Category Archives: Mark

The Legal Cause of Action against Jesus in John 18:29-30

By John W. Welch

Published in Celebrating Easter, eds. Thomas A. Wayment and Keith J. Wilson, 157–76. Provo, Utah: BYU, Religious Studies Center, 2007.

It is a joy to ponder and appreciate the eternal importance of Easter. On the day before Easter, the body of the Lord lay in the tomb while his spirit inaugurated his redemptive work among the throngs in the spirit world. What a thrilling day it must have been for them to receive that visit from him. I imagine that the timing caught them by surprise, as it did among the Nephites. How much joy and excitement there must have been on this day before Easter on the other side of the veil.

In this paper, I will focus on only one aspect of the trial of Jesus, drawing more attention particularly to John 18:29-30 and articulating more clearly to an LDS audience why the accusation in that verse holds a key for understanding the legal cause of action and strategy of the chief priests before Pilate at that stage in the proceedings against Jesus. The focus here is only on John 18:29-30; this is not an attempt to give a complete account of the entire episode. For a more complete and fully footnoted presentation of my approach to this subject, my longer study has recently been published in a major volume edited by James H. Charlesworth, entitled Jesus and Archaeology.[1] A shorter version of that paper, without discussion of John 18:29-30, previously appeared in the BYU Religious Studies Center volume, Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.[2]

People have long questioned, Why was Jesus executed? Was he put to death by Romans or by Jews? Was it on political charges or for religious offenses? Were the proceedings legal or illegal? Answers to such questions have proven extremely evasive and have generated a vast body of scholarly analysis and amateur literature,[3] for the trial of Jesus is an extremely complicated legal subject. It is easily one of the most difficult and controversial legal subject in the history of the world. Thus, caution is in order whenever one embarks on the study of this topic.

Many legal issues immediately confront anyone approaching the trial of Jesus, but none is more fundamental than determining which legal rules applied to such as case in Jerusalem in the first part of the first century? Consider, for example, the commonly asserted prohibition that Jewish trials could not be conducted at night. This rule is found in the Talmud, but the Talmud was not written until many years after the destruction of Jerusalem a generation after the death of Jesus. Moreover, the Talmud was written by the religious descendants of the Pharisees and thus represents the views of the Pharisees. In first-century Jerusalem, however, the Pharisees and the Sadducees disagreed on many legal technicalities, and it is unknown what the Sadducees thought about trials at night. So, it is quite unclear whether the Sadducees, the lay nobility who were the leaders of the Sanhedrin,[4] would have had any legal objections to a nighttime arrest, hearing and conviction. Similar legal problems are encountered at just about every turn in pondering the Jewish and Roman trials of Jesus.

Several factual perplexities also hinder our understanding. For example, was the trial actually held at night? It is clear that Jesus was arrested at night, but perhaps that happened well into the night and near the pre-dawn hours. Luke, in fact, says that it was day before the trials actually began (Luke 22:66), although it must have been very early in the morning, since many things happened between the time Jesus was arrested and when he was taken to Golgatha about 9 am (Mark 15:25). It is worth noting that it was customary among the Romans to be at work before daybreak, but without knowing when the trial actually began or ended, it is hard to know whether the rule against nighttime trials was violated, even assuming that there was a prevailing law against such proceedings at the time of Jesus.

Moreover, verbal ambiguities make legal analysis in many cases quite difficult. For instance, Jesus is accused of “deceiving” the people. Does this mean that his accusers thought he fooled them maliciously, carelessly, or perhaps even unwittingly? Did they think that he was deceptively encouraging them to commit sin, or erroneously teaching them to think incorrectly, or tricking them into apostasy? Did they think that his deception was simple antisocial misrepresentation, or was it illegal fraud? Without knowing more about what his accusers meant, it is hard to know why they thought his words or doings were deceptive in such a way as to warrant the death penalty.

But most of all, one wonders how the general concerns of the chief priests and the Romans might have been translated into a specific legal cause of action against Jesus.[5] Was he accused of blasphemy? Yes (Matthew 26:65-66; Mark 14:63-64), but there must have been more to the case than this (and often legal causes of action were added, one on top of the other, in ancient trials). If blasphemy alone had been the issue, one would expect that Jesus would have been stoned by the Jews,[6] which was the usual, biblically prescribed mode of execution for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16; Acts 6:11; 7:59). And because Pilate and the Romans would have cared very little about a Jewish accusation of blasphemy, scholars have often concluded that Jesus must have been executed for some other reason, perhaps on charges of treason against Rome, since he was accused of having called himself the king of the Jews and this appellation ended up on the placard placed by Pilate above Jesus on the cross. But, it is very hard to see any substance to a claim of treason against Jesus. He was an unarmed pacifist, a Galilean peasant who said, “All they who take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). When asked by Pilate about his kingship, Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and it appears that Pilate was satisfied that Jesus posed little, if any, threat to Rome or to the Emperor Tiberias: “I find in him no fault” (John 18:38). Such considerations lead to the persistent question: What might have been the main legal cause of action that carried the most weight against Jesus and lead to his crucifixion?

The solution to this problem that I have found most satisfying is found in the Gospel of John. All readers of the New Testament must chose between (a) relying primarily on John and then secondarily on the Synoptics to fill in the gaps, or (b) primarily on the Synoptics and then secondarily on John. For the following reasons, I prefer the former. Besides the fact that John’s report makes impeccable legal sense, John can be trusted as a witness of these proceedings. He was one of the leading apostles, with Peter and James. John was at Golgatha and would have known as much as possible about what was happening and why. John 18:15 tells us that “another disciple went in” to Annas’s house. Was this Judas? Or Nicodemus? More likely, it was the apostle John himself, who was thus an eye witness of these legal proceedings. While John is the most theological of the gospels, also in many ways the most authentic historically; his account is especially in touch with Galilean and Jewish backgrounds of the life of Jesus in ways that relate to the earliest circumstances of Jesus’s ministry.

