Mark, the first gospel chronologically, goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour within the first half of his first chapter. Mark opens with an immediate quote of stirring words from the 4th century BCE prophet Isaiah announcing the appearance of a divine herald–”prepare ye the way of the Lord. Clear a straight path for him.” That herald is John the Baptist, baptizing crowds in the Jordan River and forgiving sins. John predicted that another one like him, but greater, was coming. Indeed, Jesus appears and is baptized, when the skies open and the voice of God declares, “You are my beloved Son.” From there, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Devil for 40 days and 40 nights to be tempted. Already only 14 verses in, when Jesus returns, John the Baptist has been imprisoned, and Jesus takes up preaching, “The time has arrived, the kingdom of God is upon you–repent and believe the gospel.”
So far, Mark has used up only 15 short verses, and we are way into the meat of the story. The pace really quickens now. Jesus goes about teaching and encounters men fishing in the Sea of Galilee to whom he calls out, “Follow me,” and four of them do. They go into the city of Capernaum, where they attend the Sabbath services. Jesus teaches there, too, and people listened, astounded. Mark says, because he taught as one with authority. So, very quickly, very quickly in Mark’s version, we see Jesus take up his calling and take hold of his audiences. He appears and takes the public stage immediately in this gospel.
“He taught as one with authority.” What did he teach? He taught God’s Word from the scripture he knew, the Hebrew Bible. And by what authority? Was Jesus credentialed and vetted to speak in the Temple? The gospel says he was baptized by John and divinely adopted. Was he of the priestly class, raised to read and interpret scripture–No. Was he even literate, or had he absorbed everything he knew of scripture from hearing oral recitation? We don’t know. But he taught as one with authority.
The theological explanation given by scripture and tradition is that Jesus was God or the Son of God. Be that as it may, in human terms what would this mean? What would make him so persuasive? First, it was the content of his message–it replicated very closely what was in Hebrew scripture and law. Jesus was clear that he did not come to abrogate the law but to fulfil it. Jesus rendered teaching that everybody already knew, but in a way that entered their hearts as never before. Again, how does that happen? Do we accept it as part of the miraculous, that Jesus was Jesus? Or is there something to learn here about our Savior that may engrave him in our hearts as he entered their hearts?
Let’s look at Mark’s report again–he taught as one “with authority.” It was not necessary to say he taught with “great authority,” it was enough to say “with authority” because that raised Jesus to a recognized level of public worthiness. I think it is legitimate to wonder, what did that entail between speaker and listener? No cinematic treatment has ever portrayed this mystery other than by close-ups of transcendent blandness. Because, they didn’t solve the problem.
No, but we can turn to the word “authority” itself for our clue. The word is related to “author” via the Latin “augere,” which means to increase, to augment. What does an author do but to increase and augment knowledge, to add and enrich what we know? And we know how scholars do this through research and so forth. But only after they have rendered past knowledge “in their own words.” An author’s authority comes from conveying and enlarging past or existing knowledge “in their own words.” What is important about that?
Here’s proof. If all Dr. Elizabeth or I did was to quote pages of the Bible or pages of commentaries or pages of experts, the letter would fall dead on the floor between us. But no, we augment what we have learned and quoted with understanding and words of our own–by which you feel that she personally owns this knowledge and takes it to greater depths. She has attained authority when you are moved to thank the preacher for something in the message. It is all due to the fact that it all came out “in her own words.” She personalized the truth of scripture by taking it off the printed page and lifting to your ears “in her own words.” You probably felt she was speaking “with authority.” Anyone is, when they are the author and speaking their own words.
In Jesus’ case, he took what he learned from the sacred texts, which were printed texts, and spoke them by memory and “in his own words.” He did introduce a certain augmentation, enriched it with his personal ownership. When you do that, you are not regurgitating formulas in a conventional way, but giving life to the words.
Hearing the words, as people exclusively did until the advent of the printing press, was a kind of magic. The Bible was known mainly auditorily. When people read a text, they did not do so silently, but speaking the words out loud. Here we are, a people of the Book, and yet its power is auditory.
You have probably experienced the truth of this. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s see what happens if we do with Jesus’ teachings what he did with Hebrew scripture. Take a piece of notebook paper. Then take 45 minutes and write down as much as you remember of Jesus’ teaching. You may fill the page before time is up–that’s ok. Time may run out before you have thought of much–that’s ok too. The goal is to see how our memory of scripture stands up in this modern age when we depend too much on the printed text. Do we experience Jesus in our ears at all?