Did Jesus sin by cursing a fig tree?

This is a further response to claims that Jesus was not “a perfect being” and “not without sin”.

In an earlier study we dealt with an objection to Jesus calling a disciple to follow him at the expense of attending his father’s burial (see “A Christian response to Asher Norman’s claim that Jesus sinned”.)

Another example of sin that Jesus supposedly committed, is given as follows at page 41 of Norman’s book, “Twenty-six reasons why Jews do not believe in Jesus”


According to Matthew, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it did not have fruit, which caused it to wither and die. Mark informs us that it wasn’t even the season for figs. This act by Jesus directly violated the Torah’s prohibition against destroying  fruit trees, even those of an enemy in times of war, which constitutes a sin under Jewish law. The story is particularly problematic because if Jesus was the “son god” and could perform miracles, he also has the power to cause the tree to bear fruit instead of killing it. According to a story in the Talmud, this actually occurred. The Talmud describes a story wherein Rabbi Yosi’s son wanted to feed his workers, and the fig tree had no figs. Rabbi Yosi cried out, “Fig tree, fig tree, send forth your fruit” and the tree produces fruit and they ate.     ”

In a footnote, Norman cites Deuteronomy 20:19 as the Torah prohibition that Jesus allegedly violated:

Deuteronomy 20:19.  “When you shall besiege a city a long time in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees of it by forcing an axe against them; for you may eat of them: and thou shall not cut them down to employ in the siege (for the tree of the field is man’s life).”

Does this verse apply to the events described in the gospels?

The Book of Deuteronomy contains Moses’ final instructions before the Israelites crossed the Jordan to take the Promised Land. The prohibition against felling fruit trees thus applied specifically to the enemy cities that they were about to conquer. Earlier in Moses’ sermon we learn that the Lord God had made special promises to Israel concerning this land they were about to enter:

Deuteronomy 6:10-11. “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant ….”

How unfaithful it would have been of the Israelites, to cut down, for the purpose of aiding their conquests, those very trees which ‘they had not planted,’ which the Lord God had promised them and which they would need for their own sustenance once they possessed those cities!

The Book of Joshua records that the Lord God fulfilled His promise.

Joshua 24:11-13.  “Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you – also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

From Joshua’s testimony it is also clear that the Israelites had obeyed Moses and preserved the fruit trees around (formerly) enemy cities for their own enjoyment and use.

Asher Norman (following the Talmud) fails to understand the context of Deuteronomy 20:19. The Talmud turns a specific instruction, given for particular circumstances, into a law of universal application. In fact, the Talmud turns Deuteronomy 20:19 into a blanket prohibition against destroying absolutely anything of value, be it crockery, clothing, buildings or food – except if done for a constructive purpose.[1]

According to Norman’s analysis, Jesus has thus violated a rabbinic rule, rather than a clear Torah prohibition. Even so, Norman seems unaware that the Talmud classifies ‘abating one’s anger’ as being ‘constructive’: “For he is soothed [by this act] and his temper is relaxed. Since his rage is abated by this, it is considered a constructive deed”. [2]

In light of this, let us then consider what Messiah did to the fig tree en route to Jerusalem:

‘The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. When evening came, they went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:12-20).

Clearly none of this ‘directly violated’ the Torah prohibition against felling enemy fruit trees during a time of siege. Israel’s possession of the land had been historically fulfilled. Nonetheless, Jesus’ behaviour may seem odd or impetuous and warrants further explanation.

The curse on the fig tree as prophetic symbol

Prophets were often told to perform symbolic acts that would illustrate the message they were called to convey. Hosea, for example, was required to marry an adulteress (even though the Law of Moses required such a woman to be put to death).

Hosea’s marriage was meant to illustrate God’s plight, being ‘married’ to Israel, an adulterous nation (Hosea 1:1-3). As Gomer was soon estranged from her husband, so the Lord God announced concerning Israel, ‘I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries’ (Jeremiah 3:8)

Later God told Hosea to redeem (buy back) Gomer out of prostitution and to show his love to her again – illustrating YHVH’s intended redemption of Israel, in the days of “David their king” (Hosea 3:5).

There are many other examples of prophets enacting their prophetic message:

  • Zechariah was told to break two shepherd staffs to symbolise that God would cease from being the Shepherd of the unfaithful part of Israel and would not protect them, but surrender them ‘to the slaughter’ – which happened during the siege of Titus in AD40 (see Zechariah 11).
  • Ezekiel was told to eat defiled food to symbolise the exile (Ezekiel 4).

Jesus’ rebuke of the fig tree is in keeping with these earlier examples and equally symbolic. From the gospel accounts we see that the tree was fruitless, even though it was not the season for figs. What attracted Messiah to it was the fact that the tree was in leaf. In Tristram’s classic work, Natural History of the Bible, p. 352, we read that, in the Land of the Patriarchs “the fruit [of the fig tree] appears before the leaves”. The leaves that were visible from a distance where thus a suggestion of fruitfulness, but alas with no substance. Jesus prophesied: “may no-one ever eat fruit from you again”. If this particular fig tree did not produce fruit for the Messiah “for whom the world was created” (b. Tractate Sanhedrin  98b), then why should it ever produce fruit again?

It is interesting that Hosea used the fig tree as metaphor for Israel (Hosea 9:10). The leaves on the fig tree represents a hypocritical claim to righteousness, but with no basis in God’s word, the religion of a people of whom the Lord said: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13).

The fig leaves are further reminiscent of Adam’s vain attempt to cover his nakedness by his own efforts (Genesis 3).  Because Israel trusted in its own righteousness, it did not produce the fruit of repentance at Messiah’s come, even though Isaiah had warned: “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins, declares the LORD” (Isaiah 59:20).

Shortly after denouncing the fig tree, Messiah denounced Jerusalem and the Temple.

‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you”’ (Luke 19:41-44).

As the disciples later testified to the withering of the fig tree, history testifies to the siege of AD70 which resulted in the death of a million Jews in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in the very way that Jesus had prophesied.

The incident on the way to Bethany follows on from an earlier parable in Luke:

Luke 13:6-9. ‘Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, `For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

`Sir,’ the man replied, `leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’

Messiah was the gardener who had come to offer that last opportunity.


These verses speak strongly against the popular idea among Christians that Messiah offered the Kingdom to the Jews, but because they rejected it at that time, he will return to offer it to them again. Jesus demonstrates with the fig tree that God holds as fully accountable those who did not recognize the time of His visitation. No one can say “it was not the season for figs”.

[1] The principle of Lo Tashchit. See Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Laws of Bal Tashchit 14; Talmudic Encyclopedia under ‘Bal Tashchit’.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat ,1:17, 10:10.