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When Jesus spoke of 'wheat and weeds' we understand the species of weed he was likely referring to was a poisonous look-alike to wheat. That is very significant!

In a personal project I am doing, I would like to know what species of lily Jesus was likely referring to when he said "Consider the lilies of the field".

Matt 6:28-29 // Luke 12:27:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (ESV)

Do any NT scholars suggest a more specific identification of the flower that is translated 'lily' in this passage? Even if the identification is based only on geography and era, that'd be helpful. If several scholars do so, I'd like an overview of their analysis.

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According to John Chancellor, in his book The Flowers and Fruits of the Bible (NY: Beaufort Books, Inc., 1982, p.42), the lily (actually "lilies of the field") Jesus spoke of in Matthew 6:28-29 was the poppy anemone (Anemone coronaria). Chancellor is a noted biographer (his subjects included Darwin, Richard Wagner, John James Audubon, and King Edward I.

[from dust jacket of his book:] Chancellor is a keen gardener and has a remarkable collection of early botanical books which includes some of the flora of the Holy Land.

Chancellor goes on to say,

"Certain alternatives to the poppy anemone have been proposed. One is the white-rayed chamomile, Anthemis palaestina of the Compositae family. The charm of this daisy-like plant became obvious only at the time of hay-gathering which might have illustrated our Lord's point more effectively than the showy poppy anemone.

Another is the glorious scarlet poppy, Papaver species of the Papaveraceae family. The poppy anemone, Palestine anemone or windflower, to give some different names for Anemone coronaria, covers the ground with brilliant blossom in early spring. It is the most conspicuous of all spring flowers. Walking at this season in the Holy Land, among the olives and through fields of thisles and wild grass, I was often hit by an unexpected flash of red--it was the anemone, the "lily of the field" of our Lord's discourse.

According to editors Louw and Nida, as cited by the NET Notes here,

Though traditionally κρίνον has been regarded as a type of lily, scholars have suggested several other possible types of flowers, including an anemone, a poppy, a gladiolus, and a rather inconspicuous type of daisy” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1988).

The NET Notes conclude in footnote 38,

In view of the uncertainty, the more generic “flowers” has been used in the [NET] translation.

Interestingly, commentator Constable in his "Notes" (found in the NET Bible here) says this:

The lilies of the field were probably the wild crocuses that bloom so abundantly in Galilee during the spring. However, Jesus probably intended them to represent all the wildflowers. [my italics]

According to The Trees, Plants, and Flowers of the Holy Land, the anemone has traditionally been identified with Jesus' "lilies of the field":

Green hills adorned with thousands of crown anemones announce spring’s arrival. The flower blooms from December to April. Although blue, white, purple, and pink anemones exist, red is by far the most common. The anemone typically has six petals which close in the evening and reopen with the morning light. Traditionally, these are the lilies of field to which Jesus compares Solomon in all his glory (Matt 6:28, Luke 12:27).

According to Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible, as quoted here,

. . . [Let us] consider the lilies of the field or "the flowers of the field", as the Arabic version reads it, the lilies being put for all sorts of flowers. The Persic version mentions both rose and lily; the one being beautifully clothed in red, the other in white. Christ does not direct his hearers to the lilies, or flowers which grow in the garden which receive some advantage from the management and care of the gardener; but to those of the field, where the art and care of men were not so exercised: and besides, he was now preaching on the mount, in an open place; and as he could point to the fowls of the air, flying in their sight, so to the flowers, in the adjacent fields and valleys: which he would have them look upon, with their eyes, consider and contemplate in their minds, how they grow; in what variety of garbs they appear, of what different beautiful colours, and fragrant odours, they were . . ..

With the picture in our minds of Jesus pointing--while he is talking--to the birds flying nearby, or the flowers growing in the fields near to where he delivered his "Sermon on the Mount," the bright red crown anemone would certainly provide a readily available visual aid!

