Jesus in the First Three Gospels by Millar Burrows
Millar Burrows was for many years Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale University Divinity School. He received his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, New York, and a PhD. in biblical languages, literature and history from Yale University. He is widely known as the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is a contributor to The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, published by Abingdon. Jesus in the First Three Gospels was published in 1977 by Abingdon. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Jesus in the First Three Gospels was published in 1977 by Abingdon. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 13: The First Days at Jerusalem
Even in the spring, at Passover time, the trip up to Jerusalem from Jericho is a hot one. No doubt when Jesus and his followers reached a village near the foot of the Mount of Olives they were glad to stop there (Mk 11:1-10: Mt 21:1-9; Lk 19:29-38). Mark and Luke say they "drew near to Bethphage and Bethany"; Matthew mentions only Bethphage. There is now at the traditional site of Bethany a little village called El-Azzariyah, the name being derived by a curious corruption from the name Lazarus. Bethphage is located by tradition a little farther up the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.
On arriving in this vicinity Jesus said to two of his disciples, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it." The expression "opposite you" probably means here "ahead of you." Which village is meant is not clear. Jesus’ assurance that a colt was there ready for him, and that the disciples would be allowed to take it, seems like supernatural knowledge. It is pleasant to imagine, however, that an inhabitant of the village had seen Jesus and heard him speak somewhere, and had been aroused to such admiration that he said, "Master, I have a fine young donkey at home. He’s yours any time you want him."
Matthew has a curious variation here. The disciples find "an ass tied, and a colt with her," with the strange result that Jesus sits on both of them. (The Greek says this plainly.) How this came about is plain. Matthew says that the incident "took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet." and quotes from Zechariah:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
This is an instance of a characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry known as parallelism, that is, a close relation in meaning between two successive lines (cf. Gen 49:11). The ass and the colt are the same animal; but Matthew supposes that the prophecy refers to two animals, and therefore there must have been two when it was fulfilled.
The narrative continues, "And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields." This joyful procession is commemorated by Christians on Palm Sunday, yet neither Mark nor Matthew mentions palm branches, and Luke says nothing of branches at all. Only in the Gospel of John is it said (12:13), "So they took branches of palm trees," and there the people who bring them are pilgrims who come out from the city to meet Jesus (11:55-56; 12:12-13). Palms are uncommon at the altitude of Jerusalem, though a few may be seen there. Mark says the branches were cut from the fields, and Matthew says the people cut them from the trees. Possibly they were olive branches.
The words of acclamation shouted by the crowd are quoted from the 118th Psalm (v 25). The evangelists report them with considerable variation. The word "Hosanna" is the Hebrew verb translated in the Psalm, "Save us, we beseech thee"; but it is used here as a noun like "glory" or "praise." That use of it must have arisen among Greek-speaking Christians.
The second sentence in the acclamation comes from the same Psalm (v 26). Originally it may have been meant for the king of Judah when he entered the temple to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, or perhaps for citizens or pilgrims who came for the same purpose. That the Jews of Jesus’ day believed this verse to be addressed to the Messiah is not likely. In Matthew it becomes a Messianic blessing through the insertion of the phrase "to the Son of David." Mark is only a little less definite: he adds, "Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming." Luke reads, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" (cf. Jn 12:13).
This event is of crucial importance for the much debated question whether Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah. The triumphal entry, as it is commonly called, is usually regarded as a deliberate demonstration of his Messianic authority. The evangelists clearly so understood it, looking back at it from their later Christian point of view. Probably many of those present at the time so regarded it. Possibly Jesus so intended it. It is equally possible, however, that he rode a donkey for the last part of the journey because it was given to him and he was tired, and that the popular acclaim was not welcome to him. Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was not unusual. Which interpretation is more probable can be judged only on the basis of all that Jesus said and did, not only at this time but before and after he entered Jerusalem.
In Matthew (21:10-11) "all the city" is stirred and asks, "Who is this?" The crowds answer. "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee." The crowds who said this could hardly be the same as those who hailed him as the Son of David. No doubt there were other bystanders who knew of his work in Galilee.
Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem undoubtedly looked like a march on Washington. He could have been a prophet of revolt, however, without claiming to be the Messiah. Many have argued that he was a revolutionist like the Zealots, or even one of them. Such an interpretation is in some ways tempting. Certainly the vociferous enthusiasm of the throng must have aroused the suspicious attention of the authorities, both religious and civil. Disturbances among the people at the time of a religious festival, when the city is crowded with strangers, have always been feared at Jerusalem. Messianic pretenders were nothing new in first-century Palestine (cf. Acts 5:36-37; 21:38).
According to Luke (19:39-40), "some of the Pharisees in the multitude" urged Jesus to rebuke his disciples; but he replied, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out." Like what he said later about the children in the temple, as reported by Matthew (2 1:15-16), this sounds as though Jesus approved what his followers were saying. Luke adds here, however, a prediction of Jerusalem’s doom (19:41-44), which suggests that Jesus was only saddened by the wild hopes of a restored kingdom of David. "And when he drew near and saw the city" — that is, when he crossed the top of the Mount of Olives and saw Jerusalem before him across the Kidron Valley — he wept over it, saying, "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you," and a specific prediction of the fall of Jerusalem follows. Only Luke reports this, but there are passages in the other Gospels to compare with it (cf. Mt 23:37-39; Lk 13:34; Mk 13:2; Mt 24:2; Lk 2 1:6).
Many commentators see here such a clear reflection of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus in AD. 70 that they feel the prediction must have originated after that event. There is nothing here, however, that goes beyond the normal procedure for reducing a rebellious city in those days. The important point in what Jesus says is that it condemns a political, military type of Messianic hope and repudiates as futile the Zealots’ program of revolt against Rome. Jerusalem has failed to recognize the real way to peace.
On reaching the city, according to all the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus went immediately to the temple (Mk 11:11: Mt 21:10-17; Lk 19:45-46). Crossing the narrow valley, he could go directly into the temple area through a gate in the eastern wall of the city. Matthew and Luke indicate that he performed at once what they, or at least Matthew, evidently consider an act of Messianic authority, the cleansing of the temple (Mt 21:10-13; Lk 19:45-46). Mark, however, puts this on the following day and says that on the first day Jesus only "looked round at everything." We can only imagine what thoughts may have stirred in his mind as he stood there. Then, "as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve" (Mk 11:11).
Matthew says that blind and lame people came to Jesus in the temple that day and were healed (21:14). The chief priests were indignant at some children who cried, "Hosanna to the Son of David" in the temple. "Do you hear what these are saying?" they asked Jesus. He replied with a verse of Scripture that was notably appropriate but must have seemed impertinent to the priests and elders (Ps 8:2): "Yes; have you never read. ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise’?"
On the way back to the city the next morning Jesus was hungry According to Mark and Matthew, he went to a fig tree beside the road hut found no fruit on it. and said, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again" (Mk 11:12-14: Mt 21:18-19). It is hard to believe that Jesus would have uttered a wish so unworthy of him. He might have expressed impatience at not finding fruit on a tree when he wanted it. But would he have expected it at that time of year? Normally figs are not ripe in the vicinity of Jerusalem until late in the summer. Jesus would know this. Even at a more appropriate season, such a reaction would not be admirable or consistent with what we know of Jesus’ character.
Perhaps this explains Luke’s omission of the incident. Mark and Matthew, however, are interested in the miraculous aspect of the story. Matthew even says that the tree "withered at once," though according to Mark it was when Jesus and the disciples came back the next day that they found the tree withered.
Both Mark and Matthew treat the incident as a demonstration of the power of faith (Mk 11:20-24; Mt 2 1:20-22). According to Mark, when Peter called attention to the withering of the tree, Jesus said. "Have faith in God." Both Gospels report here the saying about causing a mountain to be uprooted and cast into the sea by faith. Then follows a general statement that one who prays for anything with faith will receive it (cf. Mt 7:7-Il; Lk 11:9-13). In Mark, as in the Sermon on the Mount, this is qualified by the condition that we must forgive others before we can expect God to forgive us (Mk 11:25; cf. Mt 6:14). This is one of only two places where Mark has a parallel to anything in the Sermon on the Mount, and the only place where Mark has the expression "Father who is in heaven." Verse 26 is omitted by some important manuscripts and most recent translations (RSV, NEB, JB, NAB; TEV brackets it).
