5 and throughout the Book of Mormon, you can refer back to this.