Luke Makes Jesus More Patient with the Fig Tree

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Just after posting Why Did Luke Replace the Anointing of Jesus at Bethany with the Sinner Woman Washing His Feet? I came across a similar explanation for why Luke removed Mark’s episode of Jesus cursing the fig tree and replaced it with a far more merciful one.

By sandwiching his story on either side of the Cleansing account, Mark indicates that he wishes the fate of the unfruitful tree to be seen as a proleptic sign prefiguring the destruction of the Temple cultus. The Markan import of the story, therefore, is both eschatological and symbolic.

The harsh import of Mark’s story was recognized by Luke who decided to omit it. The third evangelist replaced the pericope with a characteristic lament for Jerusalem and earlier has Jesus recount a parable of a barren fig-tree to which a period of grace was granted. The Lukan parable intimates that in Jesus’ ministry a time for repentance was offered to Israel and its Holy City. An allegorical tendency is hence discerned in Luke, in keeping with his view of salvation history.

(Telford, W. R. (1980). Barren Temple and the Withered Tree : A Redaction-Critical Analysis of the Cursing of the Fig-Tree Pericope in Mark’s Gospel and Its Relation to the Cleansing of the Temple tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 238f)

Once again, “Luke” evidently did not think he was reading historical memories or traditions about Jesus worthy of preservation and felt at liberty to create a quite different story to teach what he believed to be a more appropriate lesson.

Mark 11:12-14, 20 Luke 13:6-9
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 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. 14 And he said to it, May no one ever eat fruit from you again. And his disciples heard it. . . .
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

As Tim concludes in the previous post,

As you will recall, many scholars think of Luke as a historian and a biographer. The preamble to his gospel, they insist, shows how much he cared about his many sources. Well, perhaps. But we see here that he was quite comfortable with inventing stories, freely repurposing and reusing his sources for his own needs.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

26 thoughts on “Luke Makes Jesus More Patient with the Fig Tree”

  1. Hi Neil and Tim

    Thank you so much for your discussions. I have learned much over the years from both of you.

    Since both of you have dealt with issues relating to how each Gospel writers use another source or even their own, in terms of adding or subtracting a particular tradition or source , I would like to offer a few interesting examples that are extremely clear, striking, and very significant in terms of redactional processes.

    I mentioned earlier Neil that I was working on a book on “the satan” called The Deep Things of Satan: Deconstructing the Devil in the Christian Bible. I had always been interested in the satan or the devil since 16 yrs of age when I joined the cult of Christianity (I was one of the early Jesus People …wrote a brief article years ago on my involvement in it in Winnipeg, Manitoba… an offshoot of the California and in general in the US. It came to Canada and especially Winnipeg. I was so-called “saved” through a coffee house ministry. It spread like wildfire throughout Canada from here. It pretty well began in the home of a well-known professor on international terrorism… a very brilliant and kind man… Dr. Peter St. John. All kinds of things were said by the Jesus People regarding the satan.

    In any event, I started studying the satan. Some other time I might share some of that if applicable. 45 years later I am still studying the satan but now as an apostate from Christianity in the same vein as Dr. Robert Price. Him and I were expected to be collegues at Johnnie Coleman Theological Seminary where I candidated to be their Biblical Languages professor. It all failed in the end and now both Dr. Price and myself are out of jobs. The key leader of the Seminary died. What an incredible woman Dr. Tumpkin was!

    Anyway, when I went to Marquette Univ. to do my doctoral studies I wrote papers on the satan when I could.

    Here a few things I discovered and especially in connection with redaction criticism ( I studied under Dr. Thomas Thompson at Marquette (we became close friends too ) and my doc. advisor was Dr. Julian Hills from Harvard. So here it goes….

    If you do a parallel synoptic study of Peter regarding his being called “Satan” by Jesus in Mark and Matthew you will clearly see that Luke leaves out the tradition of Peter being called “Satan”!! I was shocked when I saw this, but I partially understand it since Luke cannot have Peter portrayed like that, especially in the 2nd century context. Peter cannot have flaws like that for those he is writing to since Peter is the new High Priest of the new “way” in Luke-Acts. He is now a “ruler” and archon in Luke-Acts. see Acts 1 and following and you will see what I mean. The tradition of Peter being associated with Satan has to be expunged to make him the key leader and not what Mark or Matthew say about him. Peter comes out pretty pristine in Luke-Acts, (there are other passages in Luke where Peter is in someways connected to Satan but not like Mk or Mt. There is much more I could say about all these texts. I have written brand new stuff re satan that I hope will be beneficial to all .

