Re: Syn. Apoc. (Parable of the Fig Tree)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue Sep 05 1995 - 20:03:55 EDT

At 2:22 PM 9/5/95, Bruce Terry wrote:
>On Tue, 5 Sep 1995, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>>Bruce, it has been my assumption hitherto in considering the Parable of the
>>Fig Tree that (1) we have to look at Mark's version first, but, more
>>importantly, (2) we have to look at this in association with the incident
>>of the fig tree cursed by Jesus that withers overnight (Mk 11:12-14, 20-21,
>>par.) As this incident as Mark relates it sandwiches in the "Cleansing of
>>the Temple," the withering of the fig tree surely, it seems to me, is a
>>portent of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Moreover, if one
>>interprets (as is my inclination) Mark's Apocalypse in chapter 13 to mean
>>that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is part and parcel of the
>>train of events associated with the apocalyptic end-time, it would seem
>>that Jesus approaches the Temple seeking the "fruits of righteousness" in
>>accordance with the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen and, not finding them,
>>pronounces doom upon Temple and City. Is this an outrageous interpretation?
>I personally have no problem with looking at Mark's version first here; Matt.
>24:32-36 and Mark 13:28-32 share 77 exact words and only differ in 14. None
>of the variations are significant, with the possible exception of Matthew's

>I don't think your interpretation is outrageous, but I'm not sure it is
>compelling either. Both the fig tree incident and the fig tree parable do
>relate to Israel's coming destruction as a nation. There are, however, quite
>a number of differences. Especially notable is that the fig tree in the
>incident withers while in the parable it puts on leaves.

Let me expand a bit here, first making a general comment about the Marcan
sequence from chapter 11 through 15. I have always thought Kaesemann's
statement regarding Mark's gospel extraordinarily insightful--that it is "a
Passion Narrative with an extended introduction." The idea is not original
by any means with me that the gospel was "backwards-composed" and composed
with a remarkable symmetry. There is the Passion Narrative in 14-15 that
climaxes a sort of drama entitled, "The King Must Die," heralded since the
first Controversy Sequence of 2:1-3:6 which ended in the plotting of
Pharisees with the partisans of Herod's family to get Jesus executed. This
is preceded by the Apocalyptic Discourse, chapter 13 with its initial
pronouncement of the imminent doom of the Temple followed soon afterwards
by the Coming of the Son of Man on the clouds. Before that are chapters
11-12: (a) "triumphal" entry followed by a visit to the Temple mount and a
recognition (11:11) that the hour is too late; (b) Jesus views the fig tree
in leaf and goes to it looking for fruit; disappointed that there is no
fruit, he curses the fig tree; (c) he enters into the Temple and drives out
the moneychangers; (d) the next morning he again sees the fig tree he had
cursed, and behold, it has withered; (e) back within the Temple and asked
on what authority he acts as he has done there, he responds by telling the
Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen who refuse to yield the fruits in season
to the landlord's agents, including his Son, and then stating outright that
the vineyard will be taken from its owners and given to outsiders; (f)
there follow two sets of three episodes that are tests put to Jesus by
Jewish groups and his own observations about the quality of Israel's piety.
Then comes chapter 13, beginning with its pronouncement of doom upon the
Temple and ending with the prophecies surrounding the "Coming" of the Son
of Man. The Parable of the Fig tree is the second-to-last item in Chapter

>The Parable of the Fig Tree must be seen in the context of the synoptic
>apocalypse before it is seen in the context of Mark since it is found in all
>three synoptic gospels.

I would not agree with the first assertion here, that "the Parable of the
Fig Tree must be seen in the context of the synoptic apocalypse before it
is seen in the context of Mark since it is found in all three synoptic
gospels." I would argue that the parable of the fig tree is a piece of the
oral Jesus tradition BEFORE it is incorporated into the Synoptic Apocalypse
(which, in my opinion, is the MARCAN APOCALYPSE before it is taken up and
redacted by Matthew and Luke). Whether or not the incident is fully
historical (and it may well be historical) or not, it is evident that Mark,
by dividing the fig-tree episode into two halves,--11:12-14 (Jesus' quest
for fruit from the tree and his curse upon it when he discovers there is no
fruit) and 11:20-21 (the observation that the tree has withered)--dividing
it into two halves and putting the narrative of the "cleansing of the
Temple" between the two halves, has chosen to employ this narrative for
symbolic rather than historically factual narrative. It may be that the
story was originally told of a different tree; it is a singularly
unedifying story about Jesus, if I may dare to say so: hungry and cursing a
tree because it doesn't bear fruit before the harvest season is ready--this
seems more a child's behavior than a story about the actual historical
behavior of Jesus. Personally I can make no sense of it EXCEPT in its
symbolic dimension as FRAMING the narrative of the cleansing of the Temple.

It's worth noting that Matthew has redacted Mark's narrative by reuniting
the two halves (Mt 21:18-22) and making it independent of the Cleansing of
the Temple. Matthew tells the story as a real historical incident. Of
course it is possible that the story was at one time a unit and that
Matthew renders it in accordance with the oral tradition, while Mark has
deliberately split it and given it a symbolic dimension. Luke, who is
generally much more careful to report only what he apparently feels has
verisimilitude (he makes the real Sanhedrin trial of Jesus take place at
dawn rather than in the middle of the night, for instance), has omitted the
story of the cursing and withering of the fig tree altogether.

> Also significant is Luke's expansion KAI PANTA TA
>DENDRA "and all the trees." The point of the parable is not dependent on the
>fact that it is a fig tree. Any and all trees (except evergreens, of course)
>put forth leaves as summer approaches. The point of the parable is "X implies
>that Y is near."

The parable begins "From the fig tree learn its lesson: hOTAN HDH hO KLADOS
ESTIN. ..." We are to observe the fig tree when it is first putting out
leaves, as Jesus does to the fig tree in Mk 11:13. It should be noted that
QEROS means not just "summer" but "harvest-time" (QERIZEIN is the verb for
"reap"). Jesus comes to the Temple seeking the fruits of righteousness from
Israel in accordance with the parable that he tells the chief priests,
scribes, and elders of Israel in 12:1-12. He doesn't find them and he
pronounces doom, first upon the fig tree which represents the Temple, and
later (13:2) upon the Temple itself.

>On a related note, a passage from Earle MacMillian's commentary on Mark is
>worth quoting:
>"The blending of the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world must
>confirm the view that it is here understood that the two things--however far
>they may ultimately be separated in time--were two parts of the same thing."

This is a nice comment, but I question whether it is really applicable to
the other versions of the Synoptic Apocalypse so well as it is to Mark's

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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