Problem: The order of events surrounding the fig tree conflict
Verses: Matthew 21:12-20, Mark 11:11-21; Status: Minor

I discuss elsewhere the question of how fast the fig tree that Jesus cursed died. There's also a difficult problem with the order of events. In Matthew, Jesus cleanses the temple and then curses the tree. In Mark, Jesus curses the tree and then cleanses the temple.

However, it's generally accepted that Matthew is happy to rearrange his material for the sake of keeping related subjects together. But this explanation is problematic in this particular case. Matthew notes that, after Jesus cleansed the temple, he left the city (Jerusalem) and went to Bethany. And then "when he returned to the city, he was hungry" and thus approached the fig tree. This wording strongly implies that the curse came after the cleansing of the temple.

Here's the complete story in Matthew 21:12-20:

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers."

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant, and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read,

"'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise'?"

And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.

In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once.

When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" (ESV)

The sentences in bold seem to indicate that these events are to be understood as occurring in this precise order - a different order from Mark's account. The problem is not simply that Matthew rearranges the order, but rather that he connects the events in such a way as to imply that the new order is actually correct. If Matthew had simply not indicated the order of events the problem would be much weaker.

I'm a bit conflicted about this one. Whether you see it as a genuine problem depends on how much leeway you're willing to give Matthew for his textual rearrangements. After much agonising, I've downgraded it from Serious.

Updated: 2008-06-01

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