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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Fig-Tree

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FIG-TREE (in NT συκῆ, in OT תּאנִה tĕ’çnâh; the Carica, L.).—. The fig is the principal shade and fruit-tree of Palestine, growing in all parts, in many places spontaneously. It seldom surpasses 20 ft. [Post, in Hastings’ B [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , s.v. ‘Figs,’ says 15 ft.] in height, but has a spread of from 25 to 30 ft. Its welcome shade and refreshing fruit make it the emblem of peace and prosperity (Deuteronomy 8:8, Judges 9:10-11, 1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4, Zechariah 3:10, 1 Maccabees 14:12). Besides this general symbolism, two characteristics of the tree, appealing respectively to the eye and to the palate, have led to further comparisons.

(a) The fig-tree is conspicuous in early spring by the expanding of the tips of its twigs into little green knobs called פַנִים paggim (Gr. ὄλυνθοι, Song of Solomon 2:13 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘green figs’) which are the flower-fruit buds, and together with the leaf-bud, which expands shortly after and soon overshadows the pag, or fruit rudiment, serve as the herald of the coming summer (Matthew 24:32 and ||). This phenomenon of ‘all the trees’ (Luke 21:29) is particularly noticeable in the fig-tree because of its early and conspicuous verdure. The ripening of the pag follows the ‘appearance of the flowers on the earth,’ and accompanies the ‘blossoming of the vine’ as the feature of the advancing season and the time of mating (Ca 2:13). In the same connexion may be mentioned the phenomenon of the dropping of great quantities of the immature fruit in consequence of imperfect fertilization, so that the scattered paggim covering the ground under the fig-trees become to the author of Revelation 6:13 a symbol of the stars fallen to earth from the firmament, ‘as a fig-tree casteth her unripe figs when she is shaken of a great wind.’

(b) The fig-tree has two (not three) successive crops of fruit each year. The first-ripe fig (Heb. בִּכּוּרָה bikkûrâh, Isaiah 28:4, Jeremiah 24:2, Hosea 9:10, Micah 7:1) is produced upon the old wood of the preceding year, the buds which remained undeveloped through the winter swelling into the little green îm already described, towards the end of the season of spring rains (March–April), and coming to maturity in June. The תִּאַנָה tĕʻçnâh, or autumn fig, is the fig of commerce, and is produced on the new wood of the same year. The leaf-bud, which expanded shortly after the and soon distanced it in growth, puts out in its turn a flower-fruit bud which matures in August, or later, according to the variety, the fruit hanging on the boughs until winter, when the branches are again left naked, grey, and straggling.

This phenomenon of successive fruitage in the fig-tree is doubtless the source of the description of the fruit-trees of the New Jerusalem (Ezekiel 47:12, Revelation 22:2 ‘the tree of life’) as ‘bearing fruit every month.’ In the Talmud it is a symbol for the acquisition of learning, which, to be permanent, must come by little and little (Hamburger, RE [Note: E Realencyklopädie.] i. 3, s.v. ‘Feige,’ p. 360 with references). Hence the saying, ‘Whoso sees a fig-tree in his dreams, his learning shall be safe from forgetfulness’ (Berakhoth, 57). The capacity of the tree for prolongation of its bearing season leads in fact to certain representations which easily pass over into exaggerations and misunderstandings important to avoid.

Edersheim (Life and Times, bk. iv. ch. xvi. p. 246) refers to ‘a species (the Benoth Shuach) mentioned in Shebh, v. 1, of which the fruit required three years for ripening,’ but which may more reasonably be understood as simply a late-bearing variety whose fruit reached maturity only in exceptionally favourable seasons, not oftener than once in three years. So with the rhetorical passage of Josephus (BJ iii. x. 8) celebrating the delightful climate of the plain of Gennesaret. His statement that ‘it supplies the principal fruits, as grapes and figs, uninterruptedly during ten months of the year,’ cannot reasonably be made to prove more than the fact that in that semi-tropical depression, 600 ft. below sea-level, fresh fruit, including figs, could be obtained almost to the end of winter.

