Friday, January 27, 2012

Beware of Yeasty Priests

After Jesus had fed 4000 people with only seven loaves of bread and few small fish, He worked His way around the coast of the Sea of Galilee where He was confronted by some Pharisees, and possibly some Sadducees, asking Him for a sign from Heaven. Jesus rebuked them for their request, and for not already understanding the signs of the times. Jesus and His disciples soon left there for another spot on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

Beware of Yeasty Priests
There are a number of times in the Gospels when Jesus' disciples are presented as stupid, for lack of a better word. They appear to be classic literary foils, strategically placed there to make Jesus appear that much more perfect. Yet if that is the case, we may have to redefine "perfect," at least what it means for a student-teacher relationship. For example, consider the episode of when Jesus warned His disciples about yeast.

This is another episode where it makes sense to start with Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. In Mark 8:14-21, Jesus tells His disciples to beware of the "yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod." His disciples, portrayed as being dumber than dirt, discuss among themselves that Jesus must be saying this because they forgotten to bring enough bread for their journey.

Why say that they appear dumber than dirt? Well, the bread that the Pharisees would have would be deemed Holy, and not available to distribute to the common people. As for Herod, it is unfathomable that they would even think of getting bread directly from their ruler. Clearly Jesus means something other than literal bread here, but what? It seems that the disciples were too distracted by the potential food problem to understand the absurdity of their own conclusion.

Jesus, sensing that the disciples did not understand what He had just said, does what any great teacher would do. He helped them understand... No. Wait, that is not right.

Instead, Jesus focused on the bread-shortage issue. He asks His disciples to remember about the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 people, and then asks them if they still do not understand. These miraculous feedings have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus' earlier statement about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. Instead, Jesus seemed to be reminding His disciples that they should not worry, because God will provide for them, just like He had said earlier in the Sermon on the Mount.

And that is it. Mark's account ends with no explanation about this mysterious yeast, which is obviously not really yeast. Fortunately, Matthew fixed that issue when he copied the story in Matthew 16:5-12. Matthew's version is mostly the same as Mark's, with a couple of notable exceptions.

In Matthew 16:6, Jesus tells His disciples to "guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." So Matthew changed Herod to be the Sadducees. Christian commentators generally waive this discrepancy because Herod had sided with the sect of the Sadducees over the Pharisees, and so, in a manner of speaking, he represented the Sadducees. That is certainly possible, but then Mark's use of a general term (Pharisees) to refer to a group and then a specific term (Herod) to instead represent a different group in the same sentence and context is linguistically awkward.

The other notable difference is in Matthew 16:12, where we finally discover what this mysterious yeast is:
Then [the disciples] understood that [Jesus] was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. NIV
Note Jesus had not actually told His disciples what He had meant by "yeast." Matthew's account followed the same pattern as Mark's, switching to a questioning of whether or not they understood the fact that God would provide food for them if they needed it. No, the disciples had figured out this meaning on their own.

Jesus was said to be a teacher, and good teachers must often try to nudge their own students (disciples) into figuring things out for themselves to promote true understanding. Students must be able to conceptually add two plus two, instead of just memorizing that the answer is four. So we should not be too hasty to judge Jesus for not explaining everything ad infinitum, but, at the same time, when you are dealing with less concrete concepts than basic mathematics, when you are dabbling in the language of metaphor, it is pretty important that you verify your students come up with correct understanding; that which we find in Luke.

Luke 12:1 does not give the episode which we found in Matthew and Mark, but it does have the same concept at heart, as you can see in an excerpt from that verse:
... Jesus began to speak first to His disciples, saying: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." NIV
Luke's version shows Jesus to be a better teacher, where Jesus gives the metaphor and explains the symbolic meaning enough to be easily understood. Hypocrisy is the "yeast," and if only a little yeast gets into a pure flour dough, the yeast will spread throughout it. So stop hypocrisy as soon as you find it, or else it can spread. It is a good metaphor and a good teaching.

There is just one problem; both Matthew and Luke cannot be right. OK, well, technically they could both be right, but it seems extremely unlikely. Matthew claims that the teaching is the yeast. Luke claims that the hypocrisy is the yeast. In the most common way in which "hypocrisy" is used, it is not a condemnation of the rules, ideals, or teachings, but rather condemnation of people who espouse rules, ideals, or teachings yet do not abide by them. In fact, for Jesus to claim that hypocrisy is the yeast, it could be claimed that it is a tacit approval of what the Pharisees were teaching.

