On the Parable of the Fruitless Figtree.

John Fisher 2.0
5 min readApr 29, 2023

How to read Mark 11:10–14 and Matthew 21:18–19.

One Biblical text that skeptics — in my personal experience, Muslims — often cite to show that Christ, our Lord, was either ignorant or crazy is the cursing of the Fruitless Fig Tree. It can be found in two places within scripture. First, we have in Mark 11

12 And the next day when they [Jesus and the apostles] came out from Bethania, he [Jesus] was hungry.

13 And when he had seen afar off a fig tree having leaves, he came if perhaps he might find any thing on it. And when he was come to it, he found nothing but leaves. For it was not the time for figs.

14 And answering he said to it: May no man hereafter eat fruit of thee any more for ever. And his disciples heard it — Mark 11:12–14 (DRA)

Next, we have Matthew 21. We read,

18 And in the morning, returning into the city, he was hungry.

19 And seeing a certain fig tree by the way side, he came to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only, and he saith to it: May no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And immediately the fig tree withered away.

If Jesus was really God, if he was all-knowing, or at the very least not crazy, why did he not know the tree was out of fruit. After all, the text said “if he might find anything on the tree”. However, the use of epistemic language — that is, language about knowing and learning — when used in the Bible can be attributed to God in an imperfect manner. That is, in a manner fitting to communicate something to the audience, even though not strictly true. In common language, we speak of the rising and setting sun, even though the Sun is at the center of the galaxy and uses gravity to give the Earth its orbit. Speaking geocentrically is imperfect, but it’s much easier to speak of a rising sun than a rotating earth.

Consider the following example in the Garden of Eden.

And he said to him: And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat? — Genesis 3:11

God already knows the answer but asks the question as a creature would because he wants to confront Adam about his evil actions.

In Genesis 22:12, God says “For now I know that you fear God”. As if he did not know before that Abraham feared him? The purpose for God saying he knows now, or of asking questions is for the purposes of external demonstration. Socrates himself would ask questions for the sake of demonstrating the ignorance of the sophists. To quote Pope Gregory I,

For, as we speak of a glad day, not meaning that the day itself is glad, but that it makes us glad, so also the Almighty Son says that He does not know the day which He causes not to be known; not that He Himself does not know it, but that He does not allow it to be known [1].

The reading that Jesus was secretly ignorant of the seasons of growing figs requires him to be ignorant of knowledge so common that anyone merely living in the area would know. Not only is this unlikely, but requires that if this was the Jesus of the Islamic faith, he would be emotionally unstable, incapable of controlling his anger, because he wanted food he couldn’t have. If Muslims want to say this was corrupted, then it would involve the improbable auxiliary hypothesis that Christian scribes added in a verse that purposely put Jesus in a bad light.

Rather, what we have in this text is a case of prophetic typology. The Prophet Jeremiah writes,

I will gather them together, saith the Lord, there is no grape on the vines, and there are no figs on the fig tree, the leaf is fallen: and I have given them the things that are passed away. Jeremiah 8:13 (DRA)

Micha writes,

Woe is me, for I am become as one that gleaneth in autumn the grapes of the vintage: there is no cluster to eat, my soul desired the firstripe figs — Micah 7:1 (DRA)

The prophets have compared the faith of Israel during times of apostasy and evil to trees and vines that produce no good grapes and figs. God even says that he desired figs, and found nothing. Jesus curses the fig tree because he will also curse Israel for rejecting him, her Messiah.

Mark speaks of Jesus as ignorant, waiting to see the fruits of the tree, only to be disappointed, in order to capture this motif found in the prophets, predicting the coming judgment of Israel, and likening our God to a master, dissatisfied with the barrenness of the trees and vines.

This is a view not new, but defended by St. Pope Gregory I, who writes,

For the time of figs was not yet Mark 11:13, it is plainly shown that the figs which the Lord had sought were fruit in the synagogue, which had the leaves of the Law, but not the fruit of works. For the Creator of all things could not be ignorant that the fig-tree had no fruit; which was a thing that all might know, since it was not the time of figs [2]

Mark himself writes, in the next few verses,

And they came to Jerusalem. And when he was entered into the temple, he began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the chairs of them that sold doves. And he suffered not that any man should carry a vessel through the temple; — Mark 11:15–16

The fruitlessness of the synagogue is made known in their turning of God’s temple into a den of thieves. It is foretold by their prophets. They are the fruitless fig, and our Lord has made it known.

Footnotes

[1] Gregory I, Book X, Letter 39 Translated by James Barmby. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/360210039.htm>.

[2] Ibid.

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John Fisher 2.0

Catholic blogger, my views are not necessarily reflective of the Church’s. Please post corrections to help me avoid heresy.