Mark 1:9-11: John the Baptist, Jesus, the passage of semikha

Masters of the Word, in Jesus’ day, would answer questions with questions.  We see Jesus do this on 29 separate occasions in the New Testament.  Discrete, static answers were not particularly valuable coinage in Rabbinic discourse. Do you hear Jesus making a lot of discrete, propostional statements?  No, not really.  ‘Answers’ to questions tended to remain unspoken, acknowledged as incommensurate with the real spectrum of the question, and so best left submerged and fluid beneath the dialectical flow of actually articulated verbal intercourse.  If a rabbi asked: what is two times two, a peasant would answer four.  But a student or a fellow rabbi would answer with a question.  The one Rabbi would ask: what is 2 X 2?  And the student or peer would answer: what is 16 divided by 4?  This way the discussion would ‘grow’ in scope–zooming in or zooming out by levels of magnification depending upon the question–flowing ever ‘upward’ (in the sense of ‘upping the ante’) towards wordless, sublime places at the edge of language—which is often where God creeps into our conversations in powerful and mysterious ways.

In Matthew 21, we see a fraught exchange of this sort in the temple courtyard when the Sadducees ask Jesus where his authority comes from. They ask: “By what authority are you doing these things, and where did you get your authority from?” And so Jesus answers, “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things—the Baptism of John: was it from heaven or from men.”  And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he will say to us, “Then why did you not believe him? But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the people for they all regard John as a prophet.”  And answering Jesus, they said, “We do not know.” He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Jesus plays this exchange brilliantly on so many levels.  For one thing, the earthly rabbi to whom he was most closely connected is included in the question as well as the implication that his power comes from God.

Ray VanderLaan has a brilliant interpretation of this text which involves a level of knowledge into rabbinical praxis in the first century that’s so in-depth that I’m not going to go too far out on a limb trying to describe it.  Basically he brings up the fact that only a few Rabbis in the first century had ‘semikha’—that is ‘authority’: the authority to speak without supporting yourself at every point with quotes from scripture. With semikha— ‘smee-cha’ with a growling ‘ch’– you can just say things, and they’ll be generally acknowledged as true—as not blasphemous.

There were maybe a few dozen rabbis in that whole century with semikha—only a handful would have ever been alive at the same time. We can, perhaps, assume that John the Baptist had semikha, but that his semikha was considered problematic by temple authorities.  Two rabbis with semikha had to tranfer semikha to a young candidate.  VanderLaan says the two rabbis who give Jesus his semikha are John and God, in bodily form like a dove—according to VanderLaan that is one of the intense, vivid, submerged meanings of the baptism scene.

Jesus doesn’t come right out and say it but in his exchange with the Sadducees in the temple courtyard in Matthew 21, he seems to be implying a univocality between the authority of John the Baptist, the power of God, and the miracles he’s been performing in the course of his own ministry.

Semikha, while understood in Rabbinic literature as referring to the transmission of Rabbinic authority, is actually a word that was appropriated from an even more ancient and fraught meaning.  It was originally the word describing how the priest would lean on to the sacrifice with his hands before cutting its throat, thus transferring the sins of the community or person onto it.  This obviously adds layers of heavy, thrumming signification to what seems to be passing between Jesus and John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

Whatever the case may be, Jesus ministry appears to have emerged as a splinter group splitting off from John’s massive desert revival at some point shortly after the Baptist’s arrest. In the Gospel of John we read that Jesus’s earliest followers came from the Baptist’s fold.  Later on, in Matthew, after John has been sitting in Herod’s dungeon for a while, two messengers come from the south.  They ask if Jesus will be springing their master out of jail.  Jesus answers with what has been called the most complicated and beautiful remez that has ever been recorded.

What is a remez?  It means ‘hinted meaning,’ but the way that remez’s are actually deployed follow a complicated formula.

When the children shouted ‘Hosanna,’ to him in the temple and the chief priests and teachers of the law became indignant (Mt 21:15), Jesus responded by quoting Psalm 8:2.  “From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise.” The religious leaders anger at Jesus can be better understood when we realize that the next phrase in the Psalm reveals why children and infants offer praise: because the enemies of God would be silenced. The religious leaders realized that Jesus was implying that they were enemies of God.  This happens in a number of places.  At one point in Luke Jesus says: ‘I have come to find the lost sheep,’ this inspires literally homicidal rage in the Pharisees.  That’s because the passage that Jesus is referencing from Ezekiel is all about how the religious establishment is completely corrupt and will be utterly destroyed by God—not an emissary, but by God.  Jesus  may then be understood as not only claiming that he is going to destroy his hearers but also claiming that he is God incarnate.  But he does so very softly, very allusively—at least in this instance.

This technique of allusive communication is called a ‘remez.’  Great teachers used this technique to communicate in very charged ways with one another, speaking softyly words which were laden with intense voltage.  They would use part of a passage from the sacred writings in a discussion, assuming that their audience’s knowledge of the text would allow them to deduce for themselves the fuller meaning of the teaching.   Generally a remez is where you quote a passage, in such a way, where the emphasis is actually laid on words which follow or precede the words that you actually speak.  Apparently, Jesus used this method often.

His response to the question of the Baptist’s disciple has been described as one of the most brilliant, and elegantly complex remez’s of all time.

John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Containing a reference to Psalm 118, which then resonates with other passages and messianic prophecies through a number of identities and echoes, their question is—essentially—are you going to spring John out of prison.

Jesus’s answer is, “Go back and report to John what you have seen: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.  Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”  This response actually contains a small multitude of references to prophecy,  many of which are in close proximity to passages which talk about captives being set free, and false accusers being overthrown.  But the final word, ‘don’t stumble on account of me,’ seems to be saying that he understands what is being asked, but he will not be springing John free from prison in the way that John expects.

One thought on “Mark 1:9-11: John the Baptist, Jesus, the passage of semikha

  1. Pingback: Mark 1:4-8 pt 2: John the Baptist « gospel(s)

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