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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jesus curses the fig tree: One definitive example for those in denial about problems in the Gospels

I've been wanting to write a post on the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree for some time now.  I haven't had time or an occasion until now.  The stimulus was a series of uncharacteristically ill-conceived posts (see here, here, here here, and here) about how stories in 1 Samuel illustrate that supposed contradictory versions of Jesus's deeds and sayings in the Gospels are really reports of separate incidents.  At the outset I must acknowledge that Turretinfan never suggested that all claims of Gospel stories containing alleged contradictions can be resolved with his "separate incidents" solution, nor did he suggest that of the stories of the fig-tree cursing.  I just want to point out one example where that type of solution -- and every other used so far -- does not work.

I understand enough about the synoptic problem to be dangerous.  That is, it would be dangerous for me to propose a solution.  I'll leave that to the professionals.   But one does not need to be a New Testament scholar to understand that the synoptic Gospels, taken together, are problematic.  In fact, recognizing problems is fairly straightforward -- unless theological precommitments force you to deny the obvious.  I would argue that this curse plagues Turretinfan.

Specifically, the synoptic Gospels outline essentially the same story about Jesus, and yet in detail they sometimes present inconsistent, even contradictory, versions of the story.   Trouble is, accepting this as an accurate account of the situation puts one at odds with Christian orthodoxy's doctrine of Scripture.  According to this doctrine the Gospels tell us the historical truth about Jesus; they cannot err, and therefore they cannot be inconsistent with or contradict one another.  Therefore, there is no real problem with the Gospels, only with the rebellious, unbelieving human readers. 

This is a separate issue from the synoptic problem proper, which is concerned with the nature of the relationship between the synoptic Gospels.   Which Gospel was written first?  Where did the authors get their source material from?  How does one explain the patterns of similarities and differences in wording, order, and content?  None of these questions implies that the Gospels are anything less than 100% truthful in what they assert.

In the process of close investigation of the patterns of similarities and differences one finds the other problem.  This second problem pops up so often that it ends up playing a significant role in many of the proposed solutions to the synoptic problem.  So, which is it?  Do the claims of inconsistencies and contradictions built into the structure of many modern approaches to the Gospels tell us more about the readers than they do about the Gospels themselves?  Or, do these claims represent the "facts on the ground"  and those who deny them tell us more about themselves than they do about the Gospels?  Yes.  IMHO both are true to some extent.

But this post is not an attempt to establish the middle ground.  There are plenty of critics who discover problems in the Gospels that vanish as soon as one reads the text with a grain of sympathy and understanding.  Not all problems can be made to disappear that easily, and some won't go away at all.   The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is a good illustration of the latter.  All the proposals to eliminate the problem posed by this story fail.  In the end we face two contradictory versions of the story. 

The two versions of the story can be found in Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-14,22-25.  Many people have struggled with the ethics of Jesus's cursing of the tree -- and even more over the implied cursing of the Jewish nation.  However challenging that may be, I intend to ignore that issue.   My interest is in the chronology of the two versions.  Here are the salient differences:

Chronological Order
1. Temple cleansing
2. Overnight in Bethany
3. Cursing of fig tree
4. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree
1. Overnight in Bethany
2. Cursing of fig tree
3. Temple cleansing
4. Overnight in outside of Jerusalem
5. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree
Time the tree witheredImmediately after Jesus cursed itUnspecified but within a day
When the disciples heard the cursingOn the morning after the temple cleansingOn the morning before the temple cleansing
Who commented on the witheringdiscplesPeter
When the disciples saw the withered tree for the first timeBy implication of their comment, immediately after Jesus cursed it.About a day after Jesus cursed it.
Comment on disciples' frame of mindThey were amazedPeter remembered
What they said about it"How did the fig tree wither immediately?""Look, the fig tree you cursed has withered."

If we apply the type of solution suggested by Turretinfan, we would explain (away) these differences by supposing that Jesus cursed the fig tree twice or that he cursed two fig trees on separate occasions.   Neither of these solutions works well in this case.

Let's suppose Jesus cursed the fig tree twice on successive mornings.  Matthew's version of the story reflects only the second cursing and Mark's only the first.   The disciples' comment in Matthew seems odd; wouldn't they rather have asked what was different about the second cursing, or why it took two cursings to get the tree withered?  And if Peter had just heard Jesus curse the tree a second time, what is the point of Mark's mentioning that he remembered it?   Both stories make more sense if we suppose that only one cursing of the fig tree is in view.  But if there were really two cursings of the same tree, the stories don't represent the likely historical reality behind them very well.

