“Sorry for the soap box speech. I get a little wound up with all this biscuits, barbecue, and lemon pie in me. And by the way, I’m buying. I enjoy talking about God, Jesus, and the Spirit so much that I happily pay.”
Stanley objected. “Look. I know you’re time is valuable, but I just have to ask a couple of more questions. And I’ll spring for the coffee.”
I was impressed. How did he know I found coffee irresistible after lemon meringue pie? Very astute young man, this Stanley. I should see if he is looking for a clerkship.
“So … for coffee … ask me anything.”
“You’re probably very familiar with this one, but I’m really bugged by Jesus and the curse of the fig tree. I have these notes from The Apologetics Press website —
Another question to consider (and perhaps the one that is addressed most often in a discussion of the withered fig tree) is whether or not Jesus cursed the tree before or after the temple was cleansed. Since Matthew records this event before the cursing of the fig tree (21:12-19), and Mark places the cleansing of the temple after Jesus cursed the tree (11:15-19), it is supposed that one of the two writers was mistaken. The truth is, however, Matthew’s account is more of a summary, whereas Mark’s narrative is more detailed and orderly.
(emphasis in original).
“But compare the actual text —
(Mat 21:12-20 ESV) And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
… 17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.
18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”
“Now, clearly, according to Matthew, Jesus cleansed the temple, traveled to Bethany, cursed the fig tree, and the disciples saw that the fig tree withered all at once.
“But Mark says,
(Mar 11:11-22 ESV) 11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
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.
15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.”
“Just as plainly, Jesus left Jerusalem, went to Bethany, cursed the fig tree, returned to Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and then returned by way of the fig tree — and the disciples noticed the fig tree withered a day after Jesus pronounced his curse.
“They are obviously the same series of events, and yet they aren’t the same. They contradict each other!”
I nodded my head. “First, kudos on your courage to read the scriptures for what they say, not what someone else tells you they say. There are plenty of places where you’d get in serious trouble for asking such hard questions, but our faith doesn’t count for much if we aren’t willing to look the hard questions dead square in the eye!
“Now, notice how The Apologetics Press deals with the question: ‘The truth is, however, Matthew’s account is more of a summary, whereas Mark’s narrative is more detailed and orderly.’
“That’s not quite right, but it’s close. Let’s pull a commentary:
The sequence of events here differs from Mark (cf. Mk 11:12-14, 20-26); ancient biography was not required to be chronological, and Matthew’s changes in Mark’s sequence would have been considered negligible.
“Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 102.
“Now, Keener makes a critically important point. Readers of ancient literature had different expectations than modern readers. What is ‘true’ is not exactly the same. Not exactly.
“We are Westerners. We like the abstract. The pure proposition. The facts. But Matthew and Mark were Easterners writing for people who focused on the story and the moral of the story — not the facts. This is why parables were so central in Jesus’ teaching. People in ancient Palestine thought in terms of metaphor and story — and so Jesus spoke to them in language that was familiar to them.
“Paul writes more often to a Greco-Roman audience, influenced by Grecian philosophy, and so he is more abstract — and so more comfortable for modern readers.
“The bottom line is that ancient literature — including the Bible — cannot be read as modern literature. It was inspired by God — and is therefore true — but it speaks truth in the language of the age in which it was written.
“Matthew, even more so than Mark, was written for a Jewish audience. And a First Century Jewish audience expected to speak and read and learn in stories — and to them, it was not dishonest for the story to be compressed or even for events to be reordered so that the lesson is more clear — because the lesson is the more important thing.
“This is why, as The Apologetics Press correctly explains, Matthew is ‘more of a summary.’ It’s not just because Matthew likes summaries or got tired of writing so very many words. It’s because the summarized story makes the point more clearly to an audience focused on the story.
“I need to recommend to you Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien — an excellent book. The authors are missionaries who’ve taught the gospel in many cultures very different from our modern, Western world. And they do a great job of demonstrating how different cultures see the world very differently, and so they tell their stories differently.”
Stanley took a slow, dramatic sip of his coffee as he thought how to ask his question. “But if that’s so, then it requires experts to read the Bible correctly! And I thought the Bible could be read and understood by even a plowboy!”
“Yes and no, is the answer. Yes, a plowboy can read a good, contemporary translation and learn the gist of Christianity. He can learn enough to be saved. But he won’t master the text without help.
“The Ethiopian eunuch needed Phillip’s help to read Isaiah — and he was an officer in the royal court of Ethiopia — surely far more literate than most of his contemporaries.
“And we live thousands of years separated from the worlds of Jesus and David and Abraham. We need help from experts to get everything there is to get from the text. Just as we struggle to read Shakespeare and Beowulf, which were written much closer to our time and culture, we really need help to sort through the Bible.
“But we are blessed to live in a world where commentaries and dictionaries and histories of the ancient world are plentiful and written by good men who love Jesus.
“So, yes, if you want to get Genesis 1 right, you need to read it as a document from the Ancient Near East, written in the Bronze Age to a Bronze Age audience. And it’s our job to come to the scriptures as they are, not to force the scriptures to conform to our culture. We are hopelessly naive to imagine that Moses or David or Matthew should have written a text to suit our culture and our preconceptions, making the text inscrutable to everyone between them and us! How self-centered we can be!
“No, the texts were written by ancient men, by ancient standards, in ancient words, for a community of believers blessed by God with historians, translators, and commentators who can help us understand these ancient texts as their ancient authors intended.
“Get this, and not only do the texts teach us so much more, but the ‘contradictions’ begin to fade away. Indeed, sometimes they even become instructive.
“But my coffee is cold, my clients need my attention, and I’ve got to go.”