Question: Is the Book of Mormon's account of olive horticulture in Jacob 5 accurate?

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Question: Is the Book of Mormon's account of olive horticulture in Jacob 5 accurate?

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The Book of Mormon provides a remarkably accurate portrait of olive horticulture

Does the Book of Mormon's account of olive culture in Jacob 5 match what we know about this subject?

Jacob 5 is a virtuoso performance by Joseph Smith in his role as translator. He presents an intricate, accurate account of olive horticulture, and uses variances from the "proper" technique as a teaching tool. It should be noted that there was (and is) no olive culture done in New England. Furthermore, the original manuscript exists for part of this chapter — Jacob 5:46-48, 57-61, 69-70, and 77. Only one word is altered after dictation: "diged" in "digged about" of verse 47. [1] Thus, Joseph produced this material by dictation, with no revision.

The Book of Mormon provides a remarkably accurate portrait of olive horticulture. [2] There are two points at which the allegory/parable deviates from the known principles of growing olives; in both cases, the allegory's characters draw the reader's attention to these deviations with some amazement. Thus, these 'mistakes' play a dramatic role in demonstrating the allegory/parable's meaning. [3]

Accurate olive culture information

Information from [4] unless otherwise specified.

Element Horticulture principle
Wild vs. tame olives

There are many species [at least 35-40] of olive trees, but only one, Olea europaea, is domestic. Domestic olives have larger fruits and a higher oil content, having been bred for these desired characteristics. Wild olives often have thorns, which make handling them less pleasant.

Interbreeding wild and tame olive Olea europaea L. is interfertile with some wild olive species.
Wild olive reproduction The olive is the seed of the tree. One could plant the olive seed, but this has a disadvantage: seeds are produced sexually (through the union of male and female genetic material). Thus, they may not have all of the desired characteristics of a given parent tree, since one cannot always control which other tree fertilizes a given seed.
All wild olive trees reproduce only by seeds. Thus, even trees with desired characteristics will tend to produce offspring that "revert" to wild, since genes get mixed and combined with seed reproduction.
Growing new olive trees Fortunately for olive growers, tame olive trees (i.e. domestics) can reproduce asexually [i.e. without sexual reproduction, or the mixture of genetic material — somewhat like a bacteria which splits in half, making a perfect copy of itself), and this is also faster than growing from seeds.

This asexual reproduction involves a tree sending out shoots or runners, which can be trimmed off and simply "planted" into the ground, where they will grow as a genetically identical tree — a clone, in genetic terms, an exact copy of the parent (with all its good characteristics).

This may suggest what the gospel is to make the reader — a clone of Christ, as it were, in behavior and character.
Using wild olives as "rootstock" The wild relative of the domestic olive, Olea oleaster can be used as part of the reproduction by "runner" described above. A shoot can be grafted into a non-domestic (“wild”) tree for nutrition, yet will continue to produce olives according to its own genetics. (This is the pattern that is broken when the wild branches begin to produce tame fruit — see below.)

This is often done to get the benefits of a certain rootstock (resistance to disease, ability to get by with less water, etc.) with a certain desired kind of domestic branch’s crop characteristic.
Olive trees are valuable They live for hundreds of years. Starting a new olive grove was a major investment anciently, since no production could be hoped for before 40 years. It's no wonder olive trees were a common feature of civilization: one needed a stable, settled society to even think about growing them. [In fact, olives were considered by the Greeks to be a gift from the goddess Athena. This was common thinking in the ancient world — olive oil was good for light, medicinal purposes, cleaning or adorning the body, and for food. Olives were the key lipid (fat) source in early Eurasian agriculture, and a major economic driving force for the Greeks and the Roman empire (among others).]
Pruning is important Fruit size varies with environmental conditions; sometimes excess fruit must be trimmed away so that the remaining fruit will grow larger, increasing the yield of oil.

