1.1. THE PHARISEES The Pharisees were those who observed God’s law to the minimum details. They believed that the Kingdom of God would come when the people observed the law perfectly. They were very spiritual people, but not very practical. They hated the Romans, but the only strategy they proposed to overcome them was to observe all the commandments to the letter. This kind of attitude did not make the Roman Empire stumble or fall. The Pharisees shared the problems and difficulties of the poor and oppressed people, but did not do anything to solve their tragic social situation. The land owners had taken away most of the land of Galilee, the richest region, and the poor had nothing to eat. That is why some people went to the mountains and joined bands of thieves. In the present situation, the Pharisees used to say: “Do not worry; let’s be good and follow the law, then God will solve the other problems of life”. This was the attitude of the Pharisees: spiritual people, very religious, but no practical commitment to solve the social problems of simple people. These were the spiritual guides of the people! They were not rich; many had a normal job, and propose themselves as models to imitate by the simple people of Galilee if they wanted to be perfect. They considered themselves superior to others. That is why Jesus accused them of being “hypocrites”. 1.2. THE SADDUCEES The Sadducees had the political and economic power. This party was formed by members of the rich families both civil and religious. They were not interested in the kingdom of God or in the coming of the Messiah. Their only worry was to keep their social status and have the respect of the Romans. Therefore, every change in society was dangerous in their eyes, and did not doubt in using violent means against their countrymen when they provoked rebellions, revolts, or disturbed the peace somewhere.


Obviously, the simple people did not connect with them, but still respected them because they gave the impression of observing the law. They had the majority in the Sanhedrim (council), which helped them to impose their ideology, based on the political and economic interest of the Romans. Therefore, the people could not see any way out of their miserable situation. If they needed courage to fight the Romans, they needed more to confront the political and religious authorities. This group also opposed the Pharisees. 1.3. THE ZEALOTS The Zealots (= zealous), like their name indicates, was a party formed by observant and devout Jews who wanted to accelerate the coming of the Kingdom of God by fighting the Romans with the sword. In the mountains of Galilee they used the guerrilla strategy to fight the Romans. In Jerusalem, during the main feasts, they would hide among the crowds to kill Roman soldiers and also Jews accused of collaborating with the Romans. To do that, they used a short curved knife called “sica” that could be hidden easily under the clothes. For them, it was a “holy war” against the invaders. This war was started by human hands, but God would intervene through the Messiah to finish it and liberating them from the slavery of the Romans and the corrupted Jews in the government. Many simple people sympathized with them because they offered a way out to change the present situation. The Zealots belonged to the lowest class, the simple and oppressed people. Apart from the holy war, they also proposed a social revolution for improving the life of the poor. That is why during the war they burnt the archives with people’s debts which were in Jerusalem. They also proposed a political revolution, substituting the authorities who were corrupted or collaborated with the Roman with others worried about the needs of the simple people. 1.4. THE ESSENES The group of the Essenes does not appear in the New Testament. They left the public society and went to the desert of Qumran to expend their life in prayer and religious meditation. This movement had no political ideology and refused any public activity in the country. They believed that the present situation of Roman oppression was caused by their unfaithfulness to God’s law. That is why they returned to the desert and broke up with political and religious institutions of Israel: the Temple, the priests, the authorities. 2

