The Case for a Proto-Gospel

Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John

by Gary Greenberg (Author)
Monographs XVIII, 720 Pages

Table Of Content


Table 2.1: Raymond Brown’s alignments between John 6, Mark, 6 and Mark 8

Table 2.2: Scenes breakdown in John 6 and Mark

Table 2.3: Numerical data for the miracle of the loaves

Table 2.4: Scenes in John 6 and Mark following same narrative order

Table 2.5: Proposed scene order in underlying source behind John 6 and Mark

Table 5.1: Hometown verse parallels in John, Mark and Luke

Table 5.2: Comparison of John 6:31–50 (Bread of Life) to Luke 4:16–27 (The Hometown Rejection Story)

Table 5.3: Thematic parallels between Luke 4:16–27 (Hometown Rejection) and John 6:31–50 (Bread of Life)

Table 6.1: Scenes breakdown in Mark 1, John 1–4, Luke 3:1–5:16

Table 6.2: The first five scenes in Mark, John, and Luke (CS1–CS5)

Table 6.3: Scenes from Mark 1, John 1–4, and Luke 3:1–5:16 included in the proposed common source

Table 7.1: Mark’s temple encounters and Johannine parallels

Table 7.2: Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem: Parallels in John, Mark and Luke.

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Table 8.1: Scenes breakdown in Mark, John, and Luke: From the plot to kill Jesus to the handover to Pilate

Table 8.2: The Eucharist scene in Mark, Luke, and Paul

Table 11.1: Overview of the Roman proceeding in Mark, Luke, and John

Table 11.2: The Roman proceedings in the proposed common source

Table 12.1: The crucifixion story in Mark, Luke, and John

Table 12.2: The triple agreements in the crucifixion story

Table 12.3: The crucifixion story as reconstructed in the proposed common source

Table 13.1: Schematic of conflicts between Roman and Jewish calendars in the gospels

Table 15.1: The proto-gospel restored, with points of contact in Mark, John, and Luke

Usage Notes

Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version. As a matter of history, we do not know who the actual authors of the gospels were, but, based on long-standing traditions, it is a matter of scholarly convention to refer to the authors by the names of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, and the gospels attributed to each are frequently identified by those names. I follow that practice in this volume and whether the name used refers to the author or the gospel attributed to that author should be determined by the context in which the name appears. That I continue to associate these four names with the gospel authors does not mean that I agree with these traditional identifications.

Editor’s Preface

More than ever the horizons in biblical literature are being expanded beyond that which is immediately imagined; important new methodological, theological, and hermeneutical directions are being explored, often resulting in significant contributions to the world of biblical scholarship. It is an exciting time for the academy as engagement in biblical studies continues to be heightened.

This series seeks to make available to scholars and institutions, scholarship of a high order, and which will make a significant contribution to the ongoing biblical discourse. This series includes established and innovative directions, covering general and particular areas in biblical study. For every volume considered for this series, we explore the question as to whether the study will push the horizons of biblical scholarship. The answer must be yes for inclusion.

In this volume, Gary Greenberg argues the case for a Proto-Gospel, where both the Gospels of John and Mark are independently reliant on a common written source. In this break from the established conventions, the author constructs his arguments on the basis of three factors, namely a sizeable number of stories in John that have a substantial number of parallels in Mark; a number of sequential agreements in the order of these parallel stories, and, perhaps importantly, the idea that John does not rely on either Mark or Luke as the principal source for these parallel stories. Using a statistical analysis and citing the large number of ←xv | xvi→common pericopes, Greenberg demonstrates what he argues to be the high degree of probability for a literary relationship between John and Mark based on a written source. This study is certain to generate ongoing discourse, particularly given the evidence that the author adduces. Given the theological implications, this study will certainly invite further conversation.

The horizon has been expanded.

Hemchand Gossai

Series Editor


Portions of this manuscript have previously appeared in my book Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John: overlooked evidence of a synoptic relationship, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2018. It is used herein with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing, for which I am grateful.


The Problem of Mark Versus John

New Testament scholars believe with near unanimity that the substantial differences in style, content, and verbal description between the gospel of John and the other three canonical gospels preclude any literary relationship between John and any of the others based on a written copy of at least one of them. This is not to say that John doesn’t know several stories that also appear in the other three gospels, but that such familiarity, they say, is based primarily on oral traditions circulating in the Christian communities, some of which may perhaps derive directly from one or more of the other three gospels. John’s lack of a written copy of at least one of the other three gospels, they suggest, accounts for much of the difference in content and verbal agreement. John’s style, however, is often attributed to his different theological perceptions about Jesus and the gospel message.

Based on my new theory of Johannine composition, introduced below, I will propose in the present work that Mark, John and Luke all knew a now-lost written proto-gospel. (I am not in any way challenging the consensus view that Matthew and Luke both knew Mark.) Excluding speech monologues—parables, discourses, “I Am” sayings, prophecies, and similar teachings—this lost text included most of the stories about the adult Jesus that appear in all four canonical gospels and served as the source text for those stories. This doesn’t mean that the ←1 | 2→proto-gospel didn’t also have some of those specialized speeches but only that I will not be exploring that aspect of the gospels in this study. And, to be clear, many of the stories in the proto-gospel do include speeches by Jesus, but that they do so primarily in the context of interaction with other individuals, such as conflicts, debates or discussions. Because such a large percentage of stories in the four canonical gospels can be traced back to this earlier written source, I think it appropriate to refer to this proto-gospel as the “Alpha Gospel.”

The theory behind my thesis is that the author of John had profound theological disagreements with how this proto-gospel presented the gospel message and depicted the character and nature of Jesus, the apostles, and other disciples, and this disagreement led the author of John to do a major rewrite of the earlier gospel such that the new version better reflected the author’s own theological perspective. (Mark and Luke also had some theological problems and made some changes, but far less so than John.)

It is my contention that we can reverse-engineer the composition of John’s gospel and show what specific elements of other Jesus stories he found offensive and what methodology he used to make changes to the source material such that John’s version of many of Mark’s stories often look nothing like Mark’s versions of the same proto-gospel episode. I make my case by identifying specific theological themes in John, and by cross-referencing Johannine stories to Mark and Luke. Further below, I will outline the theological themes that mattered to John and the editorial practices that I suggest he followed.

The chief and very powerful argument against my thesis is that John’s gospel looks very little like the other three gospels as to either verbal agreements or story content. Those familiar with how John differs from Mark (see below) know what a high evidentiary bar I must get past in order to make my case. To prove my thesis, I must convincingly demonstrate the following three propositions.

(1) John knows such a large number of stories also known to Mark that he must have been familiar with either Mark or Mark’s source.

(2) The stories known to both Mark and John demonstrate such a substantial amount of sequential agreement that the alignment can only be explained if John knew a written version of either Mark or Mark’s source.

(3) John couldn’t have obtained his parallel content from Mark or Luke. There is a minor side issue as to whether Luke knew John that I will also address. If it should be agreed that the first two points are proven but not the third, then Mark becomes the default written source for John (either directly from Mark or indirectly through Luke) and constitutes the proto-gospel behind the other three.

←2 |

The difficulty I must overcome is how to show that Mark and John know so many of the same stories when there is so little verbal agreement in the two gospels and that so few stories in John look very much like those in Mark.

At the conclusion of my study I will argue that almost every non-speech episode in John has a literary parallel in Mark and that the two gospels agree on sequential order in approximately two-thirds of such stories. Additionally, in several stories outside of the sequential order (and an explanation for why those stories are out of order will be provided) we will see that several details within the stories also follow a common sequential order. In a moment, I’ll explain my methodology and approach but let me first discuss some matters concerning the literary relations that do or don’t exist among the four gospels.

The Synoptic Problem

We call Matthew, Mark and Luke the synoptic gospels because if you read the three manuscripts in parallel to each other you find numerous stories in each that describe the same incident, use many of the same words, and appear in the same sequential order. Because of the substantial amount of agreement as to story content, word usage and sequential order it is almost universally accepted among scholars that some sort of literary relationship based on a written text must have existed. Defining this relationship is what we call “the synoptic problem.” Either the authors of all three gospels knew a common written source or two of the three knew a written version of at least one of the other two.

Further analysis shows that in almost every major instance where one of the three gospels departs from the word usage or sequential order followed in the other two, either Mark and Matthew agree against Luke, or Mark and Luke agree against Matthew. This strongly indicates that Mark is the hub gospel used as a written source by the other two. There are, however, a few occasions, usually referred to as the “minor agreements,” in which Matthew and Luke agree against Mark, leaving the accepted theory of Markan priority as less than a perfect solution. Nevertheless, it is almost universally accepted among New Testament scholars that Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke used it as a source. Scholars refer to the collection of parallel stories in all three synoptic gospels as “the Triple Tradition.”

Raymond Brown noted that there are 661 verses in Mark, 1,068 in Matthew, and 1,149 in Luke.1 He estimated that 80% of Mark’s verses have parallels in Matthew and 65% have parallels in Luke.2 This means that half of Matthew and ←3 | 4→over one-third of Luke draw upon Mark as a source. Since Mark has no birth narrative, and if we don’t count the lengthy ones in Matthew and Luke, the percentage of Mark present in the other two gospels becomes significantly higher.

While Matthew and Luke appear to incorporate a large amount of material from Mark, there is no question that they also occasionally make wholesale changes to what Mark wrote. Luke’s versions, for example, of the “Rejection at Nazareth,”3 “Recruitment of the first disciples,”4 or the “Anointing at Bethany”5 look nothing at all like Mark’s versions of the same stories and depart significantly from Mark’s order of events.6 Compare also Matthew’s versions of “the healing of a man with a withered hand,”7 the “Jesus and Beelzebul accusation,”8 and “the Empty Tomb”9 with Mark’s versions of these stories.10 In all likelihood, if these very different versions of Mark’s stories appeared in John (but not in Matthew or Luke), they would probably be considered good examples of why John didn’t know a written version of Mark.

From the way Luke and Matthew handle Mark we can see over numerous incidents that neither had any problems with altering, correcting, amending, omitting or moving around Mark’s stories. Scholars attribute this either to Matthew and/or Luke having theological problems with what appeared in Mark or to one or the other trying to make a story read more sensibly or more clearly. So, such variations are not necessarily proof that one author did not use another author as a source. Similar actions by Mark and/or John with respect to their sources should be expected.

The Q Problem

In addition to the “triple tradition” scholars have also noticed that Matthew and Luke share a lot of material that isn’t present in Mark. While this other material doesn’t always appear in the same sequential order, there is a substantial amount of word agreement. Although containing some anecdotal material, this Matthew-Luke collection consists primarily of sayings by Jesus and its subject matter is largely (but not completely) outside the scope of this present study.

Brown estimates that about 220–235 verses that fall into this category.11 John S. Kloppenborg, one of the leading Q authorities, estimates that this collection of verses encompasses 106 textual units (as opposed to verses) and that about one-third of these units follow the same sequential order.12 This material makes up about 20% of Matthew and Luke and raises a question of whether Luke and Matthew have a literary relationship separate and apart from any connection to Mark.

←4 | 5→

With only slightly less unanimity than there is for Markan priority, scholars believe that Matthew and Luke, working independently from each other, made use of a now-lost written manuscript that scholars have nicknamed Q (from the German word quelle, meaning “source.”) Although no portion of this supposed source has ever been discovered, a large field of Q studies has sprung up in New Testament scholarship, with reconstructed critical versions of the Q source being published and substantial debates over what should or shouldn’t be included within. It is considered by many scholars to be the equivalent of an early gospel.

In recent years, however, a strong and vocal dissent to the Q hypothesis has arisen from a small but growing community of scholars. Based on an earlier thesis known as the Farrar theory, Mark Goodacre and allies take the position that the agreements between Luke and Matthew arise from Luke’s use of Matthew’s gospel as a source.13 This would account not only for why Luke and Matthew share such common material but would also resolve the other problem of the “minor disagreements” of Matthew and Luke against Mark. If Luke used Matthew, then the minor disagreements with Mark would be the result of Luke occasionally using Matthew over Mark as a source.

In the course of this present work, I will make occasional references to Q. I am using it only in the sense of material common to Matthew and Luke but not present in Mark. I take no position as to whether Q was an earlier lost document or whether Luke copied from Matthew. Nevertheless, we should recognize that a very large majority of New Testament scholars routinely accept that two of the gospel authors made substantial use of a now-lost written gospel that preceded at least three (counting John) if not all four of the canonical gospels.

The Luke-John Problem

One known but surprisingly under-analyzed problem in source criticism concerns several parallels between Luke and John that not only agree with each other, but which occasionally agree with each other against Mark or contain information missing in Mark. To cite just a few examples out of many:

Both show a crowd asking John the Baptist if he is the messiah, a detail missing in Mark.14

Both show Jesus enabling Peter to catch a large load of fish, a miracle missing from Mark.15

Both include only one miracle of the loaves, referring to the same episode, but Mark has two such episodes.16

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Both have a story about sisters named Mary and Martha interacting with Jesus, but Mark has no such story.17

Both contain an episode where a synagogue congregation knows Jesus’ father, Joseph, by name but mentions no other family members by name; in Mark’s parallel to Luke’s version, the congregation exhibits no knowledge of Jesus’ father and names only Jesus’ mother and brothers.18

Both show that in the course of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem the Pharisees complained about the crowd’s behavior, a detail missing in Mark.

Both show Jesus lamenting the blindness of the Jewish authorities after the Triumphal Entry scene, a detail missing in Mark.19

Both show Jesus predicting that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows.20 Mark says the cock will crow twice.21

Both show Jews asking Jesus if he is the messiah and Jesus giving similar answers. In Luke, Jesus says, “If I tell you, you will not believe.”22 In John, Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”23 Mark has no such reply.

Both show Pilate making three separate declarations declaring Jesus innocent of any wrongdoing, but Mark has no such declarations.24

Both show that the first time Jews called out for crucifixion they used the word “crucify” twice but Mark only has the word once.

These agreements at least hint at some sort of connection between Luke and John but we are left with no satisfactory explanation for how they come about or why Luke would depart from Mark’s language and somehow agree with John. One scholar who attempted to address this issue was F. Lamar Cribbs, who wrote a lengthy article on the Luke-John parallels.25 His solution, however, has been found wanting. He proposed that Luke was influenced by early Johannine traditions, and possibly knew an earlier draft of John, and attempted in his own gospel to reconcile differences between John and Mark.26

It will be my argument in the course of this work that the author of Luke is unlikely to have known John, and Luke’s departures from Mark in favor of John were due to Luke’s use of the proposed proto-gospel and his attempts to reconcile differences between Mark and the earlier source.

Why Luke and Not Matthew?

I have already indicated that, according to my thesis, Luke knew the proto-gospel but Matthew did not. The reason for that conclusion is that Luke and John both seem to know several of the same things that Mark does not know, and, on occasion, Luke and John agree against Mark on certain details. While it is true that ←6 | 7→Matthew knows many things that are not present in Mark, I have not found any evidence that there is any significant matching of that information with John. Since Matthew and Luke both use Mark as a source, their agreements with Mark do not advance the case for a proto-gospel. We require some differences that connect in some manner with John.

The issue in this study is primarily whether John knew Mark’s source, and agreements between Luke and John against Mark provide some clues. While it is conceivable that Matthew knew the proto-gospel, his lack of significant divergence from Mark in parallel to John leaves us with insufficient evidence to make out a case for Matthew’s knowledge of the Markan source. Nevertheless, because Matthew has so much material from Mark that, per my theory, Mark took from the proto-gospel, Matthew is at least indirectly, through Mark, a product of the proto-gospel. Should additional evidence come forward on behalf of Matthew’s knowledge, I would have no objection to adding him to the list of gospels directly influenced by the earlier source.

Johannine Source Issues

John’s gospel features an individual known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,”27 routinely referred to by scholars as “the Beloved Disciple,” and at the end of the gospel the author says, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”28 John never mentions this individual by name and his identity is subject to substantial debate. He was apparently an important figure in the Johannine community who, according to John, died at some earlier point in time.29 So at least for this passage, the beloved disciple was not the author.

Brown says that prior to the development of biblical criticism, it was commonly thought that the gospel was the work of “John, the son of Zebedee,” one of the key members of the twelve apostles, and the gospel was written down shortly after his death30 Few scholars presently accept that identification. Brown adds that, questions of author identity aside, “there are features in the gospel that offer difficulty for any theory of unified authorship.”31 These include differences of Greek style, breaks and inconsistencies in sequence, repetitions in discourses, and passages ‘that clearly do not belong to their context.”32

Another problem is that the gospel appears to be completed at the end of John 20, which says, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have ←7 | 8→life in his name.”33 Yet it continues with new stories and teachings in John 21. It is commonly argued that John was composed in at least two stages, an initial gospel and at least one later edition by someone routinely referred to as “the Redactor.” Several scholars believe the Redactor added in John 1:1–18 and John 21 and made several editorial changes to the original version. Urban Von Wahlde has argued for at least three stages in the composition of John.34 Even among those who agree with the idea of multiple editions of the text, there are still disagreements as to which verses belong to which edition.35

Many scholars try to resolve some of the textual problems by moving passages and sections around to create a more fluid flow, although there is significant disagreement as to what should be moved and where it should be placed. Why John’s Redactor should have changed the location of several passages from where they were in the earlier edition is another issue that requires explanation. Several scholars have suggested it was the result of accidental displacement.36

While not all, or even most, scholars believe in such wholesale rearrangement, many of them would agree that, due to geographical and chronological issues, perhaps there should be a reversal in the order of John 5 and John 6.37 I address the issue of chronological displacement at various points in my study. As to John 5 and John 6, however, it is my argument later that they are in the proper and original sequential order as is.

Several scholars believe the compositional issues are due to the author’s use of a variety of source texts.38 Brown says the most influential form of source theory goes back to Rudolf Bultmann, who, he says, proposed three basic sources.39 One was a “signs” source, a collection of miracles, a few of which John extracted for his gospel.40 I challenge that thesis in the course of this work, showing that the miracles in John are all explainable through the use of the proto-gospel and that despite differences in appearance, are, for the most part, duplicates of those in Mark.

His second proposed source is referred to as the “Revelatory Discourse Source,” a collection of discourses attributed to Jesus, some of which were interspersed into John.41 In this study I don’t do a broad analysis of discourses or other speeches, although I do look at some associated issues here and there. With respect to John’s Discourse on Bread in John 6, though, I implicitly challenge the use of this “discourse source” at least with respect to this specific speech.

Bultmann’s third proposed source, according to Brown, is a Passion and Resurrection text similar to the synoptic gospel version but having some important differences.42 In my study I show that Mark, John, and Luke all drew upon the same Passion and Resurrection source, the proto-gospel.

←8 | 9→

All three of Bultmann’s propositions have been challenged in one way or another by various scholars. I will outline in the pages ahead my own theory of John’s compositional practices. First, however, let me briefly touch on the question of whether John’s differences from Mark preclude the idea of an earlier common source.

Do Differences in Mark and John Preclude a Common Written Source?

The gospel of John looks very different from the synoptic gospels. To begin with, there is far less verbal agreement between John and Mark than there is for Luke and Matthew. John has none of the synoptic parables, none of the synoptic exorcisms, none of the synoptic healing missions, and fewer miracles than in the synoptic gospels. John’s miracles, for the most part, look very different from those in Mark. At the same time, John introduces his own set of non-parable hard-to-understand teachings, none of which appear in the other gospels, and he introduces several “I Am” sayings that also do not appear in any of the other three gospels.

John’s gospel message is much more focused on the idea that the only way to eternal life is to believe in Jesus as the one sent by the Father to offer eternal life, a message that is less explicit and occasionally challenged in the synoptic gospels.43 John is often thought of as a more spiritual gospel than the others and one offering a higher degree of Christology than the others.

John also depicts a much longer mission by Jesus than do the synoptic gospels. In John the story unfolds over three Passovers; the other gospels include only one Passover. While the synoptic gospels place all of Jesus’ action in Galilee, up until the final week, John presents almost the entire mission taking place in Jerusalem, with very little activity in Galilee.

There are also significant chronological and sequential disagreements between John and the synoptic gospels. John, for example, places Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem much earlier in time than the synoptic gospels do, and his version of the last visit looks nothing like the synoptic versions. John also places the chasing of the money-changers at the beginning of the mission rather than the end of the mission as in the synoptic gospels.

Particularly odd is that the three synoptic gospels all show Jesus bringing a child back to life (and Luke, alone, includes a second incident in which Jesus brings someone back to life) and that story is missing in John. At the same time John gives high importance to Jesus bringing the adult Lazarus back to life and that incident does not appear in the synoptic gospels.

←9 | 10→

All this is not to say that there is no evidence of Johannine contact with a written synoptic gospel. Perhaps the most direct and troubling evidence for scholars rejecting such a connection is the Mark-John sequence of the “Miracle of the Loaves”44 and “Jesus walks on Water.”45 In Mark and John these two stories run one after the other, with very similar narrative bridges between the two events. (Luke omits the story of Jesus walking on water.)

In the Miracle of the Loaves episode, both authors agree that the crowd consisted of five thousand people, that the ordinary cost of feeding them would have been two hundred denarii, that Jesus started out with five loaves of bread and two fish, and that there were twelve baskets of leftovers. That’s a lot of numeric and verbal agreement. Luke and Matthew both omit the ordinary cost of feeding the crowd, giving John a superior numerical agreement with Mark than do the two other synoptic gospels.

In the Walking on Water miracle that follows almost immediately after, both authors agree that the disciples were initially frightened by the sight of Jesus on the water and he calmed them down by saying, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Both stories unfold in a similar manner and share a key phrase. The two sea stories include some key verbal agreement and common details. However, in mid-voyage across the sea, the two gospels diverge radically in what they depict next and the two gospels trail off in different directions.

The close verbal and sequential agreements in these two stories give scholars at least some pause in dismissing any written connection between John and the synoptic gospels but the overwhelming consensus remains firm: John did not know a written version of the synoptic gospels.

Then there are a couple of unusual verbal parallels between John and the synoptic gospels. In all four gospels, Jesus occasionally refers to himself as the “son of Man.” Throughout early Christianity, virtually the only description of Jesus as “son of man” comes from the four evangelists. If John has no written connection to the other gospels, where does his frequent use of “son of Man” come from?

Even more odd is the use of the term “day of Preparation” in connection with the death of Jesus. While all four gospels agree that Jesus died on the “day of Preparation” and this day fell just before the Sabbath, there is some disagreement amongst the authors as to what the term means. John says it is the day on which the Passover lamb is slaughtered. Mark says it is the day of preparation for the Sabbath. Luke appears noncommittal.

The problem, however, is that the term is supposed to be a Jewish term and Jews never used that expression. In reference to the start of a holiday they always ←10 | 11→referred to “Evening of …” but never “Day of …” Again, this is a term used only in the four gospels. How did John pick up such an unusual and odd phrase that appears elsewhere only in the synoptic gospels? This is certainly a question worth exploring.

There are also places where John exhibits verbal parallels to Mark in stories that look like the two gospels might have a point of contact but where the story details are often very different. In the story of John the Baptist, John cites the same Isaiah verse that Mark does.46 Later John’s version of the Baptist’s pronouncement about the one to come closely parallels Mark’s version and could be considered more faithful to Mark than the versions in Luke and Matthew.47 Although John’s version of the Baptist’s story departs in many ways from Mark, so do the versions present in Matthew and Luke.

In another example, compare the “Anointing in Bethany” as presented by Mark and John.48 There is little doubt that these two versions are related to each other. Both talk about the oil being worth three hundred denarii, both show complaints about the money being used for oil instead of for the poor, and in both Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you.” But when you look at the details of the two stories, they are almost nothing alike.

In Mark the oil is poured on the head; in John on the feet. In Mark there is no meal being served; in John there is. Other than Jesus, Mark doesn’t mention the names of anyone present except the owner of the house, “Simon the Leper;” John makes no mention of Simon but says Lazarus, Mary and Martha were present. Mark doesn’t say who complained; John says it was Judas but indicates that he was insincere and wanted to steal the money. Despite minimal verbal agreement, there is little doubt that both versions are based on the same story. In fact, John’s version is much closer to what Mark says than is Luke’s.49

Mark has a story about healing a paralytic sitting on a mat.50 In the course of the process, Jesus says, “stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” John has a story about Jesus healing a paralytic sitting on a mat and telling him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”51 The words uttered by Jesus in both stories are virtually identical and one would initially see the two stories as based on a common source. But John’s story details look nothing like Mark’s.

The latter places the incident in Jesus’ home in Capernaum and John’s takes place by a pool in Jerusalem on a Sabbath. None of the actions taken by the people present in Mark’s story appear in John’s story. Scholars debate whether the two versions are based on the same common story or whether they are derived from independent unrelated stories. The consensus seems to be that the stories in Mark and John have no relationship to each other.

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Mark has a story known as the “Rejection at Nazareth,” although he never mentions the city by name.52 It is a short story (six verses) with several notable features. Jesus is in a synagogue, the congregation knows members of Jesus’ family by name, the congregation rejects Jesus, and Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house [emphasis added].”

John has a story about Jesus in a synagogue, where the congregation knows members of Jesus’ family by name and rejects Jesus.53 John’s version of the story is missing the quote about prophets without honor, but the quote appears elsewhere in John, slightly altered and in a substantially different context. “[F];or Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country).”54

Although John has moved the quote elsewhere and altered it to eliminate the reference to Jesus’ family being among those who reject Jesus—to be fair, Matthew and Luke also drop the reference to Jesus’ family rejecting him55—the parallels between the two synagogue stories seem to suggest there should be a relationship. Yet, the stories in Mark and John look nothing alike. The settings and issues in conflict are very different.

In Mark, the family members mentioned by name are the mother “Mary” and her several sons, “James and Joses and Judas and Simon.” Mark makes no reference to even the existence of a father. In John, only the father “Joseph” is mentioned by name. In an interesting side issue, Luke agrees with John against Mark as to which family members were named. Despite using Mark as a source, Luke names only the father “Joseph.”56 A connection between Mark and John as to the Rejection at Nazareth flies under the academic radar.

In Mark, Jesus criticizes Peter at one point, calling him a Satan.57 In John, at a similar point in the narrative under similar circumstances, Jesus says, “Yet one of you is a devil” but he doesn’t say who that is.58 John adds a gloss saying that Jesus referred to Judas.59 It’s hard not to see that John’s version is a cleansing of what appears in Mark’s version.

Even without verbal agreements, we see stories in John that clearly have a parallel with Mark. Consider, for example, the chasing of the money-changers from the Temple.60 Mark places it in the last week of Jesus’ life; John places it two years earlier. In John, Jesus’ specific actions against the money-changers differs from those depicted in Mark, and Jesus’ words of rebuke to the money-changers are completely different in the two stories. There is no meaningful verbal agreement in the two accounts. Despite the lack of significant verbal agreement, and in the case of the money-changers a severe chronological and sequential disagreement, John’s story is easily recognizable as being based on the same incident Mark referred to.

←12 | 13→

Mark has a story in which Jesus heals a blind man by rubbing his (Jesus’) saliva in the blind man’s eyes.61 Matthew and Luke both omit this story but John has an extensive story (all of John 9) about Jesus healing a blind man, and in this account Jesus mixes his saliva with dirt to make mud and heals the blind man by placing the saliva-infused mud on the man’s eyes.

This odd use of saliva to heal a blind man certainly seems like it should be based on a common story but other than the use of saliva in healing a blind man the two stories look nothing alike in their present formats and scholars debate whether they are based on the same story or derive from very different incidents. The consensus currently favors two separate unrelated derivations. But the use of saliva by Jesus in a healing process is certainly a very odd fact that seems to go against the usual depiction of Jesus’ powers and especially against the depiction of Jesus in John, who can raise someone to life with just a word or who can be in one city and cure someone’s severe illness in another city.

Mark and John each have one story about Jesus healing a deformed man on the Sabbath, but the details are very different and scholars generally reject a connection.

Mark has Jesus make three predictions about rising after he is killed. John has Jesus make three declarations that he will be raised up, but the wording is very different. Are they parallel declarations just using different words?

Little by little we begin to see several places where there seems to be a point of contact between Mark and John on a story but where, on the other hand, they disagree on narrative content. And in the course of this study we will look at a great many other such instances in greater detail. While one can explain a handful of such incidents with occasional verbal parallels based on oral traditions, what happens when points of contact begin to mushroom?

Is there a crossing point where one says there are too many such connections to be dismissed as coincidences? And what do we say if these many points of contact start to align in sequential agreement? Does this imply an underlying written source? Is there a pattern involved that explains why the story details disagree? Is there some reason why the details might disagree even if they were based on a common source?

So far, the traditional approach is to treat each occasion where there is a point of contact as an isolated event divorced from a larger collection of such incidents. The source-critical approach is heavily invested in verbal agreements as the chief tool for resolving the question of source relationships. But what happens when two authors share a source but one disagrees profusely with how the source interprets events and begins to rewrite stories? Can one prove that this is the case? That is the larger project taken up in the present work.

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Identifying John’s Editorial Practices

In making my case for the existence of a proto-gospel I will argue that John followed certain practices in composing his gospel and these practices made it extremely difficult to recognize how Mark and John frequently interacted with the same story or set of stories. However, once it is seen how these practices operate, one can more easily identify the steps that John took in his composition. The various practices fall into three broad categories:

Theological biases requiring changes to a source;

Editorial techniques for making changes;

One major change to the underlying plot (for a theological purpose) that causes several stories to be moved around and altered.

Theological Biases

John has certain identifiable theological biases about the nature of the gospel message, the nature of Jesus, and the behavior of his disciples. I propose that whenever John encountered a source story that either disagreed with his position or left a potential for undermining his theological agenda, he took editorial steps to change the nature of the underlying story. Given the nature of the problem and the steps taken, changes could make John’s version of events look very different from that in the source versions. Here are what I believe to be the primary theological concerns that motivated John to make changes.

(a) John believed that the only way to obtain eternal life is to accept that Jesus was sent by the Father to make eternal life available. According to John, Jesus said,

“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life [emphasis added].”62

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”63

“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”64

If a source story suggested that there was some other way to obtain eternal life, such as following the law,65 giving to the poor,66 or loving your neighbor67 then John would want to either make substantial changes to the story or omit some or, occasionally, all the details.

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(b) John claimed that all judgment has been given by the Father to Jesus. According to John, Jesus said,

“The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him [emphasis added].”68

“Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.”69

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”70

John’s view of Jesus’ authority places him outside and above the law. Any story that shows Jesus defending his actions under the law or which indicates that Jesus does not have full authority to make all judgments would have to be modified. In Mark, for example, Jesus makes a legal argument in support of his healing actions on the Sabbath.71 In John, when accused of violating the Sabbath by healing, Jesus justifies his actions by making a theological argument that his authority lies beyond of the law. “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”72 This answer shows that Jesus is not bound by the law.

(c) One should have faith in Jesus because of his words and not because of his signs. According to John, Jesus said,

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

“The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true.”73

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”74

An important facet of John’s teaching is that faith in Jesus should come from the words he speaks and not from the performance of his signs. In the first of the quotes just cited, John was responding to a royal official’s request to heal his son. John tested the man to see if he required proof of Jesus’ power or if he had faith. The man passed the test and Jesus healed the child.

While John’s Jesus does heal from time to time, John shows no healing missions. In the synoptic gospels healing missions are an important aspect of Jesus’ work and healings serve as proof that he has been authorized by God to act. In Mark, for example, Jesus proves he has the authority to forgive sin by healing.75 ←15 | 16→If John encountered such a story, he would have two objections. First, the story could be interpreted to limit Jesus’ authority over matters other than forgiving sin. Second, Jesus should not try to convince skeptics of his authority by healing. This doesn’t mean that Jesus’ miracles don’t or shouldn’t evoke wonder. But Jesus still wants people to have faith in him based on his words and not his works.

(d) The Disciples and certain others close to Jesus should not be depicted in a negative manner. This principle extends also to Jesus’ family members and to the families of disciples. Here, we don’t have specific quotes from John. The evidence consists of comparisons with Mark.

Mark frequently presents the disciples in a negative light, focusing on their frequent inability to understand Jesus’ message. After the second of Mark’s two miracles of the loaves, the disciples indicate they are hungry. Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?”76 Later, Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about dying and rising up. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”77

In the bread incident, Mark’s Jesus is chastising the disciples for not understanding about the miracle of the loaves. John omits this rebuke to the disciples but, interestingly, he tells us about a different group of witnesses to the miracle and Jesus rebukes them for not understanding the meaning of the miracle. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”78 The words are different but the function is the same.

Elsewhere, in a parallel to the rebuke of Peter, John presents a different picture of what took place. In John, Peter correctly acknowledges the role of Jesus as the one bringing eternal life. “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ ”79

Jesus responds in a complimentary manner, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.”80 John then adds a gloss, saying Jesus meant Judas was the devil. Note John’s trick here. The devil quote was used to compliment Peter for getting the divine role right where Mark has the devil accusation as an insult for getting the divine role wrong. I should add that Luke, too, as we will see later, rejects Mark’s negative depictions of the disciples, but he does so in ways very different from those used by John.

John’s Editing Techniques

John, as I will argue in the course of this work, used a few specific editing techniques in composing his gospel and altering stories that he found problematic. One ←16 | 17→practice was to take multiple stories that shared a similar theme or some other details and integrating them into a single narrative such that the constituent stories no longer look like the original versions. John 5, for example, deals with the theme of Jesus’ authority, and in Chapter 3 I lay out several indications that John has taken several stories known to Mark and which dealt problematically with the question of Jesus’ authority, and combined the multiple stories into a new single narrative that eliminates all the problematic issues. The narrative looks nothing like Mark’s several stories, but, as I show, there are numerous allusions to Mark’s stories that clearly suggest (to me, anyway) that John knew all three Markan stories and has rewritten them for theological purposes.

Another technique used by John is to split off a problematic piece of a story and place it in a different context and occasionally altering the purpose of the verse, while rewriting the existing story to cover up the removal. There are numerous examples of this throughout John. Above, for example, I indicated that John did not want to depict Jesus defending himself by claiming that his actions were authorized under the Jewish law and that when confronted on the issue he used a theological argument indicating that his authority was above the law. That episode took place in John 5. Later, in John 7, on another occasion in another time frame in another context, Jesus brings up the opposition to his earlier healing on the Sabbath and criticizes the Jews for not understanding their own law by laying out a legal argument that shows his actions were consistent with the law.

John, however, has changed the context of the legal argument. It has been separated from the argument over Jesus’ authority to heal on the Sabbath and transformed from a legal defense of his actions to an attack on his critics for not knowing the law. While the action would have been legal under the argument made by Jesus, he doesn’t justify his actions by resorting to the legal argument. He relied on the earlier theological argument about his relationship to the Father.

Still another technique used by John is to take one story and move it into another story where it serves a different function. This is not quite the same as splitting a piece of the story off. There are numerous examples of John doing both things, but the practice is not always easily detectable.

In the story of Jesus being rejected by a synagogue congregation, for example, Mark and Luke are a little vague as to why Jesus was rejected but, implicitly, reading the two very different versions of the story in Mark and Luke together, the congregation reacted to a failure by Jesus to heal somebody, where the healing was intended to prove that Jesus was authorized to deliver the gospel message. The failure to heal led the congregation to reject Jesus as the messenger.

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John, on the other hand, also has a story about a congregation rejecting Jesus. Like Mark’s version, it is the story in which the congregation also knows the name of Jesus’ family members. But in John’s story the rejection of Jesus is caused by what looks like his teaching a very different version of the Eucharist teaching from the one in the synoptic gospels.

Differences aside, John appears to have moved his version of the Eucharist teaching from the Last Supper setting and inserted it into the story about the congregation rejecting Jesus. It is John’s Eucharist story (very different from that in Mark, Luke and Matthew) that causes the congregation to reject Jesus as God’s messenger.81 John has not the slightest hint that Jesus intended to heal someone as proof of his authority or that he failed to do so. At the same time, John inserts a very different story about how Jesus is to be remembered at the very place where the Eucharist story should have appeared.82

Another of John’s practices is to take an incident that seems to suggest one set of facts and gloss over the facts by adding a comment that casts the event in a different light. For example, in John’s version of the chasing of the money-changers, Jesus makes the controversial claim that if the Temple were torn down it would be rebuilt. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”83 John adds, “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”84 This, however, is an aside to the reader. It is not a statement Jesus makes to his critics. For the reader, though, it radically alters the context of Jesus’ remark. At the time John wrote his gospel, the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. John’s gloss absolves Jesus of any need to rebuild the physical Temple. John, as we will see, frequently uses glosses to change the context of events that could be considered inconsistent with his agenda.

Throughout John’s gospel we will see numerous instances where John applies these techniques. But they are often not immediately obvious and sometimes we have to look at a lot of other narrative material to place an event in its narrative context.

A Major Plot Change

John’s gospel has one significant plot change from the synoptic gospels, having to do with why the Jewish authorities wanted to put Jesus to death. In the synoptic gospels, the authorities oppose Jesus because his popularity (a messianic-style hero) made him a political rival who would displace them as leaders of Israel. In John, we have a very different explanation.

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According to John, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead Jesus became so popular that the Jewish authorities feared that Rome would destroy the Temple and the Jewish nation.85 Caiaphas, the chief priest, argued that it was better for one man to die than to see the nation and temple destroyed.86 Ironically, as John intended, the authorities see the death of Jesus bringing salvation to the nation.87 Although John has a reputation among many scholars as being the most anti-Jewish of the four gospel authors, his plot change, priestly concern for the nation and the Temple rather than their own political power, exhibits the Jews in a much more positive light than the synoptic gospels do.

While this change of explanation is relatively obvious to those who study the texts, scholars have treated the issue in isolation from the rest of the gospel. It is my argument that in order to implement this change of plot, John had to root through the story of Jesus and make several alterations and changes to the sequence and content of stories in order to make this plot change credible. His goal was to eliminate any indication that the priests sought to put Jesus to death out of jealousy over political rivalry.

When this motive is understood, several problematic issues in John can be resolved. The most substantial of these changes was John’s alteration to both the chronology and narrative content of the story of Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem. In the synoptic gospels, the last visit to Jerusalem lasts about three days, takes place during the week before Passover, and encompasses the various events that lead the Jewish authorities to believe that Jesus is a political rival who should be executed. The two key events arousing homicidal rage among the authorities are the chasing of the money-changers88 and the parable of the Wicked Tenants.89

John, on the other hand, moved the start of the last visit to Jerusalem six months earlier to the start of the Festival of Booths,90 extended the stay for about two and a half months, and ended it about three and a half months before Passover.91 Jesus appears to have had free reign to walk the city for almost the entire period and no incidents arise that lead the priests to see Jesus as a political rival to be put to death. (There is one failed effort to arrest him for an inquiry before the council, but the concern seems to be whether he was a prophet, not a political rival.92)

What is also problematic is that almost none of the stories that Mark places during his account of the last visit to Jerusalem appear in John’s account of the last visit, and almost none of the stories that appear in John’s account of the last visit appear in the synoptic gospel accounts of the last visit. The most glaring example of this is the chasing of the money-changers.

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In Mark, the chasing of the money-changers was the trigger event that led the Jewish authorities to seek the death of Jesus. In John, the story is placed two years earlier than Mark’s version and there is no death threat or even significant hostility. Despite the role it plays in the synoptic gospels, John never references the event again, despite two subsequent visits to Jerusalem.

I will treat this plot change in greater detail in Chapter 7 and in several other chapters. I will argue that John has moved several stories around in order to implement this change in plot and that many of the stories moved around are currently unrecognized rewritten versions of stories present in Mark. In my final summary on the issue of sequential agreement we will see that almost all of John’s divergence from Mark’s sequential order can be traced to those stories involved in John’s reworking of the plotline.

Methodological Approach

In the present study it is my goal to establish a very large collection of literary points of contact between John and (primarily) Mark or John and (secondarily) Luke that can only be explained by the existence of an early written gospel known to all three. Since Luke uses Mark as a source, agreements between the two are rarely helpful. Disagreements, however, especially where Luke agrees with John against Mark, can present clues hinting at an earlier common text.

The simplest form of a literary point of contact is when two gospel authors know and agree upon the same fact. John and Mark, for example, both agree that Jesus was anointed in Bethany, that the oil used in that incident was worth three hundred denarii, and that Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you,… but you do not always have me.”93 (Mark has some additional words in the middle of the quotation.) Even though the two authors disagree on several other details, we have three points of contact (place, value, quote) that strongly suggest that Mark and John both knew similar versions of a common story about Jesus being anointed in Bethany. So, we have three details indicating three exact points of contact and enough detail to indicate a point of contact between the story in Mark and the story in John.

This leads to a slightly more complex form of a point of contact. Having established that there is a point of contact between Mark and John on the story level, we can identify further points of contact in places where the two don’t agree on the facts. Both agree that oil was placed on the body of Jesus but disagree as to where on the body the oil was placed. Mark says it was on the head; John says ←20 | 21→on the feet. Both agree that complaints were made about wasting the money on oil when it could have been spent on the poor but disagree as to who made the complaint. Mark doesn’t identify who criticized the anointment, but says it was “some;” John says it was a single individual, Judas. Both agree that the oil purchased had something to do with Jesus’ burial. Mark says the actual anointing was to prepare for the burial; John says some of the oil was saved to be used later for his burial.

From these details, we can’t be sure of the exact nature of the underlying story facts, but we can agree on several additional points of contact: Jesus’ body was anointed with oil; the cost of the oil was a source of criticism; and the oil had some connection to the burial of Jesus. This gives us three more points of contact, even though there is disagreement as to the content of the details. Nevertheless, even within the context of disagreement on some details, the case that Mark and John know similar versions of the same story becomes even stronger.

A single incident such as this is not sufficient proof of a written source. The anointing story is something that takes place towards the last week in Jesus’s life. The story details may have been well known as part of the Passion story surrounding the death of Jesus. But there are several such examples. Here’s one from the beginning of the mission that shows points of contact even where there is disagreement over the content of details.

Mark and John both say something about whether John the Baptist had been arrested at the time Jesus began his mission. In both gospels the Baptist’s custody status is specifically associated with the notice that Jesus began his mission. Mark says the Baptist was already arrested at the time;94 John says the Baptist was not arrested at the time.95 Luke, intriguingly, remains vague on the issue even though he used Mark as a source.96

Now, obviously, the fact that at some point in the narrative Jesus began his mission has no bearing on a link between one gospel and another. Jesus must begin the mission at some point in time, no matter who is telling the story. But, when two allegedly unrelated gospels, Mark and John, both specifically tie the event to another very specific but not necessarily related narrative element, such as the custody status of John the Baptist, then we have something that looks like a point of contact even though Mark and John disagree on the custody status. Both thought it necessary for some reason to link the one event to the other, even if they disagree on what occurred in the second event. Luke’s vagueness adds to the mystery. John’s version of the Baptist notice even seems to suggest that he was aware of the issue and attempted to refute it.

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Scholars are quite aware of this disagreement and generally believe that John was aware of a tradition that the Baptist had been arrested at the time of the start of the mission and chose to specifically deny that claim. As one incident by itself, that, may of course, be a perfectly reasonable explanation. Amid many other such coincidences, that explanation becomes more tenuous. It is my own view that John changed the arrest status of John because he placed the start of the mission about two years earlier than Mark does and that John had been arrested much closer in time to the arrest of Jesus, as Mark has it.

The Baptist episode gives us two points of contact that are connected in a narrative sequence, the start of Jesus’ mission and a reference to the custody status of John the Baptist at the beginning of the mission. Whether Mark or John has the correct status is arguable but in filling out a narrative time line, these two points of contact need to be included.

So far, I have given examples of simple points of contact, even though there is some disagreement over the nature of a specific detail. John and Mark have several such examples. One approach I follow is to collect as many of these more obvious agreements as possible and see if there is some sort of meaningful literary patterns that have been overlooked.

The more difficult problem is finding very complex points of contact in stories that don’t look alike in terms of either narrative details or verbal agreement, and the larger portion of this study will be identifying currently unrecognized parallels between Johannine and synoptic gospel stories and/or story details. One tool I will use is “descriptor” analysis, tags that can be attached to a story above and beyond just the verbal details of the story itself. Such descriptors include plot characteristics, character types, theological themes, symbols, chronological markers, sequential relationships with other stories, literary seams indicating a break in the narrative, or vagueness indicating that something is being covered up or disguised.

Another tool I will use is theological differentiation. As indicated above, I believe John had some theological biases and used certain editorial techniques to make changes to stories. I will look at stories in Mark or Luke and see what sort of issues John would have objected to, and what sort of changes he would want to make. Less frequently, we might look at a story in John and see what sort of theological objections Mark or Luke might have had and what sort of changes they would make if they knew a version of John’s story. It is my view that if we recognize John’s theological biases and editorial techniques then we can look at a story in Mark and frequently reverse-engineer John’s editorial framework and reconstruct his source story.

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Another tool to be used is to place a story in a sequential location within a longer narrative arc. Consider, for the sake of argument, that Mark has a sequence of five stories and that John appears to know four of the five stories in the same sequential order, but in the middle of the sequence the fifth story looks nothing like Mark’s fifth story. This, subject to evidentiary evaluation, could suggest that John knew the fifth story in Mark’s sequence but substituted a different story in its place. Let me now look at a very complex example of how I apply some of the methods described above.

Here’s a puzzling passage in John that suggested to me he made some sort of significant editorial adjustment. At a point almost immediately after Jesus met up with a group of people who became his first disciples, we are told, “After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.”97 And what happened in Capernaum? Nothing. Immediately after telling us this, John whisks us away to the Temple in Jerusalem, on a Passover, and tells us about Jesus chasing the money-changers. Why did John tell us about this pointless trip to Capernaum? Was something left out, like what happened in Capernaum?

