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Book of Mormon Evidence: Ancient White Tree Symbolism That Points to Christ

Episode Transcript

When the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi described his vision of the tree of life, he said that “the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that [he] had ever seen.” Nephi later echoed his father’s words, saying that the tree itself—and not just its fruit—“did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” This idea—of a sacred tree or its fruit being white—has intriguing parallels in the ancient world.

Gold plates dating to around the 4th century BC, sometimes referred to as the Orphic Gold Tablets, describe a white cypress tree next to a fountain or spring of water, set in a shadowy world of spirits. According to Thomas Dousa, the “brightness of the cypress … must have been thought to make it conspicuous in the gloom of the netherworld.” He also saw the tree as a “distinctive landmark” in that dreary setting. Some scholars have seen parallels between this cypress and the tree of life spoken of in the Book of Revelation.

Turning to Lehi’s vision, the Tree of Life was also associated with a fountain of water and contrasted with shadowy gloom—including a “dark and dreary wilderness,” a “dark and dreary waste,” and a “mist of darkness”. In both texts, the white or shining tree functions as a notable landmark for wandering travelers.

An early Christian document called On the Origin of the World states that the “tree of life looks like the sun, and its branches are lovely …. Its leaves are like the leaves of cypress, its fruit is like a cluster of white grapes, and its height reaches the sky.” Biblical scholar Margret Barker, previously unaware of other ancient sources describing such a scene, explains: “Imagine my surprise, when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy.” Barker—who isn’t even a Latter-day Saint—concluded that, “This revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.”

Another set of scholars have declared that “in almost all mythologies the Tree of Life is associated with light because the whole of organic life is dependent upon the light of the sun”. This recalls Alma’s sermon on faith, in which he asked those who have felt the stirrings of the Spirit: “O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good … and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?” Alma connected this discussion with the fruit of the “tree of life”, which he, like Lehi, described as “white above all that is white”.

Later on, Jesus Christ introduced himself to the Nephites as the “light and the life of the world.” When the light of Christ’s countenance shone upon his disciples, they became “as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof.”

When read in context, this language clearly points back to statements about the fruit of the Tree of Life made by Alma, Nephi, and Lehi. So, not only do we have authentically ancient tree-of-life symbolism throughout the text, but it shows up in a remarkable set of intertextual allusions that all point toward Jesus Christ.

These relationships help demonstrate that he is the ultimate source of joy and happiness, he is the true light and life of the world, and he wants all people to come unto him and partake of his goodness. As we do, we become like him, just like his disciples in the Book of Mormon, which is truly another testament of Jesus Christ.