Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem again. As Jesus was walking around the temple, the chief priests, legal experts, and elders came to him. 28 They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”
29 Jesus said to them, “I have a question for you. Give me an answer, then I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. 30 Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin? Answer me.”
31 They argued among themselves, “If we say, ‘It’s of heavenly origin,’ he’ll say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But we can’t say, ‘It’s of earthly origin.’” They said this because they were afraid of the crowd, because they all thought John was a prophet.
33 They answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus replied, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.”
In this first wave, Jesus encounters the entire “priestly aristocracy,” the Sanhedrin. Myers cites Jeremias: The Sanhedrin,
“Was in origin and effect the first authority in the land, and so it's competence extended throughout the Jewish world…After Judea became a Roman province in AD (CE) 6, the Sanhedrin was its chief political agency. A committee of the Sanhedrin was in charge of finance in the eleven Jewish toparchies into which the Romans had divided the land. Furthermore, the Sanhedrin was at that time the first communal court of justice in the province, and finally it was the highest Jewish court of law in all Judea [Jeremias, 1969: 74] (Myers 307).”
The first attack against Jesus is leveled at his authority. The Sanhedrin’s authority was derived from the institution of the temple and thus from God. Jesus has also claimed authority from God, so had John the Baptism. The conflict arises over who has the true authority.
Jesus returns their question with another, leveraging the popular ministry of John the Baptist into the situation. Mark gives us their debate in a side conversation. “Inasmuch as John was killed by political authorities who were threatened by his preaching of repentance, the question is a loaded one, and the answer is moot. Jesus maintains the prophetic action is sanctioned either from ‘outside’ or from ‘within’ the present social order; inasmuch as the Sanhedrin has not granted Jesus authority, it must come from God (Myers, 307).”
The Sanhedrin know they have been trapped. The fear of the crowd, a reoccurring theme in this part of Mark’s story, becomes a powerful tool. They will return over and over gain to attempt to leverage the crowd against Jesus. But they are unable to do so in this encounter.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- To what do we give authority?
- Do we give earthly powers more authority than God?
- How do we recognize this common form of idolatry?