the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

"Holy Land" Spring 1997
`His beauty shall be as the olive tree'
(Hosea 14:6, KJV)

Clearly the olive tree was admired by the prophet Hosea. He must have been very familiar with the shady, grey-green trees that still abound in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. It has been said that the power of ancient Greece was made possible by the cultivation of the olive, which provided rich fruits from rocky countryside that could produce little else. Greek myths tell how a dove brought an olive twig from Phoenicia to Athens, where it was planted on the Acropolis to become their first olive tree. The Greeks dedicate the olive to their goddess Athena; it was symbolic of peace and prosperity; and olive leaves were used to crown Olympic champions. It seems, therefore, that the well-known association of the olive with the dove of peace owes as much to Greek mythology as to the bibical account of the dove returning to Noah's ark at the end of the flood (Genesis 8:11). Even so, the olive is one of the most important and symbolic plants mentioned in the Bible.

Here we trace the history of the olive tree, its cultivation and propagation, the harvesting of its fruit and the production of olive oil. Olive fruits provided the rich and poor alike with oil for cooking, lighting, cosmetics, and medicine; while olives pickled in brine were an important food throughout the year. Also its hard, figured timber was used for special furniture, panelling and statues (1 Kings 6:23,33), and its oil anointed prophets and kings (Judges 9:8-9). It was, with grain and wine,the third great product of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 7:13).


The Olive (Olea europaea; Heb. zayith, Gk, elaia) is an evergreen tree usually about 5m (16 ft) high, or much taller if unpruned. Young trees have a rather smooth silver grey bark, but with age the slender trunks become stout, fluted and knobby. Many old trees actually develop holes in the sides of the trunks which themselves are hollow; the holes result from old side branches rotting away. The numerous branches form a dense, shady tree which is favoured by animals in the heat of the day.

An enormously spreading root system extends around each tree in order to absorb sufficient moisture in the dry conditions in which it normally grows. Hence the trees are well spaced out in the groves, being planted 11m (36 ft) apart, although irrigated trees are much closer together. Wide spacing allows plenty of light to reach the crown for best fruit ripening.

Olive leaves are narrow and sharply pointed, grey-green on the upper surface and white on the underside owing to a complete covering of minute white scales, which help to keep down water loss from the tree. Flower buds develop among the leaves on the previous year's wood and they open in May. There are ten to forty flowers carried on each short inflorescence and the white flowers themselves are small with the parts in fours, but with only two stamens. Flowering begins when trees are at least five or six years old and they are said to be at their best between forty and fifty years old, although many large ancient trees still bear regular crops.


The Israelites were promised many things for which they had not laboured, including vineyards and olive trees which they had not planted (Deuteronomy 6:11), thereby implying that olive cultivation was well established by the Canaanites at the time of the exodus in the thirteenth century BC. The Promised Land was to be `a land of olive trees and honey' (Deuteronomy 8:8).

The hilly country of Samaria and the Shephelah is excellent for olives, but Judea around Hebron rises too high for successful cultivation. The olive thrives on hillsides, where drainage is better than in the valleys, and when the summer warmth ripens the fruit. However, for flower buds to form a few degrees of frost or at least near-freezing temperatures are required during the winter. A hard frost will kill an olive tree, which requires an average annual temperature of 15[[ordmasculine]]C (59[[ordmasculine]]F), coupled with winter rainfall, to thrive. These conditions are met with in the Mediterranean region not far from the coast. Nowadays olives are grown successfully in Australia, California and other areas with this type of Mediterranean climate.

The olive groves of biblical times were usually quite small -- we should call them orchards, rather than plantations -- olives often dominating the gardens of those days.


The olive tree has been important in the Holy Land for so long that many place-names indicate the presence of olive groves, olive-presses or something to do with the oil. Sometimes the place-names are translated in the English Bible versions, as for example in Judges 15:5 which reads `And when he had set the fire to the torches he let the [300] foxes [or jackals] go into the standing grain of the Philistines, and burned up the shocks and the standing grain as well as the olive orchards.' According to Goor (1966), the last phrase should more properly remain as the Hebrew place-name Kerem Zayit, which means olive grove, and if he is correct, it is interesting that the animals apparently set fire to this village as well as to the corn. However, an olive grove could be burnt in the way described, as it was customary for cereals and other crops to be grown between the widely spaced trees.


