Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Law Prioritized and Relativized

Mark 12:28-34
Here in Mark's 12th chapter is a well-known text containing parts A and B of the commandment that is first of.” This conversation sits between two groups of texts. The first are texts of challenging questions. The Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders question the authority by which Jesus acts. Jesus not only silences the question but tells the parable of the wicked tenants, which these leaders perceive as being directed against them. Then, they send others to question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar and some Sadducees question him about the resurrection. So, when the Scribe in our story questions Jesus, it is embedded within other contentious debates, part of the purpose of which was to entrap Jesus. 
The second set of texts, following our pericope, is a series of Jesus decrying the Scribes for misusing the law and exploiting others. I would even argue that the observation of the Widow giving all that she has to the temple is part of that argument against the Scribes. One question that this context raises is whether the particular question that initiates the conversation of our pericope is a genuine question or part of the string of trick questions. 
And, of course, since the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus has been in and about Jerusalem, where he expressly has traveled to be rejected, suffer, die, and be raised. This would be “Tuesday” of the last week, I believe, and it is a very contentious day. 
Here are my rough interpretation and initial notes. Your comments are always welcomed. 

28 Καὶ προσελθὼν εἷς τῶν γραμματέων ἀκούσαςαὐτῶν συζητούντων,ἰδὼνὅτι καλῶς ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς, ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτόν, Ποία ἐστὶν ἐντολὴ πρώτη 
And one of the Scribes having come having heard them debating, having seen that he answered them well, interrogated him, “What commandment is first of all?” 
προσελθὼν : AAPart nsm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach  2) draw near to  3) to assent to
ἀκούσας: AAPart nsm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
συζητούντων: PAPart gpm, συζητέω, 1) to seek or examine together  2) in the NT to discuss, dispute, question
ἰδὼν: AAPart nsm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
ἐπηρώτησεν: AAI 3s, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The word I have translated “interrogated” repeats in v.35 below. See the note there. 

29 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς ὅτι Πρώτη ἐστίν, Ἄκουε, Ἰσραήλ, κύριος  θεὸς ἡμῶνκύριος εἷς ἐστιν, 
Jesus answered him “First is, ‘Hear, Israel, the lord our God is one lord, (or: The lord God our lord is one), 
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
Ἄκουε: PAImpv 2s, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The nouns here (except for “our”) are all nominative. With the verb ‘to be,’ nominative nouns can be either subject or predicate. Hence, it is the translator’s judgment over which of these nouns is the subject of ‘is’ and which is the predicate. 

30 καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅληςτῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου. 
And you will love the Lord your God out of all of your heart and out of all of your soul and out of all of your mind and out of all of your strength.  
ἀγαπήσεις: FAI 2s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly
1. Deuteronomy 6:4b-5 is the well-know “Shema,” (named after the first word of v.4, which means “Hear.’) I have heard the anecdote that a faithful Jew would say these words first thing every morning and before retiring at night. However, it seems that the Shema takes on slightly different forms in different places. Below are the comparative nouns that five different presentations of the Shema offer.
Love God with all of your … 
Deut. 6:4-5, LXX: καρδίας, ψυχῆς, δυναμεως 
Mark 12:30: καρδίας, ψυχῆς, διανοίας, ἰσχύος 
Matthew 22:37 καρδία, ψυχῆ, διανοία
Luke 10:27 καρδίας, ψυχῆ, ἰσχύϊ 
Mark 12:33 καρδίας, συνέσεως, (ψυχῆς?), ἰσχύος  
2. Some later manuscripts add to verse 30, “This is the first of the commandments.”

31 δευτέρα αὕτη, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. μείζων τούτωνἄλληἐντολὴ οὐκ ἔστιν. 
Second this, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.  No other commandment is greater of these.” 
Ἀγαπήσεις: FAI 2s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly
ἔστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The Septuagint of Leviticus 19:18b: αγαπησεις τον πλησιον σου ως σεαυτον.
The full quotation from Lev 19:18 is, "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." As you can see, by adding the phrase “I am the lord,” Leviticus itself already implies a connection between this command and the command of Deuteronomy 6 regarding God’s lordship. It is also the case that loving the neighbor is set as the alternative to taking vengeance. 
2. The verbs “you will love” in vv.30 and 31 are in the future tense of the indicative voice, not the imperative voice. The only imperative is “Hear!” in v.29. 
3. Because δευτέραis a numerical ordering number, I have been translating πρώτηas ‘first’ while translating μείζωνas “greater.” 
4. The last phrase is kind of awkward, partly because the grammar seems caught between whether these are two commandments or one commandment. “These” is plural, but “greater” is singular. 

