Context is Crucial – A Commentary on Mark 12 (part 2)

This is the second part of my commentary on Mark 12 as we look at this chapter in its original context.  We are asking the question, “what did this passage of scripture mean to its original hearers?” and it is transformative to our understanding for certain.  Be sure to see the other parts of this commentary too as each one builds upon the previous:

Part 1 – Setting the Stage: The Sadducees

In post will cover the question “who are the ‘new tenants’ mentioned in Jesus’ parable”?

The New Tenants

In Part 1 we covered who the Sadducees were and why Jesus gave the parable of the tenants which was obviously about them.  Then in this intriguing part in v.9 Jesus says:

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

–Mark 12:9

Who are the new tenants?  This is a simple question with a complex answer. To come to a culturally sound answer (e.g. one the original listeners would have come up with) we need to first understand the picture.  The picture in this parable is a vineyard planted by the owner.  This owner is also a father of an only son.  This owner is obviously God and the vineyard is a picture of his people, Israel.  This is evident from scriptures such as:

“I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.”

–Jeremiah 2:21

And there are many, many more passages that describe Israel as God’s vineyard[2].  In this parable of Jesus’ he depicts tenants who are given the task of caring for the vineyard.  Who are these tenants?  The parable is directed at the Sadducees and so it’s safe to conclude that these tenants are the priests, the spiritual leaders of the people.  Another metaphor used for the priests are the shepherds of Israel[3] but even with this metaphor they are chastised as having abused their power and failed at their God-given jobs as caretakers of the flock.

So now we know that the original hearers of this parable would have concluded that the owner and planter of the vineyard is God, the vineyard he planted is Israel, and the tenants are the Sadducees.  Jesus promises that they will be killed and the vineyard given to others.  From history we can see that this promise came true in 70 A.D. when the temple was destroyed.  Without their means of power or wealth the Sadducees became extinct within just a few years and we never hear from them again.  So the old tenants were thrown out…who are the new ones?  This is where it gets sticky.

The owner is still God, and the vineyard is still Israel.  The Jewish answer would be that the new tenants of Israel became Rabbinic Judaism which has guided the Jewish people for the last two thousand years.  Many Christians read this parable and instantly put “the Church” in as the new tenants, but I think that this answer by Christians is “replacement theology” and it is not only inaccurate but has led to followers of Jesus forgetting their roots and becoming arrogant of their place (the very thing Paul warns against in Rom. 11).  So what are we left with?

Jesus declares that he is the “true vine” and that God is the “gardener” who cuts off unfruitful branches[4].  Paul understood this picture, as well as the metaphor Jesus used in the Parable of the Tenants, and in Romans 11 he further defines the picture of the vineyard of Israel with Jesus being the shoot from the stump of Jesse and Gentiles being grafted into the tree that is Israel through the Messiah while God cuts off unbelieving branches.  But the vineyard is still Israel, and “the Church” is merely grafted into it.  Paul declares “the root is holy” and that root is Israel.  So it’s clear that “the Church” is not the new tenants either, but rather just part of the vineyard.  If you still think it may be “the Church”, remember that it wasn’t even set up yet nor was it even a thought in any of their minds (except Jesus’, of course) so that couldn’t have been what the original hearers thought.  So who are these tenants?

It is my opinion that the original hearers of the parable would have thought Jesus was insinuating the “new tenants” would be the Pharisees (or perhaps the Essenes since they were a break-off group of the priesthood, but since the temple was destroyed I find that doubtful that Jesus was insinuating them but his original hearers may have thought it).  That’s my opinion of what the original hearers would have thought.

