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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?

  • 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
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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.

11

If we approach the text with the presupposition that the canonical form of Mark is a unified work and we can thus expect the composition as a whole to make sense of the parts. Before we look at the incidental remark about the season, we should look at the intended teaching of event.

It should be fairly obvious that Jesus wasn't just a hothead who was angry and invoked his special powers to destroy a fig tree because it frustrated him when he wanted to eat of it. Such a story would be out of character for Jesus as presented in Mark. After all, he had 40 days of wilderness temptation that would have certainly been more depriving than the lack of a snack on the road. The reason this action would be recorded in Mark is because Jesus is acting out a visual parable.

The fig tree episode in Mark is split into two sections: Mark 11:12-14 and Mark 11:20-25, so it begs the question: why put an unrelated episode in verses 15-19 between these two sections with the fig tree? The answer we are supposed to draw is that the canonical author wants us to see the 15-19 section as a part of the same story. This is when Jesus cleanses the temple. So symbolically, he is associating the image of the fig tree with the temple and the system associated with it and rendering the same judgment upon it that he did upon the fig tree.

When they return and see the withered condition of the fig tree, he resumes the lesson and admonishes his disciples to faith and forgiveness in prayer: the things the temple and its system were lacking (remember that Jesus cleansed the temple by saying it was supposed to be a house of prayer).

It wasn't the season for figs, but it was the season for faith and forgiveness. It was Passover. If there was a time Jews should be ascending to the temple in faith with expectations of forgiveness, this is it. If Jesus will curse the fig tree out of season and it will wither, what will happen to the temple which fails to bear fruit in season?

  • Ben Mordecai - +1 for connecting the context like that; A.) But - Is Jesus really talking about a season of faith and forgiveness? B.) Because of the context, couldn't Jesus have been talking about "Superficialness", and "People" , just as he usually does? C.) A temple, for all people - was filled with thieves; white-washed tombs full of dead men's bones; Many wives dressed up, without any oil; cups cleaned on the outside, but not the inside ... D.) I would love to hear your take on that. – elika kohen Mar 15 '17 at 18:25
  • It's is fully possible that Passover was not in view, though the author thinks it is important enough to tell us about it. Nevertheless, the foundation of Jesus' message was that the kingdom was at hand. Thus even if Passover was not in view, the kingdom was, and the kingdom is defined by "bearing fruit in keeping with repentance" and prayer in the Spirit. – Ben Mordecai Mar 17 '17 at 15:04
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The fig tree cursing narrative is found in Matthew's and Mark's gospels. Mark's account varies in sequence from Matthew's account as it is written in two sections: First, after departing the temple, Jesus sees the fig tree in leaf, but no fruit found, followed by cursing [Mark 11:12-14]. Second, after departing from temple (Where Jesus drives out money changers), Jesus and disciples find same fig tree withered, then Jesus teaches lesson on prayer [Mark 11:20-25]. These two sections provided an acted out prophetic lesson to Christ's disciples as they were also spoken in parabolic forms also. Before getting to the heart of the answer, we must examine a few other linking passages.

A few years earlier John the Baptist who came in the spirit of Elijah, foretold Israel's demise with these words: Mat 3:8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Mat 3:9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Mat 3:10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

It would seem fitting that after the cursed tree of Mark 11 had withered its only value laid in being burned.

Parable of the barren fig tree.

Luk 13:6 And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Luk 13:7 And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' Luk 13:8 And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Luk 13:9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

These parables unfolds three years of a planter's (The father's) frustration after finding no fruit (Repentance). The vine dresser (The Son) appeals to need of further cultivation (ministry of Holy Spirit), and if not effective, tree is to be burned (wrath of God). It's no coincidence that the three years mentioned summed up Christ's earthly ministry.

Answer:

In his work New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable scholar F.F. Bruce points out that given the time frame of Mark 11, being late March/early April, it was not uncommon for people to seek a knob like fruit called taqsh from the broad leaf displaying yet too early for fig producing fig tree.

