Jesus cursing the fig tree
Jesus cursing the fig tree is a Christian story found in the Gospel of Mark which was written around 66–70 CE. It was later copied and modified for the Gospel of Matthew, and might exist in a considerably different form in the Gospel of Luke.
Early Epistles (50-66 CE)
There is no mention of this story in any of the early epistles.
Gospel of Mark (66-70 CE)
After Jesus and his apostles enter Jerusalem, they go to Bethany, then:
- The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he 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. Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14 NIV)
Next, Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple and leaves the city to an unspecified location. Then:
- In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!" "Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:20-26 NIV)
Next, Jesus re-enters Jerusalem where his authority is questioned.
Like much of Mark, this story is disjointed and has no continuity with the stories around it.
Gospel of Matthew (80-90 CE)
The retelling in Matthew has a different timeline. First, Jesus enters Jerusalem, drives out the money changers, heals the sick, is identified as the son of David, and leaves to Bethany. Then:
- Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked. Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." (Matthew 21:18-22 NIV)
Next, Jesus returns to the temple courts where his authority is questioned.
There is no evident reason why Matthew's author changed the story so the fig tree withered as the disciples watched rather than while they were away, as described in Mark. Perhaps the author was trying to streamline the story which is broken apart in Mark? Perhaps they purposely altered the story to make it sound more impressive? Perhaps he was addressing criticism that the tree could have died of natural causes over night?
Gospel of Luke (80-100 CE)
If this story were found in Luke, it should be placed just before chapter 20, but it is not there. Instead, Luke contains a parable, not found in Mark or Matthew, which may be a heavily modified version of the original, about a fig tree that doesn't bear fruit. In Luke, Jesus says that just because terrible things happen to people, it doesn't mean they were vile sinners, and that all must repent or perish. Then:
- Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' "'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'" (Luke 13:6-9)
To me, it seems pretty clear that this story is about giving people second chances, while the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is clearly not. Because of this, I'm more inclined to think that the author of Luke simply didn't like the story from Mark because it doesn't make sense, and excised it. Whether this parable was a way to try and give a more positive take on the story, or is related only cosmetically, I have no idea.
Gospel of John (90–110 CE)
No remotely similar story is found in John, which is to be expected since it doesn't share the sources of Mark or Q.
Later Epistles (80+ CE)
There is no mention of this story in any of the later epistles.
In general, Christians agree that this should be viewed as a miracle of Jesus, and the moral is that anyone who truly believes in God through faith can perform miracles through prayer. I agree that this is the message the authors intended to convey.
An opinion of some Christian Reformers is that the barren fig tree is meant to symbolize Judaism, which God was now cursing for not keeping his covenant (not bearing fruit), thus securing a new covenant with Christians. To me, such an interpretation is without evidence and a clear case of forcing a figurative interpretation where a suitable literal one exists. However, since the story doesn't make much sense, and depicts Jesus in a negative light, I can see why they'd want to apply a non-literal hidden message. However, if that is the case, what are we make of Jesus saying "may you never bear fruit again." Are the Jews forever cursed?
Regarding the conflicting timelines between Mark and Matthew, biblical literalists do their typical song and dance claiming that everything happened in the same order and at the same time, you just have to use your imagination with words like "immediately," "quickly," and "remembered."
A question is often raised, why, if it wasn't the season for figs, did Jesus check the tree for fruit? I don't think an evidence-based answer can be made since there is so little of the story to go on.
Like most of the stories in Christian writings, this tale has no verifiable historical evidence. Apologists claim the story has historical weight because it has two independent sources, but most historians agree that Matthew copied from Mark, so there is really only one source. Also, most historians agree that Mark was not written by a disciple of Jesus, but, in the story, the only witnesses mentioned are Jesus and his disciples, and even they fail to see the tree in the process of withering. The current best case scenario is that, the story was written 35-40 years after the event by an anonymous person who heard the tale from someone who saw the aftermath of Jesus's curse.
Because the claim is so far-fetched, and there is only one source with no archeological evidence, I do not believe it. Furthermore:
If we accept the typical Christian interpretation, then Jesus is clearly wrong. History is filled with examples of devout Christians who truly believe their prayers would be answered, only to be proven wrong. Has not one Christian ever confidently prayed that cancer be eliminated forever?
It also seems petty on Jesus's behalf for killing an inanimate tree for adhering to its biology. Just because Jesus doesn't know when figs ripen, doesn't mean those hungry travelers or animals who pass by the tree in the correct season should be punished, but there you go. Why kill a tree when Jesus could have proved his point even more impressively by moving a non-living mountain as he claimed he could do? Jesus is even more callous in the Exorcism of Legion.
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursing_the_fig_tree - Wikipedia.
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_barren_fig_tree - Wikipedia.