Mark 11:12-14 – Cursing the Fig Tree

After the Triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Bethany for the evening. As he is approaching Jerusalem the next morning, he sees a fig tree and expects to find a bit of fruit to eat, but there is none. Jesus then pronounces a curse on the fig tree, telling it that it will no longer bear fruit.

What is the meaning of the cursing of the fig tree? This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that does not bear fruit. The context supplies the clue, Jesus enters the temple and condemns it as a den of thieves, setting up the conflict stories as he teaches in the temple.

The fig tree is barren, a frequent symbol in the Old Testament of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Isa 28:4, for example), or God’s judgment (Jer 7:20, Hos 9:15-16). The most likely allusion is to Isaiah 6. There, the prophet describes Judah as a tree that will be cut down, but a remnant will remain (Isa 6:13). Judah would fall, but a tiny remnant will remain. Jesus has already quoted Isa 6 to describe his teaching in parables, so it is not a surprise that he would enact a parable with this fig tree based on Isaiah 6.

Jesus is looking for fruit in a place he has every right to find fruit, but does not find it. In the same way, he came to the nation looking for fruit, but did not find any. The religious establishment is a barren fig tree that is about to be cut off. Where did Jesus have every right to find a fruitful religious heart in Israel – the temple. Mark inserted the Temple demonstration into the narrative of the fig-tree to bring out the theological point of the Fig Tree sign.

On the third day after the curse is pronounced (and after the events in the temple), the disciples see the tree and note that it is dead – withered from the roots up. There are a number of Old Testament allusions here (Ho 9:16, Job 18:16, 28:9, 31:12, Ezek 19:9 ). The nation has gone past the point of no-return, they have rejected the Messiah.

But is there a “righteous remnant” as was the case in Isaiah 6:13? There are two ways of looking at this. First, we could read this as a curse upon Israel as a whole. They will no longer be God’s people and they are about to be replaced by the church. This is possible, but it seems to me to be theologically driven. Obviously from this side of the events it appears that the church replaced Israel, this parable talks about Israel being “cursed”, so it must predict the coming church. I would like to avoid this as anachronistic – Jesus is saying something about his ministry at that moment in history.

A second, better way to look at the meaning of this parabolic action is to see the religious establishment as “under the curse” and that they are being replaced by Jesus’ disciples. This is why Mark inserts the Temple demonstration into his “Markan Sandwich,” he is point to the meaning of the curse of the fig tree. Jesus came to his own people and they have rejected him. He created a new Israel with twelve disciples (twelve tribes) who will receive the promised New Covenant.

John 12:9 – Those Palm Branches (Again)

As John Dowden pointed out in a previous comment, only the gospel of John mentions the palm branches. In John 12:13, the Greek, φοινιξ (palm) is used along with the Coptic loan-word βαΐον (branch). The only other place in the New Testament where this word for “palm” appears is in Revelation 7:9, the martyrs under the throne of God have branches in their hands as they worship the Lamb.

Waving branches is associated with Sukkot (Feast of Booths). At Sukkot, people marched around with a lulav, a bundle of palm branches with an etrog (a citrus fruit) tied to the end, usually with a great deal of singing and dancing. (See b.Sukkah 5.4 for a description of the festival.) The Hallel was to be sung each day, during which the people would shake their lulav.

Certainly there are similarities to the Triumhal Entry, but Jesus enters Jerusalem at the Passover, so the palms cannot be part of the celebration of the Sukkot nor is there any allusion to the fruit used at that feast.  (Although I am not sure, it is possible that the etrog was not ripe at the time of Passover, the early Spring; someone who knows can correct me on this!)

The palms are not associate with worship at Passover, but with the liberation and cleansing of Jerusalem more than 100 years prior to Jesus. The image of a king entering Jerusalem in victory appears in 1 Maccabees 13:51.

1 Maccabees 13:51–52 (NRSV) On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there.

Near the end of the first Jewish revolt (141 B.C.), Simon liberated Judea and set up an independent state. In 13:41-42 people begin to sign documents “the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews.” He captures Gaza and removes “all uncleanliness” from the city, then in 13:51 he enters the citadel in Jerusalem and “cleansed the citadel from its pollutions.” He establishes peace and provides food for the people starving from famine.