Now onto a bit more conjecture: Who are the new tenants today?  I would propose that they are the spiritual successor of the Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism, which took the place of the Sadducees as the tenants of God’s vineyard Israel after 70 AD, with one caveat.  Since Jesus is the Messiah and has declared himself the only way to the father then I see the new tenants today as Messianic Rabbis, the spiritual inheritors of the Pharisees and those who call on the name of Jesus as Messiah.  Why do I think this?  It seems logical based on this passage regarding the Pharisees:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

–Matt 23:3

Don’t get caught up in the rest of the chapter.  Jesus condones their theology but condemns their hypocrisy in what has come to be known by scholars as “in-house criticism”, which means from one person “on the inside” to another (while Jesus was probably not a “card-carrying Pharisee”, he was extremely close to them theologically and many Pharisees believed in him as Messiah).  It is from this confirmation of the Pharisees where Jesus basically says “they got it right, so listen to them” that I derive my answer as to who the new tenants are.  Rabbinic Judaism was given the job by Jesus himself of tending to the vineyard but only those who are believers in the Messiah are legitimate tenants.  Ask yourself: who else (humanly speaking) can tend to the entire vineyard (of Jews and Gentiles) better than a Messianic Rabbi who is thoroughly Jewish but also thoroughly Christian?

You probably disagree with me, and may even pull out some scripture to disagree.  Please do it if you feel so inclined.

Continue on to “Part 3: Give to Caesar…”

Peace to you,

James
======================
Footnotes (footnotes are labeled from the start of the commentary, not for individual pages):
2. Isaiah 5:1-7, 27:2-6, Jeremiah 12:10, Ezekiel 17:5-6, Hosea 10:1, Joel 1:7, Psalm 80:8-16.
3. Ezekiel 34
4. John 15:1

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10 thoughts on “Context is Crucial – A Commentary on Mark 12 (part 2)

  1. I’m a little confused by your interpretation of the “others”.
    Jesus had already established in Matthew 16:18 that the Peter was the rock that the church would be built on. Those early apostles (you could call them “messianic rabbis”) were the new tenants in the vineyard. Wouldn’t they fit the description you give “a Messianic Rabbi who is thoroughly Jewish but also thoroughly Christian”? I don’t think it’s replacement theology to include future followers of Christ -Jew or Gentile.

    • Hi Jonathan,

      That greatly depends on your reading of Matthew 16:18. I do not follow in the stream of thought that Peter was the rock on which the church would be built. They were in the region of Caesarea Philippi when that episode happened, which was a sick and depraved city as the center of Pan worship. Pan worship culminated in the Pandemonium which was where the entire “congregation” would have a giant orgy with everyone present including men, women, children, and the sacred goats (disgusting, right?). The temple of pan was an open-air shrine right in front of a cave that a river came out of. The ancients believed this was the gate to the underworld, so they called it the “Gates of Hades”. The temple of Pan was built on what was called the “rock of the gods”. Finally, the Greek of the passage changes gender of “rock” between Jesus nicknaming Simon “Peter” and when Jesus says “and on this rock….” which is something that has been a talking point for a long time. The gender transition fits perfectly with the concept that Jesus, when he said “and on this rock” was speaking of that “rock of the gods” which was so detestable. So it makes sense, then, when Jesus says that “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

      I think the point of Matthew 16:18 is that Jesus wants us to go out there and put his Church in place of the depraved and ugly practices of the world. And yes, Peter would be a part of it, but I don’t think Jesus was appointing a direct successor or saying that he would build the church on one man. Culturally speaking, rabbis didn’t appoint a successor. Rabbis wanted all of their disciples to become like them and make other disciples. So Jesus appointing one guy doesn’t make sense culturally either.

      Feel free to disagree with me.

      Peace,
      James

      • I’m not suggesting that Peter was the first pope. The point being that Jesus already advanced the idea of His Church- His assembly- standing on a rock (Peter or otherwise) and that it would stand against the gates of Hades(at the shrine of Pan or otherwise). The idea of the church and the founding members already existed. These apostles were the church. let me clarify my question: How could the Pharisees or their descendants, modern rabbinical Judaism, be the new tenants? Aren’t they the opposite of the apostles? If those apostles are “the church”, and “the church” is new tenant, how is that replacement theology? And by “church”, I mean “the body of believers”, “the bride” as referred to in Revelations. I’m not trying to disagree merely understand how you arrived at that conclusion.

