Few passages in the Gospels have given occasion to so much perplexity as that of Mr 11:13, where the evangelist relates the circumstance of our Lord's cursing the fig-tree near Bethany: "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 the time of figs was not yet." The apparent unreasonableness of seeking fruit at a time when none could naturally be expected, and the consequent injustice of the sentence pronounced upon the tree, has been made the ground of grave impeachment of the Gospel record, and of our Saviour's character itself.
The fig-tree (Ficus Carica) in Palestine produces fruit at two, or even three different periods of the year: first, there is the bikkurah, or "early ripe fig" (πρίδρομος, praecox, Pliny, 15:19; 16:49; Macrob. Sat. ii, 16), frequently mentioned in the O.T. (see Mic 7:1; Isa 28:4; Ho 9:10), which ripens on an average towards the end of June, though in favorable places of soil or temperature the figs may ripen a little earlier, while under less favorable circumstances they may not be matured till the middle of July (Buhle, Calendar (Econ. p. 15). The bikkurah drops off the tree as soon as ripe; hence the allusion in Na 3:12, when shaken they "even fall into the mouth of the eater." Shaw (Trav. i, 264, 8vo ed.) aptly compares the Spanish name breba for this early fruit, "quasi breve," as continuing only for a short time. About the time of the ripening of the bikkurim the kermus or summer fig begins to be formed; these rarely ripen before August (Buhle, ut sup. p. 41), when another crop, called "the winter fig," appears. Shaw describes this kind as being of a much longer shape and darker complexion than the kermus, hanging and ripening on the tree even after the leaves are shed, and, provided the winter proves mild and temperate, as gathered as a delicious morsel in the spring (see Miss Bremer's Travels in the Holy Land, i, 195; compare Pliny, N. H. 16:26, 27). Thus, especially in sheltered situations (e.g. the plain of Gennesareth, Josephus, War, iii, 10, 8), fresh figs might be had at almost all seasons of the year (compare Strabo, 11:508; Columella, Arbor. 21).
The attempts to explain the above-quoted passage in Mark are numerous, and for the most part very unsatisfactory; passing over, therefore, the ingenious though objectionable reading proposed by Dan. Heinsius (Exercit. Sac. ed. 1639, p. 116) of ο῏υ γάρ ῏ην, καιρὸς σύκων where he was, it was the season for figs" and merely mentioning another proposal to read that clause of the evangelist's remark as a question, "for was it not the season of figs ?" and the no less unsatisfactory rendering of Hammond (Annot. ad St. Mark), "it was not a good season for figs,"' we come to the interpretations which, though not perhaps of recent origin, we find in modern works.
The explanation which has found favor with most writers is that which understands the words καιρὸςσύκων to mean " the fig-harvest ;" the γἀρ in this case is referred, not to the clause immediately preceding, "he found nothing but leaves," but to the. more remote one, "he came if haply he might find anything thereon ;" for a similar trajection it is usual to refer to Mr 16:3-4; the sense of the whole passage would then be as follows: 'And seeing a fig-tree afar off having leaves, he came if perchance he might find any fruit on it (and he ought to have found. some), for the time of gathering it had not yet arrived, but when he came he found nothing but leaves." (See the notes in 'the Greek Testaments' of Burton, Trollope, Bloomfield, Webster, and Wilkinson; Macknight, Harm. of the Gospels, ii, 591, note, 1809; Elsley's Annot. ad 1. c., etc.) A forcible objection to this explanation will be found in the fact that at the time implied, viz. the end of March or the beginning of April, no figs at all eatable would be found on the trees: the bikkurim seldom ripen in Palestine before the end of June, and at the time of the Passover, the fruit, to use Shaw's expression, would be "hard, and no bigger than common plums," corresponding in this state to the paggim (פִּגַּים) of Song 2:13, wholly unfit for food in an unprepared state; and it is but reasonable to infer that our Lord expected to find something more palatable than these small, sour things upon a tree which by its show of foliage bespoke, though .falsely, a corresponding show of good fruit, for it is important to remember that the fruit comes before the leaves. Again, if καιρός denotes the " fig-harvest," we must suppose that, although the fruit might not have been ripe, the season was not very far distant, and that the figs in consequence must have been considerably more matured than these hard paggim; but is it probable that Mark would have thought it necessary to state that it was not yet the season for gathering figs in March, when they could not have been fit to gather before June at the earliest? It would be better to understand the γάρ here in an adversative-illative sense =although.