    Anyway, I want to also mention something I learned from Dr. Hills. In a very fascinating article years ago Dr. Hills wrote a piece about Matt as scribe and the famous text where the good scribe.. the best scribe (Mt. appears to be writing about himself:) as that scribe, yet he is one of the worst I have seen…. !!! In any case the text is traditonally said to say…. the good scribe “brings out” of his treasure house of sources, things “old” and “new”. Traditionally this means that the so-called scribe when using his sources he brings things old and new out of his treasury. What is interesting about Hills in his essay. I have to find it again is that the translation is weak… way too weak. The verb is ekballo!! The same word used for the “casting out” of demons in Mk and Mt. So what is the significance? I think there is a lot of mileage to be gained if translated… the scribe throws out both old and new things that are in his source. Matthew’s editiorial activity if one of “exorcism” . So Mt. throws out so-called “new” sources or views (Pauline stuff, etc. -quite evident) and even throws out “old” stuff as well… and one has to look what Mt. throws out, no matter where it came from. Redaction criticism becomes an exorcistic activity. I am making the connection more explicit than what Hills does.

    Both Mt. and Lk do their own exorcisms on Mark’s material. The reasons can be seen in the study of each gospel writer….but Luke explicitly leaves out or throws out as well what he considers problematic for his own apologetic agendas.

    Also , a sidelight . Within each gospel and Acts. there are internal rewritings. eg. Tim might know this already , he is one smart dude for an air force officer , not to mention your own good eye Neil. Paul’s call ….Luke starts with Acts 9 and he rewrites it twice. Something is interesting there!

    Oh well. Boker Tov you all

    Marty Lewadny

    1. Hi Marty

      You’ve had some interesting contacts and background. Yes, Luke gives a very different spin to Peter and my own suspicion has been that this has had to do with his mid-second century and anti-Marcionite context. (I’m referring to the “final author” of our Luke-Acts since I find myself partial to Tyson’s work: https://vridar.org/category/biblical-studies/book-reviews-notes/tyson-marcion-luke-acts/ ) Luke finds in Peter and the Twelve more generally a foundation for the church from which Paul was to become an off-shoot. Luke needs a figure who is prior to Paul in order to remove Paul from being the founder or opposition figure he had become. Luke’s Peter is all the more tightly embedded with the Twelve, too, it seems.

      As for ekballo, I see that the same word is used in Matthew 12:35, again associated with treasure, but clearly meaning in English to “bring forth” or “put forth”.

  2. Tim said: “As you will recall, many scholars think of Luke as a historian and a biographer. The preamble to his gospel, they insist, shows how much he cared about his many sources. Well, perhaps. But we see here that he was quite comfortable with inventing stories, freely repurposing and reusing his sources for his own needs.”

    Maybe Luke, in addressing his preamble to a perhaps fictional Theophillus (Θεοφιλος which means “friend of god”), is winking at the reader that he was going to be as freely inventing stuff as Mark did (on Luke and Mark inventing material, see Price, “Holy Fable” volume 2, 2017).”

    Another example from antiquity where we see an author sneaking something into the introduction of his work is Parmenides in his didactic poem attributing the ideas contained within to the Goddess, which most classicists feel is Parmenides trying to lend authority to his ideas.

    1. And indicating you are using sources in antiquity didn’t imply you were actually using sources. Gill argues “When Phaedrus points out that Socrates has made up the ‘Egyptian’ legend he tells, Socrates replies, tartly, that what matters is not the source of such a story, but the truth or falsity of the idea it conveys (275 b-c). This is, in effect, to concede the falsity of the story as historical narrative, a point also signalled at the start of the story (Gill, “Plato On Falsehood – Not Fiction 58)”.