Undoubtedly, the most famous locality embodying the name of the olive is the Mount of Olives, or Olivet. During my first visit to Jerusalem I stayed for a week in one of the hotels on its summit and had a fine view across the Kidron valley to the Old City. The hill is a flat-topped ridge with steep rocky sides, up which David and people reluctantly trudged when Absalom tried to seize the throne (2 Samuel 15:30). Jesus frequently retreated there amongst its cool and shady trees, and even stayed there immediately before the Passover (Luke 21:37). After the Last Supper, `He came out, and went, as was His custom, to the Mount of Olives' (Luke 22:39), `and they went to a place which was called Gethsemane' (Mark 14:32) - which means oil-press. Today the traditional site of the garden of Gethsemane is full of ancient olive trees, and it is easy to imagine it as the place of the oil press, to which the fruit was brought from the trees growing around about on the hillside.

The Mount of Olives is 830m (2794 ft) high and is widely thought to have been the place of the ascension of Jesus. We read that the disciples returned to Jerusalem immediately after the ascension `from the mount called Olivet' (Acts 1:2), although Luke (24:50) records that the disciples were led out by Jesus before the ascension as far as Bethany, which lies just beyond the Mount of Olives. In the Old Testament, Zechariah prophesied the coming day of the Lord.

`On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem on the east: and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward'' (14:3-4).

Much has been made of this passage through the years and Olivet is held in particular reverence, athough largely for different reasons, by Jew and Christian alike.


The grafting of culivated olives upon wild ones has been practiced in olive culture for a very long time. A traditional reason for grafting is the belief that the wild olive (or oleaster) is able to resist drought because of its taproot. However, there is no foundation for this theory. Numerous adult wild olive trees dug up in North Africa showed no trace of taproots. In fact it has been shown that the original roots of the olive tree, however it was propagated, are replaced by an entirely new system of roots which arise from the knobs which appear at the base of the trunk. These knobs (also called ovuli) are cut off and root easily to form new trees; leafy cuttings are also used. Grafting is, however, primarily a means of obtaining rapid propagation of a desirable cultivated variety of olive.

At first reading, the apostle Paul's argument in Romans (11:17-24) about the wild and cultivated olive appears to be somewhat involved. He likens Israel, God's chosen people, to a cultivated olive tree, a symbol of spiritual richness, from which God has broken off some of the branches. In place of Jews He has grafted in faithful Gentiles - here typified by the formerly useless wild olives (Gk. agrielaios) to partake of the richness of the cultivated tree (Gk. kallielaios). Paul rightly regards this operation as `contrary to nature,' for one would expect the cultivated olive to be grafted upon the wild stock; by using this analogy he accentuates the richness of God's grace in the salvation of Gentiles.


Olive-presses were usually located near the source of supply of the fruits to avoid carrying them long distances. The rock-hewn presses were large enough to take quantities of fruit for pulping by a heavy vertical stone wheel that could be rotated by one or two people, or by an animal pushing a horizontal bar. The camel or donkey turning the stone was blindfolded to prevent giddiness as it walked round and round. I was amazed at the size of the upright millstone which is still used at Bethany beside the traditional site of Mary and Martha's house. Similar oil-mills, with stone and press, have been set up as exhibits at Ha Gilo and Tantur near Bethlehem, the Israel Museum, Tirat-Yehuda and Neot Kedumim. In New Testament times, the Romans used a type of olive mill (trapetum) that could be worked either by water, or, more usually, by manpower.

When the fruit was crushed it was either trodden to press out the oil or, more usually, the pulp was placed in special rope baskets about 7cm (3 ins.) thick, piled on top of one another in a large press with a long wooden beam weighted by heavy stones. The oil and watery liquid squeezed out was separated in settling vats, for example the huge round pots found at Ekron, with two holes for draining off the surplus water.

Micah (6:15) warned that because the Lord's people had done the works of the house of Ahab they would `tread olives, but not anoint [themselves] with oil', for they would be captives. Small quantities of oil were prepared by beating the olives in a mortar and pestle, or simply with a stone. This is indicated in Exodus (27:20) `And you shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive for the light, that a lamp may be set up to burn continually'. Oil prepared in this way is said to be particularly pure (Leviticus 24:1-3). It seems that the press found in a sacred precinct at Tel Dan in 1979 provided oil for the lamps, as well as for the anointing ceremonies, in the tenth to ninth centuries B.C.

