Early Christian Commentary Confirms Israel is the Fig Tree
Getting a “second opinion” is always advisable when there is a lot riding on a decision or when contemplating a new perspective. Thus investigating what early Christians thought about the fig tree parable would seem prudent. An early Christian writing, the Apocalypse of Peter, clearly identifies the fig tree as Israel and the time of its budding as the time of the end.[i] While we do not consider extra-biblical sources to be Scripture, they can occasionally serve as a type of commentary from early Christians. Scholars generally accept a date of composition[ii] around A.D. 135. This is a significant date because the early Christians had seen Israel destroyed once in AD 70 under Titus who destroyed the Temple, killed upwards of a million Jews and took the rest as slaves. However, not all of the Jews were taken away and those that remained made a comeback.
Caesar Hadrian visited the city in AD 130 and had intimated that he might rebuild the city as a gift to the Jews. When he changed his mind and also outlawed circumcision, the Jews found themselves once again in a deadly conflict with the Romans a mere 62 years after the destruction of the temple. The Jews rallied behind a man named Simon Bar Koseba. Rabbi Akiva would later declare him to be the messiah at which point the Christians who had been helping in the battle left the non-believing Jews to fight for themselves. Hadrian squashed the rebellion in AD 135. He was so angry that he changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria Palestina and salted the land so that nothing would grow. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina and a temple to Zeus would eventually be built on the ruins of the Temple mount. Hadrian also banished all Jews from the city on pain of death. With this in mind, to find a text that declares that Israel, which had been utterly decimated, would one day flourish again is truly incredible.
This text, which again, we are treating like a commentary on the Scripture (and not equal to Scripture), clearly states that when the fig tree has budded, the end of the world would come. The text has interpreted Jesus’ parable of the fig tree to be speaking of Israel. When Israel comes back as a nation, then the last days would come:
(learn a parable) from the fig-tree: so soon as the shoot thereof is come forth and the twigs grown, the end of the world shall come. […] Hast thou not understood that the fig-tree is the house of Israel? […] when the twigs thereof have sprouted forth in the last days, then shall feigned Christs come and awake expectation saying: I am the Christ, that am now come into the world. […] But this deceiver is not the Christ. And when they [Israel] reject him [the deceiver] he shall slay with the sword, and there shall be many martyrs. Then shall the twigs of the fig-tree, that is, the house of Israel, shoot forth: […] Enoch and Elias shall be sent to teach them that this is the deceiver which must come into the world and do signs and wonders to deceive.[iii]
The correlation of the fig tree being Israel in the text is unequivocal. According to this text, Israel, likened to a fig tree, was cut down (twice in fact) and exiled (in agreement with the parable of the land owner in Luke 13:6-9). Thus the author clearly saw Israel removed from her land and the people no more. But the author firmly believed that they would come back as a nation: “when the twigs thereof have sprouted forth in the last days” and then the end will come in the days of their sprouting. Notice also that the two witnesses (Enoch and Elias) will come back in the days of their shooting forth and be killed by the false Christ (Antichrist). This text certainly proves that some in the ancient church interpreted the end times in a very literal fashion. However, it also demonstrates that Israel was considered to be the fig tree and that the shooting forth of its branches would happen in the time of the end and more specifically, at the time of the Lord’s coming. Thus we have ancient testimony that Jesus’ mention of the fig tree was a reference to Israel; her putting forth branches and becoming tender was a reference to her rebirth in the last days which would also be the time of the two witnesses and the Antichrist.
All the Trees
We have seen that the fig tree represents Israel in the parable that Jesus told His disciples. No less than three prophets clearly used the fig tree as a representation of Israel. Jesus also did so in the parable of the land owner and the fig tree, He then cursed a fig tree and told the parable of the fig tree concerning the last days. However, when we read in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus also mentioned “all the trees” – just what are we to make of this? Jesus said to learn the parable of the fig tree and all the trees. We learned what is the Scriptural meaning of the fig tree, but what do “all the trees” represent? Sometimes when Jesus would tell a parable He would then give its interpretation. For example in Matthew 13:18, Jesus interpreted the meaning of the parable of the sower in which each ground represented a type of person and their particular spiritual condition. So it is with our parable and for the answer, we need to go to God’s Word.
Since the fig tree represents Israel as a nation, then we should expect that “all the trees” would represent nations as well. Looking in the pages of God’s Word we find this to indeed be the case. In fact, we find that trees are often used to represent people and especially nations in at least eight passages of the Old Testament alone. We first encounter a parable of trees in Judges 9:7-16 where Jotham, a son of Gideon, addresses the men of Shechem who had just killed seventy of his brothers in order to follow his other brother Abimelech.
The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I cease giving my oil, With which they honor God and men, And go to sway over trees?’ “Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come [and] reign over us!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit, And go to sway over trees?’ “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come [and] reign over us!’ But the vine said to them, ‘Should I cease my new wine, Which cheers [both] God and men, And go to sway over trees?’ “Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come [and] reign over us!’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me as king over you, [Then] come [and] take shelter in my shade; But if not, let fire come out of the bramble And devour the cedars of Lebanon!’ Now therefore, if you have acted in truth and sincerity in making Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done to him as he deserves, (Judges 9:8-16).
