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Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Matthew and Mark's versions of the fig tree cursing story can't be harmonized

This is a follow-up on my previous post on problems in the Gospels.  Turretinfan posted a thoughtful response to which he added some explanatory comments and a Roman Catholic reader of Turretinfan's blog directed me to comments of his own on these stories, also in defense of Biblical inerrancy. 

Right up front I need to acknowledge that both of these gentlemen have read Matthew and Mark with some care.  Each has noticed some important nuances in the text.  I will bring these up in the appropriate places below.

Here is my general contention against their defenses:  Matthew and Mark's stories each have an integral meaning when read as part of a self-contained narrative.  The chronological order of each story is part of that integral meaning.  But the chronologies of the two stories are not in agreement with each other.  Attempting to wedge the chronology of either one into the other compromises its meaning.   Therefore, one must either deny that one (or both)  chronology(ies) should be taken as an intended representation of what actually happened, relativize the significance of one (or both) story(ies) in favor of the reconstructed "real story" that comes from harmonizing the two stories, or recognize the inconsistencies of the two stories as a fundamental feature of the Gospel narratives to which they belong and revise one's understanding of the Gospels accordingly.

I favor the third approach because it fits the most likely meaning of both stories.  Here I will make my final response to the comments of the two gentlemen.  Of the two stories Matthew's most clearly requires a chronology in which Jesus's cursing of the fig tree is immediately followed by the disciples' observation and commentary on its withering.    I would like to thank Turretinfan and Pete Holter for making several of my arguments in favor of this reading for me.  For example, Turretinfan points out to one of the other commenters on his post that the word "immediately" pretty much means "instantly."  He points out that if you cut down a tree the leaves look healthy for at least a few hours afterward.  This is true.  It is also true that if you cut down a tree it usually looks at least somewhat "withered" within 24 hours.   Speaking from personal experience, even a large (i.e. 60-100 feet all.  Figs average around 23 feet) tree's leaves will have begun shriveling within a day.  In short, a fig tree appearing withered within 24 hours of having been cut down is not exceptional or worthy of note.  If somebody has evidence to the contrary, please let me know.   Of course Jesus didn't cut the tree down, he just cursed it and it still withered.  As Turrentinfan himself pointed out, this is the really noteworthy fact.  Peter's comment in Mark captures this point perfectly:  "Look, the fig tree you cursed has withered!"  But the disciples in Matthew's version are not just commenting on the fact that the tree withered at all, but specifically that it withered "immediately."  Making this comment 24 hours after the fact would be weird.  Making it right after Jesus cursed it makes much more sense. 

Pete Holter bolsters this point with his observations that Mark, who often uses εὐθύς to refer to events that take place right after other events refrains from its use in his story of the fig tree.  That makes perfect sense in his version of the story, since the cursing and Peter's comment take place 24 hours apart.  Matthew's use of παραχρῆμα as narrator and in the subsequent comment of the disciples communicates that there was no delay.  Holter insists that this use of παραχρῆμα is for a rhetorical point about the relative immediacy the Jewish nation's falling out of God's favor following the events at the end of Jesus's earthly life and is not intended to present a different fig-tree cursing chronology from that in Mark.  His argument only follows if one assumes from the start that Matthew (or, more precisely, the Holy Spirit) is effectively preventing the Gospel writers from being inconsistent with one another.  This is further illustrated by Holter's argument that παραχρῆμα expresses the disciples' faith that the fig tree had indeed withered immediately, even though they did not see the evidence until 24 hours later.   He goes on to cite Jesus's comment to Thomas:  "You believed because you have seen, blessed are those who have not seen yet believe."  Huh?  Nobody would come up with such an explanation unless they were familiar with Mark's story and felt compelled to harmonize the two. 

Holter asserts that the aorist participle ἰδόντες in Matthew 21:20 at least implies a passage of time between the time Jesus cursed the fig tree and the disciples saw it.  Not so.  It could mean that or it could not, as Turretinfan appears to acknowledge.  All it implies is that they commented after they had seen the tree withered.  Based on what Matthew's text says, that all could have happened immediately after Jesus cursed the fig tree.  And if you take the disciples' comment in the normal sense in its immediate context, that's exactly what the text conveys.  The idea of a 24-hour delay is imported from Mark's chronology.   The dirty word for this procedure is eisegesis.  Both gentlemen engage in this practice; Mr. Holter has just made it clearer what is really going on.

