Jesus’s Vine and Horace’s Branches

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What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. Ordering information here, but coming soon is the new two-volume edition!

Commentary on John 15:1-6 – Jesus shows his agrarian roots not in drawing this analogy, since it appears in the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:1-10), but by amplifying it with knowledgeable references to the husbandry of grape vines. The Greek word καθαιρω means both “to prune” and “to clean(se)”, so there is something of a double entendre in these verses. A farmer carefully prunes grape branches that are bearing much fruit, so they bear even more, and in the same way, in this analogy, the Word (again, the word Λογος, suggesting God’s plan for the entirety of creation) that Jesus brings prunes away or cleanses anything that is dross in those who accept that plan, such that they are fruitful.

The Latin poet Horace (65-8 B.C.E.) often refers poetically to the husbanding of grapes, for instance these lines from his second epode:

Adulta vitium propagine
Altas maritat populos …
Unutilisque falce ramos amputans
Feliciores inserit.

He weds the tall poplar
To the productive vine; …
With his knife he cuts out useless branches
And grafts better in their place.

There are but scant suggestions that John the Presbyter, clearly well versed in the Greek classics, was at all familiar with the Latin masters; the only other I have found is a possible reference to Vergil in chapter 20. If it was not Horace himself in the gospel writer’s mind as he shaped Jesus’s speech, it may have been any of several Greek poets; pastoral verse of this sort was not uncommon. I am not at all implying that Jesus’s comments here were made up by the Presbyter by borrowing from classical poets, but rather that, as ancient poets often did, he found reflections of Jesus’s greatness in the classical works he knew and loved, which he knew would also be known to and loved by many of his potential readers, and which he would have believed, in a manner typical of his day, proved not just the validity and immortality of Jesus’s teaching, but that it came from God.

This passage from Horace suggests a possible alternate understanding of Jesus’s metaphor. Horace speaks of wedding the vine and the tree together: without the branches of the tree to hold up the vine, the latter cannot flourish. Of course, wedding metaphors permeate this gospel, finding their rootage in the Tanakh’s frequent analogy of the covenant between God and the Israelites as a marriage. If 15:1-6 is read in that light, then the branches of which Jesus speaks are not tendrils growing out from the mainstock of the vine, but rather the branches of a tree which hold up the vine, which enable it to live and produce fruit, and which make it and its fruit visible to the entire world, like the “serpent of Moses” (3:14). And the tree in question would be, symbolically, the Tree of Life (which is the same as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), the tree that also appears in Revelation 2:7 and 22:1-2.

Building on this reading, Jesus is saying his disciples bear Jesus’s fruit indirectly, inasmuch as they like tree branches bear and lift up the fruiting vine, and they cannot bear fruit by themselves, but only if they stay with the vine (15:4). And he is saying that those who live by his teaching will make it possible for the vine to bear fruit well into the future – but that any tree branches which fail to hold up the vine are cut away and burned in the fire (15:6). This interpretation not only carries the gospel’s frequent marriage motif and the motif of lifting up Jesus so he is visible to the world, but it also alludes to the Paraclete: this gospel, which is the promised Paraclete as discussed elsewhere, is the means by which followers of Jesus can all him to “abide in them”, keeping him ever alive and ever before the world. And the fruits of this vine are the fulfillment of the Λογος, the plan of God, the vintner in this metaphor.

Curiously, the Persian Diatessaron has Jesus say in 15:1 not “I am the true vine”, but ﻣـاـن ﺩـرـاـکــحــطى ﻣـوـاﯽ ﺭـاـثــطـى ﺭـاـثــطـى (man dirakht-i mīva-yi rāstī). This has been rendered into English as “I am the tree of the fruit of truth” (Craig D. Allert) and, adhering more closely to the word-for-word meaning, as “I am the fruit-tree of truth” (Robert Murray, from the Italian of Guiseppe Messina). However, a careful rendering of the suffixes has the Persian saying “I am the fruit of the tree of truth”. This version of 15:1, as an obvious reference to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil forbidden to Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:17), supports the conclusion above, based on Horace’s poetry, that Jesus was speaking of himself in terms of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This Diatessaron is a thirteenth century version of a now-lost very early Syriac text that retained many readings from Tatian’s original second century Diatessaron, the original text of which is, but for a couple of small bits, known only in part from quotations in later writers. (A diatessaron is a single work that draws together the four canonical gospels into one narrative.) With at least one link in the chain of copies lost, we cannot know whether this version of 15:1 comes from Tatian, or a later scribe of extremely unusual inventiveness in his handling of what was by then sacred scripture not to be edited. Yet there is a chance that this Persian version preserves an extremely early text from the Cæsarean family of manuscripts, even earlier than the Syriac Sinaiticus, one close in time and text to Tatian’s Diatessaron – in short a very early text originating in the nearest circle to John the Presbyter’s original manuscript.

And both the Syriac Sinaiticus and the Peshitta seem to support the Persian (the only other early Syriac manuscript, the Curetonian Gospels, is missing the final chapters of John). In those versions the beginning of 15:1 reads: ܐܢܐ ܐܢܐ ܓܦܬܐ ܕܫܪܪܐ (“I I the vine of truth”). There is no apparent reason for the repeated “I” (pronounced enā or ănā), raising a near certainty of a scribal error here, since the Aramaic word for “fruit”, ܐܒܐ (ebā), easily could have been misread and miswritten as ܐܢܐ. If this probable error is repaired, the phrase reads “I am the fruit of the vine of truth”, which is so close to the Persian version that the shift from “vine” to “tree” could be just an accident in the shift from Aramaic to Persian. The word for “fruit” is a homonym in pronunciation and spelling of ܐܒܐ, ABA, the word for “father” that appears in the second half of this verse (ܘܐܒܝ ܗܘ ܦܠܚܐ; “my father is the laborer”), so an early scribe may have misunderstood ܐܒܐ as meaning not “fruit” but “father”, making the sentence seem to read “I am the father of truth and my father is the laborer”, and he then corrected the apparent dittography of “father”. Strengthening this analysis is the fact that in verse two an entirely different word from ܐܒܐ is used; though this word, ܦܐܪܐ (peryā) is usually translated as “fruit”, it is closer to the English noun “produce”. As noted above in reference to the Greek, the Aramaic of 15:4 also speaks of tree branches that cannot bear the fruit of the vine by themselves, but only if they hold up the vine. The meaning is clear: these texts have Jesus saying that we must lift up Jesus and his teaching, just as trees lift up the fruit-bearing vine in Horace’s image; if we fail to do so, we will be taken away by the husbandman, the father.

All this is so impressive that it seems quite likely that Horace suggests, and the Persian Diatessaron and the Syriac Sinaiticus point to, the now-lost original reading. But, since there is no solid textual support for what is ultimately just a conjecture, I include the Persian-Syriac versions of 15:1-2 as alternate readings in my translation.
This last parabolic teaching in the Last Supper discourse appropriately echoes the first and last of the gospel’s seven miracles, that of the water turned wine and that of the fruiting grains. It thus emphasizes Jesus’s central teaching in the gospel that if we choose to be part of God’s Λογος we will bear much fruit and live into the Æon; but, if not, we will be “pruned away”. In this metaphor, Jesus means to say I AM, God, is the mainstem of the vine, and provides the lifegiving loving sap/blood that gives us life and envigors our souls, and it is for us to turn that sap into the fruit of love, and Jesus serves (like all prophets) as mediator/means for the nourishment of God to fill us.

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.


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