32 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ  γραμματεύς, Καλῶς, διδάσκαλε, ἐπ' ἀληθείας εἶπες ὅτι εἷς ἐστιν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλος πλὴν αὐτοῦ: 
And the Scribe said to him, “Good, teacher, in truth you said that he is one and no other is beside him; 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶπες: AAI 2s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐστιν : PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἔστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present

33 καὶ τὸ ἀγαπᾶν αὐτὸν ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς συνέσεως καὶἐξὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος καὶ τὸ ἀγαπᾶν τὸν πλησίον ὡς ἑαυτὸν περισσότερόν ἐστιν πάντων τῶν ὁλοκαυτωμάτων καὶ θυσιῶν. 
And to love him out of all of the heart and out of all of the understanding and out of all of the strength and to love the neighbor as oneself is greater than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  
ἀγαπᾶν: PAInf, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly
ἐστιν : PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. ὁλοκαυτωμάτων This word literally means “burnt offerings.” It is transliterated into English as “holocaust.” 
2. The infinitive “to love” has a definite article and could also be something like “the loving”. 
3. The Scribe leaves out “all of the soul,” but includes “all of the strength,” which is not in the Septuagint (at least not in the version that I have). 
4. Jesus did not explicitly mention burnt offering and sacrifices, but they would fall under the 613 laws of the Old Testament. 

34 καὶ  Ἰησοῦςἰδὼν [αὐτὸν] ὅτι νουνεχῶς ἀπεκρίθη εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Οὐ μακρὰν εἶ ἀπὸ τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ. καὶ οὐδεὶς οὐκέτι ἐτόλμα αὐτὸν ἐπερωτῆσαι. 
And Jesus having seen [him] that he answered mindfully said to him, “You are not far from the reign of God.”  And nobody was any more emboldened to interrogate him.   
ἰδὼν: AAPart nsm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know 
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐτόλμα : IAI 3s, τολμάω,1) not to dread or shun through fear  2) to bear, endure  3) to bring one's self to  4) to be bold  5) bear one's self boldly, deal boldly 
ἐπερωτῆσαι: AAInf, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate  2) to address one with a request or demand  2a) to ask of or demand of one. See v.28 
1. I am translating νουνεχῶςas “mindfully”(literally: mind-having) to pick up on the root  νοί, which is already present in the pericope as “mind”(διανοίας) in v.30
2. I am tempted to go with the KJV translation of this last phrase, “And no man after that durst ask him any question,” simply in order to use the word “durst”. 
3. The verb ἐπερωτῆσαιcould be simply “to ask,” but in Mark it is often used in a confrontational setting. I have been using “interrogate” to show the strength of it:  
And he asked him, What is...
...Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk...
...people, his disciples asked him concerning the...
And he asked them, How many...
...hands upon him, he asked him if he... the way he asked his disciples, saying...
And he saith unto them, But...
And they asked him, saying, Why...
And he asked the scribes, What...
And he asked his father, How..., his disciples asked him privately, Why...
...and were afraid to ask him. the house he asked them, What was... him, and asked him, Is it... his disciples asked him again of... him, and asked him, Good Master...
...unto them, I will also ask of you one... resurrection; and they asked him, saying,
...answered them well, asked him, Which is...
...after that durst ask him any question...
...John and Andrew asked him privately,
...the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest...
...the high priest asked him, and said...
And Pilate asked him, Art thou...
And Pilate asked him again, saying...
...him the centurion, he asked him whether he...
4. It is curious to see that both the Scribe and Jesus seem to feel entitled to have the last word, commending the other. There is unusual accord in their views of the law. 

It seems to me that there are two important matters to consider when interpreting this text. First, is this a genuine question or a trick question? The argument for hearing this as a genuine question might be Mark’s introduction – that the man had seen how Jesus was answering wisely – as well as the mutual affirmation that Jesus and the man offer to each other. The tone of this exchange certainly feels different than the earlier exchanges, where Mark shows that the ones asking the questions are deliberately conspiring against Jesus. The argument for hearing the question as a trick question might be the context, since it is the last of a series of questions meant to entrap Jesus, as well as the last cryptic line that Jesus’ answer was such that nobody dared to ask him anything more. One would think that a great answer to a great question might actually encourage more great questions. In addition, I do think the verb ἐπερωτῆσαι (see above) implies challenge in Mark’s gospel, but I may be wrong on that one. It is also worth noting that – while this scribe may be an exception – Jesus is going to go on the offensive and critique the scribes in the next few verses. In the end, I think the jury is still out on whether this is a genuine or disingenuous question, but I am leaning toward “disingenuous.” Matthew 22:35 and Luke 10:25 structure this question of the greatest command as a disingenuous question from the start. 

