Matthew’s “misunderstanding” of Mark’s miracle stories

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by Neil Godfrey

I have no idea, of course, if the author of Matthew’s Gospel really “misunderstood” the miracle stories in the Gospel of Mark or understood them all too well and for that reason chose to recast them with a different meaning and agenda.

Either way, the result has been that Mark’s original nuances that alert the knowing reader to the “parabolic” meaning of his miracle stories have been lost beneath the weight of the literalist versions of these miracles by the subsequent evangelists.

The way the author of GMatthew (Gospel of Matthew) tells the story of Jesus walking on water, for example, borders on being a farcical parody of the version found in GMark. This post, by the way, is really a footnote to my previous post in which I would like to think I showed that the Markan version is demonstrably a parable that coheres, through certain repeated “throw away” words and phrases, with the entire gospel being a fictitious (but by no means meaningless) parable.

Compare Mark’s and Matthew’s versions (even in English translation the pertinent differences are clear enough). First, Mark. I have highlighted in bold type the differences:

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.
And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray.
And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land.
And he saw them straining in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them.
But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out:
For they all saw him, and were troubled. And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.
And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.
For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.

And Matthew’s

And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.
And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.
But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.
And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.
And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.
But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.
Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.

The changes to Mark’s story

Note the main differences. Matthew has removed from Mark’s narrative those lines that also cause the most difficulty for modern readers:

  1. Mark’s statement that Jesus was going to “pass by” the disciples,
  2. and the note that this miracle had something to do with the understanding of the miracle of the 5 loaves feeding the 5000.

Another significant change is that Matthew has removed Mark’s implication that the disciples were “sore amazed” after the wind settled and calm returned.

He has also removed Mark’s image of the disciples “straining at rowing” against the wind, and change the image to one of the boat being tossed by the waves instead.

Mark’s original meaning

In my previous discussion of this miracle I showed how each one of those features, removed by Matthew, placed Mark’s version of the miracle within the broader theological context of the entire gospel.

That Jesus would have passed the disciples (and then have gone on before them) is a regular motif with metaphorical significance throughout Mark, from the first callings of the disciples through to the last message to be delivered to them. Having already called his disciples Jesus was expecting them to continue to follow him.

That the disciples were said to be “straining at rowing” here recalls the time when Jesus first called the disciples. The focus here, as then, is on the physical efforts of the disciples. (Then they were working at trying to catch fish, mending their nets, and sitting at the tax collection post. Now they are in serious difficulties as they attempt to row against the wind.) Both Jesus and the disciples are going in the same direction, to Bethsaida (= “the house of the fisherman/fishing”). Jesus had called them to become fishers of men. It is (ought to be) clear to the reader that if the disciples want to also reach Bethsaida all they need to do is climb out of the boat that is taking them nowhere and follow Jesus.

Read this way (which, as explained in my previous post, is consistent with the several other “follow me”, “passing by” and “going before” motifs throughout the gospel), it is clear to that Mark is writing the story as a “parable” or metaphor. Similarly Jerusalem is the geographic metaphor for the cross, and Galilee for wherever the Kingdom of God is “at hand”. The disciples needed to take up their cross with Jesus, and not follow or stand “afar off”, if they were to follow Jesus back to Galilee. The message is not for or about the twelve disciples in the gospel. The disciples are a mere part of a story that is directed at Mark’s audience. What the disciples decide to do at the end is of no account for the author, hence such a scene is omitted from the end. The author’s story is talking about what his audience needs to do.

If Mark’s audience had clamoured to ask him whether the disciples in the end followed Jesus to Galilee, or if the disciples really did have the power to walk on water, I can imagine Mark rolling his eyes in despair at the total failure of his narrative to have made its point. He would probably retort:

If you don’t understand the miracle of the loaves how can you have any idea what I’ve been writing about!

Do you really think my gospel is about bread? Or water? Or even Galilee?

Matthew’s Hollywood action blockbuster version

One member of such a “blind” audience could have been Matthew, or whoever was the author of the gospel bearing his name.

Matthew either did not understand, or chose to delete, the metaphorical aspects of the story. He turned it into a story of a literal miracle.

The symbolism of Bethsaida as the destination was removed by excising the destination entirely. His story would go a close-up of a miracle shot, without any broader “parabolic” narrative that might detract from this.

Next to go was the image of the disciples rowing so uselessly against a mere headwind. Audiences would be bored. Much more dramatic was tossing up the waves, putting the boat and lives of the disciples in peril. The original did not have nearly enough danger for excitement. It was just a boring tale of a bunch of men rowing themselves to a standstill in the wind. Matthew preferred the bigger, more spectacular Hollywood adaptation.

