return to religion-online

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.


Chapter 3: The First Part of the Galilean Ministry


In speaking of "parts" of the Galilean ministry we refer not to successive phases of Jesusí work but merely to more or less distinct portions of the narrative, sometimes marked by the insertion of collections of sayings and sometimes arbitrarily divided for convenience in presentation.

After the temptation Mark continues (1:14), "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee." The story of Johnís arrest is not told, however, until considerably later (Mk 6:27-29), in connection with his death. Matthew (4:12) follows Markís procedure. Luke has already told of Johnís arrest (3:19-20) at the end of his report of Johnís preaching. Here he therefore (4:14) says simply, "And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee."

How much time had elapsed between the temptation and the return to Galilee, and what Jesus had been doing in the meantime, the Synoptic Gospels do not say. The Fourth Gospel, which ignores both the baptism and the temptation, says that on the day after Johnís testimony to Jesus at the Jordan he repeated it in the hearing of two of his disciples (In 1:35-42), one of whom was Andrew of Bethsaida in Galilee, and that Andrew thereupon brought his brother Simon to Jesus, who named him forthwith "The Rock." The narrative continues (vv 43-5 1), "The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee." The calling of Philip as a disciple and the conversion of Nathanael follow, still apparently at the Jordan; then chapter 2 begins with the wedding at Cana in Galilee (In 2:1-11). Thus both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John, though in quite different ways, bring Jesus back to Galilee after his meeting with John the Baptist.

With regard to what he did when he got there, however, there is a notable difference between John and the other Gospels. In John the sojourn in Galilee lasts only a few days, with no action except the rather casual "sign" of turning water to wine. After that, Jesus spent a few days in Capernaum "with his mother and his brothers and his disciples" and then returned to Jerusalem (vv 12-13). According to Mark, however (1:14), Jesus "came into Galilee, preaching." Matthew says that Jesus moved from Nazareth to "Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali" (4:13-17), fulfilling a prophecy of Isaiah (9:1-2), and continues, "From that time Jesus began to preach." Luke says (4:14-15) that when Jesus returned to Galilee "a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country," adding, "And he taught in their synagogues."

This period in Galilee can hardly be the one referred to in John. The trip to Jerusalem for the Passover is in John the occasion of the cleansing of the temple (2:14-22), which in the Synoptic Gospels occurs near the end of Jesusí life. The nocturnal visit of Nicodemus is related in the next chapter (3:1-15). Then, we are told, Jesus and his disciples spent some time, in Judea baptizing. Meanwhile John was baptizing at Aenon; and the evangelist adds "For John had not yet been put in prison" (vv 22-24). This activity in Judea belongs therefore in the gap left by the first three Gospels between the temptation and the beginning of Jesusí work in Galilee. If there was such a period of work in Judea before the Galilean ministry, it does not follow that the particular events related in John occurred at this time. The cleansing of the temple, at least, is surely out of place. From now on the Synoptic Gospels record only preaching and healing in Galilee until, after a brief excursion into Gentile territory, a turning point is reached in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus then takes his final journey to Jerusalem, and the last part of his ministry is accomplished there.

Like the sources and traditions back of them, the Synoptic Gospels are largely composed of items handed down separately or in small collections and arranged by the evangelists according to their own individual purposes and interests. For the order of presentation Mark has set a pattern that by and large, with important exceptions, is followed by Matthew and Luke. Within this broad framework the items are arranged more by subjects than by sequence in time or place. It is therefore impossible to reconstruct a consecutive narrative of Jesusí life and work. About all that we can be sure of in that respect, it would seem, is that his public ministry began in Galilee and ended at Jerusalem, with the journey to Jerusalem connecting the two major divisions.

Even this framework is now treated by some scholars as an artificial theological construction; but the overall division into a Galilean ministry, a journey to Jerusalem, and the culmination of the whole story at Jerusalem, I am convinced, stands firm. There were witnesses of Jesusí ministry still living when the Synoptic Gospels were written. Their recollections would differ at many points and indeed would both fade and change as time went by. Many of them, however, would surely remember not only isolated incidents and sayings but the broad outlines of Jesusí ministry.

