I was gobsmacked to learn yesterday that Spain’s Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente has published a book entitled La vegetación de la Biblia in order to ”increase knowledge of the Bible and of the vegetation mentioned in its books.” Written by the retired engineer José Javier Nicolás (d. 2011) and prefaced by Juan Ruiz de la Torre, professor emeritus of Botany at Madrid’s Universidad Politécnica, the book presents the results of Nicolás’ exhaustive efforts to correlate the various trees, shrubs, and grasses mentioned in scripture with actual specimens observable in the world today.
As this review in El Público makes clear, Nicolás’ study has yielded some interesting conclusions, among which are his determination that Zaccheus must have climbed a sycamore, and not a common fig tree, in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus; evidently fig trees are too spindly and too flexible to support the weight of the typical ancient Israelite! Unfortunately, however, Nicolás was unable to resolve what he calls “one of the most serious problems in biblical research,” namely, the proper identification of the fruit which Eve is said to have plucked from the tree of knowledge in Eden. As Nicolás notes, the convention of describing the fruit as an apple is surely mistaken, for apples are not native to Palestine. Note a few fascinating assumptions:  that the Garden of Eden was in Palestine, and not further East as it is often depicted (on this subject, see Alessandro Scafi‘s wonderful Mapping Paradise [Chicago, 2006]);  that it should be possible to reconcile the flora of Eden with modern counterparts; and  that knowing precisely what kind of fruit Adam and Eve are supposed to have eaten will shed meaningful light on the their story.
So why am I gobsmacked? Well, for two reasons. First, for the same reason as many of my Spanish friends and colleagues: at a time when the Spanish government is withdrawing resources from (and reducing the salaries of) the many brilliant young professors and researchers active in Spanish universities today, it can nevertheless find subsidies to publish amateur projects like this one. Secondly, because it’s not everyday that one sees a subject that was all the rage in the seventeenth century resuscitated, with complete seriousness, in the twenty-first. Though I expect that Nicolás is not familiar with his early modern ancestors, the kind of study of biblical flora and fauna which he has produced was a mainstay of seventeenth-century biblical criticism. In works like Wolfgang Franz‘s Historia animialium sacra (1613), Samuel Bochart‘s Hierozoicon, sive, bipertitum opus de animalibus sacrae scripturae (1663), and Johann Ursin‘s Continuatio historiae plantarum biblicae (1665), early modern scholars worked feverishly to find precisely the same kinds of correlations between biblical and modern plants and animals that evidently animates Nicolás and his benefactors at the Ministerio. Readers interested in these projects may want to look at Jonathan Sheehan’s article ”From Philology to Fossils: The Biblical Encyclopedia in Early Modern Europe,”1 as well as my chapter on “Scholarly Pilgrims: The Holy Land Among the Antiquarians” in the forthcoming volume on Renaissance historia sacra edited by Kate van Liere, Simon Ditchfield, and Howard Louthan.
I suspect that there is some kind of Masson-de-Morvilliers-esque joke in all of this about the supposedly stalled nature of Spanish intellectual culture—viz. that even when the Spanish create a sophisticated apparatus of state patronage for scientific research, they wind up stuck in the seventeenth century—but that would be profoundly unfair to the legions of splendid Spanish historians who seem to be in danger of missing out on the enthusiastic sponsorship that they deserve.
- Jonathan Sheehan, “From Philology to Fossils: The Biblical Encyclopedia in Early Modern Europe,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64, no. 1 (January 2003): 41–60. [↩]