Cannabis and the Bible | CBD project

Biblical scholars have written about the role of cannabis as a sacrament in the ancient Near and Middle East. Archaeological evidence confirms the plant’s use in fumigation rituals in ancient Israel. Scriptural references indicate that cannabis was a key ingredient in the holy anointing oil used in religious rites. But Yahweh, the Almighty Jealous God, disapproved of the idolatrous use of cannabis, the polytheistic drug of choice. The Old Testament recounts the embrace of one God instead of many, a major shift that coincided with the shift of cannabis as a ceremonial substance, as Chris Bennett reports in his latest book, Cannabis: Lost Sacrament of the Ancient World.

Humanity’s connection to cannabis dates back tens of thousands of years. The role of cannabis in the ancient world was multifaceted: with its nutritious seeds, an important food; with its long, flexible and strong stems an important fiber; as well as an early medicine from its leaves and flowers; and then there are its psychoactive effects. . .

Due to its usefulness, cannabis has a very long history of human cultivation. How long, exactly, remains unknown. “No other plant has been with humans as long as hemp,” says ethnobotanist Christian Rtsch. “It is certainly one of the oldest cultural assets of humanity. Wherever it was known, it was considered a functional, healing, intoxicating and aphrodisiac plant. Over the centuries, myths have arisen about this mysterious plant and its divine powers. Entire generations have revered it as sacred. . . . The power of hemp has been praised in hymns and prayers.”

The Great Leap Forward

There has been interesting scientific speculation that the psychoactive properties of cannabis played a catalytic role in the Great Leap Forward, a period of rapid progress for prehistoric humanity that began between 50,000 and 65,000 years ago. In their fascinating article, The Evolution of Cannabis and Coevolution with the Cannabinoid Receptor A Hypothesis, Dr. John M. McPartland and Geoffrey W. Guy explain how ingesting this plant may have helped prehistoric humans. “In a hunter-gatherer society,” they write, “the ability of phytocannabinoids to enhance smell, night vision, distinguish edges, and enhance color perception would enhance the evolutionary fitness of our species. Evolutionary fitness mirrors essentially reproductive success and phytocannabinoids improve the sensation of touch and sense of rhythm, two sensual responses that can lead to increased replication rates.

The authors speculate that plant compounds, which interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system, may exert sufficient selection pressure to maintain the gene for a receptor in an animal. If the plant ligand [plant-based cannabinoid] enhances receptor fitness by serving as a proto-drug or performance-enhancing substance, the ligand-receptor association could be evolutionarily conserved. They are essentially suggesting that there is a co-evolutionary relationship between Humans and Marijuana” and that somehow as we have grown cannabis, we may have grown too.

McPartland and Guy refer to others who propose that cannabis was the catalyst that facilitated the emergence of syntactic language in Neolithic humans: “Language, in turn, probably caused what anthropologists call ‘the great leap forward’ in human behavior, when humans suddenly created better tools from new materials (e.g. bone fish hooks, wooden spear handles, hemp rope), developed art (e.g. painting, pottery, musical instruments), began to use boats, and developed intricate social (and religious) organizations. . . . This recent burst of human evolution has been described as epigenetic (beyond our genes), may be due to the effect of plant ligands?

In his study of the botanical history of cannabis and man’s relationship with the plant, Mark Merlin, professor of botany at the University of Hawaii, called hemp one of the “progenitors of civilization. Merlin was not alone in suggesting that hemp “was one of the original cultivated plants.” In Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, the late Carl Sagan speculated that primitive man may have started the agricultural age by planting hemp first. Sagan, who was known to have a fondness for cannabis himself, cited the pygmies of Southwest Africa to prove his hypothesis. Pygmies had basically been hunters and gatherers until they started planting hemp, which they used for religious purposes. The pygmies themselves profess that in the beginning of time the gods gave them cannabis so that they would be healthy and happy.

Gift of the gods

Professor Richard E. Schultes of Harvard University, considered the father of modern ethnobotany, believed that it was probably in the search for food that mankind first discovered cannabis and its protein-rich seeds. Today, hemp seed products are touted as a modern superfood due to their richness in essential fatty acids.

“Primitive man experimented with all the plant materials he could chew and could not have avoided discovering the properties of cannabis (marijuana), since in his search for seeds and oil, he certainly ate the sticky buds of the plant,” he wrote Schultes. “By eating hemp, the euphoric, ecstatic and hallucinatory aspects may have introduced man to the otherworldly plane from which religious beliefs emerged, perhaps even the concept of divinity. The plant was accepted as a special gift from the gods, a sacred means of communion with the spirit world and as such has remained in some cultures to this day.

