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 8: The Fourth Part of the Galilean Ministry
The end of Matthew’s third discourse (Mt 13:53) is marked by the usual formula: "And when Jesus had finished these parables. he went away from there." Mark’s series of parables ends with the parable of the mustard seed and the statement that Jesus always used parables in speaking to the people. Mark’s narrative then continues (4:35-36). "On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was."
This introduces a series of miracles beginning with the second nature miracle in the Synoptic Gospels, the stilling of a storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mk 4:37-41; Mt 8:23-27; Lk 8:22-25). The first was the miraculous catch of fish narrated by Luke (Lk 5:1-1 1). This time all three evangelists report the miracle. Luke makes a new beginning, breaking the connection with the teaching by parables: "One day he got into a boat with his disciples." Matthew puts the stilling of the storm much earlier, first inserting, as already noted, two brief items given by Luke considerably later (Mt 8:18-22; Lk 9:57-60), and continuing as though there had been no interruption, "And when he got into the boat, the disciples followed him" (Mt 8:23).
From here on the account proceeds in the three Gospels with only minor differences. The storm rose suddenly, as storms do on hill-encircled lakes. Jesus was asleep when it struck the boat. The frightened disciples woke him and complained of his apparent indifference; but he chided them for their lack of faith and rebuked the sea, "and there was a great calm." Matthew condenses Mark’s account slightly, and Luke a little more; yet each also adds details and emphases of his own.
From a modern point of view we can only regard such a story as a devout legend. possibly but not necessarily having some basis in events about which it is futile to speculate. If a violent storm came up when Jesus and the disciples were on the lake and ceased as suddenly as it began, there would be nothing extraordinary in that. There would also be no particular reason for telling the story. Its point is expressed in the wondering words of the disciples, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"
The second miracle in Mark’s series (Mk 5:1-20; Mt 8:28-34; Lk 8:26-39) occurred when Jesus and the disciples reached the eastern shore, just where is not clear. The Greek manuscripts vary so widely in the names they give for the place that it is impossible to establish even what was the original reading in any of the Gospels. The evangelists agree that the place was on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and not far from the shore. For convenience we may speak of the Gadarene demoniac without implying a conclusion concerning the name.
The healing of the demoniac could almost be classified as a nature miracle, because other creatures than man are involved. What can we make of the transfer of demons from a man into a herd of swine, which thereupon rushed down the bank into the sea and perished? Again it is easy to rationalize and spoil the story. It has been suggested, for example, that the animals, feeding nearby, were stampeded by the wild cries of the lunatic. If so, the marvel of the healing would still remain.
Mark’s narrative is again more full and detailed than those of Matthew and Luke, with many vivid touches. Especially graphic is Mark’s description of the man’s uncontrollable violence. The picture of him after he was healed, "sitting there, clothed and in his right mind," is so effective that the expression has become proverbial. The urgent request of the people that Jesus leave their neighborhood is true to human nature. They did not mind his healing the afflicted, but his presence endangered their livestock. A curious feature of Matthew’s story is that there are two demoniacs just as later he twice has two blind men (cf. Mt 9:27; 20:30). Mark’s statement that the man was possessed by not one but many demons, who gave their name as Legion, is omitted by Matthew.
The three accounts agree that the demons addressed Jesus as the Son of God (Mark and Luke say "Son of the Most High God"). This time the healed demoniac was not charged to tell no one of his cure, but was sent home with instructions to tell his friends what God had done for him. "And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled" (Mk 5:18-20; Lk 8:38-39).
Returning to the western side of the lake, Jesus found a great crowd waiting for him. The event now related, the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:21-24, 35-43; Mt 9:18-19, 23-26; Lk 8:40-42, 49-50), is one of only two instances in the Synoptic Gospels of bringing a dead person back to life. The other is the story of the widow’s son at Nain (Lk 7:11-17).
