Evidence #386 | January 3, 2023

Botany and Jacob 5 (Overview)

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Scripture Central


The allegory of the olive tree, recorded in Jacob 5, contains many details that are consistent with known botanical principles and horticultural practices.

On more than 50 occasions, the Bible directly mentions various aspects of olive culture, including olives, olive trees, and olive oil (see Appendix). These numerous and diverse references come from many different biblical texts, attesting to the prominent and enduring role that olive culture played in ancient Israel.1 In contrast, only a few chapters in the Book of Mormon contain olive-related references, each of which pertain to the allegory of the olive tree written by an Old-World prophet named Zenos (see 1 Nephi 10; 1 Nephi 15; Jacob 4–6).2 Outside of these texts, no other passages in the Book of Mormon directly discuss olive culture, suggesting that Lehi’s posterity weren’t growing olives in the New World.3

Mesoamerican forests and ruins. Image via journeylatinamerica.com. 

Although just a few Book of Mormon texts have anything to do with olive trees, Zenos’s allegory recorded in Jacob 5 contains, by far, the most extensive discussion of olive horticulture found anywhere in scripture. While some of its olive-related details can also be found in biblical texts, many others couldn’t have been derived from any biblical source or combination of sources.4 This provides a unique opportunity to test the Book of Mormon’s content, in this case on botanical grounds.

Botanically Accurate Details

In 1990, Wilford M. Hess, a professor of botany, compared Zenos’s allegory with known facts and principles pertaining to the cultivation of olive trees.5 Several years later, Hess, along with additional researchers, significantly expanded upon his original work.6 They concluded that “Nearly all of the allegory in Jacob 5 corresponds exceptionally well with both ancient and modern botanical principles and horticultural practices.”7 The following list contains a sample of 20 accurate or consistent details related to olive horticulture found in Zenos’s allegory:

1. principles of aging ripening corruption, and decay,

2. the regular need for “digging” about trees to enrich the soil,

3. the regular need for “nourishing” olive trees in various ways,

4. the regular need to “dung” (fertilize) olive trees,

5. activities involving pruning, plucking, and trimming olive trees,

6. the removal of the “main top” of an olive tree because it was perishing,

7. the need to balance an olive tree’s roots and branches,

8. a caution to “not clear away the bad … all at once” (i.e., to not overprune trees),

9. the need to burn decaying or corrupted branches or trees,

10. a distinction between “wild” and “tame” olive trees,

11. the proliferation of “young and tender branches” after pruning,

12. the grafting in of young and tender branches,

13. the grafting in of wild branches,

14. the planting of olive branches,

15. long periods of time between tending to olive trees,

16. an olive tree’s ability to produce different “sorts of fruit,”

17. the “bitter” taste of olives,

18. the need for additional laborers in preparation for a final harvest,

19. the Lord of the vineyard sharing harvested fruit with his laborers,

20. and the eventuality of laying up fruit against the season (i.e., storing the fruit).

These points are discussed in much greater detail in four related evidence articles:

Those interested in an even deeper dive should directly consult the article written by Hess and his associates, which features nearly 80 pages of commentary on this topic, and which addresses more than 50 specific questions that might be raised in relation to the botanical aspects of Zenos’s allegory.8

Botanically Inaccurate Details

While many of the details in Zenos’s allegory correspond to genuine botanical principles and practices, a couple of them do not. It should be remembered, however, that this is an allegory and should therefore be afforded some degree of creative license. No analogy or comparison ever results in a perfect one-to-one equivalency. At some point the things being compared will be different, and on those points it might be expected that a prophet like Zenos would engage in a little creative reimagining of proper olive cultivation.

Wild Branches Yielding Tame Fruit

Concerning the tame olive tree, the Lord of the vineyard mentioned that “because of the much strength of the root thereof the wild branches have brought forth tame fruit” (Jacob 5:18). Although the quality of fruit from wild branches could be improved through proper care and nourishment, they would, genetically speaking, never be able to produce “tame fruit.”9

Image via goldgrelia.com. 

