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In Mark 11, as Jesus is entering the temple he stops to inspect a fig tree to find out if it has any fruit. It doesn't, which Mark tells us is "because it was not the season for figs." Jesus then proceeds to curse the tree, saying "May no one ever eat from from you again."

The whole episode strikes me as rather odd, but especially the part where Mark explains that it wasn't the season for figs. My expectation reading the story is that it has no figs despite it being the season, but Mark's statement upends this expectation, leaving me to ponder: why would Jesus look for fruit on a tree when it wasn't the season for bearing fruit?

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I know this won't be a popular thing to say, but probably the comment that it wasn't the season for figs is a scribal gloss by a scribe who just didn't understand the story. Since that one comment is what makes the story make no sense anymore. –  david brainerd Mar 27 '14 at 0:53

4 Answers 4

This is a tough one, and every commentator I've consulted (quite a few) acknowledges that this is probably an intractable problem. One common theme, however, is the resistance to simply explaining away the enigma and even offense.

Two variables commonly condsidered are (1) the agricultural details (what is the season, and what kind of fruit?); which can intersect with (2) literary facets (is this incident -- or at least the problematic gloss, "it was not the season for figs" -- interpolated/secondary/redactional?).

Still, in view of its very incongruity, Cranfield (known for his understanding, good judgment, and wisdom) suggests that it is a parabolic action (The Gospel According to St Mark (CUP,1959), p. 356). He cites

the earliest extant commentary on M[ar]k, that of Victor of Antioch [5th C.], viz. that the withering of the fig tree was an acted parable in which Jesus 'used the fig tree to set forth the judgement that was about to fall on Jerusalem'."

However, it should not be overlooked that there is a narrative rationale which explains "why Jesus would look for fruit on a tree when it wasn't the season for bearing fruit": Mark 11:12 -

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.

That is not meant to be facetious; in context, in narrative terms, it gives a glimpse of the gnawing hunger that this man experienced as he entered the most traumatic week of his life. He has no money, he has no food. He will even hope to find edible fruit on a fig tree, although "it was not the season for figs" (v. 12).

Further Reading

Here is some frequently-cited or recent specialist bibliography. Manson, while widely cited, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. He extracts the seasons of figs from Dalman's observations, and this can now be udpated with Oakman's data.

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An explanation is found in Smith's Comprehensive Bible Dictionary. I found it as a footnote in the book Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage:

There are three kinds of fig trees in the East:

  1. Early fig, ripening about the end of June

  2. Summer fig, ripening in August

  3. Winter fig, larger and darker than the summer fig, hanging and ripening late on the tree, even after the leaves are shed, and sometimes gathered in Spring. The blossoms of the fig tree are within the fruit, and not visible outwardly, and this fruit begins to develop before the leaves.

Hence, the fig tree which had leaves before the usual time might naturally have been expected to have also some figs on it (Mark 11:13); but it was not true to its pretensions.

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Why would Jesus look for figs out of season?

The simplest answer is that Yeshua was looking for figs out of season because the tree was promising them.

Too often we focus on the lack of figs and the cursing of the tree, but fail to take a closer look at in the big picture.

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. —Mark 11:13 (AV)

The time of year was Passover (cf. 14:1), the middle of the month of Nisan (April). In Palestine the fig trees produced small edible buds in March. This is followed by the appearance of larger green leaves in early April. The early green “fruit” (buds) were common food for local peasants.

In the passage under consideration, the absence of these buds, despite the tree’s green foliage promising their presence, indicated it would bear no fruit that year. Eventually these buds dropped off when the normal crop of figs formed and ripened in late May and June, the fig season.

Thus it was reasonable for Jesus shortly before Passover (mid-April) to expect to find something edible on that fig tree even though it was not the season for figs.

In summary, the tree was making a promise of fruit (because the tree had leaves). Here in my own back yard, I have a fig tree that produces leaves and fruit at the exact same time. When the leaves first appear, the fruit comes on at the same time. Thus, if there are leaves, there is fruit as well. Since the tree in Mark produced nothing that was edible, but had promised to do so, it was cursed by the Savior.

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I recall a rather different interpretation of this starting from the nonacceptance of the entire notion that Jesus would become irate at plants.

That notion was that the fig tree symbolically represented Israel, and it was not providing fruit when it was essential to, at the arrival of the Messiah. The "season," on such a symbolic level, should not matter--the expectation would be that they should always be prepared for his arrival.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

There may be something to the symbolism here, but this answer fails to engage the details of the text to show us HOW such a conclusion can be drawn. Where does the symbolic representation come from? How do we just discard the physical details in Mark's narrative like where and when this happened? –  Caleb Jun 30 '14 at 21:19
@Caleb: Okay, understood. This place, I've discovered, is ludicrous. I've suggested that an extremely well known symbol for Israel, adopted by the State of Israel itself, is, in fact, a symbol for Israel, and that "level" is the only thing that makes the narrative coherent. It may have a literal level of description, but I am suggesting that it is not the only level involved and only that explanation offers a not-nonsensical notion of the underlying meaning. –  empiric Jun 30 '14 at 22:47
Perhaps, you should have just outright deleted my post, as the other "Moderator" did in the "plural elohim" thread, because my answer (even specifically qualified as Christian POV) didn't have a Judaic answer included, as his personal solution to him naturally not having any answer from his preferred worldview. I thought Wikipedia was bad. It pales in comparison. I will not be posting again. –  empiric Jun 30 '14 at 22:48
@empiric the view expressed isn't the problem. The failure to show work when answering is. This doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. Had you at least backed your statements up with what you just mentioned in your comment (and cited sources to verify this information), this answer would fare much better. –  Dan Jul 1 '14 at 1:34

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