The Fig Tree

I’m reading Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly’s The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark, and am really engaged by some of the ideas he proposes. Here’s one of them.

The pericope of the fig tree has puzzled me & every commentator I’ve read. Why curse the poor fig tree? That seems so out of character for Jesus. Hamerton-Kelly observes that the story of the cleansing of the temple is set within a larger story: the fig tree incident occurs while Jesus is on his way to the temple, to drive out the money-changers. In a mimetic reading of the gospel, this act is interpreted as an interruption and rejection of the entire sacrificial system that has the scapegoat mechanism at its heart. (A number of non-mimetic readings also interpret this event as a deliberate interruption and rejection of the temple cult, rather than as Jesus losing his temper.)

Hamerton-Kelly argues, therefore, that the fig tree symbolically stands for the sacrificial system of the temple, which bears no fruit. In cleansing the temple, Jesus symbolically strikes at the root of the whole system; according to Mark, the fig tree withers “from the root.”

The larger story covers Jesus’ first full day in Jerusalem, Mk 11:12-26. It can be broken down as follows:

11:12: Coming from Bethany in the morning
11:13-14: Cursing the fig tree
11:15-18: Entering Jerusalem, cleansing the temple
11:19: Leaving Jerusalem in the evening
11:20-21: Approaching Jerusalem the next morning; seeing the fig tree withered
11:22-26: Jesus’ discourse on faith, prayer, and forgiveness

I’m attracted to Hamerton-Kelly’s proposal partly because it offers *any* reasonable interpretation of the pericope; and partly because it makes some sense of the observation that it’s not even the season for figs. The evangelists often have the disciples hung up on the literal meaning of things, missing the symbolic point that Jesus is trying to make. In this case it’s not one of the disciples, but perhaps the reader, who makes this observation. Jesus’ discourse on prayer which culminates this passage notably omits any mention of sacrifice or the temple; given that in v17 he quoted “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,” this teaching on prayer could be seen as Jesus offering an alternative approach to prayer and forgiveness.

I also observe that the first mention of fig leaves in the Bible is Gen 3:7, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” This is a scene from the first story of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating in the Bible, occurring after the incitement of desire and mimetic rivalry, and before the serial scapegoating of Eve by Adam and of the serpent by Eve.

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9 Responses to The Fig Tree

  1. Theophrastus says:

    He’s a disciple of Rene Girard, I believe.

    I haven’t read the work (and I am interested if you can shed light on the relationship between this book and his Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross.)

    But based on your report, I do not understand Hamerton-Kelly’s reading: a central theme in the New Testament is on Jesus’s sacrifice proper; so what would it mean to reject the sacrificial system?

    If we are talking about the historical Jesus, it is certainly possible to imagine that he supports the Pharisaic criticism of the corrupt leadership of the Second Temple; but is harder to believe that he opposes a system that is so clearly “baked in” to the Pentateuch. Adaption to Judaism without the Temple and sacrificial system would be required at 70CE, but a Jesus who opposes the sacrificial system on principle (even while calling the Temple “my father’s house”)

    I am also uncertain about the underpinnings of the mimesis here; if the fig tree stands for the Temple, or the sacrificial system, or the corrupt leadership, then what does Jesus’s attempting to find fruit when it is out of season (Mark 11:13) stand for?

    • Theophrastus says:

      Sorry, a sentence got cut off — I meant to write: but a Jesus who opposes the sacrificial system on principle (even while calling the Temple “my father’s house”) is anachronistic.

    • Indeed he is a Girardian; Girard wrote the introduction to this book. I had my hands on Sacred Violence for a few weeks a couple of years ago but I don’t recall it very well. It was written 6 years later, and I have the impression it had a more generally thematic structure. This book presents some focused explanatory material of mimetic theory and the scapegoat mechanism, and then proceeds through the gospel of Mark in a reasonably close read, akin to a commentary, interpreting the text through the lens of mimetic theory, making use of the concepts and terms presented in the explanatory introduction, with attention to the structure and poetics of Mark. H-K is heavy on the demythologization, more so than other Girardian theologians that I’ve read, and he does not hesitate to reject certain passages as later additions based on their inconsistency with a mimetic reading of the text.

