Of Times and Figs
It is not uncommon for people who study the gospels to misconstrue matters of chronology that are contained within the four accounts. The fact of the matter is, the gospel writers never claimed to have recorded all of the events of Jesus’ life in the exact order in which they occurred. Unless an action or event is denoted by a specific marker (such as “the next day,” “ on the morrow,” “on the Sabbath,” etc.), there can be time gaps between the verses. One example of this is the account of the withered fig tree in Mark 11:12-14,20-21 and Matthew 21:18-20.
And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, he hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs. And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.” And his disciples heard it.
And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, “Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away” (Mark 11:12-14,20-21, ASV).
Now in the morning as he returned to the city, he hungered. And seeing a fig tree by the way side, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only; and he saith unto it, “Let there be no fruit from thee henceforward for ever.” And immediately the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, “How did the fig tree immediately wither away?” (Matthew 21:18-20, ASV).
In Mark, the Lord cursed the fig tree, but the account does not say when it withered. The disciples saw it withered the next day, and Peter remembered what the Lord had said. Matthew’s account says that the Lord cursed the tree, and it withered immediately, but it does not say when the disciples saw it. Matthew 21:20 merely says “And when the disciples saw it…,” with no regard to the exact time. Based on the wording, the disciples could have seen it withered at the exact time Jesus cursed it, the next day, the next month, or even the next year. The verse in Matthew provides no time span between when it withered and when the disciples noticed.
However, Mark 11:12,19-20 does give the exact span of time between the curse and the time the disciples noticed it—one day. Since the gospels do not claim to be in exact chronological order, both Matthew and Mark offer a portion of the story. The best thing to do is to extrapolate—from both passages—exactly what happened. Both Mark 11:12 and Matthew 21:18 record that Jesus was hungry, and both recount how He approached a fig tree and, finding no figs, cursed it. Matthew then records that it withered immediately (21:19), and Mark records that the disciples heard Jesus curse the tree, but he does not say whether or not they noticed the tree withered at that time (11:14). Mark then continues the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem (11:15-19). Both writers then recount the astonishment of the disciples at seeing the fig tree withered, with Mark designating it as the next day (11:20-21) and Matthew not specifying how much time passed between 21:19 and 21:20.
Another question to consider (and perhaps the one that is addressed most often in a discussion of the withered fig tree) is whether or not Jesus cursed the tree before or after the temple was cleansed. Since Matthew records this event before the cursing of the fig tree (21:12-19), and Mark places the cleansing of the temple after Jesus cursed the tree (11:15-19), it is supposed that one of the two writers was mistaken. The truth is, however, Matthew’s account is more of a summary, whereas Mark’s narrative is more detailed and orderly. Christ actually made two trips to the temple (Mark 11:11,15), and cursed the fig tree on His second trip. Mark reveals that the cleansing of the temple “did not take place on the day that he [Jesus] entered Jerusalem in triumph, but on the day following” (Barnes, 1997). Matthew, on the other hand, “addresses the two trips of Christ to the temple as though they were one event,” which “gives the impression that the first day Christ entered the temple He drove out the buyers and sellers as well” (Geisler, 1992, p. 354). Mark’s more detailed account reveals that Jesus actually made two trips to the temple. Thus, as Albert Barnes noted: “Mark has stated the order more particularly, and has ‘ divided’ what Matthew mentions together” (1997).
When viewed in this light, these alleged contradictions between Matthew and Mark are seen simply as a matter of Matthew’s account being more summarized than Mark’s. And while Matthew has no timetable for the events, Mark shows that the disciples noticed the withered fig tree on their return from the temple.
Barnes, Albert (1997), Barnes’ Notes (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Geisler, Norman L. and Thomas A. Howe (1992), When Critics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).