With the statement that Jesus returned to Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist, Mark and Matthew give brief summaries of his message. "Jesus came into Galilee," says Mark (1:14-15), "preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." Matthew, as already noted, reports the proclamation in the same words he has used to summarize John the Baptistís preaching (4:17; cf. 3:2). Luke (4:14-15) omits the summary.

What is the time to which Jesus refers in Mark, and in what sense was it fulfilled? The prophet Habakkuk, in a time of distress and disappointment, had said (2:3), "For still the vision awaits its time." The Greek translation (Septuagint) has here the same word for "appointed time" (kairos) that is translated "time" here in Mark. Similarly Daniel (8:17; cf. 8:26; 10:14; 11:27, 35) says the vision is for "the time of the end," and here too the same Greek word is used. Evidently the idea of a great change at the end of a divinely appointed period was not unfamiliar in Jesusí day. He said that this period had been completed and the awaited change was about to take place. What would then come about he called the kingdom of God, and he said it was at hand. What he meant by the kingdom of God is a question we shall have to keep in mind as we proceed.

Jesusí proclamation of the kingdom was not merely a warning to "flee from the wrath to come," as with John the Baptist (Mt 3:7; Lk 3:7). He came, says Mark (1:14-15), "preaching the gospel of God"; and the proclamation ends; with an exhortation to "repent, and believe in the gospel," that is, the good news (Anglo-Saxon godspel). This name for Jesusí message echoes a word used often in the latter half of the book of Isaiah, a verb which means "bring good news." It refers there to proclaiming to Jerusalem that God, in spite of present appearances, is still in control, that he still reigns as King (e.g., Is 52:7; 61:1).

The Hebrew verb translated "bring good tidings" is used also in Aramaic; so too is the noun meaning "good news." I see no adequate reason to doubt that Jesus himself originated this way of speaking of his message. All three of the Synoptic Gospels, in one form or another, represent him as calling his proclamation good news. One of the passages in Isaiah mentioned above is said by Luke to have been read by Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth; it is also alluded to in Jesusí reply to the disciples of John the Baptist (Is 61:1-2; Lk 4:18-19; 7:22; Mt 11:5). This and other places where the Hebrew verb appears probably suggested the term "good news" to Jesus. Later, of course, it was used for "the gospel about Jesus" instead of "the gospel of Jesus."

From the statement that Jesus returned to Galilee and taught in the synagogues Luke proceeds (4:16-30) to the visit to Nazareth, which Mark and Matthew record later. That it was Luke who changed the order of events is shown by a passing reference to miracles performed at Capernaum (v 23), of which nothing has yet been said. The reason for the rearrangement is obvious. The allusions to the widow of Zarephath and the Syrian Naaman (vv 25-27) reflect Lukeís interest in the Gentile mission, which no doubt he wished to stress at the beginning of Jesusí ministry.

Mark and Matthew report at this point the calling of the first four disciples to follow Jesus (Mk 1:16-20; Mt 4:18-22). Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, while fishing in the Sea of Galilee, are invited by Jesus to follow him and become fishers of men; and they at once leave their nets and follow him. A little farther along the shore another pair of brothers, James and John, hear the same summons while mending their nets with their father Zebedee, and they too respond with alacrity, leaving their father with his hired helpers to carry on their trade.

According to Luke, Jesus came upon Simon and the sons of Zebedee, who were his partners, washing their nets together beside their boats (5:1-3). (Andrew is not mentioned at all here or anywhere else in Luke except in the list of the twelve apostles.) Jesus got into Simonís boat, had it moved out a little way from the shore, and sat in it while he spoke to the people (cf. Mk 4:1; Mt 13:2). When he had finished speaking, he told Simon to move out to deeper water and let down his net. Simon did as Jesus told him and caught so many fish that he had to call James and John to help him, and together they filled both boats with fish, so that they began to sink. Thereupon Simon fell down before Jesus and said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." The summons to become fishers of men followed and was promptly obeyed (Lk 5:4-11). This is the first of the "nature miracles" attributed to Jesus, as distinguished from the miracles of healing. It has no parallel in the other Synoptic Gospels, but in John there is a similar incident (21:4-8) in connection with an appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. The two incidents, though differing in detail and placed at opposite ends of Jesusí ministry, must have been originally the same.