They were convinced that the only remedy to their suffering was returning to the strict observation of the Law, the life of prayer, and the study of the Torah. They called themselves “the chosen ones”, the true people of Israel who will inherit God’s promises. They had a good internal organization and several ceremonies and rituals. They lived an ascetic life and many of them did not marry voluntarily (celibate). They believed in the idea of the “holy war” even though they did not participate actively. They wrote an essay about it where it is said that the Messiah would lead the army, play the trumpets, and win over the gentiles and oppressors. It was the dream of the oppressed people of Israel. 2. THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS IN MARK’S GOSPEL In Mark’s gospel, Jesus always appears in conflict with the religious leaders. Mark defines them as “people who think according to human standards and forget to think according to God’s will or standards”. These are the groups that form the religious authorities in the gospel: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, the scribes, and the members of the Sanhedrin. They all are well-known in Jewish history, except the Herodians. At Jesus’ time, the Pharisees (liberal group) and the Sadducees (conservative group) were in permanent conflict. We already know who they are, so now we are going to present the other groups mentioned in Mark’s gospel. The High Priests: They were the highest religious authority in Israel. They all belonged to the tribe of Levi (from Aaron) and inherited their position. Their responsibility was to take care of the Temple of Jerusalem and organize the system of the sacrifices. The scribes (Hebrew “sopherim”): They were experts in the Law of Moses (Torah); they copied and explained it. At Jesus’ time, they were very influential and powerful in Jerusalem (Temple). They had three distinctive functions: 1) Preserve the Law of Moses (Torah) and its right interpretation: they also wrote down practical rules to apply the law to their daily lives; 2) Gather many students and teach them the law; 3) They were in charge of the administration of the law as judges in the Sanhedrin (Mt 22:35; Mk 14:43; Lk 22:66; Acts 4:5) and were called “lawyers or teachers of the law”.




The members of the Sanhedrin: They were rich and powerful men from the aristocratic families in Israel. They formed the Great Sanhedrin. This council was formed by 71 members, including the High Priest, president of the assembly, and some influent scribes. They were the domestic government of Judea and had authority to deal with matters regarding religion, justice, and economy. They gathered in a room located in the Temple area. However, the final decision in all the matters depended on the Roman prefect, (in our case, Pilate). The Herodians: There is no information about this group. The only thing we can say for sure is that they were agents or supporters of Herod Antipas (8:15), the son of Herod the Great and governor of Galilee and Perea, who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist (6:14-29). Therefore, Herod Antipas was also a threat to Jesus and his disciples. In fact, the Herodians and the Pharisees put Jesus to the test and plot his killing (3:6; 12:13). That is why Jesus warns his disciples about Herod’s bad influence.


The scribes (many of them Pharisees) and the Pharisees are the most dangerous adversaries of Jesus in the first part of the gospel. After entering Jerusalem and the Temple, the adversaries will be the High Priest and the members of the Sanhedrin (14:10-11). Despite these differences, we could say that the religious leaders work as a team in order to put an end to Jesus’ life.

3.1. A CONFLICT ABOUT JESUS’ AUTHORITY (1:14-8:26) The religious authorities believe that they were chosen by God to be the leaders and the guardians of the people of Israel. Because they are God’s agents, their teachings about the Law and the traditions are true and must be obeyed. To act against them is to act against God; to challenge their teachings and authority is to urge Israel to abandon God’s kingdom and teachings. For this reason, Jesus is a great threat to them. He questions the authority of their leadership and puts in danger the spiritual well-being of the people of Israel. From this perspective, the conflict or controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders is unavoidable.


The reason of the conflict: “His teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority” (1:22). The normal activity of Jesus is teaching and he is often called “teacher” or “rabbi” by his disciples, foreigners, and his adversaries: 4:38; 9:5.17.38; 10:; 11:21; 12:14.19.32; 13:1; 14:45. Jesus’ teachings have divine authority, come from God, while the scribes’ teachings are just human words invented by men. Jesus is always right because he “thinks the way God does”; instead, the leaders are always wrong because they “think the way humans do”. The intensification of the conflict: Once we know the problem, the conflict becomes more intense and direct against Jesus and his disciples. See the following passages: A. The healing of a paralytic (2:1-12): “Now some scribes were sitting there, and they thought to themselves, how can this man talk like that? He is being blasphemous. Who but God can forgive sins?” • In the Jewish mentality, sickness could be the consequence of sins (see Luke 13:3-5 and John 9:1-2.34). Therefore, Jesus by forgiving his sins is trying to heal the whole person (his body and his soul). The scribes think Jesus is guilty of blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. He is pretending to be God or have his authority.

B. Jesus eats with sinners (2:15-17): “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw him eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? When Jesus heard this he said to them: It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. I came to call not the upright, but sinners”. • According to the Jewish traditions, whoever eats with sinners becomes an unclean or impure person (the example of the apples). Sinners mix with the gentiles, do not observe God’s law, and have dishonest professions. Therefore, the scribes of the Pharisees do not understand Jesus’ behavior. Jesus answers with a Jewish saying: the sick need a doctor, not the healthy. During those meals with sinners, Jesus offers them God’s forgiveness and invites them to live in the kingdom of God by repenting from their sins.


