A CUNNING QUESTION AND A PIERCING ANSWER
Once again they came to Jerusalem, and, when Jesus was walking in the Temple, the chief priests and the experts in the law and the elders came to him, and said to him, “By what kind of authority do you do these things? Or, who gave you authority to do these things?” Jesus said, “I will put one point to you, and, if you answer me, I will tell you by what kind of authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven? or was it from men? Answer me!” They discussed the matter among themselves. “If,” they said, “we say, `From heaven,’ he will say, `Why did you not believe in it?’ But, are we to say, `From men’?”–for they were afraid of the people, for all truly held that John was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” So Jesus said to them, “Neither do I tell you by what kind of authority I do these things.”
In the sacred precincts there were two famous cloisters, one on the east and one on the south side of the Court of the Gentiles. The one on the east was called Solomon’s Porch. It was a magnificent arcade made by Corinthian columns 35 feet high. The one on the south was even more splendid. It was called the Royal Cloister. It was formed by four rows of white marble columns, each 6 feet in diameter and 30 feet high. There were 162 of them. It was common for Rabbis and teachers to stroll in these columns and to teach as they walked. Most of the great cities of ancient times had these cloisters. They gave shelter from the sun and the wind and the rain, and, in point of fact, it was in these places that most of the religious and philosophic teaching was done. One of the most famous schools of ancient thought was that of the Stoics. They received their name from the fact that Zeno, their founder, taught as he walked in the Stoa Poikile, the Painted Porch, in Athens. The word stoa (GSN4745) means porch or arcade and the Stoics were the school of the porch. It was in these cloisters in the Temple that Jesus was walking and teaching.
To him there came a deputation of the chief priests and the experts in the law, that is the scribes, rabbis and elders. This was in reality a deputation from the Sanhedrin, of which these three groups formed the component parts. They asked a most natural question. For a private individual, all on his own, to clear the Court of the Gentiles of its accustomed and official traders was a staggering thing. So they asked Jesus, “By what kind of authority do you act like that?”
They hoped to put Jesus into a dilemma. If he said he was acting under his own authority they might well arrest him as a megalomaniac before he did any further damage. If he said that he was acting on the authority of God they might well arrest him on an obvious charge of blasphemy, on the grounds that God would never give any man authority to create a disturbance in the courts of his own house. Jesus saw quite clearly the dilemma in which they sought to involve him, and his reply put them into a dilemma which was still worse. He said that he would answer on condition that they would answer one question for him, “Was John the Baptist’s work, in your opinion, human or divine?”
This impaled them on the horns of a dilemma. If they said it was divine, they knew that Jesus would ask why they had stood out against it. Worse than that–if they said it was divine, Jesus could reply that John had in fact pointed all men to him, and that therefore he was divinely attested and needed no further authority. If these members of the Sanhedrin agreed that John’s work was divine, they would be compelled to accept Jesus as the Messiah. On the other hand, if they said that John’s work was merely human, now that John had the added distinction of being a martyr, they knew quite well that the listening people would cause a riot. So they were compelled to say weakly that they did not know, and thereby Jesus escaped the need to give them any answer to their question.
The whole story is a vivid example of what happens to men who will not face the truth. They have to twist and wriggle and in the end get themselves into a position in which they are so helplessly involved that they have nothing to say. The man who faces the truth may have the humiliation of saying that he was wrong, or the peril of standing by it, but at least the future for him is strong and bright. The man who will not face the truth has nothing but the prospect of deeper and deeper involvement in a situation which renders him helpless and ineffective.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary