Musings on Mark: Artfully Structured

Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 43-44.

The Gospel of Mark is artfully structured. It consists of individual pericopes, each of which makes its own point. Through their arrangement into a gospel they acquire a “surplus of meaning”: in the framework of the story of Jesus they point to the mystery of Jesus’ person, which is revealed only in the entirety of the story. The individual narratives are therefore, on the one hand, superficially constructed into a plausible chronological and geographical order, but at the same time they are interpreted by a christologically motivated ordering. A geographical and a christological outline overlie each other.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce – Conflict with Matthew

In last week’s installment of “Musings on Mark” we looked at the Markan Jesus’ take on divorce where we concluded that

if we ask the Markan Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be a resounding “No!” Why? Because marriage is a union of one flesh that no one can separate. Not Moses. Not a certificate of divorce. No one. Only God.1

The sternness of Jesus’ position should not be all that unsurprising. After all, the reign of God was coming (Mark 1:15) and remarriage would not only be a distraction from spreading the gospel with the time that is left but also a violation of God’s commandment, thereby putting violators in a rather precarious spot when the Son of Man returns.

But Jesus’ hard line on divorce in Mark is softened in the Matthean redaction of the text (Matthew 19:1-12). The Matthean author places Jesus’ teaching on divorce in a similar geographical setting as the Markan author (i.e. in Judea; Mark 10:1) and it is “some Pharisees” who approach Jesus to question him on divorce (cf. Mark 10:2). But things quickly begin to diverge between the Markan and Matthean narratives.

Grounds for Divorce

Recall that in Mark 10:2 the question that the Pharisees ask is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is a yes or no question and Jesus answers it with a no. But the Matthean text changes it up a bit. The question now from the Pharisees is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause [kata pasan aitian]?” (Matthew 19:3) We immediately recognize that these Pharisees – or at least some Jews – believed that divorce could be initiated for any reason whatsoever but they want to get Jesus’ take on it “to test him” (19:3).

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is to quote from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 just as he had in the Gospel of Mark. But things are out-of-order a bit because the Markan Jesus initially asks the Pharisees, “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10:3) That question never comes from the lips of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Instead, the words of Jesus in 10:3 and the Pharisees’ response in 10:4 have been combined in the question that the Pharisees ask in Matthew 19:7: “They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?'”

The Matthean Jesus initially sounds a lot like the Markan in that he suggests there are no grounds for divorce since God’s design from the beginning was that the union of husband and wife into one flesh could be separated by no one. But with the question from the Pharisees, some cracks begin to appear. As in Mark, Jesus states that the Deuteronomic law (i.e. Deuteronomy 24:1-4) was a concession from Moses because of their hard heartedness and that it “was not so” from the beginning (19:8; cf. Mark 10:5). Instead, Jesus states that “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity [mē epi porneia], and marries another commits adultery” (19:9).

So if we were to ask the Matthean Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be, “Only on the grounds of porneia.” This Jesus is not the Markan Jesus.

Unsurprising Caveats

But in reality, this should not be all that shocking. In another confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus is asked to give a “sign from heaven” but tells his opponents that “no sign will be given…except the sign of Jonah” (16:4; cf. 12:39). But the Markan Jesus tells the Pharisees that “no sign will be given” (Mark 8:12) and there is no “sign of Jonah” to be found anywhere.

There is also another issue at work in the Matthean Gospel: the necessity of the law. Had the Matthean Jesus said what the Markan Jesus had he would have been in direct contradiction with the law of Moses. But the Matthean Jesus isn’t a law-breaker. Instead, he places hedges around the law to protect people from violating it (cf. Matthew 5:21-48). The Matthean Jesus had come to fulfill the law, not abolish it (5:17-18).

