The Wartburg Project

February 21st, 2024

104. Mulberry Tree? Sycamore Fig? - Luke 17:6

The EHV calls the tree in Luke 17:6 a mulberry tree. Other translations call it a sycamine, a sycamore, a sycamore fig, or a fig tree. These trees seem quite different to me. Can you explain this confusion?

At the heart of the confusion is the fact that the names mulberry and sycamore have been applied to trees that seem quite different to us, but in which botanists have seen enough similarity to group them into the same class.

In our passage mulberry tree seems to be the most common choice among recent English translations, but this is probably misleading, because when Americans think of a mulberry tree, they think of a large maple-like shade tree of the genus Morus that produces a lot of dark-purple berries. The biblical “mulberry tree” is quite different.

Among the trees called mulberries are the following:

A glance at the list is enough to show that confusion reigns here, and that scientific categories are not as precise and scientific as some might believe. Further compounding the confusion is that the popular names of plants often match up poorly with the scientific names. Plants with the same popular name are split into more than one scientific category and vice versa. If you do any further research on the topic, expect the find a lot of confusion, contradictions, and inconsistencies in the sources.

For our purposes here, it is sufficient to note that the tree in our text is probably the Ficus sycomorus, the fig-mulberry or more literally the sycamore fig. (This is the definition of the Greek word that occurs in our text, sykamorea. This does nothing to clarify the confusion but only spreads it. To add to the confusion Greek has another word for trees of this family, sykaminos.)

So could we perhaps clarify the situation by calling the tree in our text a sycamore rather than a mulberry? Probably not because the American sycamore is a large shade tree quite different from the Ficus sycomorus. 

We could try sycamine, the choice of many older translations, but most Americans would not know what a sycamine is. Even a leading botanist in Jerusalem said he did not know what a sycamine was. An online dictionary I consulted defined sycamine in this way: in biblical use the black mulberry tree (see Luke 17:6); in modern versions translated as “mulberry tree.”

Or perhaps we could call the tree in our text a fig tree as some translations do, but that would be misleading because the fruit of the sycamine fig is much inferior to the regular fig.

We might ask does it really matter what the tree in our text was? Isn’t the point of Jesus’ story the same in any case? Perhaps so, but perhaps the specific type of tree is relevant to the story. The sycamine is known as a tree with a very deep root system, which is very hard to eradicate by uprooting it. So perhaps for American readers “sycamine fig,” with the help of an explanatory footnote, would be an improvement over what seems to be the default translation, “mulberry tree.”

Attempting to answer this question provides another illustration of a principle translators quickly learn: many questions that at first glance seem simple turn out to be quite complicated. This is true of many of the plant names, animal names, and gemstones in the Bible. They are, at best, approximations. This is true because the same plant and animal names have been applied to quite different types over the course of space and time. Rather than simplifying things, the creation of scientific categories has complicated things.

The tree in our text has been defined as “having the form and foliage of the mulberry, but fruit resembling the fig.” People of different times and places have different criteria for sorting the things that God has created into categories. So we often are not speaking the same language, even when we use the same word.

This principle applies to many examples.

The main practical lessons to be learned here are that we try to use terms that adequately communicate the biblical story to our readers, but we recognize that our terms are often inadequate or confusing, and that we do not try to blame the Bible for the confusion caused by the inadequacy of our terms.

Ficus sycomorus  Wikipedia Creative Commons 3.0