Jairus is said by Mark and Luke to have been a ruler of the synagogue, that is, the official head of a congregation. Matthew calls him only a ruler. Falling at Jesus’ feet, Jairus begged him to come and heal his little daughter, who was at the point of death. (In Matthew the father says, "My daughter has just died"; but according to Mark and Luke it was only when they were on the way that people came from the ruler’s house and told him the child was dead.) Telling Jairus not to be afraid, and taking with him only Peter, James, and John, Jesus went on to the house and entered it with the child’s parents.
They found the house filled with mourners, but Jesus silenced them all and declared that the child was sleeping. Possibly she had fallen into a coma, and Jesus detected signs of life that the parents and friends had not perceived. Or is this only an example of the rationalizing I have condemned? As the story is told, Jesus pronounced the child alive before going into the room where she lay. His statement was received with scornful laughter; but he "put them all outside, went in, took the child’s hand, and said to her, "Little girl, I say to you, arise." Mark preserves the Aramaic words spoken by Jesus, with their Greek translation, as he does on several occasions (Mk 5:41; cf. 3:17: 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:34). "And immediately the girl got up and walked." Mark adds that she was twelve years old. Jesus strictly charged the parents not to tell what he had done, but Matthew says that the report "went through all that district." Mark ends his account on a human note: Jesus "told them to give her something to eat."
Within the framework of this miracle the story of a woman who had suffered a hemorrhage for twelve years is told (Mk 5:25-34; Mt 9:20-22; Lk 8:43-4S). Again the vividness of Mark’s account is notable. It is crushed into a few sentences by Matthew; Luke changes it only slightly, omitting very little. Many long-suffering invalids can appreciate Mark’s statement that the poor woman "had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse." Believing that if she could even touch Jesus’ clothing she would be healed, she made her way through the crowd, touched his robe, and at once knew that she was cured. Jesus asked who had touched him, and the grateful woman confessed that it was she. Addressing her in Semitic fashion as "Daughter," Jesus assured her that her faith had healed her.
After the raising of Jairus’ daughter, Matthew has a miracle reported only by him (Mt 9:27-31), Two blind men, he says, followed Jesus even into a house, crying. "Have mercy on us, Son of David." Asked if they believed that he could heal them, they said they did. He then touched their eyes and said, "According to your faith be it done to you." Like the leper and others, instead of obeying Jesus’ command to keep the miracle secret, these men too "spread his fame through all that district." This is one of Matthew’s "doublets," duplicating a similar incident that comes later (cf. 20:29-34; Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:35-43).
In Mark the story of Jairus’ daughter is followed by Jesus rejection by his former neighbors at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6; Mt 13:53-58), Matthew gives substantially the same account after his third discourse. Nazareth is not actually named here, but "his own country" undoubtedly refers to it. Jesus went to the synagogue, and, like the people of Capernaum, the people of Nazareth were astonished at his teaching. They had known him as a boy and a young man, and his family was still living among them. "And they took offense at him," with the result that Jesus "could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief." Once more the close connection between faith and healing is brought out.
Luke’s very different report of the rejection at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30) immediately follows Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he first returned to Galilee. Coming to Nazareth, Luke says, Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and "stood up to read"; and, being given a scroll of the book of Isaiah, he opened it at the beginning of chapter 61 and read the first verse and part of the second. A comparison of these verses as Luke quotes them with the Hebrew text of Isaiah and the Septuagint is instructive. Evidently Luke neither copied from the Septuagint nor made a fresh translation of his own, He probably quoted from memory a passage very familiar to him in the Greek. In the second verse, by intention or accident, he inserted a line from Isaiah 58:6.
Luke presents a vivid picture of Jesus rolling up the scroll, handing it to the attendant, and sitting down to speak, with the eyes of the congregation fixed on him. He began by saying, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." The portion he had read begins, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. . . ." This and other passages in Isaiah are echoed in Jesus’ reply to the disciples of John the Baptist (Mt 11:2-6; Lk 7:18-23), who asked, "Are you he who is to come?" There the reference is presumably to the Messiah, whose coming John had foretold. Here what follows shows that the word "anointed" refers to a prophet.