A Missing Piece and a New One

So the Matthean Jesus has interpreted Moses in such a way that the only grounds for divorce is porneia, a word that basically refers to some kind of sexual immorality. Gone is the private conversation between Jesus and the disciples we find in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:10-12) that suggested anyone who remarried after a divorce was committing adultery. Instead, a new private conversation between Jesus and the disciples follows wherein the disciples tell Jesus that if it is the case that the only grounds for divorce is porneia then “it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus responds with a strange teaching that features eunuchs.

Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can (19:11-12).

What in the world does that mean?

To be honest, I have no idea and it is a topic debated among scholars. Those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” may simply refer to people who remain celibate, i.e. practically eunuchs. Or Jesus might be speaking of people who actually emasculate themselves. Whatever the case may be, its relationship to Jesus’ teaching on divorce is not entirely clear.2 

A Conflict on Divorce

It is quite clear that we have a conflict between the Markan Jesus and the Matthean Jesus. In the former, divorce is never permissible since it violates the union of one flesh that God instituted from the beginning. Moses be damned! In the latter, the only cause for divorce is that of porneia, thereby revealing how Jesus understood the law of Moses.


1 Amateur Exegete, “Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce” (1.9.19), Accessed 13 January 2019.

2 For a discussion on this text, see R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 722-726. France believes that the “this teaching” of 19:11 is a reference to the disciples comment in 19:10. In other words, celibacy is a good option for the sake of the kingdom.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her….”
– Jesus

In Mark 10:1-12 we read of an encounter between “some Pharisees” and Jesus over the question of divorce. They ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (10:2, NRSV) to which Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” (10:3) They then tell Jesus that Moses said it was permissible to divorce one’s wife if you produce a “certificate of dismissal” (10:4). What did that entail?

Moses and Divorce

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives us the answer.

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.

So if a man found something “objectionable” about his wife, he could then write a certificate of divorce and send her away. But what constitutes objectionable? Simply put, we don’t know.

The “objectionable thing” is vague, and perhaps deliberately so. This law is less interested in the technicalities of the bill of divorce than it is in the correct disposition of the former wife’s sexuality.1

Whatever it was, by the time of Jesus there were some groups who contended a wife who couldn’t cook was one who could be divorced while others claimed that divorce was only permissible on the grounds of sexual immorality.2 

Having been put away by her husband, the woman is free to marry again (24:2). However, if her new husband “dislikes her” then he too can write a bill of divorce and put her away (24:3). But is this woman free to return to her first husband? No, because “she has been defiled” and such an act “would be abhorrent to the LORD” and would “bring guilt on the land” (24:4).

Back to “The Beginning”

Jesus acknowledges the Pharisees’ words about Moses but it isn’t a concession. He tells them that it was “[b]ecause of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you” (10:5). Well what does that mean? A heart that is “hard” refers to a disposition of stubbornness. But how does that fit with regards to Moses and the giving of this law? It seems that Jesus understands Deuteronomy 24:1-4 “as a temporary concession by God to the spiritual weakness of the people.”3 In other words, divorce was permitted but it “was never envisaged in the divine purpose.”4 Instead, God’s design was life-long partnership:

But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (10:6-9).

Jesus is echoing the words of both the Priestly account of humanity’s creation (Genesis 1:27) and the Yahwist’s account (Genesis 2:24). His appeal to these texts serves his point that “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (10:9). How? Because it was God who made them two separate beings (Genesis 1:27) but then, through the act of marriage and physical consummation, they “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And since marriage was God’s idea “from the beginning of creation,” only he can separate the two that have become one.

Divorce and Remarriage

But if this wasn’t obvious from his exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus is even more blunt in private with the disciples (10:10).

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (24:11-12).

If you divorce your spouse and marry someone else you have violated the commandment of God (Exodus 20:14). Why? Because the now-divorced couple are still one flesh. Therefore, a remarriage means a union that violates that one flesh. This is in stark contrast with the Deuteronomic law which stated marriage was permissible after divorce.