Turning to Mark, immediately after Jesus meets up with a group of people who become his first disciples, Mark says, “They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”98 So at virtually the identical point in both narratives, right after meeting up with the first group of people to become Jesus’ disciples, Jesus goes to Capernaum. The next thing that happens in Mark is that Jesus goes to a synagogue in Capernaum and in John Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem. The two gospels, at first glance, appear to be diverging.

Mark follows up by telling us that while Jesus was in the synagogue, a man with an “unclean spirit” came into the synagogue and Jesus exorcised the demon.99 On the surface, Mark’s exorcism looks like it has no connection to John’s chasing of the money-changers. We can be reasonably certain that John’s money-changers story arises from a version of Mark’s well-known chasing of the money-changers. The two money-changer stories would certainly represent obvious points of contact. On the other hand, John doesn’t do exorcisms and his money-changers story appears in a very different chronological and sequential location from Mark’s. John places it two years earlier, at the early stages of the mission. Mark places it in the last week of Jesus’ life. Is there something else going on here? Let’s take a closer look.

I’ll begin by describing the story as Mark has it and then describe various ways that we can tag this story. Then we’ll look at what sort of things John would ←23 | 24→find objectionable and see what influences that might have on his gospel narrative. I’ll ultimately suggest that John knew a version of Mark’s exorcism story, found it offensive to his theological agenda, and deliberately moved the money-changers episode to the specific narrative location where the exorcism appeared as a theologically satisfying substitute for the original story. I’ll treat this comparison in more detail in Chapter 6, but the abbreviated analysis here will make clear how I will proceed in this and other instances.

Mark’s Story of the Man with an Unclean Spirit (1:21–28)

According to Mark, immediately after Jesus recruited his first disciples, he went to the city of Capernaum. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue and taught, and the crowd was quite impressed with his teaching. While there, a man with “an unclean spirit” cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Jesus didn’t respond to the question but, instead, rebuked the spirit. “Be silent, and come out of him!” The “unclean spirit” convulsed the host and with a loud cry departed from the body. The crowd was astounded by what they saw. “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”

On the surface, this is a straightforward exorcism story. Jesus confronted a demon, exorcised it, and impressed the crowd. John doesn’t do exorcisms, and this exorcism story doesn’t appear in John. Now let’s take a deeper dive into Mark’s story, looking for assorted descriptors associated with the story. Some are within the episode and some are outside of it. First, let me list descriptors within the episode.

To begin with, we have, two literary “markers” in the story, phrases that separate the story from what precedes and follows it. At the beginning we are told that the exorcism happened immediately after Jesus arrived at Capernaum. At the end, we are told that as a result of this specific act, Jesus’ fame immediately began to spread throughout the Galilee.

The story takes place in a Jewish place of worship, here, the synagogue in Capernaum.

The demon in this story is an “unclean spirit” that inhabits a human body. “Unclean” is the term used in the story. Although the nature of the infliction is not clearly spelled out, and there is some scholarly speculation, the likelihood is that the demon caused the host body to act in offensive ways. Imagine such things as cursing, insulting, snarling, perhaps acting violently or engaging in some other such offensive behaviors. The spirit is a corrupting influence on the physical body.

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The spirit challenges Jesus’ authority to deal with it. “What have you to do with us?”

Jesus chased the corrupting influence out of the host body.

The crowds are amazed.

In addition to information inside the story, the surrounding context also matters. The following list of descriptors come from outside of the story and place the story in context.

John’s Chasing of the Money-changers (2:13–25)

If John knew Mark’s story, he would have had several objections. First, he doesn’t depict exorcisms, so John wouldn’t want the first and second miracles to be exorcisms. We should expect, therefore, that John’s first two miracles will not be exorcisms. but we also want to see if there are any indications that John’s first two miracles might have literary relationship to Mark’s first two miracles.

Second, John would not want to see Jesus’ initial fame in Galilee be the result of an exorcism. So, we would want to see if we can find some episode in John that brings Jesus his initial fame in Galilee and see if there is any kind of literary connection to Mark’s story about initial fame in Galilee.

Mark introduces his story of the exorcism by telling us that Jesus went to Capernaum. In Mark this is the first time Jesus goes to Capernaum. John’s Capernaum visit is also first Jesus visit to Capernaum. As mentioned above, both place this first visit to Capernaum immediately after a story about Jesus meeting up with his first four disciples. There are differences between Mark and John about the details of the meetings with Jesus’ first group of disciples and we will look at them more closely in Chapter 6. For now, we just need to know that John places these meetings immediately before Jesus goes to Capernaum.

In between the disciple meet-ups and the journey to Capernaum, John inserts a story that has no apparent parallel in the synoptic gospels, the Wedding at Cana.101 For our purposes, the most salient detail is that Jesus performed his first ←25 | 26→miracle there, turning water into wine, and almost nobody at the wedding had any idea that Jesus did so.102 John conspicuously refers to this non-publicized miracle, as John’s “first sign.”103 This first miracle, virtually unknown among the Galilee populous at large, takes place immediately before the arrival in Capernaum and Mark places the very popular first miracle immediately after the arrival at Capernaum.

Both John and Mark, therefore, have a sequence in which, for all practical purposes, following the meet-ups with the first four disciples, Jesus conducts his first miracle. In Mark the first miracle is an exorcism that brings Jesus wide-spread fame in Galilee. In John, the first miracle is something almost no one knows about. Both Mark and John sequentially connect the first miracle to Jesus’ arrival at Capernaum for the first time but do so in reverse order.

In Mark, immediately upon arriving in Capernaum, Jesus goes to the synagogue, a house of worship. In John, immediately after arriving in Capernaum, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem, a house of worship. We have what is beginning to look like a set of stories in Mark and John that unwind in a close sequential order.

Both tell a set of stories about Jesus meeting his first four disciples, both depict a first miracle immediately after the meetings, both show Jesus going to Capernaum, and both show Jesus entering a house of worship immediately after arriving in Capernaum, Mark in a Capernaum synagogue and John in the Jerusalem Temple. The chief sequential problem is that John shows a little-known first miracle just immediately before entering Capernaum and Mark shows a very popular first miracle immediately upon entering Capernaum. Turning now from the “first miracle” tag to the “first fame in Galilee” tag, we find the following.

After arriving in Capernaum, Mark shows Jesus doing something (the exorcism, but we are ignoring the miraculous nature of the act for the moment) that immediately brings him wide-spread fame in Galilee for the first time. That is the closing literary marker for Mark’s story. Immediately following the notice of fame, Mark says that while still in Capernaum Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever by exorcising a demon.104

In John, immediately after arriving in Capernaum, Jesus goes to Jerusalem. That is where John places the story of the money-changers. At what appears to be the very same sequential narrative location in Mark for the exorcism story, we find John’s version of the chasing of the money-changers, which, coincidentally, omits Mark’s first miracle of the exorcism of the “unclean spirit.”

I’ll skip over the money-changers story for a moment to discuss the aftermath. John remains in Jerusalem and Judea awhile before returning to Galilee. But the ←26 | 27→incident happened on a Passover and there were witnesses from Galilee who saw the confrontation. And when Jesus eventually returns to Galilee, we learn, “When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.”105 In other words, although John delays the notice until later, the chasing of the money-changers is the incident in John that first brought Jesus widespread fame in Galilee.

Further cementing a parallel narrative in Mark and John, immediately after the notice that Jesus gained wide-spread fame in Galilee, John shows Jesus curing a fever of someone who is ill in Capernaum.106 In Mark, Jesus cured a demon-installed fever in Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum. In John, Jesus cured the fever of a royal official’s son in Capernaum, although Jesus was in Cana at the time he cured the child. There is no hint that this long-distance cure was any sort of exorcism. John also conspicuously says that this was the second sign that Jesus performed.107

In John, therefore, the chasing of the money-changers appears to be inserted into the middle of what appear to be a sequence of parallel events present in Mark and serves the same function as Mark’s exorcism of the unclean spirt, an event that brings Jesus fame in Galilee. John appears to have taken Mark’s “first miracle” and “resulting fame” tags and assigned the two descriptors to separate but sequentially close events that serve similar functions and connected both to Jesus’ arrival in Capernaum.

Let’s now look a little more closely at John’s account of the chasing of the money-changers. After telling us that Jesus appeared at the Temple in Jerusalem on Passover, we learn, Jesus “found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.”108 Jesus wasn’t particularly happy about this and he made a whip, chased people out of the Temple, and over-turned the money-changers’ tables.

He then went to the dove-sellers and said, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In other words, Jesus found the commercialization of the Temple facilities to be a moral corruption within the Temple and he chased the corrupting influences out of the house of worship.

The Jewish authorities then challenged Jesus’ authority to do what he was doing and asked for a sign as proof of his authority. Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”109 John adds a gloss, explaining to the reader saying that when Jesus referred to raising up the Temple in three days, the temple he referred to was his body.110

Immediately following the incident, John introduces a very puzzling statement. “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in ←27 | 28→his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.”111 The problem is that Jesus didn’t do any signs in Jerusalem at this point. John says the first sign was turning wine into water while Jesus was in Cana and the second sign Jesus did happened after he left Jerusalem. This looks like a literary seam suggesting that some sort of sign or signs (exorcisms?) have been omitted. (I’ll deal with this problem more fully in Chapter 6.)

John’s depiction of the chasing of the money-changers has some symbolic parallels to Mark’s exorcism of the unclean spirit. John appears to have replaced the corrupting demon inside a house of worship with a corrupting priesthood inside a house of worship. John even implies that the Temple could be a symbol of Jesus’ body, so that the corruption is of God’s body, paralleling the corrupted host body.112

In both Mark and John, Jesus chases the corrupting influences out of the house of worship and in both stories the corrupting influences challenge Jesus to explain himself. Sequentially, in Mark, the corrupters challenge Jesus before the expulsion; in John the corrupters challenge Jesus after the expulsion. This is an editorial byproduct of replacing demons with foreknowledge of who Jesus is with Jewish priests who do not know who Jesus is (on a theological level.)

There is also one very important difference between John’s version of the money-changers story and Mark’s version of the same story. In Mark, this incident is the trigger that leads the priests to want Jesus put to death because they feared his popularity made him a political (earthly messianic-type) rival. In John, there is no such threat. As I proposed above, John has made a plot change to the story of Jesus. He rejected the idea that the priests wanted Jesus dead because they saw him as a political rival.

The example above, dealt with more extensively in Chapter 6, strongly suggests that Mark and John both knew a sequence of narrative events (although there are differences in depicting the events that will be discussed later) and that John knew a version of Mark’s exorcism story and replaced it directly with the symbolically similar money-changers story and, less directly, with the Wedding at Cana. John appears to be challenging the tradition known in some circles (especially in synoptic gospel circuits) that the first two miracles to bring Jesus to public attention in Galilee were two exorcisms and offering a new tradition, specifically describing two non-exorcism miracles as the first two signs performed by Jesus.

Let me emphasize here that I am not claiming that John’s money-changer story was derived from a version of Mark’s exorcism story. I am suggesting, ←28 | 29→however, that the evidence shows that John knew a version of Mark’s story as well as some other stories, and, seeing some opportunity for a symbolic story-parallel, adapted the money-changers story as a substitute for the exorcism.

In the above lengthy example, I have attempted to show that there are several ways that one can show that an author knew a story or set of stories in another source even though he didn’t include those stories in a recognizable form in his own manuscript. We looked at literary seams surrounding a story, sequential narratives before and after the story, clues about missing material (the Jerusalem signs, the pointless trip to Capernaum), parallel themes and settings, and motivations to make changes.

I believe the case I lay out (with more detail in Chapter 6) provides strong evidence that John knew Mark’s two exorcism stories and replaced them with alternative stories in order to promote his alternative theological agenda. Now I am aware that there are some other theories about why John placed the Temple-cleansing where he did, specifically with respect to prophecies in Malachi 3.1 about the sudden arrival of “the lord” at the Temple, and I agree that this was also a factor in motivating John’s placement of the story. But nothing about that thesis excludes the idea that John also used the story as a replacement for the exorcism story in Mark. In fact, the Malachi prophecy may have given John the excuse for making the change.

Although John has substituted a different story for Mark’s exorcism story, it performs as a narrative parallel to Mark’s story. So, despite the very different nature of the stories in Mark and John, I will refer to them as parallel stories, with sequential alignments. Consequently, not only is the story itself a point of contact between Mark’s exorcism and John, individual scenes within the story create points of contact, including the trip to Capernaum, entering a house of worship, expelling corrupt forces from the house of worship, being challenged by the corrupting forces, and gaining widespread fame in Galilee. In the course of this work, despite the difference in Mark and John as to how the details are presented, I will refer to each of these thematic details as “parallel scenes.” We will encounter several such instances in the analysis of John.

Once I demonstrate that a very different story in John intentionally serves the same purpose as the one in Mark, I will treat the two stories as parallels, both for evidence of an earlier source and for the purpose of sequential alignment. In the case of the Temple cleansing, and in other instances, John’s story serves a double function. On the one hand, evidence shows that John knew Mark’s story about the exorcism of an unclean spirit and knew the story from either Mark or Mark’s source. On the other hand, the evidence also shows that John knows a version ←29 | 30→of the money-changers story similar to but not necessarily identical to Mark’s version. In this latter case, John could have known a version of such a key story from any number of other sources, oral or written. But evidence of a substitution within a narrative framework is evidence of knowledge of what was in that narrative sequence.

Throughout the study, I will break many stories into small details and will refer to each detail as a “scene.” These scenes may be as small as a single detail in a verse or as large as a story unit, depending on context and observable traits. When a scene looks like a point of contact between John and Mark or John and Luke, I will refer to the point of contact as a “parallel scene.” Where the evidence shows a story, such as the money-changers episode in John, has been moved into a new location as a substitute for an existing story, I will treat the story that has been moved as a “parallel story” to the one that it is replacing, even though the two stories disagree with each other on the content. John’s money-changer story is a parallel story to Mark’s exorcism story, but it is also a parallel to Mark’s version of the money-changers story.

Throughout the next several chapters, I will break the gospels down into several long narrative segments containing many stories. This enables us to see individual stories in a larger context and show us narrative sequences. Traditionally, many modern bibles break gospel stories down into a collection of small literary units generally called pericopes, giving each a title. In the course of my study, for simplicity of analysis, I ignore those literary divisions and establish my own literary dividing lines based on narrative context.

After the fundamental analysis is complete, however, I will gather together all the scenes that I believe belong to the proto-gospel, align them with gospel verses according to my proposed order of scenes, and subdivide the scenes on the basis of the pericope subdivisions as set forth in the Thomas Nelson NRSV edition of the bible, relying primarily on those in Mark.113 This will provide an independent guideline for the assignment of scenes to stories. My concluding statistical analysis of parallel stories and story sequences and agreements will be based on this final pericope alignment of individual scenes.

From time to time there will be a sequential conflict between scenes or stories in Mark and John. Subject to an evidentiary analysis, if there is no basis for choosing one or the other sequence, I will default to Mark’s order of events. This doesn’t necessarily mean Mark is correct and John is wrong, but rather, given that Mark is chronologically closest to the source and has fewer chronological alterations, it is safer to assume that in such instances Mark is more likely to represent the original narrative order of events.

←30 | 31→

From time to time, with respect to a factual detail, or a sequential issue, John will sometimes agree with Mark against Luke and sometimes with Luke against Mark. Subject to an evidentiary analysis, if there is no basis for choosing one or the other version of the detail, I will default to John’s agreement with another gospel as most likely to represent what appeared in the proto-gospel.

If, through the techniques illustrated above, I can show John knows a very large number of stories also known to Mark, but probably not obtained from Mark, and that John’s alterations can be explained by theological biases, and that a very large percentage of these parallel stories, despite not looking alike, unfold in sequential order, then a serious case can be made that John and Mark knew a common written proto-gospel containing a vast majority of all of the non-speech stories that appear in the four canonical gospels.

Ultimately, I will propose that Mark and John have direct points of contact in close to 250 scenes and these scenes can be divided into 55 pericopes (based on my later reassignment of scenes to the Thomas Nelson pericope divisions). The evidence will show that the two authors have at least one parallel scene in each pericope. Approximately two-thirds of these pericopes appear in the same sequential order in both gospels. Almost all of the stories that don’t appear in sequential order can be associated with those stories that John moved around in order to develop his alternative plot as to why the priests wanted to put Jesus to death. Luke adds over 50 more scenes that have points of contact with John, including four additional pericopes, with three following the empty tomb scene.

All in all, with only a few exceptions, the 59 pericopes (counting Luke’s extras) incorporate almost every non-speech episode in John and the 55 pericopes overlapping Mark, account for about 75% of Mark’s non-speech episodes (if we exclude Mark’s unaccounted for exorcisms and duplicative material.)

The Scope of This Study

In the present work it is my goal to establish a case for the existence of a proto-gospel known to Mark, John and Luke but it is not my intention to establish every precise detail. There will be substantial room for other scholars to disagree here and there with a decision about what I have included and what I have left out or what conclusion I have drawn from the evidence. I do not offer this study as a critical edition but as starting point for further analysis.

Additionally, because John so frequently disagrees verbally with Mark, I do not propose, except in handful of cases, that we can recover the original text of the ←31 | 32→proto-gospel. We can identify subject matter, issues raised, and topics discussed, but in terms of the words used by the original author, we are presently stymied. Attempting to recover the original text is one area that might be explored in subsequent studies by other scholars.

This study is limited primarily to the non-speech episodes in the gospels. This does not mean that some of the speech material (parables, discourses, “I Am” sayings, etc.) didn’t appear in the proto-gospel. It is just that the lack of agreement between Mark and John as to what speech material appears in their respective gospels makes it difficult to establish how much goes back to the proto-gospel.

Lastly, this study is not an attempt to engage with every major scholar who wrote any significant analysis of any part of any the gospels that is the subject of this study. This is a very long introductory work as is and such critical engagement will have to wait until relevant criticisms are offered.


1 1. (Brown 1997), 111.

2 2. (Brown 1997), 111.

3 3. Luke 4:16–30.

4 4. Luke 5:1–11.

5 5. Luke 7:36–50.

6 6. Mark 1:16–20, 6:1–6, 14:3–9.

7 7. Matthew 12:9–14.

8 8. Matthew 12:22–32.

9 9. Matthew 28:1–10.

10 10. Mark 3:1–6, 3:20–30.

11 11. (Brown 1997), 117.

12 12. (Kloppenborg 1987), 72–73.

13 13. (Goodacre 2002)

14 14. Luke: 3:15; John 1:19–20.

15 15. Luke 5:1–11; John 21:1–8.

16 16. Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–14.

17 17. Luke 0:38–42; John 12:1–8.

18 18. Mark 6:3; Luke 4:22; John 6:42.

19 19. Luke 19:41; John 12:40.

20 20. Luke 22:44; John 13:38.

21 21. Mark 14:30.

22 22. Luke 22:67.

23 23. John 10:25.

24 24. Luke 23:4, 14, 22; John 18:38, 19:4, 6.

25 25. (Cribbs 1971)

26 26. (Cribbs 1971), 450.

27 27. John 21:20.

28 28. John 21:24

29 29. John 21.23.

30 30. (Brown R. E. 2003), 40.

31 31. (Brown R. E. 2003), 40.

32 32. (Brown R. E. 2003), 40–41.

33 33. John 20:31.

34 34. (Wahlde 2010).

35 35. (Brown R. E. 2003),58–62.

36 36. (Brown R. E. 2003), 43.

37 37. (Brown R. E. 2003), 42.

38 38. (Brown R. E. 2003), 46.

39 39. (Brown R. E. 2003), 47.

40 40. (Brown R. E. 2003), 47.

41 41. (Brown R. E. 2003), 48.

42 42. (Brown R. E. 2003), 49.

43 43. See, for example, Mark 10:17–22, 12:28–34.

44 44. Mark 6:30–43; John 6:1–14. Mark has two versions of the miracle of the loaves. John appears to know the same numbers Mark uses in his first version of the story but there seems to be little verbal agreement in the other details.

45 45. Mark 6:45–52; John 6:15–21.

46 46. Mark 1:3; John 1:23.

47 47. Mark 1:7–8; John 1:26–27; 33; Matthew 3:11–12; Luke 3:16–17.

48 48. Mark 14:3–9; John 12:1–8.

49 49. Luke 5:36–50.

50 50. Mark 2:1–12.

51 51. John 2:1–14.

52 52. Mark 6:1–6.

53 53. John 6:42, 59.

54 54. John 4:44.

55 55. Matthew 13:51; Luke 4:24.

56 56. Luke 4:22.

57 57. Mark 8:33.

58 58. John 6:70.

59 59. John 6:71.

60 60. John 2:13–17; Mk 11:15–19.

61 61. Mark 8:22–26.

62 62. John 5:39–40.

63 63. John 3:16.

64 64. John 6:40.

65 65. Mark 10:19.

66 66. Mark 10:21.

67 67. Mark 12:31.

68 68. John 5:22.

69 69. John 8:15.

70 70. John 9:39.

71 71. Mark 2:4.

72 72. John 5:17.

73 73. John 3:31–33.

74 74. John 5:24.

75 75. Mark 2:10.

76 76. Mark 8:17.

77 77. Mark 8:33.

78 78. John 6:26.

79 79. John 6:68.

80 80. John 6:70.

81 81. John 6:52.

82 82. John 13:31–35.

83 83. John 2:19.

84 84. John 2:21.

85 85. John 11:48.

86 86. John 11:50.

87 87. John 11:50–51.

88 88. Mark 11:15–18.

89 89. Mark 12:12.

90 90. John 7:2.

91 91. John 10:22.

92 92. John 7:52.

93 93. Mark 14:3–8; John 12:1–8.

94 94. Mark 1:14.

95 95. John: 3:22–24.

96 96. Luke 3:19.

97 97. John 2:12.

98 98. Mark 1:21.

99 99. Mark 1:22–28.

100 100. Mark is unclear about this being an exorcism, but Luke 4:32 says Jesus rebuked the fever, indicating that it was an exorcism.

101 101. John 2:1–11.

102 102. John 2:9.

103 103. John 2:11.

104 104. Mark 1:29–31.

105 105. John 4:45.

106 106. John 4:46–54.

107 107. John 4:54.

108 108. John 2:13–14.

109 109. John 2:19.

110 110. John 2:21.

111 111. John 2:23.

112 112. John 2:21.

113 113. (The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version 1989).

←32 | 33→←33 | 34→←34 | 35→


Brown, R. (1997). An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday.

Brown, R. E. (2003). An Introduction to the Gospel of John (F. J. Maloney, Ed.). New York: ARBL/Doubleday.

Cribbs, F. L. (1971, December). St. Luke and the Johannine Tradition. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 90, No. 4, 422–450.