C. The disciples of Jesus do not fast (2:18-20): “John’s disciples and the Pharisees were keeping a fast, when some people came and said: Why is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?” • The Jews were required to fast at least once a year during the Day of Atonement (Hebrew, “Yom Kippur”; see Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:27-32): they repent from their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. The Pharisees and other charismatic individuals thought that if fasting once a year was good, twice a week was even better (Mondays and Thursdays). Why did they fast? Fasting was a time to focus on God’s help and guidance, to grief for their sins, and to be humble before God. It was the best way to renew their relationship with God (see Isaiah 58:3-7 about true fasting). Why Jesus’ disciples do not fast? Jesus explains it with the parable of the wedding, the new cloth on the old cloak, the new wine in the old wineskins. The religious leaders are the old and they must leave space for the new: Jesus and the kingdom of God. This is good news, like a wedding, so it is time for celebration, joy, and happiness… The only time for fasting is when Jesus will die on the cross, but only until he rises from the dead.

D. The disciples of Jesus break the Sabbath law by working on their holy day (2:23-28): “It happened that one Sabbath day he was taking a walk through the grain fields, and his disciples began to make a path by plucking ears of grain. And the Pharisees said to him: Look, why are they doing something on the Sabbath day that is forbidden?” • The disciples are accused of working (plucking the ears of grain) during the Sabbath day even though the Law (Torah) says that they have to rest. Jesus defends the disciples with two answers: 1) Taking the example of David and his men, Jesus says that in special circumstances human needs (hunger) are more important than the law; 2) The Sabbath was made for men, not men for the Sabbath; furthermore, Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath: he has the authority to allow his disciples to do whatever they want on their holy day; he has the power to change the rules for that day.


E. Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath day (3:1-6): “They were watching him to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath day, hoping for something to charge him with… The Pharisees went out and began at once to plot with the Herodians against him, discussing how to destroy him”. • • • According to the Law, healing this man on the Sabbath day was forbidden because his life was not in danger and he could be cured another day. Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law: it is very strict and lacks of love and compassion. Jesus instead does what is good: he heals the man. In the end, these two groups are evil and have hardened their hearts (3:4-5) because they use the Sabbath day to do evil by plotting to kill Jesus (3:4.6); on the other hand, Jesus uses it to do good by healing a sick person. From this context, the conflict between Jesus and his adversaries is a conflict to the death.

F. Jesus and Beelzebul (3:22-30): “The scribes who had come down from Jerusalem were saying: Beelzebul is in him, and, it is through the prince of devils that he drives devils out…” • • The scribes declare to the crowd that Jesus’ authority comes from Beelzebul, the prince of demons. He is possessed by demons. Jesus shows them that their accusation makes no sense: if Satan is divided against himself, certainly his end is very near; he cannot survive (other examples: the kingdom and the family). Jesus’ exorcisms show the opposite: In God’s name, he has defeated Satan and has liberated the people from his power. Therefore, the scribes must be very careful with what they say because attributing Jesus’ exorcisms to Beelzebul and not to God is an insult to the Holy Spirit. Besides, this kind of insult is the only sin that God will never forgive.

• •

G. The disciples of Jesus eat without washing their hands (7:1-13): “The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round him and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them… Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?”


• •

The disciples are accused of not following the “traditions of their ancestors” because they do not wash their hands before eating. Using the prophecy of Isaiah 29:13, Jesus accuses the Pharisees and the scribes of being hypocrites: “You put aside the commandment of God to observe human traditions”. In order to prove this, Jesus gives them an example: God commands to honor father and mother (Exodus 20:12). This means that children are obliged to take care of their needy parents; however, if children wanted to avoid this obligation, the Pharisees and the scribes allowed them to make the “vow of donation to the Temple”: they declare that the money that should be given to the parents is an offering to God; in that way they can keep the money for their use.

