The Bethsaida section, Part I: The blind man of Bethsaida scene


This post extrapolates from the discussion of the blind man of Bethsaida scene in my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Here, I review elements of the scene (Mk 8:22-26). I imagine how the scene was staged. I conclude that the scene made sense only in the world of the audience. Then I discuss the world of the audience. I argue that Mark wrote the scene to honor Titus Flavius Clemens, the host of the performance and the father of future emperors.

In Part II, I will discuss the second feeding miracle (also located in Bethsaida). I propose the order of scenes in the original Bethsaida section in the Gospel of Mark. In Part III (forthcoming), I extrapolate from Part II. I reconstruct the editor’s changes to the original Bethsaida section that gave us the current Bethsaida section. I also offer explanations for the changes.

Yes, all three parts are highly speculative. That is the nature of induction. I offer a coherent and plausible explanation of why the Bethsaida Section exists in its current form. How many exegetes do that?


In this post I assume the following:

  • Mark wrote in Rome, after the Jewish War.
  • Mark wrote a play that was performed in a theater.
  • The text of the Gospel of Mark originated as Mark’s condensed, narrative version of the play.
  • Because the blind man of Bethsaida scene (8:22-26) mentions Bethsaida, the editor wanted the reader/hearer to know that it took place in Bethsaida despite an earlier trip to Bethsaida (6:45).
  • The name “Bethsaida” had no Scriptural significance.

The text of the current blind man of Bethsaida scene

8:22 And they come to Bethsaida. And they bring Him a blind man, and are begging Him that He touch him. 23 And having taken-hold-of the hand of the blind man, He brought him outside of the village. And having spit in his eyes, having laid His hands on him, He was asking him “Do you see anything?” 24 And having looked-up, he was saying “I am seeing people, because I am looking-at something like trees walking around”. 25 Then again He laid His hands on his eyes, and looked-intently, and restored them. And he was seeing everything clearly. 26 And He sent him away to his house, saying “Do not even enter into the village”.

Disciples Literal New Testament

The key line: 8:24

The Gospel of Mark is a text that narratizes and condenses the performance of a play. When Mark wrote the text, he omitted some of the dialogue that was spoken in the performance. (Such omissions occur throughout the text. For example, 15:3 “And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing.”) When Mark specifies dialogue in the text, I suggest that he wanted the reader/hearer to know that exactly those words were spoken during the play. I call these lines of dialogue “key lines.” (Examples of key lines: 3:4, 5:9, 9:5, 14:62.)

The key line in the blind man of Bethsaida (BMB) scene is in 8:24. Translated literally from Greek: “And having looked up, he was saying, I see the men, for (hoti) as trees I see (them) walking.” Most translations of 8:24 ignore the conjunction “hoti.” These translations say that the blind man sees people who have a tree-like quality. For example, KJV “I see men as trees, walking.” That is, I see men who are like trees, walking, or, I see men who are like walking trees. Another example is NRSV “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

I suggest that we read the line as it is written. The blind man infers the presence of men *from* his observation of treelike-walking. “Hoti” is the pivot. The meaning of the line is, “I see tree-like walking, which tells me that the men are present.”

I believe the line is original. The editors of the Gospel of Mark have distinct interests (see my book). When they write apparently new material, they do not introduce anything new. Rather, they recycle or report Markan material.* In contrast, this key line has no referents elsewhere in the play. It is not recycling or reporting. And it does not reference any (known) Scriptural writing. This is why I think Mark wrote it.

*For example, structurally, the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter is essentially the same as the healing of Jairus’s daughter. The scene says nothing new about Jesus. The Herod banquet scene is a dramatization and expansion of the (I believe) originally reported explanation for the execution of John the Baptist. Neither editorial intervention changes Jesus’s character or purpose, or has any consequences for any other scene.

Discussion of 8:24: Physical location of the speaker

To repeat, the blind man’s line means, “I see tree-like walking, which tells me that the men are present.”

