Bushes, thistles, briars and brambles are a thorny subject for English translators and expositors of the Hebrew Bible. It seems that the Greek writers of the Gospels did not have a soft time with them either.
In recording Jesus’ warnings about “false prophets” (probably fake disciples), Matthew contrasts akantha (thorn bushes) with staphyle (grapes), and tribolos (thistle) with sykon (figs) (Matt 7:16); whereas, Luke contrasts akantha (thorn bushes) with sykon (figs), and batos (bramble bush) with staphyle (grapes) (Matt 6:44).
You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? (Matt 7:16, NKJ).
For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorn bushes, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush (Luke 6:44, NKJ).
Either the translators were unable to agree on spiny plant identification or Jesus may have referred to different plants on different occasions when using the same teaching illustration. He used a similar saying when confronted by accusers in Matthew 12:24-37; see verse 33.
No doubt Jesus used such illustrations many times. In the Hebrew Scriptures, plants and their fruit are referred to as illustrations too often to be listed. Joel 2:22 is one of the many including both figs and grapes: “…and the tree bears its fruit: the fig tree and the vine yield their strength” (NKJ). Similar proverbs are found in rabbinic literature. For examples: “The fruit of the righteous man is his good conduct” (Genesis Rabbah 16:3); and “The fruit of a tree declares the husbandry thereof, so is the utterance of the thought of a man’s heart” (Ben Sira 27:6).
As to the identification of the exact fruit referred to by Jesus, there is little doubt that staphyle are grapes (Hebrew: ‘anavim) and sykon are figs (Hebrew: te’enim). But the other species are a thorny problem. The Hebrew Scriptures have as many as twenty Hebrew words to indicate spiny plants, and these are inconsistently translated into English by general terms such as thistle, thorn, briars, brambles and nettles. The sages of the Mishnah were not able to agree on specific identification either and challenged each other’s renditions.
The Greek words akantha and tribolos (singular of triboloi) have been used in modern botanical terms. The Acanthus family member prevalent in Israel is Acanthus syriacus, Syrian Acanthus. Its Hebrew name is kotsits suri. This two-foot spike of stiff purple bracts with small white flowers rises from a rosette of spiny leaves. These leaves were the models for decorative stonework in Bible times. The fruit is a small, hard seed, not considered a food source. Tribulus terrestris grows throughout Mediterranean lands and is known in Israel as kotev matsui. This long-stemmed plant creeps as a weed in fallow fields. Its common name, Maltese Cross, comes from the five-starred, wickedly spiny seeds.
Neither plant seems suitable for comparison to figs and grapes. First, they do not bear edible fruit and therefore would not be known by their fruit. The point of the teaching is identification by the fruit of the plant, not impossibility of it to bear either figs or grapes. Second, in Mishnaic opinion, the Syrian Acanthus and the Maltese Cross fall in the category of “vegetables”—plants whose leaves begin from the underground root. In Mishnaic usage, a plant that puts out its leaves from a woody, above-ground stock is a “tree” (ets). In the Hebrew Scriptures even shrubs such as hyssop were considered trees (see 1 Kgs 4:33). As both the fig tree and the grape vine are in the category of ets, probably Jesus was comparing them to plants also in that category.
For the same two reasons, “thistles” seems out of place in the translation of Matthew 7:16. The subject of thistles in the Gospels will be considered in a my article, “Enemies of the Harvest.”
Among the more than seventy known species of thorny plants growing in Israel, candidates in this article have been selected by the following criteria: 1) has a woody stock; 2) bears edible but unfavorable fruit; and 3) was as well known as the grape and fig.
A low, somewhat straggling bush that grows in rocky places throughout Israel and seems to like stone wall crevices in particular. Its long woody branches are studded with small thorns that hook inward, so that one may easily insert a hand to pluck the fruit but with difficulty withdraw it. The caper puts forth large, showy white flowers with many long dark pink stamens.
Both the green pendulous fruit and the young buds are pickled and eaten as a relish. In Second Temple times the fruit of the cultivated caper was tithed as agricultural produce (Mishnah, Ma’asrot 4:6).
A wild raspberry that grows in thickets near water. Its tall branches bear needle-sharp thorns that, like the caper’s, hook inward. The blossoms, grouped at the end of the branches, resemble tiny pink wild roses. The fruit, which matures in mid-summer to red-black berries, is sweet and juicy but small and seedy. There is a teaching about the wild raspberry bramble in Exodus Rabbah 2:5: “As this sneh that produces thorns and produces roses…so are the people of Israel, who include both righteous and wicked.”
Sneh (bush, bramble) is the Hebrew word used for the burning bush in Exodus 3:2-4, and in Jewish tradition the Holy Raspberry was thought to be this bush. In Luke 20:37 the burning bush is translated by the Greek word batos—an interesting connection with the “bramble bush” of Luke 6:44 and the sneh of the Jewish sages.
The common plum grows to be a large, spreading tree with thorny branches. The Latin name comes from the tradition that its branches formed the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus before his crucifixion. However, it is not normally found in the Judean hills, preferring a semitropical climate such as in the coastal plains and the Jezreel and Arava valleys.
This common (or, wild) plum is thought to be the ‘atad of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is translated “bramble” (NKJ) and included with the fig and grape in the parable of the king of the trees in Judges 9:8-15. The fruit, called rimin in Hebrew, looks like tiny apples and is eaten usually when green and sour. Upon ripening, it turns yellow-orange and becomes starchy. In Talmudic times rimin was listed as marketable edible produce (Mishnah, Demai 1:1).
The common hawthorn is an attractive, small tree of the rose family and enjoys hilly, wooded areas such as Galilee, Golan and the Judean hills. The thorny branches brighten with fragrant white flowers during April and May. These mature as round, red-orange fruits about one-half inch in diameter, resembling very small crab apples. The fruit is edible and has a pleasant acidic taste.
This hawthorn was a common wild tree in ancient Israel, and its fruit was considered marketable edible produce in the Talmudic period (Mishnah, Demai 1:1).
All of the above “trees” bear fruit of a sort, but they cannot compete with the deliciously sweet and juicy fruit of the fig and grape. However, the point being made in Matthew 7:16 and Luke 6:44 is not necessarily a matter of the quality, but of identification. To find an apple tree, look for apples on it; to find an honest person, look for honesty in his or her life. None of the fruit of these trees is poisonous or rotten, as implied in Matthew 7:17-18 where Jesus goes on to compare quality of fruit with the quality of the tree itself, and thus the works of a man with the condition of his heart (Luke 6:45).