A first century traveler arrives in Jericho. He’s been walking all day, is tired and hungry, and he’s looking for a date. Where would he turn? To the Judean Date Palm, of course. This flowering tree with its expansive palm fronds produced one of the tastiest treats available during the time that Jesus walked the earth. Its fruit was large and subtly sweet, kissed with just a hint of honey. If you’re thinking, “Yum, I’d sure like to try one of those,” you’re sadly out of luck. This squatty tree with its over-sized fruit has been extinct since sometime after the 11th century.i That is, until now.
Six decades ago, an Israeli archeologist was excavating the mountain fortress of Masada. In his digging, he came across a stash of thousands of date seeds. Later, more seeds were found in some caves near the Dead Sea. They were collected and stored away for the next forty years.ii Then, in the early 2000s, Dr. Sarah Sallon, a pediatrics physician at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, took an interest in the seeds. Wanting to explore the medicinal effects of these ancient dates, she pulled together a team to see if there was a way to bring life back to the long-dead Judean Date Palm.
Taking the lead was Dr. Elaine Solowey, the director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. In 2005, Solowey and her team took 34 of the best-looking seeds and ran them through a careful rehydration process before planting and fertilizing.iii Then the wait began. To the joy and surprise of all involved, the first seed sprouted. “I was so not expecting it,” said Dr. Sallon.iv This first date palm tree revived from a seed nearly 2000 years old, so they appropriately named it Methuselah, after the oldest man in the Bible.
As the work continued, six more seeds germinated and were given names according to the sex of the tree. Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah have joined Methuselah in the ever-expanding collection of ancient trees. But these are fruit trees. Fruit trees are designed to make fruit. Getting them to sprout and grow is only the first step. However, it can take up to a decade for a female date palm to produce fruit.
Finally, this past fall, that is exactly what happened. Methuselah and Hannah had a baby – actually, a whole bunch of babies, 111 in all.v And for the first time in centuries, people were able to taste the same fruity goodness that would have been enjoyed by the prophets, the disciples, and even our Messiah, Jesus, when they were down by the Jordan or out in the Judean wilderness.
While Dr. Sallon does hope to reintroduce the Judean Date Palm back into the market, her primary interest, again, is medicinal. So, don’t expect to see them in your grocery store anytime soon. However, it is possible that they could make an appearance in your local bookstore. As a pediatrician, Sallon harbors an interest in writing a children’s book about these slumbering seeds. “I wrote about the date, from the point of view of the date, he goes to sleep during the siege of Masada and literally wakes up in a laboratory.”vi
i “Strata: Arch-Tech: New Fruit from Old Seeds,” Biblical Archaeology Review 46.5 (2020): 18–19.
ii Press, Viva Sarah. “What Do 2,000-Year-Old Ancient Judean Dates Taste Like? Israeli Scientists Found Out.” Nocamels.com, 30 Sept. 2020, nocamels.com/2020/09/2000-ancient-judean-dates-israeli-scientists/.
iii “Strata: Arch-Tech: New Fruit from Old Seeds.”
iv Zhang, Sarah. “After 2,000 Years, These Seeds Have Finally Sprouted.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Feb. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/02/how-to-grow-a-date-tree-from-2000-year-old-seeds/606079/.
v Viva Sarah Press.
vi Viva Sarah Press.