Jesus and the Fig Tree

Matthew 21:18-22

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked.

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."

Mark 11:12-14, 19-25

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.

When evening came, they 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!"

"Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."

Why did Jesus curse the fig tree, when figs weren't in season?

Some light is shed on this passage by an article in Hard Sayings of the Bible by F. F. Bruce:

Was it not unreasonable to curse the tree for being fruitless when, as Mark expressly says, "it was not the season for figs"? The problem is most satisfactorily cleared up in a discussion called "The Barren Fig Tree" published many years ago by W. M. Christie, a Church of Scotland minister in Palestine under the British mandatory regime. He pointed out first the time of year at which the incident is said to have occurred (if, as is probable, Jesus was crucified on April 6th, A.D. 30, the incident occurred during the first days of April). "Now," wrote Christie, "the facts connected with the fig tree are these. Toward the end of March the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with [this], and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grown to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off." These precursors of the true fig are called taqsh  in Palestinian Arabic. Their appearance is a harbinger of the fully formed appearance of the true fig some six weeks later. So, as Mark says, the time for figs had not yet come. But if the leaves appear without any taqsh,  that is a sign that there will be no figs. Since Jesus found "nothing but leaves" - leaves without any taqsh- he knew that "it was an absolutely hopeless, fruitless fig tree" and said as much.

F. F. Bruce goes on to describe the cursing of the fig tree as a real-life parable that emphasized the spoken parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9. It is also likely that Jesus, knowing in advance that his disciples would be surprised by the quick effect his curse had, used the fig tree to provoke their reaction and thus make the lesson about faith more memorable.

When did the fig tree wither?

The potential problem here is that Matthew says the fig tree withered immediately, while Mark says the withered tree wasn't seen by the disciples until the next day. Here is a possible sequence of events that reconciles the two accounts:

On the morning after the Triumphal Entry, Jesus and the disciples return to Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus sees a fig tree some distance from the road. He goes to it to check for figs, while the disciples continue on the road. Jesus curses the fig tree and the disciples hear him. The fig tree withers, but the disciples have passed the tree and don't yet notice that it withered.

Jesus and the disciples return to Bethany in the evening; likely it's too dark to see the tree. The next morning, they return to Jerusalem along the same road. As they near the fig tree, Peter points it out, and he and the disciples express amazement that it's already withered.

(Gleason Archer presents the case that Matthew compressed the events of two days into one account in his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties - his argument is summarized by Smith, Chowdry, Jepson and Schaeffer.)

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