According to Robertson, in his Word Pictures of the New Testament, quoted here,

The lilies of the field (τα κρινα του αγρου — ta krina tou agrou). . . . may include other wild flowers besides lilies: blossoms like anemones, poppies, gladioli, irises (McNeile).

According to McGarvey and Pendleton, authors of the Commentary on Matthew 6:28 in their "The Fourfold Gospeland quoted here,

Which lily is here meant cannot be determined. Calcott thinks it was the fragrant white lily which grows profusely all over Palestine. Smith favors the scarlet martagon; Tristam, the anemone coronaria; and Thomson, the Huleh lily, a species of iris. It is likely, however, that scholars are trying to draw distinctions where Jesus himself drew none. It is highly probable that in popular speech many of the common spring flowers were loosely classes together under the name lily. [my emphasis and italics]

[When] Jesus said, ‘Consider the lilies.’ If He were no more He would still be not only the greatest of religious teachers, but quite alone in the character of His teaching. Jesus Christ, amid the awful things of time and eternity, taught man, as none other did, the lessons of the impulses of nature. He bade us be not too busy to consider the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field. He was really interested in such things; they were not to Him the material for rhetorical phrase-making. He said, ‘Your heavenly Father careth for them.’ To the mind of Jesus, and therefore to the mind of God which He declared unto us, beauty was a sacred thing. It was His Father Who spread the Galilean fields with a carpet more splendid than the robes of Solomon. No wonder, then, that He recognised and bade men ponder well their loveliness. Gazing upon their sumptuous beauty, He was glad because these gifts to the humblest outshone the pomp of kings. [my emphasis and italics]

In other words, Jesus, in addressing an audience composed primarily of common, ordinary, working-class people, illustrates and underscores the point he is making by drawing their attention to a common, ordinary, and perhaps even taken-for-granted flower. He then uses logic to drive home his point that working-class people need not succumb to cares, worries, and anxieties.

According to Nisbet, in a sermon entitled "Lessons from Lilies," found in his Church Pulpit Commentary, and quoted here, he encourages his readers to "consider the lilies," just as Jesus suggested in Matthew 6:28 -

Jesus said, ‘Consider the lilies.’ If He were no more, He would still be not only the greatest of religious teachers, but quite alone in the character of His teaching. Jesus Christ, amid the awful things of time and eternity, taught man, as none other did, the lessons of the impulses of nature. He bade us be not too busy to consider the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field. He was really interested in such things; they were not to Him the material for rhetorical phrase-making. He said, ‘Your heavenly Father careth for them.’ To the mind of Jesus, and therefore to the mind of God which He declared unto us, beauty was a sacred thing. It was His Father Who spread the Galilean fields with a carpet more splendid than the robes of Solomon. No wonder, then, that He recognised and bade men ponder well their loveliness. Gazing upon their sumptuous beauty, He was glad because these gifts to the humblest outshone the pomp of kings.

According to Henry Alford, in his commentary on Matthew 6:28, quoted here,

[Consider (Gk.] καταμάθετε), implying more attention than ἐμβλέψατε: the birds fly by, and we can but look upon them: the flowers are ever with us, and we can watch their growth. These lilies have been supposed to be the crown imperial, (fritillaria imperialis, κρίνον βασιλικόν, Kaiserkrone,) which grows wild in Palestine, or the amaryllis lutea, (Sir J. E. Smith, cited by F. M.,) whose golden liliaceous flowers cover the autumnal fields of the Levant. Dr. Thomson, “The Land and the Book,” p. 256, believes the Huleh lily to be meant: “it is very large, and the three inner petals meet above, and form a gorgeous canopy, such as art never approached, and king never sat under, even in his utmost glory. And when I met this incomparable flower, in all its loveliness, among the oak woods around the northern base of Tabor, and on the hills of Nazareth, where our Lord spent His youth, I felt assured that it was this to which He referred.” Probably, however, the word here may be taken in a wider import, as signifying all wild flowers. [my emphasis and italics]