In particular, for present purposes, John 18:29-30 most significantly reports the verbal exchange between Pilate and the chief priests as they brought Jesus to the Praetorium: “Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee” (emphasis added). The critical question then becomes, what did the chief priests mean by “malefactor”? Here lies the key to understanding the legal cause of action that they lodged against Jesus as they brought him to Pilate.

A bit of background becomes important here, for the English word malefactor is the translation of the Greek work kakopoios, which (like its closely related Latin word, maleficus) in legal contexts can mean “magician” or “sorcerer.” To understand how ancient people generally, and the leaders of the Jewish establishment in particular, would have reacted to Jesus and his miracles, modern readers must understand the positive and negative attitudes of ancient Jews and Romans toward magic. In certain cases, both Jews and Romans had strict laws that punished magicians, sorcerers, fortune tellers, diviners, those in contact with spirits, and miracle workers.

Most relevant to the trial of Jesus is the biblical law that makes it a capital offense to use miracles (signs or wonders) to lead people into apostasy (to go after other gods): “If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods . . . that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death” (Deuteronomy 13:1-2, 5; compare also Leviticus 20:27). Of course, Jewish law recognized that there were good uses of supernatural powers as well as bad. Jewish attitudes toward magic mixed. Witness the contest between Moses and Pharoah’s magicians. King Saul visited the witch of Endore, but Exodus 22:18 commands, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch [either male or female] to live.” The Jews took magic seriously enough that one of the qualification requirements to be a member of the Sanhedrin was the ability to differentiate good miracle working from trafficing with the evil spirits.[7]

But equally interesting here is the fact that Roman law also proscribed certain uses of magic and divination. Empire-wide decrees adopted in A.D. 11 and 16, during Jesus’s own lifetime, elevated suspicions and sensitivities about any rogue or irregular invocations of supernatural powers. Roman law and society at that time considered magicians, along with brigands, pirates, astrologers, philosophers, and prophets, as enemies of the Roman order. For these people, gods were everywhere, good and evil; and thus unseen spirits and demons were taken seriously as a constant potential threat. Especially when combined with maiestas (anything that insulted, suborned or threatened the Emperor), condoning any such use of supernatural powers would easily make a person no friend of Caesar (John 19:12). Here is a Roman concern that the chief priests could have waved before Pilate to try to capture his attention.

All this becomes relevant to the trial of Jesus in light of his miracle working. Above all, it seems clear to me that miracle working got Jesus in a great deal of trouble with those Jewish leaders who rejected him. We know that he never used his powers to harm anyone, but people at the time did not know where he would stop. If he could still the storm, then he could cause earthquakes (the most likely way in which could instantly destroy the temple), and his words to this effect so were alleged (however wrongly) as a serious threat to the temple: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple” (Mark 14:58).

Legal debates had in fact ensued over the miracles of Jesus. People must have queried: By whose power does he do this? (compare Acts 4:7). In Mark 3:22, scribes (legal officials) were brought all the way to Galilee from Jerusalem to give their legal opinion in this case. Their determination was: “He hath Beelzebub [Satan], and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils.” What was going on there was not a theological debate, but a legal investigation resulting in an allegation with dire legal implications.

This same debate continued in Jerusalem. In John 10:19-21, we learn that “There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings. And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him? Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?”

As Jesus came to Jerusalem for the very last time, one final miracle tipped the scales against him—the raising of Lazarus. A miracle of this magnitude and notoriety, in Bethany just over the hill from the Temple in Jerusalem, raised legal issues that could not be ignored. After this miracle, “from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death” (John 11:53). The equivalent of a warrant for the arrest of Jesus was issued: “Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment [a legal order] that if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him” (John 11:57).  And one should note that Lazarus also was also listed as a wanted man: “The chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus to death also, because by reason of him many of the Jews went away and believed on Jesus” (John 12:10-11). In their mind, Lazarus too was leading people into apostasy by colluding with Jesus.

With this background and clear development of factors in the Gospel of John, it is hard to imagine how Jesus’s miracle working would not have been the dominant factor that galvanized the chief priests against him. However, while laws against sorcery are mentioned occasionally by commentators writing about the trial of Jesus, this underlying concern or cause of action is not usually given much attention by readers or scholars. It seems to me that the main reason for this disregard is that no formal accusation of magic or maleficium ever appears to be made in the three synoptic gospels. But in light of the foregoing discussion, a closer look at John 18:30 is required.

Recognizing that a term such as maleficus, kakopoios, or kakon poion should be understood in a general sense “save where it is qualified to take on a specific meaning,”[8] here are ten reasons why the word “malefactor” in John 18:30 is qualified to taken on a technical legal reading.[9] These linguistic or circumstantial reasons give grounds upon which I conclude that the legal cause of action brought by the chief priests against Jesus as they ushered him into Pilate’s chamber was that he was an illegal miracle worker or magician using illicit powers to threaten the public order, both Roman as well as Jewish:

