The Bethsaida section, Part III: The editing


In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I discuss the current Bethsaida section in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 6:45-8:26). I review the staging of each scene, and explain why I think some scenes are original and some are by an editor. These three blog posts build on that discussion.

In Part I, I discussed just the blind man of Bethsaida scene. In Part II, I proposed the contents and sequence of the original Bethsaida section in the Gospel of Mark. Here in Part III, I explain the editing, specifically the editorial disruption of Mark’s Bethsaida section as a self-protective move by the Roman congregation, after Domitian’s purge of their congregants, Titus Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla. The editorial disruption obscured the honor given during the performance to Clemens. Subsequently, editor(s) concerned about a pro-Gentile slant in the congregation’s identity added pro-Judean content to the Gospel (in the Bethsaida Section, the first feeding miracle and the Syro-Phoenician woman scene).

Flavian Family Tree
Flavian Family Tree


  • The Blind Man of Bethsaida scene is original
  • Titus Flavius Clemens played the role of the blind man and was honored during that scene
  • During the second feeding miracle, gifts/snacks were distributed to the audience
  • The original Bethsaida section was this chiasm:

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)

Details of the original Bethsaida section in the Gospel of Mark

Mark, I believe, created the Bethsaida section in order to distribute gifts/snacks to the audience, and to give Clemens a walk of honor through the audience. Mark cleverly incorporated these events that were meaningful only in the world of the audience into the story of the play. The Jesus actor’s actions in these scenes are consistent with his actions elsewhere in the play. He is consistently a teacher and miracle-working healer. And therefore the narratization of these scenes in the received text of the Gospel of Mark fits seamlessly into “the story of Jesus.”

Readers who do not know that the text is a preserved play incorrectly assume that the purpose of these two scenes was to illustrate the healing career of Jesus.

In the play, “Bethsaida” (a name that was probably not spoken in the play) was a Gentile location. This was indicated to the audience by the fact that Jesus and the disciples arrive by boat, having left the Pharisees behind on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And also by the fact that the audience—which included both Judeans and Gentiles—was fed during the second feeding miracle. Mark did not need to create the second feeding miracle scene in order to show that Jesus came for both Judeans and Gentiles: earlier scenes had made that clear (e.g., 3:31-35). It was only the (later) pro-Judean editor’s creation of the first feeding miracle—of Judeans—that made the original (second) feeding miracle’s purpose seem to be “Jesus feeds Gentiles, too.” Not true.

In the performed play, the second feeding miracle and the healing of the “blind” man occurred without Jesus and disciples crossing the stage or the orchestra. They only crossed the orchestra when they returned by boat to Judean territory. They were now in position for the next scene (“who do men say I am”). The boat was no longer necessary. It was removed by stagehands while the audience was focused on the actors who were “on the way” in the “towns of Caesarea Philippi.”

I propose that the boat trips to and from Bethsaida were originally enclosed by scenes with the Pharisees. Why do I say this? 1) the presence of Pharisees (whom the audience has seen before) efficiently informs the audience that Jesus and the disciples are in Judean territory. No place name need be spoken. 2) the two Pharisee scenes are linked to (my proposed) adjacent scenes. First, the A bracket sets up the B and C brackets: the Pharisees’ eating rules in A are immediately rejected in (probably) B and also in C. B (I propose) contained Jesus’s teachings about bread now in 8:13-21, and C provided the audience with a snack that they ate without observing Pharisaic customs (washing their hands?). Second, the B’ bracket, the water walk, does provide the sign—that Jesus is extraordinary—that the Pharisees will demand in the next scene, A’. At that point the audience has seen the sign, but the Pharisees have not. The audience knows more than the Pharisees, and the Pharisees look foolish. It is characteristic of Mark to do two things at once: create the water walk to emulate Scripture, and also cleverly insult the Pharisees.

Editorial changes in the received Bethsaida section

To even the casual reader the received Bethsaida section is confusing. The action does not proceed logically. Jesus zigzags over the map of Galilee. For example, he goes all the way to the district of Tyre and Sidon to heal a Gentile woman’s daughter, yet he could have done that in a location near Bethsaida! And on that trip he travels alone, abandoning his disciples without explanation.* Several boat trips are mentioned in the received text, but the itineraries are not clear. This is in contrast to Jesus and disciples’ stageable geographic movements prior to the Bethsaida section.