According to the comments of Heinrich Meyer, from his Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, and quoted here,

κρίνον, שׁוּשָׁן, lilies generally, various kinds of which grow wild in the East, without cultivation by human hands ( τοῦ ἀγροῦ). There is no reason to think merely of the (flower) emperor’s crown (Kuinoel), or to suppose that anemones are intended (Furer in Schenkel’s Bibellex.); the latter are called ἀνεμῶναι in Greek. . . . The plurals ( αὐξάνουσιν, etc., see the critical remarks) describe the lilies, not en masse, but singly (Kühner, ad Xen. Mem. iv. 3. 12, ad Anab. i. 2. 23), and indeed as though they were actual living persons (Krüger on Thuc. i. 58. 1). Comp. in general, Schoemann, ad Isaeum ix. 8.

And finally in my list of citations is an excerpt from the Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges, cited here,

τὰ κρίνα τοῦ ἀγροῦ, identified by Dr Thomson (Land and Book, p. 256) with a species of lily found in the neighbourhood of Hûlêh. He speaks of having met with ‘this incomparable flower, in all its loveliness … around the northern base of Tabor, and on the hills of Nazareth, where our Lord spent His youth.’ Canon Tristram (Nat. Hist. of the Bible) claims this honour for the beautiful and varied anemone coronaria. ‘If in the wondrous richness of bloom which characterises the Land of Israel in spring any one plant can claim preeminence, it is the anemone, the most natural flower for our Lord to pluck and seize upon as an illustration, whether walking in the fields or sitting on the hill-side.’

Tentative Conclusion to the Question at Hand

So we have come full circle to the likelihood that the "lilies" to which Jesus referred could very well have been the anemone coronaria, though there is nothing wrong with the English translation, lilies, since virtually any flower of the field has a unique beauty, regardless of its taxonomy (i.e., the term for the various heuristics for plants, which includes kingdom, phylum, class, series, family, genus, and species).

Furthermore, the experts seem to be agreed in asserting that the exact species of flower Jesus may or may not have been referring to in his illustration is relatively unimportant. Even if we were to know conclusively the flower was this or that species, the far more important part of Jesus' teaching addresses the common human foible of being weighted down with care about where his followers' next meal is coming from or how they can afford to clothe themselves.

The more important point is this: God the Father empathizes with his children in their common cares and anxieties, and proof of that can be found in his provision for lesser important things such as birds and flowers. As to the reasoning behind Jesus' illustrations in Matthew 6:25-34, and the application of those illustrations to the everyday life of his disciples, Jesus used the argumentum a minore ad maius).

The "argument" goes as follows: If God lavished so much beauty and creativity on something as insignificant as a flower, whose beauty lasts but a few short days, how much more love and concern will he lavish upon his children who were created in his image by providing them with clothes to wear.

I use the word concern deliberately, because anxiety, a kissing cousin of concern, is the root problem Jesus addresses at this point in his Sermon on the Mount.

The lilies of the field and the birds of the air have no worries. God clothes the fields with beautiful lilies by providing them with all they need: seeds, soil, sunshine, and water. He also feeds the birds of the air with tiny morsels of food which, not so coincidentally, often come from the flowers of the fields.

If, then, he does these things for mere flowers and birds, why would he not do the same thing for his children who are created in his image? The answer, of course: He wouldn't!