  1. The legal setting. Ordinary words carry technical legal import when used in a judicial context. English words such as action, motion, bench, or arise all have regular meanings in ordinary speech, but they assume a legal meaning when we know that they are being spoken in court, as is the case here.
  2. The legal request. When Pilate asked, “What sort of accusation do you bring against this man?” he was not saying, “What’s going on here?” His words call for a specific legal response. He would expect the petitioners to formulate their words back to him in terms of cognizable causes of action under Roman law.
  3. The logic of the exchange. In the synoptic Gospels (of which John was presumably aware), Pilate was said to have asked, “What kakon has he done?” (Matt 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:22). In their discourse with Pilate, if John were to have the chief priests simply respond, “Oh, he was doing kakon,” their response would be circular, evasive, and probably insulting. Their answer is best understood as being more specific than simply a repetition of the question back to the magistrate.
  4. The strong meaning of the word. Many astrological treatises, magical papyri, and other documents use the word kakopoios to describe bad mystical agents. In an emotionally charged setting, such as the hearing before Pilate, typical speakers or writers do not use strong words in a weak sense.
  5. A legal characterization of early Christians. The early Christians themselves were seen by others as being involved in magic. Suetonius states that Christians in their first century were accused of being involved in superstitionis novae ac maleficae,[10] a label that implies charges of magic.
  6. Contemporaneous legal prosecution of other miracle-workers. Apollonius, who coincidentally was raised in Tarsus about the same time as was Saul, was another miracle-worker in the first century C.E. He was “tried for his life by Domitian,” who accused Apollonius among other things “of divination by magic for Nerva’s benefit,” and his emphasis “on supernatural revelations inevitably led to his being accused of magical practices” on other occasions as well.[11]
  7. Jesus and exorcism and wonder working. Jesus and his disciples were indisputably depicted as exorcists, the implications of which have been quite thoroughly explored in other contexts,[12] but even exorcism used for improper purposes in an open and notorious fashion would have produced legal trouble. Carl Kraeling has argued persuasively that people generally said of Jesus that he “has a demon,” meaning that he “has a demon under his control,” a concept commonly applied in the ambient culture to people having access to “the spirits of persons [such as John the Baptist] who had died a violent death.”[13] After Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and was then accused by people in the synagogue, he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil (kakopoiēsai)” and his accusers “held their peace” (Mark 3:4). Obviously, it was not lawful any time to do evil, magical works on any day.
  8. Use in 1 Peter. The only other place where the word kakopoios appears in the New Testament is in two passages in Peter’s first epistle, where it likely refers “to an individual guilty of legally defined crimes.”[14] Peter wrote that people generally were talking about Christians as “evil makers,” but he is confident that judges and others will see their good works, glorify God, and pronounce them not “evil makers” but “good makers” (1 Peter 2:12, 14). Here the label of “evil makers” was intended by outsiders to be deeply insulting, not weakly pejorative. Even more definitively, in 1 Peter 4:13-16, Christians were exhorted to share the suffering of Christ, but not as a murderer, a thief, a kakopoios, or as a fourth kind of offender (the nature of which is more general and indeterminable). Clustered together with the first two very serious offenses in this list, the word kakopoios points to a particular crime of unacceptable magnitude.
  9. Early Christian attestations. Some early Christians, such as Lactantius in the late third or early fourth century, openly acknowledged that the Jews had accused Jesus of being a magician or sorcerer.[15] Christians did not answer by arguing that this word in John 18:30 should be understood in some weak sense. They answered by arguing that the miracles of Jesus were acceptable because the prophets had predicted them.
  10. Confirmations from early Jewish sources. Evidence of Jewish opinion at the time of Lactantius is the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 43a:

 

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [the Nazarine] was hanged.  For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and  enticed Israel to apostasy.  Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.”  But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.

 

Ultimately, however, Pilate found no such cause of action against Jesus and so held: “I find in him no fault,” or in other words “I recognize no legal cause of action against him” (John 18:38, author’s translation). Pilate was satisfied that Jesus of Nazareth had not broken any Roman law, even by doing what might have been seen by some as possibly threatening to use miraculous powers to commit some form of treason or sedition. Nevertheless, Pilate was apparently still fearful enough about the situation that he was willing to permit or take some action.

All of this is corroborated by the fact that seeing Jesus as a miracle worker and wonder worker was a dominant part of his public reputation in the first and second centuries. This is evident from the writings of Josephus, both in Greek and Slavonic. For example, the Slavonic Josephus states: “And [Pilate] had that wonder-worker brought up, and after instituting an inquiry concerning him he pronounced judgment: ‘He is [a benefactor, not] a malefactor, [nor] a rebel, [nor] covetous of kingship.’ [And he let him go; for he had healed his dying wife.]”[16]

The earliest extant Christian art offers further witness of the popular reputation that Jesus had as a wonder worker, not only among his detractors, but also his followers. Pre-Constantinian images of Jesus depict him as a miracle worker more often than in any other pose. The most common compositional element of these images shows Jesus holding a magic wand with which he performs his supernatural feats. It would be hundreds of years after the death of Christ before the cross or the passion narratives became main subjects of Christian art. Instead, the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-43), the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:22-43; Luke 8:41-56), the miracles of loaves and fishes (Mark 6:38-44; 8:5-19; Matthew 14:17-19; 15:34-36; Luke 16:9-10; John 6:9-13), and the turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) were the most popular narratives depicted in the first few centuries.[17] As one scholar has noted, “To such Christians, the life of Christ consisted simply of a series of miracles.”[18] And in depicting these miracles, Jesus touches the body of the deceased, the loaf-filled baskets, and the water-filled amphora with his magic wand. Although found in several locations, the majority of these images are found in the Christian funerary sculpture and painting in the Roman catacombs—a 12-mile underground labyrinth of niches, alcoves, and passageways beneath Rome. Here, graves were often decorated with religious motifs, sometimes quite elaborately. The resurrection of the deceased was metaphorically promised by miraculous scenes such as the miracles of Christ, Jonah and the whale, and the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace.