Let's suppose, then, that Jesus cursed two different trees on successive mornings.  That means the disciples saw two withered fig trees the second morning, one that Jesus had cursed the day before and one that withered immediately after he cursed it.  Peter's comment applies to the first tree and the disciples' amazement applies to the second.   Each Gospel writer focused on the cursing of only one of the two trees.  It seems highly unlikely that if Matthew were written by one of the disciples and Mark was a precis of Peter's recollections that both of them would have forgotten or decided to leave out of the story the fact that Jesus cursed two fig trees on successive mornings and that the disciples saw both of them withered on the same day.  Was Jesus in the habit of performing such symbolic teaching acts repetetively on successive days?  From the surviving Gospel stories it seems not.  That would make this incident all the more noteworthy, but neither Gospel writer gives any hint that Jesus cursed fig trees twice.     

Another way to explain (away) the situation is to propose that one of the two versions has been dischronologized.  I found a couple of websites citing Gleason Archer on this, although the basic idea predates him big time.  Archer himself did not argue that there were two trees and/or two cursings.  Matthew simply relocated the first part of Mark's story so that it appears together with the second part.  But one could use this type of procedure to rescue the idea that there were two cursings of two different trees.  Perhaps one of the cursings took place later that week or during one of the earlier visits to Jerusalem recorded in the Gospel of John.

In a way I like this type of solution.  Why don't we try it on Genesis 1 and 2?  This could solve that sticky little problem of the story order of the creation of animals and Adam in Genesis 2 vs. the order in Genesis 1.  Rather than adopting the controversial pluperfect reading of Gen 2:19a, we can simply say that God actually created birds of the air and beasts of the field twice, once on days 5 and 6 before the creation of humans and once again in the garden on day 6 after the creation of Adam.   This solution makes 2:19 more chronologically consistent with 2:18 and 2:20-22.  Of course there are problems with the "all"s in 2:19, but hey, as Calvinists will point out, when does "all" really mean "every single one without exception?"

It seems to me that this case matches the situation of "similar stories about separate events" better than Matthew and Mark's stories of the fig tree cursing.  If  somebody really wants to argue that Jesus cursed two different fig trees they should be ready to accept that there were actually two instances of animals and birds being created.  The possibilities for this type of interpretation have barely been explored.  Harold Lindsell did some ground-breaking work along these lines in his explanation of Peter's six denials in The Battle for the Bible.   Among other things, this approach could lead to a new renaissance for the dispensationalist interpretation of prophecy.   I can hardly wait.

But what about the assertion (Archer, et. al.) that Matthew simply compressed Mark's two-stage story into a single account?  This is not a fair handling of Matthew's text.  Jesus curses the tree and it withers "immediately."  The disciples see it and wonder how it withered "immediately."  This is not dischronologization.  The narrative chronology is part of the point of the story.  And if you take the story seriously as history, then you have to take the chronology of the story seriously as history, i.e., the cursing, withering and commentary happened "immediately" after one another.    There are perfectly good words in Koine Greek for "a short time later" or "soon thereafter."  παραχρῆμα is not one of them.  It means "immediately,"  "right away."   If the commenters adopting this view were correct, we could expect Mark's Peter to also point out that the fig tree withered "immediately" when he saw it the next day.   After all, a fig tree withering in 24 hours is pretty quick! 

A straightforward reading of either Gospel leads one to place the cursing(s) in a specific chronological context.   Just because that context causes us problems doesn't mean we get to discount or ignore it.  If Matthew's or Mark's chronological framework for this story is not intended to teach us when Jesus cursed the fig tree relative to the cleansing of the temple and the disciples' realization that the tree had withered, I'd like someone to explain how they can tell the difference between chronologies that can be ignored and chronologies (e.g., Genesis 1) that can't be ignored without threat of church discipline. 

In conclusion there is no way to make Mark and Matthew's versions of this story cohere chronologically.  That datum should be combined with many other indications that the Gospel stories do not always agree with one another.  This is a starting point for understanding what the Gospels are, how they came about, what they are trying to do, and how successful they are at doing those things.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What if Eve had been a trained scientist, Part 3

This is the third and final post in a brief series.  To get up to speed, see here and here.  In the latter post I presented a series of questions a sceptical and inquiring Eve could have asked Yahweh Elohim, Adam, and the serpent.  The answers to those questions would have given her plenty of data with which to make an informed decision about eating the fruit.

But wait a minute.  Couldn't Eve have called the serpent a bald-faced liar and fled?  Studiously ignored his every comment/question?  Told him in no uncertain terms:  "I don't talk to animals, especially animals who ask me impertinent questions?"  Brought Adam over to hear the serpent's outrageous talk?  Bashed in his head?  Or, Adam could have intervened and cut off the interview.  A lot of orthodox Christians think that's what should have happened.

As far as I'm concerned, any of these could have been appropriate responses depending on what Eve knew about the serpent.  And that depends on what assumptions one brings to the story.

