Biblical Herbs

by Joelle Steele

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The Bible offers us a wealth of information and insight into the ancient lands of the Mediterranean region in Asia Minor. But, reading and accepting the scriptures at face value can be a mistake when it comes to plants. For example, a rose is not always a rose. The Biblical "Rose of Sharon" is actually a bulb that we now call an autumn crocus. Even with a solid knowledge of botany and history, experts can, in some cases, only speculate exactly which plant species grown in the ancient Holy Lands are mentioned in the Bible. This is due to conflicts in the various translations.

It was originally asserted that the first translation of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek was done by as many as 72 translators, each doing a different section, and that before the year 400 AD there had already been several known translations of original Hebrew into Greek and Latin. For centuries, the Vulgate version, taken from Hebrew and Greek texts and differing radically from previous translations, became the accepted standard even though many revisions were made throughout those years. There were numerous English translations undertaken during the middle ages, but it was not until 1611, after many failed attempts, that a standard English version, the Authorized or King James Bible, was created.

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After all of these translations of the scriptures by non-botanists, and without the benefit of binomial nomenclature (the system of classifying plants using Latin names began in 1753), we are left with a Biblical plant list which sometimes bears little resemblance to the actual plants that existed during ancient times. In order to determine what these early plants were, scholars have turned to some of the earliest Hebrew Biblical texts and to various historical writings of ancient Greek and Roman scholars. This has still resulted in some controversy, but we now have a much more accurate picture of the plants in question.

The "herbs," as referred to in the Bible, were those plants which were used for their aroma and for their flavor enhancement of foods. Today, vegetables and some fruits are, botanically speaking, herbs. But, in order to stay true to the theme of the Bible, this book will deal only with those plants that fulfill the Biblical definition.

Herbs and spices were a vital part of the lives of the people in the Holy Land. Some were very rare and costly and were used for tithing. Some were not native to the Holy Land at all and were transported there in the course of trade, exploration, and colonization. In the same way, many plants that originated in the Holy Land before the time of Christ found their way to other geographical locations. Today, those ancient plants have descendants all over the world which have adapted to their current climates and habitats, although many still bear a close resemblance to their ancestors.

Aloe succotrina. There are about nineteen herbs which have been documented and authenticated by experts, but some did not arrive without controversy. The aloes are believed to be large trees such as Aquilaria agallocha (eaglewood tree) or Santalum album (sandalwood), but neither is native to the Holy Land. The Egyptians used Aloe succotrina in embalming and it is now believed that this was the aloe Nicodemus brought to anoint the body of Jesus in John 19:39: "Nicodemus ... brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight." North American Bible gardens may contain A. succotrina or one of its related species, but they will not attain the height of trees as they do in their native habitat of east Africa.

Anethum graveolens. The anise of the Bible is not really anise at all. From Greek translations of the Bible, experts have determined that "anethon," the Greek word for this herb, refers to the plant we call dill, Anethum graveolens. Dill was widely cultivated for centuries and still grows wild in Palestine to this day, especially on the plain of Sharon. It was an aromatic and medicinal herb whose seeds were used as a carminative, and it was also a tithing herb which the Pharisees paid in the temple according to Matthew 23:23: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin and have omitted the weightier matters of the law..."

Origanum syriacum or O. maru. Hyssop is another Biblical herb whose exact origin was in question for some time. Some still argue that the herb referred to as "hyssop" in I Kings 4:33 is either Hyssopus officinalis, Capparis sicula, or Sorghum vulgare. In reality, it is quite possible that hyssop may actually refer to several different plants, however, most botanists concur that it is not any of the aforementioned three choices and is most likely Origanum syriacum or O. maru (Syrian marjoram), both members of the mint family. Marjoram was used in rituals and cleansing and was also a spice. It grows among rocks and in crevices in walls as illustrated by this passage from I Kings 4:33: "And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall."

