Two Donkeys? / Fig Tree / Moneychangers
This is an installment of my replies to a series of articles on Mark by Dr. David Madison: an atheist who was a Methodist minister for nine years: with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His summary article is called, “Not-Your-Pastor’s Tour of Mark’s Gospel: The falsification of Christianity made easy” (Debunking Christianity, 7-17-19). His words will be in blue below.
Dr. Madison has utterly ignored my twelve refutations of his “dirty dozen” podcasts against Jesus, and I fully expect that stony silence to continue. If he wants to be repeatedly critiqued and make no response, that’s his choice (which would challenge Bob Seidensticker as the most intellectually cowardly atheist I know). I will continue on, whatever he decides to do (no skin off my back).
Dr. Madison believes we are not at all sure whether Jesus in fact said anything recorded in the Gospels. The atheist always has a convenient “out” (when refuted in argument about some biblical text) that Jesus never said it anyway and that the text in question was simply made up and added later by unscrupulous and “cultish” Christian propagandists.
I always refuse to play this silly and ultimately intellectually dishonest game, because there is no way to “win” with such a stacked, subjective deck. I start with the assumption (based on many historical evidences) that the manuscripts we have are quite sufficient for us to know what is in the Bible (believe it or not).
Dr. Madison himself — in his anti-Jesus project noted above, granted my outlook, strictly in terms of practical “x vs. y” debate purposes: “For the sake of argument, I’m willing to say, okay, Jesus was real and, yes, we have gospels that tell the story.” And in the combox: “So, we can go along with their insistence that he did exist. We’ll play on their field, i.e., the gospels.” Excellent! Otherwise, there would be no possible discussion at all.
Dr. Madison called this installment: “The Day Jesus Cursed a Fig Tree: …and followed the deed with bad theology” (1-25-19)
The theological agenda of the gospel authors included Jesus as a fulfillment of scripture—everybody knows that, right?—so they frequently quoted OT texts out of context.
Dr. Madison doesn’t, alas, tell us how he thinks Matthew cited Zechariah 9:9 out of context, so there is nothing here to refute. It’s simply one of his gratuitous and groundless swipes at Jesus and the Gospel writer.
Matthew failed to grasp the technique of the parallelism in Hebrew poetry (line 1: say something; line 2, say the same thing using a different word), and reports that Jesus rode on two animals, a donkey and a colt. (Matthew 21:7) Yes, Matthew could be that goofy . . .
Matthew does not report that Jesus rode on two animals. He wrote: “they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon” (Mt 21:7, RSV). He can hardly have sat on (let alone ride) two animals at once. Does Dr. Madison think Matthew was trying to present Jesus as a circus stunt rider? How silly are we gonna get? There must be some other sensible meaning. But then, what does “them” mean in this verse? And why two animals? It does seem strange at first glance. Apologist Eric Lyons, in a comprehensive article on this very issue of the colt and the ass, writes:
Mark recorded that Jesus told the two disciples that they would find “a colt tied, on which no one has sat” (11:2). . . .
Mark, Luke, and John did not say that only one donkey was obtained for Jesus, or that only one donkey traveled up to Jerusalem with Jesus. The writers simply mentioned one donkey (the colt). They never denied that another donkey (the mother of the colt) was present. . . .
[W]en Matthew’s gospel is taken into account, the elusive female donkey of Zechariah 9:9 is brought to light. Both the foal and the female donkey were brought to Christ at Mount Olivet, and both made the trip to Jerusalem. Since the colt never had been ridden, or even sat upon (as stated by Mark and Luke), its dependence upon its mother is very understandable (as implied by Matthew). The journey to Jerusalem, with multitudes of people in front of and behind Jesus and the donkeys (Matthew 21:8-9), obviously would have been much easier for the colt if the mother donkey were led nearby down the same road. . . .
Greek scholar A.T. Robertson believed that the second “them” (Greek αυτων) refers to the garments that the disciples laid on the donkeys, and not to the donkeys themselves. In commenting on Matthew 21:7 he stated: “The garments thrown on the animals were the outer garments (himatia), Jesus ‘took his seat’ (epekathisen) upon the garments” (1930, [Word Pictures in the New Testament], 1:167).
Two Bible translations, whose purpose is to provide an exceptionally literal rendering of the Greek biblical text: Amplified Bible and Wuest Expanded Translation, concur with this interpretation:
They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their coats upon them, and He seated Himself on them [the clothing].
