Thursday, May 26, 2022

Notes from the Wesleyan Sidelines

I listened with interest to the General Conference of the Wesleyan Church this week. I feel a little detached at the moment. I'm not working at a Wesleyan school (though working with several). Perhaps that gives me more freedom to speak. If I were in leadership somewhere, I'd have to be more careful, I suppose.

There were clear tensions at the conference. I thought the leadership did a good job steering between Sylla and Charybdis. They did a good job diversifying the voices, I thought.

On a late-night whim, I made a quick drawing to try to capture the diversity of the church that, I think, expresses some of the tensions in the church right now:

It's a poorly drawn tree. The trunk is the "holiness folk," the roots of the church. They are deeply troubled at any discussion of allowing tongues or drinking. They think we are going to hell in a handbasket.

Closely related to that group are what I call the "culture warriors." They are in continuity with the older group although their issues are civilly oriented rather than the older morality orientation. Their chief concerns are to codify statements in the Constitution against abortion and to prevent TWC from ever accepting homosexuality. They are trying to prop up the tree.

The bulk of the tree I pinned as "Church Growthies." These are the larger churches and the ones focused on evangelism, discipleship, and marketplace ministry. I suspect they hold the dominant influence at the moment. Certainly some issues of interest overlap between these groups.

I put some birds in the tree. There are a good number of Baptists who have become Wesleyans over the years. The Wesleyan Church bears the impact of baptistification like the rest of the American church. These elements often reinforce fundamentalist elements in the church.

I also put some charismatics who have joined us. It was interesting to realize that tongues is already practiced in some Wesleyan churches. I suspect that Latino elements of the church, and perhaps some other diverse congregations, have quite a bit of this element.

Then there is always a group of Wesleyans who are secretly or not so secretly attracted to our Anglican roots. There are even some closet Catholic lovers in our midst. These tend to be the more contemplative Wesleyans.

Finally I put fire on the top to represent what I decided to call "radical Wesleyans." Call them "Don Dayton" Wesleyans if you would. They are the closest we have to the Orange Scotts and Luther Lees. Call them progressive Wesleyans. Call them "social justice warriors." The cultural warriors think they should be kicked out of the church. To them they are burning down the church. So are they on fire for God or setting the church on fire?

I'm pretty happy with this picture. It is meant to be descriptive rather to endorse or condemn a faction. To me, it explains the tensions.

This is probably long enough for a post, although I have thoughts on tongues and drinking, considered at the conference.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Book Contract

Somewhat unexpectedly, a contract for a book I had been working on several years ago has revived. I'm afraid I won't be filling in gaps in my Mark Explanatory Notes for at least a couple months. Perhaps I will post some experts from the revived project.

Ken 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 6:10-29 (John the Baptist)

I made such good progress last week writing up notes on the last third of Mark that I thought I would continue to try to fill in gaps in my notes. 

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6:10 And he was saying to them, “Wherever you enter a house, remain there until you depart from there. 11. And whatever place does not receive nor hear you, departing from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a witness against them.” 

Interestingly, Jesus tells them not to move around at a particular location. One can see the practical value of such an approach. You could get individuals at a location fighting with each other over who gets the "apostles" tomorrow night. While the "evangelists" are supposed to be spreading the good news there, you could see the situation devolving into internal squabbles and petty conflicts.

We remember the honor/shame nature of Jesus' world. It would be considered an honor to be the host for such "prophets" from God. If there is a set pattern for who receives the honor, then you can avoid fights over sharing it. We find traces of this honor in Romans 16:5, where Epenetus is recognized as the "firstfruit of Asia for Christ."

Similarly, dishonor will abide on any place that does not welcome the "missionaries." Shaking the dust off one's feet is thus a symbolic act that recognizes the condemnation resulting from their rejection of Christ. I seem to remember that one of my grandfathers, who was a church planter, sometimes recalled this verse when someone rejected the good news.

It is also a reminder that, while every soul is worth as much time as we might give, there are other souls that need the good news too. The urgency, the immediacy of Mark's Gospel suggests that the drive to see everyone have an opportunity may lead us to move on. God calls different people differently. There have been missionaries who have spent a lifetime in a culture without much fruit, only for a next generation to bring it forth. Then there are others who, like Paul, move forward in rather short time.

12. And having gone out, they were preaching that they should repent. 13. And they were casting out many demons, and they were anointing with oil many sick [people] and they were healing [them].

The disciples go on mission. Jesus recognizes that, with his time on earth limited, he will not be able to reach all Israel himself, and certainly not the whole world. They will have to carry it forward and, indeed, teach others to take it forward. Here they are truly "disciples." They are learning to do what Jesus does. They are apprentices. They are doing their internship.

The core of their message is the need for Israel to repent. This was the message of John the Baptist. This is the message of Jesus. It is the message of his disciples. Israel needs to return to the Lord in preparation for the arrival of the kingdom of God.

The core of their activities are the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick, just as Jesus did. So we today have as our mission the same things that Jesus did. The New Testament knows nothing of the end of the age of miracles. After all, we are still in the age of the Spirit.

John the Baptist

6:14 And King Herod heard, for his [Jesus'] name became visible, and he was saying, “John the baptizer has been risen from the dead and for this reason these miracles are working in him.” And others were saying, “It is Elijah.” And others were saying, “Prophet,” as one of the prophets. 16. And having heard, Herod was saying, “John, whom I myself beheaded, was raised.”

Herod Antipas remains the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee and the country east of the Jordan River. We are about to hear the story of what happened to John the Baptist prior to Jesus beginning his earthly ministry. For Herod's part, he fears resurrection. It is a reminder that resurrection was not a politically neutral concept in Jesus' day. Resurrection is cosmic revolution. 

Jesus will make it clear later in 9:13 that John the Baptist himself symbolically was Elijah. Malachi 4:5 speaks of Elijah coming before the great day of the Lord. He is God's messenger (Mal. 3:1) who prepares the way of the Lord. In the Gospels, Jesus is the "Lord" for whom John the Baptist prepares. John the Baptist is the prophet who goes before the Lord.

Herod does not have all these things worked out. He just knows that he has put to death the most significant prophet of God in a very long time. We get a picture here of him fearing what God will do in response. What he fears God will do is resurrect John the Baptist as the beginning of a cosmic revolution. 

6:17 For Herod himself, having sent, took hold of John and bound him in jail because of Herodias, the wife of Philip his brother, because he married her. 18. For John was saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have the wife of your brother.” 

Herod Antipas had several brothers. Archelaus was his full brother, who ruled briefly in Jerusalem. However, he had two half-brothers named Philip. There was Philip the "tetrarch," who is mentioned in Luke 3:1. Then there was the Philip mentioned here, Herod Philip I. This Philip married a niece of theirs named Herodias.

But Herod Antipas was more powerful and influential than Philip. Somehow he manages to wrest her from his own brother and marry her himself. This was seen as deeply wrong by most Jews, and John saw it as a violation of Leviticus 18:16.  

19. And Herodias was holding a grudge against him and was wanting to kill him, and she was not able. 20. For Herod was fearing John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and he was protecting him. And having heard him much, he was confused and gladly was hearing him.

Suffice it to say, Herodias was not pleased to have her name in John the Baptist's mouth, especially since he had such great influence over the people. She was apparently quite pleased with her political ascension. She had managed to climb higher up the ladder of power by marrying Antipas. She would be quite pleased if John would just go away.

For his part, Mark portrays Antipas as at least having enough discernment to know that he should be careful about John. John is a righteous and holy man, and you do not treat God's prophets lightly. Antipas hears what John has to say, even though it is displeasing. Because of these events, the Jewish historian Josephus mentions John the Baptist. [1] Josephus thinks that Herod killed John purely to prevent John from causing an uprising against him.

[1] The classic passage in Josephus about John the Baptist is Antiquities 18.116-119.

6:21 And a suitable day having come, when Herod made a banquet on his birthday [celebrations] for his greatest and the chiliarchs and the first [people] of Galilee, 22. and his daughter by Herodias having entered and having danced, it pleased Herod and those reclining [at table]. The king said to the girl, “Ask me whatever you wish and I will give it to you,” 23. And he swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give to you up to half of my kingdom.

Salome was the daughter of Herodias and Philip. For Antipas' birthday, she does a dance for Herod and his guests. The event seemed to have taken place near the Dead Sea at his palace at Machaerus, but important people from Galilee (where he also ruled) came south for it.

Offering "up to half the kingdom" is an expression we also find in Esther. It was not meant literally. Its sense was rather to ask boldly for something beyond what you might normally ask. We should probably understand Antipas to have had quite a bit to drink by this time of the celebrations.

6:24 And having gone out, she said to her mother, “What should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25. And having entered immediately to the king with speed, she was asking him saying, “I wish that you at once give me on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” 26. And having become very sorry, the king—because of the oaths and those reclining [at table]—did not want to reject her.

Herod's step-daughter, Salome, is not sure what to ask for. Her mother does not suggest something that Salome herself might enjoy. Instead, Herodias uses the opportunity to get something that she has not been able to secure, the death of John the Baptist. She asks for his head on a platter.

