Tetherd Cow Ahead Presents: The Baffling Bible
Episode #5: Jesus and the Fig Tree
When I was a kid in Sunday School, I learned lots about the life of Jesus. I knew the stories of the Sermon on the Mount, the casting out of demons into swine, the miracle of the loaves & fishes, the overturning of the moneylenders’ tables in the tabernacle and many other colourful yarns that have turned out to have about as much relevance to my adult life as they did to my ten-year-old self.
One baffling tale that doesn’t usually get much of an airing when the life of Our Lord is being recounted, though, is the story of Jesus and the Fig Tree. It certainly didn’t make it into my Bible class back in the day – I think it’s just possible that’s because a ten-year-old might’ve empathized with it all too well.
To set the the scene: Jesus has returned from his 40 days and nights in the desert where he has had a lengthy hobnob with God, and is traipsing across the countryside accumulating crowds(i) of the faithful and assembling the cabal of chaps who would end up as his apostles. This is the Jesus of Matthew and Mark. This is the Jesus we all know and love from the comic books; he has just appeared to his followers (and Matthew & Mark’s readers) in dazzling white raiment which of course proves he is not just some guy like all the other common-garden-variety Messiahs who were touring the land at the time. In addition, he takes every opportunity to voice noble (if mostly obvious and occasionally curious) moral advice, and he performs miracles. Lots of them.(ii)
The Story of the Fig Tree is one such miracle. We’ll take up the tale with Jesus waking up one morning after having spent the night in the countryside outside Jerusalem (somewhere around here I figure). Over to Matthew to relate the tale in his compelling literary style:
Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered.
And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.
And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!
In other words, because Jesus was hungry and there were no figs, he threw a tantrum and did the supernatural equivalent of punching his fist through the wall: he put a curse on the tree. Kapow! Take THAT you stupid tree! I’ll teach you not to have figs out of season!
Now religious scholars are quick to put forward all kinds of explanations for this decidedly tetchy Saviour behaviour. It’s certainly not fashionable these days to have Jesus to appear to petulantly invoke his super powers out of spite, so most modern Christian scholars interpret the story of Jesus and the Fig Tree as some kind of metaphorical statement about the condition and the predicted eventual fate of the Jewish nation.
But I want you to pause and reflect on that for a moment. None of Jesus’ other miracles get the ‘allegory’ explanation. If Jesus does a really cool thing – like healing a blind man, say, or walking across a lake – that’s not a metaphor. That’s a myrrh-soaked, gold-plated, frankinsence-doused, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-and-never-be-resurrected MIRACLE! But when Our Lord chucks a tanty and fries a fig tree, well then, that must be symbolic…
That’s all well and good, and I might even buy it except for one thing: both Matthew and Mark independently make the effort to point out that Jesus was hungry. This tiny detail makes nonsense of the fall-of-the-Jewish-nation explanation. How does that high-falutin’ symbolism have anything to do with Jesus not getting breakfast? Plus, it just gives the whole story a ring of truth – I mean, we’ve all been there, right?
No, Faithful Acowlytes, I believe that the most reasonable hypothesis for this story is that Jesus just got out of bed on the wrong side and took his grumpiness out on the first thing he saw (and I offer this as scientific endorsement of my assertion). Luckily it was just a tree – his dad had something of a tendency to take his pique out on entire cities.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Westboro Baptist Church has had it right all along, only their bibles have a small typographical error…
We should take mentions of ‘crowds’ in the Bible with a grain of salt. That part of the world was not especially densely populated at that time, and I suspect that if you got a toothless man and his wife and their goat to come out and look at you, that probably counted as a ‘crowd’. Especially in the eyes of someone spinning a yarn to beat up some PR, as Matt and Mark unquestionably are. [↩]
I feel I have to point out that, in the light of the way we are familiar with ‘healings’ & clairvoyance and visions of the Virgin and other contemporary ‘miracles’, you don’t have to try too hard to come up with fairly reasonable non-supernatural explanations for all Jesus’ marvellous conjurations. And given nearly 20 centuries of undoubted ‘embroidery’, well… [↩]
Atheists are the most hated minority group in America. From About.com:
Lead researcher of the University of Minnesota Study on American Attitudes Towards Atheists & Atheism, Penny Edgell said that she was surprised by this [result]: “We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group.” Nevertheless, the numbers are so extreme that she was led to conclude that they are “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years…
“Given the relatively low number of atheists in America, and the even lower number who are public about their atheism, Americans can’t have come to their beliefs about atheists through personal experience and hard evidence about what atheists are really like.”
Although it’s unlikely that Australians are quite as polarized as Americans, I imagine Professor Edgell’s speculation in that last paragraph still holds for us. Because, when all’s said and done, this is the sum of The Terrifying Atheist Agenda:
OK, well, as I hinted in the first part of my examination of Transforming Melbourne‘s hysterical Christian diatribe, I’ve saved the most misleading and offensive portion of it until last. As I’ve been writing, I’ve realised that it was getting rather longer than I like, so I’m going to break my analysis up into chunks, and intersperse them with other funnier stuff. See how much I love you all?
Shall we resume?
