Authority: in teaching

Jesus-in-Capernaum-SynagogueMark 1:21–34 appear to be intended by Mark to represent the activity of a single day, or of two days if judged by the Jewish perspective that a new day begins with sunset. Jesus’ sabbath activity includes teaching, exorcism and healing. In comprehensive fashion the acts of God are initiated by Jesus, restoring men to wholeness, but in a manner which occasions both excitement and alarm. The continuation of the four fishermen with Jesus is indicated by the plural form “they came to Capernaum.” This is confirmed by Mark 1:29 where Jesus and the four enter the house of Simon and Andrew; it is probable that Capernaum was the town in which all four fishermen lived.

Teaching and Authority. Mark concentrates upon a single Sabbath when Jesus’ synagogue teaching provoked a reaction from the people present. The two words that describe the people’s reactions are: ekplessomai (v. 22) and thambeo (v. 27) – “astounded” and “amazed.” The first term, more literally means “be besides oneself” – or in the slang, “to be blown away!” It comes from something that is so incomprehensible that one’s mind can’t fathom what has been experienced. These are not terms of faith. In Mark, miracles never produce proper faith.

What is it about Jesus that amazed them? A number of related possibilities exist in our text: his new teaching, his authority, the way he related to the man with the unclean spirit, or he commands and the spirit obeys. The evangelist has no immediate interest in the precise content of Jesus’ message; its general thrust is sufficiently indicated by Mark 1:15 which summarizes Jesus’ proclamation during this initial phase of the Galilean ministry. His primary emphasis is on the authority of Jesus’ teaching and the response of the people, whose astonishment conveys the impression of real alarm. Jesus’ word, presented with a sovereign authority which permitted neither debate nor theoretical reflection, confronted the people with the absolute claim of God upon their whole person. Jesus’ teaching recalled the categorical demand of the prophets rather than scribal tradition.

The word used for “authority” (exousia) is normally explained as “power.” However, its primary meaning is “freedom.” In the LXX the use of the word implies the “unrestricted sovereignty of God.” The life of Jesus is characterized by exousia (freedom; ability; power; authority) in numerous ways: his teaching is distinguished by its authority before the scribes, as Mark affirms, but Matthew demonstrates, with the Sermon on the Mount. The opponents of Jesus ask him both about the right (authority) of forgiving sins which in Judaism is reserved to God alone and about his right to cleanse the temple.

But that is not the only distinction between Jesus’ teaching and the scribe’s teaching. The difference is also described as “new (kainos) teaching,” v. 27. Scribes (grammateus) were originally the people who copied the scriptures. They became experts in the law (or “lawyers”). There is a sense that their authority came from their detailed understanding of scriptures and tradition. Richard Jensen (Preaching Mark’s Gospel, 48) describes this contrast in authority: “Scribal authority was based on their ability to recite the opinion of many Rabbis on a given topic. Jesus’ word had authority because when he spoke, it came to pass.” Williamson (Mark, 50) says it a little differently:

They [the scribes] taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means. Furthermore, his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes.

Something Prophetic. William Lane offers an interesting distinction in the way to consider the idea of “authority.”

“It has been argued that the contrast expressed between authoritative and scribal teaching implies that Jesus “taught with Rabbinic authority, and not like those who were unordained.” On this understanding the authority of an ordained rabbi to proclaim decisions is opposed to that of inferior teachers who could appeal only to the chain of tradition passed on from one informant to another. This view fails to appreciate the more-than-prophetic note which is present in Mark’s account where the accent falls upon the alarm occasioned by Jesus’ teaching. The authority in view is not merely the power to decide, but to compel decision. In contrast with rabbinic exposition, with its reference to the tradition of the elders, here was prophecy. The authority with which Jesus spoke presupposes a commission and authorization from God inseparable from the proclamation of the kingdom drawn near. In the presence of Jesus men are disturbed, and this disturbance is the precise act of fishing to which Jesus had called the four fishermen.” [72-73]

Notes

Mark 1:21 Capernaum: Identified with the ruins at Tel Hûm on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum is one of the few sites specified by Mark as a center of Jesus’ preaching and healing activity. After Jesus began his ministry, he moved to Capernaum. Capernaum had a synagogue which had been built with the sponsorship of the local centurion (Luke 7:2–5). While in Capernaum, Jesus healed several people and taught in the synagogue. The city, however, eventually received a scathing denunciation when Jesus condemned its stubbornness as worse than Sodom’s (Matt 11:23–24). [AYBD 866]

Mark 1:22 astonished: ekplēssomai – Mark employs a variety of terms to express the astonishment of the multitude and the disciples at the word and deed of Jesus. The response to Jesus’ words and deeds has overtones of fear and alarm; it reflects an awareness of the disturbing character of his presence. authority: exousia   freedom; ability; power; authority [EDNT 2:9]

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