Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?

Thank you Ruth F!

In this week’s post on the cleansing of the temple, I wanted to talk about Jesus’ withering of the fig tree because I think it is closely connected to the story of the cleansing. Also, some people point to Jesus’ ‘petty’ act against the fig tree as another example of his violent nature, and I wanted to talk about that.

However, I did not have space to include the story of the fig tree within the word limit of the post. So I decided that if someone mentioned the fig tree I would write an addendum to it; and reader Ruth F. brought it up in a comment:

“But, but . . . What he did to that fig tree.”

james-tissot-jesus-and-the-fig-tree

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Accursed Fig Tree. Brooklyn Museum, New York.

The Withering of the Fig Tree Bookends the Cleansing of the Temple—For a Reason

Going back to Mark’s story of the cleansing we see that, after his triumphant arrival into Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus went to the temple and looked around.

Mark 11:

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

We talked about this in the previous post. But I skipped part of what happened the next day as he was returning to the temple.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit.

When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Mark says nothing further about this as Jesus continues toward his dramatic and symbolic confrontation at the temple. But after the temple incident, Mark says:

When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

How the Cleansing of the Temple and the Withering of the Fig Tree Tell the same Story

I think the incidents of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple are related. Often people point to Jesus’ withering of the fig tree as a petulant and violent act against an innocent tree that reveals a dark side to Jesus’ character. Some people WANT Jesus to have a dark side—perhaps because of their own resistance to his persistent teaching and example on loving others.

First of all, it was only a tree. Now I don’t think it is good to needlessly destroy a tree, but it was only one fig tree among many in the area. But more important is that Jesus’ action was not one of momentary irritation; he did this for a purpose.

Jesus went to the fig tree looking for fruit when figs were not even in season; he did not expect to find fruit there. He then went to the temple looking good fruit—respect for the temple as a place of prayer for people of all nations. He didn’t expect to find this fruit either, and in fact he did not find it. This is when he demonstrated against disrespect for the purpose of the temple.

When walking by the fig tree the next day, the disciples noticed that it was withered; it would never produce fruit again. Rather than being an impetuous act, I believe this is another symbolic demonstration about the temple. Just as the fig tree never again produced figs, neither did the temple ever again produce fruit. The fig tree withered—destroyed—and would no longer serve its purpose. And the temple was soon destroyed by the Romans and would no longer serve its purpose.

I think the fig tree is an important part of the story of the cleansing of the temple, which is why Mark placed the events of the cleansing within the two parts of the story of the fig tree.

Articles in this series: Does Jesus Demonstrate Judgmentalism, Threats, and Violence?
Does Jesus Demonstrate Judgmentalism, Threats, and Violence?
Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So
Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?
What Does it Mean that Jesus Brings, not Peace, but a Sword?
3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords
Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?
Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion

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35 Responses to Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?

  1. I’ve also heard that the fig tree represented Israel as well. Have you heard that?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Judith Maizel Long says:

    I suggest that the cursed fig tree is an acted parable like the Hebrew prophets. The parallel or precedent that comes to mind is the story of the two baskets of figs, which is in the context of God’s judgment on the Temple and its leaders in Jeremiah 23 and 24.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Judith, thank you so much for bringing our attention to this passage! I haven’t read Jeremiah in a long time and had forgotten it. This supplies excellent background imagery for the story of the fig tree.

      I recommend that any readers who are interested read it here:

      https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+24&version=NIV

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      • Chas says:

        Tim, thank you for that link, it was most fascinating, because it seems to show the temple still standing after Nebuchadnezzer had overthrown Jerusalem. Wasn’t it he the one who was supposed to have destroyed it?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Yes, it was Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed the temple. I am not sure of the timing of the destruction in relation to Jeremiah’s story. Perhaps his ‘vision’ of the temple and the figs was after the destruction, but I don’t know.

          Your thoughts?

