Unexpected enemies

Through Mark we are going to keep running into the Scribes and the Pharisees, in fact, they show up quite a bit from the end of chapter 1 and through chapters 2 and 3.  These are frequently mentioned as being in opposition to Jesus, seeking to catch him out, grumbling against him, accusing him of blasphemy and plotting his death.

The Scribes are possibly a distinct group or this may well refer to a specific role within the Pharisees so that we could refer to them as “the scribes of the pharisees”, a learned elite if you like.[1] They were people that had a particularly interest in the detailed interpretation of Torah and teaching it. Some versions will refer to them as “teachers of the Law.” Of course, disputes over precise interpretation, just like legal wrangling today could lead to extensive debates and falling out. And scribes, like modern day lawyers were the people you went to if you feared that you were at risk of breaking the law or being accused of law-breaking to get advise. However, they weren’t just lawyers. They were handling sacred text and so were proto-theologians with a responsibility for guarding the tradition.[2]

The Pharisees were one of the sects or parties within Judea at the time of Jesus. Other sects included the Sadducees who had a lot of influence among the ruling elite. Then there were the Essenes, associated with the Qumran community. If the Sadducees were seen as having compromised for power, the Essenes and the Pharisees had a concern to maintain strict Torah (Law) purity. The Essenes did this by withdrawing from society, the Pharisees by a strict observance of purity laws as interpreted through tradition.[3]

The Pharisees believed in the reality of physical resurrection and expected the coming of the Messiah to restore Israel. Their view seems to have been that this would come when Israel had repented and purified themselves. [4]

So, here we have people who you might have expected to give Jesus and also John the Baptist at least a fair hearing. In fact, you might have expected them to welcome one who came calling people to repent, speaking of the kingdom and talking openly about resurrection. They had best access to Scripture and should have been the first to see that he might be the one who fulfilled it.

Yet they turn out to be surprising enemies and the hostility between them and Jesus is made explicit from the beginning though no doubt it increased in intensity over time. Why this opposition to Jesus? Well, it seems that they were offended by him. He made it clear that external law obedience was not possible. He challenged both their legalistic pride and their ethnic pride (belief in the unique privilege of Israel).  He offered salvation outside of their rules and systems, away from the purity rituals.  So, they plotted his death.

There is a warning here for us isn’t there. Let us not become so obsessed with our orthodoxy and getting the detailed letter of things right that we lose sight of Jesus.

[1] Green, McKnight, Marshall (Eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 733.

[2] Green, McKnight, Marshall (Eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 733.

[3] See Green, McKnight, Marshall (Eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 609.

[4] See Green, McKnight, Marshall (Eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 609.

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