The Bethsaida section, Part II: The original sequence


In Part I, I argued that the role of the blind man of Bethsaida was played by Titus Flavius Clemens. Clemens was honored in the scene, and Mark wrote the scene for that purpose. Here, I build on Part I. I discuss the second feeding miracle in the Gospel of Mark. I propose that the second feeding miracle immediately preceded the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, and the scenes were linked. I propose the chiasm of the original Bethsaida section. In Part III, I will discuss the editing and the editors’ motives.

Flavian Family Tree


  • Titus Flavius Clemens played the role of the blind man of Bethsaida.
  • The Gospel of Mark has been edited, and therefore entire scenes, and elements of scenes, might be edited or not original. The sequence of scenes might also be edited.
  • The current Bethsaida section of the Gospel of Mark (6:45-8:26) has two trips to Bethsaida. (Mk 6:45: “And straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida.” Mk 8:22: “And he cometh to Bethsaida…”) Because two scenes take place in Bethsaida, they were probably originally adjacent, and have been separated by an editor.

The second feeding miracle

Gift distribution was the “feeding miracle”

In my book The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I explain why I think the Second Feeding Miracle (SFM) is by Mark, and the First Feeding Miracle is not.

But even so, Mark’s text does not match what occurred onstage. The SFM cannot be staged as written: too much time is required for all the logistics specified in the scene. (I discuss this also in the book.) At the performance, there was a “feeding miracle,” but it was distribution of gifts of food to all the people, i.e., the audience. The gifts were provided by the host(s), Titus Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla.

If Mark wanted to honor Clemens within the play, the subsequent scene was the time to do it. The audience was still paying attention (eating and talking) to Clemens’s gifts.

The precedent of Nero’s spectacles

1 [Nero] gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales, chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays, and a gladiatorial show. At the first mentioned he had even old men of consular rank and aged matrons take part. For the games in the Circus he assigned places to the knights apart from the rest, and even matched chariots drawn by four camels. 2 At the plays which he gave for the “Eternity of the Empire,” which by his order were called the Ludi Maximi, parts were taken by several men and women of both the orders; a well known Roman knight mounted an elephant and rode down a rope; a Roman play of Afranius, too, was staged, entitled “The Fire,” and the actors were allowed to carry off the furniture of the burning house and keep it. Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms.

Suetonius, Life of Nero 11

Suetonius mentions two items of interest. First, Nero required the most distinguished people of the state to participate in the Juvenales (in 59 CE). Recall that Nero’s term as emperor was 25-35 years before Mark’s play; some of his audience had attended these entertainments. And although Vespasian, who succeded Nero after a year of transition, cut back on public extravagance, still, the line of propriety between the senatorial class and the knights on one side, and the people on the other, had been breached.

In this context, Clemens’s participation in a stage play was unremarkable. Indeed, it might even have been a sign that he was modern and a man of the people, not an aloof aristocrat. (However, he was not risking much, as the performance was private.)

Second, Suetonius mentions that the audience received gifts, and tickets redeemable for gifts. We can assume that the food that was “thrown” to the audience was edible on the spot (e.g., sweet rolls, fruits), rather than food that required cooking (many Romans lived in apartments without kitchens). And also, it is safe to assume that other producers of plays gave gifts to audiences in the same way. So while it is possible that these food distributions occurred before the play or during intermission, it is not at all a stretch to imagine that the distribution of snacks was incorporated into the storyline of Mark’s play.

The original scenes in Bethsaida

Let us assume that the SFM and the blind man of Bethsaida scene (BMB) were originally adjacent, because both occur in Bethsaida. In what order were they performed?

There is a good reason to think that the SFM preceded the BMB: The BMB has two elements that are slow to unfold, during which there is no action onstage. These are, Clemens’s exit from and return to the theater, and his “walk of honor” to his seat in the front row. (See Part I.) The few minutes that Clemens was absent from the theater perfectly meshed with Mark’s need to provide the audience with a few minutes to enjoy the bulk of their snack, and to comment to each other about it!

I have no reason to think that any other of the existing scenes in the Gospel of Mark were originally set in Bethsaida. I suppose that is possible, but the integration of SFM and BMB seems perfect. The SFM takes the audience’s attention away from the play; the BMB returns it. The SFM provides the audience with a distraction; the BMB gives the audience time to process the distraction. Therefore, I think that Jesus’s trip to Bethsaida consisted solely of these two scenes. But it is possible that another scene has been entirely deleted.

Mark’s original Bethsaida section

The existing Gospel of Mark includes a boat trip to Bethsaida. There is good reason to think an editor has intervened at this point. At 6:45 “And straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people.” The water walk scene follows. At 6:53 “And when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore.” So are Jesus and the disciples in Bethsaida or Gennesaret?? There is no more mention of Gennesaret until 8:22.

I would like the reader to think of me here as an archaeologist who is attempting to reconstruct a broken pot from a few fragments. Everyone knows that the current Bethsaida section is out of order. Below is my reconstructed pot: my proposed original Bethsaida section. It works, but there are many pieces missing.

Here, from my book, is my proposal for Mark’s original Bethsaida section. Note that it consists entirely of material still present in the Gospel of Mark.

A) In Judean territory, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they abandon God’s commandments and replace them with their human traditions. Jesus tells the multitudes and the disciples that they cannot be defiled by eating. (7:1-15)

B) Jesus and disciples travel in a boat from Judean territory to Bethsaida (in Gentile territory). Possibly, during the trip, Jesus teaches about bread. (scene is currently missing, subsumed into 8:10. It may have included part of 8:14-21)

C) Gentiles are fed with fish and bread (Second Feeding Miracle) / Distribution of gifts to the audience. (8:1-9)

C’) Healing of blind man (a Gentile) in Bethsaida. (8:22-26)

B’) Jesus and disciples travel in a boat from Gentile Bethsaida to Judean territory. During the trip, Jesus walks on water. (6:47-52)

A’) In Judean territory, Pharisees demand a sign from heaven that Jesus is extraordinary. (8:11-12)

In defense of the above:

  1. The sequence of scenes omits scenes that on other grounds I believe were not original (discussed in the book).
  2. The chiasm is consistent with Mark’s use of chiastic structure for the play as a whole (see the book).
  3. It uses a boat scene that is already in the text (the water walk) and another boat scene that is referred to in 8:10.
  4. The trip to Bethsaida is framed, back in Judean territory, with confrontations with Pharisees.
  5. The discussions with Pharisees relate to the adjacent scenes. (A and B relate to eating; B’ and A’ relate to a sign from heaven.)
  6. It is stageable (the actors’ movements are logical).
  7. At the end, it places the actors in position to transition to the next scene “on the way” (8:27-Who do men say I am? and the Recognition).
  8. Again, it consists entirely of material still present in the Gospel of Mark.

In Part III I will begin from this point, and discuss how and why Mark’s original Bethsaida section was edited.

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