Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Good Scribe: a Corrective to Anti-Jewish Readings of the Gospels?

Most of us are probably familiar with Jesus' "good Samaritan," but what about the "good scribe"?  The adult Sunday school class at my church is currently studying Jesus in his Jewish context and attempting to understand and appreciate Jesus without turning early Judaism into a negative foil.  Anti-Jewish readings of the gospels have become so engrained in our culture, both within and outside of the church, that we have to be quite intentional about re-reading these texts with sensitivity to anti-Judaism.  This goes for both devotional and secular readers, laypersons and scholars.  One aspect of this re-reading is identifying and exploring the Jewish characters that get good press in the gospels.  That of course includes Jesus and his followers (when they're not being portrayed as blockheads), who are Jewish characters, but it also includes those figures who do not seem to be part of the Jesus movement.   

One of these characters is Mark's "good scribe."  As a rule, the scribes do not get very good press in Mark.  The authority of Jesus' teaching is contrasted with theirs (1:22), they accuse Jesus of blasphemy (2:6-7), challenge Jesus' eating partners (2:16), accuse him of demon possession (3:22), question his disciples' pre-meal hygiene (7:5), and reject and conspire to kill him (8:31, 10:33, 11:18, 14:1, 14:43).  They also argue with the disciples (9:14), question the source of Jesus' authority (11:28), and mock him.  Jesus even warns people to beware of the scribes (12:38).  Of course some of these passages do not need to be read negatively.  Asking about the source of Jesus' authority (11:28) is a perfectly legitimate question, and arguing/deliberating can be a very good thing (9:14; perhaps they were trading exorcism tips, given the context?).  It's clear though that some of these passages try to paint scribes as the "bad guys."  That's why it is so interesting that near the end of Mark's 12th chapter we find an encounter between Jesus and what we might call a "good scribe."  This occurs at the end of a series of interlocutors (I sometimes envision a queue forming) who represent different groups.  First it's the Pharisees and Herodians asking about taxes.  Then it's the Sadducees asking about widows and resurrection.  And finally, its a scribe: 
"And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall 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, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 
And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question. (12:28-34)

 This passage has a lot of reciprocal back patting.  The scribe sees that Jesus "answered well" in his earlier dispute.  He tells Jesus that he is right in his answer to the scribe's own question.  Jesus in turn sees that the scribe "answered wisely" and tells him that he's not far from the kingdom of God.  They both go away from this encounter with a respect for each other and a sense that they're on the same page when it comes to the big questions about the God of Israel.

The content of their discussion has been fairly important for the church.  Today you will commonly hear Christians boil the Christian faith down to two things: loving God and loving your neighbor, something which is drawn from this passage and its (more negative) parallels in Matthew and Luke.  But in my own limited experience, I've never heard anyone in churches emphasize the scribe when preaching on or discussing this passage.  It's an odd omission.  

This episode from Mark is significant, since it portrays a non-Jesus-following Jewish religious specialist in Jerusalem who agrees with Jesus on the very heart of the Law.  This offers an important challenge to the stereotypes that present "the Jews" or "the scribes" or "the Jewish religious leaders" as heartless legalists who prioritize ritual observances over love of God and love of neighbor.  Echoing a major theme in the Hebrew prophets and drawing on 1st Samuel 15:22 and Hosea 6:6 in particular, the scribe elaborates on Jesus' response by saying that the oneness of God, loving God, and loving the neighbor as one's self "is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."  Of course neither Jesus nor the scribe are dismissing things like offerings or other ritual observances, but are rather identifying what stands at the heart of the commandments the God of Israel had given.

Mark's inclusion and placement of this episode is interesting, particularly considering he warns people about the scribes a few verses later (12:38).  We can never know his motivation, but perhaps he wanted his readers to recognize that not all of the non-Jesus-following Jews and not even all of the scribes were in conflict with Jesus' teachings.  Perhaps he recognized that it would be easy for his readers to get the wrong impression, since he decided to highlight Jesus' conflicts with his neighbors.  Maybe he wanted to show that when it came to the things that were really important Jesus and the scribes may not have been that far apart.  Regardless of the reasons why it was included here, its presence should provide a much-needed corrective to anti-Jewish readings of the gospels.  It should warn readers that even when Jesus makes broad statements like "Beware the scribes" he's not talking about all of the scribes. 

 It should also alert us to the fact that Jesus was not the only ancient person who emphasized loving God and loving neighbor.  There are analogues and precedents to Jesus' comments in both the ancient Jewish and "pagan" worlds.  Let's remember, of course, that Jesus is actually quoting from the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).  Parallels to this double emphasis include some verses from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs:
". . . Love the Lord and your neighbour, and show compassion for the poor and the weak." (Testament of Isaachar 5:2; de Jonge)
"Love the Lord throughout your life, and one another with a true heart." (Testament of Dan 5:3; de Jonge)
While the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are Christian compositions in their current form, they made use of earlier Jewish texts and traditions.  Whether these passages were ultimately based on Jesus' teachings then, or rather came from pre-Christian or non-Christian Jewish sources is difficult to tell.  Of course the fact that it has been impossible for scholars to separate the "Jewish" from the "Christian" elements in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs just illustrates how Jewish the early Christian movements really were.

Adela Yarbro Collins points us towards some other texts, including Jubilees 7:20, 20:2, and 36:7-8, which express "two main duties . . . the fear and worship of God and the love of one's brother . . ." (567).  She also directs our attention to the broader Greek world and to Greek-speaking Judaism.  Within the broader Greek tradition we see evidence that the two main virtues were piety (relationship to the gods) and justice (relationship to humans).  Jewish authors like Philo echoed this idea, in passages like this:
"But among the vast number of particular truths and principles there studied, there stand out, so to speak, high above the others two main heads: one of duty to God as shown by piety and holiness, one of duty to human beings as shown by kindness and justice, each of them splitting up into multiform branches, all highly laudable." (Philo, Special Laws 2.15; Collins, 568)  
We can see how this would fit well with the ten commandments, which begin with commands regarding the worship of YHWH before moving on to relationships between human beings.

A final example (there are of course more we could quote) comes from the Talmud, which postdates Mark by several centuries, but records a story about Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the turn of the era.  Hillel was asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot (ever asked your Rabbi or pastor to do that?), to which he responded: "What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor.  This is the whole Law; the rest is commentary." (b.Shabb. 31a; quoted in Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16, 843).

1 comment:

  1. Hello James.

    It is obvious for everyone that the Gospel writers painted the Jews and especially the Pharisees in the most negative light.

    That said some critiques of Jesus against the pharisees have interesting parallels with earlier criticism of pharisees against Phariseism itself.

    To my mind Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet strongly influenced by pharisaism but rejecting some popular abuses. He had quite peaceful with quite a few pharisees (among whom Nicodemus) but conflicts with others, and it is the conflicts which have been emphasized in the later Gospels, whereas some good Pharisees are still mentioned.

    There are many things we cannot asses the historicity of due to lack of data, but I see no reason to view the altercations between Jesus and these specific Pharisees and religious leaders as being unhistorical, unlike many sayings of Jesus in John's Gospel.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son