A Prophet like Me
Deut 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28
At the beginning of the gospel according to Mark, the author is quick to establish Jesus’ uniqueness. At the synagogue in Capernaum Jesus does two distinctive things: he teaches as one with authority and he drives an unclean spirit out of a man. The response of the people in the synagogue is important for us to pay attention to in order to understand how remarkable Jesus’ actions were: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). The thing that is truly noteworthy is the way Jesus teaches with authority. And, as a secondary thought, he commands unclean spirits and they obey him.
The shocking thing about Jesus’ behavior in the synagogue was his teaching authority in Capernaum. During this time, many healers and false-messiahs were combing the countryside, performing healing miracles (Honi and Hanina stand out as particularly famous wonder-workers – see Geza Vermes’ Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels p69-78). What was unique was Jesus’ teaching with authority. But what does this authority mean?
In Jewish thinking, there is an unbroken chain of authority to teach and interpret the words of God stretching back to Moses at Sinai. The last tractate of the Mishnah – a collection of Jewish law which was codified near 200 CE because of the threat of too few learned men to preserve interpretative traditions – the chain of authority to teach was laid out. “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets and the prophets to the men of the great assembly [Sanhedrin]. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgement, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Torah” (Pirke Avot 1:1). This “Torah from Sinai” that was passed on to Joshua was not the Bible/ Pentateuch/Written Torah. That was given to Aaron, the leaders of the congregation and all of Israel (Exodus 34:31-32). The Torah addressed by Pirke Avot is the Oral Torah, the interpretive principles and then later the collection of interpretations for understanding, explain and expounding upon the written words. This was explicitly not given to Aaron, priests or the people, but kept for Joshua, the elders and prophets to help interpret the words of God for the people.
The best way I have heard this explained was Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish’s interpretation of Deut 33:2 to say that the Bible is black fire which is written on white fire. The ink preserves the written text, and the page under it preserves the space for authoritative interpretations. The chain of interpreters revealed the white fire of explanation under the black fire of text.
We Christians understand that Jesus was, among other things, the fulfillment of the prophesy of Deuteronomy 18 that there would come another prophet like Moses who would arise from the Israelites and speak truthfully the words of the Lord. People asked John the Baptizer if he was the promised prophet (John 1:21) but he did not claim to be. Jesus, on the other hand does not claim to be the prophet, but he does fulfill the requirement to only speak what he heard from God when he said, “I did not speak on my own, but only what I was commanded to say by the Father” (John 12:49).
What the people in the synagogue in Capernaum were reacting to, then, was Jesus’ teaching on the text with the authority of one who knows what is behind the words. Jesus revealed the white fire behind the black fire, and God’s heart behind God’s words.
The gospels preserve many of Jesus’ miracles, and we are grateful to know how God’s power breaks out into this world. What we cannot lose sight of is that Jesus’ ministry was largely about teaching as well as healing. The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), my favorite passage in scripture, and the sermon on the plain (Luke 6:17-49) give us an idea of Jesus’ basic curriculum as he traveled around.
I think of the sermon on the mount as Jesus’ stump speech, if you will. In an era before radio and print, if you wanted to reproduce a message, you had to say it several times, several different places to thousands of different people. This is exactly what Jesus did. Indeed, Jesus fulfilled the commandment of Pirke Avot 1:1 to make deliberate judgements, multiply disciples and build a fence around the Torah, especially with his intensification of commandments in Matt 5:21-48.
We are left to wonder what Jesus told the people gathered at the synagogue in Capernaum. We know what he taught on other occasions, and he certainly had authority to teach and offer interpretations of the Biblical text. What we know from Mark’s gospel is that Jesus did not teach as a mere scribe or someone who had learned to repeat the Bible. Jesus fulfilled the prophesy of a prophet like Moses arising to explain God’s heart behind God’s word, and to reveal the white fire upon which the black fire of the text is written.