Ancient artists added the detail of Jesus holding a wand to the Gospel miracle stories because of the popular correlation of a wand with magicians. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Circe—the magician daughter of Helios—is depicted working her magic with a wand when she transforms a group of people into pigs. In Roman mythology, Mercury was one of the gods who escorted souls to and from the afterlife. Just as Mercury is depicted holding his golden wand to lead the dead back to life, so to Jesus is shown magically bringing people back to life with a wand or staff.[19]

In conclusion, one may wonder why the fearful factor of magic has not been emphasized previously in scholarly or religious literature about the trial of Jesus. I would suggest at least three main reasons:

First, few secular scholars want to allow that the miracles of Jesus really happened. If they did not happen, of course, they could not have been a factor in the historical trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate. But if they did happen, it is hard to see how they could have failed to have been a dominant factor in the case of the chief priests against Jesus of Nazareth.

Second, Christians today generally do not want to associate Jesus with magic or with any suggestion that he was a trickster. But the line between good miracles and bad magic is definable by their results. Jesus himself said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20), and asked, “How can Satan drive out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:23-24). Christians should celebrate, not obfuscate, the miracles of Jesus.

Third, critical scholars generally give more historical weight to the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke than in John. But in light of the fact that all three of the synoptic gospels report that Pilate asked, What kakon has he done?” (Matt 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:22), the formulation by the chief priests of the legal cause of action against Jesus in John 18:30 becomes all the more significant. The charge that Jesus was a kakopoios (a malificus, magician, wonderworker) raises a common ground that both Jews and Romans would take seriously.

Of course, it would help if the world accepted the Book of Mormon, which long ago revealed that even after all his mighty miracles “they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him” (Mosiah 3:9). It seems to me, as the Book of Mormon makes quite clear, that these miracles lead to Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion. His mighty miracles forced the issue, then as now, namely, by what power did Jesus do these things? If by the power of God, then he should be accepted and followed; but if by the power of Beelzebub, then he should be feared and eliminated.

Jesus certainly came with power. He was the creator of the world, good enough, wise enough, and powerful enough to bring to pass the salvation, immortality and eternal life of all mankind. If he could raise Lazarus from the dead, he could control many other life and death situations, in this world and in the world to come. His powers were also sufficiently in control of all that needed to happen as he came into this world and as he went out of it (see John 10:18). He came to win the cosmic battle against death and hell, to engage the powers of evil, to drive out devils from paralytics and demoniacs, and to cast out Satan eternally. This makes one wonder: How could he do all of this and not find himself accused of dealing with the realms of the paranatural?

 

[1] John W. Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus,” in Jesus and Archaeology, James H. Charlesworth, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 349-83. A version of that paper focusing on biblical, Jewish, and Roman laws regarding magic was presented at the Biblical Law Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, annual meeting, November 2005.

[2] John W. Welch, “The Factor of Fear in the Trial of Jesus,” in Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Paul H. Peterson, Gary L. Hatch and Laura D. Card, eds. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2002), 284–312.

[3] For an extensive listing of scholarly sources, see John W. Welch, Biblical Law Cumulative Bibliography (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, and Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), CD-Rom.

[4] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 229, 265.

[5] People ordinarily assume that the actions against Jesus were based on some colorable legal grounds, and were not just fait strokes of arbitrary discretion.

[6] In John 18:31, the Jews say to Pilate that they lack the authority to execute anyone. It is possible that the Jews were just being careful and deferential toward Pilate, or perhaps even a bit disingenuous hoping that he would take responsibility for executing Jesus. New Testament evidence (as in the attempts to stone Jesus in Nazareth or the incident of the woman taken in adultery) show that on some occasions the Jews had or took power to put people to death. In the case of Jesus, the Jews eventually received a release from Pilate to do with Jesus as they pleased (John 19:16), which—if blasphemy were the only issue—would normally have entailed stoning. But having urged Pilate to crucify Jesus, the execution went forward in that manner.

[7] b. Sanh. 17a. See further, Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus,” 366.

[8] Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 204.

[9] These reasons are detailed and footnoted in Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus.”

[10] Seutonius, de Vita Caesarum, 6.16 (Nero).

[11] Cramer, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics, 222-23.

[12] Smith, Jesus the Magician; R. Shirock, “Whose Exorcists Are They?” JSNT 46 (1992): 41-51; C. K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition (London: SPCK, 1947) ch. 4.

[13] C. H. Kraeling, “Was Jesus Accused of Necromancy,” JBL 59 (1940): 153-57.

[14] J. H. Elliott, 1 Peter (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 468. When Luke calls the two other criminals crucified with Jesus “malefactors” (Luke 23:32), the Greek word he uses is kakourgos, not kakopoios. Luke’s word refers to “robbers,” and it must mean something different to Luke than kakopoios means to John, or else we must imagine that the Jews in John 18:30 were accusing Jesus of being a “robber,” an allegation that lacks any plausible basis.

[15] Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 5, 3; in Patrologia Latina 6.560-61.

[16] Josephus, War IV-VII, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, LCL (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), pp. 648-50 (brackets in this translated source).

[17] See Thomas F. Matthews, The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, Rev. ed.,  (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 54–91, and Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (New York: Routledge, 2000), 64–93.

 

[18] Matthews, Clash of the Gods, 59.

 

[19] For Circe, see Odyssey 10.293, 388; Virgil Aeneid, 7.189–91; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14.278, 413. For Mercury, see Odyssey, 24.1; Virgil, Aeneid, 4.242; and Prudentius, Contra Symachum, 1.89–91 all cited in Matthews, Clash of the Gods, 58–59. I thank Josh Probert for his research on early Christian art.

Preparing for Easter: Using the Days of Holy Week to Enrich Your Celebration

By Eric D. Huntsman

“There would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, Dec. 2000, 2)

I am convinced that if it were not for commercial and cultural factors, Easter would be more important to us than Christmas. As President Hinckley noted in the quote above, Christmas is only significant because of the miracle of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and his glorious resurrection.

With Palm Sunday and the week before Easter, much of the Christian world enters into a period of reflection and celebration known as “Holy Week.” Each of the events chronicled in this last week casts light on Jesus’ true nature as the Son of God, and reviewing them deepens the faith of believers in his matchless love.

