Mary and the Tree of Life
John A. Tvedtnes
When Nephi asked his angelic guide to explain the meaning of the tree of life that he and his father had seen in vision, the angel showed him a vision of the virgin Mary in the town of Nazareth and the mission and life of her son Jesus (1 Nephi 11:9-22). Daniel C. Peterson has suggested that Nephi, knowing that the tree represented the Canaanite goddess Asherah, who was the “mother of the gods” and whose symbol was a tree or a grove of trees,[i] readily made the tie with Mary, the mother of Jesus.[ii] In the account of his vision, Nephi called her “the mother of God” (verse 18).[iii]
Just prior to the publication of Peterson’s article, I came across an early Christian text that associated Mary with the tree of life, and he was able to incorporate it into the published version. The text is very much like Nephi’s vision and was considered by some early Christians to be the vision of Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4:
“And he held me by the hand and led me near the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and he said: This is the tree by which death entered into the world, and receiving of it through his wife Adam ate and death entered into the world. And he shewed me another tree in the midst of Paradise, and saith to me: This is the tree of life . . . While I was yet looking upon the tree, I saw a virgin coming from afar and two hundred angels before her saying hymns, and I asked and said: Sir, who is she who comes in so great glory? And he said to me: This is Mary the Virgin, the Mother of the Lord.” (Apocalypse of Paul 45-46)[iv]
Note that, in both visions, the individual is guided by an angel to whom he addresses questions about what he is seeing and that the virgin Mary appears immediately after the vision of the tree. Only Nephi mentions the town of Nazareth, where she lived.
Since sharing this discovery, I have noted other passages that associate Mary with the tree of life. One is from a homily attributed to Gregory Thaumaturgus (ca. AD 213-270), bishop of Neocaesarea in Pontus (northern Turkey of today). Writing of “the holy Virgin,” whom he also calls “the holy Mary,” he notes that, when addressed by the angel Gabriel, she wondered whether the event would “prove the cause of trouble to me, as of old the fair promise of being made like God, which was given her by the serpent-devil, proved to our first mother Eve? Has the devil, who is the author of all evil, become transformed again into an angel of light?” In praise of Mary, he continues:
“With what indications and proclamations of praise shall we celebrate her stainless figure? With what spiritual song or word shall we honor her who is most glorious among the angels? She is planted in the house of God[v] like a fruitful olive that the Holy Spirit overshadowed;[vi] and by her means are we called sons and heirs of the kingdom of Christ. She is the ever-blooming paradise of incorruptibility, wherein is planted the tree that giveth life, and that furnisheth to all the fruits of immortality. She is the boast and glory of virgins, and the exultation of mothers. She is the sure support of the believing, and the succorer of the pious. She is the vesture of light, and the domicile of virtue. She is the ever-flowing fountain, wherein the water of life sprang and produced the Lord’s incarnate manifestation . . . the life-bearing plant . . . Thou hast given to us boldness of access into paradise.” (Homily 2 On the Annuncation to the Holy Virgin Mary)[vii]
As in the Apocalypse of Paul, Gregory associates Mary with the tree of life in the same way Eve was associated with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Angels are said to sing her praises and, as in Nephi’s vision, there is emphasis on the fact that she conceived the Savior while yet a virgin. Nephi did not mention the angelic choir, but his father Lehi, describing one of his visions, did so (1 Nephi 1:8; cf. Alma 36:22).
Medieval Byzantine icons depict Mary as the tree of life, with Jesus being the fruit of eternal life, just as in some texts she is compared with the ark of the covenant, carrying Jesus as the ark carried the tablets of the law. One medieval painting depicts the Tree of Life with Mary, crowned and well clothed, on one side and naked Eve on the other. Eve is distributing the bitter fruit to others, while a skull grimacing in death looks out from her side of the tree. Mary is removing pure white hosts (communion wafers, representing Christ’s body) from the branches and placing them in the mouths of others like a priest giving communion. In the branches on her side of the tree is a crucifix facing those who partake of its fruit. The white fruit is reminiscent of Lehi’s dream of the tree of life in 1 Nephi 8.[viii]
Beginning in the fifth century, a score of Christian texts, written in such diverse languages as in Coptic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Armenian, discuss what has come to be called in Roman Catholicism the Assumption of Mary. In some versions, Mary is resurrected from her tomb and taken bodily to heaven by Christ. In other versions, angels, led by Michael, take her body to the earthly paradise and bury her beneath the tree of life, where her body remains uncorrupted. Mary’s connection to a tree was also noted in the second century AD by Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.19.1), who contrasted the fall by the virgin Eve through a tree with salvation that came through another tree by the crucifixion of the son of the virgin Mary.