On the other hand, the “manner in which the servant and Lord of the vineyard speak of the olive tree in verses 16–18 implies that they were pleasantly surprised that the wild branches bore fruit ‘like unto the natural fruit’.”10 In other words, the allegory itself seems to hint that this phenomenon is atypical. “By asserting that the natural fruit became wild, the allegory emphasizes the serious and extensive nature of changes that result from corruption within the House of Israel.”11 Thus, the botanical anomaly draws attention to a rather miraculous and similarly unexpected outcome in Israel’s actual history.

Trees Thriving in Poor Soil

Another oddity in the allegory is the assertion that olive trees can produce quality fruit even though they were planted on “poor” spots of ground, suggesting some type of defect in the soil or a lack of access to water (Jacob 5:22–23). Of course, olive trees, just like most plants, tend to not do well in areas of poor soil. Yet, once again, the allegory itself seems to be aware of its departure from the norm.

When the servant of the vineyard questions the Lord’s judgment about this matter, the Lord replies, “Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground; wherefore, I said unto thee, I have nourished it this long time, and thou beholdest that it hath brought forth much fruit” (v. 22). As assessed by Hess, et al., “the unusual poorness of the soil in this part of the allegory draws attention to the extraordinary care and power of the Lord of the vineyard.”12 It was only through his intervention—impressive in the allegory but truly miraculous in Israel’s history—that the plant (representing a scattered branch of Israel) did so well under such circumstances.

What Could Joseph Smith Have Known of Olive Cultivation?

As farmers, Joseph Smith and his family likely had at least a basic understanding of horticultural principles. As proposed by Hess, et al., “Joseph Smith probably knew how to prune, dig about, dung, and nourish local fruit trees; he probably knew a little about grafting and he may have been familiar with some other horticultural principles, but not likely those peculiarly related to olive culture.”13

Reconstruction of the Smith family farm. Image via rsc.byu.edu. 

For instance, it is unlikely that Joseph Smith would have known that a branch from an olive tree could be “planted” directly into the ground (Jacob 5:21–25). Hess, et al., write: “The olive is one of the few fruit trees that can be propagated by taking a branch of a tree and burying it in the ground. … Olive shoots can be cut off, placed in soil, and indeed they will root.”14 Although a few texts with olive-related information were potentially accessible to Joseph Smith, the data contained therein was relatively limited and, in some cases, inaccurate.15


“In this single chapter of the Book of Mormon,” write Hess and his associates, “there are many detailed horticultural practices and procedures that were not likely known by an untrained person, and may not have been fully appreciated by professional botanists or horticulturalists at the time the Book of Mormon was translated.”16 It is therefore “hard to imagine” that whoever wrote Jacob 5 “was not personally familiar with the minute details and practices involved in raising good olives in a Mediterranean climate.”17

Interestingly, in the two instances in which the allegory departs from sound horticultural principles, the text itself seems to be aware that it is doing so. Thus, rather than casting doubt on the text’s authenticity, these anomalies actually suggest the author had a correct botanical understanding but was intentionally choosing to depart from it for the sake of continuity with a prophetic understanding of Israel’s history.

As an ancient Israelite prophet, Zenos would be a plausible candidate for the text’s authorship, seeing that olives were such an important crop in Israel. It is harder to ascribe the contents of this allegory to Joseph Smith, who “probably had little knowledge of olive trees in New York, as they will not grow in the northeastern United States.”18 For a detailed analysis of what olive-related information Joseph Smith could have derived from the Bible and which details in the Book of Mormon are unique to itself, see the Appendix.

Wilford M. Hess, “Recent Notes About Olives in Antiquity,” BYU Studies Quarterly 39, no. 4 (2000): 115–126.

Wilford M. Hess, Daniel J. Fairbanks, John W. Welch, and Jonathan K. Diggs, “Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to Jacob 5,” in The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 484–561.

Wilford M. Hess, “Botanical Comparisons in the Allegory of the Olive Tree,” in The Book of Mormon: Jacob Through Words of Mormon, To Learn With Joy, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1990), 87–102. 

See Appendix.

See Appendix.

