Revisiting the medicinal plants of the Bible and the Holy Land

Many of the medicinal plants of the Bible described above do not correspond to the flora of the Holy Land. Using modern interpretations of ancient Hebrew, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian sources, the authors narrowed these potential medicinal plants to 45 species of which 20 had not previously been included. Amots Dafni (Institute of Evolution, Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology, University of Haifa, Israel) has extensive knowledge of the ethnobotany of sacred, ritual and medicinal plants of the Holy Land. Barbara Boeck (Institute of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Languages ​​and Cultures, Madrid) studies the healing therapies and medicinal plants of ancient Mesopotamia.

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The Holy Land, an area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea which also includes the eastern bank of the Jordan, is synonymous with the biblical land of Israel and Palestine. This was an ancient botanical crossroads, enjoying an active trade in spices, incense and medicines from Egypt to Mesopotamia and beyond. Its flora includes about 2,700 species, some of medical value.

Among the earliest written records of plants in this region are the Egyptian medical papyri. The Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC) contains 700 magical formulas and recipes, including the medical uses of plants. Thousands of cuneiform documents have been found in the Assyrian ruins of Nineveh (Mesopotamia) (the cuneiform is a writing system invented in ancient Mesopotamia that is recognizable by its wedge-shaped markings on clay tablets) from before 500 BC. C. which mention more than a thousand plant species. Many of the cuneiform medical texts (including plant-only texts) have yet to be translated.
In the original Hebrew version of the Bible (8th-3rd century BC), the names of the plants are often not clear. Modern books showing alleged biblical plants draw conclusions that are often questionable. For example, in these books, the biblical lily is variously considered to be seven different plants, including cyclamen. This confusion is understandable, partly because the same plant can have multiple names even in one country: Cyclamen persicum has at least 30 Arabic names.

The tree most mentioned in the Old Testament is the date palm: it appears 34 times, mainly as the name of a place or the name of a person, and only six times it means the plant itself. The date palm has been proposed as the tree of life, but since neither the tree of life nor the tree of knowledge have a specific name in the Bible, their true identities continue to be the subject of speculation.

Most of the plants in the Bible are mentioned only in passing and the reference to medicinal use is even less frequent.

Translators of the Bible, such as the King James Version (1611), were not familiar with the original Hebrew and knew little about the flora of the Holy Land. To avoid this, they have sometimes chosen names for their local floras to make the plants familiar to their readers. There are similar identity problems for plants mentioned in medical contexts in the Talmud (text of rabbinic Judaism, with versions ranging from the 3rd to the 8th century BC).
Most of the plants in the Bible are mentioned only in passing and the reference to medicinal use is even less frequent. Examples of biblical medical applications are the use of “balm” to heal wounds (Jeremiah), fig as a boil cure (Isaiah) and mandrake as a fertility remedy that allows Jacob and Leah to have a fifth son (Genesis). The mandrake had about 88 different medicinal uses in the ancient world; some of which still continue today.

Researchers should be aware that plant names can change over time and some can be discarded or forgotten. Plants used in medicine and witchcraft often have many local names (such as Mandrake). Furthermore, the same plant can have multiple names and the same name can refer to more than one species (such as Artemisia) or genera (such as Cupressus / Juniperus).

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