The Withered Fig Tree

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.

5 responses to “The Withered Fig Tree

  1. It’s always useful to go to someone who knows what they are talking about with difficult gospel stories. N.T. Wright shows the way the story is used in mark to “frame” the critical visit to the Temple. The sequence is Jesus condemns the tree for lack of fruit on the way to the temple: so he curses the tree. Then he finds the temple which should be looked on to provide the fruit of repentance lacks the qualities he seeks: hence the action of judgement on the temple. The next day the tree is without fruit. The story then comments Wright is “an acted parable of God’s judgement. No one will ear from the tree again”.”(Tom Wright :Lent for Everyone Mark). Once you see the story is a parable there is no need to question whether it actually happened or not.

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    1. Alan, I’m entirely happy for this story to be called a ‘parable’ – a story about something which didn’t actually happen, but which is told in order to convey a particular meaning. My piece was addressed to a wide audience, which will include people who do insist on ‘inerrancy’, non-contradiction, the historicity of the miraculous etc., and deals with why I don’t regard these as ways in which the Gospels should be read. This is my own view, of course, and I share it with, but force it on, no-one, especially yourself.
      There is a host of New Testament scholars who “know what they are talking about”. You and I choose differently. There is no particular authority attaching to N.T. Wright, one of whose books is on my shelves, and for whom I have every respect.
      I have to repeat that whereas Mark’s “next day” account is in keeping with the scenario you outline, Matthew completely contradicts it. A verbatim translation is, “And was withered at once (!) the fig tree. And having seen (this) the disciples were amazed saying ‘how (did) instantly (!) wither the fig tree.” Nothing could be clearer than that. Far from imagining that he was writing ‘holy scripture’, Matthew feels free to alter Mark, adding a bit of extra drama. What he gives us is an instant ‘miracle’. I don’t believe that anything of the sort happened, but I’m perfectly happy for others to take a different view.
      I do make the point, however, which is addressed to some of my readers, that any view of the Gospels, to hold respect, must be based on the text as given, and without ignoring discrepancies that amount to contradictions. I write what I do because there are those who think and argue in ways I don’t find persuasive. For myself, the inconsistencies and contradictions in the Gospels are no more of an issue than in any other works of literature, where it is the validity and relevance of impact and meaning that matters, and that need have nothing to do with literal or historical ‘truth’. My continued regards. Ray.

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      1. Any reading of the story has to take account of the symbolic significance of the fig tree for the Jews- connecting the Temple with the state of Israel. Matthew has also placed the story next to the judgement on the Temple. it was the Jesus Seminar who very misleadingly proposesd a way of dealing with the reliability of the gospel stories by taking each story/event or saying as a discrete entity then asking how credible it was. Such a method did not allow for contiguity or for symbolism, parable-making etc. Wright’s advantage over them is that he sees the story in relation to wider contexts in relation to the “miracle” which may in fact be less the point of the story in itself but a pointer suggested by the meaning of the fig as a symbol. Matthew has a further reference to the fig-tree in Ch24. 32-33. connected with the end of the world narrative that appears in both Mark and Matthew which Wright convincingly shows is a prophecy of the destruction of the temple which does in fact take place a generation later. So we cannot really separate the story from wider meanings or historical reality. The unfortunate case is that both literalists and counter-literalists trying to answer them tend to base their readings far too narrowly.

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        1. The original post, since this is insisted upon by some people, was about the historicity or otherwise of this story, and implications that this can have for our view of Jesus, with my own thoughts on this. I also had things to say about the origin of stories and their placement in the Gospel compilations. I noted what I regard as contra-indications to the story’s historicity, including the contradictory additions made by Matthew. I also noted the inclusion of what could be considered to be ‘get outs’ in relation to answers to prayer.
          It seems to me that you’re ignoring much of that, and going off in other directions, which, on the whole, I’ve no particular problem with. My only comment in relation to N..T. Wright was not about ‘framing’, or repetition in the ‘small apocalypse’ context, or the Jesus Seminar whose methods are indeed open to question, but about its apparent ignoring of the ‘instantaneous’ versus ‘next day’ discrepancy, which you don’t appear to address.
          I feel like we’re going past each other round the houses, to neither your satisfaction nor mine, and since I’ve no particular objection to other matters that you’re raising, I think I’ve said as much as I want to say. I’m happy with what I’ve written and, interestingly, for whatever reason, this post has had a markedly higher rate of positive ‘likes’ than usual, so some others seem to be happy enough as well.
          Regards as aye.

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          1. I suppose I ignored the next day/ this day contradiction because it is a minor point compared with the bigger similar judgement point.

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