Did you notice that Luke dropped the reference to the Sadducees? One of the primary divisions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is that the Pharisees had a concept of the afterlife, but Sadducees rejected that notion. In that way, the teaching of the Pharisees was in alignment with the message of Christianity.

But wait! (Objectors scream.) Jesus had condemned the teaching of the Pharisees earlier in the Gospels as being the teachings of man!

Yes, well, Luke was a bit of an editor when it came to creating his Gospel. As was discussed in an earlier study, Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 are the sections accusing the Pharisees teaching man-made law, and they are the only parts of the Gospels to do so. Luke 11:37-41 took that same message and rewrote it as an attack on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The earlier study contains a strong suggestion about why Luke may have felt the change was necessary; essentially to prevent Jesus from, Himself, appearing to be a hypocrite.

So we find Matthew to be consistent with his view, and Luke to be consistent with his own view as well, but, together, they represent contradictory aspects, and thus must prompt doubt of accuracy between the Gospels.


  1. The dumb disciples acting as literary foils was new to me.
    Likewise the Pharisee-Saducee siding issue.
    Thanks again.
    May I make a suggestion for a couple posts:
    (1) My Bio: Do a bio page to show us your background
    (2) My Library: Give us a list of the texts you use to study these passages -- commentaries and such.

    Then you could put those two links permanently in your side bar under "Reference Links".

    1. Thanks Sabio!

      The "literary foil" concept, as far as that term being used in this application, is novel, or at least I have not come across anyone else suggesting that. I was watching a dialog series with Bill Moyers (Faith and Reason) recently when a guest was speaking about myths and the use of foils, and it just rang true to me as I thought about this particular episode in the Gospels, as well as several others, such as when Peter tried to walk on water.

      About the Bio... (You have got a great one, by the way!) That is not a bad idea, and I have thought of something similar before, but at the same time I am hoping to continue on in anonymity for some time due to certain work, family, and community issues. Let me give it some more thought. If I do post a bio, it may show up on the other blog (Speaking in Foolish Tongues) as opposed to here.

      And the Library... It is all virtual!

      Well, that is not entirely true, as some of it is oral, from the radio. Traveling the country as I do for work, I spend a lot of time in the car. Since I started Bible study in mid-2004, I find myself often drawn to the Bible stations (NOT Christian music stations) for edu-tainment. The best teachers/preachers/shows I have heard are listed in reference links. The memory of their teachings covers a lot of ground, but it is difficult to cite.

      Also in the reference links are Bible Gateway (multi-version searchable online Bible) and Skeptic's Annotated Bible.

      Perhaps the jewel in my reference links, however, is "Classic Bible Studies." That is where I go most often for a different perspective or explanation. There you find detailed explanations of the entire bible done by top scholars of the past centuries. Click a chapter and away you go. John Gill is my favorite of the bunch. He is not always the best, but he is the only one which goes verse by painful-verse.

      Wikipedia, is, with all of its flaws, awesome for this. With these topics already subject to centuries of scholarship, there is some fairly reliable information there.

      Another great resource, as far as translation goes, is:

      Bible Lexicon breaks down the translation word-by-word for each verse, and then shows that verse in about a dozen different Bible versions.

      I really need to add this in my reference links already! I think I will do that now...

  2. (1) Your bio
    Right, I get the anonymity issue. Just tell us your type of education (you don't have to name particulars) and type of work experience. Keep it general.

    (2) Your Library
    Yeah, I knew of those links. I was wondering if there were others. Good linking, though. You do a good job in your bible studies. Do you run a Sunday School class? :-)

    1. Thanks Sabio!

      There are actually about twenty to thirty other links I have used from time to time, but far less frequently. The thing is that I have tried to focus primarily on what the Bible says as opposed to what people say about what it says. But if you have got a specific area of interest, I could probably give you a link in that direction fairly quickly. :-)

      I have never run a Sunday School class, but the funny thing is that I have (in the past couple years) thought I could do something like that very easily, or even build full sermons. :-) I even tried to turn the tables in a recent debate, telling the Christian that he could attack the faith from a doubter's point of view and I would defend it, but he did not take me up on that offer...

