Question:

The order of the fig tree being cursed is different in different gospels.  How can you explain this apparent contradiction?

Answer:

As you stated in your email, “The order of the fig tree being cursed is different in different gospels.” Ultimately, your question (I take it) is: Is there a contradiction between Matthew 21:10-22 (Where Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the temple, and then cursed the fig tree the next day) and Mark 11:11-26 (Where Jesus cursed the fig tree first, and then drove the moneychangers out – on the same day)? The short answer is NO; however I will explain this answer in further detail:

It is typically stated by critics that Matthew’s Gospel is in conflict with Mark’s Gospel because Matthew places the cursing of the tree, and the disciples exchange with the Lord about this incident, on the same day, and following the cleansing of the temple.

When reading particularly the gospels, Bible scholars have long recognized that some accounts are topically arranged at some points, rather than conforming to a strict chronological sequence. This is because the gospel writers arranged their gospels to meet a particular need to the Christians they were writing to. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth state:

“There were three principles at work in the composition of the gospels: selectivity, arrangement and adaptation. On the one hand, the evangelist selected those narratives and teachings that suited their purposes…At the same time the evangelist and their church had special interests that also caused them to arrange and adapt what was selected.”

Regarding Matthew’s gospel they also state:

“As we study the narrative technique of Matthew in general, we find that he sometimes arranges his material in topical order rather than in the strictly chronological order that is more often characteristic of Mark and Luke.”

This is also confirmed by Henry C. Thiessen’s Introduction to the New Testament when he states, “The first four chapters of Matthew are chronological; chs. 5-13 are topical; and chs. 14-28 are again chronological, with the exception of 21:18, 19 (p.138)”

With this in mind, please note that Matthew Gospel does not say that the cursing of the fig tree was on the day after the cleansing of the temple. He simply says that it was “Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city (21:18).” Secondly, Matthew combines the cursing of the tree and the discussion with the disciples without affirming that these events occurred on the same day.

In William Hendricksen’s commentary on Matthew, he writes:

“Since part of the Fig Tree story occurred on Monday and part on Tuesday (Mark 11:11,12,19,20), with the cleansing of the temple taking place (on Monday) between these two parts, it is clear that this story could be handled in two ways: (a) chronologically or; (b) topically. Mark follows the first method, describing the first part of the Fig Tree story, the part that took place on Monday morning, in 11:12-14; then, the cleansing of the temple, later that same day, in 11:15-19; and finally, the second part of the Fig Tree story, the part that happened on Tuesday morning, in 11:20-24. Matthew, on the other hand, uses the second method. He wishes to tell the entire story all at once, in one connected and uninterrupted account. In doing this he does not come into real conflict with Mark, for his (Matthew’s) time indications are very indefinite (p. 773).”

In short, Mark’s Gospel tells the fig tree story in chronological order while Matthew’s Gospel tells the story, but only in a topical sense. Matthew 21:12-17 was an event that should not be taken to happen just prior to Matthew 21:18-22, because it was arranged topically, not chronologically as in Mark’s Gospel. No contradiction, just two different styles of writing to meet the audience need.

Dr. John Oakes, President of the Apologetic Research Society, also gives an answer to this alleged contradiction to a past questioner:

“My own little “harmonization” of the accounts, for what it is worth, is that Jesus, on the day of the temple-clearing, pronounced a curse on the tree for not bearing fruit, as described in Matthew. Then, on the following day, Jesus actually spoke to the tree again, causing it to wither before the very eyes of the disciples. It is possible that Mark was not aware that Matthew and others actually saw the tree wither before their eyes on that particular day, and that all he was aware of was the original statement to the tree and the subsequent withering he saw the next day. Again, what we have here is independent but non-contradictory accounts of the same events. Exactly as with separate but honest eye-witness accounts in a court of law, the stories may appear to contradict at first because the witnesses have not colluded with one another, but when one brings the two accounts together and asks how they might actually not contradict, one comes up with a perfectly reasonable account of the actual events.”

Either way you take it, there is a perfectly logical explanation to Matthew 21:10-22 and Mark 11:11-26. Most critics who point out apparent contradictions in scripture will usually find themselves not understanding or not taking into account the basic background information (Some critics do not care to know either). In this case, there are no contradictions; the writers are writing from different perspectives about the same matter of fact. I hope this helps!

Kedron Jones

Sources/Footnotes:

Fee, Gordon D. & Stuart, Douglas (2003), How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).

Hendricksen, William (1973), Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker).

Oakes, John (Unknown), Have You Noticed There Are Two Accounts in the Bible of Jesus Cursing the Fig Tree and Jesus Drove the Money Changers Out? Taken on January 25, 2013 from http://www.evidenceforchristianity.org/have-you-noticed-there-are-two-accounts-in-the-bible-of-jesus-cursing-the-fig-tree-and-when-jesus-drove-the-money-changers-outr/

Thiessen, Henry C. (1955), Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

 

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