THE FIG TREE CURSE
Having taught Theology and Scripture for forty years, I wish to share a technique which the greatest teacher in the history of the Catholic Church employed in all of his classes and which I, in my small way, have tried to follow. That teacher was Thomas Aquinas. His method has been succinctly described by Josef Pieper in his great little book, The Silence of Saint Thomas. Pieper writes:
“To lead a man from error to truth- this he considered the greatest service which one man can render another…Teaching is a process that goes on between living men…Love of truth and love of men, only the two together constitute a teacher… Teaching demands above all else the capacity of survey and simplification, and the ability and effort to think from the premise of a beginner.[pp. 23,24]
(Thomas) challenges the opponent (student) not at the weakest spot in his position- but, rather, meets him precisely in the area of his strongest arguments”[p.22].
As I would start teaching a class of High School students my course in New Testament Studies, for example, I knew that my audience was already disposed to have some initial skepticism that my course might resemble other unpleasant experiences in their previous academic lives. For many young people, there have been numerous experiences of boredom, defiance and rejection of earlier indoctrination of religion, which they are very reluctant to have repeated. So as our class began, I knew that I could best capture their interest and attention by preparing the ground for my course rather than just proceeding to inject my truth into their little minds as if I had the key to their salvation.
Therefore, I decided to introduce my course by helping them to see how reasonable it is to read Scripture with a jaundiced and cynical eye. I prepared to present their beliefs and opinions in a manner better than that which they themselves could muster. My unrevealed intentions were thus to follow St. Thomas’ advice as to how to proceed.
One the first day we met, I read Scripture to my class. Before beginning, I asked my students to just listen to the readings and jot down whatever they found impossible to believe. Their first night’s Homework assignment was to write down all of their objections and bring them to class on day 2. Then I read to them the following texts without any comments being allowed from either of us:
“And when they were entering into Jerusalem, into Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent out two of his disciples and told them, ’Go into the village ahead of you and as soon as you enter into it you will find a pony tied up upon which no man has ever sat. Loosen it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ’Why are you doing this?’ Say ‘The Lord needs it’ and immediately he will send it here again.’ And they went and found a pony tied up at an outside door on the open street, and they untied it. And some of the ones standing there spoke to them as Jesus had said they would and let it go. And they brought the pony to Jesus, threw their garments on it and he sat on it. And many strewed their garments in the road and others branches cut from the fields. And those going in front and those following cried out, ‘Hosannah, blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord, blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David, Hosannah in the highest.’
And he entered into Jerusalem, into the Temple; and looking around at everything, it now being a late hour, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
And on the next morning, as they went forth from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing a FIG TREE with leaves from afar, he came to it perhaps to find something, but when he got to it he found it had nothing but leaves, FOR IT WAS NOT THE RIGHT TIME FOR FIGS. And addressing it he said, ’Forever more, no one may eat fruit from you’. And his disciples heard him.
And they came to Jerusalem, and entering into the Temple, he began to throw out those selling and those buying in the Temple. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling the doves. He did not let anyone carry a vessel through the Temple and speaking to them he taught, ‘Has it not been written that my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of ROBBERS. The chief priests and the scribes heard of this and they sought how they might destroy him, for they feared him, for all the crowd was astounded at his teaching. And when it grew late, they went outside the city.
And passing by early in the morning, they saw the FIG TREE withered to its roots. And remembering, Peter said to him, ‘Rabbi, look, the FIG TREE which you cursed has withered.
Jesus, answering, said to them, ‘Have faith in God, truly, I tell you, that whoever says to this mountain, ’Be taken and thrown into the sea’ and has no doubts in his heart but believes in his heart that what he says will happen, it will be his. Therefore I tell you, all things for which you pray and ask for, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand and pray, forgive if you have anything against anyone so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”[Mark 11: 1-26]
On the next day, students came to class loaded with objections to what they had been asked to read:
“ How could Jesus be hungry if he had just spent the night at his friend's place in Bethany?”
“I never read of Jesus’ ever cursing and destroying something living and then telling us to have faith and we’ll be able to do likewise.
"Is it OK for me to pray for my enemy to be cursed and destroyed?”
“Doesn’t this show Jesus to be angry because he didn’t get what he wanted when he wanted it? Isn’t that childish petulance?”
“How can a tree be expected to produce its fruit out of season?
“Isn’t Jesus killing a perfectly healthy tree and therefore not one doing anything wrong, yet he curses it?”
“How can Jesus destroy a healthy tree when it is only doing what is in accordance with its God-given nature, then turn around and tell the listeners to forgive those who have sinned against them? The tree didn’t need forgiving!
In response to the students’ remarks, I accepted them as genuine concerns which I could appreciate. Then I then began to explain to them, rather simply, an introduction to the SynopticProblem.
The belief of most reputable New Testament scholars is that the four gospels, were written by authors in the second half of the First Century in quite different times and addressing very different audiences. The earliest of the four, Mark (from which our first selection was taken) was in all likelihood written in Rome to Christians both Jewish and Gentile, during the ferocious war being waged in Palestine between the Roman armies and the Jewish revolutionaries. Nero was the Emperor and he was purging the city of leading Christians, including Peter and Paul, and blaming them for the burning of the city in 64AD.
The next Gospels to be written were those attributed to Matthew and the other in the form of a diptych of Luke-Acts; all written from 80-90AD. The former was apparently written to ex-Jewish Christians and the latter addressed to gentile Christians.
It is generally held by the majority of commentators that the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as one of its sources but not its only source. Consequently, the embarrassment of the fig tree cursing in Mark presented to the author of Matthew the same problem which the cursing causes present day readers. For in Matthew, the author does not place the fig tree cursing within the “sandwich” of the Temple cleansing, indicating , perhaps, that the author does not “see” the same connection as Mark. In addition, Matthew presents an abbreviated cursing as a single time happening:
“As he was returning to the city in the early morning, he felt hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it and found nothing on it but leaves.” [Mt.21:18-19]
[No mention that it was not the time for figs, therefore no embarrassing irrationality ascribed to the cursing; i.e., the tree might have been worth cutting down.]
“And he said to it, ‘May you never bear fruit again!’; and instantaneously the fig tree withered.”[Mt.21:19]
[‘Instantaneously’, unlike Mark’s ‘next morning’. The rapidness of the miracle becomes central in Matthew.]
“When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ’How did the tree wither so quickly?’
“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have
faith and do not doubt, not only will you be able to do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ’Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer, with faith, you will receive.”
