The Fig Tree Incident—A Contradiction?

By Wayne Jackson

“Can you explain the apparent contradiction between Matthew and Mark? In Matthew’s account, Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple, and then cursed the fig tree the next day. (Mt. 21:10-22). Yet in Mark’s account he cursed the fig tree first, and then drove the moneychangers out – on the same day (Mk 11:11-26).”

The problem of an alleged “contradiction” between Matthew and Mark, in this particular situation, lies in the fact that the Bible critic does not understand the perspective from which each of the Gospel writers approached the incidents.

The sequence of events on that Monday and Tuesday of the Lord’s “Passion Week,” before his crucifixion on Friday, was as follows.

(1) On Monday morning (following the Triumphal Entry on Sunday), Jesus and his disciples made their way from Bethany, east of Jerusalem (where they had spent the night), back toward Jerusalem. Along the way, the Lord saw a leafed-out fig tree that was barren of any fruit. In Palestine fig trees ordinarily bore the fruit first, then they subsequently leafed out. The oddity of this tree afforded Jesus the opportunity to teach a lesson that was applicable to the Jewish nation. The nation feigned spiritual piety, but there was no “fruit” demonstrating such. In fact, many of the Jews were poised to crucify their own Messiah before the week was over. [We have discussed this episode elsewhere. See: "Why Did Jesus “Curse” the Fig Tree?". For the present, we are concerned only with the chronological sequence of the events. It is this issue that has been questioned by skeptical critics.]

Observing this fruitless tree, Jesus pronounced a “curse” (i.e., a withering judgment) upon the tree as a symbolic preview of that punishment which ultimately would befall the Hebrew nation (A.D. 70). Immediately the fig tree began to wither away.

The Lord and his disciples then proceeded on to the capital city. They entered the temple compound, and Christ observed the moneychangers plying their wares. With righteous indignation he cast them out from the sacred area, charging them with defaming the house of God. Finally, the Savior and his men returned to Bethany to spend the night there.

(2) On Tuesday morning, the little band again made their way toward Jerusalem. It was at this point, according to Mark’s record, that the disciples noticed the withered fig tree. They marveled about the matter and Christ used the occasion to encourage them to strengthen their faith.

The “Problem”

This is where the so-called “problem” occurs – with reference to Matthew’s Gospel. It is alleged that the apostle places the “cursing” of the tree, and the disciples exchange with the Lord about this incident, on the same day, and following the cleansing of the temple, thus creating a conflict with Mark. But does he?

Competent scholars have long recognized that some accounts in the Scriptures are topically arranged at various points, rather than conforming to a strict chronological sequence. For example, Genesis 1 is a chronological arrangement of the events of the first six days of the creation week. Genesis 2 also deals with the creation events, but the record is topically arranged, with a major emphasis on mankind. There is no conflict; there is merely a different purpose in the narratives.

Many writers have noted that some portions of Matthew’s Gospel are arranged topically, rather than chronologically. D.E. Hiebert observes: “The contents of Matthew, while revealing careful arrangement, are not readily arranged in a systematic outline. The arrangement of the material is largely topical and the central portion of the gospel revolves around five discourses by Jesus” (p. 67). Thiessen provides the following breakdown. “The first four chapters of Matthew are chronological; chs. 5-13 are topical; and chs. 14-28 are again chronological, with the exception of 21:18, 19” (p. 138). Of course Matthew 21:18-19 is the very text that is questioned, chronologically speaking, by the critics.

First observe that Matthew does not say that the “cursing” of the fig tree was on the day following the cleansing of the temple. He simply says that it was “in the morning as he returned to the city” (21:18). Mark’s account makes it clear that the “morning” was Monday morning, following his visit on Sunday. Second, Matthew, for convenience sake, combines the “cursing of the tree” and the subsequent “discussion with the disciples,” without affirming that these events occurred on the same day. One must not read specificity into an account when it is not there.

William Hendricksen has a very succinct discussion of the matter. In his commentary on Matthew, he writes:

“That the Gospel writers were not mere copyists but independent authors, each using his own method, appears very clearly in the present instance [21:18-22]. Since part of the Fig Tree story occurred on Monday and part on Tuesday (Mark 11:11,12,19,20), with the cleansing of the temple taking place (on Monday) between these two parts, it 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” (p. 773).

D.A. Carson comments similarly: “If the Triumphal Entry was on Sunday, then, according to Mark, the cursing of the fig tree was on Monday; and the disciples’ surprise at the tree’s quick withering, along with Jesus’ words about faith, were on Tuesday. Matthew has simply put the two parts together in a typical topical arrangement” (p. 444). See also R.C.H. Lenski (p. 811).

There is one final circumstance that deserves comment. Some have wondered why the disciples did not notice the withered tree as they departed Jerusalem on Monday afternoon, in returning to Bethany. Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that they did not observe that detail until Tuesday morning. R.C. Foster has clarified the matter. When the Jews traveled eastward, from Jerusalem to Bethany, they took a more winding route, facilitating an easier climb around the Mount of Olives. The westerly route, from Bethany to Jerusalem, however, was a steeper (downhill) and quicker passage. And so the return to Bethany on Monday evening almost certainly was by a different road (Foster, p. 1104).

A consideration of all the relevant data, as to the respective purpose and style of each writer, clearly shows that Matthew and Mark do not conflict with reference to this event in the Lord’s ministry.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Carson, D.A. (1984), Matthew — The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (8), Frank E. Gaebelein, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Foster, R.C. (1971), Studies in the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • Hendricksen, William (1973), Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • Hiebert, D. Edmond (1975), An Introduction to the New Testament: Volume One, The Gospels and Acts (Chicago: Moody).
  • Lenski, R.C.H. (1964), The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
  • Thiessen, Henry C. (1955), Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.