I think Turretinfan, following Gill, has a stronger case in his interpretation of Mark's story.  Clearly, Mark spreads the story of the fig tree cursing over 2 mornings.  But is it possible that Mark's story leaves room for an otherwise unmentioned temple cleansing prior to Jesus's encounter with the fig tree?  Yes, possible but not likely.  Here are the reasons this is possible:
1.  One common translation of Mark 11:11 presents the order of events as follows:
  1. Jesus enters Jerusalem.
  2. Jesus enters the temple.
  3. Jesus looks around at everything.
  4. It becomes evening.
  5. Jesus leaves for Bethany with the twelve.
This order of events lies behind the translation found in the Vulgate and the Peshitta,  Many early English translations, including Tyndale and the KJV can easily be read to match this order as well.
2.  This chronological ordering depends on how one relates the genitive absolute dependent clause ὀψὲ ἤδη οὔσης τῆς ὥρας to the rest of the sentence.  Genitive absolute dependent clauses normally appear at the beginning of sentences.  It would not be at all surprising that a genitive absolute appearing later in a sentence would be taken to modify only the clauses which follow.  And in fact you can find just such an instance in Acts 1:9.  Furthermore, ἤδη, which often means "already," can also mean "now" in the context of passing time.  Therefore, the clause can be taken to indicate the time at which Jesus left for Bethany and furthermore that this time arrived after Jesus had looked around at everything. 

Now here are the reasons it is not likely Mark 11:11 means what Turretinfan wants it to mean.  First, although genitive absolutes usually precede the clauses they modify, there are exceptions.  Interestingly enough, one occurs in Acts 1:10, almost immediately after the example we listed above.  Another even more telling example can be found in Matthew 28:13, in which a dependent clause with an aorist participle and the following main clause are both modified by a trailing genitive absolute with present participle.  By themselves these exceptions prove nothing except that they are exceptional.

The additional factor is the initial dependent clause in Mark 11:11:  καὶ περιβλεψάμενος πάντα.  Following Gill, Turretinfan takes this clause to refer to an extended period of observation.  After all, the temple complex in Jesus's day was quite large and it would have taken a good while to navigate around to see everything, assuming that one would have to navigate around to see "everything."  It seems reasonable to assume that Mark (or his source) knew about the layout of Herod's temple.  From the little that we know, it appears that the vast majority of the outer courts could be observed from  the top of the outer temple wall.  And there were several places along the outer wall by which one could ascend and gain an overview of most of the temple complex.  Even without climbing the outer wall it appears that large sections of the outer court would be visible to an observer from ground level once you are inside the outer court.  My point?  "Having looked around at everything" can simply mean "having taken in the scene in the temple as a whole," a process that would have taken a few minutes.  Couple this with the other uses of περιβλέπω found in the New Testament and Gill's expansive interpretation appears to push the language too far.  The text is  not talking about activity that would have taken hours, or even one hour. 

When you fit this interpretation of the clause into the chronological framework given in #1 above, it hardly seems necessary to treat the genitive absolute as chronologically posterior to the initial dependent clause.  If it only took a few minutes for Jesus to "look around at everything" why bother saying that evening came afterward?  Therefore, most modern translations take the genitive absolute as the chronological timeframe within which both the looking around and the departure took place.  Furthermore, the genitive absolute then becomes an explanation for Jesus's choice of actions.  He looked around and left because evening had arrived.    Not only does this interpretation not leave time for anything more than a minimal temple cleansing, it also understands Mark to be denying that Jesus did anything else except look around and leave.

Add to this the absence of any hint on the part of any of the Gospel writers that there was more than one temple cleansing.  This is not to say that Jesus couldn't have performed multiple temple cleansings.  That is certainly possible.  But there would have been consequences to repeated attempts to perform this type of action.  We would expect heightened security, sharper confrontations, perhaps violent opposition to Jesus's "cleansing" activity, and not just on the part of temple officials.  None of the stories in the Gospels suggest that anybody in the temple was prepared for Jesus's cleansing activity.  

In sum, the reading favored by Turretinfan is for the most part grammatically defensible but not the best given the immediate context.  The intepretation of περιβλεψάμενος πάντα in particular is questionable.  It looks to me like another case of eisegesis.

For these reasons I remain convinced that the fig tree stories in Matthew and Mark present inconsistent chronologies.   I want to thank Turretinfan and Mr. Holter for challenging me on this and provoking further study and reflection.  I learned something, and I hope both of them profit from this exercise as well.

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