Jesus and Jewish Tradition

SYNOPSIS:  The gospel of Mark presents five incidents in which Jesus experienced opposition from religious leaders for deviating from their traditions – Mark 2:1-3:6.

close up of a book in hebrew

Jesus did not reject the Mosaic Law but, instead, many of the interpretations added to it by the Scribes and rabbinical authorities, especially practices related to ritual purity and Sabbath regulations. As the “Son of Man,” the Messiah, he was not bound by human traditions and regulations – His authority was superior to the traditions of the “Scribes and Pharisees,” even to the rituals of the Temple.

At least two of the incidents occurred in a synagogue in Capernaum on a Sabbath day where Jesus had delivered a man from a demon (Mark 1:21-282:1, 3:1).

A Paralytic Forgiven (2:1-12)

In this first incident, forgiveness occurred outside the Temple and without its sacrificial rituals. This explains the indignant objections raised by the religious authorities from Jerusalem. Jesus “cleansed” impurities and “forgave” sins apart from the means provided in the Torah (Mark 2:1-12).

Jesus heals the paralyticJesus declared the sins of the paralytic “forgiven” or “discharged.” The Greek verb is used elsewhere by the New Testament for the “discharge” of debts. The conflict was not over the miracle he had performed, which could not be denied. It was his authority to forgive sins they questioned. After all, God alone has the authority to forgive sins! Moreover, this presumptuous act by Jesus was done with no regard to the Temple rituals that were provided by Yahweh to deal with sin.

The Greek verb for “arise” in Verse 9 is the same one used for the raising of Jesus from the dead. The restoration of the body and forgiveness of sins are linked – Two sides of the same coin. Jesus came to make the entire man whole – The goal of forgiveness is the bodily resurrection, ultimately, new creation (Mark 16:6Romans 8:112 Corinthians 5:16-17).

This is the first instance in the gospel of Mark of the term “Son of Man.” In this capacity, Jesus is authorized to discharge sin. The term is derived from the book of Daniel:

(Daniel 7:13-14) – “I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a Son of Man was coming, And he came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and his kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”

By referring to the “Son of Man,” Jesus indicated the source of his authority, the “Ancient of Days,” that is, Yahweh. His acts of healing demonstrated his authority. By standing up and carrying his litter, the healed paralytic demonstrated the validity of his authority and his right to forgive sins.

Thus, Jesus demonstrated his authority to the crowds and the Jewish religious authorities. Nevertheless, they rejected it and the conflict began that led inexorably to his death on a Roman cross.

A Tax Collector is Called (2:13-17)

The theme of forgiveness links this story to the preceding one about the paralytic.  Already, Jesus had offended Jewish religious sensibilities by discharging the sins of a paralytic. Next, he offended them even further by associating with “sinners,” the outcasts of a proper religious society. Observing him eating with tax collectors, his opponents insinuated he was a notorious sinner (Mark 2:13-17).

Tax collectors were despised in Jewish society. They handled currencies from pagan and Jewish sources and interacted with men from all walks of life. Contact with pagan symbols and Gentiles rendered put them ritually unclean, moreover, they collaborated with Roman authorities. 

Levi” was probably identical to the disciple named Matthew (Matthew 9:9).  It was common for a Jewish man to have two or more names. In Capernaum, a tax collector would have been in the service of Herod Antipas.  The Romans collected poll and land taxes directly, but taxes on transported goods were contracted to local tax collectors. The actions of Jesus were scandalous – He associated with men who were morally, politically and ritually beyond the pale.

Jesus compounded his offense by eating with these “sinners.”  Table fellowship was important to observant Jews, and eating with less than observant men put one’s ritual purity at risk.

The Pharisees adhered strictly to the Torah and the traditional interpretations of it received from the “elders,” a body of oral traditions developed over generations. Of special concern to this tradition was ritual purity, so much so, the Pharisees went beyond what the Law itself required.  Priests performing their duties in the Temple lived under the strictest requirements for ritual purity.  Pharisees strove to live their lives conformed to that standard.

The concluding statement of Jesus emphasized his mission was about redemption.  He came to redeem that which was lost. Matthew’s version adds the words, “Go and learn what this means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:9-13).

A Question About Fasting (2:18-22)

Fasting was also a routine practice among Pharisees and many devout Jews. Some fasted twice a week. It was practiced on the Day of Atonement, although the Mosaic Law did not require fasting on it. The Torah specified only that God’s people “humble their souls” on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29, Matthew 3:411:16-19, Mark 2:18-22).

Fasting was associated with mourning and repentance. Doing so might be a reasonable interpretation of how to “humble one’s soul” but, in fact, nowhere does the Torah explicitly command fasting. The fasting practices of Christ’s day reflect later interpretations of the Law.