No doubt Salome knew the story. She seems happy enough to oblige her mother even though it was her own father than her mother left. Perhaps she too enjoys a more luxurious life with her new step-father. She asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Mark says that Antipas is very sad about this request. But his honor is now at stake. He has also made one of the most serious oaths he could make. He grants her request.

6:27 And immediately, having sent, the king ordered the executioner to bring his head. And having gone away, he beheaded him in the jail 28. And brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29. And his followers, having heard, came and took his corpse and placed it in a tomb.

It is done. John is immediately beheaded in the fortress jail. The gory head is brought to the girl, who gives it to her mother.

John's movement had such an impact that his followers would continue decades after his death. Over two decades later, Paul would run into followers of John the Baptist at Ephesus (Acts 19:4). These were individuals that had repented and been baptized in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel as an independent nation. At that same time, Priscilla and Aquila disciples Apollos into "the Way" of Christ. He also had only believed in the message of John at that time (Acts 18:25).

The Gospel of John may very well date to the 90s of the first century. This is more than sixty years after John the Baptist. Yet many would suggest that the story of John the Baptist in John is told in such a way as to strongly emphasize that John's ministry only pointed forward to Jesus. John wants to make it clear that John's role was over once Jesus arrived on the scene. "It is necessary for that one to increase, but me to be lessened" (John 3:30). 

Many scholars believe John has this emphasis because, even at the end of the first century, there were still followers of the message of John the Baptist who had not gone on to believe in Jesus.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 16:1-8 (Resurrection)

Explanatory notes on Passion Week in the Gospel of Mark (still a few missing pieces). 

Today for Easter, we conclude with the resurrection in Mark 16. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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16:1 And when the Sabbath had passed, Mary the Magdalene and Mary the [mother] of James and Salome bought spices in order that, having come, they might anoint him. 2. And very early on the first [day] of the week they come to the tomb, the sun having risen.

The women observed where they had put the body of Jesus on Friday (15:47). But they do not anoint him in observance of the Jewish Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. They now come to finish the burial process on Sunday morning. 

Nothing in these verses transfers the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. The expression, “on the first of Sabbaths,” is an idiom for “on the first day of the week.” They buy spices on Sunday and do not treat the day as they have just treated Saturday.

However, this first day is an eighth day—it is a day of new creation. This day will be the “Lord’s Day.” For Christians, every Sunday is a little Easter, another day of Christ rising from the dead. The sun has risen, and the Son has risen.

The women who come are the same women we saw in Mark 15:40 who looked on as Jesus died. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ mother Mary. We know from that verse that the Mary here is the mother of James “the less” or “the younger,” presumably James the son of Alphaeus.

16:3 And they were saying to themselves, “Who will roll away for us the stone from the door of the tomb?" 4. And having looked up, they see that the stone has been rolled away (for it was very large). 5. And having entered into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right, having worn a white robe, and they were alarmed.

They understandably wonder who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. The tomb has been cut out of a rock face, and a rock has been used to secure the entrance. Such rocks at times sat into grooves in the bedrock so that they stayed in place when in position.

However, when they arrive, they not only find that the rock has been rolled away from the entrance. There is a man in white inside the vault. Presumably, he is an angel.

16:6 And he says to them, “Do not be alarmed. You are seeking Jesus the Nazarene, the one having been crucified. He is risen and is not here. Behold, the place where they put him."

The angel announces Jesus’ resurrection. “He is risen!” The women are understandably alarmed. This is neither the first nor the last time that an angel tells someone not to be afraid when appearing to them.

Jesus’ resurrection is a bodily resurrection. Because he is risen, his body is no longer there. Resurrection is not a spirit going to heaven. For the earliest Christians, like the Pharisees and other Jews of the time, resurrection involved a body (cf. 1 Cor. 15).

16:7 "But depart, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes ahead of you into the Galilee. There you will see him, just as he spoke to you."

Interestingly, the angel points to Galilee as the place where Jesus will appear to the disciples. However, in Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus’ first appearance is in Jerusalem. In Matthew, he appears there to the women on their way (Matt. 28:9). In John, he appears near the tomb to Mary Magdalene (John 20:14). In Luke and John, he appears to them on the night of his resurrection (Luke 24:36; John 20:19). 

Assuming that the original ending of Mark is lost, it is of course possible that Mark also told of a Sunday night appearance. However, as the text of Mark stands, we are left to expect the primary appearance to be in Galilee. In Matthew, this appearance is when Jesus gives the Great Commission.

In Mark 14:28, Jesus tells the disciples that he will meet them in Galilee after he is raised. At the time, they have no real understanding of what he has told them. Here, Mark makes it clear that this promise was fulfilled, even though in the verses we have he does not go on to narrate the event. He only indicates here that it would indeed take place.

16:8 And having gone out, they fled from the tomb, for trembling and amazement was taking hold of them. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

In its current form, Mark does not narrate the women going on to tell the disciples what had happened, although Matthew does (28:8). The women are understandably confused and frightened. On a historical note, it is unlikely that someone would invent this account if it were not true. It is a strong historical argument that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty when the women came to anoint him.

The reaction of the women also fits two key features of Mark’s narrative. First, it fits the hiddenness of Jesus’ messianic identity. He did not rise publically in front of everyone. His resurrection took place in a way of which only a few were initially aware. He required faith.

Secondly, his followers do not immediately understand what was going on. This fact fits with the lack of understanding his followers have in general. Their lacking may have provided hope for the audience of Mark, especially if Mark was written around the time of the Jewish War or the destruction of Jerusalem. Even the first disciples did not get it right the first time.

Some believe that Mark ended his Gospel at this point to prompt the audience to consider its response to Jesus, his death and resurrection. Are they going to be like these women or are they going to go tell someone? My personal hunch is that more verses sat here originally, but that they were lost at an early date. 

Other Endings

Most scholars consider it quite unlikely that the ending of Mark in the King James was part of the original Gospel of Mark. We of course do not have any original manuscript of any book of the Bible. So scholars look at the copies we have and try to determine the most likely conclusion, using both internal and external evidence.

External evidence is what we see in the manuscripts. Here, the oldest Greek biblical manuscripts we have do not have verses 9-20. There are mentions of the ending that seem to be quite old, but Eusebius in the early 300s indicates it is not a prevalent reading of the Greek manuscripts in his day. There is a "shorter ending" that exists in some manuscripts, indicating that someone capped the book at one point because there was no ending they found pleasing there.

In the end, the internal evidence is determinative. Verse 9 effectively starts the whole chapter over again, like verses 1-8 didn't exist. It proceeds in a summary rather than narrative fashion--there is a sudden style change and the text forgets anything about what was said about the women in 16:8.

I personally think it likely that there was another ending to Mark after verse 9, but one that was lost to history at a very early date indeed. Since Matthew used Mark as a source, it may give us some hints as to what was originally there.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 12:13-27 (Tuesday Debates II -- Taxes and Resurrection)

Paying the Poll Tax

12:13 And certain of the Pharisees and the Herodians send to him in order that they might trap him in word.

These individuals do not come to Jesus directly. They send innocent-looking representatives. We remember that not all Pharisees were hypocrites, but the Gospels remember certain individuals from the Pharisees as key opponents to Jesus. The Herodians were likely a group wanting to see some Herod in charge of Israel rather than a Roman governor like Pilate.

Jesus is not fooled.

12:14 And, having come, they say to him, "Teacher, we know that you are true, and it is not a care to you about anyone. For you do not look to the face of a person, but in truth you teach the way of God. Is it lawful to give poll tax to Caesar or not? Should we give or should we not give?"

Flattery is the name of the game. They don't mean a word of it. They don't believe he is true. They don't believe he teaches the way of God. 

On the other hand, it is true that Jesus did not play favorites with people because they were important by earthly standards. He didn't care if someone was rich. He didn't care if someone was famous. He didn't care if someone was powerful. If anything, those attributes made him less impressed with someone. Matters of worldly importance were "not a care" to him.

Then they get to the point. Should you pay taxes or not? If he says yes, then what kind of a Jewish messiah can he be, siding with the Romans. That won't make the people happy. These Pharisees can use it to knock down his popularity.

If he says no, then they can take him to the Romans. This guy is telling the people not to pay taxes. He's an enemy of Rome. You must stop him.

This is the double-bind they were trying to put Jesus in.

12:15 And having known their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why do you test me? Bring me a denarius that I might see [it]." 16. And they brought [one]. And he says to them, "Whose image [is] this and the inscription?"

And they say to him, "Caesar's."

Jesus sees right through them. But they don't understand his perspective on money. They assume that money matters, that money is a thing. They do not know that money has no place in Jesus' values. It is not a thing. It is irrelevant to him and God's kingdom.

Jesus asks for a coin, worth about a day's wage. He asks whose image is on it. Obviously, it is Caesar's.  

12:17 And Jesus said to them, "Repay the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God." And they marveled at him. 

Whose image is on the coin? Caesar's? Well, give it back to him. Jesus' answer is that Caesar can have all his coins back. Coins are irrelevant to the kingdom of God. Money is irrelevant to the kingdom of God.

The Resurrection

12:18 And Sadducees come to him, who say there is not resurrection. And they were asking him saying, 19. "Teacher, Moses wrote to us that 'if a brother of someone should die' and leave a wife 'and he should not leave a child,' that 'his brother should take the wife and should raise up seed for his brother.'

