Fall 1990, Vol. 42 No. 3, pp. 196-208

Anthony J. Gittins:
      Grains of Wheat: Culture, Agriculture, and Spirituality

A study of early Palestinian cereal cultivation reveals the imagistic elements of John 12:24 to be characteristic of female roles in Ancient Near Eastern culture and religion.

Anthony J. Gittins is a member of the Spiritan community and Professor of theological anthropology at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. His most recent book is Gifts and Strangers: Meeting this Challenge of Inculturatíon, Paulist Press, 1989.

UNLESS the grain of wheat, falling to the ground [should] die, it remains alone. But if it [should] die it produces much fruit" (John 12:24). This is so well known -- even in a rather slavish translation -- as to be a classic as much in literary as in scriptural circles. Yet, as with many familiar phrases, it may have lost some of its impact when proclaimed in a world of high technology rather than one of agriculture. As commonplace as it may be in funeral orations and in times of suffering, it would seem worthy of even wider currency, and it could surely yield more layers of meaning and application than it has hitherto for most of us.

If over-allegorization tends to produce indigestion, it is nevertheless true that the (re)discovery of an original cultural or semantic dimension can sometimes illuminate a cliché in a most remarkable way; it is in this spirit that the present reflection is offered.

The implication in the statement of John 12:24, or at least the inference often drawn, is that grains of wheat do naturally fall to the ground to produce fruit, and that harvests follow as a matter of course from the developmental cycle of the seed. Actually, a harvest represents a 'cultural' achievement of stunning importance, and the 'natural' developmental process of a seed will never produce the kind of abundance that we call a harvest! This being the case, the disarmingly simple statement put on the lips of Jesus bears further careful scrutiny.


The transition from nomadic to settled habitation marks one of the greatest shifts in the development of civilization. Yet it could not possibly have happened unless human groups were able to acquire adequate food on a regular basis. The carcass of an enormous animal may be nourishing but does not keep well, is difficult to transport, and is rather difficult to come by. Small hunting bands may cover the country and live off the land; larger groups simply cannot.

Perhaps an unlikely claimant for the title 'most significant discovery' -- along with the wheel, the shadoof and the alphabet -- is bread-wheat; but it is arguably the most worthy claimant of all.

Scarcely 10,000 years ago 'wheat' was simply one of a number of undistinguished grasses that sprang from the earth of the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. These grasses were wild, but sometimes interbred, assisted by wind and rain. One of these however -- wild wheat -- not only crossed fortuitously with a certain goat grass, but even produced a fertile hybrid of twentyeight chromosomes, called emmer wheat. Emmer seeds scatter widely in the wind; indeed they can be said to 'fall to the ground and die.' And thus this new, plump wheat became widespread, or at least 'extensive' in range if not 'intensive' it growth. In other words, it was not prolific enough to be har vested economically. But emmer wheat had not completed it: developmental process. This relatively new strain, by crossing with a different goat grass, produced against all the odds yep another vigorous and fertile hybrid of forty-two chromosomes which was indeed prolific, and which we now know as breadwheat.(l)

The history of bread-wheat, relying as it does on two surpris ing,,'accidents; is remarkable enough; but the saga continues. Ir the first place, it is now known that 'but for a particular genetic mutation on one chromosome; (2) this hybrid would not have been fertile, and consequently 'bread-wheat' would never have reproduced itself, let alone produced bread. There would have been no harvest because of no abundance: the grain woulc 'remain alone', in the words of the Gospel. But secondly, the new forty-two chromosome hybrid is now too bountiful, its ea too tightly packed with grain, to be able to scatter in the wind It can no longer 'fall to the ground and die; much less produce fruit! There is a rather poetic passage in a recent account of th development of the Mediterranean world which is to ou purpose here:

The seed of wild grass is difficult to gather. If it is collected before it is ripe, it is not very good to eat. On the other hand, if it is left ungathered for long after it has ripened, the seeds will have fallen from the stem so that they may be distributed by the wind or the feet of animals. So there may be only a few days when the harvest is possible. Seeds that remain attached for slightly longer periods would, inevitably, be the ones most likely to be collected. So one of the first effects caused by people gathering and resowing grass was to produce strains that retained their seeds longer than the wild forms. Eventually, this tendency went so far that the plants did not shed their seeds at all. Thus fully domesticated cereals -- wheat and barley -- lost their ability to distribute themselves and became totally dependent on [human agents] for their propagation and spread [my emphasis]. (3)
To rephrase the story: it is easily shown that but for some slight modifications in environment and plant-propagation genetics, there could have been little or no sense to the saying attributed to Jesus in John's Gospel. So we have, in the story of wheat-cultivation, the ingredients for a nourishing meditation on death and rebirth, barrenness and fertility, individuality and corpora teness, dearth and bounty; and in the verse from the Gospel of John, a profound spirituality of resurrection and discipleship.


If it is legitimate to claim the domestication of wheat as a crucial index of civilization and settled human culture, then it is only appropriate to acknowledge the indispensable part played by women.(4) "Man's" rise to civilization is, in a particularly important sense, "woman's," at least in the cereal cultures of EurAsia, for alongside these cultures goes a measurable rise in the social and religious position of women. Different kinds of culture Semitic camel-culture, African cattle-culture, Asian horse-pastoralism, sub-Arctic reindeer-culture and so on -- have employed different configurations of human and other resources; but cereal cultivation has, in a unique way, been the legacy of women, just as the knowledge of sexual phases, natural rhythms and breeding cycles has tended to cluster together in a domain largely understood, nurtured and controlled by women. Cereal cultivation demands knowledge of cycles and seasons, moons and meteorology, the calculation of time and the control of temporal sequences -- knowledge and activities originating with and residing in women par excellence.

Ancient religious stories record the Goddess as 'inventing' agriculture, and recent scholarship supports the claim that indeed women were responsible for the domestication of plants, controlled the cultivation of fields, broke the ground and sowed the seed.(5) The fertility of women is intrinsically connected with the fertility of nature, and metaphors for the one -- nurturing, bearing, propagating -- become rather obviously and appositely metaphors for the other. The seed lies in the earth rather as the embryo lies in the womb; the earth, the land, the soil, may be referred to as a mother; and the plow opening up the earth in preparation for the seed is a figure of the act of procreation but from a receptive or absorbing, rather than from an aggressive or imposing perspective.

Women are the 'transformers' of culture or society through gestating, bearing, nurturing and rearing its members, just as domesticated wheat 'transforms' nature itself, producing crops and harvest in a hitherto unimaginable bounty. Indeed, the very women who transform culture also transform nature in a creative and life-sustaining fashion. And if we consider the contrast between the symbiosis of women and wheat and then look at certain relationships characteristic of non-cereal cultures, the point will need no further belaboring.

The cultivation of tubers (particularly yams, cassava root, and sweet potatoes) is effected by planting'cut' or'dead' pieces from the previously-cropped rhizomes, activity which generates metaphors of killing and chopping, mutilating and violence. We see no signs nor language of nurturing here. And this sexless but aggressive process of reproduction is controlled by men. Rather than with wombs and mothers and female deities, tuber cultivators tend to operate with tropes and themes such as dismemberment, murder, and violent, cataclysmic regeneration.

Is it purely by chance that headhunting and cannibalism with their violence and death, and tuber cultivation by men with its characteristically vigorous and invasive approach, co-occur? Also, is it perhaps more significant than is generally realized, especially by men, that cultivation of the earth by women has sustained for millennia cults of the Goddess and civilizations marked by the sacrality of sexuality and respect for the mystery of life? And finally, what might be the significance of the fact that the Jesus of the Gospel of John, in his statement about the grain of wheat, employs a vivid image of death and rebirth evocative not only of the adaptive capacity of wheat but of the transgenerational life-sustaining capacity of women? If John 12:24 were addressed to women or were to be heard as a woman in a first-century Palestinian (agricultural) context might hear it, what new perspectives and meanings might be generated for us?