Such references afford a clue to Jesus’ conception of his mission. It was not that of a conqueror or monarch, but the prophetic and healing ministry of the servant of the Lord. Whatever historical value Luke’s narrative may have, if Jesus thought of himself as Messiah in any sense it was probably as an anointed prophet rather than a king, though there are references to his future kingdom that we shall have to examine.
Up to this point, Luke says, "all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth." Then Jesus said, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum. do here also in your own country.’" (We have seen that Luke here betrays the fact that he has moved the incident forward.) Jesus added, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country." Mark and Matthew also quote this in connection with the visit to Nazareth (cf. Mk 6:4: Mt 13:57). In Luke "his own country" is assumed to mean Israel, and examples from the stories of Elijah and Elisha are cited to show that Gentiles may receive greater favor than the chosen people. At this the mood of the congregation changed. Forcibly ejecting Jesus from the synagogue, they took him "to the brow of the hill on which their city was built," intending to throw him down into the valley. "But passing through the midst of them he went away" (4:29-30).
How much of this is authentic history, how much legend, and how much the creation of Luke’s own imagination it is impossible to tell. Jesus may have referred to the Phoenician widow and the Syrian leper on this or some other occasion, but the evangelization of the Gentiles was one of Luke’s major interests. The inappropriate reference to Capernaum (Lk 4:23) indicates that he did not compose the account for this place. Probably he found it in his source or received it by tradition and merely transferred it to its present position, touching it up a little for his purpose.
Mark proceeds with a brief account of continued teaching in the villages and the mission of the twelve disciples (6:7-13), which Matthew uses as the occasion of his second discourse (10:1-42). Giving them authority over unclean spirits, Jesus instructed the twelve to travel without provisions or equipment, to lodge in the same house throughout their stay in each village, and to shake the dust from their feet as a testimony when they left any place that would not receive them or listen to them. As they went, Mark says, they "preached that men should repent."
According to both Mark and Luke, the cures accomplished by his emissaries so enhanced the fame of Jesus that a rumor that John the Baptist had risen from the dead spread abroad and came to the ears of King Herod Antipas (Mk 6:14-16; Lk 9:7-9). Matthew puts this directly after Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (14:1-2), having already told of the mission of the twelve. Luke has previously reported John’s imprisonment (3:19) and only alludes to his death. Mark and Matthew record both to explain the rumor that John had risen (Mk 6:17-29; Mt 14:3-12). For Mark the recital of these events fills the interval between the departure of the twelve and their return.
Mark and Luke now proceed to what happened after the disciples came back (Mk 6:30-34; Lk 9:10-11; Mt 14:13-14). Matthew connects this with the death of John, To the statement that John’s disciples buried his body he adds, "and they went and told Jesus," and continues, "Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart." Mark says when the twelve returned and told Jesus what they had done, he took them "in the boat to a lonely place by themselves." Luke identifies the place to which Jesus took them as "a city called Bethsaida."
As on other occasions, it proved impossible to escape the crowds. Again Mark tells the story more fully and vividly than Matthew or Luke. Apparently Jesus and the disciples crossed a corner or bay of the lake to reach their destination. For the people on the shore, the distance was therefore greater; but they could move more rapidly and could see where the boat was going. Thus they arrived ahead of Jesus and the disciples; but although his attempt to find solitude had failed, "he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things" (Mk 6:34; Mt 14:14; cf. 9:36; Lk 9:11). Matthew and Luke mention also healing.