  3. If Jesus portrayed them as “dumber than dirt,” possibly it's because they were dumber than dirt, at least from the standpoint of we academic ones. Jesus is said to be a good teacher, yet it's not as though he's teaching a college course, preparing academically gifted students with what they must know for the next exam and can thereafter forget. In some ways he's the very opposite, he conveys material that the disciples will not fully grasp until many exams had passed.

    It's plain Jesus has not scoured the earth in search of scholarly ones to be his disciples. He chooses working-class people, and seems not a bit concerned with academic brilliance. Perhaps the twelve sense this favor, and discern he is granting them perspective far above that of those society already deems wise, and that's why they don't respond negatively when he reproves them for being slow on the uptake, as more full-of-themselves people surely would.

    One is reminded of Matt 11:25: “At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Clearly the disciples were the “little children” and they often act that way in the gospels. Moreover, you mentioned many resources you use in your research. Since they stem from, in the main, the “wise and learned,” one can't help but wonder if they are qualified to accomplish their goal of unlocking scriptural meaning, since Jesus explicitly said such things were hidden from them, by the Father, no less. (the same pattern holds after Jesus' death, as shown by 1 Cor 1:26-28)

    As to the discrepancy between hypocrisy and teaching of the Pharisees, perhaps the the lesson is that their teachings were hypocrisy, hypocritical in themselves, and also in the sense that you mentioned, as standards they did not follow themselves. Such a meaning might be teased from Luke 11:46:

    And He said, “Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.”

    In keeping with that view, perhaps the miraculous feedings Jesus alluded to at Mark 8:19-21 do indeed have something to do with his earlier statement about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod, and are not so disconnected as you suggest. While ostensibly speaking of physical food, is he actually expanding the metaphor to spiritual food, suggesting that while his teachings, which are “from the Father” bring real nourishment, fulfilling one beyond all expectation, (not unlike what he told the Samaritan woman regarding water), the teachings of the Pharisees bring no such nourishment and last only while they are being “chewed?”

    At any rate, they made the connection. And I'm not so sure that because we who are 2000 years removed, and who have not shared the disciples' experiences, are slow to see a connection, it necessarily should mean that there is no connection.

    1. Welcome back, Tom Sheepandgoats!

      Just so that we are on the same page, I am fully aware that the disciples were "working class" people, and I would not expect them to be well versed in Scriptural understanding, like prophesy, for example. ;-) (OK, I will try to drop that now, Tom, I promise!)

      I think you would have to admit that there is a difference between wisdom (what you have learned) and intelligence (how capable you are of learning). Just because the Disciples were working class (not taught as the scribes were, for example) would not mean that they were not intelligent. Although Jesus did not run IQ tests to qualify His Disciples, even He seemed genuinely amazed when they could not understand basic concepts (Matthew 16:11, Mark 4:13, Mark 8:21).

      Having done some tutoring for remedial mathematics in the past, I can tell you the last thing any good teacher should do is say "why can you not understand this?" in a rebuking fashion. If a student does not understand something, it is because they do not yet have an understanding of the foundations yet. But I digress...

      It is interesting that you mention the "hidden from the wise" verse. As it happens, I posted on that not too long ago, which you can find here if you are interested. I think that if you study the context of that verse, the "wise" is a much more narrow target than what you are suggesting here. Besides, you should give yourself some credit, because you seem pretty wise, even if we are on opposite sides of this particular issue. ;-)

      It is an interesting angle, but I think it is a real stretch to say that the teachings, themselves, were hypocrisy. Hypocrisy comes down to the difference between what you say and what you do. Even your reference to Luke 11:46 points to that fact, as the lawyers load burdens on others (implicitly with their words and commands) but do not touch the burdens themselves (implicitly meaning that the burdens should also apply to themselves, but they do not act accordingly).

      As I think about it a little more, however, there is one way in which your teaching-as-hypocrisy theory is accurate. If they teach the entire Law, then they would come to Deuteronomy 4:1-2, where it says that you should not add to or take away from God's Law. Now, if they taught that, and they taught other laws outside of the Law and presented them as being God's laws as well, such as the teaching that you did not have to stone your child (Matthew 15:1-9). Yet this does not appear to be the way in which it is used in this section, as best as I can tell.