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  • The quotation may be part of a good answer, but who is John Chancellor, and on what professional or scientific basis have you chosen his as the only opinion worth naming? What are the hermeneutical issues involved? The history of interpretation? Please show some effort on the OP's actual question. – Schuh Jan 29 '16 at 10:02
  • @Schuh: You might want to check out my newly edited version, which includes a few interesting, though highly inconclusive, citations. Don – rhetorician Jan 29 '16 at 15:28
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    Your answer now includes several duplicate paragraphs, several commentaries that cite the exact same sources (though Gill is not the source of your own opinion), and extraneous material galore. The quote credited to Thomas Constable is not his, neither is he the source of the L&N quote, and his actual opinion is omitted (crocuses). You still offer no hermeneutical reflection, and finally, your conclusion doesn’t reflect the varied opinions you now cite. I’d offer edits but I fear you’re mocking us. – Schuh Jan 29 '16 at 19:13
  • @Schuh: I was in such a hurry to put together my revised answer that I didn't proofread it at all. I'll try to clean things up a bit. Some of your critiques are legitimate; some are not. The point I will attempt to underscore in my revision is that the experts in biblical languages are united in saying the exact species of flower Jesus referred to is relatively unimportant. Consequently, attempting to make it more important that it is detracts, I feel, both from Jesus' teaching and the illustration with which he communicated a big idea; namely, heavenly Father cares for his image bearers. – rhetorician Jan 29 '16 at 21:17
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    @Nathaniel: My answer has been lengthened quite a bit, and I've cut back on the application a bit, too. The answer may not be what the OP desires, but I think any dispassionate conclusion based on the authorities I've quoted would lead one to believe that the identification of the "lilies" Jesus referred to was incidental (if that!) to the lesson he was teaching. What thinkest thou? Don – rhetorician Jan 30 '16 at 17:11
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In Search of Lost Lilies (and reliable Bible commentaries)

“[A]lthough there is little doubt that the word [κρίνον] denotes some plant of the lily species, it is by no means certain what individual of this class it especially designates.”

So William Smith framed his widely-quoted and, as we’ll see, outdated entry for ‘Lily’ in his popular Bible dictionary of 1863. Following his lead, this post identifies the hermeneutical clues that define the search for the specific object of Jesus’ attention and use them to evaluate the most frequently suggested options.

28 ... Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! (Mt 6:28b-30, NASB)

Matthew set these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount early in his ministry in Galilee. The same pericope appears in Luke 12:24-28 almost word-for-Greek-word, though not in Luke’s parallel Sermon on the Plain but in a similar speech set very late in Jesus’ life near Jerusalem. Perhaps adjusting for this different venue, Luke omits ‘of the field’: Jesus said, “κατανοήσατε τὰ κρίνα” – ‘Consider the lilies’ (NASB).

Simply noting the differences between the parallel accounts has implications for our search: Should we be looking for a lily species that bloomed in the lush north or the drier south? In the highlands or the plains? In the spring or haying season? Traditional commentators suggest that if Jesus had a specific species in mind, perhaps it thrived in varied climates, a varietal with a long blooming season. Modern critical scholars suggest this Q passage entered the tradition without a narrative setting, thus allowing the writers of Matthew and Luke to set it in different locations (though Q scholars believe these earliest Jesus sayings likely originated in Galilee).1 Regardless, the search for the ‘lost lily’, if it be a single type, must satisfy both sets of conditions.

"Consider the Kρίνον"

The texts in Matthew 6 and Luke 12 use the Greek word κρίνον (krē'-non), and as Smith noted, scholars do not doubt the word is best translated as ‘lilies’, not the general category of ‘flowers’, which is a different Greek word (ἄνθος). Though κρίνον appears in only these two passages in the NT, it is well attested elsewhere in literature, including the LXX where it translated the Hebrew שׁוּשַׁן (shoshan) which itself is said to mean ‘whiteness’ (Gesenius, Easton, LSJ Greek-English Lexicon). In addition to being a fragrant, luscious, and especially shapely sexual metaphor for the lovers in the Song of Solomon (2:1,2,16; 4:5; 5:13; 6:2,3; 7:2), shoshan lilies adorned Solomon’s temple, wrought into the giant brass laver and the capitals of the pillars (1Ki.7:19,22,26; 2Ch.4:5).2 Strong’s suggests the shape of the shoshan bloom also inspired the name of the straight trumpet, the Shoshannim (Ps.45:1, 69:1). Shoshan and κρίνον still mean ‘lily’ in modern Hebrew and Greek today.