My approach to this story requires setting aside any of these potentially legitimate tactics.  The Eve in the Biblical story talks to the serpent -- and caves in almost immediately.  As I pointed out earlier, this Eve is almost unbelievably incurious and suggestible.  How badly she comes off can be illustrated quite easily by comparing her with C. S. Lewis's Perelandrian Eve.  Satan has to commandeer the body of a human and spend several chapters worth of clever manipulation to get that Eve close to sinning.  According to the speculations of many orthodox theologians, the pre-fall Adam had superior intellectual powers.  If that were true, Adam's initial excitement about Eve must have worn out quickly when he discovered what a dimwit she was.  No wonder he ate the fruit when she offered it.  He realized that without him she would be completely unable to cope whatever Yahweh Elohim might do to her.

In short, the Biblical Eve is a chauvinist hack job.  Christian theologians have taken this bad theology and run the faith completely off the rails.   It is for that reason I used Eve's decision to engage in conversation with the serpent as my starting point.  Once Eve listens to the serpent, she is in a position to pursue systematic inquiry into the doubts raised by the serpent rather than half-assed observation and assent.  By that means she could have secured herself from lies and deceptions.  She would not have needed "presuppositionalism" or any of the other ridiculous non-sequiturs espoused by orthodox theologians to keep the rest of us in intellectual infancy.

OK, I'm done with that brief rant.  Now to the real rant.  The more fundamental problem with this story as explicated by orthodox Christianity is that it is a setup.  Eve is supposed to eat from the fruit.  Everything is arranged so that she does so.   Her own character and actions fit all too easily into the prearranged outcome.

My Eve is intentionally uncooperative.   If Yahweh Elohim wants her to fall into the serpent's clutches he's going to have to work at it.   Now he, Adam and the serpent are faced with somebody who won't take their word on the basis of trust.  She demands explanations; she intends to gather and weigh comparative evidence.    If Yahweh Elohim wanted her to grow in wisdom, he would be jumping for joy over her probing.  Maybe somewhere in the story's prehistory that was precisely the point.

Orthodox Christian theologians will have none of this.  If they are to be consistent with their traditions, they must be chauvinists and tyrants.  Therefore, Eve's probing questions are a sign of arrogant, autonomous thinking.  How dare she ask Yahweh Elohim to explain himself?  She doesn't need this explanation and therefore will not get it.  Yahweh Elohim will refuse to answer her questions.  If Adam is wise so will he.  The woman is just that, a woman, and therefore unqualified to be given such unrestricted access to knowledge and independent judgment.  She should be comforted -- and left largely in the dark.  Over time, perhaps, she will receive answers to at least some of the questions, once she proves herself capable of resisting the serpent purely out of love for Yahweh Elohim and a desire for his glory.  Of course, since the point is for her to disobey, the period of time over which her set of queries goes unanswered can be extended as long as necessary to provoke her revolt.

That partly explains the set of questions she asks the first time around.  I'm willing to let the orthodox play offense for awhile.  So, Yahweh Elohim responds first and anwers few or none of the questions directly.  Instead, he raises the point of Eve's need to trust him and seek his glory even when his purposes seem hard to understand or even unworthy.  Then Adam answers in the same vein.  Finally, the serpent answers all of Eve's questions fully, according to his lights (which, even if true as far as they go, may put Yahweh Elohim in a bad light).   Now she may have grounds to suspect that Yahweh Elohim and Adam have something to hide.  What does she do?  She approaches them with an enhanced list of questions.  In addition to the questions she asked the first time around, she also asks

  1.  Yes, I understand that I would benefit from learning to trust you, but some of my questions are simply for clarification.  Won't you please at least answer those questions?    
  2. What should I conclude about the serpent from the answers he gave me?
  3. How long am I to wait until you answer the rest of my questions?
Most orthodox Christian theologians, or at least the ones I am personally acquainted with, are decent people.  Some are even exceptionally admirable (apart from their theology).  But when it comes to defending the ideas of God to which their theology commits them loyalty to their core convictions trumps all other considerations.   Of course, there are some who make adjustments to their core convictions due to social pressures or, more charitably, the pleadings of their own consciences.  Others are quick to point out this "trimming."  I have yet to encounter an orthodox Christian community without this type of struggle between "soft" and "hard" theologians.  Furthermore the "soft" theologians are only "soft" relative to the position(s) on which they "trim."   On other matters they can be just as "hard" as their "hard" siblings.  On the matter of Eve I doubt there are many "trimmers."  Therefore, we can expect most of them to propose that Yahweh Elohim will give Eve no answers to these questions either, including #3.

I would love to be corrected on this point.  Seriously, please correct me.  Show me how I am misconstruing Christian orthodoxy, how I am hard-heartedly thinking evil of Yahweh Elohim.   Convince me that God would have really loved a sceptical, probing Eve and all her descendants enough to condescend in a time of great danger and help her out of it.

But I'm willing to bet I get no takers.  Yahweh Elohim does not stoop to exposing himself to sceptical, autonomous thinkers.  He is not a specimen to be examined.  He will not let himself be subject to that kind of humiliation.  Therefore, Eve is to remain unanswered.  If she eats the fruit -- and she surely will -- so be it.

And with that orthodox Christian theologians make a mockery of their benevolent God.