There is another way of seeking to get over the difficulty by supposing that the tree in question was not of the ordinary kind. Celsius (Hierob. ii, 385) says there is a peculiar fig-tree known to the Jews by the name of Benoth-
shuach (בנות שוח), which produces grossuli, "small unripe figs" (paggim) every year, but only good fruit every third year; and that our Lord came to this tree at a time when the ordinary annual grossuli only were produced ! We are ignorant as to what tree the Benoth-shuach may denote, but it is obvious that the apparent unreasonableness remains as it was. As to the tree which Whitby (Commentary in Mark, 1. c.) identifies with the one in question, that it was that kind which Theophrastus (Hist. Plant. 4:2, § 4) calls άείφυλλον,, "evergreen," it is enough, to observe that this is no fig at all, but the carob or locust tree (Ceratonia :siliqua). Dr. Thomson, however, speaks of a large green-colored fig that ripens in May on Lebanon, and probably much earlier in milder positions (Land and Book, i, 538).
But, after all, where is: the unreasonableness of the whole transaction ? It has been stated above that the fruit of the fig-tree, appears before the leaves (see Hackett, Illust. of Scripture, p. 133); consequently, if the tree produced leaves, it should also have had some figs as well. As to what- natural causes lad operated to effect so unusual a thing as for a fig-tree to have leaves in March, it is unimportant to inquire; but the stepping out of the way with the possible chance (εί ἄρα, siforte, "under the circumstances;" see Winer, Gram. of N. Test.- Diction. p. 465, Masson's transl.) of finding eatable fruit on a fig-tree in leaf at the end of March, would probably be repeated by any observant modern traveller in Palestine. The whole question turns on the pretensions of the tree; had it not proclaimed by its foliage its superiority over other fig-trees, and thus proudly exhibited its preciousness; had our Lord at that season of the year visited any of the other figtrees upon which no leaves had as yet appeared with the prospect of finding fruit, then the case would be altered, and the unreasonableness and injustice real. The words of Mark, therefore, are to be understood in the sense which the order of the words naturally suggests. The evangelist gives the reason why no fruit was found on the tree, viz. "because it was not the time for fruit;" 'we are left to infer the reason why it ought to have had fruit if it were true to its pretensions; and it must be remembered that this miracle had a typical design (see the Christ. Annotator, i, 228), to show how God would deal with the Jews, who,, professing, like this precocious fig-tree, "to be first," should be "last" in his favor, seeing that no fruit was produced in their lives, but only, as Wordsworth well expresses it, "the rustling leaves of a religious profession, the barren traditions of the Pharisees, the ostentatious display of the law, and vain exuberance of words without the good fruit of works" (comp. Eze 17:24). So Trench (Notes on the Miracles, p. 438) concludes: "All the explanations which go to prove that, according to the natural order of things in a climate like that of Palestine, there might have been, even at this early time of the year, figs on that tree, either winter figs which had survived till spring, or the early figs of spring themselves-al theses ingenious as they often are, yet seem to me beside the matter. For, without entering further into the question whether they prove their point or not; they shatter upon that ο῏υ γάρ ῏ην καιρὸς σύκων of Mark, from which it is plain that no such calculation of probabilities brought. the Lord thither, but those abnormal leaves which he had a right to count would have been accompanied with abnormal fruit."
Monographs on this fig-tree cursed by the Saviour have been written in Latin by Flensborg (Hafn. 1775), Gosgen (Lips. 1697), Hofmann (Jena, 1670), Iken (Bre. men, 1741), Juster (Abo, 1724), Muler (Hafnioe, 1739), Schmidt (Viteb. 1701), Majus (in Obss. sacr. p. 71 sq.), Simonis (Fr. ad V. 1689), Withon (in Opusc. p. 159 sq.), Witsius (Lugd. Bat. 1709); in German by Pagendarn: (Wolfenb. 1755), Ebeling (in Ilamb. gel. Briefwechsel. 1750, p. 513 sq.), Stosch (in Rathlef's Theolcg. 1754, p. 27 sq.), Kunze (in the Studien u. Krit. 1844, iii, :702). SEE JESUS.