The Pharisees have had their shot. Now it is the Sadducees' turn. The Sadducees were a priestly group who differed significantly with the Pharisees on a number of key issues, perhaps the most famous of which was the afterlife. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, often a very bodily resurrection. The Sadducees did not. 

Resurrection belief in Israel seems to have resurrected especially in the early second century BC, around the time of the Maccabean conflict. The Sadducees reflected the tradition before then, such as that found in the book of Sirach (ca. 200BC). Pharisaic belief of the late 100s is best reflected in a book called 2 Maccabees.

The Pharisees also followed oral traditions on how to keep the Law, called the "tradition of the elders." The Sadducees of course had their own traditional interpretations and oral traditions--they just denied it. They claimed just to stick to the Law and not the added traditions of the Pharisees. Nevertheless, the application of Scripture to a new context and new situations almost always involves going beyond what is explicitly said.

The Sadducees were from the highest social class of Israel. In one hypothesis, they actually were from the earlier lineage of high priests before the Maccabees took over the priesthood in 152BC. Then when Herod the Great eliminated the Maccabean line, this formerly priestly class was available to serve once again. In any case, it is a theory.

The law that these Sadducees invoke is the rule of levirite marriage, found in Deuteronomy 25:5. Because the firstborn son inherited the property, it was important for there to be a firstborn son. If an older brother did not have one and died at a pre-mature age, any younger brother was to take on his wife (even though he was probably already married) and raise up seed for him. That child, in effect, was not his son but the son of his older brother. This rule, in effect, is what happened in the case of Boaz and Ruth, although there he was not a brother but a relative of the deceased.  

12:20 "[There] were seven brothers. And the first took wife and, dying, he did not leave seed. 21. And the second took her, and he died, not having left seed, and the third similarly. 22. And the seven did not leave seed. Last of all, the wife also died. 23. In the resurrection, whose wife of theirs will she be, for the seven had her [as] wife."

The mention of seven brothers evokes 2 Maccabees 7, a classical Pharisaic text on resurrection. In that story, seven brothers and their mother suffer martyrdom because they believe in a better resurrection (cf. Heb. 11:35). The Sadducees here must think they are pretty clever and quite cheeky to evoke the image of 2 Maccabees. 

12:24 And Jesus said to them, "Do you not err on account of this, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25. For whenever they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor give in marriage, but they are as the angels in the skies.

Jesus hands it right back to them. Once again, his opponents are making a false assumption. They are assuming that men will dominate women in the kingdom of God just like they dominated them then. They assume that, in the kingdom, women would be subordinate to men just as women were subordinate to men then.

But women will not be subordinate or inferior to men in the kingdom of God. Women will not be "given" in marriage. Indeed, there will be no marriage in heaven because there will be no sex in the kingdom. Both men and women will have transformed bodies like the angels in heaven. [1]

On a side note, there is no biblical basis for the sentiment you sometimes hear that husbands and wives will not recognize each other in heaven. This rumor presumably arose in some way from this passage. But the passage does not say anything like that.

[1] Mark is not clear what the location of this afterlife existence will be. I have chosen the kingdom of God on a new earth as the location. However, it is possible that heaven is in view. 

12:26 "And concerning the dead, that they are raised, do you not read in the book of Moses at the bush how God said to him, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?' 27. God is not of the dead but of those who live. You err much."

Jesus gives another argument that sounds very much like the rabbinic arguments of his day. At the burning bush, God says, "I am the God of Abraham" (Exod. 3:6). Jesus focuses on the present tense. If God is the God of Abraham in the present tense, then Abraham must have continued to live beyond death somewhere. And we have other Gospel texts that suggest that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will return to the earth when the kingdom of God fully arrives (e.g., Matt. 8:11).

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 12:1-12 (Parable of Tenants)

I've been writing explanatory notes this week on Passion Week in Mark's Gospel. Thus far:

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12:1 And he began to speak to them in parables. "A person planted a vineyard and put a hedge around it and dug a winepress and built a tower and rented it out to farmers and went on a journey. 2. And he sent to the farmers a servant at the time so that from the farmers he might receive from the fruit of the vineyard.

This is the eighth and final parable in the Gospel of Mark, and it is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. It closely parallels the similar parable in Isaiah 5. It is a parable about the leadership of Israel at that time.

God is the planter, and the vineyard is Israel. God planted Israel. In Isaiah 5, the vineyard yields wild grapes or bad fruit. With an unproductive vineyard, God threatens to remove its hedges and let it become a dry wasteland with thorns and thistles.

The hedge in Isaiah seems to be God's protection of Israel from outsiders. Later rabbis would consider the oral traditions that made sure you kept the Law (by overkeeping it) to be the hedge of Deuteronomy 22:8--a guard rail so that you did not violate it. But it is not clear that the Law is in view here.

Interestingly, God rents out the land to farmers. Implicit in this imagery is a sense that the leaders of Israel are not exactly Israel. This is not a parable of Deism, the Enlightenment philosophy that saw God creating the world and no longer involved in it. It is at least possible that this parable has overtones of exile. Israel is being run by outsiders.

Still, God expects his portion of the land. He expects fruits of righteousness. God expects good grapes.

12:3 And having received him, they beat him and sent [him] empty-handed. 4. And again he sent to them another servant, and him they struck on the head and disgraced. 5. And another he sent, and him they killed and many others, beating some, and killing some. 

The prophets of Israel did not always fare well. We should not overread the imagery--this is a parable not an allegory. But one could infer that the leadership of Israel even when it was in control of its land was farmed out. How difficult it is for the righteous to end up in power. How difficult it is for those in power to stay righteous. They are often like farmers God put in control but who are not exactly God's people.

The fact that Israel killed God's messengers is repeated in the Gospels. Luke 13:34 says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets." Matthew 23:31 says, "You are the descendants of those who killed the prophets." We should possibly see John the Baptist as part of this mix.

12:6 Still he was having one beloved son. He sent him last to them, saying, "They will respect my son." 7. But those farmers said to themselves, "This is the heir. Come. Let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours." 8. And having taken, they killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.

Jesus is clearly the Son whom God sent. In this parable, he anticipates that he is about to be killed by the leadership of Israel like the prophets before him. In 11:18, they have already begun to plot. If he stays in the environs of Jerusalem, it is only a matter of time.   

12:9 What will the Lord of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those farmers and will give the vineyard to others. 10. Not even have you read this Scripture: "The stone that the ones building rejected--this [one] has become the head of the corner." 11. This [head] came to be from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

The victory of such "farmers" is only temporary. There will be consequences. The landowner, so patient for so long, will not suffer this insolence forever, especially when they have killed his son. He will utterly destroy them. Although Mark does not make the connection to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 explicit, the audience of Mark would make the connection easily enough.

The event of Palm Sunday echoed Psalm 118 in more than one verse. Here Jesus quotes it again explicitly (Psalm 118:22). They have rejected Jesus as a stone in the building of Israel, but God is going to make Jesus the cornerstone of the kingdom of God. God is the Master of the vineyard. He will install whom he wants to install. He will build the way he wants to build Israel. And he wants to build on Jesus. This is a truly marvelous development!

12. And they were seeking to grab him, and they feared the crowd, for they knew that he spoke this parable against them. And, having left him, they went away.

The leaders of Jerusalem are not stupid. The fact that they do not have ears to hear does not mean in this instance that they do not know what he means,. They simply reject it with all their being. At the end of Monday, they wanted to find a way to get rid of Jesus. Now it is Tuesday and they feel even more strongly about it.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 15:38-47 (Burial)

The Aftermath

38. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 

Mark does not explain the significance of this event, but we might infer from elsewhere that the barrier that stood between humanity and God's presence has been severed. Certainly, Hebrews might interpret the event in this way (e.g., Heb. 10:10), and the Gospel of Mark and Hebrews may have been written at about the same time with a Roman audience in mind. 

There are other possible explanations, such as an expression of the grief of God. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it could be interpreted along the lines of the glory of God leaving the temple.

39. And the centurion standing in front of him, having seen that he thus breathed out, said, “Truly this man was Son of God.” 

Many have argued that this moment is the climax of the Gospel of Mark. A story can of course be told in more than one way. Matthew arguably tells the story with a double climax. First, there is the victorious resurrection. Then there is the Great Commission. But Mark tells the story in such a way that the climax is at the cross. The resurrection is not the focus of the story's energy in Mark.

We can catch a glimpse of why in Mark 10:45. "The Son of the Mortal did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for others." The cross for Mark highlights Jesus absorbing the wrath of God toward Israel and the world. We find this kind of thinking in a Jewish book from about 150 years earlier, 2 Maccabees. In one chapter, seven brothers and their mother are martyred for their refusal to apostatize from the God of Israel. The youngest brother before dying expresses his hope that, through their deaths, "to bring an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has rightly fallen on our whole nation" (7:38).

We might call this atonement theology both a "satisfaction" of God's anger/justice toward Israel and, in a sense, a "substitution" of the deaths of these righteous brothers for the whole of Israel. Isaiah 53:5 expressed the same idea long before any Jew had a sense that part of being Messiah was dying for the sins of Israel: "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities." This sort of "substitutionary atonement" was part of the Jewish background of the New Testament.