Goodacre, M. (2002). The Case Against Q. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International.

Kloppenborg, J. S. (1987). The Formation of Q. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International.

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Wahlde, U. C. (2010). The Gospel and Letters of John (Vol. 2). Grand Rapids: Wm. B Erdman Publishing Co.


A Trail of Breadcrumbs

Among those scholars who believe in some sort of literary relationship between John and the synoptic gospels John 6 plays a central role. Within its short span, it contains an unusually high concentration of scenes that seem to parallel events in either Mark 6 or Mark 8. Front and center stands the John 6:5–24 miracle sequence in which Jesus multiplies five loaves of bread to feed five thousand people and then walks on water almost immediately afterwards, a sequence duplicated in Mark 6:31–54 with many similar details in both sets of stories. While the synoptic gospels display a wide range of miraculous actions by Jesus, John has only seven recognized pre-Passion miracle scenes, and the two with the closest parallels to Mark are these two scenes from John 6.1

In addition to these two miracles, a number of scholars have also proposed other parallels between parts of John 6 and Mark 8:11–33, including a Jewish request for a sign, a discussion about bread, Peter’s declaration about Jesus, and the Passion theme of denial.2 Many scholars also recognize a parallel between John 6:42 and Mark 6:3, in which each gospel depicts a synagogue congregation discussing their knowledge of Jesus’ family and the names of his close relatives.3

While John 6 seems to contain parallels to parts of Mark 6 and Mark 8, these two chapters of Mark also seem to parallel each other. Both Mark 6 and 8 contain stories in which Jesus feeds several thousand people with just a few loaves of ←37 | 38→bread;4 the general public identifies Jesus with either John the Baptist, Elijah, or an ancient prophet;5 and the disciples fail to understand the meaning of the multiplication of the loaves because their “hearts were hardened.”6

In addition, Mark 6:51 appears to describe a widely-ignored parallel to the miraculous calming of the sea storm in Mark 4:35–41. It reads, “Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.”7 Since the disciples in this second incident “were straining at the oars against an adverse wind”8 it seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus once again calmed a stormy sea. As evidence that this doublet goes unnoticed consider that both Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts and Tyndale’s Handbook of Bible Charts & Maps, each representing a mainstream traditional Christian religious perspective, have lists of all of Jesus’ miracles in the gospels, and both omit this second version of the calming of the storm.9

Although in each case Mark’s duplicate sets of stories have variations in the descriptive details, it is hard not to see clear thematic parallels. The evidence below will suggest that Mark had at least two different versions of a continuous narrative encompassing several stories that seem to run parallel to the various episodes in John 6. The evidence will also suggest that Mark, editorially concerned with the appearance of duplication, rearranged and redacted much of the material so that his gospel presented a more fluid story that didn’t raise substantial questions about repetitive stories.

Because some of the similar stories present significant differences in the details, the two multiplications of the loaves being a good example, Mark appears to have treated the similar stories as independent events rather than duplicates. Pursuant to his editorial alterations, Mark separated parts of the original sequential chain of events from other parts. But evidence left in Mark will allow us to reconnect the pieces and put the events back into their correct order.

The parallels between John 6 and parts of Mark as well as the similarities between Mark 6 and Mark 8 are the subject of much discussion and debate over what conclusions can be drawn from this data. A number of scholars refer to Mark 6–8 as “the bread section.” John Meier describes it as a double-cycle of incidents forming a “primitive pattern or grid of stories about Jesus’ mission in Galilee,” many of which, he says, contain the Greek word for bread, artos.10 The first half, he says, runs from Mark 6:30–44 (multiplication of the loaves) and ends with Mark 7:32–37 (the use of saliva to heal a deaf mute); the second half runs from Mark 8:1–10 (multiplication of the loaves) to Mark 8:22–26 (the use of saliva to heal a blind man).11 Meier adds that John incorporates variations on several elements within Mark’s bread section.12

←38 | 39→

The most significant portion of the bread section consists of Mark’s two versions of the multiplication of loaves. One depicts the feeding of five thousand people with five loaves of bread and the other describes the feeding of four thousand people with seven loaves of bread. This leads to much debate and disagreement about what conclusions we can draw about Mark’s composition history. Many scholars argue that Mark created the second story out of whole cloth in order to have a separate incident aimed at the gentiles. Other scholars are convinced that Mark knew two different versions of the story.

Raymond Brown, one of the leading Johannine scholars, has made some particularly important observations about Mark’s two multiplications of the loaves stories. For one, he says, John’s version of the story shares similarities with elements from both of Mark’s stories.13 (See the discussion below.) He also points out that if you jump from the end of Mark’s first miracle sequence (multiplication of the loaves and walking on water) at Mark 6:52 to the end of Mark’s second multiplication of loaves at Mark 8:10, you have what appears to be a sequential disruption indicating that Mark 6:52 should resume at Mark 8:11, implying, I suggest, that Mark was working from a source that he re-edited. Table 2.1, Raymond Brown’s Alignments Between John 6, Mark, 6 and Mark 8, shows Brown’s verse arrangements.14 (The scene descriptions, verse divisions and alignments are Brown’s.)

Table 2.1: Raymond Brown’s alignments between John 6, Mark, 6 and Mark 8. Adapted from Brown 1996, 268–269




Feeding of the 5000



Walking on water



Request for a sign



Discourse on bread



Confession of Peter



Passion theme: Denial



This sequence, says Brown, gets insufficient attention in the discussions about a John-Synoptic relationship.15 His arrangement shows that the several episodes that make up John 6 have a parallel set of stories in Mark that unfolds in the same exact chronological order. Essential to his arrangement is that Mark 8:14–21 corresponds to the John 6:35–59 Discourse on Bread. Helpful as this observation by Brown may be to my underlying thesis, I will be arguing below that Mark 8:10–13 and 8:14–21 were originally in reverse order and that Mark switched the ←39 | 40→sequence. This would break Brown’s link between John’s Discourse on Bread and Mark 8:14–21. Instead, I will align Mark 8:14–21 with John 6:25–34, in which both describe some special form of bread. My reconstruction, I believe, leads to a better and more secure narrative and chronological fit between Mark and John 6 than does Brown’s arrangement. However, I will also show below a clear indication that Mark has in fact, as Brown suspects, re-edited a literary source that showed approximately the same narrative sequence that Brown outlines in Table 2.1.

The one missing piece in Brown’s Mark 8 sequence is 8:22–26, which tells of Jesus healing a blind man through the use of saliva. However, John 9 has a separate story about Jesus healing a blind man with saliva and there is some debate among scholars as to whether the stories of the blind man in Mark and John have some common connection.16 Interestingly, both Luke and Matthew omit this story from their respective gospel accounts, despite using Mark as a primary source. I will explore the connection between these two gospel accounts in substantial detail in Chapter 4.

In this chapter I will argue that the coincidences between John 6 and Mark and the sequential order of events are far more extensive than previously recognized. I see three major reasons why several additional connections between John 6 and Mark have gone unrecognized.

First, Mark has a number of incidents that display Peter and/or the disciples in a negative fashion, either failing to understand things or misunderstanding things. John appears to have been disturbed by such indications. We will see below that John has taken some of these stories and transferred the negative behavior from the apostles to persons outside of the inner circle and has enhanced Peter’s image from some of the negative portrayals present in Mark. This has effectively hidden some of the connections between similar stories. When we remove this Johannine apostle filter we will see that John relies on some of the same basic stories as Mark.

Second, Mark’s apparent use of a double set of similar stories has led him to rearrange sequences and redact content in order to eliminate direct parallels that would make the audience think the stories are duplicates rather than independent events. Several clues in Mark’s gospel, however, will allow us to reassemble the material in their original order and when we are done we will see that Mark and John knew a common narrative order for the parallel events in their respective gospels.

Third, John’s use of Johannine imagery in his Discourse on the Bread of Life has led many scholars to overlook the meaning behind the imagery. They tend to focus on what appear to be Eucharistic parallels. I think that attention is ←40 | 41→misdirected. If we look behind the imagery in John’s discourse, we will see that he and Mark have the same message in parallel episodes.

When I finish my analysis we will see that Mark and John 6 share a lengthy, mostly unbroken chain of stories that unfold in each gospel in almost identical sequential order. Further, an examination of the ways in which Mark and John differ from each other make it highly unlikely that either one used the other as a source. Therefore, there must have been an independent underlying written source known to both of them, at least for this portion of both gospels.

Before proceeding further, I just want to note one other item of importance. I mentioned above a parallel between John 6:42 and Mark 6:3. This connection will be the subject of a complex and difficult discussion in Chapter 5 and will further demonstrate the connection between Mark and John to a common independent written source. In John 6 it appears in the middle of the Discourse on the Bread of Life. To avoid distractions from the main discussion in this chapter I will not discuss that relationship here.

A Road Map Through John 6 and Mark

From the discussion above it is evident that we will have to wander down several poorly marked trails in our broad examination of the several literary themes presented by John 6 and related sections of Mark. To simplify the trek, Table 2.2, Scenes Breakdown in John 6 and Mark, provides an organized overview of the material that we will be discussing. Let me explain what it shows.

Table 2.2: Scenes breakdown in John 6 and Mark. Source: Author

The table is arranged, with one exception, around the order of verses in John 6. The one departure consists of John 6:14–15a, which I have relocated between John 6:59 and 6:60, for reasons that will become apparent later. The entirety of John 6 is then divided into five sequential acts, each with several scenes. For context, I have referenced a key scene from John 5 at the beginning of Act 1, for a total of 33 scenes in all. The five Acts are as follows:

Act 1. Prelude

Act 2. The Miracle of the Loaves

Act 3. Crossing the Stormy Sea

Act 4. The Discourse on Bread

Act 5. Who is Jesus?

For simplicity of discussion I will refer to scenes by Act and Scene number for identification. Scene 3b will signify Act 3: Scene b. Similarly, Scene 5a signi←44 | 45→fies Act ←41 | 42→←42 | 43→←43 | 44→5: Scene a. Each scene usually involves a single event that can easily be separated from the surrounding actions, although in some instances two contiguous scenes represent both halves of a larger story unit. With the exception of the Passover announcement (Act 1: Scene 4) I will argue that every one of these John 6 scenes has a parallel in Mark and that they follow in almost identical narrative order. What differences we have in the narrative sequence are trivial and will be seen as a deliberate rearrangement for editorial purposes.

The two columns titled Mark-A Verses and Mark-B Verses consist of scenes that either exhibit similarities within Mark and/or suggest parallels to John 6. What distinguishes the two sets of verses from each other is that the Mark-A verses all appear in Mark 6 and the Mark-B verses all appear outside of Mark 6. The chief reason for this division is that Mark has several apparent doublets, two versions ←45 | 46→of the same story, at several locations, with one set in Mark-A and the matching set in Mark-B. While scholars recognize some of these doublets and many argue for the existence of two Markan sources, I will argue that the number of Markan doublets exceeds what is currently recognized, adding weight to the argument that Mark had two separate written sources.

I should make clear that the use of the terms Mark-A and Mark-B in this discussion is my own invention, devised solely to simplify the discussion and avoid any confusion arising from Mark’s apparent duplications. I should also make clear that while parts of Mark-A and Mark-B overlap the so-called “bread section” they are not identical to it. They exclude some of the bread section material and include other verses from outside of the bread section. The concentration of one set of verses in Mark 6 and the other set outside of Mark 6 could suggest that Mark-A relies on one source and Mark-B on a second source, but I am not making that argument or drawing that conclusion. I will show that Mark did a lot of redacting and rearranging in his text in order to obscure the appearance of duplicate accounts. Therefore, I cannot say which set of stories came from which written source or that all of Mark-A came from one source and all of Mark-B came from another. I merely intend to show that two sets of stories existed. Mark may have integrated parts of each set without regard for which of the two sources a scene came from.

Although the acts and scenes follow the Johannine order, this does not mean that John has a better sequence of events than Mark. The evidence will show that both authors have made some minor but insignificant changes to the order of a couple of scenes. However, because the Johannine sequence presents an unbroken chain of events and Mark has some disrupted sequences and duplicate scenes, using the Johannine order instead of Mark’s provides an easier way to keep track of all the correspondences between the two gospels.

Column One contains the scene numbers. Column Two contains the scene descriptions. Columns Three through Five contain the verse numbers for where the scenes appear. In some instances, Columns Three through Five also contain some textual material. These entries are intended solely as guides to some of what will be discussed and do not constitute a detailed reference to the subject matter of the scene.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that Act 1/Scene 1a references the entirety of John 5, which the evangelist devotes solely to Jesus’ hostile confrontation with the Jews in Jerusalem over a Sabbath healing. My concern here is not with the content of John 5 but with the broad theme. I want to show what happened in both John and Mark immediately after Jesus is threatened with death for healing ←46 | 47→on the Sabbath. In Chapter 3 I will take a more detailed look at John 5 and its interaction with Mark.

Act I: Prelude (John 5–6:4; Mark-B 3:1–19; Mark-A 6:32–34)

I have divided the Prelude into six scenes, as follows. In the analysis below the evidence will show that the first five scenes in John 5–6:3 have a direct parallel to a five-scene sequence in Mark-B 3:1–19. I will also offer evidence that John has removed some scenes from Mark’s sequence of events so that he may better promote his narrative agenda and that Mark-B 3:1–19 includes what appears to be the missing elements. The sixth scene, a Passover announcement, has no parallel in Mark.

1a. Authorities threaten to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.

1b. Jesus departs (flees?) to the Sea of Galilee.

1c. A large crowd greets him.

1d. Jesus has a reputation for healing.

1e. Jesus and the disciples go up on a mountain.

1f. An announcement that Passover was near.

The chief difficulty with this arrangement is that Act I in John leads directly into the story of the multiplication of the loaves but the Mark-B sequence doesn’t. Mark places several events between the end of the Mark-B Prelude and the multiplication of the loaves. This difference, as we shall see below, is more apparent than real. The evidence will show that John also has a narrative gap between Scenes 1e and 1f and this gap is sufficient to incorporate other scenes that may have been omitted or moved by John but that are present in Mark. There is also some evidence that Mark-A 6:32–34 may be a heavily redacted doublet of Mark-B 3:7–19. I will address these issues below.

Scene 1a: The Sabbath Death Threat

Scene 1a consists of a threat against Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Mark and John each have very different versions of the Sabbath healing scene and I shall analyze (and reconcile) them in great detail in Chapter 3. In both versions, however, there is a hostile reaction to Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Here, I am not ←47 | 48→concerned with the details of the Sabbath violation but with the hostile threat for healing on the Sabbath. My purpose here is to show what happens in John and Mark immediately after Jesus heals on the Sabbath. There is some argument in Johannine circles that John 5 and John 6 do not represent an original and/or logical chronological relationship. Implicit in my argument is that in the proposed common source known to Mark and John a Sabbath hostility scene appeared immediately before the opening content of John 6:1–3 and what I propose as a Markan parallel at Mark-B 3:7–19.

In John 5, Jesus goes to Jerusalem during an unidentified holiday and heals a paralytic on the Sabbath. This leads to arguments and death threats. While the unidentified festival is still in progress, Jesus responds to the accusations made against him. John 5 ends while Jesus still speaks. Suddenly, in John 6:1, we are abruptly transferred to Galilee, without any detail as to what happened when Jesus finished his remarks at the end of John 5.

In Mark-B 3:1–6, Jesus gets involved in a similar dispute over healing a man with a withered hand. This incident occurs in Galilee. Mark doesn’t directly tell us where in Galilee the incident occurred but if we trace the narrative back to Mark 2:1, it appears that the incident took place in Capernaum.

Scenes 1b–1e in John 6:1–3

John’s version of these four scenes is very brief, about three sentences in total. He begins Scene 1b with “After this . . .” Presumably “this” refers to the Sabbath conflict in Jerusalem, where we left Jesus hanging in mid-speech. During Scene 1b, Jesus journeys to the “other side of the Sea of Galilee,” but the gospel doesn’t say where he landed. Once he arrived on shore, “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”17 The large crowd that followed Jesus corresponds to Scene 1c and the reputation for healing corresponds to scene 1d. Scene 1e depicts Jesus going up on a mountain and sitting down with his disciples.18 We are told nothing about what Jesus and his disciples did after they seated themselves. John’s four scenes present some problems.

To begin with, the crowds claim to have seen the signs (plural) that Jesus had done for the sick. This suggests that Jesus went around Galilee and healed many people. But John has no such prior incident in his gospel. True, John’s Jesus does heal a few people in the course of the gospel but to this point there have only been two identified healings by Jesus, neither very public. And only one of them took place in Galilee.

The first healing occurred while he was in Cana and a royal official’s son was sick with fever in Capernaum.19 Jesus cured the child without ever leaving Cana. ←48 | 49→It was only circumstantial evidence that led the official to believe that Jesus had been responsible for the cure. It is described as only the second sign that Jesus performed.20 (The first was turning water into wine.21) This is not what one would consider a widely witnessed sign.

The second incident took place in Jerusalem, in John 5, when Jesus healed the paralytic on the Sabbath. All Jesus did was tell the man to pick up his mat and walk on. However, as the story unfolds it appears that no one actually witnessed the event other than Jesus and the invalid. Jesus’ connection only came out later, when people asked the man why he was carrying a mat on the Sabbath.

I suppose one could technically argue that this is enough to indicate that the people were at least familiar with, if not direct witnesses to, more than one healing by Jesus. But the phrasing suggests that something happened either prior to or during the Prelude that resulted in a wide-spread reputation for healing and that the details have been deleted for some reason.

Second, if the crowds appeared because of Jesus’ reputation for healing we should expect there to be requests for Jesus to heal people. John has no such request in either of these two scenes.

A third difficulty arises from the opening words, “After this,” giving the impression that the journey to the Sea of Galilee happened right after the departure from Jerusalem. This would make sense since Jesus would have been in a hurry to leave in the face of death threats from the authorities. So, why do we need to know that sometime after leaving the festival in Jerusalem and sometime before the later Passover festival Jesus sat on a mountain with his disciples by the Sea of Galilee? It has no connection to either what precedes or what follows the mountain sojourn and tells us nothing that moves the story in any direction.

Given these problems it would seem to have been made more sense for John to have simply jumped from the unidentified festival at the end of John 5 to John 6:4 and tell us that Passover was near and Jesus was by the Sea of Galilee. But he didn’t and this suggests to me that something is missing from this narrative arc, that some details have been omitted. I will show that the missing details can be found in Mark’s version of these same stories. If I am correct it suggests that John worked from a written source. Otherwise, why would he include such a pointless story about Jesus sitting on the mountain?

Scenes 1b–1e in Mark-B 3:7–19

Mark-B’s Scene 1b begins immediately after the gospel tells us that after the Sabbath healing “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”22 It opens with “Jesus departed with ←49 | 50→his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him.23 The verse combines Scenes 1b and 1c. I italicized the second part of the verse to separate 1b from 1c.

The crowds came from many regions because they were “hearing all that he was doing.”24 As the story includes numerous exorcisms, the context suggests that the reputation was for healing many people.25 The reputation for healing constitutes Scene 1d. As in John, we are not told where on the Sea of Galilee shore Jesus went, but he is no longer in Capernaum (or wherever the Sabbath conflict occurred).

Mark’s Scene 1e tells us that Jesus went up on a mountain and called his disciples to join him.26 While on the mountain, Jesus appointed the twelve apostles and the scene ends with a list of those whom he appointed. A comparison between John 6:1–3 and Mark 3:7–19 shows the following parallels.

Immediately after being threatened with death for violating the Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples took a trip (fled?) to the Sea of Galilee.

They arrived at an undisclosed location.

Jesus was recognized by a large crowd familiar with his reputation for healing.

Jesus and the disciples go up on a mountain.

John and Mark have the same identical sequence of events, but Mark’s gospel has additional details, and they seem to be the sort of details that John would choose to omit if he knew of them. Luke, on the other hand, has omitted the journey to Sea of Galilee and switched the order of the mountain and healing scenes.27 This means that John more closely follows Mark’s sequential order than does Luke.

First, there is the matter of a reputation for many healings. In Mark, Jesus had previously gone on a healing mission to the masses, a mission that involved exorcisms.28 Additionally, in Mark’s previous scene Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath in front of many witnesses. So, it makes sense in Mark that Jesus had a reputation for many healings that would draw crowds. Since John omitted exorcisms from his gospel, he would have omitted the story of a healing mission that featured exorcisms if such appeared in his source material. John’s use of “signs” would suggest that the word was in his underlying source and that he dropped the exorcisms from the story but retained the reputation for healing that Jesus had for doing the exorcisms. Consistent with that view, the author of John acknowledges that he has omitted many “signs” that Jesus performed.29

Mark’s narrative also meets our expectation that the crowd would want Jesus to heal people. That, presumably, is why they all followed after him. They expected to see healings, either of themselves or family members or friends. And ←50 | 51→Mark’s Jesus doesn’t disappoint. As the crowds press up on him, he conducts numerous exorcisms.30

This would explain why John didn’t address the issue of the crowd expecting to see healings. Mass healings involve exorcisms and John doesn’t depict exorcisms. So, if we account for John’s bias against portraying exorcisms, we can understand why his account of the crowd’s behavior is briefer than Mark’s.

Lastly, we come to John’s pointless trip up the mountain to sit down with the disciples in Scene 1e. Mark’s Scene 1e appears to fill in the details. After Jesus’ engagement with the crowd, he went up on the mountain and called up twelve of his disciples to be with him and to become his apostles. Mark then names all twelve apostles.

Although John’s gospel acknowledges the existence of the twelve apostles,31 he tends to significantly downplay their role, talking mostly about an undefined number of disciples in general rather than apostles in particular. In fact, John is the only gospel that has no scene in which Jesus selects and appoints the twelve apostles and it is the only gospel that doesn’t even name all twelve apostles in the course of the entire narrative.

The strong detailed five-scene alignment between John 5–6:3 and Mark 6:1–19 suggests that John knew a version of Mark’s story about the appointment of the twelve apostles and deliberately excluded it from his own account. That is why his scene lacks any point. He has eliminated the substance. In Chapter 6 I will offer some evidence that John had some animus towards the brothers John and James, two of the most important disciples in Mark’s gospel. John never mentions either of them by their given names and this possible animus may account for why he has omitted the list of disciple names. In my later reconstruction of the proposed common source I will include both scenes omitted by John, the mass healing through exorcisms and the call of the twelve apostles.

Scene 1f in John 6:4: The Passover Notice

Perhaps the biggest inconsistency between John and Mark concerning the Prelude is that in John the Prelude leads directly into the story about the multiplication of loaves and in Mark there is a substantial narrative gap between the first five scenes in Mark-B and the beginning of the story of the multiplication of the loaves. However, a closer look at John’s Scene 1f shows that a similar gap may be present in John.

