Context is Crucial – A Commentary on Mark 12 (part 5)

This is the fifth 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 builds on the previous.

Part 1 – Setting the Stage: The Sadducees

Part 2 – The New Tenants

Part 3 – Give to Caesar…

Part 4 – A Silly Question

The Big Question

And now we come to what I would consider the climax of the chapter.  Jesus has just finished debating the Sadducees on the afterlife when along comes a Torah teacher (teach of the law) to ask him a question.  It’s very likely that this Torah teacher was a Pharisee, and if not a Pharisee then it’s at least likely he’s not a Sadducee.  This can be proved in the passage and is crucial to understanding the it.

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating.  Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

–Mark 12:28

First of all, this Torah teacher heard “them” debating, “them” being Jesus and the Sadducees.  He notices that Jesus’ answer was good and so he poses to him another question.  It seems to me that this Torah teacher saw how Jesus bested the Sadducees and wishes to join in on the fun.  So he poses another question that will allow Jesus to again put the Sadducees in their place.  Jesus obliges:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

–Mark 12:29-31

In the time of Jesus there was yet another heated debate about “which command is the greatest?”  Jesus here sides with Hillel’s school, a minority opinion in 33 A.D, a certainly a more radical one.  The fact that the Torah teacher agrees with him in the next few verses confirms that he was of the School of Hillel.  But there is one crucial thing to pick up from Jesus’ words if you want to understand them in context.  Jesus quotes Deuteronomy here, which says:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

–Deut 6:4-5

But notice the difference between the way Jesus quotes it and the actual text!  Jesus apparently “misquoted” the scripture by adding in “mind” to the list from Deut. 6:5 of “heart, soul, strength”.  Did Jesus really misquote the scriptures?  If so, this is a disturbing break in the claim that he never sinned because the scriptures specifically forbids adding anything [7]!  Jesus himself states that not even the smallest letter of the Torah will pass away [8].  So what is going on?  This is where context is of the utmost importance.  Recall the following facts about the situation:  (1) Jesus is debating with the Sadducees and along comes a Torah teacher, (2) The Sadducees had bought into Hellenism which was the philosophy that the human body and mind was elevated to the center of the universe,  (3) To Jews, the “mind” and the “soul” were one in the same.

Therefore, when Jesus quotes Deut. 6:4-5 and he “adds” the word “mind” he is merely expounding on the concept of the soul from a Jewish perspective.  It would be the same thing as if the verse said “Love the LORD your God with all your foot” and then Jesus quoted it as “Love the LORD your God with all your foot and all your big toe.”  It’s obvious that your big toe is a part of your foot and thereby is merely just emphasizing a single facet of the foot as a whole.  Jesus does the same thing by emphasizing the mind as a single facet of the soul.  And for what purpose?  He clearly and decisively tells the Sadducees that God wants it all, even their minds that Hellenism had so ruthlessly claimed!  What a powerful statement against the lifestyle of the Sadducees!

But there’s more.  It is clear from the Torah teacher’s response that, (1) he likes Jesus’ answer, and (2) he finds no fault in Jesus adding in “mind” when this Torah teacher puts in “understanding” in place of “soul” or “mind”, as a word to conglomerate the two together.

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

–Mark 12:32-33

After Jesus gave a clear attack against the Sadducees, the Torah teacher joins in and makes the comment that to obey these two commands is “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices”!  Remember that the Sadducees were all priests, and that they derived their power and wealth from the temple.  This Torah teacher has the audacity to say, in front of the Sadducees, that keeping two simple commands is more important than everything the Sadducees hold as important!  Zing!

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”

–Mark 12:34

Jesus commends this Torah teacher for getting it right while simultaneously throwing another barb at the Sadducees by agreeing with the bold statement.  This is a heated debate where Jesus makes some pretty daring statements.  It’s no wonder they wanted to kill him!  And suddenly it makes sense why he said what he did.

Note (Dec. 7, 2009): Part 6 (Mark 12:35-40) “The Son of David” has been delayed for a while, if not indefinitely. I did not find any satisfactory answers in all my research and so I will no be presenting to you what I would consider to be the “same old” commentary. If I do come across something interesting, I’ll be sure to post it. Until then, this concludes my commentary on Mark 12.

Peace to you,

Footnotes (footnotes are labeled from the start of the commentary, not for individual pages):
7. Deut. 4:2, Rev. 22:18
8. Matt. 5:18


3 thoughts on “Context is Crucial – A Commentary on Mark 12 (part 5)

  1. My copy of the Septuagint for Deut. 6:5 has the same word for mind that Jesus uses in Mark. My assumption is that the Hebrew word in the Mass. text is the word for heart translated by the LXX folks as mind. I don’t know what that means. Could there have been a dispute in Jesus day between the Massoretic text literalists (possibly the Sadducees) who stood firm on Heart and the LXX text literalists (possibly the Pharisees) who would not budge from mind; and Jesus comes to the question and basically says, “Love God: heart, mind, whatever; love God, just do it and quit arguing about it.

    • Kevin,

      That’s a very valid possibility. I really like that idea! Regarding the LXX vs Mas. debate, I know that by the early second century the Pharisees were leading the charge (prominently led by Rabbi Akiva) against the Septuagint because the Christians were using the Septuagint translation to prove Jesus as messiah. They were making a call to go back to the Massoretic. Now their position could have changed dramatically in 80 years, so maybe that doesn’t factor into Jesus’ time at all but I thought it was worth a mention.

      Thanks for sharing your insight. Peace,


  2. Hi very interesting stuff! Your blog is really helping me look at the Word in a new and exciting way. Just thought i share a thought with you could it be that Yeshua was speaking of himself as the two Great commandments he perfectly loved God and perfectly loved man? He is what all the Law and prophets hang on. It seems to me that there may be a link pointing to the structure of man kind as in God is God Yeshua is the two great commands the expression and life giver to the character and image of the Father. man is the 10 commands the expression of the two great commands Yeshua (Yeshua is the husband of the church) and woman “moses” laws the expression and life giver to the ten and the two in the home or family which is the fabric of the nation Israel( Jew and gentile belivers or body of Christ)? Its been great reading your work. Shalom, God Blessed

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