The line is stageable. In Macbeth, walking actors carry branches to portray a “walking forest.” (One has to wonder if Shakespeare got the idea from Mark…)

Men with trees walking in Macbeth

But Mark did not stage tree-like walking in his play. Here are four reasons. First, if the tree-carrying actors (or actors who are walking in a tree-like manner) are onstage, the audience sees them. But after the first step of the healing, the blind man has only partial sight. If he sees the same thing that the audience sees, his sight is not partial. Second, a literal staging is a distraction. Men who walk in a treelike fashion engage the audience’s attention. The audience stops looking at Jesus and the blind man. (Besides, where are the weird men coming from and where are they going?) Third, there is no reason in the scene (or in the Bethsaida section) for actors to carry tree branches. Fourth, the stage directions place the blind man in the parodos, where he cannot see the stage or the audience. (See my book for explanation.)

Diagram of a Greek theater
Diagram of a large Greek theater showing parodoi (#9). by Flammingo Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The only possible staging of 8:24 is a report. The blind man is brought by Jesus to the parodos, where the healings take place. The blind man gazes offstage and reports what he sees.

Discussion of 8:24: Trees walking

Again, the blind man’s line means, “I see tree-like walking, which tells me that the men are present.” Let us take this line at face value. Why would the man say it?

The line has no known references to Scripture, and it seems an unlikely candidate for a quotation for a lost work of Scripture. The line does not refer to any previous extant scene in the play. But such a scene might have been deleted.

Perhaps the blind man reports that he sees the actors from the previous scene who are now offstage (“the men”). But the line only makes sense if the audience has already seen them and knows that they walk like trees. In the book, I propose that the previous scene was the second feeding miracle. The miracle required clean-up. Perhaps the actors who “picked up the leftovers” and carried baskets, etc., walked like trees.

However, what exactly is tree-like walking (assuming that the men are not carrying branches)? Trees don’t walk. The human body doesn’t map onto the shape of a tree. The line seems to be a deliberate impossibility.

But the audience must have understood the line. Otherwise, they would have stopped paying attention to the scene while they tried to figure out its meaning. I think that the line was probably a well-known quotation. The blind man could have quoted from a contemporary play or other writing. He could have described the shtick of a comedian or mime actor. The line could have been part of a school lesson or joke. It could have been spoken by the “blind” man who was healed by the Emperor Vespasian. It could have been associated with the actor who played the blind man. Whatever the line’s source, I think it is fair to conclude that it was meaningful in the world of the audience.

Discussion of 8:24: Distorted sight, not partial sight

The key line is not something a partially healed blind man would say. A man who is partially healed sees dimly, vaguely, like he had lost his eyeglasses. He should see shapes and colors and movement, but not specific things. Instead, he sees clearly (he can identify “the men”). But they are walking in a tree-like manner (whatever that is). His vision is not partial, it is distorted.

I suggest that the line tells the audience that the man is faking it. He isn’t blind, so he doesn’t know what a blind man who is partially healed would see.

Healing by spit

A second element of the blind man of Bethsaida scene (8:22-26) is healing of blindness by spit. Jesus spits on his hands, then lays them on the blind man’s eyes. The blind man is partly healed. Jesus again lays his hands on the blind man’s eyes and he is fully healed: “he was seeing everything clearly.”

Mark’s Roman audience must have recognized Jesus’s healing with spit as an emulation of the emperor Vespasian’s healing of a blind man with spit in 69 in Alexandria, about 25 years earlier. (See Suetonius and Tacitus.)

Here, I will first describe the healing in Alexandria. Then I will compare it to Jesus’s healing in the blind man of Bethsaida scene (Mk 8:22-26). Then I will propose that Titus Flavius Clemens, a great-nephew of Vespasian, played the role of the blind man. Then I will speculate on why Mark wrote the scene as he did.

Vespasian’s healing in Alexandria

As a well-regarded general with successes in Britain (43 CE) and Judea (66-68 CE), Titus Flavius Vespasianus was well-positioned to contend for the role of emperor after the emperor Nero died in 69 CE. Vespasian had the support of the influential Governor of Syria. In July 69, the legions of Alexandria, Judea and Syria took an oath to support Vespasian. They were soon followed by the legions of Moesia, Pannonia and Illyricum. Vespasian now needed signs of divine favor to convince the civilian population that he was the right man for the job.