So if we ask the Markan Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be a resounding “No!” Why? Because marriage is a union of one flesh that no one can separate. Not Moses. Not a certificate of divorce. No one. Only God.


1 Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (HarperOne, 2011), 315.

2 Gordon J. Wenham, “Divorce,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 170.

3 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 294.

4 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 391.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Mark: Will a Sign Be Given?

Following the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10), the Pharisees confront Jesus and begin “asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him” (8:11). The sign would serve as divine verification of his messianic ministry. Yet Jesus is a bit flustered. We are told that “he sighed deeply in his spirit,” a phrase that suggests a deep emotional response to their demands.1 Jesus then replies, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign with be given to this generation” (8:12). He then gets into his boat and leaves for the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

There are a number of questions to be asked. First and foremost in my mind is, Why was Jesus not willing to give “this generation” a sign? Some of it may have to do with the types of signs (Greek, sēmeion) mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. In chapter thirteen there are two types of signs: those signs meant to vindicate messianic pretenders (13:22) and apocalyptic signs from God (13:2-4).2 The Pharisees wanted Jesus to produce “a sign from heaven,” that is, a sign from God. But Jesus isn’t God in Mark and so he cannot produce such a sign. That is wholly up to God. So Jesus tells them that “no sign will be given,” at least not from him.

Matthew’s Version

In Matthew’s version of this encounter things are a bit different. Instead of just the Pharisees coming to Jesus, it is both the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1) who ask Jesus for a sign from heaven. And Matthew never mentions Jesus’ emotional response like what we say in Mark 8:12 (i.e. “he sighed deeply in his spirit”). Plus, the Matthean Jesus inserts a proverb with which many of us are familiar (16:2-3):

Red sky at night, sailors delight!
Red sky at morn’, sailors be warned!

You don’t find that in Mark’s version.

But most interesting is what Jesus says in 16:4 – “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Recall that in Mark Jesus tells the Pharisees that “no sign will be given,” period. But Matthew’s version has Jesus telling them that the only sign that will be given is “the sign of Jonah.” To what is that referring?

In Matthew 12:38-42 Jesus is approached by the scribes and Pharisees who ask him for a sign (12:38). Jesus tells them there that “no sign will be given…except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (12:39). Jesus goes on to explain that sign: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (12:40). So “the sign of Jonah” is essentially that Jesus would die and be resurrected after three days. And since it is God who is doing the action, it is indeed a “sign from heaven” (16:1).

It should go without saying that “the sign of Jonah” appears nowhere in the Gospel of Mark. The first time Jesus mentions his earthly fate doesn’t come until Mark 8:31 after the Pharisees come and demand Jesus produce a sign as well as the confession of Jesus’ messiahship in 8:27-30. Up to that point in Mark, Jesus’ death and resurrection were known only to the readers of the Gospel. But not so in Matthew’s Gospel. Before the important confession of Jesus’ messiaship in Matthew 16:13:20, Jesus had already made known his fate when the scribes and Pharisees first asked him to produce a sign in 12:38. What was unknown to the characters in Mark has been known for some time in Matthew.

But why? Why is Matthew intent on changing Mark in this way? That is perhaps a more difficult question to answer. It may have something to do with who Jesus is in Matthew versus who he is in Mark. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a veritable nobody from nowhere. He has no impressive lineage or back story. He doesn’t even become the Messiah until his baptism! But not so in Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, David’s hometown. He is visited by wise men who give him costly gifts. Thus long before his baptism, Jesus is obviously different. In Matthew, Jesus’ messianic sonship is declared to all who are witnessing his baptism whereas in Mark it is directed at Jesus specifically.

So then maybe Matthew alters Mark because he wants to make it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection was a sign to the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Perhaps Matthew’s historical circumstances made it so he didn’t want to give the religious authorities an “out” in their treatment of Jesus. They knew all along and therefore are accountable for their actions in condemning their messiah to death. Whatever the reason, there is a stark difference between the Markan and Matthean versions of this pericope. In the former, no sign was going to be given; in the latter, only the sign of Jonah would be.