Some interpreters suppose that Mark and Matthew saw here a symbolic reference to the Jewish nation’s failure to accept the gospel (cf. Mt 21:43). There is no hint of this in the narrative or its context. Many scholars believe that in the development of the tradition a parable had come to be misunderstood as a record, and robbed of its real meaning in the process (cf. Lk 13:6-9).
As it stands, this is the last of the nature miracles in the Synoptic Gospels. Three of these, the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand and the walking on the sea, may have originated as allegories of the power of Christ to preserve his disciples and supply their needs. The miraculous catch of fish and the stilling of the storm are devout legends exalting Christ and encouraging faith. The discovery of a coin in the mouth of a fish and the withering of the fig tree are quite incredible tales. the former probably a legend of the early church and the latter perhaps a denatured parable. All can be explained without assuming any basis in actual, specific acts of Jesus.
Between the cursing of the tree and its withering Mark puts the cleansing of the temple (Mk 11:15-19; Mt 21:12-13; Lk 19:45-46; cf. Jn 2:13-17). The Johannine account of this event says that Jesus made "a whip of cords" and "drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple." The words translated "with the sheep and oxen" (RSV) may mean "both the sheep and the oxen" (cf. TEV, NAB), implying that the whip was used only on the animals. There is no such ambiguity in the Synoptic account: "And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple." Nothing is said of oxen and sheep, but Mark and Matthew say that Jesus "overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons." Luke says only that Jesus "began to drive out those who sold."
Mark adds, "and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple," and continues, "And he taught." Matthew and Luke omit this but agree with Mark that Jesus said, "It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you make it a den of robbers." The quotation is from Isaiah 56:7; the statement echoes Jeremiah’s protest (7:11), "Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?" The temple cultus, with its sacrifices and offerings and the arrangements for providing sacrificial victims, had become such an elaborate, noisy, and odorous affair that to the earnest young prophet from Galilee the spirit of true worship must have seemed to be lost. His reaction was like that of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Is 1:12; Amos 5:21; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-7).
This event is undoubtedly historical, and it is important. Unfortunately, it is also open to more than one interpretation. If the "triumphal entry" looks like a march on Washington or Rome, the cleansing of the temple looks very much like an occupation of the administration building and a sit-in, such as marked the turbulent sixties. It is so considered by more than one recent writer. Some have even supposed that Jesus and his followers took possession of the temple area and held it by force. This is contrary to all the evidence. There is no indication that Jesus tried to take over the administration of the temple, or that the disciples had any part in the proceedings.
The incident is often cited to justify the use of force. Jesus did not expel the traders by force. One man could not have done that if there had been any resistance. On the other hand, something more than gentle persuasion was involved. Upsetting tables and chairs and scattering the coins on the pavement was, to say the least, direct action. To judge not only by this incident but also by the bitter invective Jesus sometimes uttered, as well as Mark’s statement (3:5) that on one occasion he "looked around at them with anger," he was capable of a flaming wrath. The Gospel of John says, "His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me’"(In 2:17; Ps 69:9).
Like the evangelists, most commentators have understood Jesus’ act as a demonstration of Messianic authority. It is possible that he considered himself authorized to purify the Lord’s house if he believed that he was the Messiah. If he thought of himself rather as a prophet, that could explain his action. Even as an earnest worshiper and teacher he might have been moved to such indignation that he acted without thought of his right to take matters into his own hands. In short, neither the manner of his entrance into Jerusalem nor the cleansing of the temple proves that he regarded himself as the Messiah. The picture of him as carrying out, step by step, a program derived from prophetic utterances about the Messiah makes him look like an actor following a script instead of a living man of God moved by compassion and indignation.
Mark’s narrative proceeds (11:18), "And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching." Luke mentions the plot but does not connect it so directly with the cleansing of the temple. He says (19:47-48): "And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and scribes and the principal men of the people sought to destroy him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people hung upon his words." Matthew does not refer to the matter at all. The statement that the multitude was astonished at Jesus’ teaching occurs in several places (cf. Mk 1:22; 6:2; Mt 7:28; 13:54; Lk 4:32).
