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The Dialectic in the Gospel of Mark

April 13th, 2006 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

A dramatic section of the Gospel of Mark consists of Jesus triumphantly entering Jerusalem, cleansing the temple, and the subsequent attacks on Him by the religious leaders. The first two events lead to the third: Jesus essentially asserts Himself as the King and High Priest worthy of the praise of the people and with authority to direct the affairs of the temple. The chief priests, scribes and elders, therefore, naturally came to Him to question Him, demanding a reason why He should assert Himself in such a manner. In so doing, they open themselves up to discussion, or "the dialectic", with questions and answers, which ultimately puts them in a distressing position.

These religious leaders were used to discussion from their rabbinical training. They had establised a system of interpreting the Scriptures by referring to earlier commentaries and considering each viewpoint carefully. (See Luke 2:41-52 for the boy Jesus' interaction with these rabbis.)  In keeping with this method, they approach Jesus to challenge His authority, though their motives appear to be informed by power politics and not a simple search after truth.

The first question is "By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?" (Mark 11:28) Jesus immediately calls out their hidden motives by asking them by what authority John the Baptist conducted his ministry. They cannot answer because if they say it was from God, Jesus will claim the same. They don't really believe John's ministry was from God, so they cannot say that. But they also, because of their motives of retaining power, cannot answer that John's ministry was not from heaven because all the people present accepted John's ministry. They therefore left off.

Jesus probes more deeply into their hearts and twists the knife, so to speak. He tells a parable indicting the Pharisees for not accepting the prophets and not even the Son of God - also prophesying His death, by the way. The Pharisees, therefore, test Jesus by asking how the Jews ought to relate to Caesar and his government under which goverment they were subjected. Jesus answers that one ought to "Render to Caesar's what is Caesar's and to God's what is God's"  thereby giving an answer specific enough to satisfy the crowds and simple enough to highlight the chief priest's and scribe's lack of understanding on the issue. (It is a complicated issue, after all!) Then, the Sadducees pose a problem concerning the Resurrection. Jesus rebutes their answer  quite forcefully, implying they failed to recognize the full power of God (12:27)

The questioning culminates in a scribe asking what is the greatest commandment. Jesus essntially replies, "Love God and love your neighbor." The scribe, somewhat carried away in the moment, acknowledges Jesus' answer to be correct and says that this commandment is more important than all of the ones concerning sacrifices. "And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God.'" (12:34) The scribe nearly became a convert! After that, "No one dared to ask him any more questions."

The dialectic had so much power that it not only left the religious leaders without any grounds to criticize Jesus, but also caused some of their ranks to flirt with the truth. The scribe in Mark 12:28-34 began to converse with Jesus. It would be interesting to know what ever happened to this truth-seeking scribe. He would have invoked displeasure from the Pharisees for blowing the attack on Jesus and revealing the defeat in such a public way.

The dialectic has the power to get folks past their presuppositions and dispositions and consider truth in and of itself. What more dangerous political tool could there be? Quite nearly, the Pharisees lost one of their own and, probably one of their best considering he was the one they chose to "take down" Jesus. The mark of an unjust ruler or government is the suppression of discussion and the turn to the use of force. From the gospels we know that this is exactly the course of action the Pharisees took. They also lost the opinion of the crowds - at least for the moment.

As Plato's Republic suggests, probably the barnacles of the ships of our minds too thickly cover us to be able to solely reason to truth through the dialectic. But perhaps the dialectic can show us that these barnacles exist and can inspire us to set a course for the light of truth. Then we may arrive safely if a Pilot comes to show us the way, a Wind gives power to the sails and a Father beckons us home.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.