Interesting to say the least.


1 The Greek participle anastenaxas is from anastenazō, a word that implies groaning. This is the only appearance of anastenazō in the entire New Testament. However, stenazō appears in Mark 7:34.

2 Mary Anne Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011), 129.

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Musings on Mark: Jesus’ Origin Story in Mark

Every superhero has a back story, a tale about what made them the way they are. My favorite superhero is DC’s Batman. What disturbing thing happened to him that made him want to dress up like a bat and beat up bad guys in the middle of the night? As most people know, when Bruce Wayne was young he witnessed his parents get murdered right before his eyes. It was this traumatic event that led him down the path to becoming one of the most iconic comic book heroes in history: the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, the Batman.

Jesus too has a back story, a tale about what made him the way he was. But in the New Testament we don’t have one version of that story but four. In John’s Gospel he was the preexistent divine being who “was in the beginning with God” and through whom “[a]ll things came into being” (John 1:2, 3). In the Gospel of Luke he was the son of God, the product of a union between a virgin and the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34-35). In Matthew’s Gospel he was the Davidic king born of a virgin, also the product of a union of divinity and humanity and foretold centuries before (Matthew 1:20-23). But Mark is different. Very different.

“A Baptism for Repentance”

The opening narrative of Mark’s Gospel isn’t about its titular hero, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Instead, it is about the one who prepares his way: John the Baptist. But what is John doing to prepare the way? According to Mark, John was in the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). What this apparently entailed was John taking the penitent into the Jordan river and dunking them. Those who were being baptized were also “confessing their sins” (1:5). This explains the phrase “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”: they were being baptized to symbolize purification as they confessed their sins before John.

Then along came Jesus, about whom the Gospel is written. He hails from the tiny town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee (1:9). But in Mark, when he arrives on the scene of John’s work in the wilderness, there is no dialogue between the two. All we read is that Jesus “was baptized by John in the Jordan” (1:9). But why would Jesus need to be baptized at all? Wasn’t he the sinless Savior who was the God-man? Well, only if you read Mark through the lens of the other canonical authors. But if you had Mark and only Mark you would conclude that Jesus was baptized by John while confessing his sins.

In other words, the Markan Jesus is a sinner.

Jesus’ Baptism

This makes quite a bit of sense. By all counts, the Markan Jesus was relatively unremarkable before he began his ministry in Galilee. In chapter three we read of how Jesus’ family, upon hearing that Jesus has returned “home” decides to find him and “restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind'” (3:20-21).1 We later read that when Jesus returns to Nazareth and teaches in the synagogue, people are bewildered: “Where did this man get all this? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (6:2-3) The Markan Jesus is just a regular guy. That is, until his baptism.

Mark 1:10 tells us that as Jesus “was coming up out of the water” he saw the sky open and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. This is his anointing. This is when he is chosen by God. This is when he becomes the messiah. The confirmation for this comes in 1:11 when God himself declares to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is thus anointed for his work as the messiah.

Some may object by appealing to the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke or the prologue of John but as stated earlier, Mark shows no awareness of them and even if he knew of them he clearly had no interest in them.

Mark tells us nothing of Jesus prior to this moment. It seems that his baptism is the beginning of his story and nothing before matters.2 

Some may object that Matthew and Luke also have the baptism story and they do not give the impression that they believed Jesus was a sinner. But both Matthew and Luke are different from Mark in a few ways. For starters, both have the extensive birth narratives which preface the baptism. They serve to paint a portrait of Jesus different from the one we see in Mark and which consequently changes the import of his baptism. In fact, Matthew is quite direct about this with its inclusion of dialogue between John and Jesus that is not found in Mark (Matthew 3:13-15).