After making some valid points about the current role of religion in Australian society,(i) Mr Isaachsen eventually says what is on his mind. And what an enlightening glimpse into the thinking of a religious person it is:
SOCIETY UNDER ATHEISM
Atheists have a very powerful voice in the media in Australia, frequently broadcasting biased opinions about the importance of rejecting all religion (especially Christianity) claiming it is of no value to society, is non-rational and a deception to the population. They have staged major conferences (including with government assistance) to promote atheism and denigrate religion and are calling on governments to end to the opportunity for any Christian content to be allowed in state schools and certainly to cease any funding for such!
Whoa. I’m almost tempted to laugh here, so hyperbolic does this document become in such a short few sentences. Atheists have a very powerful voice in the Australian media? Really? That comes as a big surprise to me, and I am pretty tuned in to such things. I think what is most upsetting for Mr Isaachsen and his Church is that atheists are actually voicing any opinion at all. He makes it sound like atheists are in control of the airwaves in Australia and that is very far from the truth. If there is anything surprising at all about atheist voices in the Australian media, it is that they have mostly been conspicuous by their absence until recent times. Atheist opinions are significantly challenging for the Church, which has for most of Australian history, had a kind of carte blanche – an unspoken imprimatur, even – to do be the sole arbiter of morality and ethics in Australian life. They really don’t like having that status quo questioned. And the pointed addition of ‘They have staged major conferences (including with government assistance)’ is spectacularly petty. Any assistance given to humanist, rationalist or atheist movements, as Mr Isaachsen must clearly be aware, is a piss in the ocean compared to the kind of government benefits accrued by religions in Australia. Is he trying to get Christians annoyed that some of their tax dollar is going to atheists? Well, sir, welcome to our grievance.
Mr Isaachsen accuses atheists of having biased opinions – a self-evident proposition if ever there was one. They’re hardly going to be unbiased when dealing with the enormous self-righteousness of Christians. He probably believes his bias is superior because he’s got God on his side…
In a vast and incorrect generalization he blankly states that atheists claim that religion ‘is of no value to society’. I doubt you’d find many atheists who would be that extreme and that declamatory. Religion quite evidently has brought value to society, but the question is how much currency that value now has, what that value actually is, and how important or relevant is the religious component of that value? This is a big problem for religion, and for Christians in particular, because their morality and their charity is so caught up in the edict of Jesus to evangelize that they simply can’t understand that good deeds can be, and are, done without an agenda imposed by a supernatural agency.
For example, earlier in the Transforming Melbourne tract, Mr Isaachsen has gone to great pains to point out all the wonderful things that Christian charities have achieved, and the heavy implication is that without them, non-religious people would commit no charitable acts of any kind, ever. He neglects to mention that huge compassionate non-profit organizations like Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Malaria No More, Humanist Charities, the Red Cross and many, many others operate without having heeded ‘Jesus’ call to compassion and justice’. What’s more, these organizations can easily be argued to be more selfless than any of Mr Isaachsen’s examples of Christian charity, for the simple reason that they act out of human compassion and human compassion alone. They are not acting on a command to be good, or being goaded on by the Big Carrot of Heaven or the Big Stick of Hell.
Rob Isaachsen is trying to paint a picture that says an atheist can have no compassion, no care, no charity, no love, no human empathy. And yet it is a trivial task to show he is wrong. He might do well to reflect on the fact that one sincere act of atheist kindness makes nonsense of his whole religion.
[…to be continued…]
Contrary to what Rob Isaachsen and his fellow Transformers think, rational people like myself can see that various Churches have done good things for Australian society. What we question is not the charitable acts, but the motivations behind them. [↩]
The area where I’m staying in Los Angeles has a large Orthodox Jewish population. I’m quite fond of experiencing diversity in my surroundings but I have to say that I find being among strong religious communities rather off-putting. It emphasises for me the way that religion is a kind of mass delusion that encourages people to do very silly things.
For example: the Talmud states that, as a devout Jew you should ‘Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you’ and Jewish men are strongly recommended not to walk more than four cubits with their head uncovered. To this end, I see many local men in this neighbourhood wearing the small skull cap called a kippah (or yarmulke) as they go about their business.
Yesterday while I was in the supermarket, I noticed a guy wearing a kippah which must have been pretty much the most minimal thing you could put on your head and get away with calling a ‘head covering’. It was not much more than the size of a Ritz cracker, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that he bent down to take something off a lower shelf, I doubt I would have seen it at all.
The problem I have with this kind of thing is the way that humans have decided to interpret an edict from the Holy Scripture to suit their own, human, purposes. Followers of many religions propose that something is The Word of God and then seem comfortable with adding as many human caveats and qualifications as they see fit. They act like disobedient children, who, when asked to do something they don’t like, interpret it to suit their own agendas. Where is there any kind of rigor in this way of thinking? It is yet another example of the countless double-standards that riddle religious doctrine.(i)
I’m betting that the original intention of the Talmud was that you should wear a proper head covering like a hat or a scarf.(ii) It’s obviously a pain in the ass to wear a hat all the time, so someone, somewhere got the idea that they could interpret the ruling a little more loosely, and a generous head covering became a cap, and a cap became the kippah we usually see today. The ridiculous little cheese cracker that I saw yesterday seems to me to be the most grudging acceptance of religious commitment. It prompted me to wonder why, instead of wearing the daft thing at all, the guy didn’t just go bare-headed and pretend that the supermarket was less than four cubits from his house. As far as I can see, it’s exactly the same kind of logic.