      That is an interesting suggestion that the reference to the miraculous feedings were actually a spiritual feeding reference. While I cannot say it is an impossible interpretation, it seems rather unlikely, because it is another level of understanding beyond the yeast of the Pharisees. It is like if someone is having a problem on algebra, so you give them a calculus problem instead, -or- you are amazed at their difficulty with the algebra problem because they had just watched you work out a calculus problem.

      "And I'm not so sure that because we who are 2000 years removed..."
      That is a fair statement, but I have to call it like I see it now. Who knows? I could later have an epiphany which changes my whole understanding. It seems unlikely, but, hey, it happened to Saul/Paul, right? ;-)

    2. Well....I hear what you are saying regarding Matt 11:25, the “hidden from the wise” verse, but it strikes me that you are ignoring the substance so as to hone in on a trifle. Perhaps the verse could be read as follows: the underprivileged are more likely that the privileged to get the sense of Jesus message, and by extrapolation....all of the scriptures. This is not due to those relative positions in themselves, but to the baggage frequently associated with those positions. Back then, those privileged (not to the person, of course) might use their privilege to become “wise and learned,” the working classes not having time for such a luxury.

      Now, all things being equal, a wise and learned person will comprehend scripture to a greater degree than an unwise and unlearned one. But all things are not equal. Along with privilege often come qualities that interfere with, if not prevent altogether, comprehension of Jesus' words. Such as: unawareness of spiritual need (Matt 5:3), self-satisfaction with place and position, insensitivity to suffering and injustice, revulsion at godly urgings....evangelizing, for example (and I don't mean tebowing). If even half of the denunciations Jesus made of the scribes and Pharisees at Matt 23 are true, ('ll probably argue with each and every one of them) then those folk were fairly bereft of qualities that would allow them to absorb Christ's words. Rather, they would nit-pick at insignificant things, and think themselves brilliant in the process.

      Now, as long as they are this way, it pleases God that his message is designed in such a manner that they cannot comprehend it....that's how I read the verse. After all, no other subject is that way....anywhere else, the smartest always win out. It's a method of screening out those with undesirable traits. Now, if they would stop being that way, and develop more “heart,” they would be among those able to understand and be like the “all” Ollie Wallflower explained who might “be saved.” It's their own attributes that keep them out.

      Does that make sense?

      In keeping with this, I believe that it would have been a slam-dunk for Jesus disciples, who had experienced the miraculous feedings, to extend that physical food experience into the spiritual realm. The physical food Jesus provided, the loaves, expanded and nourished far in excess of what anyone would have anticipated. They saw it, and were prompted by Jesus to recall it. His “spiritual food,” his teachings, would fulfill similarly. Teachings of the Pharisees, on the other hand, were dead. Legalistic in nature, they offered no nourishment beyond the immediate moment. The disciples, humble, hungry for spiritual nourishment, would have recognized this contrast, albeit they had to be prodded by their teacher. The Pharisees themselves, however, never would have understood.

      In fact, this view would account for Jesus demeanor, for they did have the foundation to extend the analogy, they finally did it with his help, and they thereby did grasp a subject of calculus, whereas the Pharisees were yet grappling with arithmetic. No, I don't think Jesus was such a bad teacher, at all.

    3. Hi Tom Sheepandgoats, and thanks for your rebuttal!

      I am occupied by circumstances beyond my control at the moment. Please check back in a few days for a proper reply.

    4. "Back then, those privileged (not to the person, of course) might use their privilege to become “wise and learned,” the working classes not having time for such a luxury. "

      You make what could be a valid point, but it is unsubstantiated by the Scriptures themselves. Jesus never confronted any of the "wise and learned" other than the Pharisees, Sadducees, teachers of the Law, and scribes. There was nobody other than the religious elite who were portrayed as being wise and learned in the Gospels. So I think that you are taking a little too much liberty in this interpretation.

      "('ll probably argue with each and every one of them)"

      Oh, come on, do not be that presumptuous of me! I have no reason to believe that the Pharisees were any better than they are described there. After all, I am pretty sure that they resembled the religious leaders of our day. ;-)

      " pleases God that his message is designed in such a manner that they cannot comprehend it ...It's their own attributes that keep them out."