The second matter that I find important here is whether Jesus’ answer is the only obvious answer to this question or the answer of a particular school or suasion? The scribe who poses the question agrees with Jesus’ answer, and in doing so may indicate for us the direction that another answer might take. He compares Jesus’ answer to burnt offerings and sacrifices. In I Samuel 15:22, Samuel also compares something to burnt offerings and sacrifices: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” In other words, “obedience” or even “holiness” could be another biblical answer to this question. It seems to me that the trajectory of holiness v. the trajectory of love offer two very different modes of practicing faith. For example, how does a congregation respond to someone among them who presents themselves as gender fluid or transgendered? Is the primary direction of response one of love, or one of holiness? Is the primary question, “How can we walk with you?” or “Is this what God wants you to be?” Both question, of course, can be asked with the intention of holiness and love, but the person who is being asked the question will experience the questions quite differently. 

It is easy to say in theory that love is the greatest command. But, when we posit holiness or justice or purity or righteousness as the alternatives for the ‘greatest,’ the prominence of love takes on greater significance. The question is about the greatest among good things, not the good v. bad. In my mind, putting ‘love’ as the first and chief command radically reorients all of the relative good commands that follow.  


  1. You write " και εξ ολης της δυναμεως σου. The phrase “with all your strength” is not there. " I think that sentence should read "The phrase "with all your mind" is not there." 'dianoia' (mind) is the missing word.

  2. Thank you, for the good work that you do. I have found it to be very helpful in my own study of the scriptures.

  3. Thanks, Alan. I have made the correction.

  4. Thank you kindly. My Greek is decades behind me but your work makes me want to revisit it.

  5. I'm curious about two things: Why is this discussion about 'the first' even held? Was it an area of debate or division? Would not any Jew have answered as Jesus did? What really was the issue? Is it that Jesus elevates the 'second' into the same status as the 'first'? But the scribe acknowledges that anyway - love for G-d and love for neighbour are inseparable. Secondly, why is the scribe 'not far from the kingdom'? Why doesn't Jesus/Mark tell him/us what is till missing? Or, is the audience then and now meant to contemplate the question?

    1. Rick,
      I think it is a fairly common question for a Rabbi to hear. Hillel was once said to have been asked if he could cite the law while standing on one foot, and in doing so he gave the same answer that Jesus gives here, adding that the rest was just commentary. Maybe that really happened. Either way, it was not an uncommon question to ask a Rabbi.
      And, I think it is very much like the first question of the Westminster Catechism, "What is the chief end of humanity?"
      And I think there are alternative answers! When the Scribe says that Jesus is correct and that love of God and neighbor is greater than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices, I think we see one potential answer. It might be argued that 'holiness' is the primary command. That is, I think, what the burnt offerings and sacrifices signify. I actually think a lot of current Christian theology gives more weight to holiness than love. Wrongly.
      Thanks for your note.

  6. Is the reason they asked him no more questions because he answered more wisely than expected or that he said “you are not far from the reign of God.”? As you’d said, this answer would have been what many rabbis would have said. Is the kicker the conclusion/pronouncement?

    1. Hi Vic,

      When Matthew gives his version of this story, the question of the greatest command seems to be yet another trick question (Mt. 22:35). Likewise with Luke (10:25), it all begins with a trick question. It makes me wonder whether it is a trick question in Mark as well. Certainly, all of the prior question have been with the intention of finding something actionable against Jesus. This exchange feels a bit different, more genuine. Yet, the context of trick questions and that last cryptic comment cause me to wonder if it is part of the testing that Jesus is undergoing.
      I think I'll take this question and revise the blog post itself, because it seems weightier than I realized before.
      Thanks for your questions. As I say in my earlier comment (and will add to the post itself), I think there could have been other answers, although positing love as the greatest command was not unique to Jesus.

  7. Thanks to your insightful comments and questions, I have expanded the comments at the bottom of my post. I hope it doesn't just result in making the post too long.
    Thanks all,

  8. Late to the party, but... I was struck by the only imperative being 'Hear.' Hear that the Lord our God is one Lord - and then all else follows? To love that which is one, and to love that which is neighbored in the context of one? Not should or must love, but will love. I'm playing with this a bit...

    1. That's a great thought, especially when the question was about the greatest "command."


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