Fruit only grows on two-year-old branches of trees, so older branches must be pruned away as needed so as to concentrate the tree’s "efforts" on the productive branches. [One can't cut too many off at once, as the allegory says, or this won't leave enough leaves for photosynthesis, etc.]
Why is the Lord always threatening to burn the vineyard? Olive trees will usually grow back after being burned, producing suckers from the old roots. This is often more time-effective than trying to start a completely new crop of trees from scratch.
Why are branches cut off and then burned? This destroys any disease or parasite that may have caused the bad fruit, and prevents it from infecting the rest of the vineyard. Olive wood on the ground would also get in the way of the dunging, plowing, etc. needed to take care of the valuable trees.

The old wood is also knotted, twisted, and brittle: it is "good for nothing", one might say, except for burning.

Dung is an important fertilizer 5-10 tons per hectare every 1-2 years is needed in dry climates; half as frequently in wet areas.
Why the digging about the trees? This aerates the soil, and lets minerals like potash and phosphates reach the feeder roots (since upper soil layers often bind these nutrients). Deep plowing is generally called for, and this needs to be done twice a year.
Olive trees do not need constant care These trees have been called the "Cinderella" of agriculture, since one can leave them for a while and come back during the "off season" when there is no other crop work to do. This fits with the allegory, where the Lord and servant will leave for a while, and then come back and see how things are going.
Is "loftiness" a bad thing? Yes. Olives can easily reach 15-20 meters in height. This makes it
  • harder to pick the fruit and,
  • wastes the tree's energy by supporting wood that is not productive of fruit.

This is likely why the Lord of the vineyard "plucks off" [as opposed to "pruning"] the trees — every few years one must cut off all the undesired growth, to keep the trees smaller and more productive/manageable.

How are laborers typically paid? It was typical to provide the hired help with money wages. The offer to share the crop and its profits "should probably be understood as being very generous". [5]
Why does the Lord always go "down" to the vineyard? A few Roman manuals on olive culture (prepared for Roman citizens who were newly made "farmers" on lands which had been seized by the empire — sort of a Latin Olive Farming for Dummies) are extant.

These manuals always recommended that the villa (farmhouse) be placed uphill from the crop areas and animals: and, not surprisingly, upwind from the manure pile!


Unusual olive culture information

"Deviation" from Biology Relevance for Interpretation
1. Grafted branches do not "take on" the genetic and fruit-bearing characteristics of the trunk to which they are grafted, despite the claim in Jacob 5. This does not happen with "real" olive trees, but Christ and His Gospel can transform one's very nature when a believer becomes "grafted in.” The parable author knows that he's stretching the truth here — the servant (who knows something about olive growing) is amazed, and calls the Lord: "Behold, look here; behold the tree." (verse 16). This is astonishing, and it is meant to be — it is a miracle, just as every transformation of sinner to saint is a miracle that cannot be explained, yet cannot be denied when one "tastes the fruits."

Likewise, tame fruit does not "become wild" in a genetic sense, though it may well take on the "wild" fruit aspects of being smaller, more bitter, and having less oil content because of poor farming, disease, nutritional or environmental problems, etc.

2. Trees grown in poor ground will not, as claimed, do as well as trees in good ground if given the same care and attention. The servant, once again, clearly knows his olive culture. He asks the Lord just what he's thinking of: "How comest thou hither to plant this tree, or this branch of the tree? For behold, it was the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard." (verse 21) The Lord's reply is "Counsel me not" — I know what I'm doing here. He's the Lord of the vineyard, and producing fruit (purified souls) is His business. Mankind's trials, sufferings, disadvantages, and tribulations are key in that process — see Ether 12, 2 Corinthians 12. The believer ought not to seek to "counsel" the Lord on these issues: He knows them already. The believer ought, rather, to trust His skill in the vineyard of souls.

Notes

  1. Royal Skousen (editor), The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon : typographical facsimile of the extant text [Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, Vol. 1] (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2001),200–203. ISBN 0934893047.
  2. See the exhaustive Multiple Authors, "All," in Stephen D. Ricks & John W. Welch (editors), Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994), 1. ISBN 0875797679. GL direct link
  3. Dennis L. Largey (editor), Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2003),618–621. ISBN 1573452319.
  4. WM Hess, DJ Fairbanks , JW Welch, JK Driggs, "Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to Jacob 5," in Stephen D. Ricks & John W. Welch (editors), Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994),484–562. ISBN 0875797679. GL direct link (unless otherwise indicated).
  5. Hess et al., 529.