Mark Chapter 11:12-25

Chapter 11 continues.

12 Καὶ τῇ ἐπαύριον ἐξελθόντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ Βηθανίας ἐπείνασεν.

And the next day, they coming from Bethany, he was hungry.

12 Et altera die cum exirent a Bethania, esuriit.

13 καὶ ἰδὼν συκῆν ἀπὸ μακρόθεν ἔχουσαν φύλλα ἦλθεν εἰ ἄρα τι εὑρήσει ἐν αὐτῇ, καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐπ’ αὐτὴν οὐδὲν εὗρεν εἰ μὴ φύλλα: ὁ γὰρ καιρὸς οὐκ ἦν σύκων.

And from a distance seeing a fig tree having leaves, he came to see what would find on it, and coming up to it he found nothing except for leaves; for it was not the season for figs.

This is a tad curious, no? He knows it’s not the season for figs–presumably, it’s April-ish, and fruit usually doesn’t appear until end of summer. And yet, he’s checking to see if there are figs on the tree?

13 Cumque vidisset a longe ficum habentem folia, venit si quid forte inveniret in ea; et cum venisset ad eam, nihil invenit praeter folia: non enim erat tempus ficorum.

14 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Μηκέτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἐκ σοῦ μηδεὶς καρπὸν φάγοι. καὶ ἤκουον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.

And responding, he said to it, “No one ever from you will eat no fruit.” And his disciples heard (him).

So it’s spring, and not the time for figs, but Jesus gets ticked because there aren’t figs, and he lays a curse on the tree. Do I have that right? Now, what most surprises me about this passage is that I have heard it read in church at least once in my life. Jesus is acting a bit like a petulant child here, no?

Now, the QHJ people will tell you that the embarrassing nature of this episode is virtually a guarantee of its authenticity. I see the point of that, and it does seem odd that this sort of a story would have been invented. However, to say it happened, and to say it necessarily happened like this, may not be quite the same thing. Stories change in the telling, so, maybe there is some basis of truth, or maybe there isn’t. I don’t have the same level of confidence that embarrassing = authentic that the QHJ people have. However, they need to have some sort of criteria if they are to be able to get to the historical core of what Jesus said or did. I, personally, wouldn’t put much weight on this one.

14 Et respondens dixit ei: “ Iam non amplius in aeternum quisquam fructum ex te manducet ”. Et audiebant discipuli eius.

15 Καὶ ἔρχονται εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸἱερὸν ἤρξατο ἐκβάλλειν τοὺς πωλοῦντας καὶ τοὺς ἀγοράζοντας ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, καὶ τὰς τραπέζας τῶν κολλυβιστῶν καὶ τὰς καθέδρας τῶν πωλούντων τὰς περιστερὰς κατέστρεψεν,

And coming to Jerusalem and coming into the Temple, he began to throw the sellers and the buyers in the Temple, and the tables of the money-changers and the chairs of the sellers of doves he overthrew, (sentence continues)

15 Et veniunt Hierosolymam. Et cum introisset in templum, coepit eicere vendentes et ementes in templo et mensas nummulariorum et cathedras vendentium columbas evertit;

16 καὶ οὐκ ἤφιεν ἵνα τις διενέγκῃ σκεῦος διὰ τοῦ ἱεροῦ.

And he did not allow that anyone carry vessels through the Temple.

Now, first of all, it’s important to realize that the Temple precinct where this was all going on was enormous. As such, it would be virtually impossible for Jesus to prevent anyone from doing anything throughout the Temple. So this is one subject on which I agree with the QHJ people: this event has gotten blown out of proportion. First, there is no way that Jesus could have disrupted the entire apparatus of buying and selling in the Temple. Second, to do so would have taken a lot muscle power and a lot of time; this time would have ensured that the Temple authorities would have had time to call in the Romans and Jesus likely would have been arrested on the spot.