This leads to another "nature miracle," the feeding of the five thousand (Mk 6:35-44; Mt 14:15-2 I; Lk 9:12-17; Jn 6:1-13). This miracle and the one that follows it are the only ones reported both in the Synoptic Gospels and in John. When evening came, the disciples reminded Jesus that it was a "lonely place," with no shops or farms where the people might get food. Instead of sending the crowd away, however, Jesus told the disciples to feed them. They protested that even if they went into town and bought food for such a throng, it would cost two hundred denarii, nearly a year’s wages then, though its equivalent now would buy very little. Jesus asked how much food they had with them. They said five loaves of bread and two fish. (The loaves would be something like the round flat loaves still used in Palestine.) With them, we are told, Jesus fed the multitude, and twelve basketfuls of pieces were left over.
In Mark and Matthew, and also in John, the feeding of the five thousand is followed by another nature miracle, Jesus’ walking on the water (Mk 6:45-52; Mt 14:22-33; Jn 6:15-21). John says that Jesus did not set out in the boat with the disciples but withdrew to the hills because the people wanted to make him their king. According to Mark and Matthew, he sent the disciples ahead of him by boat while he dismissed the people and then retired to the hills to pray. Mark says that the disciples were sent "to the other side, to Bethsaida, according to Luke the place where the five thousand were fed (Mk 6:45; cf Lk 9:10). The walking on the sea was omitted entirely by Luke: in fact everything in Mark from 6:45 to 8:26 is passed over. This is commonly called Luke’s "great omission."
The feeding of the multitude had taken place in the evening; therefore the crossing of the lake was made by night. Rowing against the wind, the disciples were making little headway, when in the fourth watch (i.e., 3:00-6:00 AM.) they saw what they thought was a ghost walking on the water. They cried out in terror, but it was Jesus himself. He reassured them and told them not to be afraid. Matthew alone tells here of Peter’s impetuous attempt to go to Jesus on the water (14:28-31). Frightened by the wind, he began to sink and cried out, "Lord, save me." but Jesus took him by the hand and said, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?"
It is a lovely little story, whatever we may think of its historical basis, and it lends itself readily to spiritual applications. Perhaps with the feeding of the multitude and the walking on the sea the spiritual lesson came first, and the story grew out of it as a parable or allegory.
Mark and Matthew end the story quite differently. Mark says, "And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened." The hardness of the disciples’ hearts, or, as it may seem to us, their incredible stupidity, appears also in other places, especially in Mark. A strong case has been made recently for a theory that sees it as an essential element in the occasion and purpose of Mark’s Gospel. The disciples, it is argued. were used by the evangelist to represent a popular doctrine that ignored the inevitability and necessity of suffering. Matthew’s report of the disciples’ reaction is more favorable: "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." If Mark has overstressed the obtuseness of the disciples, one gets the impression that Matthew exaggerates their piety and orthodoxy.
In addition to the two nature miracles, Mark and Matthew tell of many cures after Jesus and the disciples reached the other side of the lake (Mk 6:53-56; Mt 14:34-36). Although Mark has said that the disciples set out for Bethsaida, both he and Matthew now say that they landed at Gennesaret. Once in Luke (5:1) the Sea of Galilee is called the Lake of Gennesaret. The name designates properly a plain on the northwest shore of the lake. This must be what is meant here.
Again people brought their sick to Jesus, and many were healed by touching the fringe of his mantle. All was not well, however. Mark and Matthew tell next of a discussion with Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem (Mk 7:1-23; Mt 15:1-20). They had observed that some of the disciples were not washing their hands before eating.
As in previous incidents, it is evident that the disciples were not observing the oral law (Mk 2:18-22 and parallels; vv 23-28 and parallels). The Pharisees asked Jesus why this was so. His reply goes to the very heart of his teaching about moral and ritual requirements. The tradition in question here was a matter of the distinction between clean and unclean, which is prominent both in the Old Testament and in the oral law. It was a matter not of hygiene but of ritual purity. Jesus, at least by implication, abolished at one stroke this part of the law,
First (as Mark tells it) he charged his questioners with hypocrisy (7:7), quoting a verse from Isaiah (29:13) that speaks of people who honor God with their lips but not with their hearts, "teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." The word "doctrines" is unfortunate here, because it suggests beliefs rather than regulations for conduct or worship (TEV, God’s rules). The point of the text is that the piety of the hypocrites is merely the performance of what they have been taught, a set of man-made rules.