NT Doc: Are They Reliable F.F. Bruce. Ch 5: The other miracle is the cursing of the barren fig tree (Mk. xi. '2 ff.), a stumblingblock to many. They feel that it is unlike Jesus, and so someone must have misunderstood what actually happened, or turned a spoken parable into an acted miracle, or something like that. Some, on the other hand, welcome the story because it shows that Jesus was human enough to get unreasonably annoyed on occasion. It appears, however, that a closer acquaintance with fig trees would have prevented such misunderstandings. 'The time of figs was not yet,' says Mark, for it was just before Passover, about six weeks before the fully formed fig appears. The fact that Mark adds these words shows that he knew what he was talking about. When the fig leaves appear about the end of March they are accompanied by a crop of small knobs, called taqsh by the Arabs, a sort of forerunner of the real figs. These taqsh are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. They drop off before the real fig is formed. But if the leaves appear unaccompanied by taqsh, there will be no figs that year. So it was evident to our Lord, when He turned aside to see if there were any of these taqsh on the fig tree to assuage His hunger for the time being, that the absence of the taqsh meant that there would be no figs when the time for figs came. For all its fair show of foliage, it was a fruitless and hopeless tree.'

According to Bruce, it was not actual figs Jesus sought, it was the taqsh, an edible sign that the tree would in fact bear fruit that season. Mark wisely inserted the note on figs not yet being in season. The people of the far east would have immediately known of the taqsh Jesus looked for.

Though there is a puzzling element even given this information and linking parables. Jesus says in Mark 11:14: "May no one ever eat fruit from you again". These word may be summed up in the words of the JFB Commentary notes on this verse: Those words did not make the tree barren, but sealed it up in its own barrenness. In other words, the cursed fig tree was the emblem of the unrepentant Jewish nation. And because they knew not the time of their Messiah's visitation it was impossible for them to bear fruit, or if it did its fruit would be bad.

If room would allow I'd show why Jesus cleansed the temple, and how Jesus' lesson on prayer, and his reference to the mountain being thrown into the sea relates to the symbolism of Revelation 8:8, where a huge mountain ablaze is cast into the sea. It directly relates to why Jesus cursed the fig tree and the subsequent burning of Jerusalem in AD 70.

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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.

2

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.

0

Before entering Jerusalem Jesus sent His disciples to Bethphage to find things which were to be brought to Him (Matthew 21:1, Mark 11:1, and Luke 19:29). Bethphage means "house of unripe figs" [G967-Bethphage]. Figs picked too early will not ripen and a "house of unripe figs" is a place where figs taken from the tree too soon would be kept.

The first figs are actually from last years growth and they and the leaves both appear in the spring:

And seeing in the distance a fig tree [covered] with leaves, He went to see if He could find any [fruit] on it [for in the fig tree the fruit appears at the same time as the leaves]. But when He came up to it, He found nothing but leaves, for the fig season had not yet come. (Mark 11:13 AMPC)

Mark records the "season" for figs had not yet come. Season is καιρὸς – kairos. When used in an agricultural context it means harvest time [G2540-kairos]. For example:

Then he began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a pit for its winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went on a journey. At harvest time (καιρῷ) he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his portion of the crop. (Mark 12:1-2 NET)

The man did not attempt to collect his portion when the leaves appeared or when the grapes first appeared. He waited until the fruit had ripened on the vine and was "in season."

Leaves by themselves are never a sign figs are ripe or "in season." Depending on climate two additional months are needed before they should be harvested (or eaten). In Israel the first crop is normally ripe in June. They would never be ripe at the time of Passover. While someone who is hungry would normally look for figs which were ripe (either on the tree or dried), Mark makes it clear Jesus sought figs which were "out of season." These figs would be unripe and not very good to eat.

Nevertheless, the existence of Bethphage, a house of unripe figs, shows that Jesus is not alone in seeking out unripe figs. There are others who actually harvested them raising the possibility the tree which Jesus went to had produced fruit which someone else had already removed and taken to Bethphage, the house of unripe figs.

