Authority: something new

Jesus-in-Capernaum-SynagogueThe word kainos is not restricted as a reference something that did not exist before, e.g., the new teaching was something unheard of before. It can also refer to something that is “fresh”. Brian Stoffregen recounts this gem: “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, contains this wonderful story (51): 

“Usually the orthodox rabbis of Europe boasted distinguished rabbinical genealogies, but Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce was an exception. He was the son of a simple baker and he inherited some of the forthright qualities of a man of the people.

“Once, when a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When Rabbi Yechiel’s turn came, he replied gravely, “In my family, I’m the first eminent ancestor.”

“His colleagues were shocked by this piece of impudence, but said nothing. Immediately after, the rabbis began to expound Torah. Each one was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.

“One after another the rabbis delivered their learned dissertations. At last it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, “My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning.”

“And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down.”

An Unclean Spirit. In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit (v. 23). Strangely the NAB does not translate euthys – the first word in the sentence The verse calls for a rendering of a sudden entrance into the synagogue and that person is possessed by an unclear spirit. It almost sounds like he just appeared there. Was he part of the crowd listening to Jesus’ teaching who suddenly stood up and cried out? Did he come in off of the street?

In any case, suddenly, we have the “holy one of God” on the holy day (sabbath) in the holy place (synagogue) meeting an “unclean spirit.” What was an unclean spirit/person doing in the synagogue on the Sabbath? The man’s personality had been damaged to the point that the demonic power had usurped the center of his self, and spoke through him. The disturbance which Jesus brings was expressed in the excited response of this man, who sensed in Jesus a threat to his very existence. His cry of terror, expressed in v. 24, is laden with the language of defense and resistance. The demoniac does not confess the dignity of Jesus, but uses the accepted terms of opposition in the attempt to disarm him. The initial expression is a common formula in the OT within the context of combat or judgment, and is roughly equivalent to “you have no business with us—yet.” See, e.g. Judg. 11:12; 2 Sam. 16:10; 19:22; 1 Kings 17:18; 2 Kings 3:13; 2 Chron. 35:21; Isa. 3:15; 22:1; Jer. 2:18; or Hos. 14:9

While the NAB translates what follows as a question, other translations hold that it is not a question but a declaration: “You have come to destroy us.” The note of conflict implied is important, for the demonic power understands more clearly than the people the decisive significance of the presence of Jesus. In the question “What have you to do with us?” it is natural to find a reference to all of the demonic powers who shall be destroyed by Jesus.

However, Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) offers a different interpretation: “Upon whose behalf is the demon pleading? It can only be the group already identified in the conflict theme – the scribal aristocracy whose space (social role and power) Jesus is threatening.” [p. 142] So, it is also distinctly possible that the demoniac identifies himself with the people present and speaks from their perspective – this regards the agitation of the demon in the light of the dismay and turmoil in the synagogue. Jesus’ presence entails the danger of judgment for all present.

Notes

Mark 1:23 unclean spirits: pneumati akathartos – a common Jewish expression for a demon. In Mark, his usage seems point to a thematic use: “that opposed to the holy.”

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