Two Bible verses seem to indicate that ancients believed germination was the death of a seed, and a resurrection or rebirth of that seed into a plant:

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:34)

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. (1 Corinthians 15:36-37)

Context: In the first instance, Jesus is using germination as an image for his upcoming resurrection, and in the second, Paul is using it as a metaphor for the post-death resurrection Christians experience as a consequence of Jesus' sacrificial death.

Textual background: The two writings are the Gospel of John and Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. Both of them are written in Koine Greek and in the city of Ephesus, probably in the first century. John was likely written between 90 and 110, and 1 Corinthians between 50 and 55. The author of John is traditionally said to be the apostle John, a Jew from Galilee, though scholars generally deny that much is known of the actual author, besides that he is quite literate. 1 Corinthians was written by Paul, a learned Pharisaic Jew from Tarsus with training in Greek rhetoric.

I only mention this background because in my mind there are three potential sources of their common germination illustration: a Jewish precedent, a Greek academic precedent (or a more local Turkish or Palestinian academic precedent or something), or something in the oral Christian tradition. The second, and maybe the first, would be on-topic to mention here, if I understand guidelines correctly.

Is there an academic, protoscientific precedent within the Greek academy that describes germination in terms of death and rebirth?


1 Answer 1


The Encyclopedia of Seeds: Science, Technology and Uses, edited by J. Derek Bewley, Michael Black, Peter Halmer, CABI International 2006 (Entry: History of seed research) cites some ancient descriptions along similar lines, both mythical and proto-scientific:

For example, to the Greeks, parsley was associated with death: the notorious slow germination rate of the seeds was because they had to journey to the underworld and back several times before they could begin to germinate.

They also cite Pliny the Elder (32–79 AD), who, following earlier observations by Theophrastus of Eresos (371–287 BC), commented on the germination of mistletoe in book XVI of his Natural History:

But universally when mistletoe seed is sown it never sprouts at all, and only when passed in the excrement of birds, particularly the pigeon and the thrush; its nature is such that it will not shoot unless it has been ripened in the stomach of birds.

However, it seems that Theophrastus himself—considered the father of botany and particularly of seed physiology—did not support the death-and-birth theory of germination. He is cited saying in his De Causis Plantarum:

Every seed contains in itself a certain amount of food. This is why they are able to survive for some time, and do not, like the seed (semen) of animals, perish directly on separation from the parent.

  • $\begingroup$ Your quotation from Theophrastus, when placed alongside the two passages from the Bible cited in the original question, illustrates very neatly the contrast between scientific thinking and popular pseudo-science in the ancient world. $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Nov 23, 2016 at 15:14

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