Belief, Bible Study, Gospels, John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, New Testament, Parables

In Which I Don’t Write Very Coherently About Fig Trees, But At Least Try My Best

A sentence you’ll read when you Google “figs and wasps” is in a caption to a photo of a wasp and a fig: “A female fig wasp descends through the ostiole into the center of the fig plant’s syconium.” This is all clearly a private matter and none of our business but it is my responsibility to tell you that when you eat a fig, you’re also eating a wasp. Or at least wasp eggs. Maybe it’s wasp larva. The point is, I didn’t read much of the article; I’m a headlines kinda guy.

(By the way this article that I didn’t read, and you shouldn’t either, tries to bright-side dead wasps in figs and I want to say to this article, “You don’t have to work this hard on a losing battle. Rest.”)

(ALICE WALKER INTERLUDE: “for two who slipped away almost entirely”

for two who
slipped away
almost
entirely:
my “part” Cherokee
great-grandmother
Tallulah
(Grandmama Lula)
on my mother’s side
about whom
only one
agreed-upon
thing
is known:
her hair was so long
she could sit on it:

And my white (Anglo-Irish)
great-great-grandfather
on my father’s side
nameless
(Walker, perhaps?)
whose only remembered act
is that he raped
a child;
my great-great-grandmother,
who bore his son,
my great-grandfather,
when she was eleven.

Rest in peace.
The meaning of your lives
is still
unfolding.

Rest in peace.
In me
the meaning of your lives
is still
unfolding.

Rest in peace, in me.
The meaning of your lives
is still
unfolding.

Rest. In me
the meaning of your lives
is still
unfolding.

Rest. In peace
in me
the meaning of our lives
is still
unfolding.

Rest.)

Jesus curses a fig tree in the gospels of Mark (“May no one ever eat fruit from you again”) and Matthew (“May no fruit ever come from you again!”). In Luke, Jesus doesn’t curse a fig tree, but he tells a parable about a fig tree. And in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (a Gnostic text about, well, just what it says), there’s no fig story, but a similar curse: “O evil, ungodly, and foolish one, what hurt did the pools and the waters do thee? behold, now also thou shalt be withered like a tree, and shalt not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit.” (IGoT III.2)

(Orthodox Christianity — your Catholics, Protestants, and the like — will claim that we don’t know much about Jesus’s childhood. But that’s because they refuse to recognize extrabiblical texts, like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which cover a lot of that stuff.)

Let’s unpack just a little bit of history. The Hebrew Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament but shouldn’t, because it’s anti-Semitic — was written by Jews for Jews to compile their history and catalog the rules, rites, and rituals necessary to worship YHWH. (Eventually I’ll stop reminding you about this — that the Tanakh is non-Christian — but not yet.)

There are messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible. The concept of a messiah originates in Judaism. For the Jews, the messiah was prophesied to be a Jewish king from the line of David, who would come to battle all of Israel’s enemies and establish the Messianic Age. He would come as a warrior.

By the time of Jesus, there are some Jews who are anxious about the messiah, who doesn’t seem to be on any sort of schedule, and they’re not sure what’s going to happen. But they are desperately looking for a messiah. Those Jews will eventually find Jesus (who is also Jewish), and proclaim him as the messiah. They will work backwards from many of the prophecies in the Tanakh to show how Jesus checks all the boxes for messiahship. They’re done looking.

Here is a list of Jewish messiah claimants:

Jesus of Nazareth
Simon bar Kokhba
Moses of Crete
Ishak ben Ya’kub Obadiah Abu ‘Isa al-Isfahani
David Alroy
Moses of Botarel
Asher Lämmlein (a German, which feels complicated)
David Reubeni
Sabbatai Zevi
Jacob Querido
Miguel Cardoso
Löbele Prossnitz
Jacob Joseph Frank
Yosef yitzchak Schneersohn
Menachem Mendel Schneerson

There’s a long list of Christian messiah claimants, too, but I only want to talk about David Shayler, an MI5 agent and whistle-blower born in 1965. He’s a 9/11 Truther who sees David Icke — who believes there are lizard people living amongst us — as “the John the Baptist to my Christ.” He is currently living part-time as a woman named Delores Kane in an environmental squat situation. His claim to the role of messiah comes from interpreting the engravings on the Rod of Aaron, the staff carried by Moses’s older brother, which Shayler claims are an anagram of “David Shayler, Righteous King.”

Some 1st century messianic Jews picked Jesus as their Chosen One. These Jews had grown disillusioned with Judaism as it was then practiced, and wrote about Jesus as someone who also wanted to see the end of Jerusalem as a political and religious power. Jesus spends a lot of time breaking sabbath rules, disrespecting the synagogue, and angrily overturning tables because of what he sees as the dissolution of holiness and a shocking lack of compassion and empathy. One uncomfortable thing that Christians should grapple with, but don’t, is how anti-Jewish the New Testament is. We of course have to acknowledge that Jesus himself was Jewish; but he then spends most of his ministry as an iconoclast of Judaism. Christianity wants to say, “Hey, Jews, we found the messiah!” And Jews want the U.S. to stop enabling Nazis and to remind Christians that no, actually, the messiah has NOT been found, we’re still waiting, YOU’RE still waiting, and your Jesus seems nice, we’re aware of his work, but we’re not convinced, please stop making a big deal out of Hannukah, it’s weird for all of us.