The following chart contains botanical and cultural details that could be extracted from various scriptural passages. Its main purpose is to identify what olive-related information in the Book of Mormon could have reasonably been extracted from the Bible. It shows which details are unique to the Bible, which are unique to the Book of Mormon, and where there is some overlap between the two texts.

Note that this data is based on a straightforward interpretation of scriptural passages and not on scholarly exegesis informed by linguistic and cultural knowledge of the ancient world. This is because the chart is meant to determine what someone in Joseph Smith’s situation might have gathered about olive culture from a fairly rudimentary reading of biblical texts. For the same reason, much biblical data which can only inferentially connected to olive cultivation hasn’t been included in this chart.

As should be clear, the Book of Mormon features many statements about the cultivation of olive trees that couldn’t have been extracted from any biblical text or combination of texts. Importantly, this compilation of data was facilitated by computer search engines. Without such aids, an average reader’s understanding of olive culture in the Bible would likely be far less comprehensive.

Finally, many references to the primary study cited throughout this evidence summary (“Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to Jacob 5”) have been given in the right column. This is provided for the sake of convenience, so that readers can correlate the scriptural data with the relevant scholarly information.

Botanical/Cultural Details


Book of Mormon

An olive leaf may be a symbol of life and salvation.

Genesis 8:11


Olive oil can be “beaten” in some manner.

Exodus 27:20; Leviticus 24:1–2


Olive oil can be used for light.

Exodus 27:20; Leviticus 24:1–2


Olive oil was used in connection with the ordinances of the Israelite tabernacle.

Exodus 30:22–33


Olive oil can be combined with other spices and used as an ointment.

Exodus 30:22–33; Micah 6:15


Olive oil can symbolically make things holy.

Exodus 30:22–33; Deuteronomy 28:40


Olive trees are planted.

Deuteronomy 6:10–11


Olives appear to be extracted from trees by beating or shaking tree boughs (presumably causing the olives to fall to the ground).

Deuteronomy 24:20


Some olives will likely remain after the first attempt to harvest them.

Deuteronomy 24:20


Olives were useful for strangers, the fatherless, and widows.

Deuteronomy 24:20


Olive trees were prevalent throughout the land of Israel.

Deuteronomy 28:40


Olives can fall from trees without human intervention (presumably before they are ready to harvest).

Deuteronomy 28:40


The olive tree can be associated with fatness and kingship (or at least the refusal of kingship).

Judges 9:7–21


Olives are associated with other key crops and goods in ancient Israel/Palestine.

Judges 15:5; Habakkuk 3:17


Large cherubic statues in Solomon’s temple were made of olive wood.

1 Kings 6:23


Various doors in Solomon’s temple were made from olive wood.

1 Kings 6:31–33


Olive oil is listed alongside other goods of a prosperous land.

2 Kings 18:32


Olive oil can be stored in “cellars.”

1 Chronicles 27:28


Olive branches were used alongside branches of other trees in the creation of booths for a festival.

Nehemiah 8:15


The “flower” of an olive tree can fall to the ground prematurely.

Job 15:33


The olive tree is connected with the “house of God” and with praise of God.

Psalm 52:8–9


There will be leftover “berries” on an olive tree after it has been shaken.

Isaiah 17:4–6


Impending desolation is compared to the shaking of an olive tree. 

Isaiah 24:13


Olive trees are a symbol of beauty.

Hosea 14:6


God compares himself to various plants, including the olive tree, which give shade and revitalization to Israel.

Hosea 14:6


The “palmerworm” can harm olive trees.

Amos 4:9


Olive oil can be produced by treading upon olives.


Micah 6:15


Israel’s punishment is connected to not being able to use the olive oil they have produced.

Micah 6:15


Israel’s olive trees will fail to be productive.

Habakkuk 3:17


Olive trees and branches signify anointed individuals.

Zechariah 4:3, 11–12



The relationship between the root and the wild branches of an olive tree (meaning which supports which) depends on the meekness of the Gentiles.

Romans 11:13–24


If God didn’t spare the natural branches, he would be willing to also remove grafted wild branches.

Romans 11:21


Branches of the good olive tree which have been separated from that tree can be grafted back into it more easily than wild branches could be.