And they placed upon them their outer garments. And He took His seat upon them [the garments].
New American Standard Bible also brings out this more specific meaning:
and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid on them their garments, on which He sat.
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he 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.”
D. E. Nineham, in his 1963 commentary, noted: “This story is one of the most difficult in the Gospels, for it approximates more closely than any other episode in Mark to the type of ‘unreasonable’ miracle characteristic of the non-canonical Gospel literature.” (p. 298) C. F. D. Moule, in his 1965 commentary: “It is very odd that Jesus should condemn a fig-tree for having no fruit when it was not even the season for fruit.” (p. 89)
Apologist Kyle Butt offers a plausible explanation:
Upon arriving at the Temple (v.15): “And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”
One prominent question naturally arises from a straightforward reading of the text. Why would Jesus curse a fig tree that did not have figs on it, especially since the text says that “it was not the season for figs”? In response to this puzzling question, skeptical minds have let themselves run wild with accusations regarding the passage. . . .
When Jesus approached the fig tree, the text indicates that the tree had plenty of leaves. R.K. Harrison, writing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, explains that various kinds of figs grew in Palestine during the first century. One very important aspect of fig growth has to do with the relationship between the leaf and the fruit. Harrison notes that the tiny figs, known to the Arabs as taksh, “appear simultaneously in the leaf axils” (1982, 2:302) This taksh is edible and “is often gathered for sale in the markets” (2:302). Furthermore, the text notes: “When the young leaves are appearing in spring, every fertile fig will have some taksh on it…. But if a tree with leaves has no fruit, it will be barren for the entire season” (2:301-302).
Thus, when Jesus approached the leafy fig tree, He had every reason to suspect that something edible would be on it. However, after inspecting the tree, Mark records that “He found nothing but leaves.” No taksh were budding as they should have been if the tree was going to produce edible figs that year. The tree appeared to be fruitful, but it only had outward signs of bearing fruit (leaves) and in truth offered nothing of value to weary travelers. . . .
[I]n a general sense, Jesus often insisted that trees which do not bear good fruit will be cut down (Matthew 7:19; Luke 13:6-9). The fig tree did not bear fruit, was useless, and deserved to be destroyed: the spiritual application being that any human who does not bear fruit for God will also be destroyed for his or her failure to produce.
Jesus did not throw a temper tantrum and curse the fig tree even though it was incapable of producing fruit. He cursed the tree because it should have been growing fruit since it had the outward signs of productivity. Jesus’ calculated timing underscored the spiritual truth that barren spiritual trees eventually run out of time. As for personal application, we should all diligently strive to ensure that we are not the barren fig tree.
What provoked Jesus to do this? Why was he upset about money-changers and dove-sellers? Jesus himself had once told a man he’d healed to “offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded,” meaning the sacrifice of a bird (according to Leviticus 14). The Temple existed for this form of devotion.
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges provides an answer:
the tables of the moneychangers] The Greek word signifies those who took a small coin (Hebr. Kolbon, Grk. κόλλυβος, perhaps a Phœnician word) as a fee for exchanging the money of the worshippers, who were required to pay in Hebrew coin. This exaction of the fee was itself unlawful (Lightfoot). And probably other dishonest practices were rife.
Encyclopedia Judaica (“Money Changers”) confirms that this interest-taking was contrary to Jewish Law:
In the period of the Second Temple vast numbers of Jews streamed to Palestine and Jerusalem “out or every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5), taking with them considerable sums of money in foreign currencies. This is referred to in the famous instance of Jesus’ driving the money changers out of the Temple (Matt. 21:12). Not only did these foreign coins have to be changed but also ordinary deposits were often handed over to the Temple authorities for safe deposit in the Temple treasury (Jos., Wars 6:281–2). Thus Jerusalem became a sort of central bourse and exchange mart, and the Temple vaults served as “safe deposits” in which every type of coin was represented (TJ, Ma’as. Sh. 1:2, 52d, and parallels). The business of money exchange was carried out by the shulḥani (“exchange banker”), who would change foreign coins into local currency and vice versa (Tosef., Shek. 2:13; Matt. 21:12). People coming from distant countries would bring their money in large denominations rather than in cumbersome small coins. The provision of small change was a further function of the shulḥani (cf. Sif. Deut., 306; Ma’as Sh., 2:9). For both of these kinds of transactions the shulḥani charged a small fee (agio), called in rabbinic literature a kolbon (a word of doubtful etymology but perhaps from the Greek κόλλυβος “small coin”; TJ, Shek. 1:6, 46b). This premium seems to have varied from 4 percent to 8 percent (Shek. 1:6, et al.). The shulḥani served also as a banker, and would receive money on deposit for investment and pay out an interest at a fixed rate (Matt. 25:27), although this was contrary to Jewish law (see below; *Moneylending ). . . .