[Thus, Matthew, also eliminates Jesus’ request that when his disciples pray, they forgive anything they have against anyone, etc… which strikes the reader of Mark’s version as very strange in its application to a tree which had done nothing “out of nature” and therefore need not be forgiven for anything. It would seem that Matthew is attempting to make some sense and consistency with the view of Jesus generally held as opposed to the strangeness found in that of Mark.]
LukeMost scholarship holds that Luke had access to other sources as well as to the written Mark, but was not aware of Matthew. The author of Luke addresses his gospel, and the Acts, to a gentile audience and wishes them to appreciate the mercy of God in extending the revelation of Jesus to the world beyond Judaism. As Luke’s author reads Mark’s fig tree cursing and tries to make consistent sense of it, it seems that he cannot understand it and substitutes in its place a parable which he has Jesus speak to his disciples:
“ He told this parable,:’A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it but found none.”Lk.13:6-9]
[no mention of its being the wrong season]
“He said to the gardener,’Look here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree,and finding none. Cut it down; why should it be
wasting the soil?’
(The gardener) replied, ‘Sir, leave it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’"
[One might believe that the Lukan author cannot take Mark’s gospel’s fig tree cursing literally. The merciful qualities possessed by Jesus from all the other sources overriding the Mark's explanations.]
The Gospel of John and its authorship, date and location have been the subject of scrutiny and controversy throughout the past 1800 years. The modern consensus seems to be that it was written toward the end of the first century, based on early oral sources reaching back to the apostolic era, possibly even to John, the son of Zebedee. The author also had access to all three synoptic gospels and thus how this fourth gospel treats this earlier material by inclusion, transformation or exclusion may speak to the matter of the fig tree cursing which we are considering.In fact, the Fourth Gospel contains no fig tree cursing at all. The only reference to a fig tree in John is the enigmatic statement of Jesus to Nathanael; [Jn 1:43-50]
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’
Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is not a trace of deceit.’
Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’
Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’
Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’
Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.
And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”
It is quite strange that the fig tree cursing in Mark, the edited miracle in Matthew, the parable of mercy in Luke and location of Jesus’ Nathanael-sighting in John, are all enigmas in quite differing ways. How is one to explain this? The best open-minded NT scholars in the world are uncertain, and rarely do they see any connection between the accounts.
In his An Introduction to the New Testament(p.142) Raymond Brown writes:
“To curse the tree because it had no fruit seems irrational since, as Mark reminds us, this time just before Passover was not the season for figs. However, the cursing is similar to the prophetic actions of the OT whose very peculiarity attracts attention to the message being symbolically presented(Jer 19:1-2, 10-11; Ezek. 12:1-7). The barren tree represents those Jewish authorities whose failures are illustrated in the intervening action of cleansing the Temple, which has been made a den of thieves instead of a house of prayer for all the peoples (Jer.7:11; Isa. 56:7). In particular, the chief priests and the scribes seek to put Jesus to death, and their future punishment is symbolized by the withering of the tree. The miraculous element in the cursing/withering becomes in 11:22-25 the occasion for Jesus to give the disciples a lesson in faith and in the power of prayer. (The instruction to the disciples to forgive in order that God may forgive them resembles a motif that Matthew 6:11 places in the Lord’s Prayer.)
Brown recognizes Matthew’s later text’s “reorganization” of Mark’s cursing where the Temple cleansing is sandwiched between the cursing and the withering which in effect
“…heightens the miraculousness for now the fig tree withers on the spot when Jesus curses it(rather than being discovered on the next day). (p.196)
When Brown addresses the parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9 ; he writes:
“The parable of the fig tree offers one more chance for the tree’s bearing fruit before being cut down. Many have wondered if it is not a benevolent Lukan form of the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14,20-23 and Matt 21:18-21, and thus a miracle that has become a parable.
E.J.Malley, S.J. [The Gospel of Mark, JBC 42:68] indicates that:
“the fig tree symbolizes Israel…and the cursing is an ‘Acted Parable’, dramatizing God’s judgement against a barren Israel. Jesus’ saying may originally have been a statement that the eschaton would occur before the tree would bear fruit; later, the delayed parousia, together with a faulty translation of the Aramaic imperfect by an optative, may have caused the statement to have been reinterpreted as a curse(!)”
Malley goes on to treat the explanation about the withered tree in the following:
“This passage is a collection of disparate sayings artificially connected by the catchwords “faith” and “prayer”… and is purely editorial.”
J.P.Meier [A Marginal Jew, Vol.II, pp.887-889; (1994)] gives what may be considered the most thorough commentary on the fig tree cursing which I wish to present here at length as I believe it is a critical study for understanding the remaining difficulties the narrative has:
“If the coin in the fish’s mouth is the most curious Gospel miracle that is not narrated, the cursing of the fruitless fig tree may be the most curious one that is. Of the four Gospels, only Mark’s is the version that has attestation (i.e., not altered in the retelling).
It is strange to see how many commentators, when faced with Mark’s fruitless fig tree, immediately rush to calculations about what sort of fruit might or might not have been present on a fig tree on the Mount of Olives in early April and to speculation about what state of mind the historical Jesus might have been in the morning after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. A leap is made to the historical situation of A.D.30 as though Mark gave us a videotape replay of what had gone on and as though no one had ever heard of form, source, and redaction criticism. From all we have seen so far, including what we have just seen from Matthew’s story of the fish and the temple tax, the first rule of exegesis must be: begin by examining a given pericope within the literary and theological context of its Gospel, and only then, through form, source, and redaction criticism plus the criteria of historicity, test to see if anything can be discerned about an originating historical event in the life of Jesus. We must first ask what Mark meant to communicate to his audience by his literary and theological composition in Chapter 11 of his Gospel. Whether Mark or his audience knew what the precise state of fig trees on the slopes of the Mount of Olives would be in early April is beyond our ken and perhaps beside the point. Our best approach, therefore, is to begin with an inspection of the structure and content of Mark 11, putting aside for the moment questions of sources and earlier tradition:
1. the entry into Jerusalem (11:1-11)
2. The cursing of the fig tree(11:12-14)
3. The “cleansing” of the Temple(11:15-19)
4. The discovery of the withered tree(11:20-25)
5. The challenge to Jesus’ authority(11:27-33)
Jesus’ curse of the fig tree and his cleansing of the Temple are two prophecies-in-action, both foretelling (and beginning to set in motion) God’s eschatological judgement on the Jerusalem Temple. ... Mark uses this curse miracle as an occasion for exhorting his audience to faith, prayer and forgiveness. The stipulation that forgiveness is a necessary condition for having one’s prayers heard (Vs.25) strikes the reader as a strange commentary on Jesus’ destructive curse of a tree that symbolizes the Temple. Obviously (?), as Mark exhorts Christians to forgive as they pray, Mark does not think of the Christians’ prayers as involving curses. The reader may feel some tension here…at any event it is far from smooth or self evident.”