We are so used to this logic that it is hard for us not to read it in its full, cosmic scope. We do not realize how startling the scope of Hebrews' theology is. What, not just for Israel? What, even for all the sins of the Old Testament? Their immediate thought must have been, "He is dying for the Israel of this moment, so that our kingdom can be restored." 

All of these are of course pictures. They are goo-goo gah-gah talk. Theologians have argued and debated the full significance of the cross for two millennia. Mark simply says it was a ransom (10:45) and that his blood was poured out for many (14:24). He doesn't go into theological depth.

The centurion gets it. The way Jesus died demonstrated that he was indeed the Son of God, the king. Ironically, he is the first person in the Gospel of Mark to get the connection between Jesus' suffering/death and the fact that he is the Messiah of Israel, the anointed king. Peter understood that Jesus was king, but he did not get the cross (Mark 8:31-32). The same was true of James and John, who still fight over who will be greatest in the restored Israel (10:35-40). 

The centurion is the first person in Mark to see that Jesus' death demonstrates that he is the Messiah. It is not that he is the Messiah despite dying on the cross. He is the Messiah because he dies for the sins of Israel. And it is a non-Jew who sees it first. 

This is what Paul will say in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23. He preached Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. It was a stumbling block to the Jews because it suggested that the humiliation of the Roman fist was the glory of God. It suggested that the last shall be first and that to lose is to win. This made no sense to the Greeks, just as it makes little sense even to many who call themselves Christians today.  

40. And women were watching from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joseph, and Salome, 41. who were following him when he was in Galilee and they were serving him alongside many others who came up with him to Jerusalem.

It is easy to forget that wherever the Twelve were, wherever disciples were, there were key women who followed and went along with Jesus. Luke 8:3 suggests that they were the primary support for Jesus' ministry. Mary Magdalene is never said to be a prostitute anywhere in the Bible. Luke 8:2 notes that she had been possessed of seven demons before Jesus cast them out. In John 20:17, she is the first witness to the resurrection and the first one sent to witness thereto (which is what an apostle is).

"James the Less" is the other James--in other words, he was not James the son of Zebedee. He was James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18). But his mother was in Jesus' company as a disciple. Joseph is probably another of those who followed Jesus with his mother and brother to Jerusalem, although not one of the Twelve. Salome is only mentioned in Mark. 

It is a reminder again that there were a lot more followers of Jesus than just the Twelve. They had come up to Jerusalem perhaps in part because it was Passover. But they may also have had the same mistaken expectations of others. They may have thought that Jesus was going to be enthroned as king right there at the Passover. Even after his resurrection, Acts 1:6 records this expectation.

42. And it already having become evening, since it was the Preparation, which is before Sabbath, 43. Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who also himself was awaiting the kingdom of God, having dared to enter to Pilate, even asked for the body of Jesus. 44. And Pilate marveled that he had already died, and calling for the centurion, he asked if he had already died. 45. And having known from the centurion, he gave the corpse to Joseph.

Jesus is crucified on Friday. In Mark's account, this is the day of Passover, the fourteenth of Nisan. If he was crucified in AD30, that would be April 7. The Sabbath began at sundown, so there was some hurry to get Jesus down and buried quickly. John says they had to break the legs of the two criminals so they would die more quickly (John 19:32). Pilate is surprised that Jesus is already dead. He double-checks with the centurion in charge of the crucifixion.

Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body and provides the tomb. He is apparently a member of the Sanhedrin. Luke 23:51 says that he had not agreed with the plan to put Jesus to death. We are not entirely sure where Arimathea was, but it was a village in the country. He is a prominent enough person in the city to have direct access to Pilate. 

He was awaiting the kingdom of God. The fact that his name is remembered suggests that he became part of the Jesus movement after the resurrection. These names became sealed in the story as it was told and retold beyond Jerusalem, and the good news reached people who had never met these individuals, like us.

46. And having bought a linen, having taken him down, he wrapped him in the linen and placed him in a tomb which had been hewn out of rock. And he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the [mother] of Joseph were seeing where he has been put.

Assuming that Jesus was crucified at the traditional location in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, then his place of burial was a stone's throw away. Recent archaeological evidence does indicate that the current shrine dates at least back to Constantine, when he first build on the traditional site of Jesus' burial. There are also other barrel tombs hewn out of rock in the church that are possible candidates.

There seems no time in Mark to do the normal anointing for burial. The best the women can do is note where he has been laid and plan to come back first thing Sunday morning to complete the ritual.

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 15:16-37 (The Crucifixion)

The Crucifixion
15:16 And the soldiers led him away outside of the palace (that is, the praetorium), and they called together the whole cohort. 17. And they dressed him in purple and, having woven a thorny crown, they placed [it] on him, 18. and they began to greet him, “Greetings, King of the Jews!” 19. And they struck his head with a reed and spat on him, and getting on their knees, they were giving him homage. 20. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple and put his garments on him and led him out that they might crucify him.

To the Roman soldiers, Jesus is a nobody. He is their sport for the day. "Look, it's the king of the Jews," and they beat him. They dress him up in the purple of royalty. They make him a crown out of thorns. They mockingly kneel before a king that fits their prejudices and "superiority" over the Jews. They are Romans. Everyone else is dirt.

[I write these notes after Russian soldiers have done similar atrocities to Ukrainians.]

They strike him with a reed. They spit on him. In their minds, they have the unquestioned power. To them, Jesus is just a weak piece of scum. They smack him randomly, like a bully in a schoolyard.

Then when they've had their fun, they strip him naked and get on with their business.

21. And they forced a certain Simon of Cyrene as he was passing by, coming from the country ([he is] the father of Alexander and Rufus), that he might take up his cross. 22. And they bring him to Golgotha (which is being translated, “Place of a Skull”), 23. and they were giving him wine mixed with myrrh, which he did not receive.

After the beating he has received, Jesus is not strong enough to carry the crossbeam of the cross. The pole to which it was attached would more or less be situated permanently just outside one of the city gates. Romans crucified criminals as a sign to anyone who might even entertain the thought of defying Rome. The cross was far more than an instrument of torture. It was a tool of humiliation and shame. It was a way of telling non-Romans that they were scum and dirt.

A man named Simon is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Romans "recruit" him to carry the crossbeam. It must have had a profound impact on him because Mark and his audience know his children, Alexander and Rufus. It makes sense to think that Simon became a follower of Jesus after that.

He is from Cyrene in North Africa, although it is not clear whether he had moved to Israel. He is coming from the country, so he at the very least does not live in Jerusalem. 

Golgotha, just outside the city gate, is where the permanent pole for crucifixion was situated. It was probably on the northwest side of Jerusalem on a small hill. Most scholars believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed the most likely location. [1] Although it is currently within the city walls, archaeological evidence suggests that it was outside the wall at the time of Jesus. 

[1] Gordon's tomb became a favorite suggestion in the 1800s, but this suggestion faces serious problems. Principally, it does not matter how the site looks today. 1900 years is a very long time. What is important is what the site looked like 2000 years ago. The site has certain sentimental advantages, but few historical ones.

They offer Jesus wine mixed with myrrh to deaden the pain. Jesus wants none of it.

24. And they crucify him and they divided his garments, casting a lot upon them [for] who would take what. 25. And it was about the third hour, and they crucified him. 26. And the inscription of his charge had been inscribed, “The King of the Jews.” 27. And with him they crucified two thugs one on his right and one on his left. [2]

The dividing of garments echoes Psalm 22:18. As we will see in a moment, this psalm must have been on Jesus' mind on the cross. Again, Jesus is nothing to them. He is just some scum who deserved to die. Perhaps they laugh as they divide up his stuff, almost forgetting that he is there.

The third hour would be 9am. The Sabbath begins at sundown, so the Jewish leaders would be keen for it all to be over by dusk. The Romans would oblige. A friend of mine once noted that Mark does not emphasize the agony of the cross the way we often do today. It was more the shame of the cross that they focused on.

Pilate and the Romans are more than happy to mock the Jews and Jesus with the title, "King of the Jews" above him. Ironically, he is the King of the Jews. Mark will make it clear in a moment that the cross is a demonstration of his messianic identity, not a disproof of it.

[2] A number of later manuscripts of Mark have a verse 28 here: "And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'And he was reckoned with lawless ones.'" There is no conspiracy here. Copyists tend to expand and explain rather than cut things out, although this is not an absolute rule. Matthew used Mark and does not mention the Scripture--which is something he would likely have done given his emphasis on Jesus fulfilling Scripture. Luke does have this quote at 22:37. Perhaps a copyist felt like it fit even better at the cross.

29. And those passing by were insulting him, wagging their heads and saying, “Woe, the one who destroys the temple and rebuilds [it] in three days. 30. Save yourself, coming down from the cross.” 31. Similarly, the high priests, mocking to one another with the scribes were saying, “He saved others. He isn’t able to save himself. 32. Let the Christ, the King of Israel come down now from the cross that we might see and believe.” And the ones who had been crucified with him were reviling him.

Jesus' enemies gloat. There is a German word for it, Schadenfreude, joy at the misfortune of others. There was a time where they had to keep their mouth shut because of the crowds who loved Jesus. Now that evil and mischief has prevailed, they can reveal their true hearts and their true colors. We sometimes see this in cultures where the ungodly come to power. The evil that used to be whispered and hidden can now be aired in public along with the kinds of abuse that go with it.

