There’s a lot of discussion lately about the relationship between scripture and history. In this post, I suggest, by way of a case study, that the trees are obscuring the view of the forest for those gazing at historicity questions.
In Mark 11, Jesus approaches a fig tree. It has leaves, but no fruit. He says “may no one eat of your fruit again.” Mark carefully notes that his disciples heard it. Jesus then goes to the temple and kicks some people out. Later, as they pass the tree, Peter says, “Look! The tree which you cursed has withered from the roots!”
This incident vexes interpreters. It can seem as if Jesus has engaged in the first-century equivalent of kicking a vending machine which had taken his dollar bill but refused to release his Doritos. That’s the result of a strictly literal reading. But Mark has carefully given us hints that a strictly literal reading is not appropriate here: first, he said very specifically that it was not the season for figs. So you either have to read Jesus as ignorant and petulant (to expect figs out of season) or you have to realize that there is something else going on. Next, Mark has interjected the story of Jesus’ removal of the moneychangers and the merchants from the temple in between the two halves of the story of the fig tree; Mark does this when he wants to use two stories to interpret each other. The fig tree is a symbol for Israel; fruitlessness/barrenness is a symbol of destruction; so we are to take Jesus’ temple action and Jesus’ fig tree action as conveying the same message about the temple/nation. (See Hosea 9, Jeremiah 7-8, and Micah 7). Further, Mark notes that the disciples saw that the tree had withered from the roots up. (Think about that for a minute: how could they have seen the roots?)
So it seems to me that at this moment, the least important and least interesting question that you could spend time thinking about is: Did Jesus really cause a fig tree to wither? I mean, who cares? Mark has carefully signaled that this is a deeply symbolic incident. Whether it happened in history seems about as relevant as whether Jesus was wearing his khaki tunic or his slate one with the nice stitching on the sleeves that day. Who cares? What difference does it make to how you read the story? Why would you even waste your time debating the historicity of this incident?
As I’ve said elsewhere, I think it matters whether you think Jesus was capable of withering a fig tree. I do think he was, as a matter of faith. But there’s no way for you or anyone else to torture this text enough to get it to reveal whether this event did or did not actually, historically happen. There’s nothing you can do (in terms of textual analysis) to determine whether a text recounting a miracle corresponds to history; the attempt to do so is a category error. It’s like thinking that if you analyze the data in just the right way, the thermometer will eventually reveal whether it is raining. But it just can’t do that; neither can a text somehow indicate whether a miracle actually happened. All of the efforts to force it to reveal its historicity or lack thereof are fruitless.
Far, far more interesting questions to ask about this passage include: How does the fig tree incident relate to the temple incident? What is being (symbolically) destroyed and, more importantly, why? What do the disciples (and, Mark’s audience) learn about Jesus from this incident, and how do they learn it? How does the Hebrew Bible background (of the fig tree, of barrenness, of the two texts Jesus quotes in the temple) inform the story? And, of course, how should my reading of this story impact my beliefs and behavior? What can I take from this text that can make me a more fruitful disciple?
So my gripe with all of the, uh, pixels being wasted in the Mormon historicity wars is not just that they are trying to answer inherently unanswerable questions, but that they are trying to answer really boring questions, at the cost of never getting around to asking the really interesting ones.