The Complicated Messiah

This view of Jesus that I am suggesting will invariably raise the ire of Christians who believe Jesus has been and always will be the sinless savior. I can appreciate that and I can understand how they arrive at their position. My point is simply that as far as the Markan text is concerned there was no always sinless savior. Perhaps we could consider post-baptism Jesus as sinless; I could probably buy that to some degree. But the fact that Jesus was baptized by John and that John’s baptism was specifically for repentance for the forgiveness of sins tells me that the author of Mark wanted us to think Jesus was a sinner and therefore a more complicated messiah than most have thought him to be.

And I’m okay with that.


1 I have written about this elsewhere (“Musings on Mark: He’s Out of His Mind!” [4.30.18]). There I contend that it isn’t “people” in general who claimed Jesus was nuts but his family in particular and that is why they’ve come down to “restrain him.”

2 Raquel S. Lettsome, “Mark,” in Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sanchez, editors, Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (Fortress Press, 2014), 175.

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Musings on Mark: A Closer Look at Mark 6:45-52, part 2

In the last “Musings on Mark” we began taking a closer look at Mark 6:45-52. Today we finish up looking at that passage.

“He Intended to Pass Them By”

We left off in the last post with Jesus seeing the struggle of the disciples as they tried to row “against an adverse wind” (Mark 6:48). This prompts Jesus to make his way to them, “walking on the sea.” But then we read one of the most bizarre statements in the Markan Gospel: “He intended to pass them by.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s begin by briefly considering the Greek text.

Greek (transliterated)


kai  and
ēthelen he intended
parelthein to pass by
autous them

The main issues here are what the imperfect ēthelen and the aorist infinitive parelthein mean in this context.

The imperfect ēthelen comes from theló, a word we’ve seen before in Mark’s Gospel. For example, in the pericope of the healing of the leper (1:40-45) the infirmed man says to Jesus, “If you choose [thelēs], you can make me clean” (1:40). Jesus responds, “I do choose [thelō]. Be made clean!” (1:41) We also read in the story of John the Baptist’s death that Herodias “wanted [ēthelen] to kill” John (6:19; cf. 6:22). So it seems that theló expresses the idea of desiring, wishing, or choosing to do something. It involves volition. The aorist infinitive parelthein comes from parerchomai, a verb that simply means “to pass by” or “to pass.” It is a word used only here in 6:48 and in 13:30-31 and 14:35. In this instance it clearly refers to Jesus moving past the boat in which the disciples had been rowing.

But why would Jesus “intend to pass them by”? He had seen their struggle, a struggle which prompted him to begin walking toward them on the sea. So it seems pretty cruel to not intervene to help them. So what do we do with those four important words?

Solution #1

One solution to the problem is found in the Matthean and Johannine versions of the story. If you read those two accounts you will quickly notice that neither include this detail. In Matthew’s version one would expect to see it after Matthew 14:25 while in John one would expect to see it in perhaps around John 6:19. But neither Matthew or John chose to include this information. But we are not redacting Mark; we are seeking to explain it. So we move on.

Solution #2 

In his commentary on Mark, R.T. France suggests that “in the narrative context the clause is best seen not as a statement of what was in Jesus’ mind but of how his approach appeared from the disciples’ point of view.”This is certainly an interesting take but is ultimately not convincing. Had Mark intended for the reader to think that it seemed to the disciples Jesus was going to pass them by he could have done so using the verb dokeó. Instead, Mark is intentional with his words. The implied subject of ēthelen is Jesus. And the narrator is offering his omniscient view of the situation in which he knows the intentions of all the characters, including Jesus.