      1. Thanks for the link. I tend to think the meaning of Luke’s preamble and the tale of the eyewitnesses is actually quite simple, and that Luke in fact did not have eyewitness sources. Recall Luke was writing in Greek, and would have been very familiar with the Greek education/literary techniques. In their writings, the Greek poets would claim the source for their material was the Muses themselves. They invented this connection to lend authority to their writing in order to make it appealing to the public. Like Xenophanes, Parmenides wrote in verse. His poem “On Nature” is in Homeric hexameters and includes many Homeric images, especially from the Odyssey. With obvious reference to the poetic tradition, Parmenides begins his poem with the invocation of a divine source. Parmenides’ use of this old poetic, mythological ruse, given that Parmenides was about the put forth what might well be the single most radical and counterintuitive worldview on record, was probably not a bad idea on his part to bolster his credibility with an appeal to divine authority. As I said, Socrates does something analogous in the “Phaedrus” by sourcing his material as an “Egyptian Tale,” thereby lending it the impressive weight as Egyptian lore – even though it was just something Socrates was making up. I think the simplest explanation is that Luke made up the eye witnesses and the person he was trying to convince, Theophillus, because his writing was meant to bring in new Christians. Remember, the ancient Jews were like us today: They generally frowned on lying, but believed it was fine for special purposes. They even thought God lied sometimes (see 1 Kings 22:21-22).

          1. Collins said “Why not, also, [autoptai of] a logos as a document? Or ‘the logos’ as the documentary cache of the Christian tradition that Luke focuses on throughout the preface?” This seems to be a reasonable interpretation. In either case, even if Luke was talking about eyewitnesses in the traditional sense, there is no reason to think this actually happened.

            1. And I will add that even if Collins is right and Luke’s supposed “eyewitnesses” were preservers and keepers of documents, this doesn’t mean Luke had access to such people, or that they even existed. Luke may simply have been creatively inventing material on his own, and saying he was getting it from people who preserved the tradition in order to lend authority to Luke’s writings – perhaps another Noble Lie in antiquity.

  3. Thanks for the presentation and comments here. They are helpful in assessing Bauckham’s book on “eyewitness” testimony. When I think of the “events” Luke records I have often wondered what “historical” events …other than those he draws from in literary dependence he has in mind, but since he is considered to be the theologian of the “Spirit” in terms of the synoptic writers I have sometimes wondered as well whether he is somehow talking about the ‘events of the spirit” that he and others “witnessed”. He and the Gospel writers think they can detect the “words and works” of the spirit happening on the plane of human history. After all that is what Acts suggests…. a carrying on of the words and works of Jesus’ spirit present in the affairs of that time frame and looking back on “events” (cf. Acts 1:1… ). Luke has gone down in the history of NT scholarship as the theologian relating Heilsgeschicte rather than some secular history that we could check out. Even the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts is perceived as a “witness”. How? in what way?..etc.

    Do the commenters here believe Luke is actually writing to a man — or Bishop Theophilus (2nd cent.) or is the name just an invention and is more general (god lovers)? Remember Luke’s purpose is catechesis (Luke 1:4) for the audience he is addressing (singular or plural?). If he is a real person and not an invention how does that affect the question? I realize in many ways Luke-Acts is historical fiction and so some details relate real people, places, things. etc. There are names in Luke-Acts that are intriguing. Another one is the Tertullus — a lawyer-rhetorician in Acts..one time when reading that in relation to Paul in Acts I wondered why it sounds so much like Tertullian (another 2nd cent.Church leader). When I was an evangelical professor and taught Luke-Acts I often struggled with these oddities. Moreover, the polloi (many) that Luke mentions is very vague. We tend to think only Matthew and Mark.

    Any thoughts on these things? I find the discussions here intriguing and helpful.

    1. I have no idea if Theophilus was a real patron or an invented name and I don’t know how we could ever know from the limited evidence we have. You have probably seen my other posts looking at the prevalence of puns (both personal and topographical names) in the gospels, but I have no way of knowing if Theophilus was a literary or historical figure. I can suspect, but that’s not an argument.

      As for “the many” in the prologue, perhaps with your background in koine you can offer a comment on John N. Collins’ article: https://vridar.org/category/scholars/john-n-collins/ ?

      1. Thanks Neil.

        I will look up that link re; polloi.( note though it says polloi…(anarthrous), not “the polloi” ie. the majority. ) Yes, I agree with you that it is difficult to determine issues regarding the audience. I raise such issues due to the fact that the text was not written to me…. It was written to someone else.. a very overlooked issue whenever I engage people who think they know exactly what the Bible says.

        But we must still ask questions of such a nature. And reading the entire Luke-Acts unity we often raise such questions since both are linked by the same “name”. So he could be catechizing one individual or many “god-lovers”. If Luke’s purpose is catechesis then it does shed light on issues of historicity and the like.

