In researching Biblical “errors” for investigation during ‘Phase I’ of my personal research in 2010, I came across many which alleged not an internal contradiction in the text, but supposed examples of the Bible revealing the ignorance of the writers (and thus, implying that an all-knowing God could not have been the ultimate author, since one would expect such a being to be acquainted with scientific facts). These basically amount to a sneering and presumptuous “look how stupid Moses/Elijah/Jesus was, I’m so much smarter, so clearly Christianity is for dumb people who don’t know any better.”
One of these examples was a small passage in Mark 11:12-14,20-21 that seemed to show, quite embarrassingly, that Jesus appeared to expect a fig tree to have fruit out of season, and (irrationally?) cursed it so it withered, upon finding no fruit. This is a favorite among pseudo-intellectual atheists who have spent any amount of time reading up on “Bible contradictions” on websites such as the unscholarly Evilbible or Skeptic’s Annotated Bible websites, which really only exist to give uneducated unbelievers a sense of feeling educated about the topic.
12 Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. 13 And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”And His disciples heard it.
20 Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21 And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.”
Jesus, supposedly God and Creator, is too ignorant to know basic points of Arboreal Biology, so the story goes. His expectation that it bear fruit out of season shows Him to be dumb enough, but then for Him to curse it, He demonstrates a childishly poor temper. Or did the masterful, scholastic, enlightened minds of those who reject the Bible happen to miss something important? Did they fail to look closely at the subject before making their conclusion?
Yes, indeed. And it has to do with the fact that the fig tree had leaves.
This spring was the first one that I’ve spent in my hometown in 5 years, so I’ve been uniquely exposed to the different timetables for foliage and blossoming of various trees and bushes around my yard and town, compared to previous years. What I noticed, most interestingly to me, was that a particular tree flowered immediately, before it had any leaves at all. Having just planted some small saplings from the Arbor Day foundation, the complimentary tree guide would identify these as the White Flowering Dogwood variety (to my best knowledge). As it turns out, Dogwoods – a very hardy tree that grows quickly, early in the season, and can make do with varying degrees of sunlight, thus making them a common sight on the edges of forests – flower first, before they leave (grow leaves).
As anybody who paid attention in high school biology class ought to know, flowers are associated with fruit. Much like a chicken that never comes in contact with a rooster will still lay eggs, but the eggs won’t hatch new chickens, in like manner a tree whose flowers are not pollinated by insects or birds will sometimes bear fruit (sometimes not, I think, but I can’t remember for certain), but if you planted these fruits, they wouldn’t produce a new tree because they’re missing a crucial ingredient. At any rate, I immediately made the connection flower—fruit and then when the leaves came in later on the dogwoods, I was minded to recall the fig tree passage.
When I had studied this for my personal edification back in March-May 2010, the answer I remember getting that was the most satisfying was that fig trees bud and produce fruit before they turn out leaves. So it didn’t matter that it was not the season for producing fruit, the fact that the fig tree in the Mark passage was producing leaves showed that it wasn’t even going to produce fruit when the season finally rolled around. Jesus, keenly aware of that, cursed the fig tree as a symbolic gesture, to give us a lesson by way of demonstration.
To investigate what that could be, consider this parable from Luke 13:6-9
6 He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ 8 But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. 9 And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’”
The best way I’ve heard this explained is that the master and the gardener are God. The owner of the vineyard is the Father and the gardener is the Son, and so here you have a picture of Jesus’ role as our Intercessor, intervening before God’s wrath and extending us ill-deserved mercy—in the passage, it even shows Jesus not as a passive watchman but as someone intimately involved with working on us to hopefully get us to produce fruit. And what does the fruit symbolize?
For that, there are several excellent New Testament passages explaining it:
43 “For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. 45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. ~ Luke 6:43-45
7 Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him [John the Baptist], “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 9 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” ~ Luke 3:7-9
Fruit is the visible evidence of saving faith, in a Christian. If someone does not display evidence of being saved, how can you know they are saved? In much the same way, if the fig tree does not have fruit, even though it has leaves, it may as well be dead, even though it appears to be alive, because it isn’t doing anything but “taking up space” where a fruit-bearing tree could be planted. Take this all together: if a tree never bears fruit, it’s as good as dead and will be ‘cut down and thrown into the fire.’ If a person never bears fruit, they’re not a Christian, and if they die in that state they will also end up in the fire. This cursed-fig-tree passage is a parable in itself, though never introduced as one, because it symbolizes the relationship between works, faith and final destination. A fig tree that doesn’t have fruit isn’t necessarily dead—it could just be out of season, but if it never ever ever produces fruit, then it’s a worthless tree. Likewise, from a human perspective, if someone appears to have faith, in that they express that they do, but you never see any evidence for it, you have good reason to be doubtful. This is not told to us for the purpose of condemning others. Rather, this passage, like the fruit passage in Galatians 5:22-23, serve the purpose of giving us a method by which to be encouraged that our faith is real—namely, if we see that we demonstrate “works/fruit in keeping with repentance”. And similarly, if we see that we or another person are not producing fruit, we can lovingly bring this up to try to encourage one another to move in a direction of holiness. The worst case scenario is that you find that someone you thought was a believer was in fact not saved—but in that case, it’s better to know, so you can help bring them to faith by preaching and teaching, rather than thinking they’re fine all the while that they’re floundering outside the camp.
The fig tree (human being) that doesn’t produce fruit (evidence of conversion) will eventually be destroyed. But thankfully Jesus, the master gardener, is a patient man, willing to wait many seasons, pruning here, adding fertilizer there, working hard to make the tree produce that all-important fruit. He’s a patient God. But now is the time to lay hold on salvation, before His patience runs out.
If Jesus had come to the Americas, He might well have used the Dogwood as an illustration. As it is, now I hope you have a deeper appreciation for why figs figure (ha-ha) so much in His parables.
~ Rak Chazak