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The Authority Question

Nov 20, 2014

Luke 20:1, 2 says,

1 And it came about on one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him, 2 and they spoke, saying to Him, “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?”

In those days rabbis normally did not have the right to teach by their own authority. There were two kinds of rabbis—those without authority and those with authority. Those without authority were under the “yoke” of the rabbi who had trained him, and he was expected to teach what he had been taught. But Jesus’ teachings were very different from other rabbis, and it was obvious that He was acting as a rabbi with authority.

Jesus’s teachings showed that He had constructed a different yoke for His disciples, one that was not as burdensome as other rabbis’ yokes. Jesus said in Matthew 11:29, 30,

29 Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.

Rabbinical School

It was the goal of most parents in those days that their sons would become rabbis. The first step, however, was that a son had to memorize the book of Leviticus by the age of six. If he accomplished this, then he moved on to memorize the entire Torah by the age of twelve. Of course, in his training he was also expected to understand it well enough to engage in a serious discussion.

In those days such discussions were not about giving right answers, but about asking the right questions which would extend the conversation indefinitely. It was presumed that the law was inexhaustible, and questions provoked deeper probes into its truth. Hence, understanding ought to have been increased as time passed—and in many ways it did. However, the downside was that the rabbis often went far beyond the law’s dictates, and so their yokes became burdensome, and traditions of men flourished.

When Jesus was twelve, His parents took Him to Passover that year, where he became separated from them for a few days. His parents found Him in the temple. Luke 2:46, 47 says,

46 And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, siting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.

When rabbis saw potential in such a boy, a rabbi might arrange to have him become his disciple. The official ordination was done by saying, “Follow me.” The disciple then studied under that rabbi until he reached the age of thirty. This was the age of maturity. The number thirty is the number of dedication for rulership in biblical numerology. The Hebrew letter ל (lamed) carries a numeric value of thirty, and the lamed literally means an ox goad, which symbolized authority. Hence, in this context, the age of thirty was when a disciple became a rabbi in his own right.

However, he was only a rabbi without authority in the sense that he was expected to perpetuate the teachings of his trainer. So how did a rabbi receive authority to form his own yoke? It required two witnesses.

There were a few rabbis with authority, which seemed to come, they said, about every third generation.

We know that Jesus shunned the title of rabbi (Matthew 23:8), but John tells us that He was actually a qualified rabbi, recognized by John’s disciples (John 1:38) and even by Nicodemus (John 3:2). Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), that is, a member of the Sanhedrin. He was a distinguished rabbi and a friend of Jesus’ great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea.

It is likely that Jesus was Joseph’s disciple during the so-called “silent years” of Jesus life, from the age of twelve until He began His ministry at the age of thirty. As a disciple, Jesus traveled with His uncle Joseph, for Joseph was also the Minister of Mining for the Roman government, and he owned tin mines in Cornwall, England. I believe that Jesus had been a world traveler prior to His baptism and ministry. One can only imagine their conversations on those long voyages. What sort of questions did Jesus ask Joseph? Who taught who?

The Three Witnesses

When Jesus was thirty, He went to Rabbi John the Baptist, who immediately bore witness of Him, for we read in John 1:15, “John bore witness of Him.” John, too, was a rabbi (John 3:26). Jesus needed a second witness to confirm Him as a rabbi with authority, so the voice from heaven bore Him the second witness, as we read in Matt. 3:17,

17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

Of these two witnesses, we read in John 5:33 and 37,

33 You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth… 37 And the Father who sent Me, He has borne witness of Me.

Jesus also had a third witness—His works, for in John 5:36 Jesus says,

36 But the witness which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works that I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me.

Two witnesses established His authority, but if anyone needed clarification, they could see His works as a third witness and know for certain that He was a rabbi with authority.

Jesus then picked twelve disciples, saying to each of them, “Follow Me.” These were all drop-outs, for no rabbi had called them with those coveted words, “Follow me.” Hence, when Jesus called them, they were all working at their secular professions. But Jesus trained them for just three years and then ordained them as His rabbis (apostles). He bore them personal witness, the Father bore witness from heaven at Pentecost, and the signs that followed them bore them a third witness.