Translators, however, have sometimes questioned whether the uncontested Greek vocabulary reflects Jesus’ original meaning. The saying has strong echoes of Ps.103:15: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes.” Also Isaiah 40:6-8: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” Both Hebrew Bible passages use the generic word ‘flower’, in both Hebrew and the LXX. Some less-literal NT translators therefore assume Jesus intended this allusion and so translate κρίνον as ‘flowers’ (e.g. NIV, HCSB, NET). Alford suggested “all wildflowers.”

While Jesus’ sermon appears strongly informed by the message and poetry of the earlier literature, the lack of certainty about the specific kind of ‘lily’ Jesus intended does not justify dismissing the actual text and its established meaning altogether. Our search should prioritize the Lilium genus and other lily-like options.

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Why so many Bible commentaries suggest non-lily species

Nevertheless, report Louw and Nida, “Though traditionally κρίνον has been regarded as a type of lily, scholars have suggested several other possible types of flowers, including an anemone, a poppy, a gladiolus, and a rather inconspicuous type of daisy” (n.6). Three of the frequently named non-lily options are:

  • Anemone coronaria, popularly known as the scarlet poppy, windflower, and Palestine or crown anemone. H.B. Tristram, the often-quoted 19th century parson-naturalist, wrote, “Certainly if, in the wondrous richness of bloom which characterizes the land of Israel in spring, any one plant can claim pre-eminence, it is the Anemone.” The scarlet poppy blooms from December to March, but it “shrivels too soon to be gathered as kindling with the dry grasses of the field in the summer season.”3

  • Sternbergia lutea (formerly Amaryllis lutea), a.k.a. yellow autumn crocus, fall/winter daffodil, and even lily-of-the-field. Bible professor Thomas Constable favors these “wild crocuses that bloom so abundantly in Galilee during the spring.” This is the most lily-like of the non-lily options, though F.W. Gesenius had identified the crocus “most accurately” with the Hebrew 'rose'.

  • Anthemis palaestina, the Palestine or ‘white-rayed’ chamomile. This daisy-like wildflower is commonplace in Palestine and blooms during hay-making season.3 The ordinary, ubiquitous chamomile would have stood in especially stark contrast to Solomon’s storied ‘glory’ in Jesus saying, which some see as typical of his teaching style.4

All three non-lily flowers grow in abundance in their season, a quality frequently assumed to be important for our search. Tristram (1867) championed the Anemone coronaria on this basis, and likewise Balfour (1885) the Lilium chalcedonicum (below). But nothing in the texts themselves requires abundance. McClintock and Strong (1867) note, instead, that the ‘glory’ of the lily need only be “well known and highly esteemed.” To function well as a metaphor our lily needn’t be plenteous or even necessarily at-hand if it has cultural resonance.

Others, however, suggest the defining clue in Jesus’ comparison is the lily’s color which, in the 19th century (for reasons explained below) was thought likely not to be white but vibrant, perhaps scarlet (e.g. Easton). Many commentators still follow Smith’s creative logic on this point:

“That its flowers were brilliant in color would seem to be indicated in Matt.vi.28 [sic] where it is compared with the gorgeous robes of Solomon; and that this color was scarlet or purple is implied in Cant.v.13.”

It’s unclear how Smith identified Solomon’s robes as the defining feature of his ‘glory’, and then color as the defining feature of his robes, then jumping to Songs 5:13 – “His lips are lilies, dripping with liquid myrrh” – and deducing not the lily’s syrupy succulence and musky fragrance but again, mere color, the least erotic interpretation of the poetry possible. This amounts to proof-texting and a rationale too tenuous to persuade. [A similar lack of imagination leads some to discount mountainous flowers because Solomon’s lover said he “goes down” to gather lilies in the verdant “valley.”]