H. The Pharisees ask for a sign from heaven (8:11-13): “The Pharisees came up and started a discussion with him; they demanded of him a sign from heaven, to put him to the test. And with a profound sigh he said: Why does this generation demand a sign? In truth I tell you, no sign shall be given to this generation…” • • • The Pharisees want Jesus to show them a sign from heaven to prove that his authority comes from God. Jesus refuses to perform any sign because they already have his teachings and his miracles (exorcisms and healings). Later, Jesus tells his disciples to beware about the doctrines and bad intentions of the Pharisees and the Herodians (8:15).

3.2. A CONFLICT IN THE TEMPLE (8:27-13:37) In the second part of the gospel, Mark describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his passion, death, and resurrection. We are informed that Jesus is fully aware of his future destiny through the three predictions of his passion. A. Marriage and divorce (10:1-12): “Some Pharisees approached him and asked: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? They were putting him to the test”.


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Moses allowed them to divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1) because of the hardness of their hearts, but in God’s original project, at the time of creation, it was forbidden to divorce (Genesis 2:23-24). Jesus goes even further: to divorce is forbidden; if anyone divorces and marries again, commits adultery. This episode is more a teaching to the disciples about marriage and divorce than a Pharisee’s controversy against the Jesus.

B. The cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19): “This came to the ears of the chief priests and the scribes, and they tried to find some way of doing away with him; they were afraid of him because the people were carried away by his teaching”. • Jesus entered the Temple area and drove out the men buying and selling there. He also declared that God’s house, the place of prayer for all peoples, has become a bandits’ den. At first sight, it seems that Jesus’ actions only attempt to destroy the system of sacrifices in the Temple. But, deep inside, Jesus is accusing the religious leaders of using the Temple for making money, business, and other corrupt practices. For this reason, the chief priests and the scribes seek a way to kill him; they see in him a great threat to their power and social status. For now they can do nothing to stop him because they are afraid of the crowd that enjoys his teachings.

C. The authority of Jesus is questioned (11:27-33): “They came to Jerusalem again, and as Jesus was walking in the Temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him: What authority have you for acting like this? Or who gave you authority to act like this?” • They are not only talking about the cleansing of the Temple, but also about all the public activity of Jesus. Where does his authority come from? Jesus makes fun of the leaders by answering the question with another question: Was John’s baptism from heaven or just human? They are trapped: if they say it was from heaven, they will be accused of not accepting it; if they say it was human, the crowd will move against them because they believe he was a prophet sent by God.


Because the leaders did not answer Jesus’ question, Jesus did not answer their question either; however, he gave them a hidden answer in the parable of the wicked tenants (12:1-12): God is the owner of the vineyard and Jesus is the son; the tenants are the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders who kill the son. Therefore, Jesus is the Son of God, who acts with his authority, and the leaders will put him to death on the cross.

D. Paying taxes to the Emperor (12:13-17): “They sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to catch him out in what he said. These came and said to him: … Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or not?” • This is another trap: if Jesus says “yes”, he is telling them to pay money to the Roman oppressors and put Caesar in a higher place than God; if he says “no”, the Romans may think that he is rebel and put him in prison. Using a coin with the image of Caesar, Jesus escapes the trap saying: “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God”. Since they have coins of Caesar, it means that they accept him as their Emperor, but they cannot forget that God has authority over them and Caesar.

E. The question about the resurrection (12:18-27): “Then some Sadducees – who deny that there is resurrection – came to him and they put this question to him: Master, Moses prescribed for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, the man must marry the widow to raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers… none of them left any children. Last of all the woman herself died. Now at the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be, since she had been married to all the seven?” • The Sadducees pretend to ridicule the idea of the resurrection by using the Law of Moses about the “levirate marriage” (Deuteronomy 25:5-10): the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow in order to give him descendants. Jesus accuses them of ignoring the meaning of the Scriptures as well as the power of God. In the resurrection, there is not marriage, they will be like angels in heaven; furthermore, God said to Moses that he is the God of the living, not of the dead: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have