Jesus's travels in Galilee
Jesus’s travels in Galilee in GMatthew, Used by permission of

My proposed chiasm untangles the geographic movements. I propose that there was a single trip from the Pharisees’ Judean territory to Bethsaida (by boat), then back again. The action is logical both for the reader, and for the theater director.**

*Matthew, aware of this problem in Mark’s text, inserts the disciples into the scene (Mt 15:23).

**Possibly, Mark used the location name “Dalmanutha” or “Gennesaret” for the destination of the water walk/return trip, and an editor kept the name when he revised the text.

The order of scenes in the synoptic gospels’ Bethsaida sections

The following is based on the Gospel Harmony page in Wikipedia.

Comparison of Bethsaida section in the synoptic gospels
Comparison of Bethsaida section in the synoptic gospels

You can see that in the received text of the Gospel of Mark, my proposed original chiasm has been obliterated. “Bethsaida” is just one of several locations mentioned. Look at the right-hand column:

  • #2, the original boat trip with (probably) teachings about bread, no longer precedes #3, the second feeding miracle.
  • #4, the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, has no temporal or spatial relationship to #3, the second feeding miracle, even though the text retains the information that both take place in Bethsaida.
  • #6, the Pharisees’ request for a sign, no longer follows #5, the water walk.
  • Added by an editor: New healing scenes (left column #3, 5, 6) and the first feeding miracle (left column #1).
  • A boat trip (left column #8) has been mentioned in passing, in my opinion, to mitigate the illogicality of the geographic movements.

Michael Turton provides a short and clear discussion of the disruptions to Mark’s Bethsaida section. His discussion of the chiasms of each scene is particularly useful for identifying Markan and nonMarkan work. However, he does not theorize about why these changes were made.

Discussion of editorial changes to the Bethsaida section in the Gospel of Mark

In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I took a strictly practical approach to the Gospel of Mark, from the point of view of a theater director. I explained why I think the scenes added to the Gospel of Mark were not original. I did not discuss in detail why an editor added them. There just was not enough room. Here, I want to slightly expand my conclusions.

As background, there were at least two rounds of editing in Rome of the Gospel of Mark, with different motives. I will refer to them as two editors.

The later editor wrote scenes and made changes that emphasized that Jesus had come primarily for Judeans. These additions included the calling of Levi, the first feeding miracle, and the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, in which the woman compares herself to a dog. This later editor was not troubled by the stageability problems in these scenes. From that we can infer that the editor did not feel obligated to maintain the Gospel’s status as a preserved play. That is, the importance and preeminence of the performance was a distant memory and no longer a concern of the congregation’s leaders. Therefore, some decades had elapsed since Mark wrote.

The earlier editor, I believe, made changes in response to Domitian’s persecution in 95 CE of Clemens and his family. Although the now-childless Domitian had educated Clemens’s sons in his palace, and designated them as his heirs, these sons disappeared from the historical record. Clemens was killed. Flavia Domitilla was exiled to an island prison, to die there. Shortly thereafter, a group led by Flavia Domitilla’s steward, Stephanus, assassinated Domitian. From Stephanus’s participation we can infer that the conspirators, at least in part, were retaliating for the murders of Flavia and her family.

After the assassination of Domitian, it was prudent for the Roman congregation to distance themselves as much as possible from their former patrons. They could not repudiate them, because the Roman congregation continued to benefit from Flavia and Clemens’s patronage (a history of financial donations, donation of catacombs, prestige, etc.). Nor could they tell friends, clients, and former slaves of Flavia and Clemens to leave the congregation. I suggest that one way the Roman congregation undertook this distancing was by obscuring the Bethsaida section’s spotlight on Clemens and his benefaction, by reordering the entire section. (I think they did this within the next year or so.)