Matthew describes a similar event:

After noticing a fig tree by the road he went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. He said to it, “Never again will there be fruit from you!”… (Matthew 21:19 NET)

In addition to making no mention of season, there is a difference between taking and eating the fruit:

Mark: He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again."... (11:14 NET)

Matthew: …He said to it, “Never again will there be fruit from you!”... (21:19 NET)

Each conveys a similar message from a different perspective. Matthew places the emphasis on the tree never again producing fruit. Immediately it withers; this tree will never again produce figs. In Mark Jesus states a person will never again eat fruit from this tree (and the tree is observed by Peter the following day). The command in Mark does not necessarily require the tree to die. For example, a similar command was given in the Garden of Eden:

Then the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17 NET)

As in Mark this tree was never to be eaten from (or eaten from again). Significantly, leaves from a fig tree are also found in the Genesis account:

Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Genesis 3:7 NET)

The Gospel events highlighting fig leaves and missing fruit are deliberate actions by Jesus to recall the history of man. The first man and woman were not to eat fruit from a certain tree and after they ate they used leaves from a fig tree to cover themselves.

The common element is fig leaves calling attention to the first man and woman who took fruit which was supposed to be left on the tree and used leaves from a fig tree to try and cover themselves.

The timing of the result of Jesus speaking to the trees also follows the events of the Garden of Eden. The fruit on the tree remained, but no one would ever again eat from this tree. The leaves which they used to make aprons became unnecessary on the same day after the LORD God made tunics of animal skins:

The Lord God made garments from skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

0

He, who knew what was in the heart of man (John 2:25) which feature belongs to God only (Acts 1:24), of course knew that going to a fig tree off season with a purpose to reap fruits would have bewildered the hearts of His disciples. Exactly this was His purpose: to bewilder the disciples and us, to take our normal way of thinking off joints and infect us with a paradox, for only through paradoxes salvation is possible, whereas what we deem as "normal" and "wise" from natural, human point of view is a foolishness for God (cf. 1 Cor. 3:19).

Now, what was the purpose of this bewildering? The depth of this cannot be fathomed by one or two, or a dozen of good interpretations, but let us venture one: in Matthew the passage is followed by a parable about an older son who promised the father asking him to work in a field to do a work, but did not fulfil the promise, and the younger son, who refused to fulfil the father's request in words, but then still did this work (Matthew 21:28-31). The fig tree episode could have been used as a preliminary illustration to this parable: the fig tree had only leaves (a.k.a. words, intentions, promises, potentialities) but not fruits (a.k.a. deeds, actions, operations, fulfilment), and by making the tree withered, Jesus gave a dreadful warning that unless man acts according to what talent and duty is entrusted to the man, unless this talent is increased and brought to perfection through man's systematic effort, the talent itself will not avail and will rather punish the holder of this talent than make him happy; for, indeed, "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26).

In Mark, however, the passage is followed by Peter paying attention to the fact that the fig tree got withered and Jesus giving an enigmatic answer: "If you will have faith, even as big as a mustard seed, tell to the mountain to be removed and thrown to the sea and it will be removed and thrown to the sea" (Mark 12:22). Does He imply that He Himself addressed the fig tree with a faith and that's why it withered? No way! Jesus does not need faith, for He is Himself the object of faith, for it is through His name and in His faith that miracles are performed by the faithful (cf. Matthew 12:27). Then what? I guess, He intimates that leaves without fruits is a sign of a dead faith, when man is a follower of Christ only by name and outward appearance, but has not the active presence of God's grace in him, that is to say, is devoid of Christ's working in his heart and transfiguring this heart and man to a "new creation" (2 Cor. 15-17), for the mountain to be removed and thrown to the sea is the "old man" (Romans 6:6), that is to say, our sin-infected condition, that should be "thrown" and washed in the "sea", that is to say, in the waters of the holy baptism, or in the cleansing or consuming fire of divine grace (cf. Hebrews 12:28-29) and thus transfigured to the "new man" in Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:24).

But why off season? Why this weirdness? Why did not He show the same in a season, by coming to an arid fig tree, that failed to give fruits in the season? The reason is again pedagogical: given the above explanation, it is evident that pedagogical reason is in that the term "off season" does not apply to fulfilment of one's divine duty of increasing talents through work, for there is no time that is not proper for fulfilling God's commandments, and if even the fig tree could not bring for its justification the totally legitimate from human/natural point of view reason that it was off season, how much more there is not any justification for any man not to fulfil divine, eternal duty, for being a human being is a special modus of existence that entails a constant tension of standing before God's infinity and constant task to act according to the logic of this infinity: increase talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and aspire to be as perfect as God (Matthew 5:48).

protected by Community Nov 21 '15 at 14:42

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