It is not insignificant that Jesus enters the Temple and stages a protest against the “buyers and the sellers” soon after this triumphal entry. In Matthew and the Temple Incident follows directly after the Triumphal entry, in Mark Jesus enters the Temple but returns the next day to make his protest. The Gospel of Mark uses the symbolic miracle of the Cursing of the Fig Tree to explain the Temple Incident. (John has the Temple Incident early in Jesus’ ministry, but that is a problem for another time!)

If anything, the way Jesus enters Jerusalem heightens the messianic hopes of the huge crowds gathered for Passover. Caught up in the messianic fervor, the audience waves palms to welcome Jesus as their ancestors welcomed Simon a century earlier.

Was this Jesus’ intention all along? Was his goal to stir up this kind of frenzy, only to teach in the Temple for a few days that the Messiah is not there to liberate the Temple from the unrighteous Jews or Jerusalem from the pagan Romans?

Mark 11:1-11 – The Triumphal Entry

Each of the Gospels describes Jesus entering Jerusalem as a “triumphal entry.” This is an event which Christians typically celebrate a week before Easter as “Palm Sunday,” at least in my youth by letting little kids wave fake palm branches and retelling the story of Jesus coming to Jerusalem riding on a donkey. As is usual, the pop-Christian even misses the significance of the palm branches and the other imagery in the story. There are several important symbols of Jewish nationalism in the Triumphal Entry.

First, palm branches were a part of Jewish nationalism since the time of the Maccabees. When Judas Maccabees brother Simon defeated the Syrians in 141 B. C.., the people celebrated with great music and the waving of palm branches (1 Macc. 13:51). Palms also appear on the coins dating to the first Jewish revolt against Rome in A.D. 66-70. Images of palm branches will be used later in the coinage of the Bar Kohkba revolt in A.D. 132.

Second, the cry of “Hosanna” is drawn from Psalm 118:25-25. The word means “save us, O Lord!” The psalm was one of the pilgrim Psalms, sung by those who were going up to the Temple during a feast. Psalm 118:26 was often taken as a reference to the Messiah, when the true the King of the Jews he will save his people.

The rest of Psalm 118 is important as well. Verses 10-13 describe the writer as in the middle of his enemies, nations which surround him on every side. Verse 17-18 says that the Psalmist has been disciplined severely, but has not been handed over to death. “I shall not die,” he says, “but I shall live.” Verse 19 describes the gate of righteousness through which the pilgrims must enter, Jesus has already described himself as the gate through which the sheep must pass. Verse 22 the psalm refers to the stone the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone, a verse Jesus applies to himself in the parable of the Vineyard.

Third, that Jesus rides a donkey is an allusion to Zechariah 9:9, another text associated with the coming messiah. John does not give the details since they are likely well-known by the time he writes his book. He does emphasize the fact that Jesus deliberately chose to ride a donkey, intentionally evoking the prophecy of Zech 9:9.

The point of this sign is often missed since it is thought riding a donkey is a sign of humility and peace. It is true that David came to Jerusalem after his son’s revolt “in peace,” riding a donkey instead of a war horse. A better explanation of the donkey is to see that after Solomon was anointed king, he was placed on a donkey and led up to the city of Jerusalem, through the Kidron valley. The anointed son of David, the king named “Peace,” enters the city of Jerusalem to begin the most peaceful and prosperous period in Israel’s history.

Zechariah 9:9 is alluding to that story in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is the true Son of David who will bring ultimate peace and prosperity, but only after he destroys the enemy of his people. Rather than the Romans, Jesus will enter Jerusalem and offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sin.

What other events of the final days of Jesus ministry hint at his messianic role?

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 – Meeting the Lord in the Air

[Audio for this study is available at, as is a PDF copy of the notes. You may right-click and “save as….” ]

It is unfortunate that teaching on the Rapture has something of a joke in contemporary media. Too many people have made silly predictions of when it will happen. Parodies of the Left Behind series are common, so much so that most people who think about “the rapture” are not thinking in biblical categories, but the rather goofy cartoon images that are replayed in the Media. When Homer Simpson tries to predict the rapture, then something is intensely wrong.

But the “catching away” which Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (and 1 Cor 15) is nothing like pop-media or apocalyptic Christians think it is. Paul did not predict the end of the world, nor did he use the doctrine of the Rapture to scare people into salvation, or to fleece the church of a few more dollars. Paul’s point in this text is to explain what was going to happen to those who had died in Christ before the coming of the Lord.