There is a real problem, obviously, with any assessment of the fig tree cursing as an historical event. It is attested in only one source (Mark), and there it fits snugly into the redactional structure and theological intent of the author.
J.P.Meier has presented as complete an evaluation of the fig tree cursing as any current scholarship, yet he does not sum up his presentation with certitude, but rather as:
“the most probable sketch of the history in Mk. 11. … as the passion tradition developed, a pre-Markan author sought to emphasize that the cleansing of the Temple was not an act of reform and purification but rather a prophetic judgment on the Temple. He accomplished this by creating the story of the cursing of the fig tree and wrapping it around the account of cleansing. In short, the story of the cursing of the fig tree has no claim to go back to the public ministry of the historical Jesus. It is a theologoumenon, a theological idea or affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.
The cursing of the fig tree stands alone in the Gospels as a punitive miracle, where prayer causes damage. Thus, Mark, in the eyes of J.P.Meier, can be read in its theological creativity in the fig tree cursing, rather than based on a historical event.
Accepting this, I feel justified in attempting to establish a different interpretation of this “narrative”. In doing so it is necessary to appreciate the political-religious history of the First century AD leading up to and enveloping the situation which faced the author of Mark and the Jewish-Christian community in Rome during the time of the gospel’s writing.
The Chronology of the First Century AD
To understand the situation in which the first Jewish-Christian Community in Rome found itself to be, it will be helpful to view a detailed chronology of the political and religious history of events leading up to the writings we now call the New Testament. Of particular interest will be the history of the Jewish-Roman War of 66 - 73 AD.
37-4BC Herod the Great reigns as King
30BC–14AD Augustus Roman Emperor
6BC Jesus born
4BC Herod (the Great) dies
26-36AD Pontius Pilate Procurator of Judaea
28AD John the Baptizer executed
28-30(-33)AD Jesus’ public ministry
30-33AD Jesus crucified
36AD Saul(Paul), conversion
37-41AD Caligula, Roman Emperor
41-54AD Claudius, Roman Emperor
46-49AD Paul’s first missionary journey from Antioch, to Cyprus, through southern Asia Minor and back to Antioch
49AD Council of Jerusalem
Paul writes first letter to Christians of Thessalonika50-52AD Paul’s second missionary journey from Antioch
through N. Galatia, Macedonia, Corinth, then to
Jerusalem and back to Antioch.
54-57AD Paul travels on third missionary journey from Antioch
through N. Galatia to Ephesus where he stayed
for three years and was ultimately put in prison.
Paul writes principal letters:
Paul travels through Macedonia to Corinth
Paul winters at Corinth
Paul returns to Jerusalem
58-60AD Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and put into prison for
two years in Caesarea
60-61AD Paul is sent to Rome via a long and difficult sea
James is executed in Jerusalem
61-63AD Paul is a prisoner in Rome for two years
64AD Rome burns. Considered an attempt to eliminate
Christians. Christians blamed for the fire.
Nero begins to persecute Christians.
(late summer) Paul and Peter are executed
by Nero.66AD Jews (under leadership of Zealots) begin war against
the occupying Romans in Palestine; with initial
success. Christian-Jews refuse to join war effort
and flee across the Jordan River to Pella.
68AD Roman General Vespasian leads Roman armies into
Galilee from the north. Jewish General Flavius
Josephus leaves outpost at Jotapata and goes over to
Josephus becomes a friend of Vespasian.
69AD Nero commits suicide.
Vespasian returns to Rome and is named
Vespasian’s son Titus is given the command of the
Roman forces in Palestine.
70AD Titus’ forces surround the city walls of
Jerusalem for four months refusing to allow food or
water into the city. On August 10th, the Roman legion
breaks into the city and destroys the Temple of
Herod the Great, and tear down most of the city’s
walls.71AD Titus’ armies celebrate their triumph over the Jews.
Arch of Titus is built at entrance to Rome to
commemorate the event.
Ca.70-75 AD Gospel of Mark is written, in Rome.
73AD The Roman Tenth Legion under Flavius Silva
encircles the rock fortress of Masada near the Dead
Sea where 967 Zealots, men, women and children
have sought shelter and safety.
The army builds a wall around the base of the rock
fortress, the builds a bridge to the top (51 stories
high) and destroys the stone walls built at the
top. Upon entering, the soldiers find that the
Zealots have celebrated Passover and committed
ritual suicide and only a handful are taken captive.
History of this event is to be found chiefly in the
history of the Roman War written by Josephus at
his captor Vespasian’s request; and by the
archeological relics kept dry and untouched for
1900 years until rediscovered by the Jewish
soldiers and archeological scholar Yigael Yadin
in 1963.80-90 AD The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both written
independently of each other, in different locales to
different audiences but both having access to the
Gospel of Mark and free to edit and alter the
former when they felt they must. They also had
access to a lost oral source which biblical scholars
refer as Q.
90-100AD Deutero-Pauline Letters, 1Peter, James, Jude,
The Fourth Gospel(John)
It is important to appreciate the conditions of life for Jewish-Christians in Rome between 60-75AD, in order to understand the situation and pressure under which the author of the first Gospel was forced to write. As recounted by Tacitus[Annals,XV, 44]:
“One of the most despicable manifestations of human flesh ever to disgrace this planet was Nero Claudius Caesar.
Born in A.D. 37, Nero was educated at the feet of the philosopher Seneca (whom he eventually forced to commit suicide). Nero murdered his way to the imperial throne, which he occupied from A.D. 54-68. His life was characterized by debauchery, violence (he caused his own mother to be killed), and extravagance.
“In A.D. 64, a terrible fire broke out in Rome. It was strongly believed that Nero deliberately torched the city in order to justify building a more splendid one. At any rate, the conflagration raged out of control for more than a week, substantially destroying about 70% of the area.