In Isaiah 10:33 God refers to chopping off “the tops of trees” as to those who are arrogant and will be “hewn down”. Similar imagery is used in the book of Ezekiel. God in Ezekiel 15:2-6 likens the wood of the vine to the inhabitants of Jerusalem which will be burned in the fire because they are useless (that is idolatrous). God uses the tree motif to speak of Judah being taken into captivity in chapter 17 as well. “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘A great eagle with large wings and long pinions, Full of feathers of various colors, Came to Lebanon And took from the cedar the highest branch. He cropped off its topmost young twig And carried it to a land of trade; He set it in a city of merchants,’” (Ezekiel 17:3-4). In 606/5 BC Nebuchadnezzar took some of the leadership of Judah into captivity – thus Judah is likened to the cedar of Lebanon and the highest branch represents the leadership, which probably included Daniel. We know this to be the case because God gives the interpretation “Say now to the rebellious house: ‘Do you not know what these things mean?’ Tell them, ‘Indeed the king of Babylon went to Jerusalem and took its king and princes, and led them with him to Babylon,’” (Ezekiel 17:12).
God later in the chapter tells what He is going to do with the highest branches in contrast to what King Nebuchadnezzar had done. Whereas King Nebuchadnezzar made it a “spreading vine of low stature” (Ezekiel 17:6) God would set up a king and a kingdom that would be great among the nations. “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar. Under it will dwell birds of every sort; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell.“ (Ezekiel 17:23). God then makes reference to all the trees of the field, which represent the nations. Whether all the trees represent all the nations of the world or just the nations of the area is not clear. “And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the LORD, have spoken and have done it,” (Ezekiel 17:24).
Ezekiel 20:46-48 contains another example of nations represented as trees. However, perhaps the most telling of all is Ezekiel 31:3-15. There Assyria is likened to a cedar of Lebanon that was greater than all the other trees (which is to say nations). “Therefore its height was exalted above all the trees of the field […] and in its shadow all great nations made their home,” (Ezekiel 31:5, 6). God describes how Assyria, the cedar of Lebanon was greater than other kinds of trees though God would send another to cut it down.
‘The cedars in the garden of God could not hide it; the fir trees were not like its boughs, And the chestnut trees were not like its branches; No tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty. I made it beautiful with a multitude of branches, So that all the trees of Eden envied it, That were in the garden of God’. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Because you have increased in height, and it set its top among the thick boughs, and its heart was lifted up in its height, therefore I will deliver it into the hand of the mighty one of the nations, and he shall surely deal with it; I have driven it out for its wickedness,’ (Ezekiel 31:8-11).
Daniel 4:10-11 and Zechariah 11:2 also offer more examples of rulers and nations represented as trees. With the background of the Old Testament, we can now turn back to the New Testament and find Jesus’ use of seed (Matthew 13:6, 40), vine branches (John 15:6) and trees (Luke 3:9; 21:29) to represent people or nations not surprising but very much in keeping with the Scriptures. Therefore, let’s look again at Luke 21:29 “Then He spoke to them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees.’” The fig tree is Israel and therefore all the trees are other nations. The question then becomes which nations was He referring to?
The answer comes from the comparison with the fig tree; it was dried and then sprouted again. Israel was dried for many years and then came back to be a nation. It would appear therefore that Jesus was referring to other nations close to Israel which would also be reborn. What is astounding to discover is that all of the countries that border Israel came back to be independent nation states around the same time as Israel. The CIA World Fact Book discusses how Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt gained their independence all between the years 1943 and 1952 – all within five years of the birth of Israel.
Following World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French separated out the region of Lebanon in 1920, and granted this area independence in 1943.
Following World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the UK received a mandate to govern much of the Middle East. Britain separated out a semi-autonomous region of Transjordan from Palestine in the early 1920s, and the area gained its independence in 1946; it adopted the name of Jordan in 1950.
Following World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French administered the area as Syria until granting it independence in 1946.
Following the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt became an important world transportation hub, but also fell heavily into debt. Ostensibly to protect its investments, Britain seized control of Egypt’s government in 1882, but nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Empire continued until 1914. Partially independent from the UK in 1922, Egypt acquired full sovereignty with the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy in 1952, (CIA World Fact Book, emphases mine).[iv]
These countries, like Israel, did not exist as independent countries until 1943 and after. They were simply parts of the Ottoman Empire and then parts of the British Empire or a colony of the French. Their birth around the birth of Israel strengthens the significance of 1948.
[i] My study of the Scriptures was not influenced by the Apocalypse of Peter – I in fact found it after I had written most of the chapter.
[ii] Retrieved July 15, 2010 from: http://www.ntcanon.org/Apocalypse_of_Peter.shtml. The authorship of the work is uncertain though some suggest that it was Clement, Peter’s disciple since he is mentioned in the work itself.
[iii] First published by the Abbe Sylvain Grebaut in Revue de l’Orient Chretien, 1910: a fresh translation from his Ethiopic text by H. Duensing appeared in Zeitschr. f. ntl. Wiss., 1913.