Teasing the scribes and pharisees

Some fun with words that may go deeper than we usually expect to go in reading the Gospels.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ Temple teaching, Jesus answers trick questions from the scholars and Pharisees and then responds with one of his own, translated in English as follows (Mark 12: 35-36):

How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?  David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”

Mark has Jesus quote the first verse of the Psalm 110, which is ascribed to David.  However, we lose so much of the subtlety of this Temple debate in our English translations of Greek translations of the original Hebrew and Aramaic of Jesus’ own world.

Quill & Ink

Around the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the tradition arose of never pronouncing the name of God aloud.  That name was written with the Hebrew consonants יהוה, YHWH.  Readers substituted two other Hebrew words,  ֙adonai (אֲדֹנָי‎, lit. “My Lords”) or elohim (אֱלֹהִים‎ , lit. “the gods”).

The Hebrew for Psalm 110 begins: “the Lord” (Hebrew YHWH) said to “my lord” (Hebrew  ֙adonai).

Jewish audiences in Mark’s time were also familiar with the Septuagint,1 the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which was then in common usage.

In this version, the Greek word kyrios (“master” or “lord”) was used for both terms in Ps. 110:1.

Jewish readers would still have known that the two occurrences referred respectively to YHWH and “the king” (i.e., David), yet they might see an ambiguity that wasn’t in the original Hebrew.  Greek readers, especially those who were not Jewish, might be delighted—but also confused—by the wordplay.

Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, authors of The Bible with and without Jesus (HarperOne 2020, p.155) share this conclusion regarding Mark 12: 35-36.

This [collapsing of YHWH and  ֙adonai] into the single word kyrios…allows Jesus to conclude: “David himself calls him Lord [Greek kyrios]; so how can he be his son?” (Mark 12/37).  The question presumes…that the speaker is David and not, as is more likely, a Levite, prophet, or courtier.  It also presumes that this second “lord” must be the Messiah, for no one else could sit next to God.

Jesus asks: How can the Messiah be a “son of David” because David calls him “lord”?  The implied answer: the Messiah, the son of David—Jesus—is greater than David.  Mark concludes the scene by noting, “And the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (Mark 12:37).

"Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens)," by James Tissot (between 1886 and 1894), Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons].

As I read Levine and Brettler this morning, my awareness of Jesus’ pointed sense of humor discovered another reading for Mark’s passage—not instead of but in addition to the traditional Christian implication those two Jewish readers find in Mark.

The scholars and Pharisees—that is, the titular religious authorities or professors of Jesus’ time—loved to best each other over jots and tittles of scriptural interpretation.  Offended by and secretly fearful of Jesus’ genuine personal authority as a practitioner of God’s love, they tried to catch him out with challenges about the meaning of Hebrew Bible passages.  Mark describes Jesus as successfully fencing with them.

Yet Jesus knew that such textual argument was both empty and dangerous: both a distraction from the real spiritual challenges of scripture and a weapon for those with political authority to accuse and convict alleged heretics.

Perhaps he was teasing them, but with the blade of truth exposed.  “I, too, can play this game of multiple readings of text.  What if this was King David addressing the Messiah, supposedly the “son of David,” as Lord?”

This needn’t be an explicit claim by Jesus to be, himself, the Messiah.  But it is certainly a confounding of his opponents.  They cannot say unequivocally which reading of Psalm 110:1 is the “right one.”

In other words, their playing at professing of truth has nothing to do with practicing truth.  It is merely a dangerous game.

And so it is.

Blèssed Bè.


Notes & Image Sources

Image: ” Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens),” by James Tissot (between 1886 and 1894), Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons].

  1. The Septuagint May Have Been Produced in Alexandria, Circa 250 BCE to 50 CE,” from Jeremy Norman’s History of Information.

    The Septuagint (LXX), the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek, may have been produced at Alexandria, Egypt in stages, starting about 250 BCE. The Alexandrian community then included the largest community of Jews, including a group of scholars who prepared the translation.

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