“As a consequence of this tragedy, and the widespread belief in Nero’s complicity, the emperor became the brunt of intense criticism. The ruler seized upon a plan. Due to the fact that Roman sentiment was hostile toward Christianity, the emperor would blame the followers of Jesus for this crime. Thus did he, and in A.D. 64, a fierce persecution was launched against the saints in Rome." [Idem.]
We do not know for certain how or when the cause of Christ was planted in Rome. Apparently it was not the result of apostolic mission efforts (cf. Rom. 1:11). It could be that some from Rome, converted on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:10), migrated back to their home city and established the church there. Regardless, this was the first real test of faith for the saints in the “eternal city.” The Neronian persecution was vicious indeed. Tacitus (c. A.D. 60-120), a Roman historian, has preserved a record of this situation:
“And so, to get rid of this rumor, Nero set up [i.e., falsely accused] as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. “Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome…. Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed [to being Christians]; then, on their evidence, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of [their] hatred for the human race. Besides being put to death, they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even towards men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual.”
There are several interesting things to consider about this topic.
First, Nero was the Caesar to whom Paul appealed when he was unjustly accused by the Jews and falsely imprisoned (cf. Acts 25:11). The apostle was taken to Rome and kept under guard for two years (Acts 28:30), before Nero finally heard his case.
“It is incorrect to say: “[I]t is unknown whether Nero took any personal part in the Apostle’s trial” (Cross, 945). We know this because an angel had explicitly informed Paul: “you must stand before Caesar” (Acts 27:24). The great apostle won his appeal (as chronological data in First Timothy, Titus, and Second Timothy reveal), only to be later condemned by the malevolent ruler. According to the historian Eusebius, Nero beheaded Paul and had Peter crucified (II.25).
“Next, when Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he admonished:
“Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers” (13:1).
He points out that government, generally speaking, is for the ordering and protection of society. Laws directed to that end ought to be obeyed. Similarly, Peter wrote:
“Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him” (1 Pet. 2:13,14).
“These passages are subtle indicators of the inspired nature of the New Testament. Men who were writing under ordinary human impulses would hardly have encouraged brethren to honor and obey one as vile as Nero. But Christians are to be good citizens regardless of the character of their leaders.
‘Next, Tacitus says that Nero’s persecution resulted in the apprehension of some Christians who, in turn, testified against their brethren so that “an immense multitude was convicted” and put to death. ‘It is of some interest that there were church members in Rome who were willing to surrender their own brethren to the authorities for persecution. This cannot but remind us of a situation Paul encountered while he was in the city. When the apostle wrote to the Philippians, he exposed the fact that some of the brethren in Rome were envious of his labor in the gospel. Paul charged that they
“preach Christ even of envy and strife” hoping to “raise up affliction” for him in his bonds (1:15-17).
They would rub salt in the apostle’s wounds! (cf. Mt. 24:10).
‘It is not difficult to imagine that some of these were the very ones who “turned state’s evidence” under Nero’s brutal assaults. Tacitus also describes the torture to which Christians were subjected — thrown to wild dogs to be torn apart, burned alive to serve as torches in the night. What suffering! What faith!!
The crucial question is this: In spite of some defectors, why was that “immense multitude” of saints so willing to endure this horrible treatment? It can only be that they had strong evidence that Christianity was genuine — that Jesus of Nazareth, the founder, had risen from the dead, and that he offered the hope of eternal life to those who endured in faith.”
According to Raymond Brown [An Introduction to the New Testament, p.127] of the Gospel of Mark, in the eyes of current most reputable scholarship, the following may be presumed true:
1. Mark was written sometime between 60-75AD, most
likely between 68 and 73AD.
2. Its author was a Greek-speaker, who was not an
eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry and made inexact
statements about Palestinian geography. He drew
on pre-shaped traditions about Jesus (oral and
written) and addressed himself to a community
that seemingly had undergone persecution and
3. Traditionally located in Rome (where Christians
had been persecuted by Nero).
4. Had only one author.
5. Probably initially ended with 16:8 ( with the discovery
of the empty tomb).
In the First century AD, Rome exercised sustained control over Palestine. Jews chafed about this because of their long held belief that only YHWH was the true King of Israel. A series of revolts by the Jews, led by a party of Zealots, occurred regularly throughout the first half of the First Century AD in Palestine which erupted into the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70AD. To understand the effect this had upon the origins of Christianity and the Jewish religion, it would help to briefly summarize events as they occurred. The following is a copy of The History of the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70AD by Flavius Josephus. It was the only history of that conflict but it gives the reader an opportunity to experience what were the conditions of being a Jew/Christian in Rome during this war, and how the Gospel of Mark would necessarily be impacted by these horrific events occurring simultaneously with its being written.
The fall of the Temple in Jerusalem:
By Flavius Josephus
|THIS the oldest of the
extant works of Josephus, was written towards the end of Vespasian's reign
(A.D. 69-79). The Aramaic original has not been preserved, but the Greek
version was prepared by Josephus himself, who, on account of his beautiful
Greek style, was called the Greek Livy. The work displays Josephus's literary
genius to the full. It covers the period from about 170 B. C. to the Fall of
Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the latter portion describing events which came within
Josephus's own knowledge.
“[BEGINNING OF THE GREAT CONFLICT]
”WHEREAS the war which the Jews made against the Romans hath been the greatest of all times, while some men who were not concerned themselves have written vain and contradictory stories by hear-say, and while those that were there have given false accounts, I, Joseph, the son of Matthias, by birth a Hebrew, and a priest also, and who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done after-wards, am the author of this book.
Now, the affairs of the Romans were in great disorder after the death of Nero(68AD). At the decease of Herod, Agrippa, his son, who bore the same name, was seventeen years old. He was considered too young to bear the burden of royalty, and Judea relapsed into a Roman province. Cuspius Fadus was sent as governor and administered his office with firmness, but found civil war disturbing the district beyond Jordan. He cleared the country of the robber bands; and his successor, Tiberius Alexander, during a brief rule, put down disturbances which broke out in Judea. The province was at peace till he was superseded by Cumanus, during whose government the people and the Roman soldiery began to show mutual animosity. In a terrible riot, 20,000 people perished, and Jerusalem was given up to wailing and lamentation.
It was in Caesarea that the events took place which led to the final war. This magnificent city was inhabited by two races--the Syrian Greeks, who were heathens, and the Jews. The two parties violently contended for the preeminence. The Jews were the more wealthy; but the Roman soldiery, levied chiefly in Syria, took part with their countrymen. Tumults and bloodshed disturbed the streets. At this time a procurator named Gessius Florus was appointed, and he, by his barbarities, forced the Jews to begin the war in the twelfth year of the reign of Nero and the seventeenth of the reign of Agrippa.
