The Fig Tree Enigma
by Cliff Walker (1995)

The Fig Tree Enigma

Jesus was hungry and went up to a fig tree to get something to eat -- and subsequently cursed the tree to death because it had no fruit. Sunday School teachers use this passage to demonstrate Jesus' humanity -- he was human because he got hungry. Others think this incident has a symbolic meaning, i.e., that Jesus was doing a "performance-art prophesy,"* of sorts, predicting the destruction of Jerusalem. If the fig tree story is to be taken as read, the main character in the story, Jesus, is just plain stupid. If you are willing to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, these passages actually give a clear, undisputable example of editors, perhaps centuries later, tampering with the story -- no matter what you think about the mythical and supernatural elements in it. There is even a hint that one of the original Gospel revisionist editors saw the same problems I do.

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*NOTE: Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Hosea used what I call "performance art prophesy" to get a message across: In Ezekiel 4:1-17, the "Lord" commands him to "bake it with dung that cometh out of a man in their sight." Ezekiel objects based on the grounds of Levitical dietary laws, and the "Lord" relents and allows him to use "cow's dung for man's dung." In Isaiah 20, the "Lord" commands Isaiah to walk "naked and barefoot ... even with ... buttocks uncovered," for three years to show the Egyptians their coming plight. In Hosea 1:2-3:5, the "Lord" commands Hosea to marry a woman of ill repute in order to show the nation, symbolically, what God thinks of them. Can you imagine being the child of such an arrangement?
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Here are the accounts in Matthew and Mark:

Matthew 21:17-22

17. And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there. 18. Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. 19. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. 20. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! 21. Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be cast into the sea; and it shall be done. 22. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

Mark 11:12-14 and 20-26

12. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: 13. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. 14. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

20. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up fro the roots. 21. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. 22. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. 23. For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye shall receive them. 25. And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive your trespasses. 26. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven may forgive you your enemies.

Aside from the obvious question as to why Jesus, being so big on forgiveness here, did not forgive the fig tree (or even heal it), these passages are replete with problems. The problems are even bigger than the fact that Matthew has the fig tree withering right there on the spot, while Mark has it taking a day or so. That discrepency is standard fare in those "Bible Contradictions" books and is easily "explained" -- though that does not make it go away.

Let's look a little closer at what it says: First, Jesus did not simply curse the fig tree for show: he was hungry and was looking for something to eat (Mt 21:18, Mk 11:12). Second, setting aside any notion of foreknowledge on Jesus' part, he should have known that Passover (in the springtime) is not fig season (Mk 11:13).

Why would anyone, prescient or otherwise, go looking for figs in the springtime?

Nowhere else have I seen this pointed out. Fundamentalists and evangelicals just sputter when I raise this question; they are not ready for it and often do not see the implications of it. If the New Testament is as accurate as these people would have us believe, its main character, Jesus, is a dolt.

Hyam Maccoby is more gentle than I. He simply mentions this passage as one of many elements building his argument that Jesus was arrested in the autumn, when a fig tree should have fruit, and that Jesus was executed the next spring. He says that the revisionists telescoped this part of the story to have Jesus in jail only a night or two. Maccoby says that the Last Supper account is clearly a description of the Feast of Booths -- not the Passover meal. The note in Mark, "for the time of figs was not yet," was most likely a much later addendum to explain why there were no figs on the tree; however, it only confuses the issue as to why Jesus was looking for figs in the first place. If Maccoby is right -- that the Triumphal Entry and Jesus' arrest took place at the Feast of Booths -- some of the realistic, non-mythical elements in this story begin to make sense. A somewhat manic or otherwise unstable Jesus could easily have become upset over a barren fig tree, to the point of shouting curses at it.