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On the Dangers of Not Giving a Fig  

Watching the NBC broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” on Easter night was jarring. Not because it was bad. The New York Times called it “thoughtful, challenging,” and a conceptual and artistic triumph.” What was jarring was what I already knew was there: the anti-Semitism inherent in the story. A review by Jeffrey Salkin reflected on the ominous portrayal of priests Caiphas and Annas: “The Jews look like they might have been Darth Vader’s homeys. Pure evil.”  But who’s to blame for that? Certainly not the producers. And certainly not Webber or Rice. They were just working with the “source material” – and that would be our anti-Semitic gospels.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. From the earliest days of what was to become Christianity, conflict arose between two competing Jewish movements: Jewish followers of Jesus and Rabbinic Judaism. Soon, human nature being what it is, the stories that Christian Jews told of the passion began to portray the opposing Jewish movement as a malicious force.

In the ensuing years, Jesus’ Jewish identity began to dissolve into the shadows as the narrative became dominated by an ecclesiastical culture that distanced itself from Judaism and embraced Roman imperial power. As Bishop Spong has observed, “the apparent hostility of all Christians toward all Jews was reinforced in every century. At each Good Friday observance, the role of the Jews in the death of Jesus was recounted again and again. ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children,’ became the most terrible of all the terrible texts of the Bible.

But it’s not just the way Jews are intentionally portrayed as “God-killers” in the Gospel texts. It’s even in the way seemingly random story elements have been enlisted by Christian apologists over the centuries to express anti-Semitic sentiments.

Take Mark 11.12-14. It’s mostly treated as a throwaway incident sandwiched between two much more familiar stories: Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (“Palm Sunday”) and the episode known as the “cleansing of the Temple” (where Jesus overturns the tables and runs everybody off).

Since time immemorial, Mark 11.12-14 has baffled commentators. It’s been called “a difficult passage,” “puzzling,” “bewildering,” and “not Jesus’ finest hour.” In its conventional interpretation, it comes off as one of “the least attractive of all narratives about Jesus.” So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that both Mark’s and Matthew’s versions are left out of the set schedule of readings called the lectionary – which is probably a mercy on clergy who would otherwise be obliged at some point to preach on it. This is how it goes:

………….On the following day, when they came from Bethany,
………….[Jesus] was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf,
………….he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.
………….When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was
………….not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat
………….fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Later, in verse 20, Jesus and the Disciples pass by the same spot and:

………….“…they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.
………….Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look!
………….The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

Wait. Jesus did what? How unreasonable can a person be? Everybody knows it’s not fig season, so what kind of spiritual leader lashes out against the natural order? Well, Jesus, evidently. And interpreters have been trying to make sense of it (and make excuses for Jesus) ever since.

The most common interpretation of this passage is painfully superficial and anti-Semitic: Jesus just spent the day being celebrated and cheered right under the noses of the Jewish leadership. He’s feeling pretty good about himself. So, the next morning he’s on his way from Bethany to really show those Jewish leaders what’s what by messing with their Temple. On his way, he proceeds to curse a fig tree (because everybody knows that the fig tree represents Israel, right?). He really showed them Jews, didn’t he? And in turn, we Christians can feel good about ourselves – seeing that we’re all so fruitful and everything. Hmmmm.

The problem is, none of that fits. Theologian Andrew Simmonds points out a number of historic realities that turn this story on its head.

Take, for instance, how nations and regions are associated with particular arboreal symbols. We all know that the red maple leaf is a symbol of just one place: Canada. The stylized green cedar is Lebanon. The Buckeye is Ohio. The Saguaro is Arizona.

The same was true in Jesus’ day. The papyrus was the heraldic plant of Lower Egypt, the olive was Greece, and the palm represented Israel (or Judah). Remember, that’s why palm branches are waved in John’s gospel: it’s the national symbol. But here’s the clincher. The fig tree represented one country and one country only: Rome.

So, what do you do with the conventional Christian interpretation? The fig tree representing Israel, the Temple, or anything Jewish was and is wrong. The fig tree was the symbol of Rome, not Israel. It’s significance goes back to the foundation legend of Rome itself. Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by the she-wolf protected by the roots of the sacred Roman fig, the Ficus Ruminalis. The legend was reinforced by an actual ancient fig tree that stood at the base of the Palatine Hill and was revered as “the” sacred tree. During the misrule of Nero, that sacred fig tree withered from the root up, which was “seen as a portent of disaster” for Rome – and proved to be a good literary device for the author of Mark in verse 20!

It cannot be emphasized enough these leafy national symbols are not flexible. Simmonds points out that they’re a “visual shorthand”… that “were, are, and always have been unique identifiers.