      But, Tom, if I want to save "all" people, I am not going to take pleasure in designing a message such that it is not comprehensible to all people. Does that make sense? Would I not want to, instead, design a message such that anyone would hear it and be provoked to repent? Would I really take pleasure, pleasure(!), when people could not understand the message? This concept extends well beyond the "wise and the learned" too, as I explored in another relatively recent post: "Why Jesus Spoke in Parables". It ties into the concept of the Elect.

      " would have been a slam-dunk for Jesus disciples..."

      Yeah, it may have been a slam dunk, but the average height back then for them was probably a little over five feet (1.52 meters), making slam dunks on a ten foot tall hoop a bit difficult! ;-) Your explanation, while possible, is improbable because it requires a separate spiritual meaning revelation, a revelation which is in no means alluded to or explained in the scriptures. It would seem odd that if they figured out what the yeast meant and they figured out what Jesus spiritually meant by reference to the feedings, that they would only mention understanding the yeast.

      The feeding of the 5000 was a physical event. Jesus had already "fed" them spiritually with the teachings. He was concerned that the crowd had nothing physically to eat, not enough physical energy to make it back home safely. That is what the text explicitly says, so I think you go too far to over-spiritualize this message.

      Let me sum it up here as clearly as I can: Jesus warns about the yeast of the Pharisees. The disciples thinks Jesus may be talking about bread, because they do not have enough. Jesus says (via reference to the miracle) you do not have to worry about having enough bread, so guess again what I meant by the yeast. They come to the conclusion that by yeast Jesus meant their teachings.

    5. Your explanation, while possible, is improbable because it requires a separate spiritual meaning revelation

      I am in possession of probably the only extant copy of the apocryphal Gospel According to Pedantacles. I found it myself one day when I was poking around in the desert. This gospel reveals that Jesus, splendid teacher that he was, gave a multiple-choice exit exam to his disciples during his final hours on earth, testing them on the meaning of his various parables. Also included is the answer key. The gospel conclusively proves that all the answers I have supplied on this topic and all others are correct. I've not mentioned this before, as I've not wanted to pull rank.

      But I don't know such a source is needed. "Require a separate spiritul meaning revelation?" Why? I didn't receive any revelation to come up with that answer, nor the folks I hang out with. It's just immersing oneself in the material, that's all. And doing so trying to piece it together, not trying to tear it apart. Isn't that what determines who "get" abstract metaphors and who doesn''s involvement and appreciation for the underlying material? I have no problem imagining the disciples, who lived and breathed this stuff 24/7, making connections that the modern day critic, far removed in time, culture, and especially motivation, and with many other things on his plate, might miss completely.

    6. Hello again Tom!

      "I didn't receive any revelation to come up with that answer, nor the folks I hang out with. "

      That was poor word choice on my part. I was not meaning a "revelation" like John supposedly had on Patmos, with angels and visions. I just meant to say that they would have had to reason and conclude that there was some sort of spiritual message in Jesus' reference to the miraculous feedings, just like they had to reason and conclude that the "yeast" Jesus had mentioned was not really yeast at all.

      It follows somewhat logically then that if they had to figure both of these things out for their alternative meanings, they probably would have mentioned uncovering both of these truths. Mentioning only one of these meanings (the simpler of the two to figure out, IMHO, if you are right) is a little odd.

      If your interpretation is correct, it also stands stands out as odd that Jesus did not begin with mentioning the miraculous feedings, which, as you present it, are the platform for understanding this message about the "yeast."

      Plus, given Luke's version where he does not mention the miraculous feeding in connection to this "yeast," we have another oddity in trying to "connect the dots" as you propose, because the miraculous feedings would then need to go hand-in-hand with the "yeast" message.

      This is a case where Occam's razor is probably very effective; the most simple interpretation with the fewest assumptions is the most accurate. I think my explanation is the most simple there is, but you are welcome to your opinion too. :-)

  4. After all, I am pretty sure that they resembled the religious leaders of our day. There! See? We are on the same page on some things.

    1. Yeah, Tom, I suspect that we have many more commonalities than you may realize. :-)