Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Lenten Reflections on Mark – Jesus in the Temple, Pt 1

Un-Holy Alliances

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Mark 11 (12-21)

Let me start with a short tangent….

The writer of Mark’s Gospel begins this tale by saying that it happened “on the following day.” My question then becomes, “What day is it?” If you answer that it is the Monday of Holy Week, then I would suggest that you go back to the first post in this series and re-read what it said. One of the greatest temptations faced while doing Bible study is what is called eisegesis (as opposed to exegesis). Too fancy a term, it means reading something from a later time back into the text. It isn’t Holy Week yet, but Passover. And Passover, which starts on 14 Nisan, doesn’t begin until Day Five of this week

By the way; Jews only gave a name to the Sabbath day. Fine, but all right John – it’s the 10th of Nisan. Who cares?

Well, practicing Jews cared and as a practicing Jew, Jesus clearly expects to do business outside the temple courtyards on this day. Let me refer you to Exodus 12 (1-6) which describes God’s instructions to those in slavery in Egypt, but which became over time tradition related to the festival.

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. Exodus 12 (1-6).

End tangent….

This is the day to change one’s money into the temple coinage and then purchase the lamb for the Passover meal to be butchered and eaten four days later. Mark gives no hint as to whether over the next couple of days this lamb stayed tied up at Mary’s home in Bethany or not. On the afternoon before the evening of the 14th, Jesus will ask two of his followers to go to the temple to handle the sacrifice and two others to prepare a room for the feast.

However, on this day, Jesus comes straight into the temple and if one reads the text broadly, he apparently single handedly expels those doing business, both the money changers and those who sell doves. He overturns their booths and stops traffic cutting through the Temple to get across town. As the crowd gathers to watch the disturbance, he publicly denounces the temple leadership (the chief priests and their advisors, the scribes, who later see this as a reason to keep seeking to kill him) The gathered crowd delights to hear this “teaching.” .One can imagine a scene where Jesus is standing on one of the money changer’s tables shaking his fist as this day’s administrative personnel are gathered in a side chamber for their morning check-in meeting by the central courts.

“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

I should interject at this point that the Gospel of John relates that this event happens on a previous visit to Jerusalem at least one year prior to this trip. The Bible contains two different and somewhat contradictory narrative traditions about this week. It is tempting to suggest that because there are three texts in the Synoptic tradition, that they represent a majority vote on the sequence of the historical events behind the stories. But since Matthew and Luke take their clue from Mark, it is more proper to suggest that there are really only two Gospel traditions.

Some scholars have pointed out that the details of the account from John may finally be more accurate than the other tradition. Mark seems to imply (or has traditionally been interpreted to say) that this is Jesus’ first journey to Jerusalem. Given the overall expectation that men and their families report as pilgrims three times a year, if they are able, such a view cannot be sustained. But, all of these writers created their Gospels many years after Jesus’ death. Yet John, who most deem as having been written the latest, seems to have fewer errors than other narratives. For example, Luke has both Mary and Joseph going to be purified after Jesus’ birth, when in fact; law only requires the mother to participate in such a ritual.

By suggesting that the chief priests and their scribes have already begun to seek to kill Jesus before this current event, the text subtly seems to confirm John’s timeline and implies that this is not the first time that Jesus has had quarrels with the temple leadership.

This statement partly drawn from Isaiah and also Jeremiah, is the first explicit mention of the temple leadership as opponents of Jesus; however, Jesus’ teaching about how Jerusalem killed the prophets before him and therefore we should not expect a different outcome for him may implicitly be speaking about the temple leadership. Jerusalem is the temple city. Ritual and tourism is the nature of its business.

Jesus may not talk a lot so far about the priests, but he is quite explicit when it comes to the scribes. While being responsible for guarding the traditions of the people, the Law and the Prophets, many of them also function as lawyers. In Mark 12 (38-40), Jesus again says to the delight of the crowd.

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

Clearly Mark (in somewhat of a contrast to other versions) pits Jesus and the members of the scribal profession against each other from the very beginning of his story. Mark begins his Gospel by contrasting Jesus’ authority with the authority of the scribes.

But of course, this is not the whole picture. There is a broader opposition that Jesus faces as well. In their book, The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that these two events found in the beginning of chapter eleven form a sort of diptych “that must be held and interpreted in tandem with one another.” Ched Myers, in his commentary, Binding the Strong Man, talks of this chapter as a “showdown with the powers of Jerusalem.” Clearly Mark is written in such a way as to highlight the questionable collaboration between the occupying administration from Rome and the indigenous but elite leadership of the temple.

In the Gospels’ title verse, Mark describes Jesus in royal imperial terms as Son of God and in messianic terms as Son of Man. The ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is street theatre mocking the power of the empire of Rome. The disturbance in the temple denounces the religious establishment that marginalizes persons in the name of the Kingdom (empire) of Yahweh. After Jesus’ is seized, Mark writes of two trials (really kangaroo courts) – one is religious and one is civil.

Borg and Crossan also provide a helpful accounting of the ambiguity surrounding the office of High Priest. Now our text talks about Chief Priests and who they finally were is not clear. But being from Missouri, having grown up with the admonition that the Buck Stops Here, it seems fair to me to say that responsibility lies finally with the High Priest. Caiaphas does not disagree, he does think that Jesus should be done away with, but as we will later see, he is concerned with maintaining order, where his flunkies are more concerned that they have been insulted.

Obviously, not everybody found the current leadership enlightened. Borg and Crossan quote from the Babylonian Talmud:

Woe is me because of the House of Beothus,

Woe is me because of staves.

Woe is me because of the Giose of Hanan,

Woe is me because of their whisperings.

Woe is me because of the House of Katros,

Woe is me because of their pens.

Woe is me because of the House if Ishmael, son of Phiabi,

Woe is me because of their fists

For they are the High Priests

And their sons are treasurers,

And their son-in-law are trustees,

And their beat the people with staves. (Peshahim 57)

In fact, the family of Hanan (Annas, Ananus, Ananias) held the office through eight appointments of the High Priest by cooperating with the Romans for almost 40 years. Under their reign, not only Jesus but Stephen, James (the brother of John) and James (the brother of Jesus) were all executed. Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas was high priest from 18 CE to 36 CE. In a time when the average incumbency lasted four years, eighteen years suggests that Caiaphas and Rome worked especially well together.

I plan to return to the question of who is culpable for Jesus’ crucifixion. Still two further points must be made. First, while there is collaboration, and both sides benefit, it is not an equal partnership. Rome hires and fires. In my last post, I suggested that while the temple leadership wanted to wait until after the festival to deal with Jesus, it was finally the Romans that called the shots and chose the timing.

Secondly, we can not warn enough against undue generalization. Again Borg and Crossan write:

It was…quite possible in first century Judea to deny the very validity of the ruling high priesthood or to be against high priestly competition and collaboration without that involving any negation of the Jewish priesthood in general or even the High Priesthood in particular. It was possible to be against a particular high priest and the manner in which he was fulfilling his role without being against the office of high priest who represents the Jews on the Day of Atonement [but] also represented them before Rome the rest of the year.

Let’s keep talking.

Grace and Peace,

John

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