To explain the narrative of Mark 11:13 two other facts have been advanced of doubtful value and trust-worthiness. It is asserted that neglected relics of the autumn crop sometimes cling to the branches of the fig-tree throughout the winter; but Post (l.c. p. 6) was unable during a residence of 33 years in Syria to find, or hear of, such. The statement of Edersheim (l.e. v. ii. p. 374) that such left-over fruit about April 1 ‘would of course be edible’ becomes admissible only by inserting a ‘not’ after ‘of course.’ It is also asserted that the pag, or green fruit, was eaten, even Benzinger (PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] s.v. ‘Fruchtbäume,’ p. 304) declaring that ‘Jesus might expect to find such winter figs (the paggîm) on a tree already in leaf at the season of Passover, that is before the time of the ripening of figs.’ In the sense that the rudimentary fruit-buds would be discoverable under the leaves, upon examination (unless the tree had become sterile by reversion to the wild type, as sometimes occurs), this statement is true; the present writer has found such dry tasteless ‘figs’ at ‘Ain Far‘a near Jerusalem, on March 1, the size of an olive, though the tree was leafless. Boys sometimes nibble these buds, but to speak of the paggîm at this season as ‘winter figs’ is misleading. The evidence for the edible quality of the pag, drawn by Edersheim from the Talmud (Bk. v. ii. p. 375, referring to Shebh. iv. 7 and Jerus. [Note: Jerusalem.] Shebh. 35b, last lines) suggests only that at a later season the unripe fruit was sometimes used as a condiment ‘with bread.’ This, however, was after the paggim ‘began to assume a red colour,’ and not when the foliage had only just begun to cover the setting fruit-bud. Apart from the question whether a tree could be properly rebuked for the absence of a quite exceptional product, the alleged phenomena, whether of neglected relics of the autumn harvest, or use of the unripe fruit, have neither of them any real bearing on the difficulty that Jesus should approach a wayside fig-tree, with the intention of staying His hunger, when, as so frankly stated in the record itself, ‘it was not the season of figs.’

2. The Gospel references to the fig-tree include both parables and incidents, and make allusion to phenomena both of its leafage and its fruitage. As questions arise to how great an extent the incidents may not be symbolic, parables becoming concrete in process of repetition, or even pure symbols, it is best to consider first the two instances in which the fig-tree is made the subject of undoubted parable by our Lord.

(a) The parable of the Fig-Tree (Mark 13:28-29 = Matthew 24:32-33, paraphrased and interpreted Luke 21:29-31) is based on the early verdure of the tree. Its general sense is clear from Luke 12:54 ff. (= Matthew 16:2-3 β text), a passage which leads to the insertion in Luke 21:29 of βλέποντες ἀφʼ ἑαυτῶν (cf. Luke 12:57). The meaning is: As you judge by the softening, burgeoning twigs of the fig-tree that the harvest season is approaching, so read the signs of the times. These (ταῦτα; Mark 13:29 treats the preceding context as if only premonitions of the Day had been spoken of, overlooking Mark 13:24-27; but cf. Luke 12:51-53; Luke 12:56 with Mark 13:12-13; Mark 13:29; πἀντα ταῦτα, Matthew 24:33 is more specific but less correct) signs prove that the judgment, the gleaning of God (cf. Mark 4:29, not ‘the kingdom of God,’ Luke 21:31) is close at hand. As regards closer exegesis and criticism, we must say, with E. Schwartz (‘Der verfluchte Feigenbaum’ in ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissen. schaft.] i. p. 81): ‘Whoever would interpret with exactitude will meet with more than one difficulty.’ Besides Schwartz, the reader may consult Gould, Swete, and Wellhausen, ad loc. The paraphrase of Lk. is the earliest attempt to interpret, but smooths over difficulties (note, e.g., the additions ‘and all the trees,’ ‘the kingdom of God,’ and other changes).

