Summary Mark Chapter 7

What happened in Chapter 7.

We started with a dispute with the Pharisees and some scribes.  The major point, I think, was the discussion/distinction Jesus drew between clean and unclean. What this represents is the continued tension between followers of Jesus who had been Jews, and those who came from the pagan population. We saw this start in Paul, and it apparently had not been settled by the time Mark wrote.  And I do want to reiterate, and to stress, that I do not believe that Jesus ever said anything like this.  That is, he never said that it’s not what goes in, but what comes out that defiles a person.

I said that at the time, but it bears repeating: Had Jesus actually said this, there would have been no controversy between Paul and the James Gang of the Jerusalem assembly. Paul could simply have referred back to the Christ’s words and that would have been the end of it. James would have not have had recourse, and Paul would not been compelled to come up with the brilliant argument that we saw in Galatians.

Mixed up with this we have the minor dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus regarding ritual washing.  If you have not seen it, there is a discussion in the comments to Chapter 7:1-13 about a couple of aspects of this. The first is that my translation of  the Pharisees “diligently washing” their hands is completely inadequate. This should be rendered more on the lines of “pugnaciously” if not “violently” washing, the point being that they had crossed the line into being ostentatious about it, where the act had taken on a life of its own, and the Pharisees took this to an extreme largely, if not solely, to show-up those with less religious zeal.

This leads to some context. From what I’ve read about the Essenes, and from the Book of Jubilees, an extra-canonical Jewish text of the First Century BCE ( a hundred years or so before Jesus), ritual washing had become a very big deal. It was a big deal for the Pharisees, as we see here, and for the Essenes as shown in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it was important to the author(s) of Jubilees. Given this level of concern, it bears remembering that the Jews had defied and then expelled the Seleucid kings in the relatively recent past.  The flashpoint that led to revolt was the defilement of the Temple caused by placing of a statue of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in the Holy of Holies. As such, it seems like the idea of “cleansing” had become a big deal in Jewish thought. Plus, there was a pervasive presence of  Greeks cultural practices, and a very active community among the upper echelons of Jewish society willing to participate in the Greek culture. The historian Flavius Josephus was such a Hellenizer, as was Herod the Great and his children. This zealous following of Jewish custom was, I suspect, at least in part conscious attempt by Jews to go out of their way to “be Jewish”, to show that they were not collaborators or Hellenizers. The roots of the Pharisaic and Essene traditions lie, to some extent, in this desire to show one’s faith by an active display of following Jewish custom. That this, at some point, went overboard, and became an end in itself, should not surprise us. People are people.

Then, I think, there is a deliberate contrast of these zealous Jews with a True Believer. In this case, the role is played by the “Greek” woman, who was Syro-Phonecian ethnically. It is she, not the Pharisees, who believes that Jesus can drive out the demon that plagues her daughter. Her faith is simple, direct, and strong, a marked contrast to the hypocrisy of those who are more concerned with the outside than they are with the inside.

This, too, is an explicit formulation of another cultural shift that had been occurring. During the classical period of Greece, to participate in the activity of one’s city, to go to the sacrifices, to attend the public rituals and games was how one expressed one’s “Greekness”, and how one kept himself right by the gods. The theory of this behaviour  is very similar to the ritual practices of the Jews: both were concerned, largely, with external acts. But with the absorption of the entire Eastern Mediterranean world into a superficial Greek culture, some of these old bonds were loosened, especially for Greeks. So what developed were philosophies and then religions that emphasized the internal self vs these external actions. That this shift from outside was occurring also in Judea should not be surprising. At root, this is to some extent the final transition from shame culture to guilt culture, but I think that’s a bit too basic to describe what was occurring in the two centuries around the transition to the Common Era. Jesus helped to usher in this transition, greatly abetted by Paul’s insistence on faith over Law.

As if to underline the contrast between overly zealous Jews and the believing pagans, the chapter ends with the healing of a man without hearing. The text is ambiguous, but it seems that the man was not a Jew. What is notable is that Jesus takes the man aside, and performs ritualistic actions to effect the healing, which are not things Jesus has ever done in previous healings.

Of course Jesus enjoins him to say nothing, and of course the man only shouts the louder. And of course there are crowds following Jesus everywhere.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on April 6, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Nice bit of logic about the Jerusalem conference having to rule on a subject implies that Jesus did not have a definitive ruling – it was either absent or it was not explicit and possibly conflicting to his followers.

  2. Thank you. I do believe the inference is correct, but it’s not exactly mine. Reading Mediaeval handbooks of penance–instructions for priests on how to absolve, penances to give, etc–gives a pretty clear insight into the sins that were being committed, and what the priorities of the Church were at the time. Just so, an argument between followers indicates a lack of a clear doctrine from the founder.

    Jesus, likely, did not pay a lot of attention to Gentiles. As such, whether they followed Jewish dietary laws was probably not something he thought much about. That only became an issue when Paul started preaching to pagans rather than Jews.

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