Or perhaps they followed Jesus briefly for the wrong reason. Perhaps they thought Jesus was a violent man like them. He was going to pound the Romans with God's fist. "No? He wants to redeem God's enemies? He lets them arrest him? Serves him right!"

The chief priests and scribal elite have finally won (or have they?). They couldn't beat Jesus in argument. They couldn't beat Jesus in popularity. But by golly they could kill him. "You thought you were so cool healing other people. Can't heal yourself, can you, heh, heh, heh!" "Let's see you destroy the temple now!"

"Still think you're the king, the Messiah? Show us a trick Jesus. Come down from the cross."

Even the two criminals next to Jesus mock him. Mark tells nothing of one of the criminals coming to his senses. If all we had were Mark, we would assume they both mocked Jesus as well. It is one thing for the so-called respectable people to mock you. Even the actual low-lives are mocking you.

33. And the sixth hour having come, it became dark over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34. And in the ninth hour Jesus cried with a great voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

The sixth hour was noon. Psalm 19:1 says that the skies declare the glory of God. Now they declare the agony of God. The darkness forebodes the death of God. At the ninth hour, 3pm, Jesus cries out in Aramaic, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

In Mark, this is the only thing Jesus says from the cross. He is quoting Psalm 22:1. He feels abandoned by God the Father. We can imagine this psalm running through Jesus' head as he struggles for breath, having to push his feet against the spikes to push himself up for breath. There was not a lot of talking from a cross.

You often hear people say that God the Father had to turn away from Jesus because he was taking on the sin of the world. Nothing in the biblical text says this idea. God the Father cannot be anything but one with God the Son. This is an example of taking pictures and metaphors too far. Jesus feels abandoned--what human would not? But he is not abandoned. God is everywhere present, even in hell. He just isn't experienced there.

Nor does God learn anything on the cross. God knows everything. God created the very possibility of the cross. There is no difference between head knowledge and experiential knowledge for God. God created the very possibility of experiential knowledge. God knows everything. He always has. He always will.

35. And certain of those standing alongside, having heard [him], were saying, “Look, he is calling Elijah.” 36. And a certain man, running, and having filled a sponge with sour wine, having placed [it] on a reed, he was offering him a drink, saying, “Wait. Let us see if Elijah should come to take him down.” 37. And Jesus, having let go a great sound, breathed out.

It is quite likely that Jesus' speech was slurred and halting. They do not seem to hear fully what he is saying. They heard something that sounds like Elijah. They can't make sense of it. Perhaps they think of Malachi 4:3, where Elijah comes before the Lord comes to his temple. A man runs to give him some sour wine, perhaps to quench his thirst.

But Mark does not tell us that the sour wine ever reached his lips. Quite unusually, Jesus dies long before a person being crucified would. His pain is not just physical. Someone has said, "He died of a broken heart."

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 15:1-15 (Friday morning)

Explanatory Notes on Passion Week:

It's Friday.
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15:1 And immediately, the high priests and the whole Sanhedrin, having taken council early with the elders and scribes, having bound Jesus, they brought him and delivered [him] to Pilate. 2. And Pilate asked him, “Are you King of the Jews?”

And he, answering, says to him, “You say.”

The picture is quite remarkable. An entire Sanhedrin of 71 men assembling in the middle of the night. John 18 tells of private meetings first with Annas (18:13) and then Caiaphas (18:24), the official high priest at the time. Then Jesus goes to Pilate (18:28). In either case, a strong majority of the Sanhedrin would have agreed or have already agreed with the trajectory of Annas and Caiaphas.

Pontius Pilate was the procurator of Judea from AD26-36. He was not particularly liked by the Judeans but, then again, what Roman ruler was? Herod Antipas was ruling at this time but in Galilee and the east. It is possible that the "Herodians" wanted to see him or some Herod as ruler of all Palestine, as Herod the Great was (Mark 3:6).

Pilate is known to have done at least two objectionable things as governor. One of the first things he did was let the Roman soldiers bring their standards (the poles with an image of the emperor) into Jerusalem under the cover of night. It was forbidden for any such image to be in Jerusalem, and the Jews petitioned him at risk of their own life to have them removed. The Jewish thinker Philo mentions an incident with shields that is either his misunderstanding of the same story or a different but similar event.

Then Luke 13:1 mentions him mixing the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices. This event is not recorded elsewhere unless Luke is referring to the event that ended Pilate’s time as governor. In that incident, Pilate had some Samaritans killed who were gathering at Mt. Gerazim in Samaria.

The Sanhedrin apparently did not have the authority to sentence someone to death. For this reason, they needed Pilate to order it. Their charge against him is that he is “King of the Jews.” Of course, they don’t believe it, but they are accusing him of being a traitor to Rome, a messianic pretender. They do not actually believe that he is.

15:3 And the chief priests were accusing him of many things. 4. And Pilate again was asking him saying, “You do not answer anything? See of what sort of things they accuse you?” 5. But Jesus no longer answered anything, with the result that Pilate was amazed.

Although the Greek says, “high priests,” the context suggests that “chief priests” is more accurate. There was only one official high priest at a time—at this point Caiaphas. Nevertheless, there were others of high priestly status, often Sadducees.

They accuse him, but Jesus does not respond. This amazes Pilate. No doubt he is used to the accused vigorously defending themselves and begging for mercy. Did some of the guilty get angry in protest of their innocence? Pilate is probably able to sum up this situation easily enough. The Jewish leaders want him dead, while Jesus is no threat.

Barabbas
15:6 Now at the feast he was releasing to them one prisoner whom they were requesting. 7. And there was one being called Barabbas having been bound with revolutionaries, who had committed murder in his revolt.

From everything we can see, Pilate seems inclined to release Jesus. He has a way in mind. He will offer the crowds Jesus as part of the festival. He will put him up against a real criminal, someone named Barabbas who had actually participated in revolt and had actually murdered someone. Surely the crowd would ask for Jesus to be released instead.

The existence of Barabbas is a reminder that revolt was never far away. There probably was not any organized group like the Zealots and Sicarii (dagger men) that we know of from the time of the Jewish revolt (AD66). But there were always violent men around who hated the Romans and wanted to overthrow them.

15:8 And the crowd, having gone up, began to ask [Pilate] as he was doing to them [normally]. 9. And Pilate answered them, saying, “Do you wish that I release to you the King of the Jews?” 10. For he knew that because of jealousy the high priests had handed him over.

Pilate gives the crowds the opportunity to release Jesus. Pilate does not believe Jesus is the King of the Jews, so such a comment is a jab at the chief priests, and perhaps the crowds and Jesus. The epithet suggests that Jesus was arrested as a messiah figure claiming to be or purported to be the king of Israel.

Pilate thinks that the chief priests are jealous of Jesus' popularity. The people like him better than they like them. He has beat their surrogates in debate. The people are interested in his teaching and not theirs.

15:11 But the high priests stirred up the crowd so that he might release to them rather Barabbas. 12. But Pilate, again answering, was saying to them, “What therefore do you wish that I do with the one whom you call, ‘King of the Jews’?”

13. And they cried again, “Crucify him!”

14. And Pilate was saying to them, “For what evil [that] he did?

But they cried out even more, “Crucify him!”

No doubt the more sane elements of society were not present at such an event. Those in the crowd who might want Jesus to be released no doubt feared that harm might come to them if they said something. The leaders had also stoked the crowd. It brought shame and humiliation on them for the Romans to parade a purported king in front of them like that. 

"If Jesus was a real king, he wouldn't just stand there silent." "Barabbas is the real deal. At least he'll go down fighting." "Jesus duped us into thinking he had some special connection with God." "He's made us look like a fool." "Look at him just standing there."

Mob mentality is irrational. It can't be reasoned with. It is especially susceptible to simple slogans that can be repeated over and over again.

15. And Pilate, wishing to make the crowd satisfied, released Barabbas to them. And, having scourged [him], he delivered Jesus so that he might be crucified.

It's no skin off Pilate's nose. He couldn't care less whether another Jew dies. People like Barabbas do more damage to his own people than to the Romans. And perhaps they can make him quietly disappear.

The decision is made. Jesus will be crucified.  

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 14:12-26

Explanatory Notes on Passion Week so far:

Now, some of what we would call Thursday.
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14:12 And on the first day of Unleavened [Breads], when they were sacrificing the Passover, his followers say to him, "Where do you want, having gone, should we prepare that you might eat the Passover?" 

Mark's framing of the Passover is a little confusing. In Leviticus 23:5-6, the Passover is the day before the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins. Passover is one day on 14 Nisan, from sundown to sundown. Then the Feast of Unleavened Bread is an associated but separate feast that begins on 15 Nisan and is seven days long.

By contrast, Mark's text sounds like the first day of Unleavened Bread was the day before the Passover, which then began at sundown. Probably the best solution is to take Mark's language here as very informal. The whole process began when the Passover lambs were sacrificed, and this took place during the day before the Passover meal in the evening.

Despite that question, Mark clearly seems to identify the last supper as a Passover meal. The question is where they will eat it. As usual, Jesus' followers seem more concerned about the logistics than Jesus is. There were at least thirteen of them, and probably more. Where would they find such a space?