(b) The parable of the Barren Fig-Tree (Luke 13:6-9) stands in the same eschatological context as the warning to read the signs of the times (Luke 12:35 to Luke 13:9 paralleled by Mark 13:33-36; Mark 13:12-13), and forms its climax. One is tempted to conjecture that the problematic ‘parable’ referred to in Mark 13:28, Matthew 24:32 (ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς συκῆς μάθετε τὴν παραβολήν, cf. Mark 7:17 as against Luke 21:29 καὶ εἷπεν παραβολήν) was once no other than this. At all events it simply applies, in fuller form, the figure credited in Matthew 3:10 = Luke 3:9 to the Baptist.

This is the common prophetic doctrine of the Divine ἀνοχή, the present a time of suspension of the Divine sentence to leave opportunity for repentance.

The once favourite allegorizing method of interpretation (e.g. the gardener=the Messiah, the three years=the three (?) Passovers of Christ’s public ministry) is now fortunately discredited. Yet it is incorrect, with Wellhausen (Ev. Lucae, ad loc.) to say that the fig-tree stands for the individual. Not merely is the girdled fig-tree an OT emblem of the punishment of Israel (Joel 1:7, cf. Luke 23:31), but the parable concludes a context wherein the men of Jerusalem, overwhelmed by the fall of the tower in Siloam, and the Galilaeans, cut down by the sword of Pilate, are brought forward as ‘signs of the times.’ The warning, accordingly, is certainly against ‘the overthrow of the Jewish people’ (T. K. Cheyne, Encyc. Bibl. s.v. ‘Fig-tree,’ col. 1521). ‘Except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish’ is not spoken of the fate of individuals, but of the common overthrow, however this may be avoided by individual repentance; cf. Matthew 12:38-45 = Luke 11:29-32.

3. The cursing of the fig-tree (Mark 11:12-14; Mark 11:20-25 = Matthew 21:18-22).—Parabolic symbolism is so slightly concealed under the narrative features of this story that the majority of critics are disposed to regard it as a mere endowment of the Lukan parable of the Barren Fig-tree with concrete form, just as the parable of the Good Samaritan, and others, were long treated as instances of historical fact.

In favour of this explanation are several features of the narrative and its setting.

(a) The generally admitted incorporation of Mk. by Lk. implies that the omission of Mark 11:12-14; Mark 11:20-25 was deliberate. The most natural explanation of it is that St. Luke regarded the story as a double of his parable, Luke 13:6-9. Conversely the parable does not appear in Mt. or Mark.

(b) The withering of the tree (Mark 11:20-25), a sequel of the next day after the cursing (Mark 11:12-14), occupies a different position in Matthew 21:19-22, taking place ‘on the spot.’ In both Gospels this appended sequel proves itself a secondary attachment, both by its material and its language. The contents of Mark 11:20-25 consist in the main of two logia, torn from their proper context (cf. Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6, and Matthew 6:14-15) and characterized by non-Markan expressions (cf. ‘your Father in heaven,’ Mark 11:25). Such loose agglomerations of stray logia are frequent in our Second Gospel (Mark 3:22-30; Mark 4:11-12; Mark 4:21; Mark 4:25; Mark 8:15; Mark 8:34-36; Mark 9:42-50; Mark 10:10-12 etc.). In Matthew 21:19-22 the language is alien (παραχρῆμα, ‘on the spot,’ Matthew 21:19-20, occurs 17 times in Lk. and Acts, whereas Mt. and Mk. have invariably elsewhere εὐθύς or εὐθέως), and the logia taken from Mk. produce duplication of Matthew 17:20 and almost of Matthew 6:14-15. By transposing the sequel into immediate juxtaposition with the cursing, and abridging Mark 11:20-25, Mt. avoids one of the two interruptions of the principal narrative of the purging of the temple and its consequences (Mark 11:1-10; Mark 11:15-18; Mark 11:27 ff.), and heightens the marvel, but fails to remove the evidence of his own dependence afforded by the duplication of Matthew 17:20, and only brings into stronger relief the supplementary and supererogatory character of the sequel.

This superfluousness of Mark 11:20; Mark 11:25 is most apparent in the light of such attempted explanations as that of B. Weiss, who says: The cursing of the fig-tree was ‘of course’ meant by Jesus symbolically, the concrete fulfilment given it by God being without intention on Jesus’ part. On this statement Wellhausen (ad loc.) comments sarcastically: ‘Weiss understands him. God misunderstood him.’ Nevertheless Weiss is clearly right in maintaining that the purpose of Jesus would be just as completely met if the story stopped with Mark 11:14 a.