But Smith stated his case boldy: “There appears to be no species of lily which so completely answers all these requirements as the Lilium Chalcedonicum, or Scarlet Martagon, which grows in profusion in the Levant.” This claim, published in 1863, is still widely repeated by commentators; a recent garden writer called it “almost universally accepted.” Unfortunately these copyists didn’t note Smith’s next sentence: “But direct evidence on the point is still to be desired from the observation of travellers.” Professional verification was hard to come by in the mid-19th century, but today we can quickly learn that the Scarlet Martagon is native to parts of southern Europe, but it is not a wild flower of Israel. The richly-hued Fritillaria imperialis (a.k.a. crown imperial or Kaiser's crown) was also once suggested but has now been similarly invalidated.

The Choice of Tradition: the Madonna Lily

It is somewhat understandable, however, that Smith and his 19th century colleagues widened the search for the biblical lily to include non-white lily and non-lily options, against both tradition and the hermeneutical clues. Here’s why:

Jewish and Christian tradition had earlier associated the biblical lily with the white Lilium candidum, or Madonna Lily, a true lily whose leafy, four to six foot stem “emerges in late spring and bears sweetly and headily fragrant flowers in summer.” As early as the 12th century Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Songs, had explained that the Hebrew shoshan is derived from sheh (‘six’), "since it always has six white petals as well as a pistil and long stamens which likewise number six." [He also interpreted So.5:13 (‘His lips are like lilies’) as referring to “scent and not to appearance."] During the same period Christian Crusaders found a tall, white lily in the Holy Land and, at least according to legend, revered it as a symbol of holiness and purity, and thus the Virgin Mary. They sent large quantities of bulbs to Europe where the species was cultivated for ornamental use, the progenitor of our modern Easter lily.3 A 17th century papal edict gave the ‘Madonna Lily’ official religious confirmation which led to the species’ popularity and, it was thought, to its extinction in its natural habitat. When botanists of the 18th and 19th centuries were unable to find the tall, white lilies of Renaissance paintings in Palestine, they questioned whether a native white lily had ever lived there. Bible interpreters began exploring other options.4

Only in 1925 did students from Hebrew University of Jerusalem find a wild Lilium candidum in northern Palestine. Botanical experts consider the rare species indigenous to the region, and it now survives in isolated locations on Mt. Carmel and in Upper Galilee protected from grazing.

Conclusion

According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “The complex question of the identification of the shoshan or shoshannah has provoked more studies than any other flora mentioned in the Bible, there being scarcely a beautiful flower found in lsrael (and even beyond its borders) that has not been suggested.” The hermeneutical clues, however, lead us to a white flower that is at least lily-like, that may have been conspicuous in Galilee and Jerusalem in the summer (or had strong cultural resonance), and that possesses the rich, sensuous qualities suggested by its symbolic uses in the Bible. The encyclopedia summarizes, the identification of the biblical shoshan with a lily is “almost certain” and Lilium candidum “most probable.”

Notes:


1 Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, Harper Collins (1993).

2 It is perhaps for this reason that the LXX also uses κρίνον to translate the Hebrew perach where it refers to ornamental ‘blossoms’ but not for live ‘sprouts’, nor for tsiyts, the generic word for ‘flower’.

3 Gloria Seuss, “Lilies of the Fields,” Jerusalem Perspective, 31 December 1994.

4Lily’, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol.3 (Merrill C. Tenney and Moises Silva, eds.), 2010.

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    Wow! Is shoshan just variant pointing for shushan? You have the Hebrew there pointed as shushan (which is indeed how it's listed in the lexicons) but you're consistently using the transliteration with the o vowel. (I have a vested interest in this particular name so I thought I should figure it out. :-)) – Susan Feb 3 '16 at 21:56
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    @Susan: Yes, you do, Shushan! I drafted this using Strong's shuwshan but then changed them all to be consistent with the Encyclopaedia Judaica quote which used shoshan, Feel free to edit the pointing as you think best. Thanks! – Schuh Feb 3 '16 at 22:38

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