The basic question at issue between the Pharisees and Jesus was how to know what was the will of God. Both he and they accepted the law as revealing God’s will, but they had very different ways of interpreting what was revealed. The Pharisees’ traditions were attempts to work out in detail what the written law implied. Jesus declared that the result defeated its own purpose. The misuse of the "Corban" is cited as an instance. The word "corban" (qorban) means simply "offering." By declaring any of his property to be an offering, dedicated to God, a man might evade his responsibility to honor his parents. Thus a formally religious act might be an act of disobedience to God.
Now Jesus calls the people to him and makes a radical statement: nothing that goes into a man can defile him: it is what comes out of his mouth that defiles him (Mk 7:15: Mt 15:11). According to Matthew (15:12-14), the disciples came and told Jesus that what he said had offended the Pharisees. He replied that any plant not planted by his heavenly Father would he rooted up; the Pharisees were blind guides (cf. Lk 6:39). "And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit."
When the disciples were alone with Jesus in the house, Mark says (7:17-18), they "asked him about the parable," evidently meaning what he had said about the things that defile a man. Again Jesus expressed surprise at their lack of understanding. What he had said was not a parable: it was meant quite literally. Bodily food does not defile a man: what does defile him is what comes from his heart and finds expression through his mouth. Mark inserts here a parenthetical observation: "Thus he declared all foods clean." Modern scholars have seriously questioned whether Jesus himself would have gone quite that far. When Peter heard in a vision at Joppa "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." he evidently was not yet emancipated from the old dietary restrictions (Acts 10:9-16). After converting the household of Cornelius. he still had to convince the brethren at Jerusalem that he was right (11:1-18). Even then, according to Paul (Gal 2:11-13), he did not quite have the full courage of his convictions, for after eating with Gentiles at Antioch he separated himself from them when some conservative brethren came from Jerusalem.
It is a mistake to assume that Jesus could not have departed more radically from current thought and practice than his followers did. A bothersome question, however, emerges here. The distinction of clean and unclean was not only traditional, it was an integral part of the law itself. The commandment that Jesus pronounced second only to the commandment to love God, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18), is from a chapter that deals with the subject of clean and unclean. That Jesus abandoned entirely such a prominent part of the law is not impossible. If he did not consider the whole concept of ritual cleanness null and void, he clearly considered it relatively unimportant.
The laws of clean and unclean were intended to set Israel apart as the holy people of God (Lev 20:26). Jesus’ attitude to them is thus tied up with his conception of the place of the Gentiles in God’s plan. We have seen in the story of the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10) evidence that Jesus could appreciate genuine faith in a Gentile. Another instance of this now follows.
According to Mark and Matthew, Jesus left Galilee and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast north of Palestine (Mk 7:24-30: Mt 15:21-28). Here he was approached by "a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit." Mark says that she was "a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth," that is, a person of Greek descent, born and living in what is now the Republic of Lebanon. Matthew calls her a Canaanite, the Canaanites and Phoenicians being the same people. This need not imply that she was not Greek by descent. Many Greeks had settled in this area, which had close commercial ties with Greece.
Why Jesus had gone outside of his own country we are not told, though there is a suggestion that he was seeking seclusion in Mark’s statement, "And he entered a house, and would not have anyone know it." Whether he wished to get away from his adversaries or from the eager crowds that followed him in Galilee, his fame had evidently spread beyond the bounds of Palestine; "he could not be hid." Mark says that the mother of the afflicted girl heard of him "immediately" and cane to him, begging him to heal her daughter.