16 et non sinebat, ut quisquam vas transferret per templum.

17 καὶ ἐδίδασκεν καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐ γέγραπται ὅτι Ὁ οἶκός μου οἶκος προσευχῆς κληθήσεται πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν; ὑμεῖς δὲ πεποιήκατε αὐτὸν σπήλαιον λῃστῶν.

And he taught and said to them, “Is it not written that ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer by all the peoples? But you have made it a cave of thieves’.”

The other thing is that the buying and selling in the Temple was a part–an integral part–of Jewish worship. Animal sacrifice was just part of the fabric of worship. And when people traveled some distance, bringing one’s own animal to sacrifice was not always practicable, so being able to purchase an animal (most often a dove) on the site was a benefit for everyone. And, traveling from other locations often meant different monetary units–i.e., coins of different weights and degrees of silver–which had to be converted. Hence, the money-changers.  So, to some extent, what was Jesus getting so upset about?

It’s often been suggested–by Christian writers–that this represented the transformation from the external worship–animal sacrifice–to a more internalized sense of holiness. If so, then this was a really poor method of introducing this transition. Of course, this then goes back to the fact that we don’t really know what was being said out there while he was teaching all those crowds. It’s possible that he was telling them about the new internalized sense of holiness. It’s possible, but does that really seem likely? Doesn’t this episode seem to lack context?

Recall that at the end of the last section, V-11, Jesus came to the Temple the evening before, left for Bethany, and then returned on this new day. It is possible that what he saw upset him and led him to this outburst. Perhaps that was why he was on edge earlier, to the point that he cursed a fig tree for not having its fruit in season. That he was tense and frustrated and so lashed out at a tree.

It should be noted that the majority of the QHJ people have sort of soured on this external/internal transition idea. They do, however, tend to agree that this was the cause for Jesus being arrested and executed.  This was, they say, the disruption that brought him to the attention of the authorities and led to his arrest. That has a certain level of plausibility to it. In particular, the idea is that Jesus was cutting at their sweet little money-making operation that threatened the cushy gig they had going. Again, this is eminently plausible.

17 Et docebat dicens eis: “ Non scriptum est: “Domus mea domus orationis vocabitur omnibus gentibus”? Vos autem fecistis eam speluncam latronum ”.

18 καὶ ἤκουσαν οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς, καὶ ἐζήτουν πῶς αὐτὸν ἀπολέσωσιν: ἐφοβοῦντο γὰρ αὐτόν, πᾶς γὰρ ὁ ὄχλος ἐξεπλήσσετο ἐπὶ τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ.

And the archpriests and the scribes heard, and the sought (a way) how to kill him, for they feared him, for the crowd was amazed by his teaching.

They were afraid because the crowd was amazed by his teaching. And see V-17, in which Jesus taught them (whether he did this as he was, or after he was done, clearing the Temple). This seems to indicate that, maybe, the religious authorities weren’t so much concerned with the blow that Jesus was trying to deal to their animal-selling  racket; rather, that he represented an existential threat to the religious authorities because he taught something different from them, and that the crowd was wowed by Jesus, while being quite underwhelmed by what they had to say. Sounds completely plausible, and seems to be putting us back onto the external (sacrifice) >>> internal (faith) transition.

But:

The fact is that Mark, writing 40 years later, after pretty much all of the participants in this affair were dead, probably did not have a clue about what the motives of the high priests and other authorities were. How could he have known? Who was his source? It had to be a living person, because it’s not like they kept written records of their meetings. Even if they had, any such records would have been destroyed with the Temple, five years before Mark started writing. OK, there may have been a guy who had known a guy who had been told by one of the scribes, but such a thread of reporting is tenuous at best, especially if Mark was writing somewhere else than in Judea or Galilee. It’s possible–remotely–that if he were writing in, say, Antioch, or Alexandria, that maybe a refugee from the Temple establishment had fled before the Destruction, and passed this story down to a son/grandson, who then passed it on to Mark.