  1. The editor added a stageable scene where Jesus heals the deaf-mute man with spit (Mk 7:31-37). Now the reader sees that Jesus has a pattern of healing with spit. Because the overall story is about Jesus, the reader assumes that the purpose of the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida (Part I) was to illustrate Jesus’s healing mission. The reader is now less likely to ask how that scene was staged,* and inquire into the play’s history.
  2. In Mk 7:31-37, the deaf-mute is really deaf and mute and Jesus really heals him. The reader will assume that the blind man of Bethsaida is really blind in the world of the play, and his healing as real. Again, this move leads the reader away from discovering Clemens’s role in the scene in performance.

The sequence of my proposed original Bethsaida chiasm was destroyed, as shown in the table above. The original components of the sequence were shuffled. I think this shuffling was done before the additions of the boat trip to Dalmanutha and the healings in Gennesaret, which could have been added considerably later. That boat trip strikes me as an attempt to explain the illogical movements of the characters. The unstageable healings at Gennesaret may have been added to reach a numerically significant total of healings in the Gospel.

*In this largely oral culture, without newspapers, people must have made efforts to remember the entire theatrical experience of the plays that they saw, so that they could tell their friends about them. One can imagine that such accounts were standard at dinner parties, where very often each guest was required to contribute to the entertainment, and guests were always looking for “new material.” So it is not a stretch for me to assume that readers approached Mark’s playlike text with the eye of a theater-goer, and asked, “What happened onstage here?”

The Gospels of Luke and Matthew

Luke, writing several decades later, omitted the entire received Bethsaida section in the Gospel of Mark. Mainstream (nonmythicist) explanations of this omission are mainly of two types: Luke omitted it because it wasn’t in his copy of GMark, or Luke did not want to portray Jesus healing Gentiles, or did not want Jesus to heal in Gentile areas. However, we know that Luke’s Jesus accepted Gentiles: Luke tells the story of an exemplary Gentile, the faithful centurion who is praised by Jesus (Lk 7:1-10).

I suggest a completely different and, as far as I know, unprecedented line of thought. I think that Luke knew that the Bethsaida section was written to feature Titus Flavius Clemens. In the second and third quarters of the second century, Luke and his compatriots in western Asia (modern Turkey) were developing orthodoxy separate from Mark’s Roman congregation (the home of the popes), most importantly by revising the Letters of Paul and writing the Acts of the Apostles. There was competition between the Asian, Ephesus-centered congregations and the Roman congregation for defining orthodoxy (as we know from the high-level negotiation about their differences including the date of Easter [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.4]). Luke was willing to cut the whole Bethsaida section, even the exciting water walk and Jesus’s repudiation of the Pharisees’ purity rules. I suspect that Luke decided not to provide material that would lead his hearers/readers to learn that the Roman congregation had been clients of the imperial family, and was still wealthy and prestigious (and probably also arrogant). And this congregation was older (and therefore closer to the “source,” Jesus) than the Asian congregations. And the Roman version of the story of Jesus—the Gospel of Mark—was older than Luke’s version and therefore arguably more authoritative. No, from Luke’s point of view, retaining the Bethsaida section was not a good idea at all.

As for Matthew, he kept the disrupted Bethsaida section from the Gospel of Mark. But Matthew omitted the blind man of Bethsaida scene and the healing of the deaf-mute man. I suspect he omitted these scenes because they did not have a Scriptural basis and were of no use for teaching. I think that Matthew was much less disturbed by the focus on Clemens than Luke was; Matthew observed the Law, and expected to have to correct GMark thoroughly regarding the Law. From Matthew’s point of view, a scene that led back to Clemens was just another example of the Roman congregation’s laxity. Matthew’s congregants were not going to be tempted to give GMark priority over the Law-observant GMatthew. But as the scene could not be bent to Matthew’s purposes, there was no point in keeping it.


Early in my research for the book, I read an observation by a scholar, something like, “You know you’re a Markan scholar when you can read the Bethsaida section and care.” I didn’t even know what the Bethsaida section was. Some 7 or 8 years later, I not only care, I have a proposal for the original contents and order of the Bethsaida section. And I’m still fascinated by Mark’s work. Water wears away rock.

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