Context is Crucial – A Commentary on Mark 12 (part 1)

Note: This was originally one post, but since it’s over 4,000 words, I decided to break it up into several smaller posts.  I’ll be posting the next parts one per day over the next few days.

Introduction

One of the ministers at my church, Bob Chisholm, told this story to the congregation not too long ago.  He was at a conference on Biblical studies attended by people from many different denominations when he went to a lecture given by a Jewish rabbi.  The rabbi got up to speak and began by telling everyone that what he was about to say would revolutionize his listeners’ studies.  Bob was naturally very intrigued by the idea and listened with great anticipation.  What secret, what kernel of Jewish wisdom would this rabbi impart to him?  The rabbi said something akin to, “When you study to Bible, in order to get the best understanding from it, do not ask merely ‘What does this text mean today?’ but rather ask yourself, ‘What did it mean to its original hearers?'”  Bob was stunned, but not because it was so revolutionary, but because he’d been taught that all along at the Harding Graduate School.  However, he noticed it was apparently quite shocking to many in the room.  Was it really that foreign of a concept to try to understand what the written Word meant to its original readers?  Apparently so.

In this series of posts I want to show you what understanding the original context of the Bible does for you by taking you through Mark 12.

Setting the Stage

As Mark 12 opens, we see Jesus giving a Parable.  It says:

“He then began to speak to them in parables…”

–Mark 12:1

Who is “them”?  I’d say it’s the Sadducees, and here’s why.  In the previous chapter, Jesus is at the temple.  In Mark 11 we see Jesus: (1) Come in with the “Triumphal Procession”, (2) Leave for the night, (3) Come back the next day to clear the temple and teach in the temple during the day, (4) Leave again and come back the next day, and (5) Come back to the temple again to teach.  So Jesus has been in Jerusalem approximately 3 days when the events of Mark 12 take place, assuming the chronology is correct and there is good reason to assume such considering Mark is careful here to account for time.

Mark 11 is full of pronouns of “them”, “they”, etc, and the last named group we see before Mark 12 consists of “chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” (11:27).  We know from history that during the time of Jesus the chief priests were almost all (if not all) Sadducees, centering around the dynasty of the family of Annas.  Not only is this confirmed in historical writings (namely Josephus), but also in scriptures.

“Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.”

–Acts 5:17  (Also see Acts 4:1-6)

So I’m putting two and two together and saying that those who came to Jesus in Mark 11 were mainly composed of Sadducees and this is why the writer doesn’t call them “Sadducees” because they weren’t all Sadducees.  That in and of itself wouldn’t be enough for me to make the assertion that Jesus is talking to the Sadducees, but Jesus is in the temple courts, the stronghold of Sadducean power.  Combine all of this with the prophetic tradition of chastising the priests for not taking care of God’s flock (Ezekiel 34, Jeremiah 50), and it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is speaking against the Sadducees.  And so “them” in Mark 12:1 is most likely the Sadducees.

He tells them a parable and it condemns their actions as caretakers of God’s vineyard.  But why?  It’s helpful here to know that the Sadducees were all priests and Levites.  Not all priests were Sadducees (e.g. Zachariah was probably not a Sadducee, and Rabbi Zadok was a priest but also a Pharisee), but all Sadducees were priests or Levites.  And so the spiritual leaders in a temple-centered Judaism are not being the leaders they should be, and so Jesus condemns them.  But what were they doing that warranted them being likened to thieves and murderers?  To understand that, we must understand Sadducees of the first century.

The Sadducees

In short, the Sadducees were a corrupt priesthood.  During the Maccabbean revolt, the descendants of Mattathias (a priest) put themselves in as a not only king but high priest. They were neither of the family of Aaron nor of the family of David and were seen by many as illegitimate.  The Essenes, originally a group of priests, even went so far as the break off from the priesthood because they saw the temple as defiled and unclean because of the illegitimate priesthood running the show.  Over time they became more and more seduced by the Greek philosophy of Hellenism, which is the idea that man and his mind is the center of the universe.  Traditional Jewish theology/philosophy did not separate the “mind” and the “soul” but rather thought of them as one, but Hellenism made this distinction.  This led to their becoming very segmented in their religious and secular lives.  Many took on Greek names, sent their children to the Greek school (the “gymnasium” where you learn in the nude), and even had a gymnasium built for themselves at the foot of the temple mount so they could go right to it after temple services! The writer of Second Maccabbes writes that the Temple priests:

“ceased to show any interest in the service of the altar; scorning the Temple and neglecting the sacrifices, they would hurry to take part in the unlawful exercises [in the nude] on the training-ground”

–2 Maccabees Chapter 4

And since you went nude at the gymnasium (because the body is the epitome of all that is good), these Sadducees didn’t want to be seen as circumscribed (because it’s obvious if you are or are not) and so many even underwent painful uncircumcision procedures.  But this was only one facet of their hellenistic lifestyles.  They also attended sports games where bloody fights were finished with death and went to theater productions which were often dedicated to the gods and many times had sexual acts performed on stage.  Can you imagine the audacity of those priests to not only usurp the rightful high priesthood but also to defile themselves daily with such pagan practices?  This is why Zealots wanted to kill them.  This is why the Pharisees believed and taught they were going to eternal punishment in the afterlife [1],

These are the Sadducees that Jesus is dealing with in Mark 12. Now the parable of the irresponsible, lying, cheating, stealing, murderous tenants suddenly makes sense.  And it’s clear who he’s talking to because after he tells the parable “they” want to kill him.  He’s called them out, but they can’t do anything…yet.

Continue the commentary by going on to “Part 2 – The New Tenants”.

Peace to you,

James

Update (Oct. 27, 09): Thanks to Bob Chisholm for helping me further develop this article by working through my reasons why this parable was probably directed at the Sadducees.

======================
Footnotes:
1. Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1

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