Archaeological evidence also attests to this ancient relationship. In Czechoslovakia, a hemp rope dating back to 26,900 BC has been found; is the oldest evidence of hemp fiber. Imprints of hemp fibers over 10,000 years old in pottery fragments in Taiwan and hemp textile remains from 8,000 BC have been found at the site of the ancient Catal Hyk settlement in Anatolia (present-day Turkey). According to prehistoric textile expert Elizabeth Wayland-Barber, much older tools for breaking the hemp stalk into fibers indicate that mankind has used cannabis for textiles since at least 25,000 BC.

Cannabis was also among our first medicines. A recent study by Washington State University scientist Ed Hagen suggests that our prehistoric ancestors may have ingested cannabis as a means of killing parasites, noting a similar practice among the primitive Aka of present-day Central Africa. We know that references to cannabis medicine appear in the world’s oldest pharmacopoeias, such as the Chinese ones Shennong Ben Cao Jingin ancient Ayurvedic texts, in the medical papyri of Egypt, in the cuneiform medical recipes of Assyria, first in a list of medicinal plants in Zoroastrian Zend Avestaand elsewhere.

Holy fumes!

Evidence of the ritual burning of cannabis is believed to date back to 3,500 BC based on archaeological finds in Ukraine and Romania. In Evidence of Frankincense and Poison in the Ancient Orient, Alan Godbey attributes the genesis of the concept of “divine plants” to “when the primeval savage discovered that the smoke from his cave fire sometimes produced strange physiological effects. At first revering these fire moods in him, he was not slow to discover that they manifested themselves only when certain weeds or sticks were included in his fuel supply. Upon discovering who was responsible, he began praying to these gentle gods for more beautiful visions of the unseen world or for more fervent inspiration.

Various biblical scholars have written about the role of cannabis as a sacrament in the ancient Near and Middle East. The ancient Jews came into contact with many cultures: Scythians, Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks who consumed cannabis. And these cultures influenced the plant’s use by Jews in fumigation rituals and as a key ingredient in sacred anointing oil applied as a topical to heal the sick and reward the righteous.

Compelling evidence of the ritual use of cannabis in ancient Israel was reported in a 2020 archaeological study, Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Arad, by Tel Aviv University’s Journal of the Institute of Archaeology. The authors noted that two altars with burnt plant residues had been found in a shrine at an ancient Jewish outpost in Tel Arad. One of the altars was tested for frankincense, a well-known Biblical herb, and the other altar tested positive for cannabis resin.

The research has predictably caused a firestorm of controversy, with participation from biblical historians, religious authorities and other parties. Haaretz, titled Holy Smoke | Did the ancient Israelites use cannabis as a temple offering, the study finds, raised a key question: ‘If the ancient Israelites were joining the festival, why does the Bible not mention the use of cannabis as a substance used in rituals, just like does it numerous times? for the incense?”

The Disappearance of “Kaneh Bosm”

In fact, several scholars have drawn attention to indications of cannabis use in the Bible. Polish anthropologist and etymologist Sula Benet argues that the Hebrew terms kaneh AND kaneh bosm refer to cannabis. Benet identified five specific references in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Old Testament) Exodus 30:23, Song of Songs 4:14, Isaiah 43:24, Jeremiah 6:20 and Ezekiel 27:19 which mention kaneh AND kaneh bosm. However, when reading these passages individually and comparing them, a stark contrast emerges.

In Exodus 30:23, the reference is to an ingredient of the Holy Oil, which was used in the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem, while in Jeremiah 6:20, this same previously sacred substance is completely rejected as an element of foreign influence and contempt. It seems that Yahweh, the jealous God, disapproved of the idolatrous use of cannabis, the polytheistic drug of choice.

The identity of kaneh AND kaneh bosm has long been a subject of speculation. Benets’ view was that when the Hebrew texts were translated into Greek for the Septuagint, a mistranslation occurred, deeming it to be like the common marsh root calamus. This mistranslation ensued in the Latin and later English translations of the Hebrew Bible. It should be noted that other botanical translation errors from Hebrew to Greek in the Hebrew Bible have been exposed.

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This article is adapted from Cannabis: Lost Sacrament of the Ancient World by Chris Bennett (TrineDay, 2023). Bennett is the author of several books, including Liber 420 e Cannabis and the Soma solution. Copyright, CBD Project. May not be reprinted without permission.

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