Perhaps this is a good place to make some comments on the miracles in general. Something has been indicated by what was said about Jesusí birth, but there is more to say. The miraculous element is one of the most characteristic features of the Gospel story, and the one with which a modern student of the Gospels finds it hardest to come to terms. Our distinction between the natural and the supernatural is of course relatively new and quite foreign to the thinking of ancient peoples. They felt a difference between the usual and the unusual, but extraordinary things happened now and then. Nothing was thought of as merely natural in the modern sense. Most educated people today, however, though aware that there is much we cannot yet explain, are so conditioned by the world view of modern science that they find it hard to accept anything that runs counter to the normal processes of nature.

Science itself, to be sure, seems to have gone beyond a purely mechanistic conception of the universe. The whole concept of natural law, we are told, now needs and is undergoing revision. Exponents of the philosophy of science question the very idea of causality and speak of an element of uncertainty in the universe. But water still does not run uphill. The amazing achievements of applied science in our day are based on the assumption that if all the factors in a situation are recognized and the right steps are taken, the results can be counted on. These modern miracles are accomplished not by any suspension or contravention of natural law but by fulfilling the conditions on which it will operate in the direction and way we desire.

What is reported as a miracle may sometimes have been in fact a quite natural event. If we knew all the facts of the case we might be able to explain many things that, to those who saw them, seemed explicable only as direct acts of God. It does not follow, however, that all the miracles recorded in the Gospels or elsewhere in the Bible can be explained as natural events. Well-meaning interpreters have sometimes gone too far in trying to defend the accuracy of the Bible by natural explanations of supernatural events.

Some of the miracles related in the Bible ó perhaps most of them ó were not actual events at all, but legendary acts and manifestations whose real significance is their testimony to the Impression made by an extraordinary personality on the people who encountered and observed him. Any man in the ancient world who strongly impressed his contemporaries was almost sure to have miracles attributed to him. Indeed, in our society legends grow up about exceptional persons even during their lifetime.

Speaking of Jesus in this way may seem to make him merely one of many great men, exceptional but not superhuman, not the divine being he is believed by Christians to be; but however his person and nature are understood, I for one cannot believe that even in him God acted in any way inconsistent with the same natural laws and operations by which he works today. This does not mean that he could do nothing that any man might not have done. Whatever Jesus was, he was not ordinary.

It does not mean, either, that God cannot or does not intervene in human affairs, as though the universe was a sealed machine, set and started by the Creator ages ago and running ever since in ways Immutably determined at the beginning. That would not only eliminate any possibility of human freedom and so render meaningless such concepts as sin and salvation, it would also make impossible any kind of special providence and any hope of direct answers to prayer. We do not yet know enough to justify the sacrifice of these beliefs. We cannot set limits on what God can or will do. But whatever truth there is in the traditions of Jesusí miracles must have been within the same order by which the universe is governed now.

This still leaves open the question how much and just what historical fact there is in the particular miracle stories of the Gospels. There is a tendency at present to disparage concern with that question and to concentrate rather on the theological significance of the miracles. That is all very well if one is more interested in the faith of the early church than in the search for the real Jesus. It is not essential that all or any one of the miracles in the Gospels be demonstrably historical. It is, however, essential that a credible and fairly probable kernel of historical fact be discernible in the narratives taken all together, if they are to be anything more to us than relics of ancient thought.