Yes, it’s possible. But we have to remind ourselves how Mark saw his task. He was not trying, or even concerned with trying to write history, in any sense of the way we mean the word. Doing research by cross-questioning participants–as Thucydides said he did–was probably not on his agenda, and digging up written sources from anyone but believers even less so. Mark was writing a gospel, the good news; motivation was, perhaps, important, but, if it was, only peripherally so. Jesus’ conflict with the established religion and/or its authorities is a theme for Mark. By the time he wrote, there was some degree of differentiation between traditional Jews and followers of Jesus, even if those followers had begun life as Jews, which was becoming ever-more unlikely as time passed. More, at the time Mark wrote, there was an incentive to separate themselves as much as possible from Jews because Jews were not high on the Romans’ favourite-ethnic-group list at the time.

Here’s the thing: as mentioned, some, or most, of the QHJ folks believe that Jesus was arrested and executed for some aspect of his teaching; some think this episode was the cause. The problem with both of these hypotheses is that they assume that the reason for Jesus’ arrest and execution had something to do with Jesus and/or his followers. The assumption is that Jesus annoyed the local authorities to the point that they turned Jesus over to Rome to protect their own hides and positions of prominence. I, frankly, do not see the need to believe this. I do not see the need to connect Jesus’ arrest with Jesus’ teaching or actions.

The Romans were not great respecters of what we call human rights. They could–and did–haul people off on the flimsiest of reasons, or for what might appear to be no reason at all. As such, the elaborate charade of the trial before the Sanhedrin and the reluctance of Pilate who passively allowed Jesus to be executed strikes me as not only unnecessary, but unlikely. It strikes me as a means of exculpating the Romans, absolving them of  blame for Jesus’ death by intervening the Jewish authorities. Let’s face it: everyone involved in the passion narrative was dead, and had been dead a generation before Mark wrote. How many people would be able to contradict the story? Especially if Mark wrote somewhere outside of Galilee or Judea? Blame the Jews, absolve the Romans; in the wake of the Jewish Revolt of the 60s CE, this was a very politic stance to take. It was great PR, that would help keep the Romans off your back. 

Jesus’ execution was a source of shame. Pagans hearing the story really looked down on the whole Christian movement because of the shameful nature of the founder’s death. By ascribing the reason for the execution to religious jealousy by Jewish authorities killed several birds with one stone: it distinguished you from the Jews, who were suspect in the Romans’ eyes; it got you off the hook by not blaming the Romans; and it elevated Jesus from being a common criminal to being a religious dissident and martyr. Not bad. We need to remember that Paul barely interested in Jesus at all until he became The Christ by rising from the dead. That Jesus died the death of a common criminal may explain some of Paul’s aversion. Forty years later, excuses could be made and a more attractive narrative invented. And sold.

18 Quo audito, principes sacerdotum et scribae quaerebant quomodo eum perderent; timebant enim eum, quoniam universa turba admirabatur super doctrina eius.

19 Καὶ ὅταν ὀψὲ ἐγένετο, ἐξεπορεύοντο ἔξω τῆς πόλεως.

And when it had become evening, they went out of the city.

Once again, they presumably retired to Bethany.

19 Et cum vespera facta esset, egrediebantur de civitate.

20 Καὶ παραπορευόμενοι πρωῒ εἶδον τὴν συκῆν ἐξηραμμένην ἐκ ῥιζῶν.

And coming by the next morning they saw the fig tree withered from the root.

Definitely back in Bethany. This is the tree that Jesus cursed.

20 Et cum mane transirent, viderunt ficum aridam factam a radicibus.

21 καὶ ἀναμνησθεὶς ὁ Πέτρος λέγει αὐτῷ, Ῥαββί, ἴδε ἡ συκῆ ἣν κατηράσω ἐξήρανται.

