DOES MARK CONTRADICT MATTHEW ON THE CURSING OF THE FIG TREE?

DOES MARK CONTRADICT MATTHEW ON THE CURSING OF THE FIG TREE?

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© 2020, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

The Problem

One alleged contradiction in the Gospel books that skeptics point to is the difference in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree.  The accounts are as follows:

MATTHEW 21:10-22

And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, “Who is this?”  So the multitudes said, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”  Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ”

Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.  But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?”  And Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants  You have perfected praise’?”  Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there.

Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry.  And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.  And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done.  And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”

MARK 11:11-24

And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry.  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.  In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”  And His disciples heard it.

So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple.  Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ”  And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.  When evening had come, He went out of the city.

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.”  So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God.  For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”

There are notable differences between these two accounts.  Matthew makes it sound as if Jesus drove out the buyers and sellers and money changers from the temple (the “cleansing of the temple”) on the day He entered Jerusalem (Sunday) and then on the next day (Monday), He cursed the fig tree, which withered immediately.  Mark, on the other hand, places the cursing of the fig tree on Monday prior to the cleansing of the temple, which also occurred on Monday.

The order, then, seems to be as follows:

MATTHEW

SUNDAY

  • Entering Jerusalem
  • Cleansing of the temple

MONDAY (“Now in the morning”)

  • Cursing of the fig tree

MARK

SUNDAY

  • Entering Jerusalem

MONDAY (“Now the next day”)

  • Cursing of the fig tree
  • Cleansing of the temple

Now, it is possible that the change from Sunday to Monday was not explicitly stated by Matthew; if that is the case, Matthew would place the driving out of the buyers and sellers and money changers on Monday, as Mark has it, but that would push the cursing of the fig tree to Tuesday.  And, either way, the order of the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree do not match.

Prima facie, then, there certainly seems to be a contradiction here between Matthew and Mark.

Suggested Solutions That Failed

How do Evangelicals respond to this apparent contradiction?   Not well.  William MacDonald in his Believer’s Bible Commentary[1] and Guthrie et al. in their The New Bible Commentary: Revised[2] do not even mention the problem.  Craig Keener in the NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, on the other hand, asserts that

Matthew’s sequence differs from Mark’s, but biographies did not normally pretend to be arranged chronologically, and minor differences were common in ancient biography.[3]

In point of fact, however, the Gospel books were not “ancient biography” (bioi)[4], and unlike the works of uninspired pagan authors, the Gospel books are inerrant.

The most common Evangelical response is to claim that the discrepancy is due to the fact that Matthew arranged the material topically whereas Mark arranged it chronologically.  For example, Gleason Archer puts it this way:

As we study the narrative technique of Matthew in general, we find that he sometimes arranges his material in topical order rather than in the strictly chronological order that is more often characteristic of Mark and Luke …. Matthew, however, felt it suited his topical approach more effectively to include the Monday afternoon action with the Sunday afternoon initial observation, whereas Mark preferred to follow strict chronological sequence.[5]

William Hendricksen argues,

[I]t is clear that this story could be handled in two ways: (a) chronologically or; (b) topically.  Mark follows the first method, describing the first part of the Fig Tree story, the part that took place on Monday morning, in 11:12-14; then, the cleansing of the temple, later that same day, in 11:15-19; and finally, the second part of the Fig Tree story, the part that happened on Tuesday morning, in 11:20-24.  Matthew, on the other hand, uses the second method.  He wishes to tell the entire story all at once, in one connected and uninterrupted account.  In doing this he does not come into real conflict with Mark, for his (Matthew’s) time indications are very indefinite.”[6]

This approach, however, is a failure.  It is certainly possible, of course, to describe a set of events both chronologically and topically without any discrepancies between them.  Consider the following:

The Stanley Cup championships were dominated by Montreal and Toronto in the decade of the 1960s.  Montreal won their fifth cup in a row in 1960.  Then, after the Chicago Black Hawks won in 1961, Toronto won the Cup in 1962, 1963, and 1964.  Montreal won back-to-back titles in 1965 and 1966 but were upset in the 1967 finals by Toronto.  Montreal then closed out the decade by winning the Cup in 1968 and 1969.

The Stanley Cup championships were dominated by Montreal and Toronto in the decade of the 1960s. Montreal won five Cup championships in the decade and Toronto won four.  The only other winner in the decade was the Chicago Black Hawks.

The first is a chronological account and the second a topical account, and there is no discrepancy between the two.  But inserting the word “then” in the second would create a contradiction:

The Stanley Cup championships were dominated by Montreal and Toronto in the decade of the 1960s. Montreal won five Cup championships in the decade and then Toronto won four.  The only other winner in the decade was the Chicago Black Hawks.