Only a partial and tentative answer at best can be given to this question. In each instance we can only try to judge. with such knowledge as we have, what is most probable. Lukeís story of the miraculous draft of fish, like the one in John, seems to be best characterized as a devout legend, exalting Christ as Lord of both man and nature, in obedience to whom manís needs are satisfied. Matthewís and Markís accounts of the calling of the first disciples show the legendary nature of Lukeís narrative.

The concise story of Mark and Matthew gives the impression that the four fishermen had never seen Jesus but were impelled by an immediate sense of divine authority. Curiously enough, by placing the event after the Sabbath in Capernaum, Luke implies (4:38-39) that at least one of the four already knew Jesus, for Jesus had gone to Simonís house from the synagogue at Capernaum. The story of his meeting Andrew and Simon at the Jordan in the Gospel of John (1:35-42) suggests that Jesus may have met the men before, won their allegiance, and told them to be ready to follow him whenever he called them.

Mark now presents (1:21-34) a series of miracles performed at Capernaum on the Sabbath. Whether he received the tradition of these acts as all occurring on the same day is not certain. Perhaps he brought them together to give the impression of a typically busy day in Jesusí ministry. That impression is enhanced by the frequent use of the adverb "immediately."

"And they went into Capernaum," says Mark (1:21), "and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught." Jesus had previously appeared as a prophet proclaiming good news and summoning the people to repentance; here we see him as a sage or rabbi giving instruction (cf. Mt 5:1-2). His teaching is referred to and quoted in the Gospels even more often than his preaching. Teaching in the synagogue is often mentioned (Mk 1:21; 6:2), sometimes together with the proclamation of the kingdom (Mk 1:39; 6:2; Mt 4:23; 9:35; Lk 4:44). Jesus is often addressed as "Teacher" or "Rabbi." The teaching expanded and clarified the proclamation.

Jesusí teaching was not like what the people were used to hearing. "And they were astonished at his teaching," says Mark (1:22), "for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes." The scribes were the successors of the wise men of the Old Testament. They shared with the priests the task of interpreting and applying the law (Ezra 7:6, 11-12, 21). They found their authority in the law of Moses, and cited for its interpretation "the tradition of the elders" (Mk 7:3, 5; Mt 15:2; cf. Mk 7:4, 8, 9, 13; Mt 15:3, 6), a long chain of pronouncements by a succession of leaders going back to Ezra. Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you (Mk 3:28 and often), or even, "You have heard that it was said . . . But I say. . ." (Mt 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43).

"And immediately," Mark continues (1:23), "there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit," which Jesus proceeded to exorcize. (The term "unclean spirit" is frequently used in the Gospels for demons; in fact Mark often has "unclean spirit" where Matthew or Luke, if not both, has "demon" (e.g., Mk 1:26; Lk 4:35). The afflicted man cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." Jesus commanded the demon to be silent and come out of the man; and it obeyed, "convulsing him and crying with a loud voice," to the amazement of the congregation (Mk 1:27; Lk 4:36). "What is this?" they cried; "A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." The connection between teaching and exorcism seems strange. Presumably it lies in the demonstration of authority by the miracle.

This is the first of the healing miracles. It raises questions that apply to this kind of miracle in general, concerning both the historical reality of the cures and the understanding of them as casting out demons. If the nature miracles may be regarded as devout legends, the healing miracles cannot be disposed of so easily. Some of them too may be legendary, but we do not have to accept or reject them in a lump as they stand. The real issue is whether Jesus really healed sick people.

In nine of the twenty healing miracles, faith is explicitly stressed as a condition of healing or even as accomplishing it. Recent studies of the miracle stories in the Gospels in comparison with those told of Jewish and pagan saints and sages or "divine men" have brought out the fact that the emphasis on faith as a condition of healing is a distinctive element in the Gospel narratives. I see no reason to doubt that it goes back to Jesus himself. This suggests that Jesus healed the sick by what would now be called faith-healing, aided by the confidence inspired by his exceptional personality. If so, his cures were not miraculous in the modern sense of the word; they were extraordinary, but not supernatural, instances of psychosomatic healing. What kinds of physical and mental trouble might be amenable to such treatment we are unable to say; medical science seems much more open-minded now than it used to be. Whether leprosy, for instance, or blindness would ever yield to such "authority" as Jesus demonstrated may be open to serious doubt, though hardly to arrogant denial. Well authenticated cures of even such a dread disease as cancer in our own day remind us that "more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." But even if not all the cures recorded in the Gospels actually occurred, it is altogether probable that Jesus healed many people afflicted with various ills of body and mind. To call this faith-healing only underlines the fact that he inspired such faith.