14:13 And he sends two of his followers and says to them, "Depart into the city, and a person will meet you, carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him. 14. And wherever he should enter, say to the house owner, 'The teacher says, "Where is my room, where I might eat the Passover with my followers?"' 15. And he himself will show you a furnished upper room prepared, and there prepare for us."

The same kinds of theories are around for this encounter with individuals in town as were for Palm Sunday. Did Jesus have something pre-arranged with certain people in Jerusalem. Was the man with the pitcher a clever way to make contact without anyone catching on? 

The most obvious reading of Mark is that Jesus just knew these things would happen. He knew that there was a willing person with a large house and an upper room. He knew they would send someone out for water at the same time his followers arrived looking.

It is tempting to see this upper room as the same upper room as Pentecost (Acts 1:13). It is tempting to see this as the house where they were having the prayer meeting when Peter was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12). If so, this is the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. In other words, the upper room would be in the very house of none other than the reputed author of Mark, John Mark (Acts 12:20). 

They had preparations to make, not least, the slaughter of a lamb and the preparation of the food. It is of course possible that the owner of the house invited them to celebrate the Passover together. Many Christians will be aware of the practice of the Jewish seder today. However, the rituals involved in the current seder meal did not likely exist at the time of Jesus. The first evidence for it dates to about 200 years later in a collection of Jewish teachings known as the Mishnah.

14:16 And the followers went out and came into the city and they found [things] just as he said to them, and they prepared the Passover. 17. And [it] having become late, he comes with the Twelve.

They went out from Bethany, where they had been staying. Perhaps they had been staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The Gospel of John indicates that they lived in Bethany. Note how Jesus enjoyed the hospitality of these individuals in the early church, even while others were most inhospitable to him.

14:18 And them reclining and eating, Jesus said, "Amen I say to you that one of you will betray me, "the one eating with me."

They are "reclining." This was the standard way to eat in that culture. You did not sit on a chair. You were on the ground, almost lying down but perhaps propped up by your elbow as you casually ate. The Last Supper was indeed a supper. The condensed Lord's Supper we do today for communion is quite different from the meal Jesus and the early Christians ate.

As we have already pointed out, "Amen" is often translated as "truly." It is a word taken directly from Greek.

What a shock this statement must have been! If the evening were not already somber, it was now. They were in an anonymous upper room in Jerusalem. It is possible that they were seen coming into the city limits, but they may also have come after the sun went down. How would anyone find them unless they were betrayed?

We of course know it is Judas from earlier in the chapter.  

14:19 They began to be grieved and to say to him one by one, "Surely not I?" 20. And he said to them, "One of the Twelve, the one dipping who dips in the bowl. 

The sincere among the followers of Jesus begin to question themselves. Would I betray Jesus under pressure? Could I be the one? Jesus mentions the Twelve, but it is quite possible that there are more followers present, individuals like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1). Those others could at least breathe a sigh of relief that it was not one of them.

Unlike John, Mark does not give much of a sense of the seating arrangement. We could easily read John 13:26 to imply that Judas is sitting right next to Jesus. All of the Twelve were presumably dipping in the same bowl as Jesus, perhaps with the bowl being passed around. 

14:21 "Because the Son of the Mortal departs just as it has been written concerning him, and woe to that person through whom the Son of the Mortal is betrayed. Good for him if that person were not born."

We have already talked about the expression, "Son of a Mortal" or "Son of Man," as it is traditionally rendered. It has three main associations: 1) a generic self-reference Jesus used of himself, 2) an association with Jesus' suffering, 3) a reference to Jesus returning from heaven. Here, the connotation of suffering seems most present. 

Jesus indicates that his suffering and death is a fulfillment of prophecy. The eternal consequences of Judas' actions are dire. Jesus surely indicates a fate worse than death. This is the greatest betrayal of all time.

Mark does not tell us which Scriptures from the Old Testament indicate that the Messiah would die. Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that it was very early Christian tradition that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." It is possible that Isaiah 53 is in view.

Lord's Supper
14:22 And them eating, having taken bread, having blessed [it], he broke [it] and gave them and said, "Take. This is my body. 23. And, having taken a cup, having given thanks, he gave to them, and all were drinking from it. 

This is of course the first instance of the Lord's Supper. It was a meal, although the form we use today is easily seen here. He is indicating that his death will be a sacrifice like the Passover lamb. In Exodus, the blood of the lamb on the doorpost meant that the destroying angel would not touch their house. The angel "passed over." Similarly, the blood of Christ on the doorposts of our hearts will save us from eternal destruction.

The bread is of course a loaf, and the cup is a common cup. We do not necessarily have to remember Jesus' meal in exactly the same way. There are several variations in use in the church today, and they all help us remember Jesus' broken body and spilled blood.

"This is my body" is of course a metaphor. "Life is a rose." Some traditions of course want to make more of the "is" than it will bear in itself. "You're a chicken." Jesus is not dead yet. He has a body. To compare this bread to his body is thus a metaphor. [1]

[1] In other words, you cannot prove transubstantiation or any complex theology of atonement from the use of the word is. Transubstantiation is the idea that the bread and wine of communion (the "Eucharist" or thanksgiving) literally become the body and blood of Jesus--this is my body. But the semantics of this statement will not bear that much of a load.

14:24 And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is being poured out for many. 

Another metaphor. The wine of the meal is like the blood Jesus is about to shed in the process of crucifixion. [2] Mark 10:45 has already said that Jesus was giving his life as a ransom for many. Here, again, Jesus says that his life will be poured out for many. This is not "limited atonement." It is simply that not everyone will choose to avail themselves of it. [3]

A covenant is a solemn arrangement where both sides commit deeply to the agreement. Jesus is making this covenant with his own blood. That agreement will save them from the Judgment. Luke 22:20 will echo Jeremiah 31:31 in its wording by adding the word "new" to covenant. We are reminded that the covenant that Jesus had in mind was especially God's covenant with Israel. The earliest followers of Jesus almost certainly understood Jesus' death, in the first instance, as a ransom for the sins of Israel toward the restoration of the people of Israel.

[2] In reality, crucifixion was not about bleeding. One died of suffocation. Our extensive use of blood language is as much about the comparison to animal sacrifice as it is about the actual process of crucifixion. In other words, it is deeply metaphorical.

[3] Limited atonement is the idea some Calvinsts have that sees Jesus as only dying for those God has chosen. In this perspective, Jesus did not die for the whole world but only for those he has predestined to save.

14:25 "Amen I say to you that no longer will I drink from the fruit of the vine until that day whenever I drink it new in the kingdom of God. 

If all we had was the Gospel of Mark, we would assume that Jesus is talking here about the great banquet that will take place after his return. "They will come from east and west and from north and south and will recline in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:29). However, Luke and John mention Jesus eating with his followers after the resurrection to show that he was not a ghost. In those Gospels, we get the impression that the kingdom of God began with his resurrection. It can be a both/and.

14:26 And having sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 

Would that we knew what they sang and how it sounded! Perhaps, they sang one of the psalms. There were other songs. We know, for example, that one of the founders of the Essene movement wrote hymns too. There may actually be early Christian hymns in the New Testament (e.g., Phil. 2:6-11).

They seem to plan to spend the night at the base of the Mount of Olives, perhaps in the Garden of Gethsemane. There are actually some caves nearby.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 13:1-23

I've been writing explanatory notes this week on Passion Week in Mark's Gospel. Thus far:

My aim is to go back to Mark 12 on Saturday, which is Tuesday still. Today, let's try Mark 13, which is probably still Tuesday. Here is a first installment.

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13:1 And him going out from the temple, one of his followers says to him, "Teacher, see what stones and what buildings!" 2. And Jesus said to him, "See these great buildings? Not a stone on a stone will be left here that shall not be destroyed."

After a day full of arguments and debates, Jesus leaves the temple precincts with his disciples to begin their way presumably back to Bethany. As they leave the temple, we get the "little apocalypse," the "eschatological discourse." It is the clearest picture of Jesus' eschatology in the Gospel of Mark. One of Jesus' followers is amazed at the impressive stones of Herod's temple. Jesus predicts it will be completely destroyed.

And it was. This destruction took place in AD70 when the Romans encamped around Jerusalem and eventually burned the city and the temple. This came at the climax of the Jewish War, in which the Jews rebelled against the Romans. It started in 66 and effectively ended in AD70. However, some might extend that date to AD72, when the fortress at Masada finally fell.

The wailing wall, which you can still visit today, was not part of the temple but a retaining wall to hold the dirt of the temple mount in place. Not one stone indeed was left on top of another.

13:3 And him sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were asking him privately, 4. "Tell us at what time these things will be, and what [is] the sign when all these things are about to be completed?"

The framing of the chapter is clear. Jesus is about to tell them when that temple is going to be destroyed and what the signs are that the destruction of that temple is about to happen. Mark 13 and its parallels have often been used by end times teachers to try to predict things that have not yet taken place. Such teaching often involves predictions about a temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem today.

However, the context of Mark 13 is crystal clear. It is about the destruction of the temple that was standing in Jesus' day. In other words, this prophecy has already been fulfilled. Granted, the last part of the chapter does seem to jump a couple thousand years to the second coming of Jesus that has not yet happened. But the starting point of this chapter is Herod's temple and its destruction. God can do whatever he wants, but there is no clear teaching in this chapter about an end-times temple.

