Jesus doesn’t teach like scribes.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 June

A new authority. One that really bugged ’em.

Mark 1.21-22 • Matthew 7.28-29 • Luke 4.31-32

As Jesus wrapped up his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew includes a comment about the way he taught his lessons, and the way his listeners reacted to it:

Matthew 7.28-29 KWL
28 It happened when Jesus finished these lessons, the masses were amazed at his teaching:
29 His teaching wasn’t like their scribes, but like one who has authority.

It’s much the same way Mark and Luke described it when Jesus first began teaching in synagogue.

Mark 1.21-22 KWL
21 Jesus and his students entered Kfar Nahum, and next, Jesus joined the synagogue.
He was teaching on Sabbath 22 and they were amazed at Jesus’s teaching:
His teaching wasn’t like that of the scribes, but like one with authority.
Luke 4.31-32 KWL
31 Jesus came to Kfar Nahum, a Galilean city.
He was teaching on Sabbath, 32 and they were amazed at his teaching,
because his lesson was given with power.

Incorrectly, preachers tend to claim this whole “not like scribes, but someone with authority” has to do with Jesus’s attitude when he taught. You know, like John Calvin described it: Jesus wasn’t some cold dead expounder of the scriptures, but a spellbinding public speaker who taught with charisma and enthusiasm.

The meaning of the Evangelists is, that the power of the Spirit shone in the preaching of Christ with such brightness, as to extort admiration even from irreligious and cold hearers. Luke says that “his discourse was accompanied with power,” that is, full of majesty. Mark expresses it more fully, by adding a contrast, that it was unlike the manner of teaching “of the Scribes.” As they were false expounders of Scripture, their doctrine was literal and dead, breathed nothing of the power of the Spirit, and was utterly destitute of majesty. The same kind of coldness may be now observed in the speculative theology of popery. Those masters do indeed thunder out whatever they think proper in a sufficiently magisterial style; but as their manner of discoursing about divine things is so profane, that their controversies exhibit no traces of religion, what they bring forward is all affectation and mere driveling; for the declaration of the Apostle Paul holds true, that “the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.” 1Co 4.20 In short, the Evangelists mean that, while the manner of teaching, which then prevailed, was so greatly degenerated and so extremely corrupted, that it did not impress the minds of men with any reverence for God, the preaching of Christ was eminently distinguished by the divine power of the Spirit, which procured for him the respect of his hearers. This is the “power,” or rather the majesty and “authority,” at which the people were astonished. Commentary at Mk 1.22, Lk 4.32

You might already realize the massive problem with this point of view: If Jesus has just gotta be authoritative because his teaching sounds so inspiring, it follows that anybody whose teaching sounds clever and intriguing must therefore be from God. And plenty of winsome con men are kinda counting on us to think like that. Makes their job easier.

Calvin got it wrong ’cause he was more interested in doing a little Catholic-bashing than boning up on his Pharisee history. (If you didn’t zone out in the middle of his big ol’ paragraph, that’s what he meant by “the speculative theology of popery.” He must’ve got really sick of it at the University of Bourges.)

How did the scribes teach?

Pharisee custom wasn’t to speak like you had authority. ’Cause you don’t. God does. So their practice was to speak like the bible has all the authority. All they were doing was reporting what the scriptures said; what God stated through his prophets. Kinda like a lot of us Protestants do nowadays. (Or at least pretend to do.)

So how they preached was they’d read the bible, translating as they went, and explaining a bit while they were at it. Kinda following how it’s described in Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 8.1-8 KWL
1 All the people gathered, like one man, at the broad street facing the Water Gate.
They told the scribe Ezra to bring Moses’s Law scroll, which the LORD ordered Israel to keep.
2 The priest Ezra brought the Law to the assembly of men and women.
All understood they were to hear it on 1 Tishrei [Rosh Hashanah].
3 Ezra proclaimed it at the broad street facing the Water Gate from first light to midday,
facing the men and women and the attentive.
All the people’s ears listened to the Law scroll.
4 The scribe Ezra stood on a tower of trees they’d made for the message.
Mattitya, Šema, Anaya, Uriya, Khilqiyya, and Mahašaya stood beside him at his right.
Pedaya, Mišael, Malkiya, Khašum, Khašbaddana, Zekhariya, and Mešullam were at his left.
5 Ezra opened the scroll before everyone’s eyes, for he was standing above everyone.
As he opened it, everyone stood.
6 Ezra blessed the great LORD God, and everyone answered, “Amen amen,” while lifting their hands.
They bowed to worship the LORD, noses to the ground.
7 Yešua, Vani, Šerveya, Yamin, Aqquv, Šabtay, Hodiya, Mahašeya, Qelita, Azarya,
Yozavad, Khanan, Pelaya, and the Levites who understood the Law,
helped the people with the Law—the people at their stations.
8 They proclaimed the scroll, God’s law, distinctly.
They made sense of it. Those in the assembly understood.

The scribe who taught the synagogue lesson, the rav/“master” (whence we get our word rabbí/“my master”) would take the pulpit, unroll the scroll, read the portion of the scripture for the day, and if the people in synagogue didn’t know Hebrew, he’d translate it into Aramaic, Greek, Persian, or whatever they spoke. Then, following Pharisee custom, he’d sit down in the lecturer’s chair and tell ’em what other Pharisee rabbis had thought about it.

