The Fig Tree that Withered Immediately & Scriptural Inerrancy - Part 2

Although I'm committed to the theological, epistemological, and hermeneutical assumptions I shared in my previous post, I'll admit that I really prefer a linguistically satisfactory resolution to apparent discrepancies.

My student wasn't satisfied with Carson's EBC explanation of how the Matthew and Mark versions of the triumphal entry relate to one another.

He wrote back:
I don't think [Carson's] rationalization of Matthew and Mark's distinctions is acceptable ... The crux of the matter is ... that Matthew clearly portrays the scene as one where Jesus curses the tree, it withers away instantly, and the disciples are shocked by how soon it withered- a single event that occurs after the turning over of the tables, whereas Mark says Jesus cursed it before He threw over the tables, then after he overthrows the tables and spends the night in Bethany upon returning from Bethany, Peter says in a way that implies time has passed since the cursing, that the tree is now withered.

I could understand if Matthew had put it in a topical order but did not use the term, "immediately" and put the disciples directly afterward saying, "how soon," but he didn't. ... How much leniency should we grant them in order to make both stories perfectly true and harmonious? Is it okay to imply something that is not the way it happened?

To be honest, I wasn't entirely satisfied with Carson's explanation either. Especially, in light of the fact that every other English version translates the word παραχρῆμα (parachrema) in Matthew 21:19-20 as “at once” (NASB, ESV, NET, LEB, HCSB, CEB), “presently” (KJV),  or “immediately” (CJB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NAB).

When I looked up the other occurrences of παραχρῆμα in the NT, they all appeared to mean "immediately" or "instantly" (cf. Lk. 1:64; 4:39; 5:25; 8:44, 47, 55; 13:13; 18:43; 19:11; 22:60; Acts 3:7; 5:10; 12:23; 13:11; 16:26, 33).

So I did some research that was quite enlightening to me. Here's part of what I wrote back to the student:

1. You have correctly noted that Matthew's "at once" (παραχρῆμα; 21:19) and disciple's comment about "how soon" (παραχρῆμα; 21:20) the fig tree withered present the key difficulty in this passage.

2. Given your understanding that παραχρῆμα means "immediately" or "instantly," it certainly seems to be a direct contradiction of Mark's account that the tree withered over a day and a night.

Now, it appears to me from your emails (correct me if I'm wrong) that you moved from your empirical observations regarding Matthew and Mark's texts to conclusions regarding the nature of inspiration and its entailments.

In other words, your methodology for building your understanding of the doctrine of inspiration has been based upon inductive logic: gather the facts, draw the conclusions. Since you could not reconcile the apparent contradiction in the facts that you gathered, you concluded that divine inspiration must not extend to matters of historical record.

A Partial Word Study of παραχρῆμα
Now, let's turn our attention to the word παραχρῆμα. Here is the data I have found:
1. When I looked up the word in the Greek lexicons, I found the following:
  • BDAG defined it as "pert. to a point of time that is immediately subsequent to an action, at once, immediately."
  • Friberg offers: "immediately, at once, without delay "
  • Louw-Nida offer: "suddenly; pertaining to an extremely short period of time between a previous state or event and a subsequent state or event - 'suddenly, at once, immediately' (in a number of contexts there is the implication of unexpectedness, but this seems to be a derivative of the context as a whole and not a part of the meaning of the lexical items)."
  • Thayer offers: "(properly, equivalent to para, to, crh/ma; cf. our on the spot), from Herodotus down; immediately, forthwith, instantly"
All the lexicons provide support for the understanding you had of the word παραχρῆμα. I have learned, however, that lexicons are often incomplete in their survey of the data.

As I looked at BDAG in particular, which is the most current NT lexicon, I noticed that there was very little Koine literature cited besides the NT.  That is a good indication that BDAG did not adequately do their homework.

So, I turned to the LXX and Josephus. The LXX is the most influential Greek literature on the NT's language, and Josephus is contemporary with the 1st century and provides an important window into how Greek was used at that time.

Here's what I find:
  •      2 Macc. 7:3 The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. 4 These were heated παραχρῆμα, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on.
Assuming that a fire was already present, pans and caldrons are not heated instantaneously, but take a relatively short amount of time.
  •     2 Macc. 10:22 Then he slew these men who had turned traitor, and παραχρῆμα captured the two towers.  23 Having success at arms in everything he undertook, he destroyed more than twenty thousand in the two strongholds.