died, but they live with God forever (Ex 3:6). In other words, they do not know anything about the resurrection. 3.3. A CONFLICT THAT LEADS TO JESUS’ DEATH (14:1-16:8) The passion narrative of Mark’s gospel offers the final solution to the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders: Jesus’ death and resurrection. The feast of the Passover is near; the chief priests and the scribes are seeking a way to arrest and put Jesus to death (14:1). In order to succeed, the religious leaders are willing to do anything: use lies, trickery, false witnesses and accusations, deceive the crowd… - They promise Judas some money for Jesus’ head (14:10-11). - They send a crowd with weapons and Judas to arrest him (14:43-49). - During the trial, they use false witnesses to accuse him, but Jesus keeps silent (14:55-61). - During Pilate’s questioning, they accuse Jesus of many false things, probably acts of rebellion against Caesar (15:1-5). - Pilate knows about Jesus’ innocence and wants to free him by letting the crowd choose him over Barabbas, an assassin, but the leaders manipulate the crowd to free Barabbas and crucify Jesus (15:6-15). At Jesus’ trial, the true reason for the crucifixion is given: “The High Priest put a second question to him saying: Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One? I am, Jesus said, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven. The High Priest tore his robes and said: What need of witnesses have we now? You heard the blasphemy. What is your finding? Their verdict was unanimous: he deserved to die” (14:61-64). When Jesus was hanging on the cross, the religious leaders make fun of him by calling him Messiah and King of Israel; he saved other people, but he cannot save himself (15:31-32). This is the last time the leaders appear in the gospel of Mark. In their view, the crucifixion shows that Jesus’ authority does not come from God and that they are the winners of the conflict. They are fulfilling God’s will by killing Jesus because his is an agent of Satan and a threat for the existence and unity of Israel: he deceives the crowd with his words and actions, he does not follow the Law of Moses and the traditions of their ancestors, and he threats to destroy the Temple. In Mark’s view, the religious authorities by opposing Jesus are acting against God’s will and therefore they are condemned to disappear 11

(12:9). The resurrection of Jesus shows that God is the winner of the conflict and that Jesus acts with divine authority. The death of Jesus was the way to save mankind from sin and everlasting death. Therefore, Jesus, through his death and resurrection, becomes the way to salvation (there is no need for the Temple anymore) and the founder of the eschatological people of God. Consequently, the cross is not the symbol of Jesus’ destruction, but of the salvation of humankind. However, the final resolution of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders will happen when he will come back again at the end of time. Then, Jesus will come to judge all peoples, including the religious leaders who sentenced him to death. At that specific moment, they will realize that Jesus was right and they were totally wrong.

The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders is one of the key themes of Mark’s gospel. It is present from the beginning to the end. The root of this conflict is the authority of Jesus. Mark presents Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God who brings his kingdom to the world and acts with his authority. Jesus always thinks according to God’s plan. On the other side, the religious leaders do not have God’s authority because they think like humans do (the only exception seems to be the “good scribe” in 12:28-34). The conflict becomes more intense with the passing of the chapters. In the first part of the gospel, Jesus is often accused of blaspheming, not following the Law of Moses and the traditions of their ancestors. This is their way to show that his authority does not come from God, but from the devil himself. We must remember that the first and the last accusation against Jesus in the gospel are of blaspheming against God (2:1-12 and 14:61-64). In the second part of the gospel, most of the controversies take place in the Temple (see 11:27-12:34). The Temple is the house of God and the place of government for the religious authorities. In this environment, the conflicts become more hostile and since the leaders cannot defeat Jesus with words, they try to arrest him and put him to death. The passion narrative shows that the only way the leaders can get rid off Jesus is by using Judas, telling lies, giving false accusations, manipulating the crowd, and deceiving Pilate. In their eyes, Jesus must die because he acts with devil’s power, separates the crowd from the true teachers, and acts against the Law, the traditions, and the 12

Temple. In fact, Jesus’ death on the cross is the confirmation that they were right about him and his authority. However, God intervenes in Jesus’ favor by resurrecting him from the death, showing that the leaders were wrong all the way and that Jesus is truly the Messiah and the Son of God; His authority comes from God. Furthermore, through Jesus’ death, we are saved from sin and everlasting death. Jesus becomes the way to salvation and the founder of the new people of God, his holy nation. At the end to time, Jesus, the Son of God, will come again to gather the chosen ones and decide the destiny of humankind. At that moment, the religious leaders will witness personally the true essence and identity of Jesus: the Messiah, the Son of God who brings his kingdom to the world and acts with his authority.


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