The fig trees of Jerusalem
The year 70 CE was an extremely bad year for the fig trees of Jerusalem. When the Romans laid siege to the city in the spring of that year, the garden district west and northwest of the city became an annoying area for them. The enclosed Jews knew this big maze with its trees, hedges, little walls and rocky projections very well and used it for irritating sorties. So Titus organized large scale engineering works in this area. He ordered his troops to strip it of all vegetation and constructions, and to level it. For this purpose he used almost his whole army. Josephus describes the intervention as follows in War V:106-108:
Titus (…) posted what he considered an adequate body of horse and foot to stop the sorties, and gave orders to the rest of his forces to level the intervening ground as far as the city walls. Every fence and palisade that the inhabitants had erected around their gardens and orchards was swept away, every fruit tree within the area pulled up, every dip and hollow filled in; the rocky projections were demolished with iron implements, and the whole space leveled from Scopus to Herod’s monuments which adjoined the spot called the Serpent’s Pool.
The orchards consisted in the first place of olive trees, vines and fig trees and these were all felled. For the Jews this was a brutal offense, because according to their rules of warfare, trees with eatable fruits were not a party in military conflicts, so they were left untouched during the acts of war. Because the area was as bald as a skull now, the Jews called it the place of the skull, Golgotha in Aramaic. This levelling operation took place in April 70 CE.
During the final stage of the siege famine, together with infectious diseases, became a terrible scourge for the people locked up in the city. In Mark 11:12 we see Jesus as a victim of famine, and in his hunger he inspects a fig tree for figs although it is not the season. In his frustration that the tree does not bear fruits, he orders it to be felled: “May no one ever eat from you again.” In the subsequent small sentence we can discern a translation problem. ‘And his disciples heard it’ is its traditional translation. The Greek verb ‘akouoo’ not only means ‘to hear’ but also ‘to listen to’, ‘to heed’ or ‘to obey’. When Jesus gave the order that no one would eat from that fig tree anymore, his followers did not only hear what he said, they obeyed the order of their leader. How they felled the tree is left in the shadow, but the effect is clear soon afterwards: “As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered to its roots.” To fell a fig tree, which is not a giant of the forest, was not a difficult task for the armed defenders of Jerusalem.
But did Jesus give his order only because he was frustrated by starvation? Maybe there is more. When Jesus wanted that no one would eat from this tree again, he might have looked ahead to the final result of the siege: the recapture of the city by the Romans. So Jesus may have ordered this tree to be felled to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Romans and being of use for them in the future. The Romans had transgressed the rules of war on this point that same spring, so the Jews were allowed to pay them with their own coin. Jesus knew that, apart from the many victims of famine, epidemics and the sword, the remaining Jews would be sold as slaves or would die in the arena, so this fig tree was of no benefit anymore for his compatriots. Through this act Jesus in fact admitted that the war was lost. The only thing that remained to be done was this little act of a scorched earth policy.