Are Plants Alive?

This Creationist 419 Scam article also refers to a Sensuous Curmudgeon article which skewers Institute for Creation Research for a Henry Morris article about how “plants are not alive” and so, he reasons, there was no death (via plant death) before the fall when Adam and Eve ate plants because plants aren’t alive:

I enjoy a lot of the SC articles but this is another one where SC (and DreadTomatoAddiction) doesn’t really grasp what underlies Morris’ argument—in part because Morris does such a poor job of articulating it.

Here’s the linguistic situation in a nutshell: It is TRUE that the ancient Hebrews didn’t consider plants alive in the sense that we do, and didn’t think they were subject to death like humans and animals. SC makes fun of the idea that plants aren’t just as alive as animals but he is applying English language (and Indo-European languages in general, for the most part) and cultural perspectives as if they are the final standard of categorization. When translating, one constantly deals with source languages mapping in complex ways to target languages, such as Word A in Language X mapping to Word J or Word K in Language Y depending on complex contextual considerations (because Language Y makes distinctions that Language X doesn’t.) Conversely, sometimes the mapping goes in the opposite way. Language X distinguishes between Word A and Word B due to subtle differences but Language Y lumps the same ideas into just ONE ambiguous word. (“Ambiguous” in the perspective of Language X, but Language Y speakers think that that one word is perfectly sufficient!)

An example with the latter is English were the word “life” covers much wider territory than do the multiple words that the Greek of the New Testament uses. Thus, in an English Bible:

“I am the way the truth and the LIFE.” said Jesus. [Greek word here for “life” is ZAO]
“Whoever wants to save his LIFE shall lose it.” [Greek word here is PSUCHE.]
“…the riches and pleases of this LIFE.” [Greek word here is BIOS.]

So English has one word, LIFE, which is used to translate three different words and ideas in the Koine Greek of the New Testament! Greek makes these important distinctions in types of life.

ZAO refers to the eternal, “divine life” of God which gets endowed on those who follow Jesus.
PSUCHE refers to the “soul-life” of every human: the emotions, the mind, the will.
BIOS refers to the physical life of bodies.

(Notice how these three words became important morphemes in forming English words. Yet, those English words sometimes take these Greek morphemes in not always obvious directions. Thus, ZAO brought us zoology, PSUCHE brought us psychology, and BIOS brought us biology.)

Similar translation issues arise in Hebrew—so there is some truth in what Henry Morris is trying to say (although he uses that linguistic reality to concoct invalid “creation science” claims beyond the Hebrew text.) The Hebrew language and ancient culture of the Old Testament does treat plant life and animal life very differently. That isn’t “wrong” in their culture. They simply made distinctions that mattered to them just as we do now in English—and language reflects culture and ways of classifying things. There are many ways to classify and label what we observe in the world.

This happens a lot when people intent on mocking Henry Morris and other “creation science” advocates are just as ignorant (or nearly as ignorant) of the subject matter as their targets. And that human foible struck DreadTomatoAddiction and Sensuous Curmudgeon in this case—even though I certainly agree that Morris often went off the deep end with his claims. (I’m was and am a major critic of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb Jr.)

As a has-been linguist, these are huge issues with me—and I wish I could somehow help more people in this monolingual society to understand how every language and cultural looks at the world differently and expresses those differences in their own ways. Those individual ways are not necessarily “right” or “wrong” (although they might be in some sense.) It is mostly a matter of different kinds of labels.

Let me give a trivial example of such differences in labeling even among English speakers:

A city-dwelling family takes a vacation in the country and tours a farmer’s property. The urban parents say to the children: “Look at the pretty cows in that pen over there!” The farmer corrects them. “No, those are heifers in that pen. The cows are in that feed lot next to the barn over there.”

Why the confusion? Farmers distinguish heifers [females which haven’t produced a calf yet] from cows [females which have produced young.] Farmers make distinctions which non-farmers usually do not. Yet neither farmers or non-farmers are “wrong”. They just use different classifications and labels. [By the way, even individual farmers will mix the two systems of labeling. Thus, “I’m going to go feed the cows” may mean the task of feeding all of the bovines on the farm. Go figure! I think of this because I grew up in that world!]

Language is complicated! Translation is hard enough with modern languages. It gets all the more difficult with ancient languages because we don’t understand the cultures and mindsets nearly as well as those we can personally observe today.

