The next in my series of papers for my Gospel of Mark class… This paper deviated from the others in that I spent the entire three pages debating with points raised in our textbook. Thankfully, I was allowed to get away with it. 🙂 Even though this paper is unusual, I still wanted to share it with you, instead of skipping a chapter.
Forgive me in advance for the informal nature of this paper. I want to take a moment to lay aside my usual analysis and respond directly to some points raised by N. T. Wright in the textbook Mark for Everyone.
Although the author, as usual, provided an excellent analysis and made some insightful points on the material, I thought his summary of Mark Chapter 11 made several critical oversights regarding the cultural and scientific factors at play. Understanding these factors has a profound effect on our interpretation and application of these passages.
First, regarding the fig tree (vs. 13), the author failed to take into account the life cycle of a fig tree. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus was not being capricious by cursing a tree that was not ready to bear; based on the appearance of the tree, He had every right to assume there would be figs. Fig trees bear several crops a year, and in each cycle, the fig precedes the leaf; in other words, one could reasonably expect to find figs on any tree that had leaves, regardless of the time of year. The comment about “not being the season for figs” is mistranslated and misapplied; John-Mark was not trying to say that the tree wouldn’t have had figs at that time of year, but that the figs wouldn’t have been fully ripe. Unripe figs are dry but perfectly edible. Had the tree been ripe, it is likely that someone would have already harvested it; hence, John-Mark is clarifying that Jesus found no figs because the tree was unfruitful, not because it had already been harvested.
Understanding the scientific truth helps us greatly expand on the spiritual truth of this passage. Here are a couple of points that are now understood based on this clarified information:
- A fig tree with leaves but no developing figs is an unfruitful tree; spiritually, Jesus is saying that Israel and the religious system has an appearance of being healthy (green leaves) but was producing no fruit.
- If a fig tree has no fruit, the leaves will soon fall off; spiritually, Jesus is saying that the Temple, because it is not producing fruit, will soon lose its outwards glory as well.
- Considering that, had the tree had figs, they would have been unripe but still edible reminds us that while the religious system of the day might not have been perfect (“unripe”), had it still been producing fruit, Jesus would have used it.
Understanding this basic truth—that Israel and the Temple system had the appearance of health but was producing no fruit—ties directly into some of the greater truths buried in the story of the cleansing of the Temple (vs. 15-17).
Although the author was correct in that churches often carry this passage too far and assume that money should not be mentioned in the church at all, I felt like he trivialized the level of corruption that was present in the system at the time. As the author mentions offhandedly, the dealers were primarily selling “priest-approved” sacrifice animals and changing money for Temple currency. At this point in time, there was rampant corruption in the approval of sacrifice animals. The priests were notorious for finding imaginary flaws in almost every animal, forcing people to buy on-site. Furthermore, many people traveled a great distance to worship at the temple, so they had no choice but to buy while they were there, leading to artificially inflated prices in a monopolized market. Even the exchanging of money saw a lot of extortion.
The net effect was that anyone who wanted to worship at the temple had to exchange their money and their sacrifice for ones approved by the priests. In other words, the Temple held a monopoly on the currency that people used to get close to God, and they used that monopoly to extort and exclude instead of extend and include. This gives additional weight to Jesus’ choice of words: “A house of prayer for all nations” (vs. 17, emphasis mine). This reflects the core issue John-Mark has been hitting on the entire Gospel: God’s Kingdom is welcome to all, and if Israel continues to maintain a spirit of exclusivity, they will miss their “kronos time” and give their glory to others.
The author ultimately reached a similar theological conclusion, but I felt that ignoring the obvious cultural and scientific factors at play greatly “dumbed down” his points. Therefore, I wanted to use this paper as an opportunity to cite some sources and expand on the meaning of these powerful passages.