A poem by Ephraim of Syria, bishop of Nisbis (died AD 373) compares Mary to “the staff of Aaron, it budded, and the dry wood yielded fruit! Its mystery is cleared up, for the virgin womb a Child hath born!” (Hymns on the Nativity of Christ 1).[i] Another Syriac father, John of Damascus (died ca. 755), called her “paradise of the tree of life” (Sermon III: On the Assumption). Gregory of Narek, a tenth-century Armenian saint, described Mary as “the living Eden” and “the healer of the pangs of Eve.” During the celebration of the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Armenian priest blesses grapes and prays that those present may be “worthy of partaking from the Tree of Life.”[ii]
More recently, a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Marie Stephen O.P. of Rosary College prepared a list of titles given to Mary in Fr. Thomas Linius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries (Burns and Oates, 1893), among which we find the following: Most holy paradise of Eden, Tree of good foliage, Tree of Life, Vine fruitful with grapes, Vine bringing forth a pleasant odor, Rod that blossomed forth Christ as the flower, Root of the loveliest Flower that blooms, Flower unfading, Garden of the Father, Root of all good things, Vine bearing beautiful grapes.[i] She later compiled a second list from the divine office of the Roman rite, which includes the following: Fruit to the barren, Paradise where blossoms the Tree of Life, Verdant tree of life-giving joy, Flourishing vine, Bush burning and unconsumed, Apple tree among the trees of the woods, Keeper in the vineyard, Garden enclosed, Cedar of Libanus [Lebanon], Cypress of Mount Sion, Bud of promise, Slender branch carrying the Fruit of the whole human race, Priestly rod blossoming without root, Flowering rod of Aaron, Rod of Jesse bearing Christ, Fruit from which came the sweet Jesus, Choice of firstfruits, Garden of delight, Mountain of God,[ii] fertile and shady, Palm tree in Cades, Fair olive tree in the plains.[iii] The terms are used in both eastern and western Christian traditions. It is affirmed by some that “By the action of the Holy Spirit, Mary became the tree of Life. The fruit of this tree is first of all Our Lord Who is the bread of life.”[iv]
In the Eastern churches, Mary is sometimes identified with Hagia Sophia, “Holy Wisdom,” reminding us that in Proverbs 3:18, wisdom is said to be “a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her.” From ties such as the ones discussed here, it seems that the connection of Mary to the tree of life in early Christian tradition is stronger than we first realized.
[i] Asherah was a fertility goddess married to the chief god, El. Her name means “grove,” which is how it is rendered in the Bible when describing places where some of the people worshipped outside the temple.
[ii] Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8-23,” in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scriptures, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 191-243.
[iii] The first (1830) edition of the Book of Mormon called Mary “the mother of God” in 1 Nephi 11:18, but it was changed to read “mother of the Son of God” in subsequent editions. Critics of the Book of Mormon claim that the change was made because Joseph Smith had later come to reject the Trinitarian view of the Godhead. I am inclined to consider the modification as a means of reflecting not a change in doctrine, but a clarification thereof. Jesus is, after all, a divine entity who created the world, so Mary was literally the “mother of God,” but the New Testament calls him the “Son of God,” prompting the change in the Nephi passage to more clearly reflect his position in the Godhead. Similarly, in 1 Nephi 11:21, 13:40, Jesus was called “the Eternal Father,” but was later changed to read “the Son of the Eternal Father.”
[iv] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 9:164.
[v] In early Christian tradition, Mary is said to have resided in the temple, where she helped prepare the veils. Cf. Psalm 92:12-13: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God.”
[vii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers 6:62.
[viii] In his article, Peterson notes that the fruit of the tree is described by Lehi as “white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen” (1 Nephi 8:11; cf. Alma 32:42) while Nephi, after seeing the tree of life, saw Mary and described her as “a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white” (1 Nephi 11:13).
[i] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 13:223.
[ii] Vigen Guroian, “Final Harvest: the Christian Gardener,” Christian Century, 25 September 1996,
[i] Sister Marie Stephen, The Fathers’ Praise of Mary, Orate Fratres (Collegeville Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, May 1951), 268-271.
[ii] Some early Christian texts place the garden of Eden atop a mountain.
[iii] Sister Marie Stephen, Our Lady’s Titles in the Breviary, Worship (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, May 1952), 319-322. The lists were abstracted in the April 1955 issue of Queen of the Missions and are posted at http://www.mgardens.org/BibLit-Symb-QM.html and http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/BIBLIT-S.htm. Note that the vine descriptions have their parallel with Christ’s description of himself as “the true vine” (John 15:1), a term also used by Nephi in his explanation of his vision of the tree of life (1 Nephi 15:15; see also Alma 16:17).