I, Scribe

And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. Mark 1:21-22

Jesus taught as one with authority and not as a scribe. By itself, this is not a contrast between good and bad. It is a contrast between self-authenticating and non-self-authenticating authority. Mark might as well have written, “he taught them as one who had authority and not as one of the pastors.” I am a scribe.

The scribes interpreted and applied the authoritative text and so do I. I have the same authority as the scribes: none of my own. There is a reason that we use the word “canon” to describe the holy scriptures. Canon means “measuring rod.” The scriptures are the authoritative standard by which all claims to ultimate must be measured. The only authority I have is the text that I attempt to interpret.

Someone asked a colleague once, “Where’d you get that information you presented at staff meeting?”

It’s “MSU data,” he replied.

“MSU?”

“Make stuff up.” (Well, he didn’t exacly say “stuff”.)

As a Christian leader, I am not free just to “make stuff up” when it comes to teaching the truth of God. There is no authority in my own wisdom, my feelings or in my opinion about how things ought to be. My only authority is derived from God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel which culminated in Jesus Christ. The only revelation that means anything is the one in scripture. The only Jesus that counts for anything is the one of scripture.

In his Smyth and Helwys Commentary on Matthew, Ben Witherington argues that first evangelist intends to portray discipleship in his community as taking place within the scribal tradition. Nobody is harder on the “scribes” than Matthew, but Matthew also sees the possibility that a new form of scribe can emerge. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The new scribe, the Christian scribe, bases his teaching on the whole word of God, which now includes (and is controlled by) God’s self-revelation in Jesus. Making disciples in Matthew’s church means “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The Christian scribe, in the Matthean tradition, faithfully transmits and interprets the Jesus tradition he has received. The Jesus tradition, in turn, completes and expands God’s authoritative revelation in the larger body of what we call the Old Testament. True authority resides only in the treasures, both old and new, of God’s self-revelation.

Like Matthew, Mark is pretty tough on the scribes throughout most of his gospel. Only Mark 12:28-34 casts a scribe in a favorable light, and that comes in a passage that portrays Jesus as the ultimate authority on the interpretation of holy scripture. Nevertheless, Mark 1:21-22 distinguishes Jesus from the scribes in a way that would apply to everyone else that has ever lived. Jesus taught with a self-authenticating authority; the rest of us exercise only a derivative authority.

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