Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Scribbling About Scribes

As we continue looking at the story in Mark 1:21-28, let's do a little word study regarding the Scribes. The reason that the Scribes are of interest in this story and beyond is that many biblical scholars argue that the Scribes were not really players in Galilee during the time of Jesus. Richard Dillon, for example, notes that "To the extent that the gospel references to 'scribes' in Galilee may rest on firm historical foundation, it is possible that they were "village clerks or (perhaps) elementary school teachers rather than experts in the law".("As One Having Authority," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, v.57, 1994, p.94, n.8). The point would be that in actual Jesus time, the crowd's amazement that Jesus "was teaching them with authority and not as the Scribes" would not have made sense. It does, however, make perfect sense in Mark's gospel, where the Scribes are players in the story. And that probably reflects a reality in life in 70CE, during the time that Mark's gospel was probably written (about 40 years after Mark's story ends).

So, the question is less "What did the Scribes do during Jesus' time, which caused the crowd to react this way?" It it more like, "How does Mark see the 'teachings' of the Scribes, to which Jesus' teaching with authority is amazingly different?"

Well, Mark loves a good question of that sort and is always ready to answer. (I'm talking about the gospel writer Mark, not me Mark. I love good questions too, but he's way ahead of me in offering answers.)

The Scribes are not actually present in the story of Mark 1:21-28. It's their reputation among the people that is part of the story. The Scribes themselves don't show up until Mark 2:1-12. That is the story where some people let a paralyzed man down through the roof for Jesus to heal, and Jesus says, "Your sins are forgiven." Then, Mark says, "Now, some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 'Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'"  

Oho! They played the blasphemy card! Right off the bat, the Scribes are the one who accuse Jesus of blasphemy. We need to take note of that, because by the 14th chapter of Mark, the Scribes, Pharisees, Chief Priests, and Elders will convene as the "Sanhedrin," the council which condemns Jesus precisely on the charge of blasphemy. 

The real distinction between Jesus and the Scribes is in Mark 7:1-13. There, the Scribes and the Pharisees criticize Jesus' disciples for not washing with proper ritual, and implicitly criticize Jesus for letting them eat in this defiled manner. Then Jesus accuses them of being the hypocrites of whom Isaiah spoke when he said "This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." Jesus went on to declare that nothing that goes inside of a person from the outside can defile that person. Those were fighting words for Mark's Scribes. They were all about upholding the traditions of the past, even if it meant doing unkind things to people in the present.

When the people in Mark 1 are amazed that Jesus' teachings is "with authority" and not "like the Scribes," it seems that the issue here is not whether Jesus or whether the Scribes followed the Hebrew scriptures or not. They both followed the Hebrew Scriptures in their teaching. The differences seem to be more about how one regards the purpose and meaning of the Scriptures. I would frame the question like this: 

Are the scriptures God's gift for enhancing life? Or, are they God's laws to which life must conform? 

Of course, 'grace' and 'law' are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But, these fundamentally different ways of seeing the scriptures seem to be at the heart of the confrontations between Jesus and the Scribes, and continue to raise intriguing questions, particularly for folks (like me Mark), who consider ourselves biblical Christians. 

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