In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I discuss the Bethsaida section in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 6:45-8:26). I review the staging of each scene in Mark’s original performed play, and explain why I think some scenes in the narrative text are original and some are by an editor. These three blog posts on the Bethsaida section build on that discussion.
In Part I, I discussed 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 (play and narrative text). Here in Part III, I explain the editing of the narrative text. To summarize, I see the editorial disruption of Mark’s Bethsaida section as mainly a self-protective move by the Roman congregation, after Domitian’s purge of their patrons, Titus Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla. The editor(s) obscured the honor given to Clemens as the blind man of the Bethsaida. They also added pro-Judean content such as the first feeding miracle and the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman.
- The Blind Man of Bethsaida scene is original
- Titus Flavius Clemens played the role of the blind man and was honored during the performance of that scene
- During the feeding miracle (of Gentiles), gifts/snacks were distributed to the audience. (Note: I will refer to this scene as the “second feeding miracle” but I believe Mark wrote and performed only one.)
- The original Bethsaida section was the below chiasm. You may want to use small objects on your desk to track the movements of the actors.
A) In Judean territory (Stage Left), 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 (across the orchestra) from Judean territory to Bethsaida (which is in Gentile territory, Stage Right). Possibly, during the trip, Jesus teaches about bread. (this boat trip is currently missing, subsumed into 8:10. It may have included part of 8:14-21.)
C) In Bethsaida, Gentiles are fed with fish and bread (Second Feeding Miracle) / Distribution of gifts to the audience. (8:1-9)
C’) After the break for gifts/snacks: in Bethsaida, healing of blind man (the Gentile Titus Flavius Clemens). (8:22-26)
B’) Jesus and disciples travel in the boat from Bethsaida back to Judean territory. During the trip, Jesus walks on water. (6:47-52)
A’) Now that the boat has returned to Judean territory, and Jesus and disciples have debarked, 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 wanted to accomplish several things with his original Bethsaida section. First, a feeding miracle was an opportunity to distribute gifts/snacks to the audience, something common in theater productions. Second, the healing of the blind man gave Clemens the opportunity to walk through the audience “to his home” (8:26) and be the center of attention. Third, the section contains dramatically exciting material (miracle of bottomless baskets! water walk!). And fourth, there is the level of reference to Scripture and teaching of religious material (Jesus teaches in the boat).
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 Gentiles—was fed during the second feeding miracle just after Jesus has specifically repudiated Pharisee purity laws.
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 a pro-Judean editor’s creation of the first feeding miracle (of Judeans) that made exegetes interpret the original (second) feeding miracle’s purpose as “Jesus feeds Gentiles, too.” Not true.
I propose that the boat trips to and from Bethsaida were originally enclosed by scenes with the Pharisees. Why do I say this? First, 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.
Second, in my proposed chiasm, the two Pharisee scenes (A and A’) are linked to adjacent scenes (B and B’). The Pharisees’ eating rules in A are immediately rejected in (probably) B and also in C. B contained Jesus’s teachings about bread (which were later moved to 8:13-21). C provided the audience with a snack that they ate without observing Pharisaic purity hand-washing.
Going outward now, the B’ bracket, the water walk, provides the sign—that Jesus is extraordinary—that the Pharisees will demand in the next scene, A’. Doesn’t this all make dramatic sense?
Editorial changes in the received Bethsaida section
Illogical stage action in the received text
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. If the Gospel of Mark is not historical, why would Mark create such an obvious impossibility. And on that trip he travels alone, abandoning his disciples without explanation.*
In addition, the received text includes several boat trips, but the actors’ movements on stage are not clear.
My proposed chiasm above solves these problems. The geographic movements are logical. I propose that there was a single trip from the Pharisees’ Judean territory to Bethsaida (by boat), then back again.
*Matthew, aware of this problem in Mark’s text, inserts the disciples into the scene (Mt 15:23).
The order of scenes in the synoptic gospels’ Bethsaida sections
The following is based on the Gospel Harmony page in Wikipedia.
You can see that in the received text of the Gospel of Mark, my proposed original chiasm has been blown up. “Bethsaida” is just one of several locations mentioned. Look at the right-hand column.
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. Nor does he see Flavia Domitilla and Clemens as part of Mark’s world.
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. Here, I want to slightly expand my conclusions.
The Roman congregation protected itself
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.)
- 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.
- 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?”
Treatment of the Bethsaida section by 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 second, 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 new explanation. I think that Luke knew that Mark wrote the Bethsaida section to feature Clemens. In the second and third quarters of the second century, Luke and his compatriots in Asia were developing orthodoxy separate from Mark’s Roman congregation (the home of the popes). There was competition between the Asian, Ephesus-centered congregations and the Roman congregation for leadership of orthodoxy (as we know from the high-level negotiation about their differences including the date of Easter [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.4]). I think that Luke chose to omit material that would remind his hearers/readers that the Roman congregation had been clients of the imperial family in the late 1st century. And that the Roman congregation was older (and therefore closer to the original apostles/disciples) than the Asian congregations. And therefore that the Roman version of the story of Jesus—the Gospel of Mark—was older than Luke’s version and therefore arguably more authoritative. Luke had to prevent that line of thought, even at the cost of eliminating the exciting water walk and Jesus’s repudiation of the Pharisees’ purity rules from Luke’s own version of the Gospel.
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 reminded the reader of Clemens’s patronage of the Roman congregation 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 10 years later, I not only care, I have a proposal for the original contents and order of the Bethsaida section of the Gospel of Mark. And I’m still fascinated by Mark’s work. Water wears away rock.
version December 24, 2022