Let’s imagine Mark was the first gospel to be written, and let’s imagine a reader had only the Jewish scriptures in mind with which to compare it. Just suppose there was no prior oral tradition by which the narrative had come to the readers in any form at all. Here (indented in black) are the passages from the Jewish scriptures that I suggest such a discrete or original reading of Mark 8:16-21 would bring to the mind . . . .
(for the sake of background, this passage follows the two accounts of miraculous feedings, one of 5000 and the other of 4000; the disciples had responded in terror when they mistook Jesus for a ghost who was about to pass right by them — see earlier post for fuller discussion — and now, again all at sea, they are puzzled by Jesus telling them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod)
Why are you talking about having no bread?
Do you still not see or understand?
Our fathers in Egypt did not understand your wonders;
I heard the voice of the Lord, saying . . . “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. . . . Until the cities are laid waste and without inhabitant, the houses are without a man, the land is utterly desolate.”
Are your hearts hardened?
Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 10:1; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17
God hardened the heart of Pharaoh
Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?
Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed.
And don’t you remember?
Psalm 78:41-42; 105:5; 106:7
Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power . . .
Remember his marvellous works which he has done, his wonders . . .
Our fathers in Egypt did not understand your wonders; they did not remember the multitude of your mercies, but rebelled by the sea . . .
Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels.
When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
Daniel 11:3; 12:10
and those of the people who understand shall instruct many . . .
none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand.
I no longer agree that Mark’s gospel is an attempt at a sustained attack on the disciples, as Weeden argues. The disciples in Mark’s gospel commence their careers with Jesus with flying colours. It is only after persecutions and tribulations that they, like the fig tree Jesus cursed, and like the seed falling in stony ground (c.f. Peter, meaning a rock), wither away. After boldly, even miraculously, stepping out to forsake all and follow Jesus immediately they were called (just as the seed in stony ground sprang up immediately and “with gladness”), they experienced the criticisms and threats of the Pharisees and Herodians, and the execution of John the Baptist. That is when they withered.
Mark’s disciples are a parable for a new Israel, the audience of Christians who identify themselves as the new people of God. Just as the Jewish scriptures contained an iterated parable of new beginnings and tragic failures of one generation of Israel after another which was written for each generation of new readers, so Mark’s twelve disciples are a parable to instruct his audience seeing itself as the current/final “new Israel”. I have discussed this several times in some detail in other posts. For specific posts see the Categories column on the right side of this blog, and scroll to the Religion subcategory, then locate “The Twelve“.
But the author of the Gospel of Matthew, who used the Gospel of Mark, chose to rewrite much of this gospel. This Matthean author probably did not see Mark’s “gospel” as a “good news” at all, but as a travesty that posed a challenge to “the truth” as he understood it. One of the most notable changes Matthew made to Mark was to convert Mark’s disciples. Mark’s disciples were failures in the end who did not even witness the resurrected Jesus. Jesus “passed them by” on his way back to Galilee and we do not read that they followed.
Yes, there are some passages that seem to strongly suggest that the disciples in the end will be converted. But that is not what the narrative says happened. So did Mark get confused in his own narrative? No, he repeatedly makes it plain to his audience that his gospel is a parable. He is not speaking of the disciples who are the characters in his narrative any more than his Jesus is speaking of “bread” in the above passage. The real disciples being addressed are the audience. The narrative’s characters are parabolic lessons for the audience.
But Matthew belonged to a literalist school that challenged Mark’s teaching. Matthew’s disciples were not mere literary inventions. They were real, and to be regarded as the foundation of the church.
Here is how Matthew converted Mark’s disciples in this particular episode:
Jesus . . . said to them, “Oh you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have not brought bread?”
Jesus here is patronizing, not condemning. Mark’s disciples may as well be compared outright with Pharaoh and the rebellious Israelites of past generations. Matthew’s Jesus grants that his disciples are not so rebellious at all, but do indeed have faith, albeit only a little. He speaks to them compassionately like children who are struggling to learn.
Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up?
In Mark, the repeated failure of the disciples to understand was a sign of their stubbornness and total blindness. In Matthew, the same trait may more easily be interpreted as a patient plea of a teacher to encourage his students to keep at it till they do understand.
How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? — But you should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Mark’s Jesus was never so patient nor his disciples ever so promising. For Matthew, all he has to do is have his Jesus patiently repeat exactly what he meant, to explain his metaphor, and . . . .
Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
and then the struggling disciples who were doing their best to learn finally get it. They DO understand! They are henceforth fit to go forth into the world to teach all nations — or at least are well on their way to attaining this potential.
They may be a bit slow, a bit dim, but hey, that’s to give even the latest of the “late developers” hope.
Alternately, one can play a reconciliation game and rewrite Mark to make it match Matthew’s account, but then we will only end up with one gospel narrative, not two. This would be almost like saying that God let the Devil plant Mark to test our willingness and capacities to harmonize the gospels. Or if not the Devil, was God just trying to test our ingenuity? Or if we are not so clever (or dishonest with the way we read the original texts) is God testing us to see if we will keep the faith even despite the evidence? Or if what we have are merely two different authorial perspectives on what happened, then how do we explain such opposing perspectives within the early church?