But even more fatal than the superfluousness of the sequel is its perversion of the real symbolism of the incident. Nothing is said of that which analogy (Matthew 3:10; Matthew 7:18-19, Luke 13:6-9) proves to be the real moral lesson; but the appended sayings are adapted to find in it mere evidence of the wonder-working power of belief. The disciples are to learn that the prayer, or even the fiat, of faith—here taken as equivalent to undoubting assurance—can set at defiance the order of nature. This, the writer understands, was the purpose of the cursing. As part of the rebuke of the disciples half-heartedness (διψυχία) in the case of the epileptic boy (Matthew 17:19-20; cf. Luke 17:5-6, 1 Corinthians 13:2), the hyperbolic saying on mountain-moving faith is justified. Adapted along with Matthew 6:14-15 to give the moral lesson of the withering of the fig-tree, both fall to a lower plane, scarcely above that of mere thaumaturgy. The symbolism of the cursing is lost in the mere wonder of withering a tree, a needless miracle of display.

(c) Even after recognition of the unhistorical character of the addition Matthew 11:20-25, the incident of the cursing is still encumbered with inherent improbabilities, of which the most formidable is the imputation of hunger as the motive of Jesus’ approach to the tree. It is not enough to admit that the curse must be explained, if at all, by the discovery, made upon close inspection, that the tree was empty, not only of those supposititious edible products which could not be reasonably expected, but of even the rudiments of a crop in the season, and to suggest that when Jesus arrived ‘immediately the disappointment of unsatisfied hunger was lost in the moral lesson which flashed across His mind’ (Post, l.c.). Change of motive is inconceivable, because hunger cannot have caused the approach. Relics of the last season’s crop, if sought at all, would be sought on a tree whose still leafless branches left them in plain sight, not where they would be concealed by the foliage, if not thrust off by the new growth. So, too, of paggîm; but the degree of starvation necessary to suggest appeasing the stomach by paggîm at the season in question is improbable.

There remains as a historical basis for the story only the possibility that Jesus’ footsteps might be attracted by the suggestion of a possible moral lesson in the precocious leafage of a wayside tree, the discovery that it covered no promise of fruit leading Him thereupon to an utterance in the vein of prophetic symbolism. Gould (Internat. Crit. Com. ‘Mark,’ 212) finds evidence in Hosea 1:1-3, John 4:6-11, Matthew 13:10-15 that ‘such acted parables were not without precedent among the Jews.’ More apposite might be the reference of Διδ. Matthew 11:10 to prophets in the early Church who might ‘do something as an outward mystery typical of the Church (Ephesians 5:32) because in like manner did the prophets of old time’; cf. Acts 21:11. But the only real parallel in the story of Jesus is the parable (unaccompanied by any narrative of fact) of the Stater in the Fish’s Mouth, Matthew 17:24-27. The propensity of the reader, if not of the Evangelist himself, to take this symbolic direction to Peter as implying the real execution of a miracle, shows how easily a symbolic sentence of death, directed against the fig-tree as the representative of unrepentant Israel, might be taken to imply its literal withering away.

Due consideration for all three objections leaves the question still open whether the story of Mark 11:12-14 a records a specific utterance of this symbolic kind directed against a particular tree, on a particular occasion; or whether tradition and the Evangelist together have not simply localized between Bethphage (‘Fig-town’) and Jerusalem, on occasion of the supreme visitation of the latter, a visualized version of the parable Luke 13:6-9.

In favour of the former view may be cited critics no less radical than H. J. Holtzmann (Hdkom. ad loo.) and J. Weiss (Das Aclteste Evangelium, p. 268). Still more pronounced is Schwartz in favour of connecting the fig-tree of Mark 11:12-14, and even that of Mark 13:28 as well, with some sun-bleached skeleton from the orchards of Bethphage, a lone relic of the siege of Titus, pointed to by Jerusalem Christians as the memorial of Jesus warning and promise; but Schwartz would not admit a basis of fact for this early identification by tradition of ‘the’ fig-tree, but rather such as Cheyne instances in ‘the inn’ of the Good Samaritan.