During the final week of Jesus’ ministry, as He taught in the temple, some chief priests, scribes, and elders confronted Him with the question of authority. Luke 20:3-8 says,

3 And He answered and said to them, “I shall also ask you a question, and you tell Me: 4 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” 5 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why did you not believe Him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” 7 And they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8 And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Joseph of Arimathea had made Jesus a rabbi, but Jesus appealed to the witness of John, because he was the earthly witness that had made Jesus a rabbi with authority. The chief priests had rejected the baptism of John. Later, they were relieved when King Herod gave the order to execute John.

The Memrah

There was one further step in the upward climb of a rabbi that was reserved only for the Messiah. It was called the memrah, the idea that the rabbi with authority was so perfect that his very life was the fulfillment of the law. He was the word made flesh. That is, he lived the word of God by manifestation. The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII, pages 464-465, 1904 edition, says,

MEMRA (= “Ma’amar” or “Dibbur,” “Logos”): “The Word,” in the sense of the creative or directive word of speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for “the Lord” when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided….

“The Memra,” instead of “the Lord,” is “the consuming fire” (Targ. Deut. ix. 3, comp. Targ. Isa. xxx. 27). The Memra “plagued the people” (Targ. Yer. to Ex. xxxii. 35.)

“Not His “hand,” but His “Memra has laid the foundation of the earth” (Targ. Isa. xlviii. 13)…

Like the Shekinah (comp. Targ. Num. xxiii. 21), the Memrah is accordingly the manifestation of God. “The Memra brings Israel nigh unto God and sits on His throne receiving the prayers of Israel” (Targ. Yer. to Deut. iv. 7)….

As in ruling over the destiny of man the Memra is the agent of God (Targ. Yer. to Num. xxvii. 16), so also is it in the creation of the earth (Isa. xlv. 12), and in the execution of justice (Targ. Yer. to Num. xxxiii. 4). So, in the future, shall the Memra be the comforter (Targ. Isa. lxvi. 13): “My Shekinah I shall put among you, My Memra shall be unto you for a redeeming deity, and you shall be unto My Name a holy people” (Targ. Yer. to Lev. xxii. 12). “My Memra shall be unto you like a good plowman who takes off the yoke from the shoulder of the oxen.”

The Jewish Encyclopedia also notes that the idea of the Memra was expressed by the early Christians by the Greek term, Logos. We read further on page 465,

“In the ancient Church liturgy, adopted from the Synagogue, it is especially interesting to notice how often the term “Logos,” in the sense of “the Word by which God made the world, or made His Law or Himself known to man,” was changed into “Christ” (see “Apostolic Constitutions,” vii. 25-26, 34-38, et al.). Possibly on account of the Christian dogma, rabbinic theology, outside of Targum literature, made little use of the term “Memra.”

John gives Jesus’ credentials, saying, “In the beginning was the memrah,” translated into Greek as the Logos, “the word.” It was used to represent God when He manifested Himself on earth. (Another word is the Shekinah.) John looked at the Messiah in the same way that the people looked at the memrah. It is the “image” of God. Heb. 1:3 reflects the same belief, saying,

3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.

Jesus fulfilled the expectations of the Memrah, but He was rejected because He did not use that power to release Judah from its captivity to Rome. Likewise, Jesus’ “yoke” was unlike that of other rabbis. He had greater similarity to the School of Hillel, which was peaceable and tried to submit to Rome, but Jesus was very different from the rival School of Shammai, which was ultra-nationalistic and hostile to Rome.

Those who confronted Jesus in Luke 20:1 were probably from the School of Shammai, whose rebelliousness influenced the people and eventually brought about the destruction of Jerusalem. These were the leaders of the evil figs, who took control of the temple just before Jesus was born. Their influence lasted until Jerusalem was destroyed, after which disaster they were largely discredited.


This is the 108th part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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