{@swamidass, this is the type of article I wish I could keep in a convenient Peaceful Science archive or FAQ. Of course, this one is not at all polished because I wrote it so hastily—but I hope it gets the main ideas across.}


Wow! That was great, even if it was hastily written. You remind me of John Chiardi, who I used to hear on NPR, except I imagine your voice as being much more animated. :slight_smile:

We now have a Reference category, and your extend comment qualifies for a spot there I think. I can move it for you, or if you are going to edit anyway, maybe just copy it there?

In any case, my 419 article at DTA is due for an update. I’ll keep my errors you pointed out in mind when I do. :slight_smile:

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@AllenWitmerMiller, I want to find a way for us to start creating long term referenceable material. One possibility is a wiki. Another is carefully written articles by experts in an area, such as yourself. The fact that you do not use your real name creates a layer of complexity, but I think we can manage this by publishing it under “Peaceful Science.”

Would care to refine this enough to be “evergreen” and think through some other similar references you’d like to write? I’ll think through the right way to make them available.

The Tree of Life, being a plant, was not alive?

Is that apparent contradiction covered in the article?

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Do you mean the TOL of evolution? Or in Genesis?

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Oh! LoL. In Genesis.

I was originally going to begin with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but then thought using the Tree of Life would provide a better contrast.


I’m getting ready for a major move and am very busy—so I won’t be editing it any time soon. So please go ahead and move it to that reference category. (I’m content with the facts I explained in my post. I just didn’t organize and express it as I would have for formal publication.)

By the way, I don’t think I had ever used that cow/heifer illustration before—but it came to mind because some cows (not heifers) were following me around that morning as I got out of my car! (They associate vehicles with some kind of tasty treat because they are trained that way so they are easy to move around. Thus, there’s no need for laborious “cowboy cattle drive round ups” or herding. A farmer can simply drive a vehicle near the herd and the bovines of all ages will follow it wherever it goes, such as into a loading pen.)

I hope readers thought through the subtle distinctions and non-distinctions of the cow/heifer terminology. The same complications and ambiguities can arise in Bible translation. To reiterate the point, consider these statements from a farmer:

(1) “It’s time to open the barn-lot gate so the cows can come into the milking parlor.”

(2) “It’s time to feed the cows now.”

In sentence #1 the context reinforces the definition of “cow” which farmers usually use: a female bovine which has birthed at least one calf. Yet, a native speaker who lived in farm country wouldn’t even need the helpful clue, “milking parlor” to know that a barn-lot gate which is opened every morning and evening by the farmer to let bovines through is probably near the barn’s milking equipment (and therefore relates only to female, non-virgin cows!)

Technically speaking, a bull [male bovine] may be living among those cows but he won’t bother going through the gate to the barn because he won’t join the twice-per-day queue for milking. So imagine if a fundamentalist hyper-literalist hears the farmer’s statement! Will he/she insist that there are zero bulls on that farm because otherwise the farmer would also mentioned feeding the bull? (Don’t assume that I’m being absurd. I’ve read commentary from fundamentalists who make that same kind of silly assertion when dealing with some Hebrew or Greek word in the Bible. Admittedly, we are all prone to straining too much meaning out of a word at times. It even happens on this forum when there are misunderstandings—and that involves our own native language!)

In sentence #2, the farmer has reverted to the more general definition of “cow” (cattle/bovines of every sort, including bulls, steers, and heifers.) He could have said instead: “It’s time to feed the cattle now.” and then any ambiguity would have disappeared. Either sentence is common in dairy farming regions. I heard both growing up on a farm.

Now think about how this linguistic phenomenon (the ambiguities brought by multiple definitions and uses of the same word, “cow”) when trying to translate and interpret an ancient Hebrew (Old Testament) or ancient Koine Greek (New Testament) word! We can’t interview native speakers to learn of these distinctions. Obviously, they’re gone.



With that previous thought in mind, I will just say that these are the kind of complications which come with this very controversial passage:

The ALMAH will conceive and give birth to a son… — Isaiah 7:14

Does the Hebrew word ALMAH mean virgin or young woman (to put it into English terms)? Weighty tomes have been written about this lexicographic issue. This is an example where we in English perspectives demand to know whether the particular ALMAH referenced had experienced sexual relations or not—but the Hebrew word doesn’t necessarily 100% resolve that technical demand. Yes, ALMAH usually referred to a virgin because it was the commonly used word for “young maiden” or “unmarried woman”. Yet, even though those two ideas certainly suggest virginity, we all know that in our own English language cultural perspective, it is certainly possible for a “maiden” or “unmarried woman” (or “young woman” or “female adolescent”) to be a non-virgin despite not being married.