If such a suggestion seems to detract from the significance of the miracles as demonstrating his divine nature, it should be remembered that Jesus himself testified to the performance of such cures by others as well as himself: "And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub," he said to those who brought this charge against him (Mt 12:27-28; Lk 11:19-20), "by whom do your sons cast them out?" The meaning he saw in the expulsion of the demons was not that it certified his own unique nature but that it confirmed his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of God.

The reality of the cures does not stand or fall with the interpretation put upon them. The disorders were real, whether they were caused by demons or not. In discussing Jesusí temptation we have noted that he unquestionably believed in the reality and power of Satan. There is no hint that he ever questioned the belief in demons or the practice of exorcism. To recognize that is to recognize that he was a real man, subject to the limitations of living in the real world at that point in history.

The afflictions and evils that in antiquity were attributed to demons are still with us. Whatever we may call them, there are still legions of unclean spirits to be cast out ó not only physical and mental disorders but also moral, social, economic, and political evils. Among them, sad to relate, is am alarming recrudescence of superstition. School and church have failed to communicate to large segments of our population ai clear and convincing modern understanding of the universe. Science and technology, in spite of their amazing achievements, have not made life happy or free or decent or even safe. True devotion to Jesus in our world requires the translation of his teaching and example into the best thought and action possible today. The compassion that moved him to relieve suffering must find expression in earnest and competent efforts to eradicate the ills that afflict humanity.

The demoniac at Capernaum called Jesus "the Holy One of God" (Mk 1:24; Lk 4:34). At his baptism, Jesus had been declared to be the Son of God, and under temptation he had vindicated his right to the title. The term "Holy One of God" presumably had the same meaning, though it is used elsewhere in that sense only once (in 6:69). For the early church, and probably already for the Jews of Jesusí time, the many terms used for the Messiah had lost any differences or distinctions of meaning.

The result of the impression made by Jesusí teaching and the healing in the synagogue was that "at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee" (Mk 1:28; Lk 4:37).

From the synagogue Jesus went with his four disciples to the home of two of them, the brothers Simon and Andrew (Mk 1:29-31; Mt 8:14-15; Lk 4:38-39). There he found Simonís mother-in-law in bed with a fever. "And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them." Matthewís account of this incident is condensed and placed later in his narrative, after the Sermon on the Mount and two other miracles of healing.

When the sun set that evening, the Sabbath with its restrictions on carrying burdens being over, the people of the city thronged about Jesus, bringing "all who were sick or possessed with demons" (Mk 1:32-34; Mt 8:16-17; Lk 4:40-41). There are interesting variations in the three accounts of this episode. Matthew, like Mark, begins "That evening," but his change in the order of events makes this mean a later evening. All three evangelists distinguish between the sick and those possessed by demons, but Matthew and Luke bring out the distinction more sharply. Mark and Luke have an important detail that Matthew omits. Mark says that Jesus "would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him." Luke is more specific: the demons, he says, cried, "You are the Son of God!" and Jesus "rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ." Here, confirming what has been said about the equivalence of various Messianic expressions, "Son of God" and "Christ" are clearly identical in meaning.

This is the first occurrence of the term "Christ" in the narratives of Jesusí ministry in the Synoptic Gospels. It has been used in titles, genealogies, and infancy stories; and Lukeís account of John the Baptist says that the people wondered whether he was the Christ (Lk 3:15; cf. In 1:20, 25). In the Gospel of John (1:35-37, 40-42), when Andrew hears John call Jesus the Lamb of God, he finds his brother Simon and says, "We have found the Messiah." For the benefit of Greek readers who do not know Hebrew, the evangelist explains, "which means Christ."