The activity of the Jewish banker, shulḥani, was of a closely defined nature, as his transactions had to be in accordance with the biblical prohibition against taking interest (ribit).
John Lightfoot’s commentary on Matthew 21:12 adds more relevant information:
[Overthrew the tables of the moneychangers.] Who those moneychangers were, may be learned very well from the Talmud, and Maimonides in the treatise Shekalim:– . . .
At that time when they paid pence for the half shekel, a kolbon [or the fee that was paid to the moneychanger] was half a mea, that is, the twelfth part of a penny, and never less. But the kolbons were not like the half shekel; but the exchangers laid them by themselves till the holy treasury were paid out of them.” You see what these moneychangers were, and whence they had their name. You see that Christ did not overturn the chests in which the holy money was laid up, but the tables on which they trafficked for this unholy gain.
Note that Jesus specifically concentrated on two groups: the moneychangers and those who sold doves. This was mentioned in the current account from Mark (above), and in the parallel stories (Mt 21:12-13; Jn 2:13-16). His anger at the moneychangers has just been explained. They were unlawfully extracting interest, which would hurt the poor the most. Why did He go after the dove sellers? It’s a similar reason. The Experimental Theology blog explains:
As most know, the preferred sacrifice to be offered at the temple was a lamb. But a provision is made in the Levitical code for the poor:
Leviticus 5.7 Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the Lord as a penalty for their sin—one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.
By going after the dove sellers we see Jesus directly attacking the group who were having economic dealings with the poor. When the poor would go to the temple they would head for the dove sellers.
The point being, while we know that Jesus was upset about economic exploitation going on in the temple, his focus on the dove sellers sharpens the message and priorities. . . . Jesus’s anger is stirred at the way the poor are being treated and economically exploited.
Hence, He described this scenario with these people who exploited the poor, a “den of robbers” or “den of thieves.” Dr. Madison asked why Jesus was upset. I have provided an answer, through these excellent commentaries. Now Dr. Madison knows more than he did (so do I).
He blends wording from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, which have no relevance whatever to this incident—but Mark knew that he could get away with it.
• In Isaiah 56, the prophet looks forward to the day when all nations will bend the knee to his own god, Yahweh, and in that sense only will the temple be a house of prayer for all nations, i.e., when they have converted. Nor is this verse (7) a denunciation of the gory business of the temple; the text reads: “…their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
All Jesus cited was “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Mk 11:17), which is from Isaiah 56:7. The point is that this is its central purpose: a place of worship and praise and prayer and ritual sacrifice: not of collection of unlawful interest and exploiting the poor, contrary to the Jewish Law. That’s all Jesus was saying.
It doesn’t follow (as with partial analogies) that every jot and tittle of a prophecy must be applicable to the situation about which it is cited. New Testament citation of the Old Testament is a long and complex subject in and of itself (see one article that gets into that). The same Isaiah 56:7 refers to “my house of prayer” (God speaking) before it says it will be called the same.
• In Jeremiah 7:11, the prophet blasts the wickedness of the people of Israel, and no amount of worship at the temple can cancel that reality. Thus the temple is a sham: “ Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” Den of robbers seems to have been an allusion to the sin that annulls the value of worship, not to the practice of selling animals and exchanging currency.
Here is the passage and some context as well:
Jeremiah 7:9-11 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Ba’al, and go after other gods that you have not known,  and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, `We are delivered!’ — only to go on doing all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the LORD.
The moneychangers and sellers of doves were stealing by extracting unlawful interest and excessive prices for items sold to the poor (the birds). 7:6 also states: “do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow”. So the passage is exactly applicable. The passage in its larger context lists a bunch of sins: two of which applied to the temple situation in Jesus’ time (stealing and exploitation of the less fortunate), and so He cited it accordingly. Yet Dr. Madison claimed that both passages “have no relevance whatever to this incident.” Poppycock!
Photo credit: Entry of the Christ in Jerusalem (1897), by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]