The Day Jesus Cursed a Fig Tree

…and followed the deed with bad theology

When the gospels are experienced in short bursts—carefully selected bursts—Jesus comes off as the good Lord he’s supposed to be. But when you read a couple of chapters straight through, there will likely be a few how-can-that-be moments: did Jesus really say that; did Jesus really do that? Theologians and preachers earn their keep by cleaning up Jesus, and artists have helped. The negatives about Jesus don’t usually end up on the stained glass windows, and for centuries painters and sculptors have naturally favored the ‘good Jesus’ stories.

We are often surprised by what the gospel writers felt made Jesus look good. Little did they know that their documents would come under intense scrutiny many centuries later. The average lay person today—hearing the gospels read from the pulpit—has not been tipped off that the gospels are not history. Even devout New Testament scholars (other than strident evangelical apologists) grant that uncovering fragments of history is, to put it mildly, problematic.

The gospels were written to win and keep converts, and to provide instruction to the members of the early Jesus cult. Charles Guignebert, professor at the Sorbonne, stated the case succinctly in his 1933 volume, Jesus:

“It was not the essence of Jesus that interested the authors of our Gospels, it was the essence of Christ, as their faith pictured him. They were exclusively interested, not in reporting what they know, but in proving what they believe.”

How do we find nuggets of history in cult propaganda? One of the scandals in NT studies is that no one has found a method for doing that. Nor have we found a method for getting pew-sitters today to grasp the problem.

The 11th chapter of Mark’s gospel illustrates the tangle of historical detail (well, maybe) and theological agenda. Since the chapter opens with one of the most cherished Jesus stories—the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem—naturally it’s tough to get believers to read the text carefully and critically.

This article is a continuation of my series on each chapter of Mark’s gospel. The Introduction to the series is here; the article on chapter 10 is here.

Jesus makes an entrance

Mark wants his readers to think that Jesus was clairvoyant: he somehow knew that, on their approach to Jerusalem, two of his disciples would find a colt destined for his journey in a nearby village. Mark enhanced the fairy-tale flavor of the report: Jesus knew that no one had ever sat on the colt; he would be the first. And thus he rode into Jerusalem (vv. 8-10):

“Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’"

The theological agenda of the gospel authors included Jesus as a fulfillment of scripture—everybody knows that, right?—so they frequently quoted OT texts out of context. When Matthew copied this story, he pulled in Zechariah 9:9 to give it that boost: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Those who are paying attention—it helps to have a version that puts the four gospels in parallel columns—will notice a few oddities:

(1) Matthew failed to grasp the technique of the parallelism in Hebrew poetry (line 1: say something; line 2, say the same thing using a different word), and reports that Jesus rode on two animals, a donkey and a colt. (Matthew 21:7) Yes, Matthew could be that goofy (I discuss this at length in Who the Hell Hired Matthew to Write a Gospel?)
(2) When John tells the story, there is nothing about sending the disciples to fetch the colt: “And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it…” (John 12:14).
(3) Through most of Mark’s gospel we have find the theme that Jesus tried to keep his status a secret. So why would he suddenly decide on a high profile entrance? Was Mark just confused on how to position his hero? Or, consistency mattered little to him, since he wasn’t writing history anyway?

Or is it actually the case that a Galilean peasant preacher got it into his head that his death was required by a god to forgive humanity? He had predicted three times that he would be killed (in chapters 8, 9 & 10), culminating in Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Thus was it time to abandon secrecy and be the provocateur?

Or did Jesus really believe that he was about to initiate a Kingdom that would throw off Roman rule? Did he have the seating arrangements in the Kingdom in mind when he addressed two of his disciples in Mark 10:40, “…to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant”?

It’s far more likely that we’re reading Mark’s cult theology worked out in novel form, but was Jesus as delusional as Mark depicts him? After all, as Richard Carrier has pointed out, there were lots of delusional messiah-claimants in Palestine at the time (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 67). The real Jesus—if there was one—is lost forever in the theological fog.

(4) If the crowd welcomed Jesus as a king (“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”) why didn’t the Roman police—beefed up to deal with Jewish unrest at Passover time—arrest him right then and there? Could he have, as Mark reports, simply dismounted (got off his ass, so to speak) and strolled to the temple?

Ten Troublesome Verses: 12 though 21

Taken at face value, these verses don’t show Jesus in the best light, and we see as well that Mark didn’t have a good grasp of the Jerusalem Temple complex. This is not surprising since he wrote after the destruction of the Temple; maybe he hadn’t ever set foot in Jerusalem.

The famous “Cleansing of the Temple” episode is imbedded in the infamous story of the cursing of the fig tree, which has stumped scholars—and a few lay people, I suspect—for a long time.

Mark tells us that Jesus, having spent the night outside the city —after his spectacular entry—headed back the next morning (vv. 12-14):

“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he 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.’ And his disciples heard it.”

D. E. Nineham, in his 1963 commentary, noted: “This story is one of the most difficult in the Gospels, for it approximates more closely than any other episode in Mark to the type of ‘unreasonable’ miracle characteristic of the non-canonical Gospel literature.” (p. 298) C. F. D. Moule, in his 1965 commentary: “It is very odd that Jesus should condemn a fig-tree for having no fruit when it was not even the season for fruit.” (p. 89)

Dennis R. MacDonald, in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark: “Quite apart from Jesus’ environmental ruthlessness here, his curse seems altogether unfair; what was a poor fig tree to do when it was not the seasons for figs to bear.” (p. 107) But everything is not quite as it appears, as we’ll see shortly.