And remembering, Peter said to him (Jesus), “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which you cursed has withered.”

This is a blatant exhibition of Jesus’ power over nature. After calming a storm, killing off a tree should be fairly easy. But, what is this story all about? Let’s read on!

21 Et recordatus Petrus dicit ei: “ Rabbi, ecce ficus, cui maledixisti, aruit ”.

22 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἔχετε πίστιν θεοῦ,

And answering, Jesus said to them, “Have faith of  (in) God!” 

??

22 Et respondens Iesus ait illis: “ Habete fidem Dei!

23 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ὃς ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ, Ἄρθητι καὶ βλήθητι εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν, καὶ μὴ διακριθῇ ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ ἀλλὰ πιστεύῃ ὅτι ὃ λαλεῖ γίνεται, ἔσται αὐτῷ.

“Amen I say to you, that he who says to that mountain, ‘Be taken up and be thrown into the sea,’ and who does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will become (will happen), it will be for him (it will happen).”

Faith! This is really interesting, but it should not be as surprising as I find it to be. After all, having faith can cast out demons, or heal people, or even raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead, why should we be surprised that we can will that a mountain be lifted and tossed in the sea? Really, which of those feats is the more difficult? Raising a mountain? Or restoring life? Of course, there is no answer to that, because each is equally impossible for a human, but completely possible for a divine agent.

But what does this really say?  If you think about it, Jesus is basically admitting that he is not necessarily divine. Rather, he is saying that he is simply an agent of the divine, through whom the divine power can work, as it did when the bleeding woman touched the hem of his cloak, healing her, and Jesus felt the power going out of him, as if he were merely a conduit. That is, Jesus is saying that he’s not necessarily any more special than any one of  us could be. “We are stardust/We are golden”. Here again we have a layer to this story that didn’t quite get plastered over. Jesus was not born divine; he became divine, presumably by way of his unconditional and unquestioning faith in God. Through this faith, he has been able to perform any number of wonders, in order to convince his listeners that they could do the same things. That is why the man who was not part of their group was able to cast out a demon in Jesus’ name (9:38), whereas Jesus’ actual disciples were not able to cast out another one (9:28; however, in this latter case, they may not have known the exact procedure).

This is another indication of the ambivalence of Mark’s gospel about Jesus’ divinity. That Matthew and then Luke chose to start the story at the Nativity, and John went back to The Beginning, indicates how the perception of who Jesus was changed and evolved over time. And actually, there wasn’t that much time between Mark and Matthew. Paul never says Jesus was divine from birth; he says Jesus was the Son of God, but then he talked freely of “God our Father”, which necessarily implies that we are all Sons of God.  Yes, Jesus is special, not a mere mortal as we are, but that was because God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus thereby became The Christ.

23 Amen dico vobis: Quicumque dixerit huic monti: “Tollere et mittere in mare”, et non haesitaverit in corde suo, sed crediderit quia, quod dixerit, fiat, fiet ei.

24 διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν, πάντα ὅσα προσεύχεσθε καὶ αἰτεῖσθε, πιστεύετε ὅτι ἐλάβετε, καὶ ἔσται ὑμῖν.

“Because of this, I say to you, all so much that you pray for and ask for, believe that you have received  (it) and it will be (done for) you”. 

Believe that you have received it, and you will. This is pretty powerful stuff. This, honestly, has nothing to do with The Life, or Eternal Life; this is here-and-now stuff, like people who follow Jesus receiving a hundredfold in this season (10:29). This is not the standard message we associate with Christianity; indeed, it’s hard to say how this fits with garden-variety Christianity taught in Sunday schools around the world. I do not know this for certain, but this seems to be an offshoot of earlier Judaism, the school of thought that said Job was favoured by God because Job was wealthy. Such an idea would fit right into pagan thought; in fact, one of the basic ideas of religious sacrifice is ‘do ut des’; this is Latin for “I give (to you = god) so that you give (what I want back to me).”