      Like most if not all mimetic theologians, he interprets the bible as a “text in travail”, which contains the conflicting perspectives of the guilty victim who deserved it; the innocent victim who cries out for vengeance; and the innocent victim who does not seek vengeance. These respectively correspond to the mythic/sacred religion generated by the scapegoat mechanism; the beginning perception of the scapegoat mechanism as unjust; and the full revelation (and thereby disabling) of the scapegoat mechanism. These three perspectives in the bible are then understood to correspond to varying levels of human understanding of divine revelation: different levels of reliability in the transmission of the message, so to speak.

      This speaks to your question of how Jesus could be understood as rejecting the sacrificial system in its entirety. In this view, the sacrificial system is part of the scapegoat mechanism machinery, in the form of ritual re-enactment of sacred violence; and corresponds to that first human perspective. A Jesus who rejects the sacrificial machinery is consistent with the teachings of earlier Jewish prophets who insist that God wants the sacrifice of pure hearts and just actions, not of animals.

      Rereading my essay, I see I wasn’t clear about the fig tree being out of season: I perceive this as a clue that we’re supposed to read the incident metaphorically rather than literally, because Jesus would not actually expect a tree to bear fruit out of season.

      It reminded me of the incidents elsewhere in the gospels, where Jesus says something like “Follow my way, and it will lead you to the Father,” and a puzzled disciple speaks up and says, “But Lord, we don’t know where you are going! How can we take your way?” which is Jesus’ opportunity to exasperatedly whap the disciples with a clue-bat and explain that he’s speaking in metaphor.

      • Oh, just realized I answered your question about the historical Jesus but not the more general “Jesus’ sacrifice in the NT” question. Oops! I’ll have to come back to that tomorrow

        • Theophrastus says:

          Thank you for a very detailed (and also deep and brilliant) response and I’m very much looking forward to your post tomorrow.

          I cannot claim to have any theological insights into Mark, but from a literary viewpoint, it presents a very visceral and human Jesus, in part because Jesus is angry during much of the gospel. The gospel itself comments on Jesus’s anger (Mark 3:5). Here is a particularly striking example: Jesus appears to require the non-Jewish woman in Tyre to acknowledge that she is a dog before Jesus agrees to exorcise her daughter (Mark 7:24-30). Bart Ehrman is fond of pointing out that in Codex Bezae Mark 1:41, Jesus is filled with anger (not “compassion”) at the leper and heals him for that reason (Ehrman believes the oddity of the expression indicates that Codex Bezae is a more accurate witness.)

          I realize that for some modern readers, Jesus’s anger may present a problem; but to my eyes, it powerfully connects Jesus with “angry prophets” of the Hebrew Bible. It also seems to be consistent with how both contemporaneous Rabbinic and Hellenistic literature presented wise figures.

          I think that you are exactly right that passages such as these are signals for the reader to meditate on the meaning of the stories.

          • Thanks! 🙂
            I’ll post “Tomorrow‘s” response sometime this weekend: I realized I should write this up for my thesis anyway so it will be its own blog post.

            H-K mentions both the Syro-Phoenician woman and the leper in the book. He analyzed the “dogs” interchange in terms of its larger literary context – I don’t remember it in detail. The incident with the leper is more striking, because H-K states that the leper asks to be “cleansed”, which is ritual purity language and thus connected with the sacrificial scapegoat mechanism, rather than to be “healed,” as in the other healing stories. H-K interprets Jesus’ agitation as a response to the sacrificial mechanism, rather than to the leper.

  2. Pingback: Review: The Gospel & The Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark | Gaudete Theology

  3. Pingback: Rejecting the Sacrificial System | Gaudete Theology

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