Of course, this translation problem over ALMAH created a firestorm when the “old” RSV (Revised Standard Version) Bible dared translate the word as “young woman” instead of “virgin” as the KJV had done. Even Handel’s Messiah had helped reinforce “a virgin shall conceive” in the minds of Christians for centuries. And nearly every Christmas pageant and sermon has repeated that familiar phrase. So imagine the shock and the angry protests when Christians throughout America heard that the “heretical and liberal” RSV translated Isaiah 7:14 as “a young woman shall conceive.” I can remember many ministers railing against the RSV from their pulpits.

Even a lot of evangelicals may be angry with me if they hear my admission empathizing with the complexities which faced the RSV Bible Translation Committee—and I’m not willing at all to say that those RSV scholars erred (nor that they necessarily translated ALMAH in a heretical way.) After all, one can find examples in ancient Hebrew texts and in the rabbinical literature where a young woman who was raped is nevertheless called an ALMAH after the incident. [If I still can recall correctly, discussions of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah as recorded in Genesis 34, provide such examples.]

By the way, many scholars believe that the Isaiah 7:14 passage was meant to have a dual prophetic meaning: that it referred to both a young woman in the royal house when Isaiah pronounced the prophecy and to the virgin centuries later who would birth Jesus, the Messiah. For that dual meaning, ALMAH works beautifully! It would correctly apply to the young woman of Isaiah’s time and also to the future mother of Jesus, the virgin called Mary.

Consider the same sort of dual possible meanings today. A modern day observer hearing a farmer say, “I’m going to feed the cows now.” has to be both very fluent in English and very familiar with American farmers’ commonly used expressions to know if that farmer is going to feed just a herd of “non-virgin” cows (because they’ve birthed at least one calf) or if that farmer is going to feed all of the bovines on his farm (including heifers, bulls, and steers.) Because I come from a farm background, I know that the later definition and interpretation is the correct one. A scholar twenty-five hundred years from now may have a much more difficult time recognizing that correct interpretation!

These linguistic complications are always worth emphasizing in a culture likes ours where bilingualism is not pervasive and most people fail to appreciate the difficulties all language translators face (not just Bible translators.) Translation is not a mathematical equivalence type of process where one can always easily determine that Word A in Language X equals Word B in Language Y. Sometimes I truly wish that it always worked that way!

This may seem like an unnecessary tangent to some but this ALMAH/virgin/young-woman problem is comparable to this thread’s “Are Plants Alive?” confusion.

{Some readers may consider this reiteration of the language-translation topic unnecessarily redundant—but my experience with students tells me that many visitors to this forum will need and appreciate this kind of tedious presentation of these language basics. These are unfamiliar concepts for many in our monolingual communities.}


It may seem like a contradiction in English—but did it sound like a contradiction in ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek cultures? This may be a hard one to grasp unless you understand the full implications of what I’ve previously described in this thread.

Perhaps another example would be helpful:

Imagine a civilization which has built a large obelisk in the center of their city as a reflection of their religious beliefs. They call that monument “The Obelisk of Life”. As a visitor hearing that name for the monument and the fact that it includes the word “life”, do you assume that that obelisk is alive? (i.e. is a living thing?) No. Would you assume that the people of that culture think that the obelisk is a living organism? No.

With that in mind, would “The Tree of Life” imply that the tree itself is a living organism? No. If the tree is symbolic (even if it actually physical exists), the label “The Tree of Life” isn’t about biology.

Of course, if you read Biblical Greek and come upon the Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7, you will notice that the Greek word for LIFE there is ZAO. And I’ve already described in a previous post, ZAO is the life-word which refers to the “divine life”. If a biological life was meant, the word would have been BIOS. So the Tree of Life name isn’t concerned with biology. It appears in a theological passage and is clearly not a conventional tree. (Could the Tree of Life be a biological organism? Perhaps, but that just isn’t the context and purpose of the passage.)

Thus, Mung, your question is an interesting one and it makes sense that you brought it up. After all, for our modern culture and English language, “The Tree of Life” naturally prompts us to wonder about its biology. But such a question would surprise the ancient author and most readers of that era!


