Sometimes Scripture passages cause us to scratch our heads in bewilderment.  One such is Mark 11:12-14 when Jesus curses a fig tree. Sounds like a bit of temper, or maybe there is more to it. And why does he curse the tree for having no figs even though  Mark says “it was not the season for figs”.
Mark 11:13-15  “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.  And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

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I thoroughly enjoy diving into such conundrums. I ask myself “How would the original readers have understood the passage? What are the details of the fig tree and figs? Is there a deeper spiritual meaning and lesson?” So I ask a thousand questions and look for answers.I enjoyed studying the fig tree and Jesus’ actions. This is obviously not just a tempestuous action on Jesus’ part. It was certainly a “parable in action” with the cleansing of the Temple sandwiched in between. First, he curses the tree representing an unfruitful Israel, then cleanses the Temple (disgusted with the Jews’ outward showiness but no real fruit of righteousness). The text then immediately has Peter noticing and commenting on the tree saying, “Hey Lord, look, the tree you cursed is withered” (v. 20-21).

It is certainly done as a form of parable and prediction. With Jesus’ anger at the failure of Israel to bear fruit, it seems this is a statement about Israel which is often likened to a fig tree in the Old Testament (Isa 34:4; Jer 24:1–8; Hos 9:10; Lk 13:6–9). Symbolically and prophetically it means that Israel, represented by the fig tree, had a show of leaves (outer superfluous righteousness) but no real fruit of inner and actual righteousness.

So yes, it is a parable in action about the fruitlessness of the Jewish nation, but why would Jesus expect figs before the season for figs and curse the tree for not yet having figs?

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When Mark says “before the time of figs”, it seems he meant “before the time of the fully ripe figs” which a resident of Israel would have known (cultural literacy). One book I have on biblical botany says, “Figs have an unusual habit of producing fruit buds before the leaves have emerged from the dormant period. Perhaps this is one explanation of the story in St. Matthew concerning the coming of the summer season. When new leaves are fully out, the fig fruit should normally be ripe. In this respect, figs produce their fruit in reverse of the pattern of most fruit trees. (Plants of the Bible, pg. 126)

Using my Verbum Bible and Catholic program I found between 30-40 excellent explanations of this passage and there was a constant theme — fig trees have a precursor fruit, an early edible fruit called taqsh that appears with the leaves, before the actual full fig. If a tree has new leaves but no taqsh then it will not bear the figs later in the year. If you are really hungry (as it says Jesus was) the peasants ate the taqsh like Jesus expected to do. Since it had no taqsh to eat, it also meant there would be no figs at the time ripe figs should appear. Jesus saw the tree was fruitless now, and and therefore also when the season for the full figs would arrive. The tree was all leaves (all show) but no fruit. It is a “parable in action” of Israel with all the showy leaves but no fruit of righteousness. 

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“The problem is most satisfactorily cleared up in a discussion called “The Barren Fig Tree” published many years ago by W. M. Christie, a Church of Scotland minister in Palestine under the British mandatory regime. He pointed out first the time of year at which the incident is said to have occurred (if, as is probable, Jesus was crucified on April 6th, a.d. 30, the incident occurred during the first days of April). “Now,” wrote Christie, “the facts connected with the fig tree are these. Toward the end of March the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with [this], and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grow to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off.”

“These precursors of the true fig are called taqsh in Palestinian Arabic. Their appearance is a harbinger of the fully formed appearance of the true fig some six weeks later. So, as Mark says, the time for figs had not yet come. But if the leaves appear without any taqsh, that is a sign that there will be no figs. Since Jesus found “nothing but leaves”—leaves without any taqsh—he knew that “it was an absolutely hopeless, fruitless fig tree” and said as much.” (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 4: New Testament Objections).

So, if you find a conundrum or a seeming problem with Scripture, or a curiosity, dive in and ask questions. Then look for the answer. Bingo, not only do you start to see things from a first-century reader’s point of view, but the Bible and the Catholic Faith come alive.


This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Aaron Miller

    That’s probably a better explanation than my old theory. My thought was that Jesus is the Creator and the Logos — the beautiful order of creation. Why do fruit trees follow a seasonal order? Because He makes it so. All things are ordered to and for God. Thus, the appointed time for a tree to bear fruit is not a oarticular so much as when the Lord desires it. By withholding its fruit until the usual time, the tree was ordered not to God but to the fallen world. Jesus cursed the tree because it belonged to the world and not to Him

    1. Unknown Centurion

      Thanks Steve for a well-researched and extremely practical explanation of this puzzling parable. I’ve always (actually in the last few years) viewed it through a more mystical/theological lens, though your explanation is perhaps more provable, if not more likely (or yet another case of both/and in a faith full of it).

      According to some ancient Hebrew traditions, through more than a few more modern mystics (Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, etc.), the fruit which was the object and symbol of the Fall was a fig, not an apple. These believe that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a fig tree, and the Tree of Life was an almond tree (see staff of Aaron that budded). To me, this uncharacteristic outburst of Christ in His final entry into Jerusalem was not only an indictment of the fruitlessness of Israel, but also an expression of divine anger over the Fall of mankind (because of such a tree) which He now had to remedy by being nailed to a tree and Himself becoming food so that those who obey and consume (“Do This”…”Unless you eat my Flesh and drink My Blood, you have no life within you”) will be saved, and produce fruit. In this perfectly proportional way, the way of divine reversal, the original curse is reversed by eating the Fruit of the Cross which God commands us to eat whereas as our first parents ate the fruit (fig) which they were forbidden by God to eat. It also perhaps prophetically pointed to the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem, about a million Hebrews, and the entire ordained system of worship forty years following His death upon the Cross (of almond wood?).