According to Matthew she cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David," "Son of David" was a current Jewish designation of the Messiah. Others appealed to Jesus in the same way, according to Matthew. Was this pagan woman trying to pose as a Jewess? We can only guess what Matthew had in mind.
Jesus did not answer the poor woman. Matthew continues, and the disciples urged him to send her away. He replied with an expression that he had used, again according to Matthew (cf. Mt 10:6), when instructing the twelve for their mission: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." The frantic mother then knelt before Jesus, saying simply, "Lord, help me," or, as we should probably translate with the NEB. "Help me, sir." This evoked the reply that, in Mark’s account, Jesus made to the woman’s first appeal: "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs" (Mk 7:27: Mt 15:26). This seems unfeeling and arrogant: but perhaps it meant, "Do you mean to tell me that you, a Gentile, expect me, a Jew, to heal your daughter? Amazing!" Undeterred the woman answered, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs." This drew from Jesus an immediate and positive response. "Just for that," he said in effect, "you shall have what you want; your daughter is healed."
At several points this incident resembles the healing of the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10). Again we have a cure performed at a distance in response to a Gentile’s entreaty. In each instance Jesus expresses wonder at finding such faith in a Gentile. I have suggested that personal contacts with persons of other faiths and nationalities may have affected Jesus’ attitudes and views. If he ever considered himself and his disciples to be sent only to Israel, the possibility of a change is intriguing.
It is difficult to decide how far we are justified in drawing conclusions about Jesus from the miracle stories. The question whether they contain any historical facts, and if so what, is complicated and delicate. "Blind unbelief is sure to err." A legend may tell more about a person than a precise factual record.
From the region of Tyre, Mark says (7:31), Jesus "went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis." (The KJV follows a different reading, found in late manuscripts.) Tyre is about thirty miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee, and Sidon is about twenty miles farther north on the shore of the Mediterranean. The region of the Decapolis is east and southeast of the Sea of Galilee. To get there from Sidon Jesus could either go back to Tyre and thence southeast or cross the tviountain range of Lebanon, proceed eastward to the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi, and then go south. Either route would be a very roundabout way to reach the Sea of Galilee. The advantage of such a detour might have been to avoid the territory of Herod Antipas, west of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. Yet very soon afterward, Jesus is apparently at work again on that side of the lake. Matthew ignores the difficulty: after the healing in the district of Tyre and Sidon he says, "And Jesus went on from there and passed along the Sea of Galilee" (Mt 15:21, 29).
Back again beside the lake, according to Mark (7:32-37), Jesus healed "a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech." Matthew (15:29-31) substitutes for this paragraph a brief, general statement that Jesus healed many people afflicted with various ills. In Mark’s account Jesus uses a qutasi-magical technique, putting his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, and touching the man’s tongue. Again the Aramaic word he uttered is quoted and translated (cf. Mk 5:41). A similar procedure is described in John in the healing of a man born blind (9:6).
Familiarity with stories of cures by similar methods in Jewish and pagan literature may have influenced the tradition of this miracle, so different from Jesus’ usual practice in the Synoptic narratives. The Aramaic word suggests that the story goes back to an early phase of the tradition. Using mysterious foreign words was a part of magical procedure in the Hellenistic world, but for Jesus this would not be a foreign word.
The next event in Mark and Matthew (Mk 8:1-10; Mt 15:32-39) is almost a duplicate of the feeding of the five thousand. This time four thousand were fed with seven loaves and "a few small fish." Jesus told the disciples that the crowd had no food and would faint on the way if he sent them off hungry. At the end Mark says that Jesus "got into the boat with his disciples, and went to the district of Dalmanutha"; according to Matthew he went to the region of Magadan. Neither region nor district has been identified; there are variant readings in the manuscripts of both Gospels.
It seems obvious that the two accounts of feeding multitudes must reflect two traditions of the same event. If such a miracle could happen once it could happen twice, but as nature miracles these pose a special problem of credibility. Probably Mark, having two forms of the tradition, conscientiously included both in his record. Matthew then simply followed Mark.
