(Mt. 21:18-22) Does this account of Jesus cursing the fig tree contradict Mark’s account? (Mk. 11:11-15, 19-25)

CLAIM: In Matthew, the cursing of the fig tree occurs after the cleansing of the Temple. In Mark, Jesus curses the fig tree, and it withers 24 hours later. The major problem is that Matthew says that the fig tree withered “at once” (Mt. 21:20). Which was it? Did the tree wither immediately or did it take 24 hours?

RESPONSE: Commentators have adopted two different solutions which are plausible:

OPTION #1: Two trips to the Temple

Mark 11:11 states that Jesus entered the Temple, and Mark doesn’t say much else. Then he cursed the fig tree, and the disciples were merely listening—not saying anything (Mk. 11:13-14). Next Jesus entered the Temple a second time and disturbed the robbers and money changers, flipping over tables (Mk. 11:15).

However, Matthew’s account is different. He states that Jesus overturned the tables when he entered the Temple the first time (Mt. 21:12), and he healed people there (Mt. 21:14). Then he curses the fig tree (Mt. 21:19), and then he returns into the Temple a second time to speak with the Pharisees (Mt. 21:23).

Critics of the Bible feel that inerrantists are being gratuitous by appealing to two events, when they find apparent contradictions in the text. And yet, clearly, both Matthew and Mark mention that Jesus was going in and out of the Temple several times. Therefore, it is likely that two events are in view.

OPTION #2: Matthew is compressing the events, while Mark expands them

Under this view, there is a gap of time between verse 19 and 20 in Matthew. Poythress writes, “Matthew has employed compression. Matthew has given us a minimal account, taking up two verses (21:19–20) for the heart of the action. Mark takes four verses for the same actions (Mark 11:13–14, 20–21). Moreover, Mark has made the whole account more complex by separating the two stages of the action into two distinct days, with the cleansing of the temple in between.”[1] Why did Matthew compress this event? He was emphasizing the power of Jesus and faith, while Mark emphasized the cursing of the fig tree in relation to the Temple’s hypocrisy. Like the fig tree, the Temple would be dried up and cursed for not bearing fruit.

[1] Poythress, Vern S. Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 146.