We had this year’s final M.A. seminar on Mark’s gospel yesterday. We considered an aspect of the story I don’t remember spending much time on before: the emotional reaction of the High Priest in verse 63, tearing his clothes and crying “blasphemy.” Is he suddenly outraged, or is it mere hyperbole and “theatre”?
I think the clue is in the charges. Jesus was not brought before them with specific charges to answer. It looks rather in 55-61 as if the assembly has decided on the verdict of guilty and is instead fishing around for something to charge him with, in order to justify the verdict with the Romans. The Romans didn’t really understand a lot of Jewish religion, and things like violating the Sabbath would have appeared a silly dispute to them.
There is one area where Roman religion and law were as fanatical and heavy handed as Jewish law, though, and that was on the matter of protecting temples. The Jewish leaders knew that if they could convincingly say that Jesus violated the Temple, then the death penalty would be rubber stamped. Unfortunately, however, they couldn’t get witnesses to agree about Jesus speaking against the Temple. (And somehow, they don’t appear to have thought, as some modern scholars do, that the Temple Cleansing episode in chapter 11 could be cast as an attack on the Temple.)
The failure of the Temple accusation brings us to the High Priest, his question and his reaction. The most likely dynamic in the narrative, it seems to me, is that in asking about Messiah and Son of God, the High Priest was not asking about divinity and second person of the Trinity, but instead was — again — looking for a politically useful charge. In the context of his question, Messiah meant “one who would rise up against the foreign oppressors” and Son of the Blessed was merely meant in an Old Testament way to refer to a king like David, who was so frequently referred to as God’s son. It was a political question, hoping again to find charges that could be used to get the Roman governor on their side against Jesus.
But Jesus, in his answer, goes way beyond political to what we would call a high Christology. By putting together Psalm 110 and Daniel 7, he is signalling to the Sanhedrin how he interprets these texts and how his authority is cosmic, not merely political.
After his silence on the Temple charges, and the failure of the false witnesses, the gathering were probably thinking that they were going to have a hard time getting the business done. This sudden outspoken declaration by Jesus must have come as quite a shock, as will the ideas contained within it. I believe, then, that the High Priest is genuinely filled with surprise and anger and outrage at this point. But Jesus has changed the nature of the proceedings. He forces the Sanhedrin to consider why they really hate him rather than concentrate on finding some made-up expediency. And he steers events so that he will be crucified for being who and what he is. Amazing.