        • I would hesitate to claim that “The idea of the church and the founding members already existed. These apostles were the church.” If you read the Gospels with a church mentality, then you read something into them that was not existent at the time. While it’s true that the Gospels were written after the fact, Jesus himself would never have advanced the idea of “the church” while he was alive and teaching (pre-death). I say this because he was a Jew who went to synagogue and temple and fit perfectly 100% in the scope of first century second temple Judaism. Of course one could argue that being the very Son of God, and therefore omniscient, he knew of the church’s coming and of that there is no doubt. But for Jesus himself to advance the idea of “the church” before his death would totally undermine his own religion.

          This is how I arrived at the conclusion that I made. In the context of Mark 12, Jesus is dealing entirely in his own religion of first century second temple Judaism. So given the immediate context, I surmised the only passable new tenants would be the Pharisees. There are certainly other ways to go in this discussion, but this article was focusing on immediate context.

          Peace,
          James

  2. Thanks for the discussion. I agree that Jesus was an observant Jew and probably a Pharisee or at least closely attached to them. Jesus ministry was about undermining His religion. His cursing the fig tree and clearing the temple (Mark 11), leading up to the trial before the Sanhedrin(Mark 14) and their death sentence which is ultimately the rejection of Jesus and his ideas of undermining their religion. Jesus is very unhappy with his religion in the first century and his religion is equally displeased with his ideas as they were with the ideas of John the Baptist.

    Paul was a pharisee and the son of a Pharisee and admitted that he violently persecuted the early believers and encouraged the stoning of Stephen. He had respect and stature in the temple and sacrificed that by converting to Christianity. Paul’s example shows us the Pharisees became the persecutors of the early believers and that Pharisaism and Christianity are mutually exclusive. Acceptance of Jesus equates to a rejection of Pharisaism and, in turn, rejection of Jesus becomes a prerequisite for Pharisaism. I am fully aware that these early believers were observant Jews and most probably all former Pharisees. Those are the new tenants. The followers of Christ today are their spiritual descendants and not Rabbinic Judaism.
    It seems we’re at an impasse. Again, thanks for the discussion.
    Jonathan

    • Jonathan,

      Thank you, also, for your calm and interesting discussion. But I do not think we’re at an impasse.

      You said:

      “Acceptance of Jesus equates to a rejection of Pharisaism and, in turn, rejection of Jesus becomes a prerequisite for Pharisaism. I am fully aware that these early believers were observant Jews and most probably all former Pharisees.”

      I don’t think this is totally correct. While there are plenty of places in scripture where it says that the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus (e.g. Mark 3:6), to say that being a Pharisee equates a rejection of Jesus is just not true. First of all, we have several examples of believers who were Pharisees: Nicodemus (John 3:1, John 19:39) and Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38) and was a member of the Sanhedrin (Mk. 15:43). Second, in the early church there were many believers who “belonged to the party of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5). It doesn’t say that they “used to belong” or “were formerly Pharisees”, but rather it says there were believers who were Pharisees — that in itself should tell you that being a Pharisee and a believer is possible. Finally, Paul himself does not say that he “was” a Pharisee. He says in his own appearance before the Sanhedrin “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). He does not say that he was formerly a Pharisee but that he is one.

      Given that you based your talking points on the idea that being a believer in Jesus and Pharisee are mutually exclusive, you might want to rethink this entire discussion.

      Peace,

      James

  3. I’ll concede that there were Pharisees who were believers, but obviously they were in the minority. Joseph of Arimathea secrecy indicates that. It also seems that Paul did lose his status. By the end of the first century, it was as I stated.

    Let’s get back to original question.
    “Who are the new tenants today? I would propose that they are the spiritual successor of the Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism, which took the place of the Sadducees as the tenants of God’s vineyard Israel after 70 AD, with one caveat. Since Jesus is the Messiah and has declared himself the only way to the father then I see the new tenants today as Messianic Rabbis, the spiritual inheritors of the Pharisees and those who call on the name of Jesus as Messiah. ”

    I feel like you’re dodging this question. Each reply I’ve made you tried to address some side issue. Here it is in black and white. Messianic Jews are not above the rest of us. They are no different than any other Christian. There is no covenant that provides salvation and salvation cannot come from the law. Jesus is the only way. All have sinned and must be saved by Grace.