A demand of the Pharisees for a sign from heaven is reported next (Mk 8:11-13; Mt 16:1). Jesus declared that no sign would be given to that generation. Matthew inserts here the saying about "the signs of the times," which appears later in Luke (Mt 16:2-3; Lk 12:54-56); then he notes the refusal of a sign, repeating, "except the sign of Jonah" (Mt 16:4; cf. 12:39). What was meant by the signs of the times is not clear, beyond the general implication that any person who observed and understood what was going on about him would not need any other sign from heaven to attest the divine mission and authority of Jesus,
After this, Mark continues, Jesus again crossed the lake; but the disciples forgot to bring any bread, "and had only one loaf with them in the boat" (Mk 8:13-21; Mt 16:5-12). This seems strange almost immediately after the feeding of the four thousand. Had the ease with which Jesus could feed multitudes made the disciples careless? The statement and the paragraph it introduces look like a traditional expansion or midrash of the saying that now follows. Luke has this in his special section (Lk 12:1), but omits the discussion that follows it in Mark and Matthew. In Mark it reads, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod" (some good manuscripts read "the Herodians"; cf. Mk 3:6; Mt 22:16). Matthew has the Sadducees; Luke has only "the leaven of the Pharisees," but adds, "which is hyprocrisy" (unless this is a marginal note by an early reader).
Aware that the disciples thought he referred to their failure to bring bread, Jesus rebuked them for their lack of perception. In Matthew Jesus calls them "men of little faith," one of Matthew’s favorite expressions (cf. Mt 6:30; 8:26; 14:3 1; 16:8; also 17:20; Lk 12:28). Lack of faith seems less appropriate than lack of insight. This is what they are charged with in Mark and in the rest of the passage in Matthew. Mark calls it hardness of heart, which means not cruelty but a closed mind. In that time the heart was supposed to be the organ of thought, emotions being located in the bowels.
Mark has another sentence, which Matthew omits (8:18): "Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?" The disciples would no doubt recognize the echo of passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel referring to Israel (Jer 5:21; Ezek 12:2). In the Psalms the same expressions are applied to idols and those who use them (Ps 115:4-8; 135:15-18).
Mark and Matthew say that Jesus reproved the disciples also for not remembering the miracles of feeding the crowds, Matthew adds an interpretation different from Luke’s: "Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
The fact that Jesus’ questions and the disciples’ answers presuppose the miracles of feeding the multitudes is significant. The tradition of this conversation, at least in its final form, must have arisen after the two stories had come to be accepted as representing two different miracles. Perhaps the evangelist himself so understood them and edited or composed the account of the conversation accordingly. This would not affect the authenticity of the warning about leaven. A saying originally handed down by itself sometimes gave rise to a story about the circumstances under which it was spoken. Whether Matthew’s or Luke’s interpretation is correct is another question. Possibly both are wrong. The saying implies some kind of insidious influence to which the disciples are exposed. Beyond that we are limited to conjecture.
Mark now tells of the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26), one of the cities denounced by Jesus for failing to repent in spite of the mighty works done in them (Mt 11:21; Lk 10:13). It has been mentioned in connection with the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water. Apparently it was on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, just to the east of the point where the Jordan River flows into the lake. This incident and the parable of the seed growing of itself (Mk 4:26-29) are the only complete units in Mark that have no parallels at all in the other Gospels.
At several points this miracle resembles the healing of the deaf mute. There people brought a deaf and dumb man and asked Jesus to lay his hands upon him; here they bring a blind man and ask Jesus to touch him. There Jesus took the man aside from the multitude; here he takes the man by the hand and leads him out of the village. In both cases he used physical means, including spitting and laying his hands on the patient. There are differences, however. Here there is no Aramaic word of command. There is also a unique element, the achievement of a cure in two stages.