Saturday, 8 February 2014

Jesus curses a fig tree

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902).
The Accursed Fig Tree (Le figuier maudit), 1886-1894.
A passage recorded in Matthew and Mark seems somewhat enigmatic.
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21)
I have heard the complaint that it was unreasonable for Jesus to curse a fig tree for not having figs on it. I suppose one could add that it is especially unreasonable as it was not fig season (Mark 11:13), though there did not appear to be even buds, just leaves. Interestingly the disciples were not particularly concerned about this. They were impressed with Jesus control over nature. When the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matthew 21)

Before addressing the curse I will take a brief diversion into a discrepancy claim. Some assert that the biblical authors disagree over whether the tree withered immediately or the next day. Matthew states,
And the fig tree withered at once.
Whereas Mark says
And [Jesus] said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it....

And when evening came they went out of the city.

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. (Mark 11)
3 comments are in order. Firstly, we must be careful how much we read into the word "immediately." It appears to be used frequently to keep the narrative running. It is common in Mark (though not used here). Within a time focused culture such as ours "immediate" implies right now, this second, no delay. While I guess this sense may be used by 1st century Jews, I am less certain it is required.

Secondly, while I have no doubt the tree died at the moment Jesus cursed it, the question is when was this noticed? An animal's death is obvious to people at the very point of death. For plants the process is different and the outward changes are delayed. To be withered to the roots within one day is "at once" for a tree.

Thirdly, and most importantly, if the precise sequence in Mark is correct, which I suspect it is, then Matthew is conflating two episodes. Matthew wishes to discuss the fig tree episode in a single passage. The cursing of the fig tree occurs on the morning Jesus casts out the money changers. Matthew holds back on mentioning the speaking of the curse until the latter discussion about the disciples marvelling at the effect of the curse. He is following a more topical arrangement in this section.

But why the curse, especially if it was not the season for figs?

I do not know much about horticulture or the life cycle of fig trees. There is some information on figs over at Plant Encyclopedia. Fig trees are apparently deciduous and sprout fruit in spring and autumn, though related species can be evergreen or sprout fruit year around. The cursing of the fig tree occurred after the triumphal entry and before Passover, that is ~Nisan 10 and early spring.

The passage indicates Jesus uses the episode to teach his disciples about faith. It is likely that this was Jesus pronouncing a judgment on Israel for failing to recognise him. The episode occurred at the time of judgment concerning the temple, and fig trees are used as a symbol for Israel (Hosea 9:10). Interestingly Jesus tells a parable a year earlier.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ (Luke 13:6-9)
Here Jesus is alluding to his ministry. He has ministered to Israel for 3 years. Israel have failed to produce fruit in keeping with the coming of the Messiah. The owner wishes to remove the tree but is convinced to leave it a further year. Jesus will minister for a further year but if Israel still fails to produce fruit then they will come under a curse. The parable is a warning. A year later when Jesus ministry was at an end Israel had still failed as a nation to appropriately recognise the nature of Jesus. The real curse of a real fig tree was symbolic of judgment on the nation of Israel for failing to be fruitful by responding to Jesus.

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