If readers look elsewhere for this topic, they may be confused by spelling differences and wonder why I wrote ZAO instead of ZO. The verb ZO is a common contraction of ZAO which appears in the NT text. Also, ZOE is the noun for LIFE. One also finds in the Greek texts of the NT and Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) related LIFE-words like ANAZAO, ZOON, and ZOOGONEO. Even so, in English discussions about these Greek words, we lump them together as just ZAO or ZOE when describing the Bible’s ways of talking about LIFE.


Dan, I looked and it took me a while to find the Reference category. Perhaps the software doesn’t have a good way to make it easier to notice and reach.

I wonder if Reference needs a more appealing name: “Reference & Key Topics” or “Most Useful”. I don’t know. I will leave to others.

And now I can’t find it at all, either a category or a tag. I am befuddled.

This category has nothing in it right now. If we begin to get substantial things in it, we will make it more promiment.

I don’t seem to be able to move topics to the Reference category. I will try again when I have more time.

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I’m not sure this qualifies for that yet. I will make a “Reference” tag soon, which might be a good substitute for now.

Not this topic. I have a few others in mind.

Thanks for the detailed distinction of the Greek words indicating various aspects of life. I’ve avoided getting into these weeds previously by quoting John 12:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (ESV)

Is my argument that something that dies must have been alive reasonable? This also cuts directly to a parallel between seed death (and presumably plant death?) and Jesus’ own death given the context. The same Greek word is also used to describe human death, but I’d appreciate some insight.

Also, follows from 1 Corinthians 15:36, “You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (ESV)? The wording may make this one a defeater for me, so your insight is very much appreciated.


@EvolvableCreationist, you’ve posed some truly great questions! I haven’t even eaten my breakfast yet and you’ve already got my mind running in high gear, trying to determine how best to summarize a thesis-level topic down to a digestible post for our diverse community of readers at Peaceful Science. (And depending upon some phone calls I’m anticipating over the coming hours, I may have to reply in multiple posts.) You are probably already aware of many of the basics I’m going to cover but I’m going to start with those facts for the benefit of others.

Let’s start by considering a fact of first-century Palestine (and the Mediterranean Roman world, in a more general sense.) Israel of that era was a bilingual, if not somewhat trilingual society. The most common language spoken among the natives was Aramaic. Yet the language of the occupying Romans and the international marketplace was Koine Greek. (Many people assume that Latin was the language of the empire. It is true that, as the language of the Roman capital and much of the Italian peninsula, Latin was found on monuments and important edits. But even the Roman emperor’s family probably spoke a “posh” Greek in the home. It came with their education and pride in having had the best teachers, even highly educated, scholarly slaves of Greek background.) The pharisees and scribes certainly knew the Hebrew of the Old Testament and Jesus read from it when invited to do so publicly in a local synagogue. Even the average illiterate Jew of first-century Israel had various levels of familiarity with Hebrew because of synagogue participation and the Torah commands to post the Law in little snippets around the home and in the phylacteries (a small leather box which was worn by the men for morning prayers.)

It is crucial to keep this multilingual environment in mind when interpreting the New Testament. It was a Semitic culture with heavy Hellenic influences speaking primarily in Aramaic but being recorded for us in a Koine Greek text! We are reminded of this fact when various Aramaic words and phrases are transliterated for us in the Greek text. For example, Jesus said, Talitha kum (“Little girl, arise!”) Another instance is Jesus speaking from the cross: “Eli Eli lama sabachthani”, which is probably recalling the Aramaic Targum. [This phrase has also inspired many tomes and dissertations because of debate about Aramaic and Hebrew elements and why it was misunderstood by bystanders. Another complicated topic.]

Why mention all of this? When dealing with life and death topics from an Semitic culture speaking the Aramaic language but expressed in a Koine Greek document produced for a Hellenic world, we are faced with very difficult issues! So when contemplating these life and death words, we are dealing with Aramaic mindsets expressed in ancient Koine Greek texts being read from our English Bibles.

I will take up the specific words concerning death and life as I get the time but this multilingual backdrop will give readers something to consider in the meantime. Bible translators and interpreters must carefully weigh the implications of Hebrew and Aramaic words and concepts being conveyed to use through a very different language, Koine Greek—and then we have to filter all of that through our modern day predispositions and our own English language. A background in comparative linguistics is extremely helpful in working through the issues underlying your questions.

[@EvolvableCreationist, if you are new to Peaceful Science, I welcome you. My apologies if we have conversed here previously. I have a very poor memory for names.]