But the occasion of the war was by no means proportioned to those heavy calamities that it brought upon us. The fatal flame finally broke out from the old feud at Caesarea. The decree of Nero had assigned the magistracy of that city to the Greeks. It happened that the Jews had a synagogue, the ground around which belonged to a Greek. For this spot the Jews offered a much higher price than it was worth. It was refused, and, to annoy them as much as possible, the owner set up some mean buildings and shops upon it, and so made the approach to the synagogue as narrow and difficult as possible. The more impetuous of the Jewish youth interrupted the workmen. Then the men of greater wealth and influence, and among them John, a publican, collected the large sum of eight talents and sent it as a bribe to Florus, that he might stop the building. He received the money, made great promises, and at once departed for Sebaste from Caesarea. His object was to leave full scope for the riot.
On the following day, while the Jews were crowding to the synagogue, a citizen of Caesarea outraged them by oversetting an earthen vessel in the way, over which he sacrificed birds, as done by the law in cleansing lepers, and thus he implied that the Jews were a leprous people. The more violent Jews, furious at the insult, attacked the Greeks, who were already in arms. The Jews were worsted, took up the books of the law, and fled to Narbata, about seven miles distant.
John, the publican, and twelve men of eminence went to Samaria to Florus, implored his aid and reminded him of the eight talents he had received. He threw them into prison and demanded seventeen talents from the sacred treasury under pretence of Caesar's necessities. This injustice and oppression caused violent excitement in Jerusalem when the news reached that city. The people assembled around the Temple with the loudest outcries; but it was the purpose of Florus to drive the people to insurrection, and he gave his soldiers orders to plunder the upper market. Of men, women and children there fell that day 3,600.
When Agrippa attempted to persuade the people to obey Florus till Caesar should send someone to succeed him, the more seditious cast reproaches on him and got the king excluded from the city; nay, some had the impudence to fling stones at him. At the same time they excited the people to go to war, and some laid siege to the Roman garrison in the Antonia; others made an assault on a certain fortress called Masada. They took it by treachery and slew the Romans. One, Menahem, a Galilean, became leader of the sedition and went to Masada and broke open Herod's armoury, and gave arms not only to his own people, but to other robbers, also. These he made use of for a bodyguard, and returned in state to Jerusalem and gave orders to continue the siege of the Antonia.
The tower was undermined and fell, and many soldiers were slain. Next day the high priest, Ananias, and his brother Hezekiah, were slain by the robbers. By these successes Menahem was puffed up and became barbarously cruel; but he was slain, as were also the captains under him, in an attack led by Eleazar, a bold youth who was governor of the Temple.
[THE GATHERING OF GREAT STORMS]
AND now great calamities and slaughters came on the Jews. On the very same day two dreadful massacres happened. In Jerusalem the Jews fell on Netilius and the band of Roman soldiers whom he commanded after they had made terms and had surrendered, and all were killed except the commander himself, who supplicated for mercy and even agreed to submit to circumcision. On that very day and hour, as though Providence had ordained it, the Greeks in Caesarea rose, and slew over 20,000 Jews, and so the city was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants. For Florus caught those who escaped, and sent them to the galleys.
By this tragedy the whole nation was driven to madness. The Jews rose and laid waste the villages all around many cites in Syria, and they descended on Gadara, Hippo and Gaulonitus and burnt and destroyed many places. Sebaste and Askelon they seized without resistance, and they razed Anthedon and Gaza to the ground.
When thus the disorder in all Syria had become terrible, Cestius Gallus, the Roman commander at Antioch, marched with an army to Ptolemais and overran all Galilee and invested Jerusalem, expecting that it would be surrendered by means of a powerful party within the walls.
But the plot was discovered, and the conspirators were flung headlong from the walls, and an attack by Cestius on the north side of the Temple was repulsed with great loss. Seeing the whole country around in arms, and the Jews swarming on all the heights, Cestius withdrew his army by night, leaving 400 of his bravest men to mount guard in the camp and to display their ensigns, that the Jews might be deceived.
But at break of day it was discovered that the camp was deserted by the army, and the Jews rushed to the assault and slew all the Roman band.
[JUDEA IN REBELLION AGAINST ROME]
NERO was at this time in Achaia. To him, Cestius, in order to lay the blame on Florus, sent as ambassadors Costobar and Saul, two brothers of the Herodian family, who, with Philip, the son of Jacimus, the general of Agrippa, had escaped from Jerusalem. Meantime, a great massacre of the Jews took place at Damascus. Then those in Jerusalem who had pursued after Cestius called a general assembly in the Temple, and elected their governors and commanders. Their choice fell on Joseph, the son of Gorion, and Ananius, the chief priest, who were invested with absolute authority in the city; but Eleazar was passed over, for he was suspected of aiming at kingly power, as he went about attended by a bodyguard of zealots. But as commanding within the Temple he had made himself master of the public treasures, and in a short time the need of money and his extreme subtlety won over the multitude, and all real authority fell into his hands. To the other districts they sent the men most to be trusted for courage and fidelity.
Josephus was appointed to the command of Galilee, with particular charge of the strong city of Gamala. He raised in that province in the north an army of more than a hundred thousand young men, whom he armed and exercised after the Roman manner; and he formed a council of seventy, and appointed seven judges in each city. He sought to unite the people and to win their good will. But great trouble arose from the treachery of his enemy, John of Gischala, who surpassed all men in craft and deceit. He gathered a force of 4,000 robbers and wasted Galilee, while he inflamed the dissensions in the cities, and sent messengers to Jerusalem accusing Josephus of tyranny. Tiberias and several cities revolted, but Josephus suppressed the rising, severaly punishing many of the leaders. John retired to the robbers at Masada, and took to plundering Idumea.
[VESPASIAN AND JOSEPHUS]
NERO, on learning from the messengers the state of affairs, at first regarded the revolt lightly; but presently grew alarmed, and appointed to the command of the armies in Syria and the task of subduing the Jews Vespasian, who had pacified the West when it was disordered by the Germans, and had also recovered Britain for the Romans. He came to Antioch in the early spring, and was there joined by Agrippa and all his forces. He marched to Ptolemais, where he was met by his son Titus, who had, with expedition unusual in the winter season, sailed from Achaia to Alexandria. So the Roman army now numbered 60,000 horsemen and footmen, besides large numbers of camp followers who were also accustomed to military service and could fight on occasion.