John’s Scene 1f consists simply of an announcement that the Passover was near. Mark has no such notice. John 5, on the other hand says Jesus was in ←51 | 52→Jerusalem during an unidentified festival. The last holiday prior to Passover is Dedication (i.e., Hanukkah). This occurs approximately three months before Passover. Between the end of John 5, therefore, and the announcement of the coming Passover in John 6:4 we have at least a three-month time frame with almost no substantive detail. The only events that occur in this interval are the trip to Galilee and a climb up the mountain, which takes up only a few days at most. This leaves open the possibility that John knew additional scenes from the Markan sequence between the end of Scene 1e and the start of Scene 2a and either deleted or moved them.

Mark ends Scene 1e at Mark 3:19. I will argue in Chapter 4 that John moved parallels to scenes in Mark 3:20–35 out of order and into a later position at John 8:31–59. In Chapter 5 I will also argue that John has also moved and distributed pieces of Mark 6:1–6, which fall into the Markan sequence leading up to Scene 2a, into multiple other locations within his gospel narrative.

Turning back to the substance of Scene 1f, John used the Passover announcement as a way to move from the Prelude to the multiplication of the loaves miracle. John has clearly framed the subsequent narrative against the Passover story background. The multiplication of the loaves in John not only recalls Moses bringing forth the manna from heaven that miraculously fed the Israelites during the wandering in the wilderness, but the Moses story serves as a springboard for John’s later discourse on the Bread of Life. There the crowd directly references Moses and the manna. Additionally, the walking across the windswept sea would recall the perilous crossing of the Red Sea where winds divided the waters. John, as he does elsewhere, tends to use holiday festivals as a thematic background to his major teachings.

The issue here is whether John added the notice or Mark removed it. Mark has a tendency to avoid holiday references and John has a tendency to introduce them. Omitting the Passover reference leads to the impression of a much shorter mission. Inserting the Passover note leads to a one-year extension of the mission. Mark opts for portraying a short mission and John opts for showing a long mission. So, each had motives to make the change. In the absence of more evidence, we lack a persuasive resolution.

Scenes 1b and 1d in Mark-A 6:32–34

Mark has two versions of the multiplication of the loaves, so it is not out of the question that he may have had two versions of events leading up to each account. In considering the possibility that Mark had a doublet of the Prelude, we should ←52 | 53→look to see what Mark says happened just before his first story about the multiplication of the loaves.

The answer is at Mark-A 6:32–34. Once again, Jesus and his disciples board a boat and sail to an undisclosed location, described only as a deserted place.32 When crowds saw them leave they hurried to get to his location before he arrived.33 When Jesus arrived on shore, a great crowd greeted him.34 Jesus felt compassion for them because they seemed “like sheep without a shepherd” and he began to teach.35 As evening comes we move into the multiplication of the loaves story.

There is at least some scholarly recognition that Mark-A 6:32–34 parallels John 6:1–3. Aland, in his Synopsis of the Four Gospels, aligns the two sections across from each other, showing some agreement in detail.36 Not everyone accepts this arrangement. Dewey and Miller, for example, omit the parallel in their own synoptic study.37 The more common approach is to simply meld Mark-A 6:32–34 into Mark-A 6:35–44 and to attach John 6:1–4 to John 6:5–14, and refer to both integrated sets as the “feeding of the five thousand.” Any connection to Mark-B 3:7–19, however, is ignored.

I should point out that Mark-A lacks the precise parallel that exists between Mark-B and John. On the surface it appears to include only Scene 1b (the sea journey) and 1c (the crowd that greeted Jesus). It omits scenes 1a (the Sabbath conflict), 1d (the reputation for healing) and 1e (going up on a mountain with the disciples). But there appear to be some overlooked parallels to those scenes.

First, Mark-A like John 6:1 depicts Jesus actually sailing across the sea while Mark-B only says Jesus went to the sea without indicating whether they sailed onto the sea. Although Mark-A doesn’t specifically mention that the welcoming crowd knew Jesus’ reputation for healing, that reputation had already been established earlier in the Mark-B version of Scene 1b. Additionally, the Mark-A Scene 1b takes place immediately after the disciples return from a healing mission.38 So the context suggests that the crowd followed after Jesus because of his reputation for healing. Interestingly, both Luke 9:11 and Matthew 14:14, despite Mark’s lack of specificity, indicate in their versions of Mark-A 6:32–34 that Jesus healed the sick. So the idea that Jesus healed prior to the multiplication of the loaves seems to have been a strong tradition if it followed its way into Matthew independently of Mark.

Second, Mark-A does add one additional interesting feature to the mix. Jesus looks at the crowd that followed him and describes them as “sheep without a shepherd.”39 So he began to teach them “many things.”40 Since we can assume that when Jesus went up on the mountain with the disciples he taught them some lessons, this teaching of other followers does appear to be a very good substitute ←53 | 54→for Scene 1e. In fact, Mark only uses the term “sheep” twice in his gospel; in this scene and in a later scene where he applies it to the twelve apostles.41

These coincidences suggest that Mark 6:32–34 and Mark 3:7–19 are doublets for scenes 1b–1e. If that were the case, then Mark would have had substantial motivation to redact at least one of the sets and move the other to a different location. As Mark has need for only one Sabbath death threat story and only one trip up the mountain to appoint the twelve apostles, he would not want to repeat such similar stories again as part of a second version of the Prelude. To eliminate the appearance of duplication, Mark may have substituted the teaching of these “sheep” for the teaching of the apostles/sheep on the mountain. Mark-A and John share the following sequential and contiguous features.

A trip across the sea of Galilee;

Arrival at an unidentified location;

Crowds recognizing who Jesus was and following after him;

A reputation for healing: explicitly stated in John; implicit in Mark-B based on the immediately preceding healing scene and the act of healing in the course of the scene; and implicit in Mark-A based on the earlier Mark-B reputation, the immediately preceding healing mission by the apostles, and that Luke and Matthew show Jesus healing in their versions of the same scene.

A possible teaching scene: explicitly to the crowd in Mark-A and implicitly to the disciples on the mountain in John and Mark-B;

Multiplication of the loaves.

Regardless of the status of Mark-A 6:32–34 as a doublet, the Preludes in Mark-B 3:9–17 and John 6:1–3 both allow for a chronological jump between Scenes 1e and 2a, with other events in between. My own predilection is to see Mark-A 6:32–34 as a doublet. In such a case, we have to assume that Mark has redacted some material from the Mark-A prelude in order to avoid the appearance of duplicate stories.

Act 1 Summary

With the caveat that the content of Mark’s Sabbath violation story differs from the content of John’s Sabbath violation story, Mark-B 3:1–19 appears to be a precise five-scene parallel to John 5–6:3. John’s versions of Scenes 1b–1e hint at missing content. Mark-B has additional material not present in John 6:1–3 and it appears to be the sort of material that John would have redacted from his source. Reading Mark-B 3:7–19 and John 6:1–3 together suggests a very convincing fit.

←54 | 55→

Although Mark has additional stories between the end of Scene 1e and the beginning of Scene 2b, the analysis above showed that John also has a chronological break between those same scenes into which other scenes could have been originally present in a source and omitted or moved by John.

At the same time, Mark-A 6:32–33, may be a redacted version of the Mark-B Prelude, with much duplicative material omitted. And the Mark-A Prelude does lead into the multiplication of the loaves story in a manner similar to the way John unfolds. This suggests that the Mark-B Prelude together with the Mark-A multiplication of the loaves story, which parallels the story order of John 6, represents an original order of stories known to both Mark and John. The original sequence of events in the proposed common source would have had the following order.

Death threat for Sabbath healing violation;

Going (fleeing?) to an unidentified location on the Sea of Galilee;

Jesus greeted by a large crowd.

The large crowd knew of Jesus’ reputation for healing.

Multiple healings through exorcism;

Going up on a mountain with the disciples;

Appointing the twelve apostles;

[Possible insertion of other stories];

The multiplication of the loaves.

John omitted the exorcisms, healing missions and the call of the apostles. Mark, possibly working from at least two sources, may have rearranged and redacted passages to avoid the appearance of obvious duplications. The teaching episode in Mark-A may be a substitution for the call of the apostles in Mark-B.

Act 2: The Miracle of the Loaves (John 6:5–13, 15b–17; Mark-A 6:35–46; Mark-B 8:1–9)

I have divided Act 2 into ten scenes. Five of them deal with numerical details in the story of the miracle of the loaves. I treat each of the details as points of contact because Mark-A and John agree on each of the five but Mark-B disagrees on all five. The ten scenes are as follows.

2a. Jesus wants the disciples to feed a large crowd.

2b. The cost is estimated at over 200 denarii.

2c. There are only five loaves of bread available.

←55 | 56→

2d. There are only two fish available.

2e. The crowd is estimated at 5,000 people.

2f. Jesus blessed the food.

2g. The small amount of food fed the entire crowd.

2h. There were leftovers that filled twelve baskets.

2i. After the meal Jesus went up on a mountain by himself.

2j. The disciples got in a boat without Jesus and headed out to sea.

In the above sequence, Scenes 2a–2h deal directly with the miracle of the loaves and the last two scenes, 2i–2j, act as a transition to Act 3, the miracles at Sea. There is one trivial disagreement on the sequence of scenes in 2a–2h. Mark-A places the size of the crowd at the end of the feeding story and John puts it in the middle. Luke’s version of the story (9:10–17) follows John’s sequential order of events and, therefore, I will accept the John-Luke arrangement as the correct sequential order for the underlying story.

Scenes 2i and 2j are closely linked and function as a transition from the miracle of the loaves to the miracle of walking on the water. Mark and John unfold these two scenes in reverse order from each other. Luke omits both of them as well as the walking on water scene, so he can’t help us resolve the disagreement. Although Table 2.2 follows John’s order of events as to the narrative sequence, that is only for convenience in looking at the stories. Based on the analysis below, it appears to me that John has manipulated the text in order to create a different setting for Acts 3 and 4. Therefore, for these two scenes I accept Mark’s order of events and in the concluding reconstruction of the proposed common source I will follow Mark’s order as to these two scenes. Nevertheless, the two scenes are each half of the same brief narrative arc so, even though I think John manipulated the evidence, the sequential disagreement is of no significance. Both Mark and John are working from what appears to be the same underlying narrative.

Scenes 2a–2h: The Multiplication of the Loaves

In the following analysis I will treat the eight scenes making up the miracle of the loaves as a single unit. Mark has two different versions of the same story, Mark-A 6:34–44 and Mark-B 8:1–9. John has only one multiplication of the loaves episode, John 6:5–14. While Matthew casually follows Mark in reporting two different multiplications of the loaves,42 Luke agrees with John in presenting a single incident, and the one he preserves corresponds to both Mark-A and John.43 While Mark, Luke and John all follow the same broad storyline they exhibit several variations in detail.

←56 | 57→

Mark-A 6:35–44 and John 6:5–14 share several numerical details that suggest that the two authors know some common information about this event. Luke uses only the version that has the same set of numbers as Mark-A and John. These include, the number of people (5000), the number of loaves (5), the number of fish (2), the number of baskets (12), and the financial value of the food needed to feed the crowd (200 denarii). Luke omits the financial value.

It is certainly possible that these agreements could arise from an isolated but well-known story that had wide circulation. In and of themselves, they don’t necessarily require that Mark-A and John share a common written source. That claim requires a longer and more substantial set of agreements that can’t be simply explained away by coincidence. Mark-B 8:1–9, however, disagrees with Mark-A and John 6:5–13 on every one of these numerical details. Table 2.3, Numerical data for the miracle of the loaves, shows the numbers present in each of the three stories.

Table 2.3: Numerical data for the miracle of the loaves

While the numerical agreements between John and Mark-A and the numerical differences between Mark-A and Mark-B are striking, several scholars have suggested that some of John’s non-numerical details find closer agreement with Mark-B than with Mark-A. For example, in Mark-A, Jesus tells the disciples to get food for the crowd;44 John 6 and Mark-B have no such directive. In Mark-A, Jesus takes up five loaves and two fish and blesses them together;45 In Mark-B and John 6, Jesus initially takes only the loaves and gives thanks; the fish are dealt with separately.46 In Mark-B and John 6 a question is raised as to where to get the bread from but in Mark-A the disciples appear to believe that they could go out and buy some bread.47 Mark-A mentions sitting down on “the green grass;”48 neither Mark-B nor John 6 mention the color of the turf.

As you might suspect, these sorts of inconsistencies raise a host of questions. Did John know both versions of Mark’s multiplication of the loaves and borrow from both and, if so, did he get them from Mark or from some other sources? Did Mark know two different versions of the story or did he invent the second story ←57 | 58→for theological purposes?49 If he knew two different versions, did he think they were independent events or variations on the same story? How many versions of this story were floating around? Despite the differences in each of the three versions, they all share a basic template.

The site location is unknown.

There is a discussion about how to feed the crowd.

There is a revelation as to the presence of only a small number of loaves and fish.

A crowd of several thousand people is told to sit.

The food is blessed.

The small amount of food fed everybody.

There were leftovers.

The leftovers were gathered up in several baskets.

Shortly after the feeding, Jesus and the disciples cross the sea to a new location.

It is within the narrative overlay onto the template that small details vary from one story to the next. For example, each of the three versions raises the issue of obtaining the bread. In Mark-A, Jesus directs the disciples to feed the crowd and the disciples asked if they were supposed to go out somewhere and buy the bread.50 In Mark-B, Jesus says he wants to feed the crowd, and the disciples respond, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?”51 In John, Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”52 John then adds a gloss saying that Jesus was just testing Philip because he [Jesus] already knew what he was going to do.53 Such variations may reflect some underlying concerns about what the disciples may have understood about Jesus’ powers, but they don’t significantly alter the nature of the story.

A somewhat more problematic issue concerns the numerical differences between Mark-A and Mark-B. While they both follow the template structure, the two stories have different sets of numbers, suggesting inconsistent underlying sources. Did Mark make up the Mark-B version out of whole cloth or did he have a source for the different story numbers? In either case, why did he have two versions of the story with such significant variations.

It is often thought that the specific numbers used in the two versions of Mark may have different symbolic references. For example: twelve baskets could be a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel; seven loaves could be a reference to the seven branches of the menorah created at the direction of Moses;54 five loaves could reference the Five Books of Moses. Much scholarly speculation goes into figuring out what the numeric symbols may mean but no general consensus has emerged.

←58 | 59→

It is commonly argued that the Mark-A version presents a miracle for the Jews and the Mark-B version for the gentiles. Some scholars see the difference in numbers between the two versions as somehow symbolically reflecting those differences. Perhaps the chief reason for associating Mark’s second bread story with the gentiles rests on the location of the preceding incident in Mark, the healing of a deaf man in the Decapolis. The case for a separate gentile story strikes me as weak.

The name “Decapolis” is Greek and refers to a league of cities in Galilee that may have had a large percentage of gentile residents. It is generally assumed that this second multiplication of the loaves took place in the Decapolis and that is the basis of the gentile connection to Mark-B. But Mark-B doesn’t say where the second multiplication of the loaves took place.

It opens with: “In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat.”55 This introduction chronologically isolates the following narrative from what precedes it. It is vague as to when the story took place other than after the first multiplication of the loaves. There is no specific narrative link between it and the story that precedes it.

Furthermore, Luke is the most aggressively pro-gentile of all four evangelists. Yet he omits this supposedly gentile version of the bread miracle. If he didn’t see such a connection, perhaps it never existed. So, I tend to reject any explanations that see Mark-B as a gentile-oriented narrative.

It is my position here that Mark-A and Mark-B belong to two separate versions of the story cycle reflected in John 6. That John’s version appears to overlay parts of both Mark stories may reflect that John’s details from both Mark-A and Mark-B results from all those mutual details being present in the proposed common source version of the story, with Mark redacting different portions out of each of his versions of the incident. Nevertheless, Mark’s second set of numbers also indicate multiple versions of the story may have been floating around. The differences between Mark’s two stories may have led him to believe they were separate incidents and that he had to make some changes to avoid the appearance of duplication.

Scenes 2i and 2j: Transition to Jesus Walking on Water

Scenes 2i and 2j are closely linked and form a bridge to Act 3, “Crossing the Stormy Sea.” Versions of both scenes appear in John 6:15b–17 and Mark-A 6:45–46, but Mark-A presents the two scenes in reverse order from John. The essential features of both scenes are that Jesus goes up on a mountain and the disciples set ←59 | 60→out to sea without him. Despite the brevity there is some variation between the two versions, caused in large part by what I believe were textual alterations by John. I’ll explain below.

In Mark-A 6:45–46, immediately after the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus tells the disciples to sail out to sea and directs them to Bethsaida.56 Jesus then dismisses the crowd and goes up on a mountain to pray.57 This serves as a prelude to Jesus walking on the water and catching up with the disciples who had set sail earlier.

In John 6:14–17, immediately after the multiplication of the loaves, the crowd that witnessed the miracle declares Jesus to be a prophet and tries to force him to be their king.58 To avoid the crowd Jesus goes up on a mountain.59 That evening, while Jesus is on the mountain, the disciples on their own initiative set sail across the sea without Jesus and head out to Capernaum.60 During the darkness Jesus sets out on foot across the sea.

In Mark-A and John 6 these two scenes serve as a bridge between Jesus multiplying the loaves and walking on water. The fact that the scenes appear in reverse order in the two gospels is of trivial concern. At the core, Jesus goes on a mountain and the disciples sail off without him. Given their essential similarity they both appear to be part of a larger connected narrative that links the two surrounding miracles. Yet there are some strange departures for such a brief segment of the story.

The most significant difference concerns the reason why Jesus went up on the mountain. Mark says he went to pray; John says Jesus tried to escape the crowd’s efforts to make him king. What makes this variation interesting is that while Mark depicts Jesus praying on several occasions,61 John’s Jesus doesn’t generally engage in that practice. John does reference prayer in the gospel and in John 17, shortly before Jesus’ arrest, John does show Jesus engaged in prayer on behalf of the disciples. But this is much more than a simple prayer scene. The lengthy prayer involves a major theological exploration of Jesus’ role. Elsewhere in John, Jesus doesn’t seem to pray in the casual manner that Mark depicts in this scene and elsewhere.

This raises the question of whether John changed the underlying scene from one in which Jesus prays or Mark changed it to one where the crowd does not try to make Jesus king. A case can be made either way, but I think John made the change.

Mark’s gospel promotes the theme that no human knew who Jesus really was until after his death. Mark carefully avoids having Jesus tell the public who he is and the public never truly identifies who Jesus is. The closest the public ←60 | 61→at large comes to identifying Jesus, outside of the “Who is Jesus?” unit in Act 5, discussed below, is to call him the Son of David.62 This implies a belief that Jesus should be a king, but the speaker doesn’t explicitly say he is a king. Mark never depicts the crowd trying to force Jesus to be a king, and this may reflect an attempt by Mark to show that Pilate had no grounds for crucifying Jesus for claiming to be a king. So, it could be argued that Mark might have removed the reference to the crowd trying to make Jesus king and he substituted prayer as the reason why he went up on the mountain. On the other hand, I see a couple of problems with John’s account that suggest that the case for John making the change is stronger.

First, in Mark, Jesus directs the disciples to leave by boat without him; in John, the disciples leave by boat on their own, without first interacting with Jesus. And, according to John, they took the only boat that was available, leaving Jesus on shore.63 Why would the disciples arbitrarily on their own head out to sea, on the only available boat, without Jesus on board or without first checking with him about leaving? Shouldn’t we expect them to wait for him to come down from the mountain? Mark provides an explanation for their departure; John doesn’t.

Second, why would Jesus go up on the mountain in the first place? The explanation given is that he is trying to avoid the crowd’s effort to make him king. But on several occasions, crowds are unable to contain Jesus as they try to grab him. He just melts through them.64 Additionally, as depicted in the “walking on water” scene (see below), John portrays Jesus as having the power to teleport himself and his disciples anywhere he wants.65 He could have simply teleported himself (and the disciples) from wherever they were to wherever he wanted to go (as he does just a few verses later).

Third, and very persuasive to me, is that John, as I explain below, has drafted this scene and the following “walking on water” scene in a manner designed to create mystery as to how Jesus arrived on the other shore. Several of John’s miraculous displays are done in a manner where he is not directly observed as the proximate cause of a miracle but rather as present when the miracle occurs, leaving observers (including his disciples) to assume (or not recognize) that Jesus was the responsible agent. This is consistent with John’s choice not to depict exorcisms, a direct public display of Jesus’s powers.

Another reason that I think John has altered the text is that thematically it deals with how Jesus is perceived by others. They want to make him king. The identification of Jesus as a king, as we will see below, seems to belong with the events of Act 5, where the identification of Jesus as a king plays an important role in Mark’s narrative. John, as we will see, has made significant alterations to Act ←61 | 62→5. For these reasons, I have relocated John 6:14–15a from its present location to Act 5, where I think it belongs.

This leaves John going up the mountain but with no explanation of why. In Mark, the explanation is that he went there to pray. As I pointed out above, John tends to downplay the idea that Jesus prays. John may have moved the crowd scene from Act 5 to this location precisely to have an explanation for Jesus going up on a mountain without having to show him as praying.

Mark-B, in its present form, has radically altered the follow-up to the bread miracle and departs from both Mark-A and John. It shows no trip up the mountain and has Jesus and the disciples leaving together by boat. It also appears to eliminate all of Act 3. These variations, as I will show later, are the result of a number of editorial revisions Mark has made to his source material, including a reordering of some of the scenes. I’ll discuss those changes further below.

Act 2 Summary

The main event in Act 2 is the multiplication of loaves in Scene 2a–2h. Mark has two different versions of the story and John has one. John agrees with the numerical details in the Mark-A version but leans closer to Mark-B’s non-numerical details. This may indicate that John’s overlapping details in both Mark-A and Mark-B were all present in the proposed common source version of the story. Mark’s different set of numbers also suggests multiple versions of the story were in circulation. Despite the differences in all three versions they share a common template that shows a basic underlying story.

Scenes 2i and 2j form a bridge between the miracle of the loaves and the walking on water miracle in Act 3. These two scenes consist of Jesus going up on a mountain and the disciples sailing off to sea without Jesus on board. But Mark and John present the two scenes in reverse order from each other. For reasons given above I believe Mark has the better order. Mark also says Jesus went up on the mountain in order to pray. John avoids scenes in which Jesus engages in casual prayer. I suggested that John has transferred material from Act 5 to Scene 2b in order to provide an alternative explanation for Mark’s version of why Jesus went up on the mountain.

Act 3: Crossing the Stormy Sea (John 6:18–24; Mark-A 6:47–51b; Mark-B 4:35–41)

I have divided Act 3 into five scenes. Act 3 describes the crossing of the Sea of Galilee after Jesus multiplied the loaves. I had a difficult time deciding where ←62 | 63→to separate Act 3 from Act 4. In Mark, pursuant to my analysis below, the first five scenes in Act 4 take place during the sea crossing but in John the parallel scenes take place on land. Since both gospels place a teaching about bread in those five scenes and John incorporates that setup into his subsequent Discourse on Bread, I have opted to place them within Act 4. The five scenes appear in the following order.