Apparently the priests and the rest made up their minds overnight to challenge Jesus’ authority, which threatened theirs (Mk 11:27-33; Mt 21:23-27; Lk 20:1-8). The next morning they came to him in the temple and bluntly asked by what authority he acted, and who gave it to him. This is the first of a series of five such questions and answers while Jesus was teaching in the temple. Again Mark’s arrangement of his material by topics is evident.
Jesus answered the question about his authority with another: "Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?" The august and learned inquisitors were caught in a dilemma. If they had frankly stated their real opinion, they might have said, "He had no authorization at all from God or men." But to admit that John’s baptism was from heaven would evoke the question why they had not believed him; and they did not dare to say it was only human, because all the people regarded John as a prophet. They could only say, "We don’t know." Jesus said, "Very well, then I won’ t tell you by what authority I do these things."
In Matthew, Jesus’ refusal is reinforced by a parable (21:28-32) not recorded in the other Gospels, the story of a man who told his two sons to work in his vineyard. One of them refused but went; the other said he would go but did not. The application is explicitly stated (vv 31-32): "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him."
The three evangelists now proceed together to a parable about the owner of a vineyard and his tenants (Mk 12:1-12; Mt 21:33-46; Lk 20:9-19). This is one of the few parables that are almost, if not quite, allegorical, and so is especially liable to erroneous and fanciful interpretations. It resembles Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (5:1-7), the main difference being that in Isaiah the vineyard itself is condemned because it produced wild grapes instead of good grapes, whereas here the sharecroppers are condemned because they will not give the owner his share of the fruit but abuse the agents sent to collect it. Isaiah’s poem is directed against the disobedient people of Israel and Judah. The chief priests and Pharisees who challenged Jesus’ authority "perceived that he has told the parable against them" (Mk 12:12; Mt 21:45; Lk 20:19). The implication seems to be that these leaders and their predecessors have exploited the privileges of their position instead of rendering to God the obedience and service that he demands. The servants sent to collect the owner’s share appear therefore to be the prophets, and perhaps John the Baptist in particular.
So far all is in keeping with what Jesus may reasonably be supposed to have said. When the servants are succeeded by the owner’s son, however, and he is killed and thrown out of the vineyard, a reference to Jesus himself is obvious. That he would have said all this is improbable. It would therefore be easy to suppose that the whole story was a product of the later church. More probably Jesus told the story of the landlord and the tenants, but the part about the son was added after the crucifixion.
After the parable, in all three Gospels, Jesus quotes Psalm 118, much as he has quoted Psalm 8 a little earlier (Mk 12:10-11; Mt 21:42; Lk 20:17-18; Ps 118:22-23). In Luke the quotation is followed by a comment, "Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him." (Most of the manuscripts and versions have this in Matthew also, but for technical reasons the best critical editions of the text omit it.) Here the reference is not to a cornerstone (or more exactly the keystone of an arch), but to any stone large enough for a man to be injured by falling over it, or heavy enough to crush him if it fell on him.
Matthew adds here (2 1:43) that Jesus said to the priests and the Pharisees, "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it." The noun rendered "nation" would be better translated here "people" (cf. JB, TEV). The new people of God to whom the kingdom will be given can only be the church. There is no implication that it will consist of Gentiles rather than Jews. What is rejected is the official Jewish establishment, controlled by the priests and scribes. (So also the Essenes denounced the temple priesthood and considered themselves the true Israel.) This is one of only four places (cf. 12:28; 19:24; 21:3 1) where Matthew has "kingdom of God" instead of "kingdom of heaven." Perhaps he followed some special source here, or perhaps the sentence is a later insertion in the text. At the end of the episode another effort to apprehend Jesus is reported, and again it is frustrated by fear of the people (Mk 12:12; Mt 21:46; Lk 20:19).
Now Matthew presents his parable of the wedding feast, already considered in connection with its parallel at an earlier point in Luke (Mt 22:1-14; cf. Lk 14:16-24). After it Matthew proceeds with Mark and Luke to the second of the controversies in the temple (Mk 12:13-17; Mt 22:15-22; Lk 20:20-26), introduced by a question about paying taxes to the Romans that was asked by "some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians." Luke says they were "spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor." Mark and Matthew say simply that the delegation was sent to trap him. According to Matthew, it was the Pharisees who sent them.
