How should we read the Gospels? Let’s take the example of a puzzling story in which Jesus (in a seemingly bad-tempered moment) makes a fig tree wither and die! The Gospels, of course, are not eye-witness records, but carefully crafted accounts, assembled more than forty years later, mostly from word-of-mouth stories. These were already ‘translations’ from the Aramaic of Galilee, into the Greek of far-flung Roman Empire cities. So I approach them ‘critically’ – not negatively, but questioningly, looking for what seems, to me, to be the most reasonable and credible approach. You, must make up your own mind.
In ‘Mark’, the earliest written Gospel, in chapter 11, Jesus and his followers are staying near Jerusalem, at the beginning of his last week of life. We’re told that, “On the following day, when they came from Bethany., he was hungry”. “Bethany” might indicate the home of his followers, Martha and Mary, where hospitality had previously (Luke 10) been plentiful. Either Jesus hadn’t eaten his breakfast, or Mark is improvising a plausible reason for the inclusion of this story.
“Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, (Jesus) 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’. If it’s strange for Jesus, from rural Galilee, not to be in tune with the food seasons, even stranger is an apparent fit of bad temper due to disappointed expectations. Stopped from bearing fruit, in future no hungry person will derive any sustenance from it. This hardly seems at all reasonable or proportionate.
If this is historical fact, it suggests a Jesus who, contrary to later ‘mythicising’, was simply a ‘down-to-earth’ human, like you and me. He could forget things, and make mistakes. He could feel disappointment and anger, and say and do things he might later regret. He could overturn tables and scatter the money piled on them. He could lambast people he didn’t see eye-to-eye with, like Pharisees, with a stream of invective – “hypocrites; blind guides; whitewashed tombs; deserving of hell”. For me, this makes Jesus believably and agreeably human, rather than a ‘sinless’, saintly, ‘goody-two-shoes’. And it makes the Gospels more down-to-earth, credible and readable, for their often very human, warts-and-all, colour and drama.
But I’m not persuaded that this is historical fact. Whereas In Mark, it’s next morning before Jesus’ followers “saw the fig tree withered away to its roots”, the later Gospel of Matthew ‘ups the ante’. In that Gospel, “the fig tree withered at once” and “when the disciples saw it, they were amazed”, as well they might have been, even though knowing nothing about ‘laws of nature’ going into abeyance! If I had been there with my iPhone, could I have recorded this event for posterity? I think not. I’m persuaded that this ‘story’ is just that. It’s intended to convey a message, but not about how to instantly kill trees.
A common metaphor, across the Bible, is that of the ‘bearing of fruit’ as an indication of faith, virtue, or similar worth. Now metaphor is the language of Myth, and this is the area, for me, to which this story most likely belongs. The immediately suggested ‘meaning’, however, is somewhat questionable in my view. We’re told that “whatever we ask for in prayer” will come to pass, be it the killing of a tree or the moving of a mountain. I can’t escape the thought, however, that the Gospel writers wisely include ‘get out’ clauses. If trees are not instantly killed, or mountains moved, it will be due to lack of “faith”, or “doubt in your heart”, or failure “to believe you have received it” prior to its having happened. I feel as if I’m being set up to fail, and that this seems hardly likely to lead to very many demonstrations of the ‘power of positive thinking’, in prayer or anything else.
So am I (as usual, some might say) knocking the Gospels? No, but I’m addressing myself to people who don’t read them because of the idea that they’re expected to simply ‘swallow them whole’. No, you can legitimately approach them with an open mind free to question them closely, and an open heart alive to every credible impact they can make.