3a. The disciples encounter a stormy sea.

3b. Jesus walks across the water and catches up to the boat.

3c. The disciples were frightened by the sight of Jesus.

3d. Jesus said, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”

3e. A second miracle occurs after Jesus walks on water.

Scenes 3a–3d depict Jesus walking on water and how the disciples react to that sight. Both John and Mark-A have fairly similar versions with only minor differences. Scene 3e describes a second miracle at sea but here John and Mark-A have no features in common. In Mark-A Jesus gets on the boat and calms the stormy sea. In John, Jesus doesn’t get on the boat but teleports himself, the boat and the disciples to the intended shore destination. Scene 3e ends with the completion of the second miracle at sea. I place the reaction to the miracle at the start of Act 4. In Mark the disciples react to the miracle while on the boat. In John the reaction takes place among non-disciples while on land.

Just as the miracle of the loaves should invoke in the reader’s mind the Exodus account of the ever-present manna from heaven, the crossing of the stormy sea should bring to mind the Exodus account of the crossing of the Red Sea. In Exodus, when the Israelites stood before the sea, the Pharaoh’s army practically breathing down their necks, Moses lifted his hand and God sent a wind to divide the sea and enable the Israelites to cross over to the other side.66 After Israel crossed, the Egyptians entered the same divide. Moses raised his arm again and God closed the sea over the Egyptian army.67 The sea then returned to its normal state.68 Act 3 presents a variation on this Exodus scenario: Jesus miraculously walks across (rather than through a division in) a stormy sea followed by the miraculous calming of the storm. The gospel accounts have simply upgraded Jesus’ Moses imagery by eliminating the need to first divide the sea before crossing.

Mark-B, in its current arrangement, appears to have no Act 3. It doesn’t show Jesus walking on water nor does it present a second miracle at sea. Following the Mark-B miracle of the loaves, Jesus simply gets in the boat with the disciples and crosses the sea. No miracles take place. So Mark-B appears to have reduced Act 3 ←63 | 64→to nothing more than an ordinary sea voyage with nothing of note happening. In that regard, Mark-A and John agree with each other against Mark-B as to what happened after the miracle of the loaves.

On the other hand, while Mark has no obvious second version of the walking on water scene, he does have a more extensive second account of Jesus calming a stormy sea. But he places it well before either of his bread miracles. I will argue below that Mark moved the story from its original location in order to avoid the appearance of duplicate versions of the same story sequence.

Scenes 3a–3d: Jesus Walks on Water (John 6:18–20; Mark-A 6:47–50)

Although there are some differences between John and Mark in the story of Jesus walking on water, the two share several common features.

It was dark when the disciples set out to sea.

There was a strong wind blowing.

The disciples saw Jesus walking on the water.

The disciples were terrified when they saw Jesus.

Jesus told them not to be frightened.

Jesus came towards the boat.

The above set of events constitutes the basic core of the story. Implicit in both stories is that Jesus moved at a very rapid pace that enabled him to catch up with the disciples on sea despite their lengthy head start, and that the winds didn’t slow him down. The sequence ends when Jesus approaches the boat, at which point the two narratives diverge in a significant manner. Mark-A adds the following additional elements not present in John.

Jesus watched the disciples straining against the wind.

He went towards them early in the morning.

He intended to pass them by.

When the disciples saw Jesus on the water, they thought he was a ghost.

Perhaps the only unusual feature added to this part of the story is the allegation that Jesus intended to pass them by but that he changed his mind when he saw how frightened the disciples were. John also includes some details missing from Mark. He says that the disciples were about three to four miles out at sea when they first saw Jesus. And he also adds a somewhat odd claim. “It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.”69 The language suggests that the disci←64 | 65→ples were expecting him to meet them while they were on the sea. Yet they were terrified when they saw him.

Furthermore, there is no prior indication in John that Jesus told the disciples that they should expect him to join them on the boat after they set sail. In Mark, Jesus intended to pass them by rather than meet up with them, and that was after Jesus told them to sail off without him. While it could be argued that the disciples, still unaware of Jesus’ powers, assumed he would follow after them on a different and faster boat, John specifically points out that the boat used by the disciples was the only one available.70 John seems a little confused about why and how the disciples would have expected Jesus to catch up to them while they were still at sea.

At the end of Scene 3c in Mark-A, Jesus tells the frightened disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”71 Jesus then heads towards the boat. In John, Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid.”72 The two statements are virtually identical. In both gospels the disciples then try to take Jesus into the boat. It is at this point that the two gospels diverge.

Although there are some differences between John and Mark-A as to the story details in Scene 3a–3d, they seem rather trivial, little more than editorial differences in how to tell the same story. Both versions place the walking on water almost immediately after the miracle of the loaves and share a common transition between the two miracles. This suggests both authors had knowledge of a common narrative account.

Scene 3e: A Second Miracle at Sea (John 6:21–24; Mark-A 6:51a)

Immediately after the end of Scene 3d, Mark-A 6:51–52 says Jesus “got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened [emphasis added].”73 In my analysis below I will argue that this passage combines Scenes 3e, 4a, and 4c. The non-italicized portion corresponds to Scene 3e and the italicized portion belongs to Scenes 4a and 4c. For our purposes, Scene 3e ends with Jesus getting into the boat and stopping the wind. I will discuss the italicized portion when we turn to Act 4.

In John’s account of this scene, as the disciples try to take Jesus aboard the boat, they and the boat are suddenly teleported to the shore of Capernaum.74 Jesus, however, never gets into the boat. The next morning those who were on the shore where Jesus had multiplied the loaves saw that Jesus was gone and they were ←65 | 66→puzzled. There had only been one boat on shore the night before and they saw the disciples leave on it without Jesus.75 Where did he go? As they puzzled this out some boats came by and they hopped on board to get to Capernaum and look for Jesus.76 This ends Scene 3e in John.

John has constructed Act 3 so that Jesus’ arrival on the other side of the sea would appear as a miracle. In John’s Scene 3a the disciples left in the only boat around. In Scene 3e Jesus never gets in the boat with the disciples and sends the boat with the disciples to shore without him. The witnesses who saw the disciples leave without Jesus take boats that arrive later and don’t see Jesus as they go to Capernaum. Jesus appears in Capernaum without benefit of any boat. How did he get there? Something miraculous must have occurred. So, we shouldn’t be surprised at the beginning of Scene 4a when the witnesses to the bread miracle who followed after Jesus were astounded to see him there. “Rabbi, when did you come here?”77

While John has a significantly different second miracle at sea from Mark, in both case, as we shall see in the discussion of scene 4a, the second miracle at sea in Mark and John serves as a pretext for witnesses to the multiplication of the loaves to be astonished because they didn’t understand the miracle of the loaves. For reasons discussed below, I think John deliberately altered the miracle scene in order to obscure the image of the disciples as uncomprehending of what Jesus had to say.

Scene 3e: Calming the Storm in Mark-B 4:35–41

Mark-B 4:35–41 presents that gospel’s earlier version of Jesus calming the stormy sea. It is this episode that everyone refers to when they talk about Jesus calming the stormy sea. Mark 6:51 is ignored.

The story follows after a long sequence of parables and begins with the phrase, “On that day, when evening came”.78 Tracing the narrative back to when “that day” was appears to place it on the day when Jesus had been accused of having a demon and had a conflict with his family, who thought him mad. That would suggest that Jesus was in Capernaum, where he and his family lived. However, if Mark has moved this story from another location “that day” would be isolated from its original reference point. The Mark-B story elements are as follows.79

“leaving the crowd behind, [the disciples] took [Jesus] with them in the boat, just as he was [emphasis added].”80

Other boats “were with [Jesus] [emphasis added].”81

←66 | 67→

A great windstorm arises.

Jesus is asleep on the boat.

The disciples awake him, asking, “do you not care that we are perishing?”82

Jesus tells the stormy sea “Peace! Be still!”83

The sea calms down.

Jesus questions their faith.

The disciples are in awe, questioning who this is who can control the wind and sea.

This story makes no reference to Jesus walking on the water before calming the storm, but it does contain some vague language that hints at some missing event prior to Jesus getting on the boat. The opening line of the episode has Jesus say, “Let us go across to the other side.”84 By itself, the statement tells us nothing. It can refer to any of several sea voyages made by Jesus. But paired with the next sentence, we may have an issue about composition. It reads, “And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.”85 The phrasing is quite odd.

After telling us that the crowd was left behind, it says they took Jesus on the boat with them, and that they took him “as he was.” The sentence doesn’t say that Jesus was on the boat when it pulled out from shore. He may have left in the boat with them, but if that is the case, why does Mark add that in the act of leaving the crowd behind, they took him on to the boat. Shouldn’t the presence of Jesus on the boat have been implicit? If Jesus were on the boat when it left shore, wouldn’t Mark have more likely written “They left the crowd behind”?

Now I understand that writers can have a wide range of leeway in composing sentences and finding a simpler way to editorial express the same thought in and of itself isn’t a basis for criticism. But the idea of saying that the disciples “took him with them in the boat” strikes me as problematic and the ambiguity suggests to me that Mark is trying to fudge over the fact that Jesus got on the boat after it left shore and not when it left shore. In other words, he is hiding the fact that Jesus walked on water to get to the boat.

Compounding this ambiguous use of language is that they took him on the boat “just as he was.” What does that mean? How else would they have taken him on board? The phrasing suggests that something happened to Jesus’s appearance between the time he was on shore and when he came upon the boat. Was this the ghostly appearance they thought they saw when Jesus walked on water in the course of crossing the stormy sea?

Further evidence of a cover-up comes in the next sentence. “Other boats were with [Jesus]”86 when they took him on board. How could other boats be with him ←67 | 68→when he came aboard the disciples’ boat unless they were already at sea when the disciples took him in? If Jesus was on shore when he got on the boat, then there were no other boats with him at the time. Boats were either at sea with him or at shore, in which case you can’t say they were with him.

Mark’s bizarre phrasings and ambiguous descriptions suggest that he has redacted the underlying story in some manner to hide information. He appears to have edited out the actual walking on water scene from the narrative and merged the reaction to walking on water with the reaction to calming the storm. In Mark-A, the disciples were frightened by Jesus on the water because they thought he was a ghost. This must have been some sort of scary wind-swept image. In Mark-B they are frightened by the storm itself.

Mark-B also contains a possible point of contact with John’s version of events. Mark-B says that other boats were with Jesus when they sailed out. John says initially that the only boat around when the disciples left was the single boat that they left in. Afterwards, however, several other boats arrived and followed after Jesus. John has manipulated the underlying story to create the mysterious arrival on shore without a boat and the sudden arrival of boats following after Jesus seems to tie in with Mark-B’s claim that there were other boats with Jesus out on the stormy sea.

Since John and Mark-A both agree that after the miracle of the loaves Jesus walked across a stormy sea and then conducted a second miracle on the water and Mark-B omits that sequence after his second multiplication of the loaves, I strongly suspect that Mark altered the second sequence of events in order to avoid the appearance of duplication. He dropped the second version of the walking on water, a story that was no longer theologically necessary, and moved the second calming of the storm to an earlier portion of the gospel. Because he dropped the second walking on water scene he changed what it was that frightened the disciples, substituting the stormy sea for the ghost-like image. At the same time, he radically shortened the Mark-A calming of the storm story to little more than an afterthought that bore no resemblance to the longer Mark-B account.

Act 3 Summary

Act 3 has five scenes. In 3a–3d Jesus walks on water across a stormy sea. Mark-A and John are reasonably closes as to the details. In Scene 3e, Mark-A and John describe different miracles at sea. In Mark-A Jesus gets on the boat and calms the storm. In John, Jesus never gets on the boat and avoids the issue of calming the storm by teleporting the boat and crew to the desired shore location at ←68 | 69→Capernaum. Reactions to this second miracle in both gospels will be discussed when we look at Scene 4a.

Mark-B has no Act 3. After the second miracle of the loaves, there is no duplicate walking on water and no duplicate second miracle while crossing the sea. In Mark-B, Jesus gets on the boat with the disciples and sails across the water with no incident of note at sea. Mark-B, however, has a longer and more detailed account of calming a stormy sea but places it well before both bread miracles. Reading between the lines of that oddly-worded earlier account of the stormy sea, suggests that Mark may have redacted out the story of Jesus walking on the water in order to avoid having two such stories in his gospel.

It is my suggestion that Mark-A and Mark-B preserve doublets with regard to the stormy sea and that Mark has made several alterations to the original sequence of events, dropping a second version of the walking on water scene, relocating the Mark-B version of the calming of the sea to an earlier location in the gospel, and radically shortening the Mark-A version of the calming of the sea so that it looked nothing like his lengthier Mark-B version.

Whether or Not Mark-B is a doublet, John and Mark-A agree that after the miracle of the loaves Jesus walked on water across a stormy sea and then performed a second miracle while still at sea.

Continuity Problems in Mark

In Mark-A 6:16–17 (Scene 2j), after the multiplication of the loaves and before the walking on water, Mark says that the disciples set sail for Bethsaida.87 But, when they finish crossing the sea they somehow landed in Gennesaret, a different village along the Sea of Galilee.88 Why didn’t they land in Bethsaida? Mark gives no explanation and continues as if nothing is wrong with this picture.

Some commentators, to salvage this lapse in continuity, have asserted that the disciples were blown off course.89 Mark doesn’t say this happened, or even hint at it, and the preceding walking on water scene suggests otherwise. While it is true that the scene shows the disciples struggling against an adverse wind, Mark also says that Jesus intended to pass them by and only stopped because they had become frightened by his appearance.90 If Jesus had intended to pass them by at that point, there is no reason to think he thought they were off course for their intended rendezvous at Bethsaida. At that point Jesus got into the boat and the wind stopped. So there is no longer even a wind to blow them off course.

←69 | 70→

A better approach would be to look for some point in Mark when Jesus and the disciples landed by boat at Bethsaida and see what the narrative context reveals about the circumstances. The disciples do arrive in Bethsaida after a boat trip at Mark 8:22 but as presently positioned it is not the boat trip following the Mark-B multiplication of the loaves. It is a second boat trip that takes place almost immediately after the first boat ride. There is only one brief episode between the two sea cruises. Let’s take a closer look at these two voyages.

Mark’s second multiplication of the loaves ends at Mark-B 8:9. In the next verse Mark says that Jesus and the disciples headed out to Dalmanutha by boat.91 No sea voyage is described and no landing is mentioned. Instead we are immediately whisked away to an unnamed land location where Jesus argues with some Pharisees, who demand a sign in order to test his authority.92 Jesus declines to give a sign.93 After refusing the invitation to perform, he and the disciples get in a boat and again sail off.94

This second sea voyage begins at Mark-B 8:14 and at the end the disciples arrive at Bethsaida.95 But for the intervening scene about the argument with the Pharisees over a sign, Mark 8’s narrative flow would show a departure from the site of the bread miracle, details of the Mark 8:14–21 sea voyage, and a landing in Bethsaida at Mark 8:22. Let’s look at what happened on this Mark-B trip to Bethsaida and compare it with what Mark-A 6:51–52 says happened after Jesus walked on the water and got in the boat.

In Mark-A, the sea voyage after the bread miracle consists of several elements. First Jesus walks on water while the disciples struggle against an adverse wind. Then he gets into the boat with the disciples. Next he calms the winds. At this point, Mark says, “And they [the disciples] were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”96 The boat then lands at Gennesaret instead of Bethsaida.

In Mark-B, immediately after the argument with the Pharisees, Jesus and the disciples get back in the boat, at which time the matter of the multiplication of the loaves comes up.97 In this scene, Jesus initially warns the disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”98 The disciples have no clue as to what Jesus is talking about and wonder if he is talking about their not having any bread to eat.99 Jesus responds, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened [emphasis added]?”100 Exasperated at their obtuseness, Jesus reminds the disciples about the two previous bread miracles and all the bread that was leftover.101 Finally, he says, “Do you not yet understand?”102

←70 | 71→

The sea voyages in Mark-A and Mark-B share three key features. They both use the odd phrase about the hearts of the disciples being hardened; they both say that the disciples failed to understand the meaning of the loaves; and the both appear in very close proximate relationship to the miracle of the loaves. The Mark-B version, even as it stands now, appears to have taken place on the same day that the disciples set sail from the site where the loaves were multiplied.

A chief difference between the two is that in Mark-A Jesus doesn’t directly chastise the disciples. The critique appears as a gloss by Mark. Since Mark had two versions of the story, it makes sense that he would eliminate direct criticism in the earlier version. Otherwise, how dim would the disciples look if after being directly criticized by Jesus for not understanding about the loaves they had to be directly chastised a second time for the same reason?

The very short narrative distance between the Mark-B 8:14–21 boat ride and the second multiplication of the loaves (Mark-B 8:1–9) coupled with Mark-B’s two other direct correlations with Mark-A’s boat ride immediately after the first multiplication of the loaves strongly suggest that they both must be based on the same underlying story. When we observe that the Mark-A boat ride headed out to Bethsaida and the second Mark-B boat ride landed in Bethsaida I have little doubt that the two boat rides are one and the same. This has some implications.

The Mark-B 8:14–21 boat ride must have followed immediately after the Mark-B 8:1–9 multiplication of the loaves. This means that the Mark-B 8:10–13 voyage to Dalmanutha followed by the request for a sign belongs in a different location. I suspect that the narrative location was not very far away.

Following the Mark-B 8:14–21 landing in Bethsaida, we have the Mark 8:22–26 story of Jesus in Bethsaida curing a blind man with saliva. John 6 has no corresponding incident but that gospel does have a similar incident in John 9, which we will examine later. I suspect that Mark simply switched around the two Mark 8 sea voyages. The voyage to Bethsaida and the healing in Bethsaida happened first and the trip to Dalmanutha happened after the healing in Bethsaida. This may have been due to Mark wanting to move the Bethsaida story to a slightly later location as its current position plays an important theological role in Mark’s gospel. We’ll examine that in Chapter 7.

This would result in the following underlying sequence for Mark’s source narrative: Mark 8:1–9 (second multiplication of loaves), 14–21(voyage to Bethsaida), 22–26 (healing the blind man) and 10–13 (request for a sign). I would also argue that Mark-B 4:35–41 (calming of the storm) belongs between Mark 8:9 and Mark 8:14. That Mark-B’s Bethsaida voyage begins with Jesus already in the boat ←71 | 72→(assuming that 8:10–13 comes after 8:22) suggests that Mark 8:14–21 or a similar story would have been the natural continuation from Mark-A 6:51–52, after Jesus calmed the storm and got in the boat. Interestingly, both John and Luke omit all of Mark’s stories between Mark 6:52 and the re-ordered Mark 8:14–21 (including the second multiplication of the loaves). Luke, however, has also made some other changes to Mark’s narrative and we will look at those details later.

Act 4: The Discourse on Bread (John 6:25–59, Mark-B 8:10–21, 8:34–9:1; Mark-A 6:51c–52)

I have divided Act 4 into seven scenes. In Scenes 4a–4e I refer to “witnesses” to the miracle of the loaves. In Mark, the witnesses to the miracle are the twelve apostles and the scenes take place on the voyage across the sea to Bethsaida. Some of the scenes come from Mark-A and some come from the parallel version in Mark-B. In John, the witnesses are not the apostles but members of the crowd that ate the bread from the miracle of the loaves and who had already crossed over the sea to look for Jesus. John also says those scenes took place in Capernaum, a city close to Bethsaida. The scenes appear in the following order.

4a. Witnesses to the miracle of the loaves are astonished by the second miracle at sea.

4b. Witnesses to the miracle of the loaves are hungry.

4c. Jesus chastise witnesses to the miracle of the loaves for not understanding what it meant.

4d. Jesus tells the witnesses not to seek after ordinary bread.

4e. The witnesses don’t understand the teaching.

4f. A crowd asks Jesus for a sign, but no sign is provided.

4g. Jesus teaches the crowd how they can obtain eternal life.

The reason why John has a different set of witnesses, as I shall argue later in this chapter, is that Mark shows the apostles in a negative light, uncomprehending of Jesus’ nature or teachings and John has a theological objection to such portrayals. Therefore, John takes editorial steps to avoid such depictions and has established what I later refer to as an “apostle filter” to screen out negative images of the twelve disciples. In this case, I will suggest, he has substituted non-apostles for the Twelve and, therefore, moved the scenes from the boat ride with the apostles to the land setting where the non-apostle witnesses were located. We’ll see additional examples of this process in Act 5 and elsewhere in later chapters.

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Although I will show that there is a Markan parallel for each of the scenes in John’s Act 4, there are a couple of sequential disagreements between Mark and John as to the order of the scenes.

First, Mark-B and John disagree on the placement of Scene 4c (chastisement of the witnesses for not understanding the meaning of the miracle of the loaves). John places it before telling the witnesses about a special bread and Mark-B places it after telling the witnesses about special bread. While Mark-A has a version of the chastisement, it is missing the surrounding scenes, so it can’t help us determine which gospel has the correct order. In this particular instance, I will follow John’s narrative order.

Second, as previously discussed, Mark-B’s Scene 4f (the request for a sign at Mark 8:11–12) is out of sequential order and belongs after Mark 8:14–26. In Mark, Scene 4f takes place on land at a different location in connection with a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees. John presents the scene as if it is a straight forward continuation of the preceding scenes. In the analysis below I will suggest that John has an undisclosed change of location between Scenes 4e and 4f, moving from the Capernaum streets to a Capernaum synagogue.

Third, Mark and John disagree on the placement of Scene 4g. This scene is the highlight of John 6. It is widely referred to as the Discourse on Bread and explains in a very difficult teaching how to obtain eternal life. In it, Jesus claims to be the Bread of Life and that one has to eat the Bread of Life (i.e., eat Jesus) to obtain eternal life. This is a difficult scene to deal with, for several reasons.

For one, it involves a lengthy “I Am” saying intertwined with other story elements. Because Mark doesn’t include any of John’s “I Am” sayings we can’t have a precise parallel between the two gospels. Therefore, we have to try to look behind the Discourse to get at its fundamental meaning and see how it plays out in Mark. Second, the teaching is very difficult and leads to a number of scholarly disputes, especially with regard to its Eucharistic implications.103

These Eucharistic passages are very different from the Eucharist ceremony depicted in Mark at the Last Supper. Consistent with that view is the absence of a Eucharist scene in John’s account of the Last Supper. I’ll look at the Eucharistic scene further below and in more detail in Chapter 8. A third difficulty is that many scholars believe the Discourse was created in two stages. Fourth, the Discourse, as I will show later, has intimate connections with a separate story in Mark 6:1–6 that involves the rejection of Jesus in a synagogue where his family members are known by name. I will have an extensive analysis of that relationship in Chapter 5.

