A Day in the Life: Capernaum, Synagogues, and Jesus’ Authority – Part 1
Jesus begins His Sabbath day at the synagogue and spends time teaching there. Those hearing Him were “astonished” because His teaching was with authority. While teaching, a man who was demon possessed made himself known. The spirit cried out through the man calling Jesus the “Holy One of God,” and asking what He was going to do with them. Jesus silenced the spirit and cast it out. Those in the synagogue who witnessed everything were said to be “amazed” at the authority of His teaching and his authority over the demonic.
Mark begins by saying, “Then they went into Capernaum…” Edwards sees much significance in this and expounds on Capernaum and the surrounding area extensively. It seems Capernaum becomes Jesus’ center of operations after calling the disciples. Peter and Andrew come from there (after leaving the synagogue they go to Peter and Andrew’s house), there is geographical significance, in that it is on the border of territories controlled by Herod Phillip II and Herod Antipas (meaning it is distanced from Antipas who jailed John the Baptizer), and it was positioned on a major trade route. Capernaum had a heavily Jewish population, but also a significant Gentile population. “Relations between Jews and Geniles were evidently cordial since, according to Luke 7:1-10, a Roman centurion not only built a synagogue for the Jews in Capernaum, but on one occasion even found them pleading his case before Jesus,” says Edwards.
Mark continues, “…and right away He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and began to teach.” Jesus’ teaching astonished those in the Synagogue. His teaching astonished, “because, unlike the scribes, He was teaching them as one having authority.” In second temple Judaism, scribes served three roles, experts on Torah capable of offering binding decisions on meaning, teachers of the Torah (often given the title of rabbi), and finally they were legal jurists. “Thus,” says Edwards, “’Scribe’ combined the offices of professor, teacher and moralist, and civil lawyer.” Edwards goes on to say, “The scribes derive their authority from the ‘tradition of the elders’… The authority of the scribes is contingent on the authority of the Torah and hence a mediated authority.” Jesus simply appeals to the authority contained within himself as the “Son of God.” It is easy to see how Jesus’ authority could cause jealousy and other problems with leaders of synagogues.
“Just then,” Mark says, “a man with an unclean spirit was in their synagogue.” As if on queue, Jesus completes his teaching, and a demoniac appears. The “unclean spirit,” through the man, asks Jesus if He has come to destroy them, saying it knows who He is, “the Holy One of God.” Jesus commands silence and casts the spirit out of the man. The passage ends saying, “Then they were all amazed.” And they argued with each other about what His teaching and commanding of unclean spirits meant. Mark says, “News about Him then spread throughout the entire vicinity of Galilee.” “Henceforth in Mark both synagogues and scribes will, for the most part, play oppositional roles to Jesus,” (Edwards).
This passage is so vivid to me. There is so much to the scene. Jesus goes to synagogue with Peter, Andrew, James, and John on the Sabbath. While he is there he teaches the people assembled, astonishing them with his wisdom and authority. I can’t help but wonder what He taught. After teaching, a man with an unclean spirit cries out, calling Him the, “Holy One of God.” Jesus silences him and casts the demon out, amazing literally everyone in the synagogue. Had the disciples with Him seen Jesus teach or do anything like this before? Was it a new experience for them? Were others in the synagogue familiar with Jesus, or was He a stranger to them? The passage says the people argued about the meaning of Jesus’ authority in teaching and exorcism. What were the arguments over?
There is a method of meditating on scripture popularized by Ignatius of Loyola where you read a passage imagining yourself in the action. What is it like to be in the synagogue hearing Jesus’ teaching, seeing the exorcism, sitting with others observing the whole scene. Imagine the smells, do you imagine it was hot or cool in the synagogue? What would your thoughts be after the close of the meeting while walking home from the synagogue? Reread the passage imagining yourself in the action as a first century Jew experiencing Jesus for the first time. Ask God to teach you through this exercise, to show you something through it that you wouldn’t see simply by reading the passage.
For more information on the practice of Ignatian Contemplation, watch the video below. In it Fr. Jim Martin briefly explains the roots and method of the practice.