We see here the inner circle of the disciples, two sets of brothers from Capernaum. Peter and Andrew are brothers, and then James and John are the sons of Zebedee. At least in terms of the material that God has preserved for us, they feature at the center.

13:5 And Jesus began to say to them, "See that someone does not deceive you. 6. Many will come in my name saying, 'I am [he],' and they will deceive many. 

At this point in context, we have every reason to think that Jesus is speaking of the period between then and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. Jesus is saying that there will be many false claimants to be the Jewish Messiah in those four decades. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions a revolutionary named Theudas who died sometime around AD46. [1] In Acts 21:38, a Roman centurian mentions an Egyptian who led four thousand men in revolt. Presumably, around the time of the Jewish War there were militants who had pretenses of becoming the ruler of a liberated Israel.

We are so used to thinking of Jesus as the divine second person of the Trinity that is hard for us to imagine that someone would pretend to be the Messiah or that people would believe them. But we have to remember that the Jews were not looking for a divine Messiah. They were looking for an anointed human to come and overthrow the Romans. They were looking for an anointed revolutionary like the Maccabees, who managed to gain some independence from the Syrians in 167BC.

[1] Josephus, Ant. 20.97-98. If this is the same Theudas of Acts 5:36, then Luke was blurring his time with that of Gamaliel. Acts 5 also mentions a Judas from about AD6. 

13:7 "And whenever you should hear of wars and reports of wars, do not be troubled. It is necessary to come to be, but not yet is the end. 8. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in places. There will be famines. These are the beginnings of birthpains.

It is amazing that individuals would use these verses to argue today that Jesus must be about to return. On the one hand, such remarks seem thoroughly unaware of how many wars, earthquakes, and famines there have been in the last two thousand years. Even more to the point, nothing in the context has yet distracted us from the context of Jesus' day. Jesus is presumably still talking about the years between AD30 and 70.

The Romans fought the Parthians to the east of Israel in AD58-63. But the verses likely refer especially to the Jewish War from 66-70, the war that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem itself. The city of Colossae was destroyed by an earthquake around the year 61. No doubt there were Christians in the city that lost their lives. We hear of a famine in Acts 11:28 that took place around the year 44.  

13:9 "And you, watch yourselves. They will deliver you to courts and to synagogues. You will be beaten, and you will stand before governors and kings because of me as a witness to them.

Certainly this sort of witness took place repeatedly in the years AD30-70. Peter and Paul were both martyred under the rule of the emperor Nero. Acts records Paul appearing before multiple Roman governors. Paul was beaten five times with thirty nine lashes in synagogues (2 Cor. 11:24). Such a witness is what 2 Peter 3:15 had in mind when it says to be ready to give an account.

13:10 "And to all nations first it is necessary for the gospel to be preached.

Again, the context still leads us to see this comment in relation to the years AD30-70. It is common to hear individuals say that Jesus will not return until every people group on the earth has heard the good news. On the one hand, the church is indeed commanded to go and make disciples of every nation. Who are we to tell God that he cannot come back when the Scriptures are translated into every known language?

But this verse is not about today but about the early church. For one thing, imagine how many people groups have come and gone since Jesus' day. If the verse means every single nation of Jesus' day then it was a failed prophecy, since so many of them are gone forever without having heard. What of those in the Americas of that day, cultures that never heard and are gone forever? If Jesus has tarried so everyone can hear, then far more people have come and gone by his waiting than would have been lost if he had simply returned back then! 

More to the point, Colossians considers this prophecy already fulfilled in the first century. It refers to the gospel as "having been preached to every creature under the sky" (1:23). The statement is hyperbole of course, an overstatement, but it suggests that the whole of the "civilized" world had heard before Colossae was destroyed by earthquake in the early 60s of the first century.

13:11 "And whenever they should lead you, handing you over, do not worry what you should say, but whatever should be given to you, in this hour, be speaking. For you are not the ones speaking, but the Holy Spirit. 12. Brother will deliver brother to death, and father child. And children will rise up against parents and will put them to death. 13. And you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one having endured to the end--this [one] will be saved.

The word martyr developed from the Greek word for witness. These verses speak to the early Christian witness to Christ under persecution. Many have sensed long after the first century that the Holy Spirit gives us the words to say when we are under pressure or on trial for our faith.

In a close-knit family, it can be difficult to imagine brother turning brother over or child a parent, but such things have certainly happened. I write this commentary in a period when many friends and families were divided over the intersection of politics and values. We can imagine in a context like the Jewish War or the persecution in Rome around 64 under Nero, that family members would have turned on each other to save their own skin or in sheer disgust of them in sharp disagreement.

Note that it is those who endure to the end who are saved. There is no sense here of "You were baptized. You will be saved no matter what." Whatever theology you might use to explain it, Jesus indicates that it is those who endure in faith who will be received in the end by God, not those who start out in faith. Jesus implies that there will be individuals who certainly appeared to be Christians who will not make it to the kingdom of God.

13:14 "And whenever you should see the abomination of desolation having stood where it is not supposed to," (let the one reading understand) "then those in Judea, let them flee to the mountains. 

This statement alludes to Daniel 11:31. In its original context, Daniel 11 was about the Maccabean crisis. The abomination of desolation there was the defilement of the temple in 167BC by the Syrians. Jesus predicts another defilement of the temple here. Again, we remember the context. Peter and others have asked when that temple will be destroyed. Accordingly, Jesus at least in the first place is telling of a coming desolation of that temple, which of course happened in AD70.

It is generally agreed that Luke used Mark as a source. Here, Luke's paraphrase of this statement is revealing. Luke interprets this statement to refer to the surrounding of Jerusalem by the Roman armies (Luke 21:20). Tradition has it that the early Christians did indeed flee Jerusalem for a place called Pella before the Romans had so thoroughly surrounded the city that no one could get out.

The comment, "let the reader understand" may provide clues to the dating of Mark. Peter and the others are not reading Jesus. They are listening to him. This comment is thus not the words of Jesus to Peter. It is a comment from Mark to his audience. If Jesus' words are in red, then these words would be in black. [2]

A reader in this context is a person reading the Gospel of Mark aloud to an assembly of believers. The early Christians would mostly not be able to read. Rather, they would have memorized Scripture and heard it read regularly to them aloud. This parenthetical comment thus is a note to the reader to emphasize this point of the eschatological discourse to the audience.

Some have argued that the emphasis on the statement has to do with the time of Mark's writing. Perhaps these events were unfolding as Mark was first being put together. It is thus common to date the Gospel of Mark either to the late 60s or the early 70s. 

[2] Some have of course suggested that Jesus means the reader of Daniel. This is a plausible reading of Matthew's version (Matt. 24:15), but it is not clear that the reader of Mark would understand that. 

13:15 "The one on the housetop, let him [or her] not come down nor enter to take something from his [or her] house. 16. And the [one] in the field, do not let him [or her] return for the things behind to take his [or her] clothing. 17. And woe to those having in womb and the [ones] nursing in those days. 18. And pray that it might not be in winter. 

Thankfully, the five-month seige of Jerusalem did not take place in winter. It began in April and ended in August. The Jewish day of Tish b'Av remembers. You did not want to be stuck inside a city under siege. Conditions become horrible. Food and water become scarce. People can resort to cannibalism. The exhortation to get away while you can was completely apropos. 

13:19 "For those days will be tribulation such as not has been such from the beginning of creation that God created until now and shall certainly not be. 20. And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no flesh would have been saved. But because of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened those days. 

It is probably best to take these statements as hyperbole, overstatement. Make no mistake, the events immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem were horrific. But we do not need to argue over whether they were the absolutely most horrific tribulation of all history. On the other hand, someone might argue that, since Jesus seems to blur into the second coming in 13:24, the blurring begins slightly earlier here at this point. 

However, keeping to the context and flow of the chapter thus far, Jesus would still be referring to the events of AD70. The thorough loss of life would thus be a local reference. Jesus would not be speaking of a whole world tribulation, as perhaps in Revelation, but to the situation of the Jews and Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. [3] Let us be clear though. Those were horrific days. 

The elect refers to those who would escape the destruction of the Romans, especially Jewish Christians. The Jewish War did finally come to an end. Many Christians from Jerusalem did escape to the mountains. Not all Jews were taken back and executed in Rome. 

We probably should not read too much theology into the term elect. It is simply a way of referring to the group who, by God's grace, did not perish. It was not God's will that all Jews perish or that all Christian Jews perish. A remnant survived. God chose that a group would be saved from destruction. 

We need to be careful not to make our theological expectations about the times before the return of Jesus into a self-fulfilling prophecy. These verses on horrific times have often played into a "pre-millennial" perspective that expects things to get worse and worse before Jesus returns. It can lead to an abandonment of effort to change the world for the better. "Things are just going to get worse and worse anyway."

There are two reasons why this is bad theology. First, we do not know when Jesus will return. There have been many times in history when God has graciously made things better. We best not be like the man in the parable who buries his talent in the ground. We work till Jesus comes!

And further, we have seen that this picture was especially focused on the time before the destruction of Jerusalem. Whether it applies to the time just before Jesus returns remains to be seen.  

