How the Gospel of Matthew Converted the Gospel of Mark’s Disciples

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

Mark 8:16-21

Why are you talking about having no bread?

Do you still not see or understand?

Psalm 106:7

Our fathers in Egypt did not understand your wonders;

Isaiah 6:8-11

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?

Isaiah 6:10

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 . . .

Isaiah 46:8

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:

Matthew 16:8-12

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?

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “How the Gospel of Matthew Converted the Gospel of Mark’s Disciples”

  1. Mmm. I still think Weeden nailed the core of what’s going on in Mark, if not precisely why.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting “flying colours” from. It’s not that impressive a feat – and certainly not miraculous – to initially follow a charismatic individual or group. And the seed that grows quickly only to wither is certainly not a success. The most impressive feat committed by the disciples in Mark is when Peter manages to name Jesus as the Messiah, and the moment comes off as the exception that proves the rule given that they’ve been beaten over the heads with it for many verses. The Jewish scriptures are filled with such promising disappointments.

    So, yes, it meets the pattern; the disciples have a hermeneutic filter. I find it more likely, though, that Mark is taking some preexisting notion of the twelve that the audience has and fitting them into that familiar disappointment-theme, rather than creating a foil from scratch for the reader. I say this as the latter’s effect is potentially as depressing as it is educational. “Well, Peter, the first of the disciples, didn’t cut it; how am I supposed to?” Matthew, however, addresses this problem in his revision; this suggests to me that there is something fishy about how Mark has cast the disciples.

    Wow, what a bad pun. A double one, too.

    I’d also question whether Mark makes it ‘clear’ that the entire gospel is a parable. As Turton’s commentary says, sometimes it seems as if Mark is winking at us, but there is no clear statement anywhere as to where the story/stories comes from. Mark has no Lk 1:1-4, just a flat opening declaration that it’s the gospel. The reader/listener must decide if what follows is the real deal, a mythical lesson, or something in between.

    No disagreement, though, about Matthew. Matthew finds plenty to ‘fix’ in Mark; foremost is a booster shot for those pesky disciples.

    1. I got “flying colours” from the supernatural (miraculous?) character of the calling of the earliest disciples. It is one of the first things that especially strikes new readers of Mark as something remarkable that begs for an explanation. Readers familiar with the “Old Testament” will generally compare it with the similar but “more natural” account of Elisha’s response to the call of Elijah. The disciples in the gospel transvalue Elisha. Even better than Elisha, they follow immediately, without question or hesitation. They forsake their families (one father is specifically said to have been left behind on the spot, and no thought of the mother is introduced) as per the teaching that will later come from Jesus, again in a way that makes Elisha look very lukewarm.

      This is the sort of positive about the disciples that justifiably raises questions about Weeden’s thesis.

      There is nothing wrong with a plant shooting up quickly, and “with gladness”. It is the subsequent withering that is unwelcome.

      Peter’s “confession of Christ” is a mixed highpoint, too, I would argue. It is, in typically Markan fashion, also a nadir. Peter has joined the demons, and Satan, in being one of the few to recognize Jesus as the Christ. From the first exorcism in the gospel it is the demons who recognize Jesus and that Jesus must order to silence, just as he does Peter. Of course he is subsequently even called Satan. But even without Christ calling him Satan, the context of other recognitions sets Peter in invidious company. The time – and key – for recognition can only come when Jesus makes the atonement on the cross. Peter and the demons, in thinking Christ is only a fearful avenger, are, like the half healed blind man, still half blind. They see more than the seed in the wayside but are still viewing things as humans or demons.

      You’re right to take exception to my claim that Mark makes his parabolic intent “clear”. That was certainly an overstatement. But I would go further than Michael Turton and say that one familiar with the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings) and who approaches Mark through this narrative is meant to see where the disciples do come from. The story of the disciples in Mark follows the same theme and pattern as the story of Israel, or the several stories of the Israels. The twelve disciples are created as a new chapter in the ongoing story of how each new Israel starts out so well but declines slowly at first but finally ends ignominiously cast out or enslaved.

      The Primary History concludes with Israel expelled and enslaved. The lesson of the history is not for that generation of the narrative. It is for the author’s readers. They are to see themselves as the “new Israel” who must avoid the fate of the “old Israel”. The Gospel of Mark is written in the same tradition, presumably to meet a new need given the destruction of the Temple and end of the old cultic regime. (If Moses was dead then should not a Joshua follow?)

      But there are many clues throughout Mark to indicate its parabolic nature, even if they are not exactly “clear” as such to us. There are more than mere “winks” at the audience, however. The narrative itself states that it is not about “bread” or “the literal”. The only ones who understand the central character of Jesus from beginning to end are the audience — so we are looking at more than “sometimes winking”. To attempt to read Mark’s narrative literally poses all sorts of inconsistencies and unresolved questions. Will revisit this topic some time soon I think, though have touched on it quite often in the past. Still, my thoughts have evolved a little since then, too.

      Thanks for the feedback. It’s good to rethink and address issues from other perspectives.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I agree the disciples are filtered through Septuagint-history. I would add t that Weeden’s position in abstract doesn’t require the disciples to be historical; they only have to be perceived as such at the time of composition to be worthy of attack. And the later Mark is dated, the murkier this perception gets.

    1. Agreed.

      One aspect that I find odd when placed beside the Weeden position is that the gospel of Mark does not attack any particular doctrines of the twelve, only their failure to perceive who or what the Christ really was/is. Yet early Christian sects were as much divided over a host of specific doctrines as much as they were over christology. If Mark was attacking the Christianity claiming the twelve as their foundations then how to explain a failure to attack specific doctrines that presumably also went back to the twelve? The clean and unclean question is raised but not as an attack on the disciples. In fact the disciples are even acknowledged in the midst of their failures as having left all to follow Christ. The issue seems to me to be one of character, of spiritual failure (including blindness), not of doctrinal errors. So I see the disciples as more a spiritual warning or lesson for Mark’s audience, than as a rival group to be denigrated.

  3. JW:
    Love the title of the post. There’s a big problem here for HJ. “Mark” has a major theme that the historical disciples did not promote (so to speak) Jesus. “Matthew” has a major theme that the historical disciples did promote Jesus. Despite not just having contrary themes. but opposite themes, “Matthew” uses “Mark” as a base. This suggests that “Matthew” had no other significant source for a Jesus narrative available and no access to historical witness. What’s ironic here is that the earlier “Matthew” is written, the bigger the problem for HJ. At the earlier end, if “Matthew” was written 40ish, to not have any access to historical witness than is pretty good evidence for MJ. Fortunately for HJ though the anachronisms securely date “Mark” to second century and than neither one had access to historical witness as two generations had passed and that is the reason why “Mark” could be written in the first place. There was no longer any historical witness or any witness to historical witness who could dispute “Mark”.

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