As for the original’s having Jesus about to pass them by, that was definitely out. It made no sense to Matthew. Audiences would be confused. Jesus was the hero, their saviour and was doing a great magic trick here to prove he was the Son of God. So Matthew interpreted it. He wouldn’t just ignore his disciples. Matthew had no idea, or rejected, the real message of the original. He wanted a Jesus who would do great miraculous feats to impress his gospel characters and gospel readers alike. And since he is also establishing Peter as the lead apostle, he even brings Peter in to share a little of the miracle limelight. For Matthew, it is the fantastic miracle of walking on the water that is all consuming of his imagination. Mark’s message is lost under his literalism.

The dramatic end. Finally, when the magic show of the duo walking on water was all over, when they finally got back into the boat, the disciples responded appropriately to such a grand miracle worker. They fell down and worshipped him as the Son of God. Only a Son of God could walk on water, after all. And that was all the message that Matthew could, or would, grasp.

Contrast Mark’s ending. The disciples still did not know who Jesus was. They could only be “sore amazed” and “wonder” — but not at the way he had come to them walking on water, or at least not only that. They were amazed that as soon as he entered the boat the wind stopped. This was exactly what amazed them once before. Jesus was able to control the wind and even stop a storm at sea. “Who was this man who could overpower both demons and the wind?” they wondered in awe.

But this is too subtle and not nearly flattering enough of the twelve apostles for Matthew. Being amazed at the change in weather is also an anti-climax if one is trying to follow an action story which is meant to be taken literally.

Arthouse versus blockbuster

Mark’s gospel was an arthouse film script. It’s audience appeal was always destined to be limited. Even today it is largely misunderstood as a bit “weird” or “strange” in places. But that is not Mark’s fault. It is the fault of audiences trying to see in it a mini-Hollywood action film, a literal precursor of something that Matthew knew how to really portray in a much more appealing way.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Matthew’s “misunderstanding” of Mark’s miracle stories”

  1. It’s interesting what you can discover when you closely compare the two. Nothing beats a close reading of the texts.

    Having said that, have you read Bernard M Levinson’s ‘Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation’ (1997)? He manages to conclude deliberate alteration of the traditions by comparing Dtr with hs sources reflected in the Tetrateuch. It’s a great read, and might complement what you are doing with the Gospels. I’m sure you’d find it useful, if you haven’t read it already.

  2. No I haven’t read Levinson’s book (yet) so thanks for pointing to it. I have read what sounds like similar works demonstrating the dialogues of various schools as expressed through other works like the Prophets. Some of my thoughts about the gospels are influenced by recent models used to explain “OT” lit.

  3. Thanks for the Levinson reference, ntwrong! I’ve begun reading it and in the first few pages am already struck with how the thesis he proposes for Dtr is so similar in concept to the one I suspect explains the gospel lit, especially Mark.

  4. “Having already called his disciples Jesus was expecting them to continue to follow him.”

    The text doesn’t indicate that Jesus expected the disciples to walk across the lake.

    Have you considered any other explanations for Jesus being “about to pass them by” Mark 6:48)?

    I’m not saying this is the correct one, but here is another interpretation that is suggested by Jesus’ words, “don’t be afraid, it is I” in all three gospel accounts. What about the possibility that Jesus intended to give the disciples another clue as to his identiy, by showing them his glory, in the same way that Yahweh showed Moses his glory by causing his goodness to pass in front of him (Exodus 33:19,22, 34:6)?

    “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by” (Ex 33:22)

    Moses’ response (Ex. 34:8) was to bow to the ground at once and worship.

    Interesting that Matthew tells us this is the disciples’ response to Jesus (Mt 14:33)

    These three clues (Jesus about to pass by, his saying “it is I” and the disciples worshiping) suggest that Mark may have had Exodus 33-4 in mind.

    1. Indeed. The “passing by” image surely derives from Exodus 33, and is even part of a wider trope for epiphanies. Compare the following from the story of Jason and his Argonauts:

      But at that time of day when heavenly light has not yet come, nor is there utter darkness, but the faint glimmer that we call twilight spreads over the night and wakes us, they ran into the harbour of the lonely isle of Thynias and went ashore exhausted by their labours. Here they had a vision of Apollo on his way from Lycia to visit the remote and teeming peoples of the North. The golden locks streamed down his cheeks in clusters as he moved; he had a silver bow in his left hand and a quiver slung on his back; the island quaked beneath his feet and the sea ran high on the shore. They were awe-struck at the sight and no one dared to face the god and meet his lovely eyes. They stood there with bowed heads while he, aloof, passed through the air on his way across the sea.

      Apollonius of Rhodes. 1959. The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica. Translated by E. V. Rieu. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. (91f)

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