It is not uncommon for people who study the gospels to misconstrue matters of chronology that
are contained within the four
accounts. The fact of the matter is, the gospel writers never claimed to have recorded all of the
events of Jesus’ life in the
exact order in which they occurred. Unless an action or event is denoted by a specific marker
(such as “the next day,” “
on the morrow,” “on the Sabbath,” etc.), there can be time gaps between the verses.
One example of this is the account
of the withered fig tree in Mark 11:12-14,20-21 and Matthew 21:18-20.
And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, he hungered. And seeing a fig
tree afar off having leaves, he
came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but
leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it.
And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots. And
Peter calling to remembrance saith
unto him, “Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away” (Mark
Now in the morning as he returned to the city, he hungered. And seeing a fig tree by the way
side, he came to it, and found nothing
thereon, but leaves only; and he saith unto it, “Let there be no fruit from thee henceforward
for ever.” And immediately the
fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, “How did the
fig tree immediately wither
away?” (Matthew 21:18-20, ASV).
In Mark, the Lord cursed the fig tree, but the account does not say when it withered.
The disciples saw it withered the next
day, and Peter remembered what the Lord had said. Matthew’s account says that the Lord cursed
the tree, and it withered
immediately, but it does not say when the disciples saw it. Matthew 21:20 merely says
“And when the disciples saw
it…,” with no regard to the exact time. Based on the wording, the disciples could have seen
it withered at the exact time Jesus
cursed it, the next day, the next month, or even the next year. The verse in Matthew provides no
time span between when it withered and
when the disciples noticed.
However, Mark 11:12,19-20 does give the exact span of time between the curse and the time the
disciples noticed it—one day. Since
the gospels do not claim to be in exact chronological order, both Matthew and Mark offer a portion
of the story. The best thing to do
is to extrapolate—from both passages—exactly what happened. Both Mark 11:12 and Matthew 21:18
record that Jesus was hungry, and both
recount how He approached a fig tree and, finding no figs, cursed it. Matthew then records that it
withered immediately (21:19), and
Mark records that the disciples heard Jesus curse the tree, but he does not say whether or not
they noticed the tree withered at that
time (11:14). Mark then continues the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem
(11:15-19). Both writers then recount the
astonishment of the disciples at seeing the fig tree withered, with Mark designating it as the
next day (11:20-21) and Matthew not
specifying how much time passed between 21:19 and 21:20.
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. Christ actually made two trips to the temple (Mark 11:11,15), and
cursed the fig tree on His second trip.
Mark reveals that the cleansing of the temple “did not take place on the day that he [Jesus] entered
Jerusalem in triumph, but on the day following” (Barnes, 1997). Matthew, on the other hand,
“addresses the two trips of
Christ to the temple as though they were one event,” which “gives the impression that
the first day Christ entered the temple
He drove out the buyers and sellers as well” (Geisler, 1992, p. 354). Mark’s more
detailed account reveals that Jesus
actually made two trips to the temple. Thus, as Albert Barnes noted: “Mark has stated the
order more particularly, and has ‘
divided’ what Matthew mentions together” (1997).
When viewed in this light, these alleged contradictions between Matthew and Mark are seen
simply as a matter of Matthew’s
account being more summarized than Mark’s. And while Matthew has no timetable for the events,
Mark shows that the disciples
noticed the withered fig tree on their return from the temple.
Barnes, Albert (1997), Barnes’ Notes (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Geisler, Norman L. and Thomas A. Howe (1992), When Critics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor
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