No matter how quickly one takes two towers, one does not do it instantaneously. The point seems to be that it they were taken rapidly.
  •     Bel 1:42 And he pulled Daniel out, and threw into the den the men who had attempted his destruction, and they were devoured παραχρῆμα before his eyes.
Again, however quickly the men were devoured, they were not devoured instantaneously.

In Josephus we find the following:
  •     Antiquities of the Jews 1:193 And Abram inquiring also concerning Ishmael, whether he should live or not, God signified to him that he should live to be very old, and should be the father of great nations. Abram, therefore, gave thanks to God for these blessings; and then he, and all his family, and his son Ishmael, were circumcised παραχρῆμα, the son being that day thirteen years of age, and he ninety-nine.

According to Josephus, Abram had 318 servants with whom he overcame the army that took Lot. 318+ people are not circumcised either instantly or particularly quickly, but "without delay" or "straightway" would be fine English glosses.

  •     Antiquities of the Jews 4:274 ``If anyone find gold or silver on the road, let him inquire after him that lost it, and make proclamation of the place where he found it, and then restore it to him again, as not thinking it right to make his own profit by the loss of another. And the same rule is to be observed in cattle found to have wandered away into a lonely place. If the owner be not παραχρῆμα discovered, let him that is the finder keep it with himself, and appeal to God that he has not taken what belongs to another.''
Here we have a potentially extended period of time (likely from several hours to a day or two) during which the owner of lost cattle is searched for.
  •     Antiquities of the Jews 5:155-156 When it was related to the Israelites what the inhabitants of Gibeah had resolved upon, they took their oath that no one of them would give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite, but make war with greater fury against them than we have learned our forefathers made war against the Canaanites; and sent out παραχρῆμα an army of four hundred thousand men against them, while the Benjamites' army was twenty-five thousand and six hundred; five hundred of whom were excellent at slinging stones with their left hands,
Nobody gathers an army of 400,000 men instantaneously, but it can be done quickly rather than slowly, "without delay" rather than otherwise. Judges 20:12-17 makes is clear that the 400,000 man army that was sent out παραχρῆμα involved a somewhat extended period of time, even though it was done without delays.

The result of this brief and limited lexical survey of the uses of παραχρῆμα in the LXX and Josephus does two things for me:
  1. It confirms (again) my belief that while checking lexicons is an important step in exegesis; it is no substitute for actually examining the data for oneself.
  2. It shows that while the sense of παραχρῆμα is something like "straight away" or "quickly," the nature of the quickness is a function of the action and actors involved.The amount of time that passes during the period that is called παραχρῆμα can vary from less than a second to hours to days. In other words, παραχρῆμα is a relative term not an absolute term.
As a result of this study, it is now easy to understand that Matthew could use the word παραχρῆμα to describe the rapid withering of the fig tree, without intending to indicate that it was immediate or instantaneous. Any tree that withers from the roots up within 24 hours has withered in an astonishingly short amount of time. That is all that Matthew's language necessarily conveys.

Again, Matthew has here, as at other times throughout his gospel, chosen to arrange his material thematically/topically to make a theological point. This practice was widely used in ANE and Greco-Roman literature and involved no deception or misleading of the audience.


I came away from my research greatly encouraged! Although I know cases where I am yet unable to provide a completely satisfactory resolution to an apparent discrepancy, when all the facts are in I have not doubt that both the explicit statements of Scripture regarding its trustworthiness and their necessary theological implications (e.g., inerrancy) will be proven 100% correct in all cases.

A couple lessons this exercises has renewed in my mind:
1. I should not pass over difficulties without careful examination just because I am committed to Scripture's doctrine of its own truthfulness and trustworthiness. Often times the answers to vexing difficulties are available. They just need to be uncovered.
2. Finite minds are capable of drawing logically valid inferences from a limited data set which are wrong. Just because I or others can't provide a resolution doesn't mean there isn't one.
3. Presuppositional hermeneutical humility and empirical scholarly rigor, when operating in concert, are never enemies of the truth. When relied upon singly, they promote either indolence or arrogance.


Travis Wakeman said…
I wanted to thank you very much for this blog post. I actually used a few of your references and cited you in a flowchart in answer of the alleged fig tree "contradiction" which I've been working on for a few days. In case you're interested in the link:
Philip Brown said…
Nice chart, Travis. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad you found the post helpful.

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