After a flattering statement that they knew Jesus taught God’s way truly and without fear or favor, the questioners asked with an air of seeking guidance, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" The Herodians (cf. Mk 3:6 and some manuscripts in 8:15) were presumably pro-Roman, since Herod the Great and his sons had been dependent upon the Romans for their power. The Pharisees regarded the Romans as usurpers and oppressors, but opposed active rebellion against them. If Jesus said that the taxes should be paid, the Pharisees could call him a traitor to his own people; if he said they should not, the Herodians could accuse him of inciting rebellion against Rome.
His reply was both a neat evasion of the trap and an indication of his position without a direct yes or no. Asking why they were putting him on trial, he called for a denarius, the coin used as the unit in assessing taxes. Taking it and examining it, he again answered the question with another: "Whose head is this that is stamped on the coin, and whose inscription is this?" They told him, "Caesar’s" (that is, the emperor’s). "Well then," said Jesus, "pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and pay God what belongs to God." This was no clarion call to insurrection; neither was it an explicit counsel of submission. It seems to show no concern for what was a burning issue for Palestinian Jews. But not only was Jesus dealing with an insincere effort to trap him, he never allowed men to transfer to his shoulders the burden of deciding what they should do. No wonder his critics were amazed and silently withdrew.
What all this means for a follower of Jesus today is a difficult question. A valid answer must take into account the fact that Judea was then occupied territory. The coming of the kingdom of God would end the rule of the Romans. There was that much truth in the charge brought against Jesus later that he was preaching sedition. On the question how to deal with the Romans in the meantime, however, Jesus certainly did not agree with the Zealots. On this he was closer to the Pharisees. His attitude may be called passive resistance, but there is no indication that he practiced civil disobedience, which would have been both futile and fatal.
It is true that the evangelists were anxious to avoid any impression that Christianity was a seditious movement. This is especially evident in Luke and Acts. Conceivably they might have toned down any political implications of his acts and words. To recognize this, however, is not to conclude that Jesus’ real convictions were disguised or concealed by deliberate fabrication. What the evangelists wanted to bring out was the truth. To prove otherwise would require positive evidence, of which there is none.
Undoubtedly, political conditions and action were not Jesus’ primary concern. No doubt his position was influenced not only by the practical impossibility of a successful revolt against Rome, to say nothing of reform by democratic means, but also by the fact that he expected the kingdom of God to come very soon. It is legitimate to wonder whether his attitude on political and social issues might have been different if he had not had this expectation; yet he did not draw the conclusions sometimes drawn by people who think the end of the world is at hand. There was no march into the wilderness, no gathering on the Mount of Olives. He required those who went with him to Jerusalem to forsake possessions and family, but in order to be ready for the kingdom of God what was essential was first of all righteous living according to the law of God.
Our atomic age offers a real parallel to the situation confronted by Jesus. There are those who lose hope and take the line of least resistance. Others ignore the peril of our predicament and indulge in wishful thinking. Those best advised recognize the uncertainty of the future but follow the course of mutual compassion and cooperation, which will be most rewarding whether this world ends today or lasts for millennia.
The third controversy in the series (Mk 12:18-27; Mt 22:23-33; Lk 20:27-40) revolves about a question raised by the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. On this subject Jesus was evidently known to agree with the Pharisees, as Paul did later (Acts 23:6-10; 1 Cor 15:12-57). The Sadducees who came to him in the temple tried to refute the belief by an argument based on the law of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-6), by which, if a man died and left no son, his wife was taken by his brother, and their first son was legally reckoned as the son of the deceased. The Sadducees said that seven brothers died childless, and the first one’s wife was taken in turn by all of them. "In the resurrection," they asked, "whose wife will she be?" Jesus replied that the life of those raised from the dead would not be like the present life. On the contrary, "when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." In Luke this is considerably expanded. His version is notable for the contrast of "the sons of this age" and the "sons of the resurrection," who are also "sons of God," and also for the fact that the coming age is directly connected with the resurrection. These facts suggest that Luke’s form of the statement may be closer than that in Mark and Matthew to the original words of Jesus.