Appealing to one being topical and the other chronological would be in vain in this case, and that sort of situation is what obtains in the case of Matthew 21:10-22 and Mark 11:11-24.  Matthew tells us that Jesus entered Jerusalem (21:10), that He entered and cleansed the temple (21: 12-13), left the city and lodged in Bethany (21:17), and in the early morning was returning to Jerusalem (πρωΐας δὲ ἐπανάγων εἰς τὴν πόλιν – 21:18) and that was when He cursed the fig tree, the day after He cleansed the temple.   In fact, with that time indicator, it isn’t even correct to say that Matthew is presenting his material topically rather than chronologically; the chronology is certainly there.

Meanwhile, Geisler and Howe’s attempted explanation is even worse:

Matthew … addresses the two trips of Christ to the temple as though they were one event.  This gives the impression that the first day Christ entered the temple He drove out the buyers and sellers as well.  Mark’s account, however, gives more detail to the events, revealing that there were actually two trips to the temple.  In view of this, we have no reason to believe that there a discrepancy in the accounts.[7]

So these two gentlemen tell us that Matthew misrepresents the number of trips to the temple, thus giving a wrong impression – while ignoring the issue of when the cursing of the tree happened.  So after admitting one discrepancy and ignoring the other, they glibly assert that “we have no reason to believe that there is a discrepancy in the accounts”!  Yes, we do, and a bald assertion to the contrary does not alleviate the problem.

Surely we can do better than this.

The Solution

The solution is found, not surprisingly, in looking carefully at the texts.  There are two crucial points to note: (1) in Matthew’s account, the fig tree withered “immediately” (παραχρῆμα) after Jesus’ pronouncement, but in Mark’s account, there is no indication that it did so.  (2) in Matthew’s account, the disciples saw the tree wither immediately after Jesus’ pronouncement, but in Mark’s account, they only heard the pronouncement.

Now, we recall that multiple witnesses of an event do not include exactly the same details; each picks and chooses what he wants to include[8], and the actual account can be reconstructed by combining all of the details.[9]  And these two details we have observed allow us to reconstruct the actual sequence of events in these passages.

SUNDAY

  • Jesus enters Jerusalem (Matthew 21:10, Mark 11:11a) and goes into the temple (Mark 11:11b)
  • Jesus returns to Bethany for the night (Mark 11:11c)

MONDAY

  • In the morning, Jesus and His disciples head for Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus pronounces judgment on a barren fig tree: “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”  His disciples hear this pronouncement (Mark 11:12-14).
  • Jesus enters the temple and drives out the buyers and sellers and money changers (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17)
  • Jesus heals in the temple, leading to an altercation with the chief priests and scribes (Matthew 21:14-16); they desire to kill Him but fear the people (Mark 11:18)
  • In the evening, Jesus returns to Bethany (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:19)

TUESDAY

  • In the morning, Jesus and His disciples head to Jerusalem (Matthew 21:18; ). Jesus goes to the fig tree and pronounces final doom on it: “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.”  Now the fig tree immediately withers (Matthew 21:19).
  • The disciples comment on the withered fig tree (Matthew 21:20; Mark 11:20-21).
  • Jesus teaches about faith (Matthew 21:21-22; Mark 11:22-24)

It seems, then, that Jesus spoke to the fig tree twice, the first time to pronounce judgment and the second time to execute the judgment.  And, inasmuch as the fig tree was meant to represent Israel[10], and the theme of two visits to Israel by Jesus, the first time to pronounce judgment and second time to carry it out, runs throughout the Gospel books[11], it is what we should expect.

And thus the alleged problem of a contradiction between Matthew 21:10-22 and Mark 11:11-24 is shown to be no problem at all.


Endnotes

[1] MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Art Farstad. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995

[2] Guthrie, D, J.A. Motyer, A.M. Stibbs, and D.J. Wiseman. The New Bible Commentary: Revised: Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970

[3] NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. John H. Walton, Old Testament editor, and Craig S. Kenner, New Testament editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2017, p. 1716

[4] For more on the toxic idea that the Gospel books are samples of Greco-Roman bioi, see Tors, John. “The Inspiration of Scripture: An Explanation and a Response to Creation Ministries International’s Problematic View.” (2020).  Posted at https://truthinmydays.com/the-inspiration-of-scripture-an-explanation-and-a-response-to-creation-ministries-internationals-problematic-view1/

[5] Archer, Gleason L. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1982, pp. 334-335

[6] Hendricksen, William. Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 1973, p.773

[7] Geisler, Norman L. and Thomas Howe.  The Big Book of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992, pp. 354-355

[8] See Tors, John “Contradictions in the Gospel Books? Lessons from the World Junior Hockey Championships,” (2015) at https://truthinmydays.com/contradictions-in-the-gospel-books-lessons-from-the-world-junior-hockey-championships/

[9] See Tors, John. “The Resurrection Accounts: ‘Incompatible Contradictions’ or Coherent History?” (2018) at https://truthinmydays.com/the-resurrection-accounts-incompatible-contradictions-or-coherent-history/.

[10] Hosea 9:10; Joel 1:7

[11] John 12:46-48; See also Matthew 11:20-24; 23:37-39, 24:29-31, 26:64; John 9:39, 12:48

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