While the LDS community does not formally observe Holy Week, the period from Palm Sunday to Easter morning present a wonderful opportunity for believers to use the scriptures to reflect upon the last days of our Lord’s earthly ministry. Striving to observe Holy Week and celebrate Easter more fully over the past years has convinced me that the best ways to do this are first through personal study, and second, through developing rich family traditions.

My 2011 volume God So Loved the World: The Final Days of the Savior’s Life and a subsequent online blog, LDS Seasonal Materials, represent my previous attempts to make Holy Week more accessible for Latter-day Saints. This current effort, a collation of the New Testament texts of Jesus’ final week, aims to supplement my earlier materials by bringing the scriptural accounts to individuals and families in what I hope is a useful format.

In one sense, it is a collection of scriptures in the early Christian tradition of a lectionary, a collection of readings for given days or occasions. In another, it is a soft academic effort to help readers better understand the source materials—particularly how the four gospels relate to each other while simultaneously painting unique portraits of Jesus and his final week. It is more of a collation than a harmony, and it is arranged as a reader’s edition, formatted in paragraphs rather than verses, labeling sections, and using modern conventions such as quotation marks to better indicate dialogue.

Whether used in connection with my earlier publications or used alone for one’s scripture readings in the days leading up to Easter, I hope that you and your families may find this a useful resource in celebrating the greatest story ever told.

Eric Huntsman Lent 2017

The Last Days of Jesus: A Collation of the New Testament Texts

A Holy Week Lectionary to be used with God So Loved the World, “Easter Meditations: From Palm Sunday to Easter Morning,” or the LDS Seasonal Materials blog

While Latter-day Saints do not formally observe the last days of Jesus’ life, this period is an ideal time to deepen our understanding of and faith in what the Lord did for us. We can use this sacred time to worship with both our minds and our hearts through both concentrated personal study of the pertinent scriptures and rich family traditions that use these events as opportunities to share testimony and feel the spirit. Continue reading

Exploring Jesus’ Question in Mark 3:4

By Julie M. Smith

             In Mark 3:4, Jesus asks if it is acceptable to save life or to kill on the sabbath as part of a response to those who would criticize him for healing a man’s withered hand on the sabbath. Jewish tradition permitted breaking the sabbath in order to save a life,[1] so the Pharisees would have readily agreed that one can save a life on the sabbath no matter what rules have to be broken to do so. But the man’s hand is unlikely to cause his death in the next day, which raises questions about how this saying would apply here and leads to several different interpretations of Jesus’ statement:

  1. Jesus is alluding to Deuteronomy 30:14-19 (where the Lord sets out two paths, one of life and the other of death) which implies that this situation has two paths: one where the man’s full life, including temple worship, is possible, and one with a wooden examination for sabbath violations, ending with the goal of killing Jesus. Because the Deuteronomy text mentions cursings, Jesus is suggesting that the Pharisees have chosen to curse themselves by choosing (Jesus’) death over (the man’s) life. Jesus’ allusion makes clear that the Pharisees are on the side of the wicked, a truly remarkable accusation. Deuteronomy 30:14 mentions the mouth, heart, hands, and doing, all four of which are also mentioned in this story in Mark.[2] In the Hebrew Bible text, references to the hand are prominent in the context of the violation of covenants as a result of failing to act; if this is paralleled to Mark’s text, it implies that the man with the withered hand is literally suffering the consequences of the curses of inaction, from which Jesus rescues him by his own action. As is typical in Mark’s healing miracles, atonement theology comes into play as Jesus exchanges roles with the man.
  2. The passage implies that withholding healing is a form of killing: “Jesus makes withholding the cure of the man’s paralyzed hand, even for a few hours, tantamount to killing him, and performing the cure immediately tantamount to saving his life. For Mark’s Jesus, the [last days] war is already raging, and on that battlefield every human action either strikes a blow for life or wields one for death; the cautious middle ground, upon which one might wait a few minutes before doing good, has disappeared.”[3]
  3. Jewish tradition held that if there is any doubt concerning whether life is in danger, it is acceptable to heal on the sabbath—and the example offered is a sore throat![4] Since there is at least a hypothetical chance that the withered hand could cause the man’s death before the sabbath is over and it would show callous disregard for the man’s life to take the risk, healing him constitutes saving a life. And the objectors’ actions are all the more venal since Jesus’ healing was permitted under the law.
  4. “Life” is to be understood as “quality of life.” The man’s withered hand would have prevented him from participating in temple worship.[5] So Jesus is not merely restoring a hand, but restoring his ability to engage in temple worship. This reading links this story to Mark 2:1-12, since restoring the man’s hand makes worshiping possible, just as the forgiveness in Mark 2:1-12 restores the man’s spiritual wholeness.
  5. “Save” can have a theological meaning in Mark.[6] This would imply that Jesus’ miracle will increase the man’s faith and therefore “save” his soul—an action most appropriate to the sabbath. This reading creates a nice link to this controversy story’s chiastic partner (Mark 2:1-12), where the issue is forgiveness of sins.
  6. This statement is an example of exaggeration to make a point.[7]

Regardless of which interpretation is correct, Jesus’ reference to taking a life applies to the plot against his own life (see Mark 3:6). Obviously it is a violation to kill someone on any day of the week, and yet they are closely watching Jesus so they can level an accusation that will result in his death. In this sense, the contrast between his actions and theirs is clear: to any extent that Jesus is guilty of violating the sabbath, they are guilty of much, much worse.

One implication of Jesus’ statement is that the categories that they have adopted (“do” and “don’t do”) create horrifying outcomes since the man can be left disabled on the sabbath but it is permissible to plan a murder.

[1] See Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York:  Doubleday, 2002), 248.