This event is described as the coming of the Lord. You might hear the word “parousia” (παρουσία) used (usually by someone trying to be pretentious).  The word is used for the presence of a god in a cultic ceremony, or a king or dignitary coming to a city for a visit. In the Jewish world, the word was used for the coming of the Messiah, this is probably the most useful for understanding 1 Thessalonians.

When Jesus comes, he will gather his people to himself “in the air.”   Paul uses several short descriptions here, all have to do with gathering people together.  First, there will be a loud command, a military term for a shouted order. It is sometimes used for a charioteer calling to his horses, or a hunter to his hounds, or a ship master to his rowers. Second, the voice of the archangel will cry out, and third, there will be a trumpet call of God. Loud trumpets are also associated with the coming of a great king, “…when the emperor Claudius died the sound of the trumpets was so deafening that it was thought that the dead could hear them” (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 224).

After the Lord has descended, and the dead have been raised, the Lord will catch the living believers up into the clouds, consummating their hope in this life.

The purpose of this catching away is to “meet with Lord.” The word translated “to meet” (ἀπάντησις) is often used of a delegation sent from a city to greet a dignitary or king, usually in order to escort that important person into a city.  The phrase appears 36 times in the LXX, frequently for meeting a king or military leader; sometimes it is used for going out to meet an army. For example, in 1 Kings 13:10, the LXX uses the exact same phrase for Saul going out “to meet” Samuel and greet him after the king had defeated the Amalakites. In 2 Chron 15:2 and 19:2 it is used to describe someone going out to meet a king.

In non-biblical Greek, the phrase is used by Polybius (Hist. 28:19.7) to describe two envoys sent out from Alexandria to meet Antiochus Epiphanes, who was at that time occupying Egypt. In 5.26.8 young men are sent out to meet Apelles, who desires to have an audience with Philip, the king of Macedon. In this text the young men go out, meet Apelles, and escort him back to Corinth “with great pomp.”

Polybius Hist. 5.26.8 On his arrival at Corinth, Leontius, Ptolemy and Megaleas, being commanders of the peltasts and the other chief divisions of the army, took great pains to incite the young men to go to meet him. He entered the town, therefore, with great pomp, owing to the number of officers and soldiers who went to meet him, and proceeded straight to the royal quarters.

Paul chose this word to describe the Rapture to highlight the glory of Jesus as he returns as the Messiah.  Paul is intentionally describing the return of Jesus as the glorious return of the ultimate Sovereign Lord in a way which Greeks and Romans would understand.  When the great king comes, his followers will be gathered to him in order to be a part of his great entourage escorting him back to the world he created.

Behold, The Biblical Studies Carnival is Coming Soon

The October Carnival coming in just a few days to BLT (Bible * Literature * Translation).   If you read a particularly interesting blog post, nominate it for the Carnival by posting a comment at Gaudete Theology, or by email at bltcarnival AT gmail DOT com.

What makes a good BiblioBlog Post?  I can only offer by opinion, but it seems to me that the post is a contribution to scholarship, the sort of thing that you might read in a Journal or hear in a class. Sometimes there is a post that challenges the way you think about a particular issue, or cuts through the usual blog-noise to the heart of the matter.  Perhaps you bookmark it as a resource to be used again later or forward it to a colleague.  I sometimes send particularly good blogs to my Kindle app on my iPad to read offline later.

When I hosted the blog, I was asked several times, “can I nominate myself?”  I think this is perfectly acceptable, this might be the best way to get your blog on the Host’s radar.  Proverbs probably says something about tooting one’s own horn and the beginning of wisdom. Remember, however, the Carnival Host is under no obligation to accepted all nominations.

I am now the “keeper of the Carnival List.” If you want to host a Carnival, please contact me.  The November Carnival will be hosted by Bob at Dust , look for that one about due December 1.  If you have nominations for the November carnival, email Bob at:  November is always exciting because of the many “professional meetings”  generating discussion in November.  There will be plenty of quality posts from people attending  ETS, IBR, SBL, etc.  Abram K-J from Words on the Word is on tap for the December Carnival.  Both would appreciate any nominations for those carnivals.

Carnivals are a great way to attract attention to your site if you are new blogger, but more importantly it gives you a chance to highlight the best and the brightest in the world of bibliblogs.  If you would like to host a Carnival in 2013, send me an email (plong42), or a comment on this post and I can contact you.


Mark 7:9-13 – The Tradition of Corban

Exodus 21:17 “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.

Leviticus 20:9 “‘If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.