The saying has been taken to mean that only those who do not marry in this life are qualified to participate in the resurrection. This is not the meaning of the text. What it says is that those who, literally, "have been accounted worthy," and have been raised, are not married in the other world. This is even clearer in Mark and Matthew.
Not only have the Sadducees an erroneous conception of the resurrection, their question betrays also ignorance of the Scriptures. Here Jesus speaks as a child of his age. His interpretation of the Old Testament is alien to modern historical exegesis, but that is no indication that it was not what he believed. God’s declaration to Moses (Ex 3:6), "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," is cited as proof that the patriarchs are still alive, because God is not God of the dead but of the living. How seriously Jesus himself took this kind of exegesis we do not know. Here and in other places one sometimes suspects that he is playing with his adversaries in the way he uses Scripture; in fact, the same suspicion arises regarding stories told about some of the rabbis. It is possible, however, that Jesus, thoughtfully considering the story in Exodus, might think, "Truly God is the God of the fathers; he is still their God, for they are alive and worship him in heaven."
Whatever form of the statement best represents Jesus’ own words, his reply to the Sadducees implies a spiritual, perhaps even incorporeal kind of existence, like Paul’s conception of the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:35-50).The resurrection of the body is thus transformed into something approaching the immortality of the soul, with the important difference that, at least for Paul, the resurrection is still in the future (vv 51-53; cf. I Thess 4:13-18). What being like angels would mean to Jesus’ contemporaries is clear enough. The rabbis said that the angels had bodies of fire, which was about as close as the ancient Hebrew mentality could come to the idea of immaterial existence.
Jesus’ argument was apparently sufficient to silence the Sadducees. Matthew says that when the crowd heard it they were astonished, and no wonder. Probably few of them could follow such subtle reasoning, but they could see that the Sadducees were embarrassed and had nothing more to say. According to Luke, some of the scribes said, "Teacher, you have spoken well" but no doubt they were Pharisees, who were glad to see the Sadducees put to confusion. Mark simply proceeds to the next incident, the fourth of his five controversies, which is the conversation about the greatest commandment (Mk 12:28-34; Mt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28). We have already discussed this where Luke reports it. Strictly speaking, only Matthew treats it as a controversy.
In the fifth controversy (Mk 12:35-37; Mt 22:41-46; Lk 20:41-44) it is Jesus who asks the question. Having repelled the attacks of both Pharisees and Sadducees, he now carries the war into the enemy’s territory. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus asks, "What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?" (cf. TEV). They reply, as a matter of course, "The son of David." This question as the KJV gives it, "What think ye of Christ?" has been the text of countless sermons on faith in Christ. In its context, however, it only asks for a theological opinion, about which Jesus then proceeds to raise a further question. (In Mark and Luke there is only one question, "How can the scribes say that Christ is the son of David?")
Quoting Psalm 110:1, "The Lord said to my Lord," Jesus says, "David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?" (It is assumed that "my Lord" means "the Messiah.") Does Jesus’ question imply that the Messiah will not be a descendant of David? Such an implication would run counter not only to the common Jewish belief but also to the unanimous testimony of the New Testament. Later Christian theology could take the question to mean that the Messiah would be not only a descendant of David but also far more than that, the Son of God. Assuming this interpretation, some scholars consider the whole incident a product of the church. The story itself, however, does not suggest a "not only but also." Its implication is "not David’s son but his Lord."
According to almost all the evidence, the very first Christians. convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, took it for granted that he must therefore be a descendant of David. The only possible indication to the contrary is this incident in the temple. The tradition of Jesus’ question may actually be older than the belief in his Davidic ancestry. It is even possible that he was not in fact a descendant of David, and the point of his argument was that this did not disqualify him for the divine choice as Messiah. In that case — and it is no more impossible than many widely accepted theories — this tradition is very old indeed, perhaps going back to Jesus himself. This would mean, of course. that Jesus did after all consider himself the Messiah.
Perhaps the only safe inference is that the Messiah would be greater than David, which none would deny. Again it is even possible that Jesus was playing with the scribes, demonstrating that they were not such clever interpreters of Scripture as they thought. It is extremely unlikely that a story of his raising such a question would originate in the later community. So far as we know, the question was never raised again.