    Romans 1:16 and 10:12 say there’s no difference between Jew and Gentile and this comes from the Pharisee, Paul.
    Peter says in Acts 10:34-35 that God doesn’t show favoritism and accepts men of all nations.
    Jesus commanded us to go unto all nations in Matthew 28:19-20
    As you referenced Romans 11, Paul makes the point that even God’s chosen people are saved by grace. While I find it offensive to be told to know my place, I understand my in-grafted status. And would point out that all branches are subject to pruning.

    Jesus gave this parable and introduced the old chief priest, elders, and scribes to their replacements – the Disciples. The Disciples are, in context of Jesus speech, the hand-picked “new tenants”. These are the men he taught, broke bread with and who were most like him. They don’t seem to be paragons of rabbinical Judaism and eventually teach beliefs that are counter to Judaism and they receive very little support from mainstream Pharisaism. This is not replacement theology and it doesn’t require a “church mentality” to take this interpretation. In my opinion, the vineyard expanded and now as you stated in your original post includes Jews and Gentiles, not just Israel. So the modern inheritors are the modern day followers of Christ.

    thanks again for the discussion, I have enjoyed it. If nothing else, it has spurred me to do more reading and I have learned a great deal about the contributions the Pharisees made to the early church and the debt I owe them. I give you the last word.

    • Jonathan,

      I’m not trying to dodge the question, but I cannot let bad theology (e.g. ““Acceptance of Jesus equates to a rejection of Pharisaism”) go unchallenged, and I thank you for listening to my reasoning with an open heart. I think the root issue here is that you’re plugging in an answer that doesn’t make sense given the parable. The parable is about the vineyard, which is Israel. It’s clear from Jesus’ parable, Old Testament writings, and even the sayings of his rabbinic peers, that Israel is the vineyard. Of that, I think there is no disagreement between us. Paul uses the same metaphor in Romans 11, which you acknowledged. Yes, it is a little unsettling to be told our place as Gentiles, but the Biblical picture is clear: Jesus is the vine, Israel is the natural branches, and we’ve been grafted in. We’re now a part of Israel because of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. You are also correct that no one Christian is above any other, but God has always had people tending his garden, people in charge of it. In ancient times, the priests were no better than any other Israelite and yet they were “the tenants” which Jesus described. Yet somehow the idea of having the tenants be anyone other than any and every Christian is hostile to you. I do think there are new tenants, but I do not think that it’s “the modern day followers of Christ” – that simply doesn’t fit the model given in the parable. If the vineyard is God’s people, then the tenants would be a group who have been charged with taking care of that vineyard. A vineyard cannot take care of itself! The idea that Jesus uses is the removal of the bad tenants and the introduction of new tenants, not the complete removal of tenants altogether to allow the vineyard to start taking care of itself. Does that make sense? You can plug in whoever you want as the new tenants, but according to the parable used, it simply can’t just be “everyone who follows Christ”. That doesn’t make sense, given the context of the parable.

      Peace,

      James

  4. I know I said I’d give you the last word, but I have to clarify and then you have the new last word. You submit that rabbinical Pharisees are the new tenants and I disagree. I believe the APOSTLES to be the new tenants. I have stated this clearly from the beginning. It’s pretty much been restated in every post. The APOSTLES=((the Disciples – Judas) + Paul.))

    Since the decendants of the “new tenants” is a matter of opinion and is completely subjective, there is no right answer.
    Maybe it would be clearer for me to have said every group that follows Christ has or should have mature Christians who are tending the vine. But this is only speaking on the DESCENDANTS OF THE NEW TENANTS and is only opinion. I’ll leave it at that. Anyway, I enjoyed the discussion.

    In Christ,
    Jonathan

    • every group that follows Christ has or should have mature Christians who are tending the vine.

      This is a solid interpretation and definitely a healthy one to walk away with. Remember the main point of my original article was to ask “who would the original hearers of Jesus’ parables have thought the new tenants would be?” In that case, I think “the Pharisees” is a good answer. You are correct that who the new tenants are today is totally subjective. It may in fact be completely irrelevant. Thanks for the discussion – it was fun. I hope you’ll discuss ideas with me in the future. Until then, peace to you.

      James

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