Anthemis chia or A. nobilis. Chamomile is the name attributed to the grass referred to in Luke 12:28 when Jesus encourages his disciples to have faith in the Lord for all things, including clothing, saying: "If then God so clothes the grass, which is to day in the field, and tomorrow is cast in the oven." Anthemis chia, a wild, annual groundcover, once grew in abundance on the hillsides of Palestine and the ancient Egyptians steeped its dried, highly aromatic leaves in wine to reduce high fevers, much like A. nobilis is used for its sedative effect in chamomile tea.

Cichorium intybus and C. endivia. Bitter herbs are mentioned throughout the scriptures and were used to represent the bitter slavery from which God delivered the Israelites. In Numbers 9:11 we find: "The fourteenth day of the second month at even they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs ..." and in Exodus 12:8: "And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it." These bitter herbs are most likely relatives of chicory and endive along with other unrelated plant species which exacted a bitter taste. Chicory, Cichorium intybus, is also called succory and was used as a flavor enhancer. The ancient Egyptians ate large quantities of chicory because they believed it to be a blood and liver purifier, and the Israelites may have acquired the taste for this herb during their enslavement in that country. Endive, Cichorium endivia, is a close relative to chicory and was used as a salad green. It is probably one of the original bitter herbs eaten at the Feast of the Passover.

Taraxacum officinale and Artemisia absinthium judaica. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, was also a bitter herb used in salads and also eaten cooked to remove its bitter taste. Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium judaica, was usually mentioned as a symbol of bitter experience as it is mentioned often and always with negative connotations.

Rumex acetosella. Sorrel or dock, Rumex acetosella, has very bitter leaves which were mixed with other greens to enhance their flavor. Romans used the leaves medicinally because it is high in vitamins A and C and had a reputation as a blood cleanser. They did not eat a lot of it, however, as the high oxalic content is hard on the kidneys.

Nasturtium officinale. Yet another bitter herb was the watercress, Nasturtium officinale, which grew along the banks of rivers and had a pungent taste which was highly valued as a flavor enhancer in salads. It was high in iron and was also used as a remedy for scurvy.

Mentha longifolia. Mint, Mentha longifolia, grew wild along the water in ancient times and was a tithing herb used as a cooking spice, in religious rites, and for medicinal purposes. In synagogues it was strewn over the floors to disguise bad odors as it was trod upon. It is one of the bitter herbs eaten at the Jewish Passover feast.

Brassica arvensis. The nettles of the Bible referred to charlock, Brassica arvensis, a wild mustard. It has been suggested from time to time that the sharp and strong-tasting leaves could qualify this herb as one of the bitters. Its young leaves were added to salads and sometimes cooked as a vegetable. It is mainly known as a weed in the Bible. Solomon, in Proverbs 24:31, observes a lazy farmer's neglected fields overgrown with the weedy nettles: "And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof."

Nardostachys valeriana jatamansi. Two of the aromatic herbs mentioned in the Bible are nard and galbanum. Nard, Nardostachys valeriana jatamansi, also known as spikenard, is mentioned in John 12:3: "Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus." Nard was imported from India and the mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. It was brought to the Holy Lands by caravan and its stems were dried for perfume and were also used for the anointment of bodies in funeral rites. Mentioned also in Mark 14:3,4, it is again pointed out that this was an expensive commodity: "Jesus was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. As he sat at table, a woman came in carrying a small bottle of very costly perfume, pure oil of nard. She broke it open and poured the oil over his head."

Ferula galbaniflua. Galbanum, also called ferula, is an herbacious plant indigenous from Syria to Persia. The dried resin from the stems of Ferula galbaniflua were burned with other spices to disguise unpleasant odors, and it was one of the ingredients in the incense burned in the Tabernacle of Moses as stated in Exodus 30:34-38: "And the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum."

Coriandrum sativum. Some herbs were valued as seasonings. Coriander fruits (erroneously called seeds), were used as food flavorings and as medicine. Coriandrum sativum was a native of the Holy Lands and was cultivated in Palestine for thousands of years. The Romans used it to prevent meat spoilage.