Romans 11:24


Fig trees and olive trees are established as distinct trees which can’t bear each other’s fruit.

James 3:12


Olive trees are associated with candlesticks and witnesses in an apocalyptic vision.

Revelation 11:4 (cf. Zechariah 4:3, 11–12)


The olive tree can symbolically represent an individual or class of individuals in a parable, vision, or allegory.

Judges 9:7–21; Psalm 128:3; Isaiah 17:4–6; 24:13; Jeremiah 11:16–17; Hosea 14:6; Zechariah 4:3, 11–12; Romans 11:13, 16–17; Revelation 11:4

1 Nephi 10:12–13; 15:12; Jacob 5:3; 6:1

The care of olive trees is overseen by an individual.

1 Chronicles 27:28

Jacob 5:3–4

Imagery of good and evil is given in relation to olive trees.

Jeremiah 11:16–17; Romans 11:22, 24

Jacob 5:17, 20, 25–27, 32–38, 40, 42–43, 45–46, 48, 54, 59–61, 65–66, 75, 77; 6:7–8

The Lord is the one who planted the olive tree(s).

Jeremiah 11:16–17

Jacob 5:21, 23–25, 43–44, 52, 54

The Lord will burn his olive tree(s) or the branches thereof.

Jeremiah 11:16–17

Jacob 5:7, 9, 26, 37, 42, 45–47, 49, 58, 66, 77

Branches of the olive tree will be “broken” off.

Jeremiah 11:16–17; Romans 11:17

1 Nephi 10:12; 15:12; Jacob 5:30

The cultivation of olives sometimes requires waiting for periods of time before harvest.

Haggai 2:19

Jacob 5:15, 29

Emphasis is placed on “hearing” the word of the Lord.

Romans 10:14, 17–18

Jacob 6:6

The concepts of “heart” and “salvation” are connected together.

Romans 10:8–10

Jacob 6:4–5

Isaiah’s statements about the Lord reaching out “all the day long” are quoted. 

Romans 10:21 (cf. Isaiah 65:2)

Jacob 6:4

The concept of people being “cast away” is evoked.

Romans 11:1, 2, 15

Jacob 5:69, 73–75, 77; 6:3

The concept of there being a “remnant” of faithful Israelites is evoked.

Romans 11:5

1 Nephi 10:14; 15:13–14

Israel won’t be ablet to obtain that which they seek.

Romans 11:7

Jacob 5:14

The concept that God’s people will “stumble” is evoked.

Romans 11:9–11

Jacob 4:14–15, 18

The concepts of “fulness” and “Gentiles” are connected together.

Romans 11:12, 25

1 Nephi 10:14; 15:13

The Gentiles are compared to a “wild” olive tree.

Romans 11:17

1 Nephi 10:11–12, 14; 15:13, 17; Jacob 5:7, 9–10, 17–18, 25, 30, 34, 36–37, 40, 45–46, 55–57, 73

Botanical Aspects, 508–509

The concept of “grafting” branches is evoked.

Romans 11:17, 19, 23–24

1 Nephi 10:14; 15:13, 16; Jacob 5:8–10, 17–18, 30, 34, 52, 54–57, 60, 63–65, 67–68

Botanical Aspects, 535–537

Grafted branches can receive nourishment from the root of the tree into which they have been grafted.

Romans 11:17

Jacob 5:18

Support or nourishment between roots and branches can go in both directions.

Romans 11:18

Jacob 5:18, 34, 48, 53–54, 59–60

Branches of Israel have been broken off because of “unbelief.” 

Romans 11:20, 23

1 Nephi 10:11

The idea of God sparing (or not sparing) trees/branches is evoked.

Romans 11:21

Jacob 5:50–51

The idea of “natural branches” is evoked.

Romans 11:21

1 Nephi 10:14

A reciprocal relationship with God is described.

Romans 11:22 (“but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness”)


Romans 12:9 (“cleave to that which is good”)

Jacob 6:5 (“and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you”)

The need to “continue” in goodness or righteousness is mentioned.

Romans 11:22

Jacob 6:11

The natural branches of Israel can be grafted back into the olive tree.