If Israel struggled to identify and worship a single God -- a 'High God', 'Above all others' -- as it forged a national identity and settled into the Promised Land, then perhaps the struggle had to be particularly keen and long-lived, given the prevailing environmental and demographic conditions. For it would have been nomadic pastoralists rather than more settled populations, who identified a High God associated with the sky or the above. Such herders and transhumants could afford to belittle the earth in their religious worship, as they looked to the protective vault of the sky and moved camp according to its signs and seasons, its moods and messages. But the other and more settled groups -- people who had learned to domesticate wheat and to produce harvests to feed large aggregates of people -- quite naturally looked with great respect to the earth as the bountiful provider; and they focused their religious worship largely on a Mother of the Earth, (6) a goddess, and not nearly so much on a god who was believed to have died and risen again as part of a cycle of renewal. This assertion warrants elaboration.

It might initially seem that we could associate the Johannine reference to the dying and the rising of the grain of wheat with popular ideas of dying and rising deities, or even that Jesus or the evangelist -- was prefiguring the Resurrection in this statement. But though perhaps tempting, that is fanciful and unwarranted. The gods usually cited as 'dying and rising gods' include Adonis (originally Semitic), Attis (Phrygian), Osiris (Egyptian) and Tammuz (Akkadian /Sumerian), as well as Aliyan Baal (Ugaritic), and Marduk (Babylonian); but recent scholarship (7) has revealed that there is at best insufficient, and actually untrustworthy, evidence as to the existence of any Gods that can be reasonably categorized as 'dying and rising.' Better put, it is a misnomer to speak of 'dying and rising gods'; no such gods constitute a natural category, and in spite of the fact that there were local cults and some adaptation of form, there is no incontrovertible evidence of any deity characterized by a cycle of dying and rising. Any information that does affirm such a cycle is either dependent on imaginative and hypothetical reconstructions from ambiguous sources, or represents a Christian reworking and reinterpretation of pre-Christian material, quite possibly in order to adduce precedents for the Resurrection of Jesus. The pseudo-category of 'dying and rising gods' is therefore an example of the rewriting of history from a doctrinaire -- patriarchal or theological -- perspective. It is the late Christian texts that see in the stories of Adonis, Attis and the rest, prefigurations of dying and rising, death and rebirth, as exemplified in Jesus and his teaching. And perhaps scholarly 'discoveries' of pre-christian antecedents for belief in death-andresurrection have been somewhat premature and unhelpful. It is surely too neat, too fortuitous, to discover a thread of continuity between the myths of resurrection in ancient civilizations and the reality of the Resurrection in Christianity, as if the one were a fulfillment of the other and a vindication through Christianity of humankind's timeless aspirations. If there were such a thread, then the johannine author; in employing the image of the 'dying' and the 'reborn' grain of wheat would be demonstrating Jesus' reiterating familiar notions, and contriving to link past and future by means of the theme of apotheosis through dying and rising.

But instead of attempting to reconstruct a scenario which would have Jesus or the Christian Church cautiously and self-consciously preparing an apologetic argument for the Resurrection, perhaps the pedagogy of the grain of wheat is actually quite different and even more engaging. Rather than evocative of dying and rising gods (and thus of putatively crypto-Christian traditions compatible with the uniqueness and maleness of the God of Jesus), does not the grain of wheat speak simply of Earth and Mother and Goddess, very consistent with the experience of the settled groups who had domesticated the wheat in the first place (yet novel, unexpected, and redolent of a god who is also -- metaphorically -- female, fertile, and bountiful)? And if the linguistic image of wheat and its life-cycle points more obviously to an agricultural, earth-rooted significance rather than to an other-worldly, earth-transcending experience, then is it not at least implicitly identifying and appealing to the nurturers and sustainers in the audience or the community?

Given both the potentially enhanced position of women in agricultural economies and Jesus' preoccupation with empowerment and liberation and minorities and marginalized people, can we not glean some appropriate lessons from the fact that he talks so often of sowers and sowing, seed and scattering, corn, wheat, barley, chaff, tares, barns and harvests? Was he more aware of the fertility metaphor and the female connotations than we might think, not only when talking of fields white for the harvest or of the sower going to sow the seed (why should we only think of men here?), but when declaring that 'unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground; it 'remains alone'?