Cuminum cyminum. Cumin or cummin, Cuminum cyminum, was tithed by the Pharisees and was cultivated extensively in Palestine since the days of Isaiah. The Jews used the seed-like fruits in their unleavened bread. It was also used as a condiment and spice in breads throughout the middle east and as a medicine to aid in the digestion.

Nigella sativa. The fitches of the Bible, Nigella sativa (fennel or nutmeg flower), were cultivated for their seeds which were used as a substitute for black pepper and as an appetite stimulant. Both fitches and cumin are cited in Isaiah 28:25 in the form of a parable in which a farmer's orderly methods are likened to God's plan for sustaining His people: "When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin."

Brassica nigra. Perhaps one of the most well known passages in the Bible is that of the parable in Luke 13:19 in which the fast growth of the Gospel message is compared to the rapid development of the mustard seed into a tree-like plant: "It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree." There were several varieties of mustard in the Holy Lands, but the most likely one for the Bible is Brassica nigra, the black mustard whose greens were used as a cooked vegetable and whose seed oil was used for lamp oil.

Ruta graveolens. Rue is only mentioned once in the Bible. Ruta graveolens was cultivated in Palestine during the time of Jesus when it was used as a food flavoring and as a medicine. It was once called the "herb of grace" because it was associated with repentance and is mentioned as a tithing herb in Luke 11:42: "But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs."

No doubt there will be someone who reads this and believes that their favorite Biblical plant should be included as an herb. You are in good company, since many experts on Biblical gardening do not always agree on what should be included as an herb. But, the herbs mentioned so far will give you a good start on your own Biblical garden. With so many other non-herb Biblical plants and trees available, you can add whichever ones you like the most or that grow the best in your area. Whatever you do, you will have a beautiful garden filled with an ancient and enduring historical significance.

Herbs of the Bible

The following is a list of herbs found in the Bible. Substitutes are offered in instances where the original species is unavailable or will not grow in some North American climatic regions.

aloe [Greek: aloe] Aloe succotrina, substitutes: A. africana, A. arborescens, A. vera, or A. vera chinensis {John 19:39, Psalms 45:9}

anise [Greek: anethon] Anethum graveolens (dill) {Matthew 23:23}

chicory Cichorium intybus (succory) {Numbers 9:11}

coriander [Hebrew: gad] Coriandrum sativum, {Exodus 16:31}

cummin [Hebrew: cammon] Cuminum cyminum (cumin) {Isaiah 28:27}

dandelion [Hebrew: merorim] Taraxacum officinale {Exodus 12:8}

endive Cichorium endivia {Genesis 2:4-5}

fitches [Hebrew: ketzah] Nigella sativa (fennel) {Isaiah 28:25}

galbanum [Hebrew: chalbenah] Ferula galbaniflua, substitute: F. communis (ferula) {Exodus 30:34}

grass Anthemis chia, substitute: A. nobilis (chamomile) {Luke 12:28}

hyssop Origanum syriacum, O. maru, substitute: O. vulgare (marjoram) {I Kings 4:33}

mint Mentha longifolia (horsemint) {Matthew 23:23}

mustard [Greek: sinapi] Brassica nigra {Luke 13:19}

nard [Hebrew: nard, Greek: narkom] Nardostachys valeriana jatamansi, substitute: Valeriana officinalis (spikenard) {John 12:3}

nettles Brassica arvensis (charlock, wild mustard) {Proverbs 24:31}

rue [Greek: peganon] Ruta graveolens (herb of grace) {Luke 11:42}

sorrel Rumex acetosella, substitute: R. acetosa (a.k.a. dock) {Exodus 9:25}

watercress Nasturtium officinale {Deuteronomy 32:2}

wormwood [Hebrew: laanah] Artemisia absinthium judaica {Jeremiah 23:15}

This article last updated: 07/14/2002.