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Synoptic Accounts

Matthew and Mark have different arrangements of the chronology of Jesus' withering of the fig tree:

Matthew has Jesus' triumphal entry (1) and clearing of the temple (2) on day one of his time in Jerusalem, and on day two Jesus curses the fig tree (3), the fig tree withers (4) immediately, and he enters the Temple where he is confronted by the chief priests and elders (5).

Mark has Jesus' triumphal entry (1) followed by a quick look around the temple on day one, and then on day two he curses the fig tree (3), clears the temple (2), and then on day three they find the withered fig tree (4) and have their confrontation with the chief priests and elders (5).

Luke omits the account of the fig tree altogether, although has a unique parable of an unfruitful fig tree in Luke 13:6-9 which may possibly be related.


Observations

Mark is usually taken as the benchmark due to the theory of Markan Priority, but in this case there appears to be something of a parallelism in his structuring of 2-3 and 4-5, and so this may be evidence that the author did not entirely structure the events around chronological accuracy.

Matthew gives a more straightforward rendering of the fig tree events, but his overall account seems to have an added dramatic sense which is not present in Mark - i.e. Jesus enters the city on the donkey and essentially storms the temple, and the children are still singing "Hosanna to the son of David!" as if not a moment has been lost.

Luke omits the story altogether - but at face value does appear to share Matthew's single-day approach of Jesus entering Jerusalem and clearing the Temple... though it isn't so explicit as Mark that it's all definitely on one day, so it could be said he's ambiguous on this point.


Question

How can we determine the most chronologically accurate account of the withering of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple? Are there any textual hallmarks, features or anything else which may help us determine which account may be more historically accurate?

1

Mark 11:13-20 is a literary sandwich, sometimes called a Markan intercalation because Mark's Gospel is where the best examples are in a theological context. A sandwich consists of two mutually reinforcing passages, A and B, in the form A1-B-B2. In this case, the cursing of the fig tree is A1, the expulsion of the moneychangers and merchants is B, and finding the cursed fig tree to be dead is A2.1 Bracketing the fig tree around the events in temple adds depth and drama to the temple episode. The early readers of Mark might also have noticed, with wonder, that the temple which Jesus implicitly cursed had also 'died' not long previously.

The author of Matthew usually tried to copy Mark as faithfully as possible, but clearly did not understand Mark's use of literary devices. Seeing no need to draw out the story of the fig tree, he simply completed the curse and the consequence of the curse in the one passage, creating drama by the amazement of the disciples that the tree withered so quickly.

The act of cursing a fig tree just because it did not bear fruit out of season would appear to present Jesus in a bad light. After all, a rational person would not expect a tree to bear fruit out of season. The author of Luke tended to omit passages that presented characters that he admired in a bad light, so it could have been for this reason he omitted the fig tree episode, which in any case he would have seen as being of little importance.

If you are looking for historical accuracy, it is hard to go past Mark not only because it is the earlier account from which Matthew was copied, but also because we can see the literary reasons for the differences that exist between Mark and Matthew.


1James R. Edwards. "Markan sandwiches: The significance of interpolations in Markan narratives." Novum Testamentum XXXI, 3 (1989), 193, 198, 206-8. Retrieved from http://jbburnett.com/resources/mark/Edwards_Markan-Sandwiches.pdf.

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  • 4
    Good points, but this answer could benefit from sources supporting the claims being made. (e.g. On what basis can we say Matthew didn't understand Mark simply because he united the two ends of the fig tree episode? How do we know the author Luke saw cursing the fig tree out of season as casting a bad light on Jesus?) – user2910 Mar 14 '17 at 0:56
  • @MarkEdward Thank you for your opening remark. I have been looking for sources I can use, but this comes from sources I studied some years ago, so I will keep looking. I also noticed on rereading, that my reference to Luke could be read as saying that the author definitely omitted it for this exact reason, whereas I intended to deal with probability, based on precedents elsewhere in the Gospel. For this reason, I clarified the sentence and added further explanation why cursing the fig tree could - or should - be seen as a poor reflection on a person. – Dick Harfield Mar 14 '17 at 2:30
  • I added a source (most likely the one you intended) to this answer. – Dan Jun 9 '17 at 18:18
  • @Dan Thank you for adding this reference. I was not aware of that paper, but it provides an accessible resource for readers who want to read more about what I referred to. – Dick Harfield Jun 9 '17 at 22:17
  • @DickHarfield by all means, if the source is not what you intended, please roll back the edit – Dan Jun 10 '17 at 23:53
-2

If Jesus cursed two different trees on two different days Matthew and Mark are in harmony. Mark records the first tree being cursed and the results were recognized by Peter the following day. Matthew records the second tree being cursed and the disciples (having seen the first tree) saw the results immediately. The sequence would be:

  • First day: Jesus curses tree #1 (Mark) – Cleanse the Temple (Matthew and Mark)
  • Second day: Peter discovers tree #1 (Mark) + Jesus curses tree #2 (Matthew)

Day 1
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12-14 ESV) [Tree #1]

Jesus Cleanses the Temple (Mark 11:15-19 and Matthew 21:12-17)

Day 2
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” (Mark 11:20-21 ESV) [Tree #1]

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry.19 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. 20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matthew 21:18-20 ESV) [Tree #2]

The fig tree events in Mark and Matthew are similar; they also have significant differences. In addition to who notices the tree, Peter (Mark) and the disciples (Matthew), there is what Jesus says to each tree:

Mark: May no one ever eat fruit from you again.
Matthew: May no fruit ever come from you again.

In Mark the emphasis is on people not eating fruit. The potential exists for this to be be fulfilled even if the tree continued to produce fruit. The cursed tree, like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, has fruit which should not be eaten. In Matthew the emphasis is on the tree not producing fruit. The immediate withering in Matthew follows the command by Jesus and this tree will never again produce fruit.

After Peter notices the first tree, all the disciples are paying attention when Jesus curses a different tree, with a different curse.

Finally Luke does not describe either of these events, yet he does include a detail which pertains to the trees in Mark and Matthew:

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples (Luke 19:28-29 ESV)

Bethphage means "house of unripe figs" [G967-Bethphage]. The implication is the figs which were supposed to be on the trees had been harvested and are in the house of unripe figs. Thus there are 3 reasons why fruit from those trees will not be eaten in the future:

  • The tree withers and stops producing fruit
  • The fruit on the tree is avoided since the tree was cursed
  • The fruit on the tree was removed and placed into storage before it had ripened
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