University of London

A prophet acting out a parable: Why did Jesus choose to curse a fig tree?

A prophet acting out a parable: Why did Jesus choose to curse a fig tree?

RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

What is the significance of Jesus cursing the fig tree?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Our discussion will focus on the Gospel of Mark (11:12-14 and 20-26) rather than the briefer parallel version in Matthew (21:18-22), which most experts think was written down later. Mark records the following:

Jesus was traveling with his disciples to Jerusalem, where he was to “cleanse” the temple by driving out devious money-changers and sellers of birds for sacrifice. He was hungry and spotted a fig tree. Seen from the distance, it showed leaves, but close up there was no fruit. Jesus declared that no-one would ever again eat fruit from this tree. Returning from the temple the next day the disciples saw that the tree had withered down to its roots. (Matthew puts the “cursing” after the “cleansing” and says the tree withered immediately.)

Scholarly British Bishop N.T. Wright says this narrative “looks most peculiar,” and it’s “one of the most difficult in the Gospels” in the view of D.E. Nineham at the University of London. That’s because, as Hugh Anderson of the University of Edinburgh observed, the cursing of the fig tree was Jesus’ only reported miracle of “destruction” rather than restoration, so at first glance it seems “out of character” if not “irrational.”

Interpreters see significance in Mark’s literary “sandwich” with the temple assault enclosed within two halves of the fig tree account. It’s important to realize that the fig tree is a symbol for the Israelite nation in many Old Testament passages, an apt poetic device due to this fruit’s importance for the regional diet.

Jesus was not angry over his hunger, and certainly not angry at a tree.

Rather, scholars tell us, he was filling the role of a Jewish prophet like many before him.

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