[3] It is interesting that in his editing of this chapter, Luke omits the statements on the crisis being the worst of all time and the shortening of the days (Luke 21).

13:21 "And then if someone should say to you, 'Look, here is the Christ. Look, there,' do not believe them. 22. For false christs and false prophets and will give signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, the elect. 23. But you watch. I have told you all things ahead of time.

These verses again hearken back to 13:5-6. Around the time of the Jewish War there must have been many claiming to be the revolutionary who would decisively overcome the Romans. Some of them must have even performed signs and wonders, as Jesus did. We are reminded of 2 Thessalonians 2:9. Scholars have long pointed out the parallels between that chapter and Mark 13. 

It is sobering to think of the possibility that God's people, the "elect," might be deceived about who Jesus is. We can at least imagine that there were some Christians who got caught up in the nationalistic fervor of the Jewish War. [4] There were Christians in Nazi Germany who mistook Hitler for a kind of messianic figure and confused their enthusiasm for Germany with a divine imprimatur. It is a warning to us to remember who Jesus is and never to confuse him with human political figures that we may find extraordinarily inspiring. Religious and nationalistic fervor are easily confused, it turns out.

[4] The epithet of Simon the Zealot is particularly curious (Luke 6:15), since the Zealots as a specific group did not exist until the time of the Jewish War. It is of course possible that the term is being used generically.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 11:20-33

11:20 And going along early, he saw the fig tree having been withered from [its] roots. 21. And Peter, having remembered, says to him, "Teacher, look. The fig tree that you cursed has withered."

Tuesday. As in the story of the woman with a hemorrhage, Mark has set up a "sandwich" with the story of the fig tree as the bread and Jesus' action in the temple as the meat. [1] Jesus curses the tree, "cleanses the temple," then the fig tree is withered. The implicit effect is that the two stories help interpret each other. Because the fig tree did not bear fruit, Jesus cursed it, and it withered. 

Similarly, because Israel had not born fruit, God would allow the Romans to destroy the city and temple in AD70. Jesus has just quoted Jeremiah 7:11, which was a parallel situation. Because Israel in Jeremiah's day did not bear the fruits of righteousness, God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the city and temple.

The fig tree thus represents Israel. Luke 19 will bring out this dimension even more starkly, even though it omits the story of the fig tree. Jesus weeps at a Jerusalem that would not recognize the things that have to do with peace, resulting in its destruction (Luke 19:41-44).

Peter, the sanguine person who often speaks without thinking, brings to Jesus' attention what he no doubt already knows. We once again remember that, according to tradition, the Gospel of Mark had as its main source the preaching of Peter. The tradition is that Mark helped translate for him into Greek.

[1] In inductive Bible study we call this sort of literary structure an "intercalation."

11:22 And having answered, Jesus says to them, "If you have trust of God, 23. Amen, I say to you that whoever should say to this mountain, 'Be raised and be cast into the sea,' and would not doubt in his [or her] heart but have faith that what s/he says is coming to be, it will be to him [or her].

Mark does not explicitly mention the implications for Jerusalem. Instead, Mark uses the moment as an opportunity to give Jesus' teaching on faith. The expression in 11:22 could be rendered "If you have faith of God." It is not an expression we use, but it is helpful in the interpretation of Paul to know that the expression can indeed mean, "faith in God." 

The expression "trust of God" gets at the meaning of faith in this passage. It is about confidence in God. If someone trusts God enough, they will see miraculous things happen. We know from the whole of Scripture that it is not a guarantee. God sometimes says no to our requests, even when we believe God can do the impossible (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:8-9). 

Jesus highlights the fact that nothing is impossible for God. God has the power. God has the willingness to help. If it is God's will, the only possible flaw is in our faith that it will be so.

11:24 Because of this [fact], I say to you, everything whatever you pray and ask, have faith that you have received, and it will be to you. 

Often, when it is God's will to do the miraculous, the Spirit gives us the surety and confidence that it will be done. We are filled with boldness to pray for healing or that which seems impossible. There is a cooperation between our faith and God's assurance. Our wills are aligned.

The faith to ask and receive is thus not purely a matter of our will or our doing. It is a gift from God for the right moment. That is not to say that there are not moments where God is willing and the only missing piece is whether we will have enough faith. But these verses should not be used to beat yourself (or others) up because the miraculous didn't happen. 

Sometimes, it simply is not God's will to heal. There are those who have led themselves or others to their death because they thought reliance on medicine indicated a lack of faith. There are those who have died feeling a failure of faith because they were not healed. This is simply not how it works. We always must pray, "if the Lord wills" (Jas. 4:15).

25. And whenever you stand praying, forgive if you have something against someone so that your Father in the skies might forgive you your transgressions." 

A prerequisite is that we have forgiven those we have something against. God will not forgive our transgressions if we have not forgiven others for the wrongs they have done against us. To forgive does not mean that we allow them to continue to do us wrong. We can forgive an abuser without staying in an abusive situation. 

Nor do we empower or enable them to harm or do wrong to others. One of the reasons for justice is to protect others from harm, which is a righteous pursuit. Justice does not contradict forgiveness because it protects others from bad behavior and gives the wrongdoer an opportunity to change for their own good.

It will often not be easy to forget that others have done us wrong. Forgiveness frees us from the power that memory has over us. Forgiveness frees us from the fear that memory has over us.

Forgiveness is an openness to the restoration of the offender. We are willing for God to forgive them. We are willing for it to be just as if they had never done the wrong. We are willing to welcome back the prodigal. Indeed, we want them to be restored. We want them to be forgiven by God. We want them to return. We are no longer bitter. We are no longer angry. We have a calm peace about them.

Forgiveness is a miracle of God's grace. We do not typically have the power to forgive others without the help of the Holy Spirit. Often our prayer must be, "Lord, I cannot forgive on my own, but I am willing for you to empower me."

You might notice from the numbering that most modern translations have concluded that 11:26 was not in the original of Mark. It reads, "And if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in the skies forgive your transgressions." There is of course nothing wrong with this verse whatsoever. It is what is found in Matthew 6:15. It just was not likely in the original version of Mark.

What likely happened is that some scribe added this verse so that the saying matched what is in Matthew 6. There would be no reason to take it out, and it is not in the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark. The impulse of the copyists was to harmonize and make the texts smoother, especially as these texts began to be used more formally in worship after Christianity became a legal religion.

11:27 And he comes again into Jerusalem, and in the temple, him walking, the high priests and the scribes and the elders come to him. 28. And they were saying to them, "By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave to you this authority that you should do these things?"

Tuesday of Passion Week is the day that various individuals and groups argue with Jesus. Jewish culture at this time was very much a "debate culture." Anticipating the rabbinic Judaism that would more fully emerge after the destruction of Jerusalem, teachers liked to debate each other over the fine points of the Law. Pharisees debated with Pharisees. Pharisees debated with Sadducees. Essenes debated (perhaps from afar) with Pharisees and Sadducees. It was what we call an "agonistic" culture.

The first question comes to Jesus from Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The high priests were responsible for order in the temple and city. The Romans held them accountable for that. The elders are on the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. They once again are invested with the leadership of the city. The scribes are lawyer types who are known for their great knowledge of the Law.

They ask about Jesus' legitimacy. Israel was not an individual culture, where individuals just made up their own mind what they thought. It was not a place where you just designate yourself a teacher. What gives you the authority to teach? What gives you the authority to disagree with us? What group are you with? You are not a Pharisee. You are not a Sadducee? Are you with the Essenes? What is up with you?

11:29 And Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one thing. And answer me and I will say to you by what authority I am doing these things. 30. The baptism of John, was [it] from heaven or from mortals? Answer me."

The authority of John came from the Holy Spirit. There are of course debates over whether he might have been an Essene. If so, that fact plays no role in John's authority in Scripture. John is a prophet, anointed directly by God. His credentials were the power of the Holy Spirit. In a group-oriented world, prophets were the individualistic exception. As annoying as they might be, they were group-sanctioned deviants of a sort.

Jesus answers their question with a question. The answer is, "My authority is like the authority of John. It comes directly from God the Father." As with the rest of Jesus' answers, it ingeniously avoids the trap that is set for him because he does not answer them directly.

11:31 And they were debating to themselves, saying, "What should we say? If we say, 'from heaven,' he will say, 'For what reason, therefore, did you not believe him?' 32. But should we say, 'from mortals' ..." -- They feared the people, for all were holding John that he was truly a prophet. 33. And having answered Jesus, they say, "We do not know." 

He puts them into a conundrum. They did not believe in the authority of John, and they certainly didn't want to side with his undermining of Roman-sanctioned authority. John lost his head for criticizing Herod Antipas, who was the designated Roman official over the jurisdiction where John was preaching. Also, John was calling Israel to repent, which was the precursor to the kingdom of God arriving. The Romans liked their kingdom just the way it was.

They do not want to acknowledge John, for that would mean they agree with reform and perhaps revolution. But the people had flocked to him. They did not want to lose the quasi-support of the people. At the very least they did not want the open opposition of the people. 

They play it safe. "We do not know," although everyone knew their true answer.

And Jesus says to them, "Neither am I saying to you by what authority I do these things." 

Jesus wins round one. He answers their question without answering their question. He does not get himself into a position where they can accuse him of sedition or being a false prophet because of his answer. He beats them at their own game.