Solution #3 

One of the more compelling solutions is that when Mark says that Jesus intended to “pass them by” he is actually making a reference to the theophanies found in texts like Exodus 33:17-23. There we read how Moses requests to see Yahweh’s glory. Yahweh consents and tells Moses, “I will pass [pareleusomai] before you my glory and will declare my name ‘(the) Lord’ before you” (33:19, LXX; my translation).Similarly, in 1 Kings 19:11 Yahweh tells Elijah, “Go out soon and stand before (the) Lord upon the mountain: behold (the) Lord will pass by [pareleusetai]!” (LXX; my translation) So the language used is similar leading to the conclusion that Mark is being intentional with it. But does Mark intend for his audience to think that Yahweh himself was about to pass by the disciples? Is this a theophany or a christophany?

The Misunderstood Markan Jesus

To answer that question we need to understand who Jesus is in Mark’s Gospel. Whereas both Matthew and Luke included extensive genealogies and birth stories, Mark does not. It is almost as if Mark 1:1-11 serves as Jesus’ origin story for the Markan community. He isn’t born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem. Rather, he is “from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:9). In other words, Jesus is just a regular guy. He came from a tiny town where everyone knew everyone else (see 6:2-3). He wasn’t a scribe or a teacher; he was a tektón, a man who worked with his hands for a living (6:3; NRSV, “carpenter”). But that changed when he was baptized by John. It is then that he becomes the messiah, the heir to David’s throne, God’s “Son, the Beloved” (1:11).

So what we find in Mark 6:48 isn’t a theophany so much as it is a christophany couched in the language of a theophany. Jesus in Mark 6:48 was seeking to reveal who he was and to answer the question the disciples had asked during the previous miracle on the Sea of Galilee – “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41) He’s the Messiah, the Son of God! But the disciples don’t understand this. When they see Jesus walking on the water they think he is a ghost and cry out in fear (6:49-50). Jesus immediately tells them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (6:50). The opportunity for the revelation of who he is as messiah is thwarted by their fear and by their lack of faith. For when Jesus gets in the boat and the storm then ceases the disciples become “utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52). The disciples’ inability to fully grasp what is before them is a recurring theme in Mark’s Gospel. Even when the disciple Peter gets it right (8:29) he gets it wrong (8:31-33). And in the end, they all abandon him (14:27-31, 50) despite seeing all he had done.

Jesus had intended to reveal himself more fully to them (i.e. “pass them by”) but the fear of faithlessness of the disciples wouldn’t allow him.


R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 2002), 272.

The future tense form of parerchomai is pareleusomai.

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Musings on Mark: A Closer Look at Mark 6:45-52, part 1

In the last post in the “Musings on Mark” series we did a brief overview the three different versions of the episode wherein Jesus walks on water that we found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. We noted that there were a number of differences between the two accounts that made it clear there could be no reconciling of them. Today we will dive into the text of Mark 6:45-52 specifically.

The Context

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Mark’s Gospel that so much of it takes place around the Sea of Galilee. The first eight chapters of the Gospel follow Jesus as he calls the first disciples, exorcises demons, heals the infirmed, and teaches the disciples and the crowds that followed him. All of this takes place in the towns around the Sea of Galilee. In the scene prior to 6:45-52 the disciples are invited by Jesus to go away with him to a secluded location following their own mission of preaching and exorcism in the surrounding villages (6:6b-13, 6:30-32). But they are spotted and as they sail by boat to the “deserted place” the people rush to follow (6:33) so that when Jesus and the disciples arrive on land they are greeted by a large crowd (6:34). In the ensuing narrative (6:35-44) we read how Jesus feeds five thousand men with only five loaves of bread and two fish. It is one of the most impressive of Jesus’ miraclesand one of his most famous.

Back to the Boat 

With the people fed, Jesus tells us his disciples to get back into the boat and make their way to Bethsaida, a town on the northeastern shore of Galilee (6:45). Now, here are a few things to keep in mind: first, the sole reason that Jesus and the disciples left from where they had been in 6:30 to the “deserted place” from which they fed the five thousand was so that they could “rest a while” (6:31), implying they were wearied from their ministry throughout the region (6:7-13, 30); second, they had already sailed from one shore to another; third, they must have spent a considerable amount of time feeding the five thousand; and finally, we are told twice that it was getting late in the day (6:35). And now, as night approaches, Jesus tells them to get back into the boat and head to Bethsaida. Surely the disciples would have been exhausted! That’s Jesus for you.