[2] See Kurt Queller, “‘Stretch Out Your Hand!’ Echo and Metalepsis in Mark’s Sabbath Healing Controversy,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 737-758. The parallel to “doing” is found in the man’s action of stretching out his hand.

[3] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York:  Doubleday, 2002), 252.

[4] See Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark:  A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2007), 209.

[5] See Leviticus 21:16-23.

[6] See Mark 5:34, 10:26, and 13:13.

[7] See N. T. France, The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2002), 150.

Palm Sunday

By Eric D. Huntsman
This post is excerpted from Dr. Huntsman’s blog, http://huntsmanseasonal.blogspot.com.

Palm Sunday is not a regular part of Latter-day Saint observance, and not even all Christian churches celebrate it.  Nevertheless, recounting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has a long history in the Christian tradition, and it plays an important in the liturgies of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches.  For me celebrating Palm Sunday truly opens Holy Week, setting it apart from other weeks by focusing my thoughts and faith on Christ my king. Continue reading

Anointing in Bethany in Mark 14:3-9

By Julie M. Smith

Structure of Mark 14 This lengthy chapter contains some of the most significant events of Jesus’ story: his anointing, his observance of Passover, his prayer in Gethsemane, his abandonment and betrayal by his disciples, his arrest, his examination by the Jewish leaders, and Peter’s denial of him. While other options are possible, this is one option for understanding the structure of this chapter:

  1. Death Plot (14:1-2)
  2. Anointing of Jesus (14:3-9)
  3. Death Plot (14:10-11)
  4. Preparation of the Passover (14:12-16)
  5. Prediction of Judas’ Betrayal (14:17-21)
  6. Last Supper (14:22-25)
  7. Prediction of Peter’s Betrayal (14:26-31)
  8. Preparation for the Passion (=Gethsemane Prayer) (14:32-42)
  9. Jesus Is Arrested (14:43-52)
  10. Peter Positioned to Deny Jesus (14:53-54)
  11. Jesus Is Examined by the Sanhedrin (14:55-65)
  12. Peter Denies Jesus (14:66-72)

The chapter has three main scenes (14:3-9, 14:22-25, and 14:55-65); each one focuses on the topic of Jesus’ identity (see the commentary below). Each is bracketed by reference to the betrayal of Jesus (14:1-12, 10-11, 17-21, 26-21, 53-54, 66-72). In between the three main scenes are scenes focused on the idea of preparation: first, the preparation for the Passover (14:12-16) and then preparation for the Passion (including Jesus’ arrest; 14:32-52). The framing of the Gethsemane scene in Mark’s story of Jesus as noteworthy: it prepares Jesus to face his suffering and death and it should have prepared the disciples as well (see the commentary below). Continue reading

Allusions to Isaiah and Exodus in Mark 3:1-6

by Julie M. Smith

Mark 3:1–6 reports Jesus healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath and provoking the anger of the Pharisees. Words in this passage bring to mind two passages from the Hebrew Bible.

Isaiah 56:1-8. This passage from Isaiah has several resonances with this story in Mark, including references to the sabbath, the hand, and being dried up. If Mark wrote with that story in mind, it suggests the following:

  1. In the Isaiah passage, the main concern is the exclusion of a physically imperfect man (a eunuch) from being counted among the people of the Lord. In Mark’s passage, the man with the withered hand would have been excluded from temple worship. So the topic at hand is not so much working on the sabbath but the inclusion or exclusion of people from the house of God. Mark’s story makes the point that restoring this man to the blessings of full participation in the house of Israel was a most appropriate act for the sabbath. Isaiah 56:3 emphasizes that the Lord’s ministry will not and must not exclude anyone, so by analogy, Mark’s story implies that Jesus will not allow this man to be excluded from the blessings of full participation.
  2. The Isaiah text is focused on the will and actions of the Lord, who is the one who restores the eunuch. Thus, Mark’s text focuses attention on Jesus as the Lord who reveals righteousness (see Isaiah 56:1).
  3. Immediately after issuing the command to promote justice (Isaiah 56:1), the Lord commands the people to keep the Sabbath. This parallel ensures that Mark’s story is not interpreted as encouraging lawlessness, but rather as promoting honoring the Sabbath by saving a life.
  4. The Isaiah passage ends with a reference to the Lord gathering all people who will follow him. In the Markan context, the withered man is one of those people (at least literarily if not literally). The position of the Pharisees is that it is acceptable to exclude this man; Jesus’ position is that including this man supersedes the need to follow the Sabbath rules. Because the prevailing interpretation of Sabbath rules permitted violations when life was at stake, Jesus’ point here is that exclusion from the temple rituals constitutes a sort of living death.

Exodus 14. The following points of contact between this story and Exodus 14 have been identified:[1]

