Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Question Asked and Answered

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,  they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;  and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)  So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" (Mark 7:1-5 NRSV)

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" (Mark 13:1-4 NRSV)

Both of these passages introduce a lengthy dialogue/discourse by Jesus to address the question asked. The dialogue is a very common form used by Gospel writers to gather and express the memory of the sayings of Jesus on a specific topic.

"Dialogue" may be too strong of a word here, inferring an on-going verbal exchange - a back-and-forth communication between teacher and students - as clearly seen between Socrates and his pupils in Plato's  "Dialogues."

Regarding "Dialogue Gospels," Helmut Koester in his Ancient Christian Gospels writes

"Questions and answers in the dialogue are usually quite brief, some units comprising only one question by one of the . . .disciples (sometimes by 'all' the disciples) and an answer from the Lord in the form of a saying. . . . A traditional saying may constitute the final answer; but sayings are also used in the formulation of the disciple's question, while the answer given by the Lord is actually a secondary interpretation posed by the understanding of the saying that was quoted at the beginning of such a dialogue unit."

The most common structure of the Gospel "dialogues" is very simple. (1) Jesus says or does something not completely understood by his audience. (2) In response, the audience - either collectively or through the voice of one of its members - questions or comments about the meaning of the word or action of Jesus. (3) In turn, Jesus offers an explanation of his words or actions. Sometimes this response goes into great detail (as in Mark 7 and 13) and sometimes it consists only of a single explanatory - even dismissive - statement.

In John's Gospel, we witness a number of full-blown dialogues with give-and-take interactions between Jesus and his audience. Both types of dialogues can be seen in the later non-canonical Gospels. The simple "question-answer" form is found throughout the Gospel of Thomas, while more participatory dialogues are found in the Dialogue of the Savior and the Apocryphon of James.


So much for the history lesson. What does this have to do with the way we interpret these passages today?

Here is a modest proposal for interpreting Gospel dialogues. TAKE THE QUESTION SERIOUSLY. The answers Jesus gave were not given in a vacuum. His answers address the specific questions asked and, therefore, should be interpreted accordingly.

Look at the passages I quoted above.

Commentators have gone to great lengths to see Mark 7 as the rejection of the Torah (the Mosaic law) by Jesus and all subsequent Christians. But the Pharisees' question was not about Torah observance - a commitment that they shared with Jesus and his disciples.  Rather the question is about obeying the "traditions of the fathers" - the "oral Torah" that collected the interpretations and expansions of the Mosaic law by Jewish teachers down through the years. To read the passage to say that Jesus attacked Torah observance is to miss the point altogether. The answer that Jesus gave directly related to the question asked.

Similarly, there is a world of silly end time speculation that arises from modern interpretations of Mark 13 (and its parallel passages in Matthew 24-25 and Luke 17 and 21). The question Jesus is addressing in Mark 13 regards his prediction of the destruction of the Jewish temple (which took place in AD 70). The small group of disciples asked about the timing of this destruction ("when will this be") and the events leading up to this disaster ("and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished"). To project the answers given by Jesus to these very specific questions on the distant future or even on modern times fails to realize the correspondence between the questions asked and the answers given. Hearing his answer as a direct response to the question regarding the temple's destruction (AD 70) is the only way to make sense of his concluding remark.

Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. (Mark 13:30)

In both Mark 7 and Mark 13, a question is asked and answered. Our guide to interpret the dialogues of Jesus should be to pay attention to the question he is asked and to understand his answer in the context of the question.


  1. Joe, to what would you ascribe the human tendency to remove that which is being communicated from the context in which it was given? By all appearances this tendency is not unique to scriptural interpretation. Human experience would lead one to find this in a variety of situations and circumstances. If so, it is assumed such would lead to various consequences. Is there a methodology by which these potential results can be accounted for and if need be, avoided?

  2. Good question, Bryan. I think we are all a little narcissistic at heart. There certainly is a tendency to want to interpret important matters as if they pertain directly - and maybe only - to us.

    But Christianity is a historic faith. Whatever a biblical passage might mean to us and/or about us, we must first let it speak to its original audience. The trick is to hear its original message clearly and then to ask how this message continues to speak to our changing historical circumstances.

    This type of shifting interpretation is already clear in the pages of the New Testament regarding the question about the temple's destruction raised in Mark 13. Written a few decades after Mark, Matthew's Gospel - which clearly uses Mark as its primary source - recasts the disciples' question about the timing and signs of the impending destruction of the temple into two rather distinct questions: one regarding the timing of the temple's destruction and the second regarding the coming of the Son of man and the end of the age - as if these are separate events.

    Has Matthew abandoned Mark's meaning? Has he completely reframed the disciples' questions and thus changed the meaning of the answers Jesus provides? Yes and no.

    It seems to me that the world changed in the few years between the writings of Mark and Matthew. It is quite possible that Mark wrote before the temple's destruction in AD 70 and Matthew wrote after this disastrous event. Mark's Gospel connects the temple's destruction with the coming of the Son of Man as a single event. But from Matthew's perspective, the temple already lays destroyed, but the Son of Man has not yet appeared and the end of the age has not come.

    With the passing of time and the fall of the Jerusalem temple, many of the later NT writers struggle with the delay of the parousia (the coming of the Son of man) and the eschaton (the end of the age). Mathew reports these saying of Jesus - taken from Mark 13 - from within the context of his (Matthew's) own circumstances. Remember: history-writing tells us about both the events of the past and the contemporary experience of the author.

    For example, an American historian writing about the history of slavery from the perspective of the late 1800's post-Civil War, reconstruction "Jim Crow" society might paint a very different picture of slavery's past than an historian writing during the initial victories of the civil rights movement in the 1950's and 1960's.

    Being aware of this human tendency to see the past through the experience of the present makes us aware of the need to "read through" the coloring of the historian's own experience - and our own experience - to better understand historic events in their original contexts.

  3. Thanks for contributing, Steve. I must say, however, that your response is a little puzzling, since it did not seem to interact with the ideas in the original post or the dialogue that followed. When I went to your own BlogSpot, you posted the same material as a blog there, but in an entirely different context. It sort of reminds me of a college class I once taught where a student raised his hand to ask a totally off-topic question, and he introduced it by saying, "I know this is not what we are talking about, but I have been wanting to ask this question anyway."

    I would agree with you in the basic assumption that sincerity, in and of itself, is not a means by which a person is saved, but I fail to see how this interacts with what preceded it. Perhaps I'm missing something, but out of context comments are difficult to assess.