24 Propterea dico vobis: Omnia, quaecumque orantes petitis, credite quia iam accepistis, et erunt vobis.

25 καὶ ὅταν στήκετε προσευχόμενοι, ἀφίετε εἴ τι ἔχετε κατά τινος, ἵνα καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς ἀφῇ ὑμῖν τὰ παραπτώματα ὑμῶν.

“And when you stand praying, forgive if you have something on someone, so that your father in the heavens will forgive you your transgressions.”

First, sort of a minor thing, but ‘when you stand praying’. We have become accustomed to the idea of kneeling in prayer, but that custom did not become prevalent until the Middle Ages. Second, I rendered it as ‘transgressions’ because this is not the standard word used for ‘sins’, although the Latin word is the standard word for ‘sins’.

Finally, this is sort of a variant of “do ut des”: I forgive, so that you will forgive.

25 Et cum statis in oratione, dimittite, si quid habetis adversus aliquem, ut et Pater vester, qui in caelis est, dimittat vobis peccata vestra ”.

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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 June 9, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Unlike my comment on the previous post, fruit, like figs and olives, were harvested in late summer, unlike cereal grains and legumes, where were harvested around May, near Pentecost. So cuttings of the fields may be more like straw than leaves.

    Regarding the Temple, John the Baptist, Jesus’ mentor, was one of those who rejected the Temple as the center of worship and purity. The Sadducees were the ones who ran the Temple, but notably the Sadducees were not big believers in an afterlife, unlike the Pharisees. The Sadducees would not have cared about all the theology of Jesus that the Pharisees cared about, but they would care about the Temple and were particularly worried about the Romans reactions to problems at the Temple, so they were particularly sensitive to potential problems before they got bigger.

    Money changers were necessary also because payment oriented towards the sacrifices were defined in shekels, if I remember correctly, so they had to be changed.

  2. Yes on the money changers. The offering had to be made in the Hebrew coinage. So the money changers are an accurate detail. And yes, any disturbance at the Temple would have been a big deal. It was a focus of nationalism for the Jews; it was a source of revenue for those running Judea and the Roman occupiers who, of course, got a percentage. So a disturbance there would have been a big deal. As such, I find it increasingly hard to believe that Jesus did this and walked out. Had this happened, my gut inclination is that Jesus–and probably a dozen others–would have been arrested on the spot and dragged off to crucifixion. No trial before Pilate–or anyone else–being necessary. The centurion in charge would have had the power of summary execution.

    As such, I very much doubt this happened. Otherwise, many of those with Jesus would have been arrested and executed, too. The Roman idea was “better to execute a dozen innocent bystanders than to let a single guilty person go free. As such, I don’t think Jesus and most of his followers would have walked away from this. It is possible that this is the reason Jesus was arrested, but given that we are told he went back the next day, I think, makes that unlikely. It is also possible that Jesus protested the commercial activity and was told–in no uncertain terms–to leave. Now. Over time, this could have been inflated to the “Cleansing of the Temple”. Note that in John, Jesus does it twice. Stories do grow.

    And yes on the time of year. Again, if it’s Passover (which makes sense), then it would not be the season for figs. And yes again on the cuttings. But it seems like we might be a bit too early for harvest; early-mid April rather than Pentecost. But again, Mark wasn’t writing history; he would choose his details based on the needs of the story, rather than what was factually accurate.

    And I’m less sure that John was Jesus’ mentor; I think it may have been that Jesus’ later followers wanted to associate Jesus with John as much as possible. John’s role grows with the subsequent gospels; it doesn’t shrink. This tells me that John’s fame was such that the Jesus movement wanted to claim John as their spiritual forebear. So I think this was more of a political move by Mark to exonerate the Romans and implicate the Jewish rulers. This motive would be strengthened if Mark were writing for a largely pagan audience rather than a primarily Jewish one.

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