Friday, October 26, 2012

Damn Tree

Jesus made as triumphant an entrance into Jerusalem as anyone could make while riding both a donkey and its colt simultaneously. Then, or the next day, or at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus chased dove-sellers and money changers from the Temple courtyard. Matthew then records a slight altercation between Jesus and the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law because children were praising Jesus as the "son of David." That brings us to the tale of a rather unfortunate fig tree...

Damn Tree
Every now and then, when you are reading through the Bible, you will come across a passage which makes you tilt your head, furrow your eyebrows, and ask "What? Did I just read that right?" And, yes, you find that you did read that right, but it still seems odd and inappropriate. Typically people just go on about their merry way, and try to forget all about it, but I invite you to take a closer look at one of these cases.

In Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-14 + Mark 11:20-26, we find the anecdote of Jesus condemning a fig tree. The simple story goes like this: Jesus was hungry. He saw a leafy fig tree and went to it in hopes of finding figs. There were no figs on it, so Jesus cursed the tree. Sometime soon thereafter, the fig tree withered up and died. Jesus then told His amazed Disciples that if they only have faith, not only could they curse trees, but they could throw mountains into seas or have anything else that they ask for in prayer.

Think about that. Jesus literally killed a tree because it didn't have fruit on it. This is the man-God who came to tell us that we need to pay more attention to the spiritual life than the real one. This is the Messiah guy who said that if anyone hits you, you should turn the other cheek and let them hit you again. This is the divine one who fasted in the desert for forty days without eating, and who, after being tempted by Satan, simply let Satan go free. This same Jesus killed a tree for something that the tree did not have any conscious control over. And in Mark 11:13, the situation only gets worse:
Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, [Jesus] went to find out if it had any fruit. When He reached it, He found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. NIV
The tree had no figs "because it was not the season for figs!" Why would Jesus kill a tree for not having fruit out of season?!?! Well, I have an answer, but first we will consider another point of view.

Faced with this incredibly absurd episode, faithful scholars struggled to find some sense of deeper meaning to latch onto, and this is it: the tree represents the Jews. Oh yes, Jesus went looking for spiritual fruit from them, but found none, and so, just like this tree, they were to be (partially) destroyed in 70 C.E. That is a completely reasonable metaphor, if you ignore all of the context.

For one, it was not the season for figs! So if the tree represented the Jews, then Jesus had no more right to expect spiritual fruit from the Jews than He did to expect figs from the tree. Second, Jesus' curse in Mark 11:14 was that " one ever eat fruit from you again." If that represented the Jews, then that would imply that no one would ever be spiritually blessed by a Jew, which then contradicts both reality and several Old Testament prophesies, such as Zechariah 8:23. Third, in Matthew 21:21 Jesus tells His Disciples that they could do the same thing. How many times would the Jews need to be destroyed?

Likely, the real reason why this is here is that it is an early anecdote from a less-refined Gospel story about Jesus. Mark was emphasizing both Jesus' power and that God's power could be made manifest through undoubted prayer. Of course, we know from a previous study, and from life in general, that such a statement is a lie. But it is a lie that works, because every faithful person harbors at least a little nugget of doubt within them. (Did I doubt? Was that why my prayer was not answered?) So this turns the responsibility for failed prayers back to the pray-er, not the recipient of the prayers; God.

Anyway, in Mark's effort to emphasize prayer power, he failed to see the oddity of the situation. Obviously, Luke did see the oddity, and so he edited this story out of his Gospel.

Matthew, on the other hand, rarely made such wholesale redactions, and he made no exception in this case. Instead, he just changed the odd parts when he copied from Mark. He removed the part about the figs not being in season. He further emphasized Jesus' power by having the tree die immediately (Matthew 21:19) instead of having an extended death (Mark 11:20). Finally, he noticed the ill placed nugget of advice about needing to forgive before you pray (Mark 11:25-26), and so he relocated it and enhanced it as part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-24).


  1. I could never make heads or tails of the fig tree story either. If he allegedly had the power to cure diseases, raise the dead, come back from the dead himself, turn water into wine, and calm sea storms, you'd think he'd have the power to make figs grow out of season on a tree.

  2. I remember when I read this section and I was quite confused by it. Such a strange passage. I think the explanation that it is an anecdote from an early version of the gospel makes a lot of sense.

  3. That is a great point, Ahab! It would have been a far better miracle if Jesus simply made the tree sprout fruit then and there.

    Thanks Hausdorff! I think that seeing the differences in the Gospels really helps you appreciate just how much the stories were evolving.

  4. Nice post, can I plagiarize some of it on my blog? I would be more tempted to just share it, but I want to expand it and change the somewhat offensive title so a Christian from my background might read it. BTW, there's a typo in the last paragraph;reactions is what you meant I believe.

  5. Thanks Angela! Sure, please feel free to plagiarize this post as you see fit. :-)

    I to make a lot of typos, despite my best efforts, but in this particular case "redactions" is correct. In studying the Synoptic Gospels, I have noticed that if Mark has some strange story, Matthew will normally just tweak it a bit, while Luke will either tweak it or completely remove it. So this mention of redactions is a comparison between Matthew and Luke.

    By the way, thanks for the disaster prep advice in your latest post. :-)