A seed that quickens in the womb of the earth is as much a miracle -- no more but no less either -- than the familiar miracle of mammalian birth. But in an agriculture (rather than a camel- or a horse-culture), the most familiar mammalian births are of human babies, as intimately understood by the women as they are denied to the men. So, within an agricultural experience or metaphor or religion, and within a world of wheat and of women, the words of Jesus and the words of the Gospel might have carried much more force -- and been somewhat differently applied -- than at first appears to us now. Raymond Brown states simply if ultimately unhelpfully, that 'the general meaning of the Johannine parable is clear from the context (my italics).(8) Jesus is speaking of death as the means of gaining life. Indeed, in its present sequence after the coming of the Greeks (v. 20), it is meant to refer to Jesus's death as the means of bringing life to all. There is no mention here of Resurrection, yet no acknowledgement either, of women's part in the context.


The 'grain of wheat' of John 12:24 ['grain'= kokkos seed/grain; 'wheat'= sitos = grain (generic)/ wheat] refers to sifted wheat or corn, implying not a single grain but a quantity, thus a 'harvestable' amount: 'the grain' rather than 'a grain.' And harvests are, of course, produced from fertile seeds, not sterile hybrids. More than likely, Biblical wheats were the emmer wheats referred to above, and this is a favored position among scholars.(9) Emmer wheats have been discovered in old Egyptian tombs and were ,certainly cultivated in the Near East in Biblical times; down to our own day in Palestine, other types of wild wheat are absent, though found in northern Syria.

Assuming that emmer wheat is under discussion here, the forty-two chromosome hybrid known as bread-wheat owes its fertility to a remarkable genetic mutation, a freak, a coincidence, we might-even say a 'grace.' Unless the grain falls to the ground and dies and be 'graced' therefore, it will not reproduce: a profound reality.

But as also noted, the fertile grain is so tightly packed in the ear that it cannot, unaided, fall to the ground; even if it were to break from the ear, it is so heavy and its glume so brittle, that as the chaff disintegrates the grain will fall, but like a stone rather than like a seed carried on the wind. So, either the seed needs assistance if it is to fall to the ground, or if it falls it does not broadcast and propagate widely. Not only are we struck by the literal message about seed bearing much fruit, but by broader implications of metaphors of spreading and going, leaving and not turning back.

There is a symbiosis between humanity -- man and woman, the plower and the sower, the tiller and the reaper, harvester and gleaner -- and bread-wheat: a fruitful grain provides abundant harvests, yet the grain cannot reproduce itself in any quantity; plows and draught animals assist farming, but this wheat can only be harvested 'by hand'; and people need wheat for survival, while strains of wheat, 'bread-wheat; now rely on people lest they become extinct. The potential 'harvest' to be reaped from John 12:24 is indeed great!


The symbiosis of people and emmer wheat, made civilization possible in the Near East. Cultivation of crops allowed for permanent settlement and the development of sizeable social groupings. Bread-wheat mediated 'nature' and 'culture.' But cereal culture -- the cycle of planting, nurturing, nourishing and harvesting -- depended upon a characteristically female contribution which, while not totally independent of male work, was nevertheless indispensable and integrated into the total human endeavor in perhaps a more balanced way than under any other sexual division of labor.

Civilization requires human cooperation, willing or coerced. In an agrarian economy the planting of wheat, its harvesting, and the production of flour, calls for cooperation between people and the land, as well as for cooperation between different groups of people; if such is realized, the yield will follow. And the number of mouths that can be fed will of course be in proportion to the harvest. Bread-wheat, by its very existence, invites community participation; and community survival depends on bread-wheat, in an agrarian, cereal culture.

But not all grains are bread-wheat and not all people are within communities. There are wild grains and there are wild 'undomesticated' individuals. There are both great advantages and serious limitations to being wild. Of those forms of wheat that do not need the assistance of human hands for their propagation, many are the sterile hybrids unproductive beyond their own brief existence. Yet there are those -- by the genetic freak of nature or the supernatural actions of grace -- that can indeed propagate spontaneously and widely; in their turn they provide from their own substance the elements for future hybridization, with its slim but real chances of improving the strain and adapting to new environments.

