The Cursing of the Fig Tree

Someone said to me:

There’s a big difference between Jesus saying something figuratively and doing something figuratively. Next time I have to wash the dishes I think I will do it figuratively. It should be just as effective eh??

Here’s one example of what I think is a parable turned into a literal event in the Gospels: the incident of the cursing of the fig tree [Mat. 21:19 ff. // Mark 11:13]

You know the story…Jesus sees a fig tree with no fruit, curses it, tree is withered.

It only looks literal in a narrow context. The parable appears 3 times in the Gospels: Matthew 21:19, Mark 11:13 and Luke 13:6. Now I know that the Luke story starts “then he told them a parable” while the others say “Jesus did…”. But that in itself is not strange when you think about how often the early Christian community wrote their beliefs about Jesus into actions in his life.

In Mark and Matthew, the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem and routing the money changers appears in the middle of the story about the fig tree. (Both Gospels have one fig story and one Jerusalem story. Luke also has one fig story and one Jerusalem story — only they aren’t together. )

It looks like the gospel writers had a remembrance or maybe a written document of the “sayings of Jesus” and it was these saying along with a remembrance/tradition of what Jesus did, that provided a framework for the Gospels to be written. But it is not likely that either the sayings or the actions happened in the contexts or orders in which they appear in the Gospels (even Martin Luther noted that Gospel narratives are not in chronological order).

When confronted with the saying about the Fig tree (given that fig trees generally are symbolic of the spiritual health of Israel), Mark’s writer perhaps noticed how well it fit the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish establishment — and so put the two stories together. That is, Jesus spoke of a tree with no fruit and visited a city which bore no spiritual fruit. Matthew copied Mark, and Luke didn’t.

Jesus sometimes used fig trees to make his points, so the careful reader should expect to find some lesson from the event. We see that the narrative about the fig tree encloses the story of Jesus’ trip into Jerusalem, so it should be pretty clear that Israel is signified by the fig tree that bore no fruit.

Now look at the stories. First, Matthew and Mark differ. Here’s Matthew 21:19 ff.

“And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing on it but leaves. Then he said to it “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”

Then Jesus goes to the temple in Jerusalem.

And from the narrative in Mark :

“Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it. Then they came to Jerusalem… [11:13-15]

And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away at its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.'” [11:19-21]

In one case the tree withered at once and the disciples saw it and discussed it. In the second, the disciples did not see the withered tree and discuss it until the next day.

This should suggest that the narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was inserted into the fig tree story, but as a slightly different place in each gospel.

Now that we see that there is some editing of the story going on, look at “what really happened”.

“Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none…” [Luke 13:6 ff.].

Matthew and Mark have an event and no parable about a fig tree — Luke has a parable and no event. What we actually have is three parables, only two of them are presented in narrative form with Jesus as the main actor.

True? Yes. What Jesus literally did? No.

But don’t take my word for it, look at what two well-respected Bible commentaries say:

Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible

On Matthew:

It would appear however, that the story is largely symbolic, at least in its present form. It points to the nation Israel which has not brought forth the fruits of repentance…and is therefore depicted as under God’s curse. Whatever historical elements there may have been behind this account have been obscured…

On Mark:

The barren fig tree is probably symbolic of Israel and the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Mark records the episode as an example of the power of Jesus. It is probably a variant version of an original symbolic teaching, now preserved in Luke 13:6-9. It is significant that Mark and Matt. have an incident but no parable; Luke has a parable but no incident. Tradition has apparently dramatized the parable.

Harper’s Bible Commentary

On Mark:

The cursing of the fig tree…and the cleansing of the temple… are “intercalated” and interpret each other. The cursing of the fig tree may have developed from a parable such as Luke 13:6-9, where the unfruitful tree symbolizes an unfaithful people (Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 8:13, Mic. 8:1)…

Alternative View

If Jesus literally cursed a fig tree, then why? Is Jesus really irritable when he hasn’t had breakfast? One possible explanation has to do with the Jesus’ understanding of his messianic role, as described by the prophet Zechariah. All of the signs where coming together for the arrival of the messiah except for this one fig tree that was “not with the program”.

(Zec 8:12 NASB) ‘For there will be peace for the seed: the vine will yield its fruit, the land will yield its produce, and the heavens will give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things.

[This article was written sometime prior to May 5, 1996, when I mentioned it on USENET.]

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