The war was now opened. Josephus attempted no resistance in the open field, and the people had been directed to fly to the fortified cities. The strongest of all these was Jotapata, and here Josephus commanded in person.
Being very desirous of demolishing it, Vespasian besieged it with his whole army. It was defended with the greatest vigour, but after fierce conflicts, was taken in the thirteenth year of the reign of Nero, on the first day of the month Panemus (July). During this dreadful siege, and at the capture, 40,000 men fell. The Romans sought in vain for the body of Josephus, their stubborn enemy. He had leaped down the shaft of a dry well leading to a long cavern. A woman betrayed the hiding-place, and Josephus was taken and brought before the conqueror, of whom he had demanded from his captors a private conference. To Vespasian he announced that he and his son would speedily attain the imperial dignity. Vespasian was conciliated by the speech of his prisoner, whom he treated with kindness; for though he did not release him from his bonds, he bestowed on him suits of clothes and other precious gifts.
Joppa, Tiberias, Taricheae and Gamala were taken, both Romans and Jews perishing in the conflicts; and, by the capture of Gischala, all Galilee was subdued, John of Gischala fleeing to Jerusalem.
[THE PRELUDE TO THE GREAT SIEGE]
WHILE the cities of Galilee thus arrested the course of the Roman eagles, Jotapata and Gamala setting the example of daring resistance, the leaders of the nation in Jerusalem, instead of sending out armies to the relief of the besieged cities, were engaged in the most dreadful civil conflicts.
The fame of John of Gischala had gone before him to Jerusalem, and the multitude poured forth to do him honour. He falsely represented the Roman forces as being very greatly weakened, and declared that their engines had been worn out in the sieges in Galilee. He was a man of enticing eloquence, to whom the young men eagerly gave heed. So the city now began to be divided into hostile factions, and the whole of Judea had before set to the people of Jerusalem the fatal example of discord. For every city was torn to pieces by civil animosities. Not only the public councils, but even numerous families were distracted by the peace and war dispute. Through all Judea the youth were ardent for war, while the elders vainly endeavoured to allay the frenzy. Bands of desperate men began to spread over the land, plundering houses, while the Roman garrisons in the towns, rather rejoicing in their hatred to the race than wishing to protect the sufferers, afforded little help.
Large numbers of these evil men stole into the city and grew into a daring faction, who robbed houses openly, and many of the most eminent citizens were murdered by these Zealots, as they were called, from their pretence that they had discovered a conspiracy to betray the city to the Romans. They dismissed many of the sanhedrin from office, and appointed men of the lowest degree, who would support them in their violence, till the leaders of the people became slaves to their will.
At length resistance was provoked, led by Ananus, oldest of the chief priests, a man of great wisdom, and the robber Zealots took refuge in the Temple and fortified it more strongly than before. They appointed as high priest one Phanias, a coarse and clownish rustic, utterly ignorant of the sacerdotal duties, who when decked in the robes of office caused great derision. This sport and pastime for the Zealots caused the more religious people to shed tears of grief and shame; and the citizens, unable to endure such insolence, rose in great numbers to avenge the outrage on the sacred rites. Thus a fierce civil war broke out in which very many were slain.
Then John of Gischala with great treachery, outwardly siding with Ananus and secretly aiding the Zealots, sent messengers inviting the Idumeans to come to his help, of whom 20,000 broke into the city during a stormy night and slew 85,000 people.
[THE SIEGE AND FALL OF JERUSALEM]
NERO died after having reigned thirteen years and eight days, and Vespasian, being informed of the event, waited for a whole year, holding his army together instead of proceeding against Jerusalem. Galba was made emperor, and then, after the defeat and death of the emperor Vitellius, Vespasian was proclaimed by the East. He had preferred to leave the Jews to waste their strength by their internal feuds while he sent his lieutenants with forces to reduce various surrounding districts instead of attacking Jerusalem. When he became emperor, he released Josephus from his bonds, honouring him for his integrity. Hastening his journey to Rome, Vespasian commanded Titus to subdue Judea.
At Jerusalem were now three factions raging furiously. Eleazar, son of Simon, who was the first cause of the war, by persuading the people to reject the offerings of the emperors to the Temple, and had led the Zealots and seized the Temple, pretended to cherish righteous wrath against John of Gischala for the bloodshed he had occasioned. But he deserted the Zealots and seized the inner court of the Temple, so that there was war between him and Simon, son of Gioras. Thus Eleazar, John and Simon each led a band in constant fightings, and the Temple was everywhere defiled by murders.
Now, as Titus was on his march he chose out 600 select horsemen, and went to take a view of the city, when suddenly an immense multitude burst forth from the gate over against the monuments of Queen Helena and intercepted him and a few others. He had on neither helmet nor breastplate, yet though many darts were hurled at him, all missed him, as if by some purpose of Providence and, charging through the midst of his foes, he escaped unhurt. Part of the army now advanced to Scopos, within a mile of the city, while another occupied a station at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
SEEING this gathering of the Roman forces, the factions within Jerusalem for the first time felt the necessity for concord, as Eleazar from the summit of the Temple, John from the porticoes of the outer court, and Simon from the heights of Sion watched the Roman camps forming thus so near the walls. Making terms with each other, they agreed to make an attack at the same moment. Their followers, rushing suddenly forth along the valley of Jehoshaphat, fell on the 10th legion, encamped at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and working there unarmed at the entrenchments. The soldiers fell back, many being killed. Witnessing their peril, Titus, with picked troops, fell on the flank of the Jews and drove them into the city with great loss.
The Roman commander now carefully pushed forward his approaches, and the army took up a position all along the northern and the western walls, the footmen being drawn up in seven lines, with the horsemen in three lines behind, and the archers between.
Jerusalem was fortified by three walls. These were not one within the other, for each defended one of the quarters into which the city was divided. The first, or outermost, encompassed Bezetha, the next protected the citadel of the Antonia and the northern front of the Temple, and the third, or old, and innermost wall was that of Sion. Many towers, 35 feet high and 35 feet broad, each surmounted with lofty chambers and with great tanks for rain water, guarded the whole circuit of the walls, 90 being in the first wall, 14 in the second, and 60 in the third. The whole circuit of the city was about 33 stadia (four miles). From their pent-houses of wicker the Romans, with great toil day and night, discharged arrows and stones, which slew many of the citizens.