Small pottery lamps are commonly found in excavations of ancient sites in Palestine. The early lamps made around the time of the captivity of Israel in Egypt were open bowls with a rim, while the later ones of New Testament times had a central hole into which olive oil was poured, and a short spout with another hole for the wick. In contrast with these lamps, which were for interior illumination, torches were used outside. These consisted of old rags soaked in olive oil just before ignition. According to some authorities, these are wedding torches, which would make the reference to them particularly significant in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the latter having no oil for their unsoaked torches (Matthew 25:4 RV mgn).

Olive oil was used extensively in Old Testament times for cooking purposes. In fact it was an essential part of everybody's diet, as is shown by the repetition in the Bible of the trio oil (Heb. yitshar), wine and grain (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; 12:17; 18:4 etc.). Olive oil was mixed with meal for cakes, for frying meat, and for eating with bread and stews.

During the construction of the temple, Solomon sent to Hiram of Tyre in each year 20,000 cors (homers) of both wheat and barley, 20,000 baths of wine and the same of olive oil (2 Chronicles 2:10). To give some idea of the vast numbers of olive trees that must have been grown in the land at that period, 20,000 baths was equivalent (at 22 litres per bath) to 440,000 litres, which would work out at just over 12ml (4 fluid ounces) daily for each of the 10,000 workers. At an average yield of 1840 ml per tree, I estimate that this would have been an annual output of 239,130 trees: a full orchard of olive trees properly spaced would be expected to have 48 trees per acre. Solomon must therefore have dispatched the product of some 4981 acres or 2015 hectares of olive groves!

Recent excavations at Ekron reveal that the Philistines' main product was olive oil - at least 1000 tonnes/tons flowed from their presses after a good harvest. It was produced in rectangular buildings divided into three rooms for production and storage.


The anointing of people and objects with olive oil has a long history and a sacred significance. We first meet the practice in the Bible when Jacob, after he had seen the vision of a ladder from earth to heaven, poured oil (Heb. shemen) upon the rock that had been his pillow (Genesis 28:18). Later in the same place God spoke to him and Jacob again poured oil on a stone pillar (Genesis 35:14). By this symbolic act he set aside that place, which he called Bethel, as holy. Anointing was presumably a well-established practice even at that early date.

Later, we see Moses being commanded by God to prepare holy anointing oil with a fixed composition (see chapter 14) for the anointing of the tent of meeting, the Tabernacle, and all its contents. The furniture and utensils were thereby consecrated `that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy' (Exodus 30:29), and Aaron and his sons were also anointed `that they may serve me as priests' (Exodus 30:30). In Leviticus (8:10-11) we find Moses putting this into practice, with the altar itself being anointed seven times. Furthermore, Moses had to warn the people of Israel of its holiness:

`It shall be for you most holy. And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people' (Exodus 30:36-38).

Throughout the Old Testament, anointing signifies the holiness of the anointed objects or persons, their separation to God, and also divine authority.

From the anointing of the priest it was a simple step to the anointing of the king or of the king-designate. `They anointed David king over the house of Judah' (2 Samuel 2:4; see also Judges 9:8-9; 1 Kings 1:34); and prophets, such as Elisha (1 Kings 19:16). Jotham's story of the trees (Judges 9:8-15) stresses the role of the olive tree in this respect. Personal anointing (Psalm 104:15; Micah 6:15) on the other hand was not symbolic, for in the dry Mediterranean climate the cool, smooth olive oil is pleasantly soothing (Isaiah 1:6) for the skin and as a hair-dressing (Psalm 23:5).

All these anointings, apart from the personal one, were regarded as acts of God, and of sanctifying significance. For example, when the prophet Samuel poured oil on Saul's head he said: `Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over His people Israel?' (1 Samuel 10:1). Anointing with oil is associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in both the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Samuel 16:13; Isaiah 61:1), and the New Testament (e.g., Acts 10:38; 1 John 2:20).

© copyright 1997

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