  1. “Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3:5) is the same phrase as in LXX Exodus 14:16. This parallel puts the man with the withered hand in the role of Moses and Jesus in the role of the God of the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus, the stretched hand introduces plagues, but in Mark’s story, it ends one; this inversion speaks to Jesus’ power to right wrongs and perhaps even subtly alludes to the Atonement. Much as the plagues were a witness to Pharaoh, the ending of the man’s plague should be a witness to the Pharisees of Jesus’ power. (One of the most remarkable—and yet rarely remarked upon—aspects of Mark’s story is that the scribes seem completely unaffected by witnessing a miracle.) Just as Moses and Aaron stretch forth their hands to enact plagues that condemn Pharaoh, the man’s stretching out of his hand seems like it will condemn Jesus (to the death plot) but, ironically, ends up condemning the Pharisees.
  2. The word for “restored” (Greek: apokathistemi) is the same word used in LXX Exodus 14:27, where the waters are “restored.” There are two possible ways to understand this parallel: First, much as the restoring of the water resulted in the death of the Egyptian army, the restoring of the man’s hand results in Jesus death (as a result of the Pharisees’ plot). Unlike Pharaoh’s army, however, Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing, a fact which encourages the reader to draw some conclusions here about the atonement, mainly that Jesus’ suffering is unjustified. Second, the restoring of the waters is what made it possible for the children of Israel to be free. Similarly, the restoring of the man’s hand frees him to fully participate in life and worship. (And in a typical example of Mark’s irony, it has precisely the opposite effect on Jesus since it will ultimately lead to his death.)
  3. “In the midst of the sea” (LXX Exodus 14:16, 22, and 23) might explain the odd phrasing in Mark 3:3 inviting the man to appear in the middle (Greek: meson, midst). Much as the focus in Exodus 14 is on the miraculous action that affects the sea, the focus in Mark’s story should not be on the watching Pharisees or the death plot but on the miracle that happens to the man.
  4. The reference to hardness of heart parallels Pharaoh’s hardness of heart (despite the fact that the LXX uses different language to describe it).
  5. The “withered” (=dried out) hand might allude to the Red Sea, which also becomes “dried out,” although the same word is not used. In both cases, the “restoration” points to miraculous powers and divine care.
  6. Just as Pharaoh’s plot to enslave the Hebrews failed because of divine intervention, the Pharisees’ plot to kill Jesus will ultimately fail because of the Resurrection.

 

[1] See Kurt Queller, “‘Stretch Out Your Hand!’ Echo and Metalepsis in Mark’s Sabbath Healing Controversy,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 737-758.

Is There a Mistake in Mark 2:26?

by Julie M. Smith

And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?”

             Many manuscripts omit the phrase “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” presumably because in 1 Samuel 21, the priest in question was Ahimelech and not Abiathar. (Some variant readings state that it was during the lifetime of, not during the high priesthood of, Abiathar.[1]) There are many theories to explain the reference to “Abiathar” in this text:

  1. It did not refer to the time of the high priest but rather to the section of the scroll where the story about the bread could be found.[2] (Most are not convinced by this theory.)
  2. The phrase meant “in the lifetime of Abiathar.”
  3. It originally read “the father of Abiathar” but “the father of” dropped out because the beginning of the words “father” and “Abiathar” were similar.[3] (But why would Jesus refer to “the father of Abiathar”?)
  4. The whole phrase is a later addition. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the text is that it is difficult to understand why Jesus would have made reference to any high priest, as it is not relevant to the story. So perhaps this phrase was an early (and incorrect) gloss. This would explain why the line is missing from Matthew and Luke: it was not included in their copies of the Gospel of Mark.
  5. The earlier reading, referring to Abiathar, is a textbook example of “the mistakes of men”[4] that can occur in a record: either Mark (or his source) erred in naming Abiathar here.[5] Because Abiathar was associated with David as the high priest during his reign,[6] it is an understandable mistake.

Most scholars agree that the text is in error; the other theories come mostly from those committed to the inerrancy of scripture. While the error is not terribly significant, it does raise an interesting question:  does the mistaken referent stem from Jesus or from Mark (or his source)? If it was Mark’s or his source’s error, then we have an instance where Mark did not correctly record Jesus’ words. If it was Jesus’ error—an option most LDS would not find acceptable, although perhaps some readings of Luke 2:52 (“and Jesus increased in wisdom”) would permit such a position—then that would speak to the nature of his mortal limitations.

[1] See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart:  United Bible Societies, 2001), page 68.

[2] See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 116.

[3] See Robert H. Stein, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2008), 146.

[4] Title Page, The Book of Mormon.

[5] Note that both Matthew and Luke omit any reference to the high priest.

[6] See C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1959), 116.

Exploring Mark 2:17

by Julie M. Smith

 “When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

 When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them. Note that Jesus is answering a question that was directed not to him but to his disciples.

There may be a contrast between the scribes who see and Jesus who hears:  the scribes are reacting to Jesus’ actions but Jesus is reacting to their words. Later in Mark, the distinction between words and deeds will become more pronounced.

They that are whole have no need of the physician but they that are sick. Because a similar sentiment can be found in other ancient writings, it is likely that Jesus is quoting a proverb here.[1]

Note that Jesus’ statement not only permits eating with sinners, but casts it as a requirement of his ministry:  “it is ridiculous to imagine a doctor who refuses to meet his patients; so any effective ‘healer’ must expect to get his hands dirty.”[2]

Allusion:  Exodus 15:26. In that passage, the Lord announces “I am the Lord that healeth thee.” If that text is alluded to here, then it is an important piece of self-revelation as Jesus identifies with the God of the Hebrew Bible.

I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. “To repentance” is missing from the oldest manuscripts. It may have been added to harmonize with Luke 5:32; Luke may have added it to explain why Jesus did not call the righteous.

  “I came” probably does not refer to Jesus’ presence near the Sea of Galilee but rather to his mortal mission; even some non-LDS scholars think that it points to Jesus’ awareness of and teaching about the pre-existence.[3]

There are at least two ways to understand Jesus’ statement that he did not come to call the righteous:

  1. Jesus is doing the ancient equivalent of putting air quotes around “the righteous,” meaning that he is not claiming that there is a group of people who can be called righteous, but rather gently mocking the scribes’ (incorrect) use of the word. Jesus’ statement “satirizes the Pharisees’ claim to have achieved righteousness by separation from sin.”[4] It is even possible to translate this word as “self-righteous.”[5] So this would not imply that there were people to whom Jesus offered nothing, but rather that there were people who did not respond to his call because they considered themselves to be righteous. This statement is a subtle but provocative way for Jesus to get his audience to consider whether they are completely righteous.
  2. The statement can be read as dialectical negation, a form of speech meant to emphasize the positive half of the statement.[6] Thus no great emphasis should be placed on whether Jesus was calling the righteous; the point is that his ministry gives more emphasis to sinners.

