Biblical scholars tend to be suspicious of passages in the Gospels that dovetail too neatly with Church Doctrine. “Did Jesus really say that?” they ask, “Or did the Gospel writer or even a later editor invent it?” And I have to admit, they may have a point.
But there’s a flip side to this reasoning too. By the same logic, a passage that’s embarrassing to a respected figure, or conflicts with some aspects of established theology, is more likely to be authentic, because presumably the Early Church Fathers would have edited it out if it weren’t firmly established. It’s sort of like Tertulian’s famous statement, Certum est, quia impossibile - It is certain because it is impossible. Although in this case it’s more a matter of “It’s certain because if they had made it up they would have invented something less weird.”
If there’s any truth to this theory, then certainly the most authentic passage in the Gospels would have to be the story of Jesus and the Fig Tree.
The story is found in Mark, chapter 11. Mark is kind of like the Cliff Notes Gospel; it’s the shortest of the four, and it’s pretty fast-paced, going from incident to incident without nearly as many of the parables and discourses which we find in the other Gospels. Both Matthew and Luke follow the same outline as Mark, often quoting it word-for-word, which leads most scholars to believe that Mark was written first and that the other two Synoptic Gospels used it as a framework which they supplemented with additional material.
But there are a couple places where Mark digresses from his straightforward narrative to mention a side-incident which seems irrelevant to the main story. The Fig Tree Story is one of these.
Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They’re staying, however, in the nearby town of Bethany, perhaps with Jesus’ friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, because the hotels in Jerusalem are always booked up on the holidays.
While leaving Bethany the next morning to go up into the city, Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree in the distance. But when he goes to the tree to check out if there’s any fruit on it, he finds nothing but leaves. This pisses him off. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” he says. (Mark 11:12-14)
And that’s where Mark leaves it for the moment. He goes on to describe Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple. And come to think of it, this might be why he’s so hard on those moneychangers; he’s hungry and the whole fig tree thing put him in a bad mood. After a busy day of Occupying Temple Mount, he and his disciples return to Bethany for the night. The next day they pass by the fig tree again, only now it is withered. “Rabbi, look!” Peter says, “The fig tree you cursed is withered!” (Mark 11:20-21)
The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21:18-21, also tells this story, but in Matthew’s version, the tree withers immediately. It’s more dramatic that way, and from a plot point of view tightens up the narrative better, but I think I prefer Mark’s telling.)
Jesus responds by telling his disciples to “Have faith in God” and that if they believe hard enough, they’ll be able to do all sorts of crazy stuff like making mountains jump into the sea or forgiving sins. But the story has always left me dazed and wondering what the heck that was all about. Probably much the way the Disciples must have been.
This is not the moral I was expecting. I would have expected him to say something like “So too will perish those who bear not Fruits of Righteousness” or something along those lines. Nope. Instead he talks about Faith and the Power of Prayer.
Why did Jesus curse the stupid tree? A pious impulse wants me to say that it was a sinful fig tree and therefore deserved to be cursed.
Yes, that seems just as stupid when I type it out as it does in my head when I think it. What’s more, Mark comes right out and tells us that the reason the fig tree didn’t have any figs on it was because it was the wrong season! (“… When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.” Mark 11:13)
So then the question becomes, why did Jesus expect there to be figs in the first place? My study Bible tries to finesse this by noting that fig trees in that region normally begin to leaf out around March or April, but do not bear figs until their leaves are all out in early Summer. So maybe Jesus, seeing that the tree already had a lot of leaves on it, thought that it might have some early figs too. I’d say that was grasping at straws, except that you won’t find straws on a fig tree at that time of the year either. Jesus still comes off seeming like a jerk for cursing a perfectly innocent fig tree that was minding its own business. I don’t have an answer for that. This is the story we have.
Why did the Gospel writers include this curious story? Perhaps as a demonstration of Christ’s Divine Power over Nature. Or perhaps to illustrate his words about the Power of Prayer. But I think it was something that stuck in Peter’s mind because it was just so dang freaky.
Backing up a little, the Gospel of Mark is traditionally ascribed to John-Mark, a young man who served as an assistant to the Apostle Peter in his later years. (We know Peter had a secretary, because of the two Epistles credited to him, the Greek in the first one is much better than the other. Since Greek wasn’t Peter’s primary language, it’s believed that he had an assistant polish up his prose). If this is true, than Mark’s Gospel would have been based on Peter’s reminiscences.
This would explain how Mark, who was not one of the Twelve Disciples, nor is ever mentioned by name in any of the other Gospels, got his material; and why Matthew and Luke defer to Mark’s version of the story in their own Gospels. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on the Peter-Mark connection, though, noting places in Mark’s gospel where he gets details of Galilee geography wrong; mistakes that presumably Peter would not make. Then again, it’s possible that Mark did not set down the final version of his Gospel until after Peter’s death; (most scholars date the Gospel after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70); and so Peter would have been unable to correct these goofs.
But supposing tradition has it right about Peter and Mark, I can picture Peter telling stories to his own disciple about his experiences. “I remember this one time … man, it was the freakiest thing … we were leaving Bethany and there was this fig tree…” He would have told about the things that stuck most in his memory.
What strikes me the most about this story, though, is not the demonstration of Christ’s Divine Power over Deciduous Plants, but glimpse we get of Jesus the man, with human needs and human frustrations.
The Church has traditionally taught that Jesus was True God and Also True Man. So how can he be both? I don’t know. How can light be both a wave and a particle? From observation we know that light acts like both. And the Doctrine of the Dual Nature is one of the ideas Christians have developed to explain this aspect of Christ. The way Luther explains this is that if Christ were merely a man, his sacrifice would be insufficient to redeem all humanity; but if he were merely a god, (if that makes sense), then his life on earth would be meaningless; he’d just be a poseur pretending to be one of us.
Christians tend to put more emphasis on the “True God” part, though, because Christ’s humanity can make us uncomfortable sometimes; as in this story. He knew hunger; he knew aggravation; he got frustrated when his disciples missed the point; he got sarcastic when his enemies tried to trap him in word games; he wept when his friends suffered bereavement; he crashed in the bottom of a fishing boat when he’d had a long, tiring day; and there were some times when the world got too much for him and he just needed some time by himself.