These signs were provided in Alexandria. Suetonius writes,

2 Vespasian as yet lacked prestige and a certain divinity, so to speak, since he was an unexpected and still new-made emperor; but these also were given him. A man of the people who was blind, and another who was lame, came to him together as he sat on the tribunal, begging for the help for their disorders which Serapis had promised in a dream; for the god declared that Vespasian would restore the eyes, if he would spit upon them, and give strength to the leg, if he would deign to touch it with his heel. 3 Though he had hardly any faith that this could possibly succeed, and therefore shrank even from making the attempt, he was at last prevailed upon by his friends and tried both things in public before a large crowd; and with success. At this same time, by the direction of certain soothsayers, some vases of antique workmanship were dug up in a consecrated spot at Tegea in Arcadia and on them was an image very like Vespasian.

Suetonius, (Life of Vespasian, 7:2-3)

These healings had propaganda value. Eric Eve writes,

The healings carried out by Vespasian seem designed to demonstrate the close association between the new emperor and the god. Healing was one of the powers long attributed to Sarapis, and the first healing miracle to be attributed to him was restoring sight to a blind man, one Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian politician. . . . In some minds Vespasian’s two healings might be taken as a sign, not simply that Vespasian enjoyed Sarapis’s blessing, but that he was in some sense to be identified with the god.

Tacitus wrote, “while Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria. . . many marvels occurred to mark the favour of heaven and a certain partiality of the gods toward him (Hist. IV. 81)”

Our sources, Suetonius and Tacitus, wrote 25-50 years later. They do not provide details of the subsequent history of these “miracles.” However, we can assume that these miracles were widely known.

The healings by Vespasian and by Mark’s Jesus, compared

The following comparisons show that the two healings have significant differences.

1. Vespasian heals in one step. Jesus heals in two steps. Jesus’s power is less than Vespasian’s. [Comment: In the world of the play, this limitation on Jesus’s power makes no sense. He is the Son of God! But in the world of the audience, the emperor Vespasian had been treated as a god. He had also publicly instituted the superiority of the Roman gods to the Judean god. The limitation on Jesus’s power is prudent playwriting.]

2. Suetonius and Tacitus do not describe in detail Vespasian’s healing of the blind man of Alexandria. But the healing must have been arranged to succeed. It is inconceivable that Vespasian’s friends would have urged him to go ahead and heal the “blind” man if they were unsure of success. They were risking their lives on his success! Therefore, we can safely assume Vespasian did not ask the blind man “Do you see anything?” That line would have meant that Vespasian was not sure of his power. In contrast, Jesus in 8:23 asks the blind man “Do you see anything?” Jesus defers to the blind man to tell him if his power worked. Jesus’s uncertainty about his power here is entirely incompatible with his expectation that people have faith in him (e.g. 4:40). This deference is odd. I discuss it in the next section.

3. Vespasian used his healing as propaganda evidence of divine favor, at least in Alexandria, perhaps elsewhere. It was important to his life-story. In contrast, Jesus’s healing of the blind man does not add characterization to Jesus, and has no consequences in Mark’s play.

4. in Alexandria, Vespasian also healed a man with a withered hand. In Mark’s play (3:1-6), Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. But Jesus heals in the synagogue on the sabbath. This setting prevented any connection to Vespasian.

The blind man was played by Titus Flavius Clemens

Titus Flavius Clemens was the grand-nephew of Vespasian

Clemens’s walk of honor

In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I proposed that the blind man was played by Vespasian’s grand-nephew, Titus Flavius Clemens. My reason was this: the stage directions for the blind man of Bethsaida scene required that the healed blind man go to his house, then re-enter the theater. (8:26),“And He sent him away to his house, saying ‘Do not even enter into the village.’”