Map of Sea of Galilee
Map of the region around the Sea of Galilee.2

So the disciples hop into the boat and begin their voyage from the “desolate place” to the town of Bethsaida while Jesus, having dismissed the crowds, heads up the mountain to pray (6:46).At this point the reader may be thinking, “With the disciples in their boat headed to Bethsaida and Jesus on land, how is he going to reach Bethsaida?” He could certainly walk there. After all, the people don’t follow him by boat when he sails from one area of the Sea of Galilee to the “deserted place” (6:33). In fact, they do it so quickly that when the disciples arrive they are greeted by the crowd! (6:34) But it this what we should expect? Of course not.

Jesus with the Elf Eyes?

Evening comes and with it sunset. The Markan author then tells us that the boat was still out on the waterand that Jesus was on land (6:47). He is stressing this fact because of what comes next in the narrative flow. And what comes next is absolutely incredible but it does leave you scratching your head.

Let’s start with the first part of 6:48. The author tells us that Jesus “saw that [the disciples] were straining at the oars against an adverse wind.” Let’s stop for just a moment and think about this. He saw that they were straining? How was he able to see them? There are a couple of possibilities. The first is that, given the context, the disciples weren’t that far from shore and so seeing them would have been difficult but not impossible. Given that there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of time between the moment the disciples leave for Bethsaida and when Jesus seems them, perhaps they were closer than we think. Couple that with the wind working against them, they might not have been but a mile or so out from the shore. And if Jesus is still up on the mountain where he had been praying then he certainly could have seen them.

Or something else may be going on.

In Matthew’s redaction of the Markan story we read that the boat “was far from the land” (Matthew 14:24) and there is nothing about Jesus seeing anyone. Similarly, in the Johannine version of the story (which may have been based upon the Markan version) we are told that the disciples “had rowed about three or four miles” (John 6:19) and that it was dark (John 6:17) but nothing about Jesus seeing them from shore. So both Matthew and John interpreted Mark as meaning the disciples were pretty far from shore by the time Jesus walks out to them but neither of them say anything about Jesus seeing them. And they may have done away with that notion because of how difficult it would be to see anyone given the conditions.

But if Matthew and John are interpreting Mark correctly then it would mean that Mark did believe Jesus saw the disciples rowing far from shore. What do we make of that? Well, it shouldn’t be all that surprising considering what we’ve seen Jesus do prior to this story and what he is about to do in it. Jesus has been given power and authority by virtue of his being the messianic Son of God. He is quite literally driven by the Spirit (cf. Mark 1:12). So seeing the disciples miles from shore in the dark is nothing compared to all the miracles he has already performed and that which is about to in what follows.

Next Time 

In the next “Musings on Mark” we will continue to explore this story, especially the words “He intended to pass them by” (6:48).


1 And it is a true miracle. How can anyone get full off of just bread and fish?

From Lane T. Dennis, executive editor, The ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1,894.

There are moments in the Gospel of Mark where we see Jesus prefer such solace. Before he embarks on his preaching tour in Galilee we are told (in rather awkward terms) that “[i]n the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (1:35). Similarly, before he his handed over to the chief priests by Judas, Jesus and his disciples go to Gethsemane and it is there a “distressed and agitated” Jesus leaves the disciples behind so he can pray alone to God for escape from his fate (14:32-42).

4 The Greek text literally reads “in [the] middle of the sea” (en mesô tês thalassês) which could be understood to mean that the disciples were out in the middle of the lake. However, it is best understood to mean “simply that the boat was ‘out on the lake’ rather than docked or near the shore” (Rodney J. Decker, Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text [Baylor University Press, 2014], 174).

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.