Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Cursing(s) of the Fig Tree(s) or the Cleansing(s) of the Temple?

Dean Dough has provided a kind and thoughtful response to my on-going series discussing the multiple-event phenomenon and similar issues in 1 Samuel that should illuminate our discussion of alleged Biblical contradictions.

Mr. Dough specifically pointed out that not all of the alleged contradictions in the gospels can be addressed through the possibility of multiple events. Mr. Dough pointed to the issue of two passages in the gospels in which Jesus curses a fig tree and it dies.

Here are the two passages.

Account 1

Mark 11:11-26
And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: 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. And Jesus answered and said unto it, "No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever." And his disciples heard it.
And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, "Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves." And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. And when even was come, he went out of the city.
And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, "Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away."
And Jesus answering saith unto them, "Have faith in God. For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses."
Account 2

Matthew 21:12-22
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, "It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves." And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.
And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David;" they were sore displeased,
And said unto him, "Hearest thou what these say?"
And Jesus saith unto them, "Yea; have ye never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise'?"
And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there. Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever." And presently the fig tree withered away.
And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, "How soon is the fig tree withered away!"
Jesus answered and said unto them, "Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive."
There are some undeniable similarities between the accounts. In both cases, Jesus is coming out of Bethany, he curses a fig tree and it dies. The disciples notice the dead fig tree and marvel. Jesus uses the occasion to teach them a lesson that includes reference to the idea that whatever you pray for in faith you will receive.

How about the alleged contradictions?
Mr. Dough kindly provides us with a table of alleged contradictions or, as he expresses it, "salient differences." The following is based on his table:

(1) Chronological Order
1. Temple cleansing
2. Overnight in Bethany
3. Cursing of fig tree
4. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree

1. Overnight in Bethany
2. Cursing of fig tree
3. Temple cleansing
4. Overnight in outside of Jerusalem
5. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree
(2) Time the tree witheredImmediately after Jesus cursed itUnspecified but within a day
(3) When the disciples heard the cursingOn the morning after the temple cleansingOn the morning before the temple cleansing
(4) Who commented on the witheringdisciplesPeter
(5) When the disciples saw the withered tree for the first timeBy implication of their comment, immediately after Jesus cursed it.About a day after Jesus cursed it.
(6) Comment on disciples' frame of mindThey were amazedPeter remembered
(7) What they said about it"How did the fig tree wither immediately?""Look, the fig tree you cursed has withered."

There are really two categories of differences between the events: those unrelated to the timing of the event and those related to the timing of the event. Those unrelated to the timing (4, 6, and 7) are relatively easily resolved. Peter can remember and say one thing while the other disciples are amazed and say something similar. In fact, Peter (speaking for the rest) could say both things. These are differences, yes, but relatively trivial and easily resolved.

The remaining items relate to the timing of events. In dealing with that, perhaps it makes sense to point out here that the area "outside Jerusalem" mentioned in Mark's account could be Bethany. Bethany is an area outside but near Jerusalem, about "fifteen furlongs" from the city (John 11:18), home to Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3) as well as Lazarus (John 11:1; 12:1).

With that in mind, the following harmony is one possibility:

1. Temple cleansing
2. Overnight in Bethany1. Overnight in Bethany
3. Cursing of fig tree2. Cursing of fig tree

3. Temple cleansing

4. Overnight in outside of Jerusalem
4. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree5. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree

If we follow this resolution, there is a single cursing of a single fig tree and a single time that the disciples comment on it. There are two overnight stays near Jerusalem (as explicitly indicated in Mark). The only thing not explicitly stated in the texts that would be necessary for this harmonization to work would be that Jesus would have to cast the money changers out of the temple twice. Of course, it is entirely possible that Jesus twice (or more - see Luke 19:45-46 and John 2:13-15) cleansed the temple of the money changers. After all, are the money changers going to leave and never come back because someone drove them out one day?

And moreover while it did not make it into Mr. Dough's chronology, Mark does indicate that Jesus was in the temple on the previous day:

Mark 11:11 And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.

That passage mentions him observing what was happening there, but (we must admit) it does not mention him disrupting the moneychangers. Still, there is certainly nothing in the text that would render it impossible that Matthew's account refers to a first day, particularly since the Mark 11:11 mention of Jesus in the temple appears to come right after Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem (as also does Matthew's account).