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Once we get at the underlying meaning of John’s discourse, we can align it with a similar teaching in Mark 8:34–9:1. In Mark, this passage follows immediately after Act 5. In John, the parallel appears immediately before Act 5. So, while Mark and John disagree as to the sequential order of this scene, they both link it to Act 5. This suggests a close narrative connection between Scene 4g and Act 5. Arguments can be made for either gospel order, but I will follow Mark’s arrangement in the final reconstruction of the proposed common source.

Scenes 4a–4e: Jesus and the Witnesses to the Miracle of the Loaves: (John 6:25–28; Mark-A 6:51–52; Mark-B 8:14–21)

As noted above, the witnesses in Mark’s version of these scenes are the apostles and the stories take place on the boat sailing to Bethsaida. In John they are a different set of witnesses to the miracle and they are placed on shore. Mark-A 6:51–52 and Mark-B 8:14–21 unfold events in different ways. Both appear to be redacted versions of a portion of the sea-crossing. John, despite the different emphasis on the witnesses, manages to bridge the gaps between both segments of Mark.

Mark-A 6:51–52 reads, “Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Initially, we need to ask what it was that astounded the disciples, the stopping of the wind or the walking on water. Mark is a little vague on this point.

Mark-A has already given us the disciples’ reaction to Jesus walking on water. They were frightened; they thought they saw a ghost.104 Mark doesn’t tell us they were astounded until after he says the winds ceased. The logic of the narrative structure seems to clearly suggest that it was the ceasing wind that they reacted to. That they didn’t understand because their “hearts were hardened” means that they failed to recognize that Jesus calmed the storm because he worked through God, just as Moses did when he calmed the storm, and they should have realized this because they saw the miracle of the loaves. The narrative structure for Mark-A is as follows.

Scene 3b: Second miracle at sea (calming the storm);

Scene 4a: Astonishment at the second miracle at sea;

Scene 4c: Failure to comprehend the meaning of the loaves.

In Mark-A there is no direct condemnation of the apostles for failing to understand the miracle. Mark sets the observation in an author’s gloss on the scene. Mark saves the actual condemnation for the later Mark-B version. Mark-A is also ←74 | 75→missing Scenes 4b, 4d, and 4e. Mark has probably redacted out these missing scenes as they all relate to the teachings of Jesus regarding bread issues and Mark would not want to have it repeated to the disciples twice. Otherwise they would look especially uncomprehending if they didn’t understand the miracle on the second occasion if Jesus explained it to them on the first occasion.

Mark-B’s voyage to Bethsaida is structured differently and has more details. It begins with a notice that the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread and they had only one loaf on the boat, obviously not enough to feed the whole assemblage, a situation akin to the miracle of the loaves. At this point, Jesus issues a warning. “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”105 The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant and assumed Jesus said that “because we have no bread.”106 This leads to a lengthy rebuke and teaching about the meaning of the miracle of the loaves. Mark-B has the following narrative structure.

Scene 4b: The disciples are hungry and need more bread.

Scene 4d: Jesus warns against the yeast of the Pharisees.

Scene 4e: The disciples don’t understand the teaching.

Scene 4c: Jesus chastises the disciples for not understanding the miracle of the loaves.

Mark-B has no miracles at sea during this voyage so the astonishment in Scene 4a is missing. Mark-B also places the chastisement of the disciples after the bread warning and lack of understanding. John places the chastisement before both incidents.

Mark-A has the notice of astonishment but is missing the bread warning and reaction. Mark-B has the bread warning and reaction but is missing the astonishment. Mark-A has a redacted version of Mark-B’s chastisement for not understanding the miracle of the loaves. John appears to bridge the gap between the two versions.

After walking on water John narrates a second miracle. Jesus mysteriously appears on the shores of Capernaum without benefit of a boat after teleporting the disciples and the boat from the middle of the sea to the shore. On shore, witnesses to the miracle of the loaves are astonished by the results of the second miracle. “When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ ”107

Since the miracle is different, the nature of the astonishment is different. Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”108 Here we see the rebuke ←75 | 76→to the witnesses for not understanding the miracle of the loaves coupled with an indication that they only came after him to cadge another meal. As in Mark-B, the disciples/witnesses wanted more bread and didn’t comprehend the miracle of the loaves.

John’s Jesus continues with a further teaching. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”109 Here, too, we have a warning about avoiding a certain kind of bread and looking for a different kind of bread, although the verbal descriptions are different.

I’ll take a further look at the two bread warnings a little further on. Jesus hasn’t yet explained what this other bread is and the witnesses, as in Mark-B’s reaction to the bread warning, don’t appear to understand what the teaching means. They reply, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”110

John’s narrative contains variations on the scenes missing in Mark-A and Mark-B. While the narrative detail differs from Mark, the thematic elements are similar. John, however, is setting the scene for his gospel message about belief in Jesus being the only path to eternal life, culminating in the Discourse on Bread and the reactions to that teaching. Mark, too, has a teaching about how to obtain eternal life but it is not as tightly integrated to the earlier scenes as it is in John. Mark’s narrative is more episodic.

The Sequential Problem with Scene 4c

John and Mark-B agree on the sequential order of Scenes 4b (hungry witnesses), 4d (the Bread warning) and 4e (the witnesses do not understand the bread symbolism). They disagree on the location of Scene 4c (the chastisement of the witnesses for not understanding the meaning of the miracle of the loaves). John places 4c before the bread warning and Mark-B places it after the failure to understand the bread warning. Mark-A includes a variation on Scene 4c but is missing Scenes 4b, 4d, and 4e, so we have no way to compare Mark-A to John for clues as to the placement of Scene 4c. Therefore, we can’t say who has the correct location for Scene 4c.

John’s versions of Scenes 4b–e are tightly integrated and there doesn’t seem to be any simple or obvious way to move Scene 4c in line with Mark-B’s placement. It would require a good deal of reconstruction of John’s narrative and such reconstruction would be speculative at best.

On the other hand, Mark-B’s version of Scene 4c can be easily moved into line with John’s 4c, although that doesn’t necessarily prove that John has the cor←76 | 77→rect order. However, Mark has clearly been working hard to integrate two different versions of the narrative sequence and has at a minimum redacted Mark-A’s version of the final stage of the sea crossing. Mark has also already moved the entire Mark-B 8:14–21 segment out of its original order. So, Mark has done a lot of editorial manipulation with regard to both versions of the last part of the sea voyage. For these reasons I think Mark may be a little less trustworthy than John with regard to this particular segment of the narrative. Therefore, in reconstructing the proposed common source I will follow John’s placement of Scene 4c.

The Scene 4d Bread Warning

In John 6:27, after rebuking the witnesses for not understanding the meaning of the loaves, Jesus admonished them. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”111 The crowd wanted to know what they should do to “perform the works of God”112 Jesus responded that they should “believe in him whom he has sent.”113 This ends the scene.

Although Jesus refers to “food” rather than “bread,” it becomes obvious in the next two verses that he is talking about bread. The conversation almost immediately switches to a discussion of manna114 and “bread from heaven.”115In addition to telling the witnesses that this special bread exists he also says that he brings the bread and that in order to obtain it one must believe in the one sent by God, i.e., believe in Jesus.

Although Jesus has spoken of some special bread that “endures for eternal life” he has not yet said what this bread is and what relevance it has to the crowd. Given the connection to the multiplication of the loaves, the crowd might identify this bread with what they ate previously. There is no direct claim yet that this special bread confers eternal life on the eater. That will come out later when the Discourse on Bread teaches what this special bread is.

The corresponding passage in Mark is “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”116 Yeast here is the equivalent of bread. What kind of yeast/bread do the Pharisees and Herod eat? Putting symbolism aside for now, what they have is ordinary bread, bread that perishes. Jesus essentially warns the hungry disciples about seeking out the ordinary bread eaten by the Pharisees and Herod. This, of course, is functionally equivalent to John’s “food [i.e., bread] that perishes” although Mark doesn’t use those direct words.

But what does the warning mean? Jesus implicitly tells his hungry disciples that there is some other special kind of yeast/bread that they should seek. What ←77 | 78→sort of bread is that? Mark never directly says and he doesn’t connect this special bread to his later teaching about eternal life the way that John does. The most likely answer is that “yeast” serves as a metaphor for “teaching.” That is certainly how Matthew understood this passage in Mark when he says, “Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”117

That Jesus spoke on a symbolic level is manifest by the inability of the disciples to understand what he means by this warning. Jesus reminds them of the multiplication of the loaves that they witnessed. The bread that fed the five thousand was miraculous bread that didn’t perish, that kept reappearing whenever they were hungry.

Mark’s Jesus essentially warns the disciples to beware of the “teachings” of the Pharisees and Herod, who oppose Jesus, and implicitly tells them to pay attention to what he teaches them about “the good news.” The subtle lesson is that faith leads to miracles. Spiritual hunger is fed by spiritual “bread” and leads to the “good news.”

While Mark doesn’t use the term “bread that perishes” and John doesn’t use the term “yeast of the Pharisees,” both are talking about the same thing. The two stories share the same features. Bread that doesn’t perish is a teaching, a form of spiritual bread that can bring about some sort of benefit.

Scene 4f: The Request for a Sign (John 6:28–34, Mark 8:10–13)

After the warning about bread that perishes, both John and Mark move on to a request for a sign. (In Mark, as it presently stands, the request for a sign (8:10–13) occurs before the yeast warning (8:14–21), but as I have argued above, that sequence is out of order and should be reversed, with 8:10–13 being moved after 8:26, the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida.

Mark places the request in a separate scene at a different location. John implies that it is a continuation of the dialogue that started when Jesus arrived on shore. However, there appears to be a slight problem with John’s continuity.

In John, the crowd asks how they can get this special bread. Jesus responds, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”118 Skeptical of Jesus’ claim that he is the one God sent, the crowd asks for a sign, so that they may believe in him.119 They want to know what kind of work he will do for them and cite the example of their ancestors eating manna in the wilderness, adding “as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ”120

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Jesus declined to give a sign and told the crowd that Moses didn’t give them the bread from heaven but that God gives “true” bread from heaven, which gives life to the world.121 Jesus has still not expressly stated that the bread confers eternal life. He has also subtly shifted the nature of the debate. The crowd talked about receiving bread from heaven and in pointing out that it was God, not Moses, who did this, he shifted from “bread” to “true bread,” a different subject from what the audience asked about. Although John’s Jesus doesn’t directly reject the request for a sign—he changed the subject of the conversation—in essence, he denied the request.

There are two continuity problems here. First, we were told that these people were witnesses to the multiplication of the loaves and followed after Jesus. They already witnessed the sign from heaven that Jesus could give. Jesus has already directly admonished them for “looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Not only that, but the sign the witnesses described as an example of what they want to see is the very sign that Jesus had just performed, the miraculous production of bread. Therefore, the crowd requesting the sign must have been a different group of people from the ones in the earlier scene who followed Jesus.

The second continuity problem is that this scene leads into the long Discourse on Bread and we are told at the conclusion that this speech took place in the synagogue at Capernaum.122 But John has no earlier scene showing a shift to the synagogue. The disclosure of the location is a surprise to the gospel’s audience. He has previously given the impression that everything so far had happened on shore where the boats arrived. This suggests that John has edited out the scene shift from 4e to 4f in order to create the impression of an ongoing discussion about “true bread” with the witnesses to the bread miracle.

A lesser problem is that the scriptural citation used in the story is erroneously interpreted. We are given to believe that the “he” in that verse is Moses, and the crowd is asking for a sign like the one Moses gave. Jesus then criticizes that claim, arguing that it was God who gave the manna, not Jesus, and he uses that as a springboard for the “I Am” portion of the Discourse on bread.

However, the passage cited is presumably from Exodus 16:15 and it doesn’t say that Moses or some ambiguous “he” gave the Israelites manna from heaven and the crowd never directly says that Moses was the one who provided bread from heaven. The Exodus verse says, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat [emphasis added.]” No ambiguity here. God gave them the manna.

While Jesus does say that it was God and not Moses who gave the bread from heaven, he does so as if it is a new teaching. But the underlying scriptural verse is perfectly clear and it is only the restated erroneous version that introduces an ←79 | 80→ambiguity that needs clarification. This suggests that John was casting about for a way to transition from the request for a sign to the Discourse on Bread.

Mark also follows up with a request for a sign but he moves the scene to a new geographic location and the request appears to come from a group of Pharisees unfamiliar with the multiplication of the loaves. At least there is no indication that they know about the miracle. Mark says Jesus and the disciples arrived by boat, presumably to the shore of Dalmanutha per Mark 8:10. (Recall here that I proposed earlier that Mark-B 8:10 should follow after Mark 8:26.) After Jesus arrives, an argument breaks out between him and the Pharisees. Mark doesn’t say what the Pharisees argued about but they asked him “for a sign from heaven, to test him.”123

Jesus declined to provide such a sign. “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”124 Jesus and the disciples immediately get in the boat and sail off.

Mark’s version presents some evidence of redaction. He doesn’t tell us what Jesus and the Pharisees argued about or why they requested a sign. The most logical explanation is that Jesus must have claimed some special authority or power from God and the Pharisees wanted to see proof of that claim by asking for a sign. Since such a spectacle violates Mark’s thematic approach to his gospel he probably edited out the underlying details of this story. Because Mark omits the details of the conversation, we can’t determine how closely John’s discussion of the bread from heaven coincides with the proposed common source.

Scene 4g: How to Obtain Eternal Life (John 6:35–59; Mark 8:34–9.1)

Scene 4g is built around John’s Discourse on Bread (John 6:35–59), which teaches that Jesus is the Bread of Life and that you have to eat this bread (Jesus) to gain eternal life. Because it is structured as an “I Am” saying, Mark has no direct parallel. Behind the Discourse, however, there is a fundamental teaching about how to obtain eternal life and here I think we have a direct parallel in Mark-B 8:34–9:1.

While this scene in John appears just before Act 5, in Mark it follows just after Act 5. In both Mark and John this scene encompasses an independent narrative unit that could easily be severed from the surrounding text and moved to other locations in the narrative. This raises a question as to who has the right order. In either case, this discussion of eternal life in Mark and John appears to be closely linked to the subject matter of Act 5, which deals with the identity of Jesus.

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John’s Discourse on the Bread of Life (John 6:35–59). Although John initiated discussion of some sort of special bread that “endures for eternal life” in the earlier scenes he doesn’t directly tell us there what this bread is and what it does. He reserves that disclosure for his major discourse on the Bread of Life. It is a lengthy “I Am” saying that is intertwined with audience reaction and could probably be broken down into several subsections. For our purposes I’m dividing it into two broad section based on thematic content.

The full discourse begins at John 6:35. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It ends at John 6:59 with the observation that he made this speech in the synagogue at Capernaum. John doesn’t say when Jesus entered the synagogue. But, as I pointed out above, prior to the request for a sign John appears to have an undocumented shift of scene from the shore to the synagogue.

In the first part, John 6:35–42, Jesus says that he is the Bread of Life, come down from heaven, to bring eternal life to all who believe in him. He claims that the Father has sent him here so “that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”125 In this part of the discourse, Jesus teaches that all that is necessary for eternal life is to believe in Jesus as the one sent by God.

At this point, John inserts a crowd reaction that expresses problems with understanding this teaching. They responded, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”126 This verse is a widely recognized parallel to Mark 6:3, which is part of a different story that is usually referred to as the Rejection at Nazareth. I devote Chapter 5 to how Mark and John interact with regard to that episode. Because of the complexities I won’t comment any further on it here.

In the second part of the Discourse, John 6:43–58, Jesus, having previously explained that belief in him as the one sent by God will enable the believer to receive eternal life, now seems to raise the bar higher. First he teaches about the difference between the manna in the wilderness and the “true bread” from heaven. Those who ate the manna in the wilderness died but those who eat the Bread of Life from heaven will live forever.127 Then he throws in a kicker to explain what he means by eating the bread from heaven. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”128

This causes much consternation among the congregation. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”129 In response, Jesus teaches, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”130 On the surface, ←81 | 82→it certainly sounds like Jesus says that you must eat his flesh and drink his blood to gain immortality. The discourse ends with the admonition “But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”131

In John, either we are given to believe in some sort of maenadic ritual in which a frenzied horde rips Jesus’ body apart, cannibalistically devouring his flesh and blood, his body continuing to provide for all, just as the loaves did, or the references to his anatomy are symbolic. Rejecting the cannibalistic theory, the most reasonable explanation would see the “I Am” teaching as symbolic. The eating and drinking of Jesus’ body means nothing more than taking in his teaching, i.e., his spiritual body rather than his physical body.

This is essentially what is implied by Mark’s warning against the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. The special bread that people should eat is the teaching brought by Jesus. Stripping out the metaphors, we can sum up the Discourse on Bread as follows: Jesus comes from God bringing the good news that one can gain eternal life. In order to gain immortality, you have to believe that God (the Father) sent him to bring the message. If you believe in him as the messenger, then you have to follow his teachings. If you do, you will be raised up on the last day and receive eternal life. If you shrink from his teachings because they are too difficult, you will die.

A major source of discussion with regard to this section is whether or not the sections about eating Jesus have a Eucharistic meaning. In John’s version of the Last Supper there is no Eucharistic scene, leading many scholars to see the Discourse on Bread as John’s version of the Eucharist. Initially, however, we first need to note that there are several differences between Mark’s version of the Eucharist and John’s teaching in this gospel section.

In Mark, Jesus hands over actual bread and says that it his body.132 The bread is the symbol of Jesus’ body. In John, Jesus’ body is the symbol of the bread. These two arrangements are not identical. In Mark, Jesus hands wine to the disciples and tells them to drink the wine that is the “blood of the covenant.”133 In John, Jesus tells them to drink his blood, not wine. In John, there is no handing out of bread and wine. John’s Eucharistic elements are nothing at all like Mark’s, although they both talk about eating bread and drinking blood.

In Chapter 8 I will take a closer look at the Eucharistic issue. At that time, I will argue that John has moved the Eucharistic scene from the Last Supper to this location but that his version of the Eucharist differs significantly from Mark’s because it is a pre-Pauline version of the ritual that originates in the proposed common source and that Mark’s version represents a later development based on Pauline influences.

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Mark 8:34–9.1 on eternal life. So what does Mark have to say about these teachings? Mark 8:34–9.1 does provide some good news about eternal life. It is the first time in his gospel that he addresses this theme of Jesus as the pathway. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”134

In essence, Mark teaches that the way to obtain eternal life is to defend the teachings (gospel) of Jesus. But this is not an easy task. Apparently these teachings generate a lot of heat and people turn away from him. “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”135 So Jesus has been teaching something very difficult that causes a lot of embarrassment to his followers and leads people to turn away from him. Mark’s message is essentially identical to John’s after we strip out the symbolic “I Am” language.

Jesus brings good news about eternal life.

You have to believe in Jesus as the one who can bring eternal life.

You believe in Jesus by accepting his teachings.

His teachings can lead to hostility and ridicule.

However difficult these teachings may be, they have to be accepted.

Not everybody can accept these teaching and they won’t be saved.

While Mark keeps the message about eternal life separate from the warning about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod, they are loosely linked by the use of “bread/yeast” as a metaphor for teaching. This is the teaching that Mark wants his followers to accept, which is inconsistent with the teachings of the Pharisees and Herod.

It is not difficult to see John making the connection between the two and changing the special bread implicit in Mark’s yeast warning and turning it into the “bread of life” teaching. “Bread of Life” equals the “good news about eternal life” and John equates the “good news” with Jesus himself. Eating “the good news about eternal life” equals accepting Jesus as the path to eternal life. While Mark simply refers to the hostility generated by the message, John actually illustrates it by having Jesus interact with those who reject him as the messenger. Not only does John insert negative reactions to the teaching into his discourse, after the discourse, when he expands on the teachings, many followers abandon him.136

Act 4 Summary

Scenes 4a–4e, which follow immediately after the second miracle at sea, revolve around the interactions between Jesus and witnesses to the miracle of the loaves ←83 | 84→who ate the bread. In Mark, the witnesses are the disciples and the interactions take place on the boat sailing to Bethsaida. In John, the witnesses are non-disciples who ate the bread, and the incidents take place immediately after on land.

Although the second miracle at sea differs in Mark and John, the witnesses act with astonishment after the fact. In Mark 6:51, Jesus calms the storm, and the apostle-witnesses are astonished at what Jesus just did. They take him on the boat and the rest of the scenes unfold at sea as recounted in Mark 8:14–21, which is the natural continuation of Mark’s account of the journey to Bethsaida.

John changes the nature of the second miracle at sea in order to divert attention away from negative images of the disciples. He arranged for Jesus to miraculously appear in Capernaum without benefit of a boat and the non-disciple witnesses to the miracle of the loaves were astonished to find him there. The remaining portion of John’s 4a–4e complex unfolds on land, among this non-apostle set of witnesses. While the parallels aren’t initially obvious, once you substitute the witnesses on shore for the disciples at sea, the connections between Mark and John become much more obvious.

Mark-B and John disagree on the placement of Scene 4c. For reasons explained above I am following John’s sequential scheme with regard to that scene. Mark and John also disagree on the placement of Scene 4g, the teaching on how to obtain eternal life. John places it immediately before Act 5, the “Who is Jesus?” unit. Mark places it immediately after Act 5. There is no clear indication as to who has the right order but as a general rule, absent other evidence, I will accept Mark’s order of events as opposed to John’s. I remain open to the alternative scenario. In either case, both authors clearly connect scene 4g to Act 5, suggesting that there is a literary connection between those two narratives and that Mark and John both knew the original order.

Closely connected to the matter of the composition of John’s Scene 4g, we saw that it included what may be a passage from a different Mark story, in which a synagogue congregation knew Jesus’ family members by name. I indicated that the issue was complex and that I would examine it more fully in Chapter 5.

In Mark, after moving Mark 8:14–21 and 8:22–26 ahead of Mark 10–13, Scene 4f (request for a sign) takes place in a different location before a crowd that did not witness the miracle of the loaves. In analyzing John, we saw that he concealed the fact that the crowd in Scene 4f was a different group of people than the witnesses in Scene 4e, and that Scene 4f took place in a different location from Scene 4e, with the location moving from the shore area to the synagogue. This suggests that John has merged two scenes together that originally stood separate and unrelated.

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A key observation in the analysis of Act 4 is that Mark’s warning about the yeast of the Pharisees and John’s warning about bread that perishes were essentially the same and both made the symbolic argument that there was a special kind of bread. This special bread was a symbolic description of the teachings of Jesus about eternal life and eating the bread was the equivalent of taking in Jesus’ teaching about how to obtain eternal life.

Closely related to the bread symbolism is what appears to be John’s version of the Eucharist ceremony. I pointed out that John’s version, which is missing from his account of the Last Supper, is very different from Mark’s and that I would devote special attention to the Eucharist issue later on in Chapter 8.

All in all, for Act 4, Mark has a parallel to each of the seven scenes in John and, although there is some disagreement over the order of the scenes in Mark and John, the disagreements are relatively trivial, falling within the same very short narrative span in both gospels.

