Summary: Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we see a growing opposition to Jesus from the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of the day. To understand that, we need to look at the religious landscape Jesus ministered in
Jesus, the Rebel With a Cause
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we see a growing opposition to Jesus from the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of the day. To understand that, we need to look at the religious landscape Jesus ministered in. In Jesus’ time, there were three sects of Jews and then the rest of the population. Through the Gospel account, we find that Jesus is in conversation with these three groups. Most of what Jesus taught was not new but were elements taken from each of these three groups. So while Jesus started in conversation with these groups, each of them felt threatened by Him and moved the conversations to confrontations. But who were these groups?
The Essenes are not directly mentioned in the Gospels but certainly referred to. They were a very small monastic group which emphasized separating from the evil in society, either in monastic communities or communities of faith in towns across Israel. They also separated themselves from Temple worship because they believed the priests of the Temple were corrupted and thus their leadership in worship was illegitimate. Some scholars believe that Nazareth may well have been an Essene community meaning Jesus either had close contact with them or direct participation. Jesus’ conflict with them was that they removed themselves from the unclean rather than help them to be clean.
The Sadducees were a group of priests from the tribe of Levi and were the wealthy upper class and educated elite who were the priests and scribes. They comprised approximately 10% of the population of Israel, about 50,000 people. They oversaw Temple worship which was the center of Judaism. They believed when you came to God, you came to the Temple and brought your sacrifices. They were the most conservative of the Jews meaning the kept to the oldest of traditions. They looked at the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament as the only inspired Word of God. They had great respect for the rest of the Scriptures but the laws they followed were only in the first five books. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or the afterlife because it was not mentioned in the Law of Moses. And so everything they believed and every practice of their faith was grounded in the first 5 books. The Sadducees had the most to lose because of Jesus. Jesus’ growing influence and following among the general population jeopardized not only their influence on the religious life of Israel, but also the support of the Romans who ruled through the Sadducees to keep peace among the people.
On the other end of the spectrum were the Pharisees whose name means the “called out ones” or “set apart ones.” There were approximately 6000 Pharisees in Israel in Jesus’ time, roughly 1% of the population, and many of them resided in Jerusalem and in and around the Sea of Galilee. They were the most prominent of the religious sect of Jesus’ day in terms of their influence over the general population, in part because they too came from the lower class.
While the Sadducees ruled over the temple, the Pharisees were the leaders of the synagogue, the place where the majority of Jews went for worship, study of the Hebrew Scriptures and discussion of how to apply them to life. They were lay teachers of the law and their made emphasis was on holiness which meant strict fulfillment of the law. They accepted the entire Old Testament as the word of God and believed in a number of things like angels and demons and even life after death. The remnants of the Pharisees remain today in Orthodox Judaism. They are the only sect to survive because when the Temple was destroyed so were the Sadducees and the Essenes’ monastic communities were destroyed in Rome’s suppression of the rebellion of Israel in 68 AD. Though Jews today would not consider themselves Pharisees, they are greatly impacted by them and their heritage.
Now the Pharisees emphasized strict adherence to the 613 laws of Moses. To be righteous before God, you have to make sure that people don’t unintentionally violate any of the laws. So they created a set of rules around the Law, called the oral law or mishnah, which acted as a hedge of protection so people wouldn’t violate the Law. When commentary was added to the rules and written down, it become known as the Talmud. For example, take the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath holy which said you shall not do any work on the Sabbath. But what really qualifies as work? The oral law clarified what work was. They came up with 39 different categories which could be construed as work and in each of those categories, there were dozens of rules which defined what work was which violated the Sabbath. So now instead of there being 613 laws, there are 1000’s of rules on top of it. One example was that a tailor was not to carry a needle with them on the Sabbath because that was a tool of their trade and thus considered work to carry it. Another rule was not to walk more than 2000 cubits or 3000 feet on the Sabbath. Food cannot be prepared on the Sabbath. Today Orthodox Jews have their own Sabbath rules which include not driving a car, riding a motorcycle or a bike or even turning a light switch on or off. So the oral law acted as a fence to protect you from breaking the law.