I have previously lived in a house which has a grape vine. That was some years ago. And now I do so again. I had memories of ruthless pruning, but I had to read up (and watch YouTube instructions). As I pruned, with southern-hemisphere Springtime just on the horizon, my mind drifted to John 15.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes (αἴρει) every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes (καθαίρει) to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed (καθαροί) by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-6)
I hope that my adding the Greek, highlights the connection between removing, pruning, and cleansing that is obvious in the original.
I have a passion for understanding the cultural and social context of what Jesus said and did. I have a reasonable collection of books that explore and explain this stuff.
I glanced in several of those volumes – but there was very, very little about the practice of pruning a grapevine at the time of Jesus. Do point us to some online information if you know of any. I did find some information by Gary W. Derickson in Bibliotheca Sacra from 1996:
Viticulture was an integral aspect of first-century Judah’s culture. When Jesus presented the analogy of the vine and the branches to His disciples, He was speaking from a familiar context. Because its practice was so widespread it is likely that all the disciples, including the fishermen, may have seen grapes cultivated in their villages or on hillsides around their homes.
TRAINING OF PLANTS
In early Israel the branches of cultivated grapes were either allowed to trail along the ground or were trained to grow over a pole. Pliny’s mention of this indicates that it was still being practiced in first-century Palestine as well. When the stems were trained along the ground the grape clusters were propped up to keep them from contacting the soil and being ruined. Trellising of vines seems to have been introduced by the Romans as one of their advancements in viticulture and was used extensively in Palestine. It allowed air to flow through the branches to dry the dew more quickly. Pliny described five approaches to training grapevines “with the branches spreading about on the ground, or with the vine standing up of its own ac- cord, or else with a stay but without a cross-bar, or propped with a single cross-bar, or trellised with four bars in a rectangle.” Thus when Jesus related His analogy, the disciples would probably have been familiar with both trailing and trellising practices.
Pruning of the vineyards occurred at two principal times during the year. Immediately following the harvest the grapes were pruned severely in the fall and all leaves were stripped from the plants to induce dormancy. Spring trimming of vines was practiced before blooming as well as after.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, dated around A.D. 280, contain a contract for labor in a vineyard. They, along with Pliny’s writings, represent the nearest viticultural documents to the first century. In this contract the procedure for vineyard management began with “pruning, transport of leaves and throwing them outside the mud-walls.” This corresponds to the postharvest pruning. Following this the workers were committed to “planting as many vine-stems as are necessary, digging, hoeing round the vines and surrounding them with trenches.” The planting of stems refers to asexual reproduction of grapes through cuttings and would be done during dormancy, using material taken from the plants in the pruning. This stage of contracted labor was postharvest and followed the severe pruning in the early dormant season. The contract continues, “We being responsible for the remaining operations after those mentioned above, consisting of breaking up the ground, picking off shoots, keeping the vines well tended, disposition of them, removal of shoots, needful thinnings of foliage.” This describes their responsibilities during the growing season. Direct actions on the vines included “picking off shoots, removal of shoots,” and “needful thinnings of foliage,” no one of which fits the description of the removal of a branch. This work, being of minor impact on the plant, was designed to encourage fruit development while discouraging extensive vegetative growth.
For best results the growth rate of a grapevine must be carefully main- tained. If it has too few growing points, it grows too fast and becomes vegetative, producing fewer flowers and smaller grape clusters. If it is allowed to have too many growing points, it grows too extensively and its energy is wasted on growth and the clusters do not produce large or juicy grapes. The severe pruning in the early dormant season involves the re- duction of the plants to their appropriate number of growing points, the buds. Later the spring removal of shoots reflects the process of insuring that the plant is not allowed to grow too slowly by spreading its energy among the large number of suckers and water sprouts that appear on the main trunk as well as the fruiting branches.
Based on Isaiah 18:5 Duckat asserts, “After the plants budded and the blossoms turned into ripening grapes, the vine dressers cut off the barren branches.” However, this is refuted by Pliny, who notes:
Thus there are two kinds of main branches; the shoot which comes out of the hard timber and promises wood for the next year is called a leafy shoot or else when it is above the scar [caused by tying the branch to the trellis] a fruit- bearing shoot, whereas the other kind of shoot that springs from a year-old branch is always a fruit-bearer. There is also left underneath the cross-bar a shoot called the keeper—this is a young branch, not longer than three buds, which will provide wood next year if the vine’s luxurious growth has used itself up—and another shoot next to it, the size of a wart, called the pilferer is also left, in case the keeper-shoot should fail.
Of significance is the number of nonfruit-bearing branches left on the vines. Pliny also noted that after the harvest, when the most severe pruning occurs, the fruiting branches are pruned away for they are considered useless. This procedure has not changed since the first century. Branches are selected for various purposes and pruned accordingly during dormancy. The fruiting branches for the following season are allowed to keep between 8 and 20 buds, depending on the cultivar. This serves to regulate the branch’s growth rate in the spring at a level that encourages maximum flowering and fruit-set. The nonfruiting branches are pruned more severely to encourage vegetative growth with a view to a thick branch which can be used for fruiting the following year. Other adventitious growths, like water sprouts that arise from the roots at the base of the vine, are removed.
Keep in mind the setting of John 15. It is Spring time. “Removing” and “pruning” (and “cleansing”) are very similar experiences (with similar words in John’s original). Those of us not drawing our life from the vine and not bearing fruit – may experience removal. Those of us drawing our life from the vine and bearing fruit – may experience pruning. As we are pruned may we hold onto the hope that this will result in more fruit in the next season of our life.