Romans 11:23

Jacob 5:52–56, 60, 63

Olive tree symbolism is associated with a “mystery.”

Romans 11:25

1 Nephi 10:19; Jacob 4:18

Olive tree symbolism is associated with the “blindness” of Israel. 

Romans 11:25

Jacob 4:14

Olive tree branches that have been broken off will be “scattered” throughout the vineyard (or world).


1 Nephi 10:12–14; 15:17, 20; Jacob 5:8, 13–14, 52

Botanical Aspects, 512–513

Olive branches that have been scattered will eventually be gathered again.


1 Nephi 10:14; 15:16, 19–20; Jacob 5:56, 63

The scattered natural branches of the olive tree are directly identified with the “remnants of the house of Israel.”


1 Nephi 10:14; 15:13–14

The gathering of scattered branches is associated with the remnants of Israel coming to a knowledge of the true Messiah and the fullness of his gospel.


1 Nephi 10:14; 15:13–15

The gathering of Israel will take place in the latter days after the gospel is had among the Gentiles.


1 Nephi 10:14; 15:13, 18–19

An olive tree allegory is attributed to a prophet named Zenos.


Jacob 5:1; 6:1

Israel is compared to a “tame” olive tree.


Jacob 5:3, 14, 18, 25

Botanical Aspects, 508

An olive tree can begin to “decay” as it gets older.


Jacob 5:3–4

Botanical Aspects, 531–532–533

Olive trees can be “pruned” as part of their care.


Jacob 5:4–5, 11, 27, 47, 62, 64, 69, 76

Botanical Aspects 522–523

Olive tees can be “digged about” as part of their care.


Jacob 5:4–5, 11, 27, 47, 63–64, 76

Botanical Aspects, 520–521

Olive trees should be “nourished” as part of their care.


Jacob 5:3–5, 11–12, 20, 22–25, 27–28, 31, 34, 47, 58, 63, 72, 75–75

Botanical Aspects, 518–520

As an olive tree recovers from decay, it can “put forth somewhat a little, young and tender branches.”


Jacob 5:4, 6

Botanical Aspects, 510, 530–531

An olive tree’s “main top” can begin to perish even if other parts of it are healthier or beginning to grow again.


Jacob 5:6

Botanical Aspects, 532

Entire branches from trees can be “plucked,” or in some cases the branches simply need to be “trimmed.” 


Jacob 5:7, 58

Botanical Aspects, 527

Grafting in wild olive branches can be done to save a tame olive tree.


Jacob 5:7–9

Botanical Aspects, 516, 534–535

The “young and tender branches” from a tame olive tree can be grafted into wild olive trees so that the “fruit” and “natural branches” of the tame tree can be “preserved.”


Jacob 5:8, 13, 20, 22–25

Botanical Aspects, 510, 530–531, 541

The “root” of an olive tree may perish.


Jacob 5:8

Botanical Aspects, 497, 502–503, 514–517

The wild olive branches can be grafted into the general location (“in the stead thereof”) where the young and tender branches from the tame olive tree were removed.


Jacob 5:9

Botanical Aspects, 535–537

Main branches which are withered can be plucked off the tree and then cast into a fire so that they don’t “cumber” the ground of the vineyard.


Jacob 5:7, 9, 37, 42, 47, 58, 66

Botanical Aspects, 550

The grafting in of wild olive branches is specifically described as helping to preserve the “root” of the tame olive tree.


Jacob 5:11

Botanical Aspects 526

The Lord of a vineyard may strategically plant or graft in branches at a different location in a vineyard.


Jacob 5:13

Botanical Aspects, 115–516, 529–320, 538–540

Concerning an olive vineyard, the Lord “may lay up fruit thereof against the season, unto myself.”


Jacob 5:13, 19, 20, 27, 29, 31, 46, 71, 76

Botanical Aspects, 547–548

Olive trees can apparently be left unattended for fairly long periods of time. It also may suggest that it might take time for the fruit to be produced after grafting branches.


Jacob 5:15, 29

Botanical Aspects 517, 543–544

When wild olive branches are grafted into a tame olive tree, they can produce fruit “like unto the natural fruit” of the tame tree. This is caused by the wild branches taking “hold of the moisture of the root” which gives it “much strength.”