There are still two or three remaining objections to this harmony. The first objection (item 2 in Mr. Dough's list of seven) is that Mark says that the fig tree withered immediately. Of course, the fig tree withering by the next day is "immediately" in horticultural terms. Is the Greek word "παραχρῆμα" capable of such a meaning? It seems to be.

The second objection (item 3 in Mr. Dough's list of seven) is the relation between the temple cleansing and when the disciples heard the cursing. However, this objection is resolved if there are two temple cleansings.

The third objection (item 5 in Mr. Dough's list of seven) is the relation of the cursing and the disciples hearing it. Mr. Dough alleges that it is implied in Matthew's account that they saw it immediately. However, Matthew merely says "And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!" without specifying whether the disciples saw it immediately or the next day.

Hopefully this illustrates how a relatively simple explanation (namely that Christ twice - at least - cleansed the temple of moneychangers) can resolve the apparent contradiction with respect to the chronological order.

As Mr. Dough pointed out there are other ways in which the two accounts can be harmonized. For example, these could be entirely separate events a year apart or Jesus could have cursed the fig tree once and then again, with the fig tree withering immediately the second time. The two years solution is easy, but Jesus' triumphal entry seems like a one-time event. It's not intuitively pleasing to us to think it happened twice. Likewise, two cursings would make Peter's reaction of "remembering" an odd result, as also it would make Jesus' seeking fruit on the already-cursed tree an odd action.

Incidentally, for what it's worth, while I carefully examined the Scripture to come to the conclusions I present above, after doing so I sought out the counsel of one of the greatest Scriptural commentators, John Gill (died 1771). Had I done so in the first place I would have arrived at the same conclusion (see Gill's commentary on these passages). It is remarkable that Gill's 200 year old solution to the problem was unknown to Mr. Dough, but I blame the modern skeptics who are promoting these alleged contradictions, not my friend Mr. Dough (who could expect him to exhaustively survey all the Reformed scholarship on the subject?).



Unknown said...


Thank you for taking the time to deal with the text in some detail here. I am not familiar with Gill's commentary on these texts. Thanks for the tip! I took some time to read his comments.

I have two specific criticisms of Gill to which you may want to respond. First, how do you understand Mark 11:11? Gill appears to assume that the verse leaves room for a whole raft of activities attributed to Jesus on the day of the triumphal entry by Matthew and Luke including the temple cleansing. His interpretation of "looking around at everything" is expansive, to say the least. Look up all the other uses of this verb in Mark and see if you can find another one that encompasses the wide range of activities Gill wants to pack into this expression.

I think his interpretation of v. 11b is just wrong. His commentary includes the KJV translation: "and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve." The King Jimmy can be understood similarly to the way nearly all modern translations handle this verse, which is to say, "having looked around at everything, since it was already evening, he went to Bethany with the twelve." But Gill reads the dependent clause in the middle as if evening arrived after Jesus had been looking around. Do you agree with this reading? On what basis?

Matthew uses παραχρῆμα in 21:19 to describe the duration of time it took for the tree to wither after Jesus cursed it. Gill says it happened "immediately." Matthew uses the same word in the disciples' comment about the fig tree withering in 21:20. Gill, as you do, takes the second "immediately" in a more relaxed sense: "immediately" relative to the normal lifespan of a fig tree, as in "so soon." Again, apart from the need to harmonize with Mark, why would you adopt this reading? Jesus curses the tree, it withers immediately, the disciples see it (they are there too, after all) and comment, "How did the tree wither immediately?" as in, "right after you cursed it?" There is a point to the repetition of this word. Is it a chronological point or something else?

Turretinfan said...

Re: "περιβλεψάμενος" I think it is important to realize that it goes with "πάντα". In other words, a rough paraphrase of Mark 11:11 would be that Jesus went into Jerusalem and the temple and saw everything that was going on, but when evening came he left the city and went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The expression "ὀψίας ἤδη οὔσης τῆς ὥρας" explains the timing of his leaving the city (i.e. when the evening hour came). It would seem strange if it did not. The modern versions don't mean something different.

As for "παραχρῆμα," I addressed this in the post already. However, I think it is important for you to note that what was emphasized is that the withering was immediate, not that the observation was immediate. In other words "παραχρῆμα" modifies "ἐξηράνθη." It does not modify "ἰδόντες."

The point of the term and the repetition of the term is to emphasize the miraculous nature of the withering - not the speed with which that miracle was observed. The miracle does not relate to them having enhanced powers of observation, but the tree being miraculously killed.

- TurretinFan

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is resolute and resolves it for me.

One digression:

"Hopefully this illustrates how a relatively simple explanation (namely that Christ twice - at least - cleansed the temple of moneychangers) can resolve the apparent contradiction with respect to the chronological order."

The one thing I believe hasn't changed, from Adam to today, is human nature.

It seems highly unlikely the Chief Priests, the High Priest and company, family and so forth and so on came under Christ's demonstrative exclamation by cleansing the Temple and continued to follow Him and continued thereafter to keep the Temple cleansed from such economies and merchandising of birds and animals according to God's Law and Piety?

As I recall, they did kill Him for being, and doing, Who, and What, He is and did! :)

Why, just go to many Churches and Synagogues around the world today and you can buy books and other things within those Houses of Worship which have nothing to do with keeping God's House a House of Prayer for all nations!

I guess these truisms are true:

"...and there is nothing new under the sun.


For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man

Fredericka said...

Dean, with regard to the English word 'immediate,' and what John Gill may or may not be conceding by use of that word, it need not always mean 'at that very instant,' though it can mean that. For example upon South Carolina's secession from the Union, they put out a document called "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which May Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union," here. If you read the document, these "immediate" causes go back for decades; the South Carolinians are particularly incensed by the Northern states' effective nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act. These state laws were being passed during the 1850's, but the underlying behavior pattern goes back before that, for example back in the 1830's the State of Maine rebuffed efforts by the State of Georgia to extradite the ship's captain and first mate who transported the escaped slave Atticus. So this "immediate" cause goes back for decades. The most recent thing they mention is the election of Abraham Lincoln, which had occurred over a month prior to the date of this document. This document was prepared by a committee, and at committee-speed, 'within two months' is lightning-quick. But they also mean I think 'direct,' 'not separated by anything intervening,' im (not) - mediate (in the middle), nothing in the middle, a sandwich without any filling. Cause is in contact with effect; these continuing causes act directly, with no other factor intervening. My dictionary gives as one possible meaning of 'immediately,' "without the intervention of anything." The English word 'immediately' as said by John Gill, non-KJV translators or South Carolinian traitors need not always mean 'within five minutes,' though it certainly could mean that, i.e., 'instantly.'

Turretinfan said...


I tried to address that point in the article. The general sense of the term is something like "instantly." However, if this leafy green fig tree died instantly, you wouldn't see the results until you came back the next day and saw that all the leaves were brown and falling off. Have you ever seen a live tree cut down? The leafy end of the tree looks pretty much the same for at least a few hours.

Fredericka said...

Hi TF, that is true, a cut tree or a failed shrub continues to look nearly normal for a while; they do not start looking bleached and skeletal until later. If the sap ceased flowing at the moment of the curse, the tree might not be visibly ruined until the sun had beat down on it and dessicated it.

Rebecca Holter said...

Hi TurretinFan!

Thank you for your posts in defense of the inerrancy of Scripture.

My thought on this is that Mark and Matthew are describing a single event, and that Mark is following the chronological order while Matthew is following a “completing the scene” order. I see that Dean Dough doesn’t like this type of solution, but maybe I have said something that God will use to make it more pleasing to him. I have written about this here: (3 posts long).

With love in Christ,
Papist Pete

Unknown said...


I know this thread has gone stale, but I finally got around to posting a follow-up in light of your comments on my original post. While I was at it, I dealt with "Papist Pete's" comments as well. As usual, you made me think. I hope I have returned the favor.

Turretinfan said...

Dear Mr. Dough,

Thanks for your response. Obviously, I would share a number of your concerns about Mr. Holter's approach, but I'll leave him to defend himself on those points.

One point that you raised against both (I guess) our positions was about the withering immediately. You think there is nothing amazing about Jesus cursing a tree and the tree exhibiting the same symptoms as though it had been cut down. I would find that pretty remarkable.

And, besides, in one of the accounts you seem to have to admit that Simon Peter himself seems to find it pretty remarkable that the tree is withered the next day, unless you think that Peter just brought it up again the next day (which I suppose is an alternative harmonization, though not one I favor).

- TurretinFan