Domestic wheats, tamed and maintained by human interaction and produced by nature, may be characterized as symbiotic or relational, interdependent or communitarian, abundant or harvestable. But wild wheats not needing human assistance, and blowing where they may, grow independently and robustly. They survive, if fit, according to natural selection.

Though scattered sparsely and never sufficiently abundant to be harvestable in quantity, they may be, qualitatively, exceptional.

Much contemporary scholarship is comfortable with the view that organized religion and religious symbolism developed in an agricultural context. Certainly Near Eastern religion was dominated by the fertility of agriculture, and up to the time of Josiah's reforms in 621 B.C.E. there was a female cult of Asherah that flourished alongside the male cult of Yahweh. Now environment influences and conditions the use of language and its metaphors, just as language produces ways of thinking and speaking about the world. There is something profoundly religious and grounded in the choice by the Jesus of the Gospel of John of agricultural language and imagery to speak about eternal values. This is, I think, not 'mere' or 'accidental' use of the analogy of the life-cycle of wheat in order to make a point about death and rebirth in a theological context; the Johannine language has more than a general analogical and more than a purely allegorical meaning. It has both a context-sensitive meaning and is also a 'condensed' reference which might be profitably expanded by those familiar with cereal cultivation in first and second century Palestine, and with Biblical theology.


Lessons from the 'grain of wheat' theme can be applied by the imaginative reader. But one or two may perhaps be gathered here. If we shift the hermeneutical stance from that of the male -- theologian or farmer -- to that of the female -- nurturer or marginalized -- the perspective afforded by the words attributed to Jesus is very different. And if we consider the perspective of Jesus as boundary-breaker and empowerer of minorities, then these words can be catalytic for many new thoughts. 'Domestication' may mean higher output, but also standardization; the 'undomesticated' may yield more modestly, but it does produce variety. Wild strains range free and widely; what is domesticated is also rooted to the spot. So, if the Spirit blows where she wills, how can earth-bound souls be caught and carried aloft and scattered widely? Must not the disciple retain something of the wildness and the freedom of the grasses of the field as well as the robustness of the wheat? Is the cost of 'harvestability the loss of mobility to the disciple? And how will we be both responsive to the call to yield thirty, sixty, or one-hundred-fold and at the same time scatter to the ends of the earth?

The tight head of grain in the ear can provide nourishment for large numbers of people; wild grains and grasses can sustain only small communities or hamlets -- or wanderers or pilgrims, or vagrants. So how might Jesus be calling followers to comfort the isolated, the broken-hearted, the dispossessed, the vagrants? If we are not very rich and "lords of the harvest", are we thereby absolved from nurturing and feeding those who have nothing?

There is something in the prophet and the martyr -- the spokesperson of God and the always-visible and sometimes destined-to-be-exterminated witness -- that identifies such a one with the wild and the undomesticated grains. Prophets and martyrs will never be plentiful like the fields "white for the harvest." But they will grow and produce the thirty, or the sixty, or even -- in a 'graced' season the hundred-fold, if blown and scattered by the Spirit. Prophets and martyrs, like wild grains, are necessary for giving glory to God, and for their contributions to new kinds of vitality and abundance: for the hybridization of seeds -- in new varieties and with new possibilities and new uses whose growth will announce the Reign of God.

  1. Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (London: Futura Publications, 1973/1981), pp. 40-42.

  2. Bronowski, p.41.

  3. David Attenborough, The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987), p. 68.

  4. Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Vol. I, pp. 37-40.

  5. Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), pp. 68-69, and notes 35-38.

  6. Pamela Berger, The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), chapter one.

  7. J.Z. Smith, Encyclopedia of Religion, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1987), Vol. IV, pp. 521-526.

  8. Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 471. Brown also adds, rather tentatively, that 'others have sought wider afield for the back ground of the Johannine parable. Some like Holtzmann draw a comparison with the mystery religions where the annual cycle of death and rebirth was dramatized with an ear of grain'; and quotes Dodd who suggests that John's Hellenistic readers would be aware of the symbolism whereby there is in man a divine seed which has come down from above and is destined to return to its source; p. 472.

  9. Michael Zohary, in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962); Vol. II, p. 286; Vol. IV, p. 840.