Let’s begin by situating our text in the larger structure and context of the Markan composition. There is no end to the proposals for how to structure the Gospel of Mark as we have it and how the various pieces of the account fit together. Many of the proposals have their relative merits, and none should be taken as reflecting the “mind of Mark.” We don’t have access to that insight, and it’s not obvious from the text we have. So, any proposed structure or outline is really a heuristic device – a tool to assist our study and interpretation. That is certainly true of what I’m going to propose.
It appears that Mark 10:46 is the conclusion of and punchline for the “Way of Following” section of the Markan account (from Mark 1:16 to the end of chapter 10). Mark 11 leads off with the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. I think this story serves as the mini-prologue for chapters eleven through thirteen. This section focuses on the Jerusalem Temple and the related political and religious establishment. The section concludes with the Markan “Little Apocalypse,” which helps the audience of the composition to interpret and deal with the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of the Jewish rebels in 66-70 C.E.
If you’ve read some previous posts on the Markan composition, you will know that chiasm is one of the Markan composer’s favorite techniques for organizing material. It’s always worth looking for chiastic structures, both large and small in the composition. I am reading Mark 11:11 through the end of chapter thirteen as a loose sort of chiasm with some small structural elements thrown into the mix.
The reason for examining and analyzing such structural elements is not merely to show off (although I’m certainly not above that failing with some frequency). Instead, the purpose is to try to discern some of the emphases and purposes of the Markan composer in telling the story. As I have noted in the past, these structural elements helped those who presented and performed the Markan composition to keep things organized in their memories.
I want to suggest this loose sort of structure.
|A||Mark 11:11-25||Fig Tree and Temple Incident||Intercalation|
|B||Mark 11:27-33||Jesus’ authority (in the Temple)|
|C||Mark 12:1-12||Parable of the Wicked Tenants (who kill the son)||Allegory|
|D||Mark 12:13-34||Questions in the Temple||Rule of 3 with a twist|
|C’||Mark 12:35-37||David’s Son||Note son in the Parable|
|B’||Mark 12:30-44||Jesus critiques Temple/Scribes|
|A’||Mark 13:1-32||Little Apocalypse||Fig Tree image as climax|
Just as the Triumphal Entry serves as a connection to the previous section (especially the story of Blind Bartimaeus), so Mark 13:32-37 serves as a connection to the Passion account proper, especially with the emphasis on keeping awake. In just a few paragraphs, the central disciples will not be able to keep their eyes open while Jesus prays in the garden.
The center of a chiasm usually contains the most important theme in that section of the Markan composition, whether the chiastic structure is large, as in this case, or small. I read the set of three questions in the Temple as the center of the structure, so we need to pay close attention to what is happening here.
In addition to the chiasm, we get another example of the Markan composer’s use of the Rule of Three, but with a striking twist. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, in Mark 11:27-33, have challenged Jesus’ authority to interpret scripture and to attack the Temple system. So, they are the primary audience for the Parable (Allegory) of the Wicked Tenants.
They sought to restrain and/or arrest Jesus, and they were afraid of the crowd, the Markan composer tells us. They were afraid because they perceived that he spoke the parable for, against, or about them (the preposition is ambiguous). As a result, they vacated the scene.
Different sets of debate partners now come onstage for honor jousts with Jesus. These debates are still happening in the Temple. There is no indication of a scene change. The original “odd couple” in the Markan composition, some Pharisees and Herodians, try to trap him with a political question. The Sadducees pose a riddle about the Resurrection – a possibility they regard as scripturally impossible.
We would expect the third question to be another hostile challenge to Jesus (and it is portrayed as such, for example, in Luke). But it is not. That’s the really interesting piece here. “Nothing in Mark’s story prepared the reader for this conversation between Jesus and this Jerusalem scribe,” Emerson Powery writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Nothing!” The scribes, for the most part, align themselves with the opposition. The listeners are reminded that the scribe overhears the previous dispute.
We are prepared, as were (I assume) the first listeners, for this scribe to be the most critical and obtuse of all. Yet, this one is not far from the Kingdom of God. Apparently, the joke’s on us this time around! The scribe appreciates Jesus’ responses to the other debaters, both in terms of content and style. The scribe noted that Jesus answered “well” – which can mean both of good quality and honorably.
“Part of the shock of this story was the agreement of the Jerusalem scribe,” Powery writes. This scribe chose to engage with Jesus rather than to trap him. The scribe takes Jesus’ critique and analysis even further when he argues that the love Jesus describes is of a value surpassing all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. Powery notes that this seems to be “an implicit temple critique.”
Why does the Markan composer choose this particular story/memory to include in the composition, and why does the composer put it in this place in the narrative? “The answer is probably that Mark wanted to show that the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish establishment was not based on a rejection of the OT or a complete disavowal of the law by Jesus,” Hurtado proposes, “but instead on the refusal of the Jewish authorities to accept Jesus as the final interpreter of the Jewish law” (page 201).
Was there a constituency among the Temple establishment that held an anti-Temple bias? Powery wonders this but dismisses it. “It is hard to imagine an anti-Temple scribe in Mark’s narrative, so it is better to assume otherwise,” he argues. But that doesn’t mean he disagrees with Jesus at this moment. “In fact, this individual scribe, in a collectivist society, probably represented many Jewish leaders who appreciated Jesus’ teaching,” Powery suggests. “We find hints elsewhere in the Gospel narratives (cf. Luke 7:3-5).”
The punchline in this three-part joke is that a scribe agreed with Jesus. Powery notes that this should give us pause about assuming the mindset of those who might debate with us, at least on matters of faith. “Stories like this one, rare as they are within the Christian canon, must drive us to become more willing to open up to the other,” Powery argues, “including the faithful people within our own religious tradition and those without.”
The larger question in this section of the Markan composition is the basis and nature of Jesus’ authority – especially when it comes to challenging the administration of and practices in the Jerusalem Temple. Scribes were essential to maintaining both that administration and those practices. Thus, Hurtado argues, “the point of this passage seems to be to show that Jesus’ criticism of scribal tradition did not amount to a rejection of the validity of the OT law as a revelation of God. Rather,” he continues, “Jesus’ reply to the scribe…shows what Jesus saw the proper point of the law to be” (page 201).
“This isn’t designed as a ‘new religion’, a way of life somehow different from what pious Jews sought after,” N. T. Wright agrees, “This is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets” (Kindle Location 3039).
Certainly, one of the things to take from this text is that we are listening in on an intra-Jewish debate. This is not an attempt on the part of the Markan composer to portray Jews as bad and Gentiles as good. The debates about the Temple, in the actual time of Jesus, had to be about reform rather than replacement. Of course, by the time the Markan composition achieves written status, reform is no longer an option. The Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.
Yet, the debates about the authority and meaning of the Hebrew scriptures must have remained live issues for the Markan community. For the composer to have a story at hand in which a Jewish authority figure commends Jesus for his accuracy and orthodoxy must have made a significant impact on those debates within the Markan community – especially if we locate that community in the fraught environment of Rome following the Neronian persecutions and the Jewish War.
“There is no limit to the amount of work to be done in the church in correcting anti-Old Testament bias,” Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “The habits of disdain toward Judaism and the faith of Israel run very deep, almost as old as the church itself, and will not be corrected easily. But preachers can and should take every opportunity,” she urges, “to inculcate a better take on the Hebrew Scriptures within the Christian canon.”
References and Resources
Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.
Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.
Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.