The phenomena of the text indicate, however, that the process must at least precede our text of Mark. For our Evangelist the symbolic sense has already disappeared, leaving only the work of power. Before this stage of the process could be reached the parable of the Barren Fig-tree must already have been transformed by local tradition into symbolic cursing of some given tree, and the moral lesson have been subsequently eclipsed by the purely thaumaturgic interest.

More conservative criticism, while recognizing the secondary character of Mark 11:20-25, and perhaps admitting the fundamental identity of the symbolic cursing with the parable whose lesson is so obviously the same, may still demand more evidence before it surrenders the possibility that our Second Evangelist retains a substantially trustworthy tradition of the actual site and occasion of the utterance.

4. The fig-tree of Nathanael (John 1:48). Symbolism admittedly enters to so large a degree into the narrative of the Fourth Gospel (cf. e.g. John 9:7; John 12:33), that it is not surprising if the more radical school of interpreters, looking upon it as the uniform product of an allegorizing fancy, should find in the unexplained reference of John 1:48 the suggestion of an allegorical sense, the fig-tree having the symbolic meaning of religious instruction applied in the Talmud, or even playing the part of the sacred Bo-tree (Ficus religiosa) in Buddhist legend. The fact that commentators from Schoettgen and Lightfoot (Hor. Heb. ad loc.) downwards have inferred that Nathanael was ‘aut orans, aut legens, aut meditans, aut aliquid religiosum praestans’ is proof that this mental association is natural; but it cannot be truly said that the Evangelist allegorizes. The words ‘when thou wast under the fig-tree’ are obscure, not because we fail to apply the key, but because the Evangelist has left something lacking. He utters an enigma, but gives no other clue than the recognition by Nathanael of Jesus’ supernatural knowledge. He wishes the reader to guess that Jesus had here proved Himself the καρδιογνώστης λόγος (cf. Wisdom of Solomon 1:6-8), as in the case of the Samaritan Woman later (John 4:17-19; John 4:29); but he either does not trouble himself, or was unable, to relate the facts.

Cheyne indeed (Encyc. Bibl. s.v. ‘Nathanael’) considers the usual explanation ‘hardly adequate. If it simply means, “when thou hadst retired under the shade of the fig-tree for meditation or prayer,” we ask why the Evangelist did not express the Master’s meaning more distinctly (contrast John 4:18).’ His answer is a conjectural emendation of the Hebrew (!) in a supposititious source of the Gospel, וְאַתָּה מִתְחַנִּן ‘when thou wast making supplication,’ for וְאַתָּה תַּחַת הַתִּאִנָה ‘when thou wast under the fig-tree.’ But conjecture of this sort discredits itself. To every reader it is manifest that an element of the narrative is intentionally or unintentionally suppressed. If it be granted that ‘the Fourth Gospel is a composite work,’ it is not unreasonable to suppose its compiler to have left untranscribed that portion of his source which would have explained the allusion to the fig-tree, just as he has omitted in his story of the feeding of the multitude (John 6:1 ff.) Jesus’ motive for the miracle [logical unœ of this character form indeed a distinctive feature of this Gospel].

If the traditional view be maintained, the Evangelist’s reserve will be accounted for as reflecting the enigmatic nature of the actual dialogue, which, so far as bystanders were able to perceive, had no further explanation.

Literature.—Besides the works referred to in the art. the following may be consulted: Thomson, LB [Note: The Land and the Book.] , pt. ii. ch. xxiv.; Tristram. Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 352: Trench, Parables12 [Note: 2 designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 346ff.; Bruce, Parabol. Teaching, p. 427 ff.; Trench, Miracles10 [Note: 0 designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 466 ff.; W. M. Taylor, Mir. of Our Saviour, p. 413 ff.; Liddon, Sermons on Some Words of Christ, p. 100; Godet and Westcott, Comm. in loc.; cf. Augustine, Conf. viii. xii. 28.

B. W. Bacon.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fig-Tree'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/f/fig-tree.html. 1906-1918.

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