AT three different places the battering rams began their thundering work, and at length a corner tower came down, yet the walls stood firm, for there was no breach. Suddenly the besieged sallied forth and set fire to the engines. Titus came up with his horsemen and slew twelve Jews with his own hands.
The Jews now retreated to the second wall, abandoning the defence of Bezetha, which the Romans entered. Titus instantly ordered the second wall to be attacked, and for five days the conflict raged more fiercely than ever. The Jews were entirely reckless of their own lives, sacrificing themselves readily if they could kill their foes. On the fifth day they retreated from the second wall, and Titus entered that part of the lower city which was within it with 1,000 picked men.
But, being desirous of winning the people, he ordered that no houses should be set on fire and no massacres should be committed. The seditious, however, slew everyone who spoke of peace, and furiously assailed the Romans. Some fought from the walls, others from the houses, and such confusion prevailed that the Romans retired; then the Jews, elated, manned the breach, making a wall of their own bodies.
THUS the fight continued for three days, till Titus a second time entered the wall. He threw down all the northern part and strongly garrisoned the towers of the south. The strong heights of Sion, the citadel of the Antonia, and the fortified Temple still held out. Titus, eager to save so magnificent a place, resolved to refrain for a few days from the attack, in order that the minds of the besieged might be affected by their woes, and that the slow results of famine might operate. He reviewed his army in full armour, and they received their pay in view of the city, the battlements being thronged by spectators during this splendid defiling, who looked on in terror and dismay.
The famine increased, and the misery of the weaker was aggravated by seeing the stronger obtaining food. All natural affection was extinguished, husbands and wives, parents and children snatching the last morsel from each other. Many wretched men were caught by the Romans prowling in the ravines by night to pick up food and these were scourged, tortured and crucified. This was done to terrify the rest, and it went on till there was not wood enough for crosses.
Terrible crimes were committed in the city. The aged high-priest, Matthias, was accused of holding communication with the enemy. Three of his sons were killed in his presence, and he was executed in sight of the Romans, together with sixteen other members of the sanhedrin. The famine grew so woeful that a woman devoured the body of her own child. At length, after fierce fighting, the Antonia was scaled, and Titus ordered its demolition.
TITUS now promised that the Temple should be spared if the defenders would come forth and fight in any other place, but John and the Zealots refused to surrender it. For several days the outer cloisters and outer court were attacked with rams, but the immense and compact stones resisted the blows. As many soldiers were slain in seeking to storm the cloisters, Titus ordered the gates to be set on fire. Through that night and the next day the flames raged through the cloisters. Then, in order to save the Temple itself, he ordered the fire to be quenched. On the tenth of August, the same day of the year on which Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple built by Solomon, the cry was heard that the Temple was on fire. The Jews, with cries of grief and rage, grasped their swords and rushed to take revenge on their enemies or perish in the ruins.
The slaughter was continued while the fire raged. Soon no part was left but a small portion of the outer cloisters, where 6,000 people had taken refuge, led by a false prophet who had there promised that God would deliver His people in His Temple. The soldiers set the building on fire and all perished. Titus next spent eighteen days in preparations for the attack on the upper city, which was then speedily captured. And now the Romans were not disposed to display any mercy, night alone putting an end to the carnage. During the whole of this siege of Jerusalem, 1,100,000 were slain, and the prisoners numbered 97,000.”
The Zealots and Mark
In the first century AD in Israel, as described by Josephus above, the revolutionary movement was begun by Jewish nationalists to rid their land of the oppressive yoke of Roman dominance. Particularly hated by these Jews were Herod’s family, and the Jewish High Priests; both supported by Rome, and supportive of continuing Roman dominance. In addition, tax-collectors were particularly detested, for the taxes which they collected went to needs of the Empire and did little to alleviate the suffering of the local poor. The wealthy, who traditionally prefer the status-quo politically, and prostitutes whose job was frequently seen as making the life of the Roman soldiers far from home more pleasant also became the target for these revolutionaries. They resorted primarily to clandestine guerrilla warfare against the enemy. One of their tactics was to assassinate Roman Soldiers and their supporters in public places by stabbing them to death with concealed daggers. It was an offense punishable by crucifixion to be caught with such a weapon.
These daggers were called “σικα” [SIKA] by the Romans and their carriers were called “Sicarii”. They were often referred to as”LESTAI”[LESTAI] which means bandits, but specifically in the sense of being revolutionaries or brigands, rather than as “thieves” or “robbers” as they have been often translated. Thus the two men between whom Jesus was crucified were literally revolutionaries or “zealots”, rather than two “thieves” as has been commonly understood. These Zealots viewed themselves as patriots and dedicated Israelites, whose job it was to have other Jews join them in their task. Certainly many Jews who also believed in the teachings, mission and understanding of Jesus were also approached by Zealots to join the cause, and the response of Christians to this appeal becomes a central focus, I believe, in the Fig-Tree Cursing narrative in Mark.
Consider the community of Jewish-Christians in the Rome of Nero (d.68AD). Peter had been executed in Rome in 64AD, along with Paul, according to ancient tradition, and survivors were in a quandary as to what to say to the revolutionary appeal. They were truly in a “dilemma”. (It seems Jewish-Christians couldn't win. If they side with the Zealots, the Romans would do them in; and if they side with the Romans, they could expect the “SIKA”[σικα, dagger]. Mark’s Gospel could be seen as a response to the questions seeking an answer to this desperate problem. As has been said, fear would have forced Christians to be very careful in what they spoke or wrote. Yet it seems obvious that Christians would look to leaders to find advice as to what God’s Will might be, or to receive an answer to the question, "What would Jesus do?"
It occurs to me that the author of Mark might have communicated an answer in coded manner if possible. One code word I propose he might have used was the word for dagger,”SIKA”[σικα], being replaced by a word phonetically almost identical, the word for fig, ‘συκα’ “SYKA”. The second letter in the former word is pronounced as a “long” e. In the latter word, the second letter is pronounced like the French “u”. If you pronounce both words in rapid succession you can realize their similarity. My suggestion is that the fig tree narrative in Mark is really a narrative which explains to readers in this crisis situation what Jesus’ response to the zealot party activity would be. Let me rewrite the narrative from that perspective:
[“Jesus "sees" the Zealot party [fig tree] and proclaims why his followers should not participate in its violence against the Romans. He can see that the party has become very popular [full of leaves]. He approaches to see if there be any good fruit on it- but he sees none. It is not the right time for zealot type activity (assassination, etc...). He declares that no good works will ever come from this party (n.b., the Gospel of Mark was probably still being written in 75 AD, two years after the communal suicide of the remaining zealots at Masada.) He further explains that if you want to accomplish any great thing in life, prayer is the answer. He further explains that the zealot way is one of “Kill your enemy”. Jesus’ followers are to follow him by loving and forgiving their enemy, just as Jesus did on the cross.”]