When the word Christ is applied to Jesus in the Gospels it usually has the definite article, "the Christ," showing that it is still felt as a title rather than a personal name. The chief exception is in combination with the name Jesus. Soon, however, the term came to be practically a surname, and eventually it was regularly used as a name without the article. Jewish sources also frequently say "Messiah son of David" or "King Messiah" without a definite article.

Instead of the demonic cry and its suppression, Matthew (8:17) characteristically cites a prophecy: "This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ĎHe took our infirmities and bore our diseases." The quotation is from the description of the suffering servant of the Lord in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah (v 4), where more than anywhere else in the Old Testament the early church saw a portrait of Jesus. Usually the connection is found in his rejection and suffering; here the mention of infirmities and diseases brings the prophecy to mind, though Jesus did not literally take upon himself the afflictions of those whom he healed.

The silencing of the demons introduces us for the first time to one of Markís most characteristic ideas, commonly called "the Messianic secret." According to Mark, Jesus made no claim to be the Messiah during his ministry, was not recognized as such by the people, and was even careful not to let the fact of his Messiahship be known. Even Peterís confession at Caesarea Philippi was not welcomed and praised as in Matthew (Mk 8:30; cf. Mt 16:17-19). Only at the end, and in answer to a direct question from the high priest, according to Mark, did Jesus acknowledge his Messiahship (14:62). The explanation of this distinctive conception, scholars have suggested, is that Mark, fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, could find no clear evidence that he had presented himself as such to the Jewish nation; and the reason for this silence, Mark decided, could only be that Jesus was not yet ready to claim his Messiahship publicly and did not want the fact divulged prematurely.

A further inference is often drawn, that Jesus did not in fact claim to be the Messiah because he did not believe that he was. Only after his resurrection it is thought, did the disciples come to believe this. It is possible however, and to me seems more likely, that Jesus discouraged public acclamation of him as Messiah because he knew that it would be misunderstood. It would arouse false hopes in his followers and false fears in the religious and civil authorities, and thus would hinder his work instead of promoting it. To be the Messiah was one thing; to be the kind of Messiah the people expected and wanted was something quite different.

Luke follows Mark in the belief that only the demons recognized Jesus as the Christ, and he would not allow them to make him known (4:35, 41). Matthew, here and elsewhere, passes over the demonic acclamation (12:16). Once he says that Jesus "ordered them not to make him known," but by omitting the recognition by the demons he makes "them" mean the people who were healed.

The next morning after the busy Sabbath at Capernaum, according to Mark and Luke, Jesus arose early and sought solitude outside the city in "a lonely place," not necessarily a desert but a place where he could be alone (Mk 1:35; Lk 4:42). He was not left to himself very long, however. The people "sought him and came to him," says Luke, "and would have kept him from leaving them." Mark says that "Simon and those who were with him" found Jesus and told him that everyone was seeking him; but he said that other cities, too, must be given the good news of Godís kingdom, adding, "for that is why I came out" (Mk 1:38). This apparently means that he had come out of Capernaum to carry his message to other cities; in Luke, however, he says (4:43), "for I was sent for this purpose.

According to Mark and Matthew the mission of preaching and healing now proceeded throughout "all Galilee" (Mk 1:39; Mt 4:23). Luke says he preached "in the synagogues of Judea" (4:44). The apparent discrepancy is resolved if we recognize that Luke used the name Judea for Palestine as a whole. More difficult to explain is Lukeís omission of any reference to healing or exorcism. Matthew (4:23-25; cf. 9:35) elaborates Markís statement, specifying the varieties of afflictions healed as well as the regions from which the people came, including not only Galilee, but Syria, the Decapolis, Transjordan, and Judea (cf. Mk 3:7-8; Lk 6:17).

Viewed 191157 times.