        It wasn’t so much an argument of mine as a question. It appears to your reading audience or yourself that such a question may not be important…or undecided. I am sure you are aware of Pervo’s work on such issues. I am trying to catch up on ALL your wonderful blogs.

        If it is Theophilus of the 2nd cent. we get to ask new questions and see some interesting things we have not seen before. It is an interesting task to ask such questions and see how they look in another context. btw do you place the writings of Acts in the second century? Just curious. I think I read some of your blogs where you have commented on such… it is a lot to go through, but I could be wrong. Many (polloi :)) think the date is very early… I used to date it very early myself but not anymore. As for the puns and name changes…very well aware of this…. I will look up that blog of yours as well. I am aware of “naming” issues in NT studies. Peter has more names than anyone in the NT…. !!!!!! as far as I have checked….except perhaps “Jesus” another “character” in the stories.

        Thanks for your interaction and will try to get back to you after reading J. Collins piece,, a thoughtful scholar as I view him.


        1. Yes, I do place Acts in the very “mid” second century (or even “mid+”). I can’t accept any of the arguments that place it early second or late first century — or maybe I have not heard the right ones to change my mind. It was certainly not written prior to Paul’s death and none of the “we passages” point to an authorial witness. (I know I should not be so dogmatic but that’s where I have been for some time now.)

          I cannot deny I am very much of the Knox – Tyson “school of thought”. Always willing to change my mind but will need to see the arguments, of course.

          1. When is Paul to be dated? Aretas IV’s ephemeral occupation of Damascus seems a thing conjured by circular reasoning from Acts. It is on the face of it historically preposterous; whereas Aretas III actually did occupy Damascus, and for some considerable time. He was a contemporary and enemy of Alexander Jannaeus, in whose reign sources from outside Roman control place Jesus. Jannaeus was High Priest in Jerusalem: he actually had the authority to send agents on missions to Damascus against followers of executed apostates. Aretas was Jannaeus’ enemy, his govenor would quite naturally seal up the city against an enemy agent. If there is anything in the genuine Paulines other than this mention of an Aretas that might provide a date for Paul; I think it would have to be very, very stong to put him in the time of Claudius. All we seem to have are thouroughly unreliable sources for total bollocks.

        2. For my part, what makes me willing to consider an earlier date for Acts, or at least some partial reliance on more immediate sources, are the many accurate data points reflecting knowledge of politics, geography, weather patterns, etc., across the northeastern Mediterranean. Classicist Colin Hemer dubbed the most interesting data points as “specific local knowledge” that stemmed from immediate experience and not likely to be derived from reference works. See idem., *The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History* (Coronet Books, 1989), 101-220. The banner is, quite naturally, taken up by evangelical biblical scholars; cf. Craig Keener, *Acts: An Exegetical Commentary,* 1:203-219. But more critical scholars have found the data points significant, too; e.g. Henry Cadbury and Charles Talbert. And, to be fair, Keener rightly notes that Hemer’s data logically entails neither an early date for Acts nor the conclusion that Acts is entirely factual. It would be interesting to see if a late-date-and-fictive-romance proponent has responded in detail to such arguments.

  4. I realize that some of my former comments may have introduced “new” theses regarding Luke’s intentions, etc.

    These are things I have been thinking about for sometime. I am aware that some of these thoughts of mine are not that common in these discussions. I do think they have merit and they are ways of working through the data and the history of interpretation on such issues. The word “witness” and “eyewitness” are used in the NT and we are surely trying to apply “historical” methods to the documents. But we are not in their skin…. their “skin” has been affected by some “spirit” related experience and so even their views of what constitutes history differ from ours in many ways.

    So in my view they are writing a “history (even a Heilsgeschite) of the spirit’s words and works” …I think in every book. eg. Mark the work of spirit through Jesus “begins” in Mark (see Mk. 1:1) and then “ends” when “he breathes out the spirit” ( in my view….his “inspiration” is blown out …is released and it had further effect.. So Matthew etc. draw on that inspiration of Mark, and so and so on. By the time we get to Acts the spirit has spread quite far.. Spirit is another way of speaking of some sort of inspiration. So each writer too (under the beginning inspiration) builds on the former… or exorcises the former and so and so on. It is the continuation of Jesus and his words and works that is important. Why? To do “catechesis”.. yes, Luke is “catechizing” Theophilus, not giving history per se, though I am not saying that catechesis subtracts historical data … but that is not the purpose or final goal (note the hina clause at the end of the prologue to his gospel.

