Israel and Israel's Leaders (Mark and Anti-Semitism)

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Regrettably, most commentaries on Mark (and on the other Gospels) contain comments such as “Israel rejected Jesus.” Such statements are not accurate (especially for Mark’s Gospel) and can easily polarize attitudes to contemporary Israel, leading to anti-Semitism on the one hand or uncritical support for Israel on the other.

At various points in my commentary on Mark, I point out the danger of a careless reading of Mark’s Gospel in terms of its references to Israel (see esp. comments on 12:1-12; TBC for 11:1-25 and for 11:27-12:44; TLC for 14:27-15:15). Israel was and is divided in its response to Jesus. Exactly the same is true for Gentiles. To create the Christian church, Israel was not replaced by Gentiles. Indeed, in NT times (and in NT theology) there is no such thing as a “Gentile church.” There is only a church composed of those within Israel who believed and those Gentiles who responded to the invitation to join them.

Did all Israel’s leaders reject Jesus? Mark does not say so. He says the whole Sanhedrin (council) condemned Jesus (14:64b; 15:1). Yet Mark acknowledges that there are exceptions among the religious leaders (cf. esp. 12:28-34). He reports that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council, asks for the body of Jesus (15:43; Luke 23:50-51 says Joseph did not agree to the council’s action). When Mark portrays religious leaders acting as a group, they are always opposed to Jesus. It is part of Mark’s characterization. When my commentary refers to scribes or Pharisees (or other religious groups), these comments refer to Mark’s characterization of them. I do not claim or imply that all or most of the historical Pharisees or scribes were exactly as Mark characterizes the groups.

Many of Israel’s first-century leaders were serious about their faith, eager to please God, and diligent in obeying God’s law. Many also were excessively legalistic, rejected Jesus, and ultimately plotted to have him put to death. Mark and other Gospel writers use titles like ‘’scribes and Pharisees’’ to refer to these without implying that they were all the same. See also references to various groups of religious leaders in S. Freyne (44) and M. J. Cook (81-83).


  • Cotter, Wendy J. “For It Was Not the Season for Figs.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 48 (1986): 62–66.

Timothy J. Geddert