Jacob 5:17–18

Botanical Aspects, 511–512, 544–545

An olive tree in a poor spot of ground can produce good fruit.


Jacob 5:21–22

Botanical Aspects, 514–515

An olive tree may produce both tame and wild fruit, even though it was situated on a “good spot of ground.”


Jacob 5:24–25

Botanical Aspects, 544–545

An olive tree can produce “all kinds of bad fruit.”


Jacob 5:30–31

Botanical Aspects, 540, 544–545

Grafting wild branches into a tame tree may nourish roots and keep them alive, even if the fruit that results is bad.


Jacob 5:34–35

Botanical Aspects, 535–537

Wild branches can grow to such an extent that they “overrun the roots” of a tame tree into which they have been grafted.


Jacob 5:37, 48

Botanical Aspects, 524

Trees and branches can become “ripened” so that they produce evil (i.e., bad) fruit.


Jacob 5:37, 58

Botanical Aspects, 534

An olive tree may be “overcome” by wild fruit.


Jacob 5:40


Botanical Aspects, 510–511

When a tree has become “corrupted” it may be “good for nothing save it be hewn down and cast into the fire.”


Jacob 5:42, 46

Botanical Aspects, 549–550

Fruit from the natural branches of a tame olive tree can “become like unto the wild olive tree.”


Jacob 46

Botanical Aspects, 509–510

The master of the vineyard “dunged” his trees as part of the caretaking process.


Jacob 5:47, 64, 76

Botanical Aspects 521–522

The assortment of fruit on some trees may be due to someone secretly corrupting the vineyard. Hence the Lord of the vineyard asks, “Who is it that has corrupted my vineyard?”


Jacob 5:47

Botanical Aspects, 545

The “loftiness” of a vineyard—presumably meaning the large size of its trees—can makes it so that its branches can “overcome the roots thereof.”


Jacob 5:48

Botanical Aspects, 527, 534

If olive trees become sufficiently corrupted, it may be necessary to burn the entire vineyard.


Jacob 5:49, 77

Botanical Aspects, 551

Tame branches that have been grafted into other trees or planted as other trees can be regrafted into the original tame tree to help preserve the tree and roots of the tame tree and to help it again produce good fruit.


Jacob 5:52–53, 60

Botanical Aspects, 515, 538,

After a period of time, the tame trees all became wild. Through a reciprocal grafting process, and through the careful trimming of wild branches, the roots and branches of all the trees are preserved, allowing some good fruit to again be produced.


Jacob 5:52–60

Botanical Aspects, 516–517, 537–538

The concept of “bitter” olives is evoked, with undesirable olives being the “most bitter.”


Jacob 5:52, 57, 65

Botanical Aspects, 548–549

The concept of a “mother tree” is evoked.


Jacob 5:54, 60

Botanical Aspects, 535

Only the branches with the “most bitter” fruit are plucked out so that natural branches could be grafted back in.


Jacob 5:57

Botanical Aspects, 542

A “change of the branches” can affect the roots of an olive tree.


Jacob 5:59

Botanical Aspects, 524

Additional servants are called to help with the final tending of trees and harvest. They do so, even though they are few in number.


Jacob 5:61, 70, 75

Botanical Aspects, 527–529

The idea of first/last and then last/first is evoked.


Jacob 5:63

Branches with bitter fruit should be cleared away “according to the strength of the good and the size thereof.”


Jacob 5:65

Botanical Aspects, 526

The roots of a tree may become “too strong for the graft” if the branches with bitter fruit are cleared away too quickly.


Jacob 5:65

Botanical Aspects, 526–527

For ideal growth, it is important that “the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad.”


Jacob 5:66, 73

Botanical Aspects, 525–526

At the final harvest, the laborers will have “joy” with the Lord because of the fruit of his vineyard, indicating some type of payment or reward for their work.


Jacob 5:71, 75

Botanical Aspects, 529

An additional final harvest is predicted to take place after a long time of gathering good fruit.


Jacob 5:77

Book of Mormon

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