(But what about Matthew 5:17, you might ask? That’s where Jesus says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” And we have some options in how we read this. Some fundamentalist Christians love this passage because it allows them to hate gays, since Jesus isn’t coming to overturn the Levitical Laws. They’re not giving up shrimp and mixed fibers, but that’s for another time. Some Christian theologians see this as Jesus actually justifying his current destructive behavior, because for Jesus the law isn’t Leviticus and 613 mitzvot to be followed by rote. He’s here to fulfill God’s law, which is a radical political message of: care for everyone, feed everyone, sell all your things, and follow me.)

(Am I ever going to write about this g/d fig tree?)

Another very quick bit of history that you may or may not know: Mark is the oldest Gospel we have in the canonical Bible. Mark is not the oldest writing in the canonical Bible; those would be the letters of Paul. If you’re at all interested in Biblical stuff, not necessarily as a source of theology, but to look at the development of a literary tradition, I ::highly:: recommend Marcus Borg’s Evolution of the Word, which sets the books of the New Testament in the order we’re pretty sure they were written in. Matthew is next, then Luke. And we’re pretty sure that Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark that they used for reference when writing their own gospels. John is the youngest gospel, and it’s weird, and John probably had all three Synoptic Gospels (theologian talk for Mark, Matthew, and Luke), but also was enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop so he’s really just mostly doing his own thing.

Mark and Matthew tell the story of the fig tree as an event that Jesus participated in: Jesus is hungry, he sees a fig tree in leaf, thinks, “A snack!” and then finds out that it’s not the season for figs; that there are no figs to be et; and so he curses the fig tree.

(One time, Zach and I were in D.C., and I had waited too long to tell Zach that I was hungry, so I’m already not in a Great Space, mentally, and we get to this place with an overwhelming menu and I start crying a little and say, plaintively, to Zach: “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO EAT.”)

For Mark, it’s a multi-day story. One day, he curses a fig tree. He then goes to Jerusalem where he enters the temple and throws out the merchants and money lenders. The next day, as they’re passing that same fig tree, Peter says, “Oh hey, look at how cursed that fig tree is.” And Jesus goes on to be inscrutable the way he can be inscrutable when he starts parable-ing: “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (Mark 11:23)

Matthew doesn’t have the table-turning interlude. Jesus curses the fig tree, the fig tree is cursed, and afterwards he says a similar nonsensical thing: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”

Literally no person in the history of time has moved a mountain via prayer.

So how do we understand this story? Is it literal? Is it metaphorical? And my answer to you, beloveds, is it’s probably both.

(I have a complicated theology about who Jesus is, and how he is separate from the Christ Event. I do think a man named Jesus existed, and probably caused a lot of disruption. I think he is an expression of the Christ idea ::in that time::. I think the Christ Event has happened over and over again, way before humans even appeared on earth, way before even the earth itself was entirely formed. The universe is 14 billion years old; we have no right to believe that the Christ Event only happened once, and hasn’t continued happening again and again.)

Was Jesus hungry? He would have to be. He is human. He is not in a profession. They’re not making money and relying on people extending kindness and generosity to them. In fact, Mark and Matthew explicitly tell us that Jesus was hungry. Did he curse a fig tree? No doubt. I have, on many occasions, cursed six things before breakfast.

Did the curse work?

This is where we get into metaphor and parable. Christian theologians see Jesus cursing the fig tree as a symbolic curse on Jerusalem and its religious structure. The temple appears as a tree with leaves, that looks like it has fruit to nourish. But actually, the temple is not producing good fruit.

(I want to acknowledge outright, again, the anti-Semitic nature of the Christian narrative. This story is one of violence against Judaism. One of the toughest parts of my faith — besides all of it — is reconciling Jesus’s messages of social justice with this subtext of: “The Jews are wrong.”)

Mormonism is interesting to examine at this point. As Christianity is a splinter of Jewish belief, Mormonism is a splinter of Christian belief. And, as Christianity has its own holy book that relies on Jewish texts for support, Mormonism has its holy book, which relies on the Christian gospels to supplement its claims. In some ways, we’re living in a time much like Jesus would have been living in, with religious confusion abounding and new spiritual ideas trying to gain ground in the marketplace. There’s this concept that, the further back in time you go, the closer you get to the True Christianity, or the True Judaism. But the fact is, the further back you go, it’s all becomes a kaleidoscopic confusion instead of a coherent worldview.

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