While the previous verse has multiple references to publicans and sinners, publican drops out of Jesus’ statement here. This breach of the pattern may be Jesus’ subtle commentary that the tax collectors were not sinners of a special class, but no different from any other sinner.

Several important truths can be gleaned from Jesus’ answer:

  1. Jesus is teaching that sin in another person is not a reason to separate from that person. Because everyone sins, a separatist mindset would either require withdrawing from all human society or ignoring some sins.
  2. The Pharisees’ focus is on what effect the sinners will have on Jesus; Jesus’ focus is on what effect he will have on the sinners.
  3. Jesus presents an analogy between sin and sickness; this is part of a theology of the atonement that develops gradually throughout the Gospel. The analogy subtly teaches that forgiveness for sins is outside the reach of any human; it points to the need for a mediator (a doctor, one who can atone).
  4. Jesus’ statement puts an entirely different spin on the calling of the disciples: they were called not because they were (already) perfect or (already) excellent leaders, but because Jesus called the sick who needed him to heal them so that they could become perfected.

The Hebrew Bible develops the idea of the messianic banquet–a future time of harmony and celebration between God and humans that is symbolized by a feast.  It is possible to see this meal as a foreshadowing of the messianic banquet, which makes the presence of “sinners” all the more meaningful because it teaches that they also have a seat at God’s table.

[1]See N. T. France, The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 135.

[2]See N. T. France, The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 135.

[3]See C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1959), 106.

[4]Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York:  Doubleday, 2002), 231.

[5]See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 228.

[6]See Robert A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary:  Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas, TX:  Word Books, 1989), 104.

Comparing Mark 2:13-17 and Mark 1:16-20

By Julie M. Smith

There are many similarities between Levi’s call in Mark 2 and the two call stories (of Peter and Andrew and James and John) in Mark 1 (see full text below):  the seaside setting, the description of the future disciple going about his daily tasks, Jesus’ abrupt command to follow, and the disciples’ instant obedience. There are no similar call stories after this one; we can either assume that all disciples received similar calls but Mark saw no need to record them after the pattern was established, or that they were not called as Simon, Andrew, James, John, and Levi were.

Levi has a very different occupation and social role than the four fishermen. While Jesus was able to make symbolic allusions to the Hebrew Bible by calling fishermen, calling a tax collector was a shocking thing to do: it made him look sympathetic to the Romans and would have offended Jewish sensibilities. In fact, this story isn’t so much about the call of Levi per se as it is about who Jesus thinks is fit to be a disciple—and his answer would likely have stunned just about everyone.

It is possible that Levi knew the four fishermen and had collected taxes on their catch (and kept some as his own payment). If so, one can only imagine the dynamics among the disciples as Levi is welcomed into the circle of brotherhood.

In a sense, the call of Levi represents a heightening of the previous call stories: while it would have been possible for the fishermen to return to their fishing, either occasionally or full time, it would not have been possible for Levi to resume his post after abandoning it.[1]

[1]See C. S. Mann, Mark:  A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1986), 129.

christ-calling-fishermenMark 1:16-20 

16 Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.

17 And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.

18 And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.

19 And when he had gone a little further thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets.

20 And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him.

Mark 2:13-17

13 And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them.

14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.

15 And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him.

16 And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat withpublicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?

17 When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that arewhole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

 

Who is “Levi the son of Alphaeus” in Mark 2:14?

By Julie M. Smith 

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.”

When a relationship is mentioned (“son of Alphaeus”), it is normally either because:

  1. The relative (in this case, Alphaeus) was known to Mark’s audience.
  2. Mark wants to distinguish the person from others with the same name. (While there is no other Levi in Mark’s Gospel, there could have been another Levi known to Mark’s audience.)

We do not know which is the case here. Either way, this phrase presents a bit of a puzzle since Levi is not mentioned elsewhere in the NT[1] and since there is no “Levi” on the lists of the Twelve.[2] There are several possibilities for what has happened here:

  1. Mark 3:18 refers to James as the “son of Alphaeus.” So:
    • Levi might be the brother of James (which is a helpful data point, but doesn’t solve the problem).
    • “Levi” might be another name for “James.” (Some manuscripts read “James” instead of “Levi” here, but that is almost certainly a later reading.) It was not uncommon for people to be known by more than one name; we know that Jesus himself renamed a disciple on at least one occasion although, unlike with Simon Peter, there is no story in the text describing a renaming of Levi.
    • It is possible that this might not even be the same “Alphaeus;” there could be no relationship whatsoever between Levi and James.
  2. The reason that Levi is not mentioned on any of the lists of the Twelve is because Levi was not one of the Twelve. This story states that Jesus called Levi to follow him but does not mention a specific calling; it is certainly possible that Jesus called Levi to a different role.[3]
  3. Matthew 9:9-13, which is parallel to this story, has a toll collector named Matthew (although he is not called the son of Alphaeus). Because the name Matthew appears on the apostolic lists and he was also a publican, perhaps Levi was another name for Matthew. (This seems to be how the Gospel of Matthew understands this story, but this does not necessarily mean that Mark understood the situation in the same way.)
  4. The word “Levi” could be a tribal marker (“the Levite”) and not a proper name. The idea of a Levite tax collector would be most ironic, since tax collectors were regarded as particularly unclean while Levites needed to be clean to perform the temple rituals. But most scholars do not accept reading “Levite” here since it would be odd for Jesus to call someone without his name being included in the story.

Regardless, the emphasis here is not on Levi’s identity, but the fact that he was a tax collector.[4]

[1]Save the parallel account in Luke 5:27.

[2]See Mark 3:16-18.

[3]Compare Luke 10:1.

[4]See Ben W. Witherington, The Gospel of Mark:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 120.