      I think your analysis is brilliant and well thought out. A few thoughts…

      We always look for the literal and factual foundation of Scripture. Jesus was not prone to fits of irrational temper — taking out his anger on an innocent impersonal tree. So we look for the underlying factual and cultural understanding. Then we look for analogies, meanings to a “parable in action” and deeper spiritual understandings — which you did so well.

      Your comments will add a good additional reflection for my blog readers.

      Considering the fig tree as the fruit in the garden, here is a few paragraphs from my book on Genesis which will be published next year by Ignatius Press:

      Note of Interest: What Was the Forbidden Fruit?

      We read nowhere of an apple, but since an apple seems to be the most commonly known fruit coming from a tree it is usually an apple that is depicted in religious art. But the fruit is not named. It looked delicious and was beautiful to behold but ultimately the taste was as bitter as death. It is interesting that the Latin words for apple and evil are similar: in the singular form, malus is apple, and malum is evil; in the plural form, mala means both apple and evil. Perhaps this similarity played a role in influencing or perpetuating the association of the apple with the forbidden fruit.

      The Jewish Rabbis have mulled over what kind of fruit it was, “The ‘fruit of the tree’ from which Adam and Eve ate is not specified in the text. The Rabbis speculated that it was the fig (because it is subsequently mentioned, 3:7); or the grape (because its abuse leads one to forget his senses, 9:20 f.); or the etrog [citron] (because the word was seen as deriving from ragag, to desire); or wheat (because the Hebrew word for wheat, chitah, was seen as related to chet, sin); or that it was the carob, the Hebrew word suggesting destruction.”

      W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary “Genesis” New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, page 42, quoting from Legends of the Jews. There is another speculative curiosity in Legends of the Jews giving further reasons it might have been the fruit of the fig tree: “[Adam and Eve] stood there in their nakedness, and ashamed. Adam tried to gather leaves from the trees to cover part of their bodies, but he heard one tree after the other say: ‘There is the thief that deceived his Creator. Nay, the foot of pride shall not come against me, nor the hand of the wicked touch me. Hence, and take no leaves from me!’ Only the fig-tree granted him permission to take of its leaves. That was because the fig was the forbidden fruit itself. Adam had the same experience as that prince who seduced one of the maid-servants in the palace. When the king, his father, chased him out, he vainly sought a refuge with the other maid-servants, but only she who had caused his disgrace would grant him assistance.” (Louis Ginzberg, Henrietta Szold, and Paul Radin, Legends of the Jews, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 72.

      1. Unknown Centurion

        Thanks Steve for your confirmation and additional explanation. It’s helpful to understand the proper way to approach and analyze Scripture.

        I forgot to include, as an additional rationale for the connection between the fig and the Fall, is that Adam and Eve originally clothed themselves with the leaves of the fig tree, which they likely would have done with the nearest tree to where/when their eyes were opened and first experienced shame. God then pointed to the vicarious sacrifice of His Son, not only in the protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), when He replaced their hastily-chosen botanical attire with mure durable and fashionable animal skins. Because these animals likely didn’t surrender their skins willingly, the first sacrifice of animals was performed by God Himself, prefiguring not only the entire sacrificial system of worship practiced from Abel through the destruction of the Temple, but also to the salvific sacrifice of Christ, which alone accomplished the salvation and redemption of the world.

        I just wrote about another somewhat strange scriptural inclusion here: positing a potential theory for why, of all the events in the thirty-year hidden life of Jesus, the Finding in the Temple alone is recorded for all generations. Coincidentally, (and another shameless plug), I also have a book coming out next year (Sophia Institute Press) tentatively titled: Rise of the Centurion: The Reclamation of a Mystical, Masculine Theology.

        Keep up the great work. Levate Vexillum.

  2. Vincenzo

    Thank God and you always Steve

    God created all that is good.
    Then created man in His image and likeness.
    God gave us a special gift “Freedom”.
    We “choose to do “good or bad”
    Jesus loves us.
    I pray that the Graces we receive daily will bear good fruit for God’s Glory.


  3. Jo Ann Elder

    Thank you! This passage has puzzled me for quite some time and it you provided an awesome explanation. So thank you, again!

  4. LV

    I’m not sure this explanation tracks with the text. Mark says that the tree had nothing but leaves BECAUSE it wasn’t the season for figs; that would suggest that there wasn’t anything wrong with the tree, and what Jesus found was exactly what He should have expected to find.

    1. Bill912

      As Steve points out, fig trees have an edible precursor fruit called taqsh; evidently, that was not on the fig tree, even though it was the season for taqsh.

      STEVE RAY HERE: Correct, we’ll and simply stated.

  5. Fábio Rocha

    I’ve heard this explanation: it is believed by the Jews that Adam and Eve covered themselves with fog tree leaves after eating the forbidden fruit. This was the beginning of the fall of humanity. So what Jesus is doing is a “rebuke” to that ancestral event. From a fig tree came death and Jesus reverses the order: he curses the tree before He gives his life for all humankind.

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