    Just voicing some interesting things that are overlooked due to too much apologetic issues.

    So “Luke” (Polycarp) 2nd cent. is writing his own history of what he thinks was “fulfilled” (not accomplished as many translations have).. Luke has a penchant for words concerning “pimplimi” and “pleres”… These are loaded theological verbs and adjectives….etc. He sees things in the spirit! And then calls them a “narrative” history.

    My dear commentarians. These are some of my own takes on such great and rich traditions regarding Christianity.

    Many of these comments are just “seeds” that may have a life or not.

    Cheers (ps. I l am not much of a blogger and so all this is new to me.) I have been too busy studying and trying to understand these texts that have spilt so much ink. Look at us all. We are interested, even though some of us don’t believe these things.

    After being sick for so long I am just thankful I can share a few things here and there.

    1. It is important to understand an ancient author’s perceptions of “history” or whatever he was trying to do, of course. But for us, historical reconstruction, can only follow the most fundamental principles of evidence. There is nothing that is really opposed to common sense. It is the same fundamental principle wise parents use, and the police use, and the courts use…. look for independent confirmation to verify a claim. Simple as that. Unless we can do that then we have to suspend judgment.

      Of course we also need to have some idea of the provenance of each claim — the original one and the one that on the surface appears to be independent. But that’s a given in most cases.

      If we approach the gospels and Acts (and even the epistles) as we would expect historians to approach any other ancient document then I think we need to take a huge step backwards and have a good hard rethink before we start merely repeating some paraphrase of the narrative found in the gospels and Acts.

      NT scholars place much store on “criteriology” and now on memory theory. They all begin with the assumption that a pared back narrative of the gospel-acts story is historical and of course they find elements of that narrative indicative of historicity.

      But that’s not how we normally uncover new knowledge. We establish, normally, the nature of the material we are reading, look for independent corroboration and the provenance of each — and see where we end up.

      That’s not how NT scholarship works, at least not to my understanding of all that I have read.

      1. Are there any scholars/historians that have said NT scholars do history differently than other historians? I’d really like to know if other historians use the same criteria that NT scholars use to decide what’s historical.

        1. I have posted on this several times, quoting statements by both nonbiblical and biblical historians about their respective methods.

          One of the more recent ones was selections from M.I. Finley, a prominent historian of ancient history, stressing that we need independent confirmation to establish “facts” and that there is no known way of deciding what is historical in a narrative if all we have is that uncorroborated narrative. Biblical scholars disagree: criteria of authenticity have long been used to establish the “likely facts”. One can only imagine the response if one suggested to a historian of ancient history that they use the same criteria to establish the “facts” about Roman emperors.

          I will be posting more on the topic. The categories search options in the right column may be of some use — though limited since they are a bit of a mess and we (or Tim at the moment) are working on cleaning them up to be more useful.

  5. There is also similar theme in Luke’s passion narrative (23:31). Christ asks:
    “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

    Funny thing: I’ve been once told that differentness of the gospel of Luke come from him relying on words of Mary. So, all that merciful stuff that tough Galileans omit is in Luke’s story due to feminine sensibility. Just one of those things you have to swallow, if you want to believe in historicity of whole gospel story:)

  6. I’m seeing churches, not individuals, as the authors of the gospels.

    “Theophilus” probably translates into “God-Lover,” or “Lover of God.” Suggesting that he was not entirely objective, but was motivated by, characterized by, emotional needs. As most religions, churches.

    Likewise, the omission of immediate condemnation for a tree that does not bear fruit, could stem from the needs of a church too. The churches had promised many huge miracles; including heaven on earth, an ideal and absolutely triumphant kingdom full of miracles, “soon,” “at hand,” “quickly.” But no such things were really seen within a generation; or ever.

    That meant that the churches themselves were not “fruitful.” And by that standard, they should be condemned.

    It was to avoid any such conclusion, any condemnation of the churches, I suggest, that the demand for timely fruits, soon, was dropped. To save the reputation, status, of the churches. For being unfruitful branches, trees.

    1. Using certain email addresses will guarantee comments will do directly to the moderation or even spam filter. There is no guarantee that a human will notice or rescue any reasonable comments that caught up in the filter that way.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading