The history of the temple cleansing and the history of the cursed fig tree are found in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark. Both histories are in a pericope that begins with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and concludes with Jesus' explanation of the curse of the fig tree (Mt. 21:1-22; Mk. 11:1-26). The unity of the pericope is evident from the role that quotations from Zechariah and Jeremiah play in this passage, as we will see. We also encounter the cleansing of the temple in the Gospel of Luke, but the cursed fig tree is missing there (Luke 19:28-48).
It is a well-known passage from the Gospels, but that does not alter the fact that both histories raise many questions. Some theologians even consider this part to be the most difficult text in the New Testament. Jesus destroying a tree seems contradictory to the many other signs He did, such as healing the sick. What is the reason for the temple cleansing? Many interpreters point to corruption by the traders, but there is no evidence of this. And isn't it unreasonable to curse a tree because it doesn't have figs on it when Mark says it's not the time for figs? And why does Jesus, in response to the disciples' reaction to the withering of the tree, comment on the importance of believing?
Trade in the temple square
In Deut. 14:22-27 we read: 'You shall tithe all the produce of the seed that comes from your field year by year. You shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where he chooses to place his name, the tenth of your grain, your new wine, and your oil, and the firstlings of your herds and of your flocks. that you may learn to fear the LORD your God all the days of your life. When the way is too long for you, so that you cannot carry them, because the place which the LORD your God chooses to put his name there is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, and you shall redeem it, and take the money with you, and go to the place which the LORD your God shall choose, and you shall spend the money on whatsoever you please, whether for oxen or flocks, for wine, or for strong drink, or whatsoever you desire, and there you and your household shall eat and be glad before the LORD your God; and the Levite who dwells within your gates you shall not leave to his own devices, for he has no possession or inheritance with you." This shows that buying a sacrificial animal in Jerusalem instead of taking the sacrificial animals from home was permitted. Jewish literature also shows that this was a permitted practice.
The Jews did not want to accept Roman money when trading in the temple because this money had an image of the emperor. For this reason the money had to be exchanged for Tyrian money before sacrificial animals could be purchased. This Tyrian money was used because it did not contain an image of a human being - although it did contain an image of a deity - and because this coin was sufficiently available and had an even silver content.
Many comments indicate that the trade in sacrificial animals was corrupt and that improperly large profits were made from exchanging money, but it is highly questionable whether this is generally true.
The fig tree
We encounter three types of fig tree in the New Testament.
The συκη (sukè) is the fig tree (Ficus carica). This loses its leaves in winter. The tree grew to a height of 6 to 9 meters. The fruit is edible.
The συκομορεα (sukomorea) is the wild fig tree, sykomore or mulberry fig tree (Ficus sycomorus). This tree grows to a height of 10 to 15 meters and does not lose its leaves. The tree has a large crown and the wood of this tree is usable. Zacchaeus climbed such a tree (Luke 19:4).
Finally, we have the συκαμινος (sukaminos). This is a mulberry tree (Luke 17:6).
There are interpreters who believe that the tree that Jesus cursed was a fig tree, but since there is a clear difference in names in Greek between the fig tree and the fig tree and the trees are clearly different in appearance, this is a very sought explanation.
The fig tree has its first fruits in March, even earlier than the leaves. The first leaves sprout in April. Below the beginning of these shoots are the so-called prefigs ('paggim', see Canticles 2:13). These are green figs that contain little juice. They were eaten because there were few other fruits at that time. The leaves grow very large and the foliage can become very dense. Sometimes the tree only produces leaves and no figs. These trees will not develop fruit. In early summer, early figs ('bikkurim', first fruits, see Isa. 28:4, Jer. 24:2, Hosea 9:10, Micah 7:1, Nah. 3:12) develop in the place of the prefigs. These figs are ready to eat in late May or early June. The shoots that started developing in early spring produce the third generation of fruits. These are the best figs ('te'enim', figs). They are harvested from August. These figs are rich in juice and contain 60% grape sugar. They are eaten fresh or dried into cakes. Fruit development continues until late summer. The last fruits ('paggim') no longer ripen and can be shed in the winter (Rev. 6:13). If they survive the winter they will ripen in the spring. The comment that it was not the time for the figs (Mark 11:13) indicates why Jesus walked to the tree, because the prefigs – which were to be expected based on the fact that there were leaves – can only be seen from close to.
The pericope contains four quotes from the Old Testament:
Zach. 9:9: Say to the daughter of Zion, Behold, your King comes to you, meek, and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden (Mt. 21:5).
Ps. 118:26: Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord (Mt. 21:9, Mk. 11:10, Lk. 19:38).
Isa. 56:7: My house will be called a house of prayer (Mt. 21:13, Mk. 11:17, Lk. 19:46).
Jer. 7:11: but you make it a den of thieves (Mt. 21:13, Mk. 11:18, Lk. 19:46).
The Zechariah Apocalypse
Chapters 9 through 14 of Zechariah are called the Zechariah Apocalypse. This section prophesies about the coming of the Messiah and the end times. These chapters from Zechariah play a role in the background of the pericope discussed in this article.
The layout of the Zechariah apocalypse looks like this:
- 9:1-8 Israel's enemies defeated
- 9: 9-10 the Messiah as king (par. Isa. 42)
- 9:11 - 11:3 victory of God's people over their enemies
- 11:4-17 the Messiah rejected (par. Isa. 49)
- 12:1-9 final battle
- 12:10 – 13:1 the Messiah slain (par. Isa. 50-51)
- 13:2-6 idols and false prophets will be removed
- 13: 7-9 the Messiah slain (par. Isa. 52-53)
- 14:1-15 final battle
- 14: 16-21 all nations celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles
The apocalypse begins with a prophecy about the defeat of Israel's enemies and ends with a prophecy that all nations will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with Israel. The part in between contains alternating prophecies about the Messiah and prophecies about the end times. The four prophecies about the Messiah are very similar to the four prophecies about the suffering of the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah.
At the beginning of the Zechariah apocalypse, the Messiah is prophesied: “Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King will come to you, righteous, and a Savior, poor, and riding on a donkey, on a donkey's colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
When Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, people think of the fulfillment of this prophecy. This is evident from their response. At the end of this Zechariah apocalypse, an end-time Feast of Tabernacles is prophesied in which all nations will participate: “And it shall come to pass, that all that are left of all the heathen that come against Jerusalem shall come up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zech. 14:16). It is clear that the bystanders are thinking of this text from Zechariah's prophecy. They quote from Hallel (Ps. 113-118) with the words “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna, in the highest heavens!” (Ps. 118:26). Hallel was sung during Passover, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Tabernacles and Hanukkah. The waving of branches from the trees refers to the Feast of Tabernacles.
But the Zechariah apocalypse has a sequel: “On that day it will be written on the bells of the horses: HOLY TO THE LORD. And the pots in the house of the LORD shall be as the basins before the altar. Yea, all the pots in Jerusalem and in Judah shall be holy unto the LORD of hosts: and all that desire to sacrifice shall come and take of them to boil in them. In that day there shall be no more a Canaanite in the house of the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 14:20-21). The word translated here as 'Canaanite' can also be translated as 'merchant' (so NIV; see also Prov. 31:24, Job 40:25, Isa. 23:8). This passage from Zechariah indicates that everything in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy and all nations will serve God together with Israel.
The temple cleansing
The cleaning of the temple by Jesus refers to this text from Zechariah. Jesus quotes from Isaiah with a similar meaning: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isa. 56:7). This once again emphasizes that the Gentiles will join God's people. However, the Gentiles were only allowed in the courtyard, which was occupied by money changers and merchants. This made praying in the temple virtually impossible for them.
Jeremiah's temple preaching
The continuation of Jesus' response is a quote from Jeremiah: “…but you have made it a den of thieves” (Jer. 7:11). This quote is from a passage we call the temple preaching (Jer. 7:1-34). God tells Jeremiah to stand in the gate of the temple and preach to the people of Judah who enter the temple. He reproaches them for the injustice they do: oppression of widows and orphans, stealing, killing, adultery, idolatry. “Is this house that is called by My name a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer. 7:11). Although the Judeans go to the temple, they do not belong there. They are burglars, as the text can also be translated. Or as the Targum (Aramaic translation) states: “Has this house become a gathering place for the wicked?” Jeremiah reproaches his listeners for a life that apparently seems very pious, but is in fact a course of action that goes against God's commandments. Jesus also warns against a lifestyle that looks pious on the outside, but that ignores what God really asks of us.
If we read further in Jeremiah, it becomes clear that the people at that time hardened themselves instead of listening to Jeremiah's words. And then God announces the destruction of the temple: “I will utterly destroy them, declares the LORD. There are no grapes on the vine, no figs on the fig tree, and the leaves are withered” (Jer. 8:13). God sees no fruit on the vine and the fig tree, a picture of the Jewish people, and that is why He comes with His judgment. Jeremiah announces that the temple will be destroyed.
The curse of the fig tree
The meaning of this story of the cursed fig tree is an extension of the meaning of the temple cleansing. The tree looked promising from the outside, but the fruit was missing. The sequel is a serious warning: Jesus curses the tree and as a result it withers away. The observant bystander will also have understood through the reference to Jeremiah that there is a second warning in this story: God will come with His judgment and destroy the temple.
Mark places great emphasis on the fact that the history of the temple cleansing and the history of the cursed fig tree are closely linked. He does this by using a so-called 'sandwich construction', in which the two histories are interwoven. This is explained in the following diagram.
11 “And after He had seen all things round about” (temple cleansing)
12-14 'to see if He would find anything in it' (fig tree curse)
15-17 “that my house shall be called a house of prayer” (temple cleansing)
20-24 'whatever you ask and desire' (withering fig tree)
In Luke the history of the cursing of the fig tree is missing. Furthermore, it is notable that Luke places the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-28) before the story of the entry into Jerusalem and that he places the prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44) before the cleansing of the temple. places. In Matthew, both events are described later in the Gospel (parable of the pounds in Matt. 25:14-30 and prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem in Matt. 24:1-2).
In Luke the parable of the pounds begins with the following remark (Luke 19:11-12): 'As they listened to it, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and they thought that the kingdom of God would immediately come. would become public. Then he said: A man of high birth went to a far country to receive the royal dignity for himself and (afterwards) to return. This makes it clear that this parable refers to a historical event. Herod the Great who died in 4 BC. had divided his kingdom among three of his sons in his will. Archelaus received the largest share, including the province of Judea in which the capital Jerusalem is located. The old Herod had determined in his will that Archelaus would only receive the title of king if he had proven himself suitable for it. However, immediately after the death of Herod the Great, Archelaus illegitimately usurped the title of king. During the feast of Pentecost there was unrest, and Archelaus' troops killed 3,000 Jews. But Archelaus had another problem. His brother and co-heir Antipas contested their father's will. According to him, their father was no longer in possession of his full mental faculties when he made his will. The brothers decided to submit the matter to Emperor Augustine, who still had to ratify the will. Archelaus transferred the government to his brother and third heir Philip, placed the treasures of Herod the Great among experienced officials and in the larger towns he appointed city commanders. Archelaus left for Rome. Antipas also left. And a third ship went to Rome, carrying 50 prominent Jewish men who wanted to petition the emperor to depose both Archelaus and Antipas and to appoint a Roman governor. The emperor heard the three parties and confirmed Archelaus in the administration of the areas mentioned in the will. He was not allowed to use the title of king, but became an etnarch. If Archelaus proved himself worthy, he could call himself king. On his return he deposed the high priest who had taken part in the rebellion. Presumably he also called others to account. He tyrannized the population for ten years, after which he was executed by Emperor Augustus in the year 6 AD. was called to account and exiled.
As we have seen, the significance of the withering of the fig tree is the announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem. This history is missing from Luke, but instead Luke records as part of this pericope Jesus' announcement of the fall of Jerusalem.
The cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree proclaim one and the same message. The people of Jesus' day wanted a king. But they forgot that - as Zechariah prophesied - the Messiah would first be rejected (Zech. 11:4-7) and killed (Zech. 12:10 – 13:1 and 13:7-9). They also forgot that God requires a life that is in accordance with faith, and not a life that only looks pious on the outside. And furthermore, this history emphasizes that God also has pagans in mind. Finally, it also becomes clear that the destruction of the temple is announced.