Jesus Heals the SickJesus was the “bridegroom,” the Messiah; his arrival ought to be a time of joy, not mourning. He was not characterized by ascetic practices but by his table fellowship, even eating with the lowest members of society. When a marriage occurred, even the most devout Jew would cease fasting for the duration of the ceremonies (Matthew 11:16-19; Luke 5:29; 15:1).

The “bridegroom” would be “taken away,” an allusion to the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus.  Even at this early point, he had some idea of where things would lead. The Greek verb for “take away” (apairō) is an echo of Isaiah 53:8:

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due?”

Fasting was an old tradition. Jesus compared it with a wineskin and an un-shrunken cloth. The old forms of Judaism could not contain the new things inaugurated by the Son of Man. Any attempt to combine the old wineskins with new wine, or the un-shrunken cloth with shrunken cloth would result in the destruction and loss of both. The old system was incapable of containing the “new wine” provided by Jesus.

A Sabbath Question (2:23-28)

In the book of Genesis, God ceased from his creative activities on the seventh day. However, the establishment of the Sabbath as a regulated day of rest was part of the Law of Moses, the Torah, a later requirement given at Mount Sinai.

The disciples plucked ears of grain and rubbed them to separate the grain from the chaff. The Pharisees considered this “reaping and winnowing,” work prohibited on the Sabbath. It was permissible for anyone passing through a grain field to pick grain for immediate consumption; it was their “labor” on the Sabbath that was the problem (Deuteronomy 23:25, Mark 2:23-28).

Jesus responded with a question from the life of David when he was living as an outlaw. Only the priests could eat the Show Bread from the Sanctuary. David and his men did so because they were famished. Jesus cites this story as a precedent. Since he was the Greater David if that which had been put aside as holy was available for David’s use, how much more appropriate would it be to grant the Greater David access to what was holy (1 Samuel 21:1-6)?

The “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” A fitting statement.  In their zeal to obey the law, the Pharisees forgot its purpose – To do good to men.  As a day of rest, God never intended men to be deprived of their most basic requirements on it; even slaves and animals were allowed rest on the Sabbath. Since the day was for man’s benefit and Jesus was the designated representative of Israel, it followed that the “Son of Man was Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests break the Sabbath and are innocent? Yet something greater than the temple is here.” Sabbath restrictions were not absolute. Priests engaged in “work” on the Sabbath to fulfill their priestly duties in the Temple. But Jesus was even “greater than the Temple.”  If the priests could violate the Sabbath in the Temple, and since Jesus was greater than it, how could he be restricted from performing good works by the Sabbath regulations developed over centuries?

Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (3:1-5)

This incident occurred in a synagogue on the Sabbath. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill” is a link to the preceding story.  Like the Sabbath, the Torah was intended to give life, not to destroy it. This Jesus was about to do for a man with a withered hand. Not to restore his hand was tantamount to doing evil (Mark 3:1-5).

Healing on the Sabbath was forbidden by tradition, not by the Torah. Tradition did allow an exception when life was in immediate peril. If not, aid must not be given until after the Sabbath. Jesus could have waited until sunset to restore the withered hand with no additional harm to the man, but he refused to draw such narrow distinctions. To delay healing even for a few hours was to deny what the Law intended; to give life.

A deformed person could not enter the sanctuary to participate in the covenant community’s worship life. The incident in Capernaum concerned something more than just physical healing. To restore the man to full membership in the covenant people of Yahweh was paramount and must not be delayed.

The problem was not just with added traditions but, additionally, with a regulation of the Torah that prevented an Israelite with a deformity from access to Yahweh’s presence and blessings:

(Leviticus 21:16) – “No man of your offspring who has a defect will approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a defect will approach: a blind man, a lame man, he who has a disfigured face or any deformed limb….only he will not go into the veil or come near the altar because he has a defect.”

The actions by Jesus answered his question – Not only is it permissible to heal on the Sabbath, it is right to do so.  The traditions of the Pharisees would lead to the destruction of life, not its restoration.

Opponents Plot Christ’s Downfall

(Mark 3:6) – “And having departed, immediately the Pharisees with the Herodians were giving counsel against him to destroy him”.

The opponents of Jesus included the Pharisees and the “Herodians,” the Jewish partisans of Herod Antipas. This is striking – The Pharisees were political enemies of Herod and unlikely allies of the Herodians. Their alliance in a plot to destroy Jesus demonstrates the level of their animosity (Mark 12:13).

This final incident is a major turning point in his ministry.  The reaction of the opponents of Christ transformed them from critics into enemies set on destroying Jesus (“the Pharisees went out and immediately and began to take counsel with the Herodians how they might destroy Him” – Mark 11:18, 15:1).

Jesus went too far. To the Pharisaic way of thinking, he had violated Sabbath regulations, fraternized with unclean sinners, disrespected their traditions, and presumed to forgive sins apart from the Temple rituals. To the Herodians, his disturbances of the religious establishment constituted a threat to the political order.

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