Upon arriving at the Temple (v.15): “And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”

What provoked Jesus to do this? Why was he upset about money-changers and dove-sellers? Jesus himself had once told a man he’d healed to “offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded,” meaning the sacrifice of a bird (according to Leviticus 14). The Temple existed for this form of devotion. C. F. D. Moule:

“The temple was for worship through the action of animal sacrifice; so it was elaborately arranged, with large open courts and altars and drainage systems and so forth, for the very messy and bloody business of slaughtering animals for sacrifice, burning parts of them, and cooking and eating other parts. This had, not unnaturally, led to the growth of a kind of market on the spot, where worshippers could buy their animals; and, since custom demanded that temple-dues should be paid, not in the detested Roman coinage but in the nearest available equivalent of the old Hebrew shekel, the money-changers also had their stalls there.” (p. 89)

Mark’s hero, after his display of temper, couldn’t have pulled off what the author claimed in 11:16: “…and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”

“Of course, that scene is hardly believable: the temple grounds were enormous, occupying many acres (the temple as a whole occupied nearly forty acres, and a large portion of that, at least ten acres, was devoted to public space), extensively populated (there would have been hundreds of merchants and moneychangers there), and heavily guarded by an armed force deployed to prevent just this sort of thing. They would have killed Jesus on the spot. So the story is obviously fiction even on that point alone.” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 431-432, emphasis added) If a disgruntled peasant preacher had managed to cause a ruckus, most of the people in the vast temple complex wouldn’t even have noticed—or might have said, “What the hell was that?” There was no cleansing of the temple.

We have here another example of Mark’s cult propaganda: he exaggerates his hero, and in the embellishment, even adds a literary touch. He blends wording from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, which have no relevance whatever to this incident—but Mark knew that he could get away with it.

• In Isaiah 56, the prophet looks forward to the day when all nations will bend the knee to his own god, Yahweh, and in that sense only will the temple be a house of prayer for all nations, i.e., when they have converted. Nor is this verse (7) a denunciation of the gory business of the temple; the text reads: “…their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

• In Jeremiah 7:11, the prophet blasts the wickedness of the people of Israel, and no amount of worship at the temple can cancel that reality. Thus the temple is a sham: “ Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” Den of robbers seems to have been an allusion to the sin that annulls the value of worship, not to the practice of selling animals and exchanging currency.

Mark continued his shallow plot: “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” The idea that the prospect of mob rule held back the religious bureaucrats is naive; the ‘voice of the people’ meant nothing to them or to the Roman soldiers charged with keeping the peace.

Now, back to the fig tree

The next morning, “…they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’” (vv. 20-21)

Christians, do you really want to go there? A holy man uttered a curse that withered a tree to its roots? This is superstition—that tedious gospel fallback, magical thinking—and it demeans your religion. It’s okay, of course, in comic books, Disney fantasies, and fairy tales. But Mark is fantasy literature, and the author seems to have positioned the story—an allegory, a symbol, a parable—to make his theological point. He had written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, which, of course carried meaning about the demise of the old religion.

“Because the cursing and withering pericopes bracket the so-called Cleansing of the Temple, the tree probably symbolizes the temple. Just as the fig, unlike an ideal tree, bore fruit only occasionally, the temple, falling short of its potential, bore fruit sporadically. Just as the fig tree withered from its roots, the temple too would be destroyed, which, for Mark’s readers, had taken place in the recent past.” (MacDonald, p. 107)

The author of John’s gospel pumped up the theology even more, and we cringe at his heavy-handed approach. 2:19-21: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Oh please. Who talks like this?

Christians should hope that Jesus didn’t—even more so when we read Jesus’ supposed response when Peter pointed out that the fig tree had withered; this is a stunning non sequitur (vv. 22-24):

“Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Even taking the ‘move mountains’ as metaphor, this is bad advice. It’s bad theology. We know this is not the way the world works, but cult fanatics—before and after Mark—preach this way to their gullible followers: “Try hard, try harder, to believe my message.” They thrive on faith brain damage. How many millions of devout Christians have beat up on themselves that they fail at prayer, for not measuring up to Jesus’ expectations?

In a recent article on this blog, Teresa Roberts provides an example of what can happen:

“I recently had a conversation with a devout Christian who was suffering immensely from the tragic loss of an eye. She was clearly depressed and no amount of faith seemed to give her hope, because her prayers had failed to intervene with the god she claimed to trust…Apparently, god allowed the loss of the eye in spite of the prayer warriors that were beating on his door for help. She had enlisted an entire team of people to intercede on her behalf.”

Yet priests and preacher continue to encourage the magical thinking that drives people to beg and bombard God, based in part of this kind of bad theology we find in Mark 11.

In the final episode of Mark 11 (vv. 27-33), Jesus engages in a game of riddles with the religious bureaucrats. This is meant to appeal to his cult followers: Jesus outsmarts the bureaucrats with his riddle (“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”), demonstrating that he speaks on God’s authority.

From start to finish, Mark 11 is a disappointment as holy scripture; cult theology is disturbing, and from our perspective 2,000 years out—impatient with superstition, magical thinking, and poor novel plots—we see the chapter’s failings on several levels.

But wait: somehow a gem managed to survive! Mark as a whole is short on great ethical teaching—his Jesus drums constantly instead on the ‘Kingdom of God’—but here we find a great piece of advice at Mark 11:25: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Ah, God has imposed a catch for being forgiven!

Forgive, if you have anything against anyone. Ironically, it would be hard to find a command that Christians disobey more frequently, blatantly, and enthusiastically.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued recently by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library is here.