Remember, this is proceeding from the author of the Gospel of Mark, and we have every right to ask, “Do you mean that Mark made the whole event up?”
To answer this question we must remember what modern and orthodox biblical scholarship has to say about how the gospels were written. To quote from The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, issued as a document of the Second Vatican Council on November 18, 1965:
“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels [Mark, Matthew, Luke and John], faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation...with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the events of Christ’s risen life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating some things in view of the situation of their churches, and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such a fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those whom themselves “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed(cf. Lk. 1:2-4).
Does Mark’s account of the Fig-tree Cursing fall within these parameters? I believe it does. What the author of Mark was trying to accomplish was to focus on the heart of Jesus’ teaching, and to transpose that teaching into the situation and problems facing his community of Jewish-Christians in 65-75AD Rome, without exposing that community to the dangers lurking on either horn of the “dilemna”. He was trying to tell them that it would not be right for them as followers of Jesus to act violently in the Jewish -Roman War. He was taking Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and interpreting that teaching in light of the current trial. In Mark, Jesus' "Good-News" is the message, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you" (Mk 1:15-16). Mark goes on to employ this “fig-symbol” following his apocalyptic Chapter 13:1-27:
“As he came out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Rabbi, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘ Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘ Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ ... Then Jesus said to them ‘... from the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that it is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.’
Now these things, i.e., the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the razing of the Temple and the sufferings of Masada all took place between 66 and 73AD, quite possibly before the completion of Mark’s Gospel.
The Other Accounts
In order to support the above, a reading of Matthew, Luke and John all seem to be capable of shedding more light. In Matthew’s account of the fig-tree curse, the author, writing in all probability 15 years after the completion of the Jewish-Roman war and after the Christian “heretics” had been purged from the Jewish meals (Kiddush and Seder), was much more focused on showing his community of EX-Jewish Christians that Jesus is the New Covenant and the fulfillment of all the prophecies in Hebrew tradition. Matthew thus eliminates the embarrassing and perhaps inexplicable references to forgiveness, and that it had been the wrong season for figs, but incorporates the rest of the Marcan version. His emphasis on the speed with which the tree shriveled is his own, for speed is not a factor in Mark. A similar difference appears in Mark’s presentation of the cure of the blind man (Mk8:22-26) which took two stages to effect the cure, which in Matthew occurred instantly(Mt 12:22)
In Luke, contemporary with Matthew, we see an author who continuously stresses the infinite, unexpected and unmerited mercy of God who extends to the unworthy beyond Judaism the saving Act of Jesus Christ. Thus the Fig-Tree PARABLE, which emphasizes how patient God will be with us, His seemingly sterile plants.
Lastly, the Gospel of John, written ca. 100AD, has no mention of the fig-tree curse, but does include an extremely enigmatic event near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:
"When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is nothing deceitful.’
Nathanael asked him, ‘ Where did you get to know me?’
Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘ Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King (messiah) of Israel!’ Jesus answered,’ Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ (Jn 1:47-50)
In the Gospel of Luke, there is no Nathanael in his list of the Twelve, but there is one called Simon who was called the Zealot (or Patriot)[Lk. 6:15]. In Mark, that Simon was referred to as “the Cananaean”[Mk. 3:18].
In research on Judas Iscariot, the reference to “Iscariot” is frequently interpreted as “man of Kerioth”, which makes sense if there were such a place. If there was a place called “Kerioth”, the best efforts of archeologists to discover its location have proven thus far futile. Another explanation has been suggested, namely that the word “iscariot” is a derivative of the Hebrew word for man, “ish” together with a truncated “sicariot” which comes from the root “sica” or “dagger”. Certainly this may be far fetched, but it certainly would generate some enthusiastic reflection on Judas’ being a zealot, who did the patriotic thing in turning in Jesus because of his anti-war preaching, and his “Love your enemies” doctrine. Speculation on Judas’ motives is always fascinating, but it seems likely that all Christian communities vanished from Israel after the War of 66-70AD, and that the blame of post-war Jews for God’s abandoning them at the Temple and the city’s destruction fell heavily upon the heretics still allowed to call themselves Jews, namely, the Christians. The introduction of curses against the “minim” into Jewish table prayers at the Pharisee Party direction, generated the separation which has existed until the present day.
What this does show is the mind of the community of the fourth Gospel who had been quite literally banned from participation with the Jewish community and traditions. The separation between Christians and Jews is thus seen as a much more political schism than one on purely religious grounds.
At a series of lectures given in Boston several years ago by the late and very great Raymond Brown, I asked him if he thought that Jesus knew that the community which followed his teachings would not be Jewish. He answered, “No”.
This is the most astounding answer I’ve ever heard.
Lastly, I believe there to be a great parallel between the disciples in the first century Roman Christian situation and the present day treatment of Christians and Jews in many countries presently under attack from ISIS, the radical extremists of Islam. A great amount of pressure is being exerted on Coalition Nations to employ outright warfare in response to the savage executions presently occurring throughout the mid-East and Northern Africa. As in the First century AD, massive collateral damage from such a response will prove catastrophic. Just as the Zealots waged a “new” kind of warfare against the Roman Empire and its armies, so too the nuclear and computerized capabilities are being tested to their limits by the worldwide terrorism taking place in 2015.
It is my belief that the community of Jewish-Christians in Rome in the last half of the First Century were faced with a frightening dilemna. As the War raged brutally towards its conclusion in Palestine, they were pressured by Roman authorities as to whether they were seeking the overthrow of Roman rule or by the Zealot revolutionaries as to whether they held to the belief that God alone is the King of Israel and it is God's work to free their homeland of all foreign rulers. Mark replied that they were disciples of Jesus and that their belief was that he taught us that we should love all, even though they were seeking to kill us. Matk's problem is that to address the dispute overtly could lead to increased suffering for his community. So Mark's good news stressed that our Kingdom (of God) is within us and we cannot go to either side to participate in the War. Thus, Mark's Gospel uses coded messages to convey his thoughts to Chistians but minimize Roman or Zealot retaliations from either extreme.
June 6, 2015 [D - Day]