Deuteronomy 27:16 “Cursed is the man who dishonors his father or his mother.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Corban is an Aramaic word that refers to a sacrifice, oath, or gift to God.  There is a tension between the command to honor one’s parents and the commands to honor oaths, especially to oaths to God.   One could potentially make an oath to the Lord to give a gift to the temple and avoid using the money / property for the care of parents.  It appears that the gift could be given as a “trust” so that the giver could earn an income from the gift, and it was still considered a corban.  There is therefore a benefit as a gift and as an investment, and the giver avoids using the funds to support parents.   This was a potential loophole in the Law that the Pharisees appear to have exploited.

Jesus however sees this as a breaking of the Law and a grave sin.  [edit – based on Luke’s comments below!] In Matthew 15:2-3, Jesus uses the word parabainw (παραβαίνω), “break the commandment of God.”   This word for “transgress” is a fairly rare word in the New Testament, used only here and in Acts 1:25 for the sin of Judas, and once in 2 John 9 (in a variant text).  It literally means “go along the side of…”, or “pass over…neglect.”

Jesus calls the Pharisees as hypocritical condemns them by quoting the words of Isaiah:  “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Isaiah 29:13 is speaking about the corruptness of the people of Israel at the time of Hezekiah.  The people worshiped, but their hearts were corrupt and self seeking.

Usually Evangelical Christians chuckle about the hypocrisy of those “Pharisees.” Contemporary preaching really scores points at the expense of the traditions of the Pharisees.  But is this really fair?  The goal was to keep the Law of God, and to correctly interpret that Law.  These people were trying to do exactly what God wanted them to, which is something admirable even if (from our post-cross, post-Pauline) view it was legalism.

How is corban any different than a modern Christian finding a way around head-covering (1 Cor 11:2-16) or Paul’s command to keep women silent in the church (1 Cor 14:34-35)?   When we find some exegetical reason to set these things aside, are we not dismissing the commands of God in favor of a more “modern” practice?

What are the rules evangelicals create which Jesus would have condemned as corban?

Mark 7:1-8 – The Tradition of Hand Washing

In Mark 7:1-5 the Pharisees question Jesus over his lack of attention to the tradition of “hand washing” before meals.  This is “markan sandwich,” since hand washing will return in 7:14-23, with the material on Corban in the center (7:6-13)

While the crowds are growing larger and the miracles are increasing in number and intensity, the Pharisees are growing increasingly angry with Jesus because he does not observe their traditions concerning ritual purity.  “Unclean hands” refers to the state of ritual impurity, therefore the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that would make him unclean with respect to their traditions.

Mark provides a short explanation of the sorts of washings that the Pharisees use to ensure that they are always ritually pure, making the section accessible to the non-Jewish reader.  Jesus uses this attack as an opportunity to preach against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, including the very difficult verse in which Mark interprets something that Jesus says as declaring all foods to be clean  (7:19).

As Neusner has pointed out, the Pharisees tried to create the conditions of purity required in the Temple.  It is critical, however, to realize that the Pharisees were in fact a popular group in the first century among the common people (JW 2.162-163, 166, cf. Antiq. 13:172 and Antiq. 18.12-15).  They were the interpreters of the Torah for many of the common people, although they were criticized for their traditions by the Sadducees and Qumran community.  They did not seek to impose their tradition of hand washing on all the people, only their own group.

What is Jesus doing here?  Is he intentionally ignoring the tradition of the Pharisee because it is not biblical?  Was this a “mission strategy” intended to draw the sinner into a relationship with Jesus?   Is he trying to challenge these traditions, or is he simply eating a meal with sinners?  When Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee, did he wash his hands as we expected?  Maybe we can consider this a case of “all things to all men.”

A more interesting question (to me) is why the Pharisees think that Jesus ought to submit to their tradition of hand-washing.  I think that Jesus was teaching things which resonated most with the Pharisees and there is at least a possibility that they thought he was “one of them.”  Jesus is described as discussing the Law with Pharisees and weighing in on issues like a Rabbi (divorce, for example).  But he was not a Pharisee in that he did not attempt to maintain Temple purity at all times.  Theologically he was “conservative” but socially (from the Pharisee’s perspective) he was permissive.

Is it possible to use either of these perspectives as a model for modern ministry?  What sorts of “traditions” are commonly defended which are not particularly based on Scripture?  How do we challenge a tradition without destroying what the tradition (originally) meant?