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          • Chas says:

            It might be as simple as it being written so long after the event that the writer forgot that the temple had been destroyed at the time of which he was supposed to be writing.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Steve says:

          When were you thinking the vision happened?

          There was an 11-year period between Jeconiah and the destruction of the temple.

          Jeconiah was overthrown and taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar II in 597. The current scholarly consensus is that the goal was to capture him along with the ‘upper crust’ (skilled workers and artisans, anyone?) to bolster babylonian society.

          Nebuchadnezzar II then installed Jeconiah’s uncle, Zedekiah, as king, who reigned until Jerusalem was sieged and the temple destroyed in 587.

          Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Steve, perhaps the writer, for his purposes, did not observe time sequence; or maybe he was looking ahead to a rebuilt temple. I really don’t know.

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          • Steve says:

            Hi,

            Chaz stated that “it seems to show the temple still standing after Nebuchadnezzer had overthrown Jerusalem” and so posited that Jeremiah 24 was “written so long after the event that the writer forgot that the temple had been destroyed at the time of which he was supposed to be writing”.

            I believe I showed that the chronology lines up with the ‘vision’ being *after* Jeconiah was overthrown and taken into captivity (as it says in the text) but *before* the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first temple (hence the temple is present in the vision). I don’t see any conundrum here.

            Am I making sense?

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            I see, Steve. I misread your comment, but I probably should not have responded to your comment at all since you were interacting with Chas. Thanks for the clarification.

            Like

  3. Chas says:

    Tim, looking at this again, combining the ideas of this part and the clearing of the temple, it seems likely that the Matthew version, with doves (which were required for certain sacrifices) as the only animals being driven out of the temple, was intended to show that the Judaic sacrifices were to be made obsolete by the coming of Jesus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Perhaps. I can’t say for sure, but I agree that the entire episode points to the temple becoming obsolete. After Jesus, what need was there for the temple?

      Like

  4. mark says:

    Can’t prove it entirely, but I think the fig tree story…same as the “slay mine enemies at my feet” were much later textual additions aimed at separating jews from the church..oh..say around the 320 to 400 AD time period.
    These lines are very inconsistent with the given character and temperament of Yahshua.

    May additions…many subtractions….much to ponder as they say

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Mark, I think there are additional details, added as you might say, that were influenced by issues from the times of the gospel writers. There are also small glosses that appeared in the recopying of manuscripts.

      But I am interested in why you think the fig tree story was added so much later.

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  5. Chas says:

    Tim, this event of the fig tree withering is unusual in that it appears in only two Gospels (Matthew and Mark) and the two versions differ significantly. Because there is no third example with which to compare it, it is difficult to discern the motives of the writers to explain these differences, which are significant (e.g. whether the withering happened at once, or whether it occurred overnight [on the assumption that it had not occurred during the day and they failed to notice it as they returned to Bethany]; whether it was the season for figs, and whether Jesus said ‘May no-one ever eat fruit from you again,’ or ‘May you never bear fruit again.’) I think that Matthew’s version is probably the original, with Mark having deliberately put the clearing of the temple between the cursing and the withering, and, in particular, the words: ‘May no-one ever eat fruit from you again’ feel more right.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. So, this post (and the post about the Cleansing of the Temple) beg me to ask: is it even remotely possible that neither of these two events actually occurred? I have been struggling with the historicity of Jesus – did he really exist? I have arguments for and against the existence of Jesus as the Son of God. But if these two events are metaphors for the end of the Temple as the means to reach God/Yahweh/Jehovah, could they not be literary treatments, or simple stories, fabricated by the authors of the Gospels?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      John, I think this is possible but the cleansing of the temple is mentioned by both the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John which is an independent witness. This makes it more likely that it was an historical event.

      I know that there are a few writers who claim that Jesus never existed, but this is not accepted by most biblical scholars; I can share a good book title for you if you wish.

      There are some things in the gospels that are legitimately questioned historically, but the actual existence of Jesus as represented by the gospels from the memories of his earliest followers is pretty much a settled matter.

      Like

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