No, not necessarily what he thought about it. Not that he definitely wouldn’t slip his own opinion into it. Every preacher does. But Pharisee scribes would make a pretense of insisting they were defending Pharisee tradition: “This is what the great ravim of the past have taught, and it’s not right for me to question their wisdom.”

Of course, if you ever get round to reading what they taught, namely the Mishna, you’ll find out the great Pharisee rabbis taught all sorts of things. There’s an old joke, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions.” It’s absolutely true of the Mishna. If any scribe wanted to preach their own point of view, it was mighty easy to find one of the rabbis was kinda leaning their way. So they could emphasize the heck out of that favorite rabbi. All while “remaining true” to the elders’ tradition. Well, one elder’s tradition, anyway.

But don’t get the idea Pharisees were passive sheep who didn’t realize what their scribes were up to. They knew exactly what was going on. (When it was their turn to teach, they did it themselves.) It’s why Pharisee lessons would turn into debates: Other scribes would respond, “But what about what this rabbi said?” or “But Rabbi Such-and-so says just the opposite.” Pharisee students learned to do it too. They’d challenge the scribe, and the scribe would answer questions. In theory this was a good Socratic education. In reality it’d often turn into wasteful, stupid squabbles, just like you’d find in any seminary coffeehouse.

Okay, you’ve read the Sermon on the Mount, I take it. Any of this describe at all how Jesus preached? Not even close.

How Jesus teaches.

’Cause Jesus didn’t quote rabbis. He quoted the bible; he quoted the Law a bunch of different times. But the only authority he appealed to was himself.

Matthew 5.21-22 KWL
21 “You heard this said to the ancients: ‘You will not murder.’ Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17
Whoever murders will be subject to judgment.
22 And I tell you this: Everybody angry with their sibling will be subject to judgment.
Whoever tells their sibling, ‘You dumbass,’ will be subject to the Senate.
Whoever says, ‘You moron,’ will be subject to a trash-heap of fire.”

“And I tell you this.” That’s not how Pharisees taught. That’s how they avoided teaching. It was always “Moses told us,” or “Rabbi Whatshisface says.” Never “I tell you.” Jesus didn’t only do it once either. It’s all over the Sermon.

Matthew 5.27-28 KWL
27 “You heard this said: ‘You will not adulter.’ Ex 20.14, Dt 5.18
28 And I tell you this: Everybody who looks at a woman to covet her,
has now adultered with her in their heart.”
Matthew 5.33-34 KWL
33 “Again, you heard this said to the ancients: You will not perjure. Lv 19.12
You’ll make restitution to the Lord for your oaths. Dt 23.23
34 And I tell you: Don’t swear at all.
Not ‘By heaven!’—it’s God’s throne.” Ps 11.4
Matthew 5.38-39 KWL
38 “You heard this said: ‘Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.’ Ex 21.24, Lv 24.20, Dt 19.21
39 And I tell you: No comparing yourself to evil.
Instead, whoever punches you on the right side of your jaw: Turn from them all the more.”
Matthew 5.43-44 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”

All over the gospels, really. Every time Jesus said, “Amen, I promise you” (KJV “Verily I say unto you”) —and he said it a lot—he was claiming the authority to make definitive statements about God.

Various translations have Jesus say, “But I say to you,” following the KJV’s bad habit of translating de/“and” as “but.” It gives people the sense Jesus was replacing the Law’s teaching with his own, which goes against what Jesus himself said in the Sermon. Jesus wasn’t correcting the Law; he was expounding on it. The Pharisees had taught the people loopholes for each of these commands. Jesus closed those loopholes. To put it in video game terms, God doesn’t grant us cheat codes, but extra lives. He about grace.

People weren’t used to this practice. It startled them. Some of them likely thought, “Can he do that?”—and either figured no he couldn’t, and were outraged; or figured Jesus could, ’cause he’s a prophet or Messiah or something.

In our day, we too often get the idea anybody can. Because the Holy Spirit lives within us Christians, a lot of us figure we have the power to make definitive statements about God. Um… not really. We might think we have clever insights, or even new revelations, but only Jesus gets to define who God is. Messiah’s the teacher; we’re the students. Mt 23.8 Doesn’t matter if you think you’re a prophet. Follow him.

A departure from Pharisee tradition.

Not only did Jesus claim the right to make definitive statements: You’re gonna see in the gospels how he sometimes went entirely against Pharisee traditions.

Yep. Critiqued it. Criticized some of its teachings as violations of the Law. Deliberately violated their customs, like when he cured people on Sabbath. Called all their loophole-seeking “hypocrisy.” ’Cause it totally was.

Part of the reason Jesus came to this earth was to reroute his people back onto the right path. The rabbis had unwittingly made some devilish errors. But Jesus came to destroy the devil’s works. 1Jn 3.8 Where they got him wrong, ’cause we all get him wrong, Jesus came to set us right.

But as you recall, many people hate being told they’re wrong. Hate being proven wrong. Hate anybody who shows them so; instead of reforming their behavior and getting back on track, they attack the messenger. It’s why so many Pharisees decided Jesus was their mortal foe, and tried to get him killed. And succeeded.

It wasn’t because they were jealous of his charisma.