Please Explain The
Jesus-Fig Tree Conundrum

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine"
To: "matthew"
Subject: WebMaster: Positive Atheism Index
Date: August 12, 2001

The Fig Tree Enigma addresses only one small segment of Christianity, those Fundamentalists who think the Bible is literally God's word, dictated directly from Him and thus without error. Of course if someone claims that a body of writing is infallible (and this is what such Christians say about the Bible) then it takes but a single error to bring this entire theory crumbling to dust. I put a very concise (and quite usable) summary of the Fig Tree problems in our "National Bible Week" Poster, which you don't have to wait until November to print and distribute to your local community.

Many skeptics and infidels delight in producing huge lists of biblical errors and contradictions. C. Dennis McKinsey published The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy after running a small newsletter (about the size of PAM) for many years. More recently, he published a more involved version of the Encyclopedia that is allegedly much easier to work with (the Encyclopedia being simply a linear text whereas the new work is redundantly cross-referenced to make looking up the passage in question a very simple matter -- which ought to be quite handy in this era of Internet flame wars where nobody can see you run to the bookshelf and look something up).

I have tended to ignore the entire subject of biblical errancy, preferring to point out the atrocious moral teachings of the Bible: more people tend to want to laud the Bible as a source of moral teaching than try to portray it as a magical book that was delivered on a golden platter by an angel of God or dictated by the Holy Ghost in a cave in the desert to a locust-eating prophet with matted beard.

However, I do have a few bible errors up my sleeve for those occasions when I find them handy, and my favorite is an early piece I wrote over six years ago called "The Fig Tree Enigma." The big problems with the Cursing of the Fig Tree story in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark come to light upon reading them side-by-side, but we can see the most glaring problem if we read the version in Mark:

[12] And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
[13] 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.
[14] And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
[20] And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
[21] And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.

Here we have not really a Bible error as much as a very strange portrayal of the New Testament's main character, Jesus. Three things come out of this story:

1. Jesus was hungry.
2. He looked for figs on a tree.
3. But it was not fig season.

So, because he doesn't get his way, Jesus kills the tree in retaliation. This story, if taken at face value, is so difficult to fathom that even the Fundamentalists tend to turn this into a metaphor (which they tend to do with all passages that they find difficult to fathom when taken at face value).

I'll recite the incident from Matthew to show you a few differences between the two accounts:

17. And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there.
18. Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered.
19. 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.
20. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!

Now I can ask the following questions:

If it wasn't fig season, why would even a moron look for figs?

Is killing a tree for not bearing fruit out of season a reasonable response by any standard?

Matthew 21:18-21 (written after and based upon Mark) says it withered at once. Mark says they saw it the next day and then marveled. Something's terribly wrong, here. Was Matthew possibly dissatisfied with a Jesus who'd take an entire day to wither a damned fig tree?

Some will try to tell you about this special fig that grows only in the Middle East that is in season during Easter time. I respond by pointing out that I don't need to know anything about special figs because Mark says it wasn't fig season -- right there in the Bible! My favorite ones, though, are the ones who try to make the story some sort of metaphor. Taken at face value, it's a story about how if you just have enough faith, you can do anything. This was Jeanne's response in "On The Subject Of Jesus And The Fig Tree."

The rest tend to say that the fig tree represents the nation of Israel, and its barrenness represents the fact that the Jews did not accept Jesus as their personal savior but saw him for what he was: a man who said, "Let us worship other gods (namely, himself) that our fathers did not worship" and they did to him what the Hebrew Scriptures commanded them to do to those who act like this -- they killed him (or so the story goes -- I don't believe a word of it, mind you). So, since the Jews didn't believe in Jesus, they were destroyed. I like to point out the despicable morality contained in all this, that this story teaches people to solve their disputes with violence.

On the issue of Israel being destroyed (allegedly) because they rejected Christ I have not said much. This idea is backwards from how I see it. What happened is that Jesus (if he existed at all) was a false prophet, and was crucified for sedition (because that's the only crime for which one could get crucified back then). Jesus was crucified because he claimed to be the King of the Jews. What the New Testament is strangely silent about was the fact that the Romans at the time occupied Judaea and many rebels rose up to try to free the people from this yoke of bondage. If the New Testament writers wanted to portray Jesus as an other-worldly deity saving people from their sins (a Roman concept) then it makes sense that they'd be silent about the occupation.

As times got worse and more and more Jews were killed for rebellion, Titus eventually came in and flattened Jerusalem. During this time, Paul (Saul) had been preaching a doctrine based on the life of one of the Jewish rebels, but blending with it the notion from Mithraism of a dying and resurrected savior mixed with the Gnostic idea of this world being in darkness and in need of enlightenment from above (neither being Jewish ideas at all). The real followers of Jesus had remained in Jerusalem, but were (probably) wiped out either during the siege of Titus or long before.

Well, with Jerusalem gone, there was nobody left to dispute the version told by Paul's followers. Also, being viciously anti-Jewish (Paul's doctrine took God's graces away from the Jews -- for rejecting Jesus -- and granted it to the followers of Jesus), the destruction of Jerusalem was seen as divine retribution for killing and rejecting Jesus.

Though not the most popular Historical Jesus version, I highly recommend that told by Hyam Maccoby in his Revolution In Judaea which we have abridged and posted. This version highlights the aspect I think is most crucial in understanding how the Gospels came to be and how Christianity became what it was: It was a usurpation of the Jewish religion from the Jews, even though the religion itself in now way resembles the Jewish faith. Christian anti-Semitism comes directly from the Christian (Pauline) teaching that God withdrew his grace from the Jews and gave it to the Christians. This is what prompted Martin Luther to burn Jews and this is what prompted Hitler to gas Jews: they had rejected God's gift to mankind in the form of His Son, Jesus, saying, "May his blood be on us and our children forever" (or so the story goes -- I don't believe a word of it). Of all the attempts at finding a Historical Jesus, Maccoby is the one who most vividly points out this aspect of the tragedy that is the Christian religion.

And not the least among the problems wrought by the Christian faith is that people can read a story such as the Cursing of the Fig Tree and still see validity in either the Bible or its hero, Jesus.

I hope this helps you to understand The Fig Tree Enigma and why I use it. If you want to see why I don't care to spend very much time or effort attacking the Bible against the claims of Fundamentalists, check out the exchange with Kameron Schulz called "Gospel Contradictions." After that, check out my bit "On Quoting The Bible Out Of Context" with Matthew Rupert. The most important thing to remember, though, is that any discussion of what the Bible has to say is predicated on the Bible being authoritative in any way. It isn't, and the one who most vividly pointed this out was Thomas Paine in his classic The Age of Reason.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2009 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to Positive Atheism to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.