That stage direction was feasible in a theater only if the blind man was played by the host of the event. I had already inferred that the anointing woman at Bethany, and the producer of the play, was Flavia Domitilla. Therefore, the host was her husband, Clemens.

Clemens exited the theater through the parodos. He was now physically on the grounds of his real-life house! Clemens then re-entered the theater through the back entrance. He had to walk through the audience to return to his seat in the front row. Undoubtedly the attendees rose from their seats and applauded him.

That “walk of honor” must have been a familiar cultural trope in a society where many political as well as entertainment events took place in theaters, and the most prestigious seats were near the stage. Mark cleverly built it into his play. And he also made the scene free-standing—it did not affect the unfolding of the plot or the subplot of the play.

Throne chairs in the Theatre of Dionysos
Throne chairs in the front rows of the Theatre of Dionysos, Athens.

The honor due to Clemens implies that his blindness was fake

Above, I argued that the strange key line Mark’s “blind” man speaks (8:24) the blind man leads me to conclude that both he and Vespasian’s original were faking their blindness. Here is a second reason: blindness was incompatible with Clemens’s social status. If Clemens participated in the production, he could not have been portrayed as blind, even metaphorically. And there is a third reason: the emulation of this scene in Acts includes a character with temporary blindness. In that scene, Saul/Paul converts the Gentile proconsul Sergius Paulus (who stands in for Titus Flavius Clemens). John Mark, the stand-in for the real Mark, is present. Saul (successfully) calls on God to strike the competitor magician Elymas with temporary blindness (Acts 13:11). Temporary blindness–an odd and otherwise inexplicable punishment–points to the original of the Sergius Paulus conversion scene: Mark’s play, where it featured in the scene with Clemens.

We moderns strongly suspect that Vespasian’s blind man was not really blind. Here, in Mark’s play, we have an independent source that confirms that suspicion. My analysis of the Gospel of Mark indicates that the real story of Vespasian’s “healing” was known and discussed by the elite in Rome. Historians of Rome, take note.

Why did Mark emulate Vespasian’s healing?

The reference to Vespasian allowed Mark to make the scene consistent with Jesus’s character in the play: he’s a healer. In this scene, he just heals in a different way.

The emulation (healing by spit) implied that the blind man of Bethsaida was not really blind—and everyone knew it. Therefore, Clemens could participate in the scene without his honor being impaired. Mark could fit the scene into the play and also generate Clemens’s walk through the audience—all without the words “Vespasian” and “blind” being spoken.

I want to point out that no connection was intended between Vespasian and Clemens. They just coincidentally happened to be members of the same family. And the differences between the two healings mean that Mark didn’t intend to create a parallel where Vespasian-fake blind man mapped onto Jesus-Clemens.

I note that the history of Vespasian’s “healing” could not be referred to explicitly. It was activated in the audience’s minds by the Jesus actor’s use of spit. The lack of explicitness allowed for deniability: Mark could always say afterward that in this scene, Jesus had merely healed in a new way, and Vespasian’s story had not even entered his mind.

The limitations of the above discussion

The above is all I can confidently recover of the staging of the blind man of Bethsaida scene. The performance of the scene was more complex than it appears from the text. Dialogue is missing. All the acting is missing (i.e., the attitude of the man’s “friends” toward him, the man’s attitude toward Jesus, Jesus’s possible reluctance—similar to Vespasian’s). We don’t know how the audience’s attention to the world of the play was sustained while Clemens was outside the theater (music?). We don’t know the length of the interruption for applause, or how Mark re-immersed the audience in the world of the play.

I build on this post in Part II. I discuss the second feeding miracle, also set in Bethsaida. I explain why I think the two scenes were adjacent. I also present my reconstruction of Mark’s original Bethsaida section, from the book, but in greater depth.

In Part III I plan to propose an explanation for the editor’s actions on Mark’s original Bethsaida section. I will argue that the Syro-Phoenician woman scene and the healing of the deaf-mute were not original. All of this responds to political events in the world of the audience.

April 18, 2021: added summary and link to Sergius Paulus post.

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