Sometimes, national and religious symbols are adopted by usurpers looking to associate themselves with the power of the originator. For instance, before it was a Christian symbol, the dove was a Jewish symbol. Before it was an American symbol, the eagle was Roman. In Jesus’ day, the lamb was a Jewish symbol and the pig was Roman (in fact, one of the Legions sent to conquer Palestine was Legion XX, whose symbol was a wild boar – not very kosher!). So, consider this: in your wildest imagination, can you picture Jesus symbolized by a war eagle or wild boar? Tough, right? But how about a dove or a lamb? Ahhhh, these are deeply rooted archetypal symbols.

If you don’t know that the fig tree is a symbol of Rome, you’re left trying to explain away Jesus’ boorish and ignorant behavior. Desperate commentators, still clinging to the notion that the fig tree somehow represents “the Jews,” have come up with an array of creative but “fruitless” (sorry) explanations. Among them are the “winter fig” theory or the idea that figs out of season were a sign of the dawn of the messianic age. But almost without exception, they fall back to the old habit of associating the fig tree with the Temple, Israel, and the religious authorities.

So, let’s be clear. Preachers and apologists have gotten this one wrong for centuries. The fig tree has nothing to do with Jews. Even the most out-of-touch gospel writer would not have used a Roman national symbol to represent Israel.

Now, knowing that the fig tree is a symbol of Rome, place the writing of this story in its proper historical context: during or immediately after the Romans destroy the Temple in 70 CE. Suddenly, Mark’s fig tree story takes on a clearly anti-imperial meaning. For those who have ears to hear, the author of Mark uses a fig tree to make a downright seditious claim of Jesus’ superiority over Rome.

To make the implicit explicit: Jesus comes into Jerusalem being proclaimed King of the Jews (which Rome doesn’t like), followed by Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple (to which Rome responds, “You’re disturbing my calm…”). AND, in between these two unflinching threats to Roman power and influence, Jesus symbolically zaps a fig tree, the symbol of Rome itself. Voila! Fruitless Rome, which may look good on the outside, is doomed – right down to the roots that sheltered Romulus and Remus.

By acknowledging the Roman symbolism, this little throw-away interlude ceases to be a hard-to-understand and embarrassingly anti-Semitic story and becomes a none-too-subtle anti-imperial propaganda piece.

Just in case you need to be reminded: the Bible is a human product. As Jim Burklo writes, The Bible was written “by real people with axes to grind, with biases and opinions, with imaginations, with passions and commitments, living in a culture that was strikingly different than our own.”

He goes on to say: “…the earliest meanings of many biblical stories are shrouded in history. In order to appreciate it in any depth, the reader needs to study sources beyond the Bible itself and learn quite a lot about the culture, language, philosophy, and even the science of the ancient world.”

So much to learn – and so much to unlearn!

But why does it matter? Why should you give a fig about some obscure tree story and a bunch of Broadway musical numbers? How about the fact that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose nearly 60 percent in 2017, making it the largest single year increase that the Anti-Defamation League has ever recorded? “It’s also the second highest tally the ADL has recorded since 1979.”

Assaults, vandalism, bomb threats. Plus, internet harassment, threatening memes, and the rise of the alt-right – all of which adds to the perception among some that it’s OK to hate Jews. After all, they killed Jesus, right? Insofar as we don’t do everything in our power to call BS on this worldview – and the anti-Semitism of our own gospels – we perpetuate it.

Jack Spong says that “Anti-Semitism…is the dark underside of the gospel of Love. It is not a pretty, a noble or an inspiring picture, but Christians need to own this prejudice. We created it.” And when it comes to conventional portrayals of important elements of our Christian origin story, we need to be clear in our rejection of a status quo that lets successive generations become infected with the contagion of anti-Semitism.

Over 50 years ago, Vatican II issued Nostra aetate (“In Our Time”), repudiating the belief that the Jews are to be blamed for the death of Jesus. Sadly, many Christians haven’t received the memo. So, when a nationally televised cultural phenomenon becomes a reminder of just how anti-Semitic our gospels are, it’s time to embrace it as a teaching moment.

We might not be able to talk Webber and Rice into a rewrite of JC Superstar (after all, they were just using the gospels as their guide), but we can certainly make it our mission to help people resist giving in to threadbare interpretations of gospel texts that legitimate millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment.

So, thanks to the creative genius of Webber and Rice, the performances of Norm Lewis and Jin Ha (Caiaphas and Annas), and costumer Paul Tazewell (whose imposing Japanese-inspired Sanhedrin costumes were downright ominous). You helped remind me that there’s a lot of work to be done in helping people see both the anti-Semitic shortcomings and the powerful (and mostly unsung) anti-Imperial message of the gospels.

~ Rev. David M. Felten

About the Author

Rev. David M. Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.

A co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and also a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, David is an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large. David is active in the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and tries to stay connected to his roots as a musician. You’ll find him playing saxophones in a variety of settings, including appearances with the Fountain Hills Saxophone Quartet.

David and his wife Laura, an administrator for a large Arizona public school district, live in Phoenix with their three often adorable children.

Article originally published Progressing Spirit

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