Act 5: Who Is Jesus? (John 6:14–15a, 60–71; Mark-B 8:27–33; Mark-A 6:14–16)

Act 5 deals with a progression of perceptions about the nature of Jesus. I have divided Act 5 into five scenes, as follows.

5a. The public perceives of Jesus as an ancient prophet.

5b. Some see Jesus as an earthly king.

5c. Jesus talks about “rising” up.

5d. Jesus’ teaching is rejected by some of his followers.

5e. Jesus identifies one of his disciples as a devil.

First comes the public view, which sees Jesus as some sort of prophet. John and Mark disagree as to which prophet the public thinks Jesus might be. In Mark, the public thinks of Jesus as either John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the old time prophets; in John they think of him as one like Moses. This understanding in both gospels, we are given to believe, is erroneous.

Next, those around Jesus identify him as an earthly human king but this understanding is also erroneous. Mark-B and John express this misunderstanding in different ways and disagree as to who makes this identification. In Mark it is Peter; in John it is members of the crowd who, like Peter, ate of the miraculous loaves of bread.

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In Mark, Peter’s identification is initially ambiguous. He identifies Jesus as “the Messiah” but the term has multiple meanings. Literally, it means “the anointed one” and was routinely applied to any of Israel’s earlier kings and probably to all of the chef priests. “Messiah” can also refer to some agent of God sent to liberate Israel and rule over the Kingdom of God. But the nature of that special king is not clear.

For many, the messiah was an ordinary human, perhaps from the line of David, who would lead Israel. For others he may have been a supernatural figure such as “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” prophesied in the Book of Daniel.137 Peter’s answer could apply to any of those messiahs. Later, though, we learn that Peter has an inadequate understanding of who Jesus is. Peter focuses “not on divine things but on human things.”138 So his use of “messiah” appears to have contemplated some human form of earthly king.

John eliminates the ambiguity and places the identification with those members of the public who saw Jesus as a prophet like Moses. They want to seize Jesus and force him to be an earthly king but Jesus pulls away from them.139

In the third stage Jesus describes himself as rising up in some mysterious way and his followers reject that teaching, but Mark-B and John disagree as to what this “rising” may be. In Mark-B, Jesus says he will be put to death by his opponents and rise up in three days. Peter is offended by this and rebukes Jesus for this teaching. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”140

John has a radically different version of this portion of the story. After receiving flak from some of his followers over his difficult teaching, Jesus says, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”141 Here Jesus talks about rising up to heaven but doesn’t place it in the context of resurrection after death. He does, however, add that it is the spirit giving life, not flesh.142 So he seems to be relating this ascending/rising to heaven to resurrection in general rather than his own resurrection. (I will argue in Chapter 7 that the proposed common source had a different phrase here, one parallel to Mark’s prophesy that Jesus will die and rise, but that for editorial reasons John moved the original passage to an earlier place in his gospel and substituted the present language.)

In John, Peter does not react negatively to Jesus’ teaching but many of Jesus’ followers abandon him.143 As his followers depart, Jesus turns to “the twelve” and asks if they wish to leave him, too. Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”144

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Jesus congratulated them on their understanding but accused one of them of being a devil.145 But Jesus, himself, doesn’t say which of the disciples he is referring to. John adds a gloss saying that Jesus was talking about Judas.146

A major story line that divides Mark and John concerns the role of Peter. In Mark’s version, Peter makes an erroneous identification of Jesus as an earthly king, Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about death and resurrection, and Jesus accuses Peter of being involved with Satan. John’s narrative weaves a cloak that shields Peter from these negative accusations.

In his version, it is not Peter but others in the crowd who mistakenly identify Jesus as an earthly king. At the same time, John alters Peter’s answer so that he correctly identifies Jesus. John’s Peter never rebukes Jesus over the need to die but praises Jesus for his gift of eternal life. Additionally, in John, it is not Peter who rebukes Jesus but other disciples, from outside of the Twelve.

Lastly, John changes Jesus’ accusation of deviltry against Peter (in Mark) and shifts the charge to Judas. Jesus, in John’s gospel, does not say which disciple was the devil. John adds a gloss to the text saying that Judas was the one whom Jesus meant. John’s gloss completely undoes the accusation against Peter in Mark.

I emphasize here that it is John who appears to make the changes, not Mark. It does not appear feasible that Mark would work backwards through each of these scenes and gathering them together to make Peter look so bad. On the other hand, as I have laid it out, there seems to be a pattern in John of exonerating or enhancing Peter in particular and the other disciples in general.

As part of this rehabilitation of Peter, John has some other major difference from the way Mark lays out Act 5. John has taken the two erroneous perceptions of Jesus, one like Moses and a king, at the beginning of Act 5 and separated them out from the rest of the story by moving them into the transition scene between the miracle of the loaves and the walking on water. He then took the part where Peter describes his understanding of Jesus and moved it from before the talk of resurrection, where Mark had it, to after that teaching, at which time John has Peter provide a more accurate description of Jesus.

Mark-A 6:14–16 provides still another version of the story. Instead of a discussion between Jesus and the disciples, Mark-A presents a discussion between Herod and his court. Initially, this scene shows the same public perception of Jesus that Mark-B has. But in describing John the Baptist as one of the alternatives, it refers to John the Baptist “raised from the dead.”147 Herod examines the alternatives and describes Jesus as “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”148

This account is much briefer than that of Mark-B and John. Here Herod replaces Peter as the one making the erroneous identification and at the same ←87 | 88→time incorporates the idea that Jesus can be raised from the dead. Here, however, Herod sees Jesus already raised from the dead rather than someone who will be raised in the future.

It is difficult to know what to do with this passage. It clearly shares the themes of erroneous identification and Jesus rising up from the dead but in ways that isolate it from both Mark-B and John. I suspect that this scene was originally one of Mark’s duplicate scenes from a second source and that he altered it in order to avoid the appearance of duplication. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll pass over this version of the story in the review below.

Scene 5a: The Public Perception of Jesus (John 6:14; Mark 8:27–28)

John places this scene immediately after the miracle of the loaves. Those who saw this “sign” began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”149 This identification appears to reference Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”

Mark places the scene right after the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida and shifts it to a new geographic location, Caesarea Philippi. In my reconstructed order of Mark’s scenes, it follows after the request for a sign. While traveling through the countryside Jesus asks the disciples how the public perceives him. The disciples reply, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”150

John and Mark agree that members of the public think of Jesus as someone like an ancient prophet, perhaps a prophet prophesied to appear (Elijah, one like Moses,) but they choose different role models. In either event, the public perception is wrong. Jesus is more than a prophet.

John may have changed the prophet to one like Moses in order to keep within his Passover-themed framework. The scene is placed right after the multiplication of the loaves, which invokes the theme of “manna” from heaven. Also, almost immediately after, Jesus emulates Moses by miraculous crossing over the stormy sea. When Jesus arrives on the other side, he is asked to act show a sign, just as Moses did.

Scene 5b: Jesus as King (John 6:15a; Mark-B 8:29)

In Mark, after the disciples tell Jesus what the public thinks, he asks them who they think he is. Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”151 I have already discussed ←88 | 89→the ambiguity of this answer above and pointed out that Mark’s Peter is thinking of Jesus as some sort of human earthly king rather than a supernatural being. This is close in line with the idea that Jesus is like an old time prophet, many of whom performed spectacular miracles but were still human. Jesus then instructs Peter and the disciples to say nothing about this conversation.152

In John, after the witnesses to the bread miracle acclaim Jesus as the prophet like Moses who is to come into the world, they try to force him to be king.153 As with Peter in Mark’s telling, the idea that Jesus is an earthly king is erroneous. John uses this action of forcing Jesus to become king as an excuse to explain why Jesus went up on the mountain in Scene 2b. (In Mark, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, but John doesn’t ever show Jesus in casual prayer so he needed to replace the prayer explanation.) Jesus’ withdrawal from the crowd constitutes a rejection of their understanding about who he is.

I have already discussed above the elaborate set of changes that John appears to have made to this entire act in order to protect Peter from any accusations of error. Since the identification of Jesus as king is an erroneous understanding, John has eliminated all of the apostles as the author of this declaration and alters the underlying source by substituting a different set of witnesses to the bread miracle. He has also separated these first two scenes with the erroneous perceptions of Jesus from the rest of the literary unit that accurately describes Jesus and placed them in this new location between the miracle of the loaves and the walking on water.

In addition, John has given Peter a new declaration that more accurately describes Jesus and has moved this new declaration to a more helpful location. After Jesus talks about rising up (in Scene 5c) disciples desert him and he turns to the Twelve and asks if they want to leave also. Peter responds,154“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter here has correctly recognized that Jesus can bring eternal life.

Scene 5c: Jesus Rising (John 6:60–65; Mark-B 8:31)

John begins with “many of [Jesus’] disciples” complaining. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”155 John doesn’t say which disciple made the remark or whether it was one of the Twelve. Implicitly, John refers back to the Bread of Life Discourse. But is that the case? The intervening statement at John 6:59 that the preceding Bread of Life Discourse took place in the Capernaum synagogue suggests that what follows may belongs to a different scene, perhaps even a different time and place.

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If that is the case, then this complaint may be a further attempt to rehabilitate Peter. In Mark, after Jesus talks about his death and resurrection, Peter becomes upset and rebukes Jesus. But Mark doesn’t tell us what Peter said. Obviously, Peter has a negative reaction to hearing about Jesus dying and doesn’t want it to happen. I suspect that John’s words about the teaching being too difficult to accept, uttered by a nameless follower, were, in the proposed common source, the words that Peter used to rebuke Jesus. If I am right about this, then John has moved the statement from after the teaching about resurrection to just before it, further isolating Peter from the negative remark. Mark has omitted the words altogether.

John tells us that Jesus perceived that the disciples were complaining and said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before [emphasis added]?”156 He continues with some teachings about the role of spirit versus flesh in bringing about eternal life and accuses some of his followers of not truly believing. “But among you there are some who do not believe.”157

Jesus’ response is somewhat ambiguous. Is it meant to assuage the discomfort of the disciples by giving them hope of resurrection or is it intended to be even more offensive than what upset them in the first place? Whatever the case, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”158 It is unclear what “this” is. Was it the original teaching that was too difficult to accept or the talking about his ascending to where he came from?

When Jesus talks about ascending to where he was before we should understand that to mean he will rise up and return to heaven. John is vague, though, as to whether or not this rising to heaven is a resurrection after death or something that happens while Jesus is still alive.

In Mark-B, after Peter identifies Jesus as the messiah, Jesus announces that he will be killed off by his opponents and rise again in three days “He said all this quite openly.”159 Here we have a flat-out claim that Jesus will die and be resurrected.

John and Mark depict two different sorts of rising. In John, Jesus say he will “ascend to where he was before” without any reference to his dying or any period of time before the rising. Mark talks about a rising three days after Jesus is put to death. On the other hand, we have good evidence that John knew a tradition in which Jesus claimed he would die and rise after three days.

In John’s account of chasing the money-changers from the Temple when the money-changers ask him by what authority he acts, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”160 John then adds a gloss. “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”161 He also adds that the disciples remembered ←90 | 91→this remark when Jesus was raised from the dead.162 Clearly, John knows a story in which Jesus predicted that if he were put to death (i.e., “destroy this temple/body” and he would rise again in three days).

In this scene, Mark’s prediction of Jesus (describing him as the Son of Man) dying and rising up in three days is the first of three such predictions. In John, there are three instances in which Jesus talks about the Son of Man being “lifted up” and some scholars see the three statements about being lifted up as a parallel to Mark’s three death predictions. But in this parallel scene John doesn’t talk about Jesus being “lifted up” but instead uses the word “ascending,” which is a similar concept but not identical.

I suggest John may have deliberately altered the passage of personal resurrection in order not to obscure his broader teaching of eternal life for all who believe in him. This was the theme of his carefully constructed and lengthy set-up in the preceding portions of John 6. In Chapter 7 I will take a closer look at Mark’s three death predictions and John’s three declarations about being “lifted up.” At that time, I will also take a closer look at John’s alteration of this passage and suggest that he shifted the parallel to Mark’s rising up from this scene to an earlier place in his gospel, inserting it into a dialogue with Nicodemus, a character who pops up on several occasions in John.

Scene 5d: Disciples Reject the Teaching (John 6:66–68; Mark 8:32)

In Mark, this teaching about dying and coming back to life upset Peter, who began to “rebuke” Jesus for this teaching. As I pointed out above, Mark doesn’t tell us what Peter actually said. I suggested the approximate words may have been preserved in John, to wit, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”163 Although not explicitly stated, I suspect that Peter’s concern was more with Jesus dying than with his resurrection.

In John, we also have a negative reaction to the teaching. “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”164 This leads Jesus to ask if the Twelve plan to desert him too. This is where John repositions Peter’s revised declaration about Jesus. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

In both stories the teaching about Jesus rising produces negative reactions among those who don’t yet understand what Jesus has to offer. In Mark it is Peter who reacts. In John it is those outside the Twelve. And contra to Mark, John has Peter drive home the message that Jesus can bring eternal life to those who believe.

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Scene 5e: “One of you is a devil.” (John 6:70–71; Mark 8:33)

In Mark, after Peter criticizes Jesus for this teaching about his need to die, Jesus becomes angry at his chief disciple for still not getting the message. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”165 This direct rebuke to Peter shows that his understanding of “messiah” was wrong. Peter had in mind that Jesus was a human earthly king, but Jesus belonged to a divine realm.

In John, after Peter delivers John’s reworked understanding of Jesus as the bearer of eternal life, Jesus appears to compliment the disciples for getting it. “Did I not choose you, the Twelve?”166 But he adds, “Yet one of you is a devil.”167 In Mark, Jesus charged Peter with being the devil. In John, Jesus doesn’t actually say which of the disciples the devil is. John, however, adds a gloss saying that Jesus was referring to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who was to betray him.168

John has altered the scene to downplay the original accusation that Peter was the devil because he didn’t understand that Jesus operated in a divine realm. In John’s previous scene Peter correctly identifies Jesus and in this scene John removes the direct accusation against Peter from Jesus’ mouth

Both John and Mark end Act 5 on this note about a disciple being the devil. For John that is the end of John 6 and he moves rapidly in a new direction in John 7. Mark, as we saw above, continues with what corresponds to Scene 4g, the teaching about how to achieve eternal life.

In Chapters 6 and 7 I will also look more closely at the dialogue with Nicodemus. In the course of that analysis, I will note that John has transferred Mark’s accusation against focusing on earthly things and shifted the indictment to Nicodemus. Thus, in John, Nicodemus to a large extent serves as a lightning rod for Peter’s misunderstandings, with Jesus’ death prediction and Peter’s reaction to the death prediction (focusing on earthly things) being reassigned to the earlier Nicodemus dialogue.

Act 5 Summary

Act 5 dealt with public perceptions of Jesus and problematic interactions with the disciples. Both gospels show that the public identified Jesus with ancient prophets (Scene 5a), but Mark and John disagree as to which prophets were identified. Mark says Elijah; John says Moses. John’s choice may reflect his use of Exodus themes in John 6.

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Both gospels also talk about Jesus being perceived as an earthly king (Scene 5b), but the gospels differ as to who made this identification. Mark says it was Peter, and Jesus called Peter a Satan for focusing on earthly versus heavenly matters. John, eager to rehabilitate Peter, says it was non-disciple witnesses to the miracle of the loaves who saw Jesus as an earthly king. He also portrayed Peter as correctly identifying Jesus and shifted the accusation of deviltry from Peter to Judas.

Despite the parallel agreements on Scenes 5a and 5b, John has moved the two scenes out of order. In Mark they fall just before Jesus asks Peter who he thinks Jesus is. John has relocated the parallel scenes to an earlier location between the miracle of the loaves and the walking on water. This relocation was part of John’s rehabilitating the negative image of Peter presented in Mark.

Scenes 5c–d dealt with the rejection of Jesus by disciples after making statements about rising. In Mark, Jesus talked about his need to die and rise again in three days. This led to Peter rebuking Jesus for such a teaching. In John, Jesus talks about “ascending” to where he came from (i.e., heaven) which created a commotion among his non-apostle disciples, who claimed the teaching was too difficult and rejected Jesus.

Scene 5e dealt with Jesus’ reaction to the rejection. In Mark, Jesus accused Peter of focusing on earthly matters rather than divine matters and accused him of being a Satan. In John, it was disciples outside of the Twelve who rejected Jesus. Jesus then turned to the Twelve and asked if they were deserting him also. Peter responded with a correct understanding of who Jesus was. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”169 Jesus congratulated Peter and accused one of the other disciples of being a devil. John added a gloss saying that Jesus meant Judas.

John’s Apostle Filter

The analysis above showed that on several occasions John and Mark appear to tell the same story but that in Mark when the chief actors are either Peter or the twelve apostles John substitutes individuals outside of the inner circle. This is the chief reason why a number of parallels between John 6 and Mark have gone unnoticed. Once that recognition is in place the connections become clearer. Let’s review the evidence.

In Mark and John, after the miracle of the loaves the apostles cross the sea by boat and Jesus walks on water. When Jesus approaches the boat, Mark and John diverge from each other. Mark shows Jesus getting in the boat and calming ←93 | 94→a storm; he observes that the apostles are hungry; he chastises them for failing to understand the meaning of the loaves; he warns them about seeking out the yeast of the Pharisees; and the apostles don’t understand what Jesus is teaching them. Then they arrive on shore.

In John, Jesus does not get in the boat with the disciples and does not calm the storm. He performs a different miracle that sends the disciples and the boat to shore without him and he mysteriously appears on shore separately from them. On land he tells other witnesses to the bread miracle that they failed to understand the meaning of the signs they saw and warns them against seeking bread that perishes. Where Mark shows the apostles in a negative light, John inserts a different set of witnesses who take on the same negative role as Mark’s apostles.

In Mark and John, we have a scene where the public perceives Jesus as an ancient prophet. They each follow this up with somebody erroneously identifying Jesus as an earthly king, but in Mark it is Peter who makes the mistake and in John it is members of the public. John adds in a scene in which Peter correctly identifies Jesus’ nature.

In Mark and John, Jesus talks about some form of rising up that raises objections from his audience. In Mark it is Peter who raises the objection and in John it is unidentified disciples (outside of the inner circle).

In Mark and John, Jesus directly accuses one of the disciples of being a devil. In Mark, Jesus openly identifies Peter as Satan. In John, Jesus never directly says which disciple is the devil but John adds a gloss saying that it was Judas.

We have two broad differences between John’s version of events and Mark’s. First, John has presented Peter in a positive light compared to Mark’s negative portrayals in the parallel scenes. Second, where Mark has negative depictions of the apostles John has portrayed the offending parties as non-apostles.

This substantial conflict between John and Mark as to the role of the apostles in the John 6 narrative arc makes it highly unlikely that Mark could have used John as a source. It is inconceivable to me that Mark would take some basic stories about misunderstanding by non-followers of Jesus and transform them into stories about misunderstandings by the apostles. Even more difficult would be changing the apostle accused of being a devil from Judas the betrayer to Peter.

If we accept that John made the changes then we can further add that the rebuke over the failure to understand the meaning of the loaves almost certainly took place on the boat during the sea-crossing and John has reconstructed the scene to avoid placing Jesus in the boat with the disciples, thus isolating them from Jesus’ criticism.

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Once we see that John has filtered out the various references to the apostles in these stories and made the appropriate changes we can more clearly see that John and Mark, for at least this part of the narrative, follow the same set of stories in almost identical sequential order. While it seems obvious that Mark couldn’t have copied from John, an argument might be made that John copied from Mark. However, because of some of Mark’s quirks and interruptions in his sequential narrative, (particularly the jump from Mark 6:51 to 8:14), I don’t think it is likely that John could have used Mark as a source for this set of events.

Luke’s Variations from Mark

Earlier in this chapter I argued that the natural continuation from Mark 6:51 (after Jesus walked on water and got on the boat with the disciples and calmed the storm) was Mark 8:14–21, which continues the boat ride to Bethsaida, during which trip Jesus chastises the disciples for not understanding the meaning of the loaves. I also argued that Mark 8:10–13 (Request for a sign) belongs after 8:22–26 (Healing of a blind man in Bethsaida).

At the time of that argument I observed that both John and Luke lack everything that Mark had between Mark 6:52 and the reordered 8:14–22. This omission included Mark’s second bread miracle. Luke and John both had only one bread miracle, and they each used a version in which the numbers coincided with Mark’s first bread miracle. I thought this interesting and a possible clue in support of my argument about where Mark should have picked up after Mark 6:52.

What I didn’t mention at the time was that Luke’s omission from Mark’s narrative is somewhat more extensive than just the break between Mark 6:52 and 8:14. Luke also omits from the larger narrative sequence several of the scenes that have parallels in Mark and John. The most significant omission is the crossing of the sea after the bread miracle, an event that both Mark and John agree took place. Luke jumps from the bread miracle (Scene 2a) to Jesus’ inquiry about who the people think he is (Scene 5a). Luke has also omitted Scene 5c, the Satan accusation against one of the disciples. All of these additional omissions, as we have seen above, have parallels in Mark and John. A closer look at Luke, however, indicates that Luke has moved these missing parallels into a different location and into a different context. Let me review what Luke has done.

The Sea Voyage

While Luke’s gospel omits the story of Jesus walking on water, other portions of the sea voyage appear to have been moved elsewhere in his gospel, placing them ←95 | 96→into different contexts. The most obvious clue is Mark’s warning about the yeast of the Pharisees, which led to Jesus’ chastisement of the disciples. Luke’s version of the miracle of the loaves occurs at Luke 9:10–17. If we jump to Luke 12:1, we find the following: “Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’ ”170

Luke has completely severed the “yeast” passage from Mark’s original context. Just prior to the warning, Luke depicts a group of Pharisees angrily criticizing him and questioning him in order to lay a trap.171 Luke has identified the “yeast” as the “hypocrisy” of the Pharisees rather than their teachings. The yeast verse is followed by several Jesus teachings about the need to acknowledge the son of Man in order to be saved and how the Holy Spirit will help the disciples speak out against further accusations in the synagogues.172

Luke has used the “yeast” warning to bolster the resolve of the disciples and has eliminated Mark’s chastisement for their failure to understand the warning and the meaning of the loaves. Instead he has directed the criticisms to the “hypocrisy” of the Pharisees.

Another clue from the sea voyage has to do with Mark’s notice that the disciples were frightened by the appearance of Jesus walking on water and their thought that he was a ghost. I noted that John’s version of the walking on water lacked the ghost reference. Luke, on the other hand, appears to have moved Mark’s Jesus-ghost imagery into a post-resurrection setting.

In the post-crucifixion segment when Jesus appears to the disciples, Luke says, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”173 I’ll discuss this scene more fully in Chapter 14. For now, however, I note that the language seems borrowed from Mark’s sea voyage and placed into a context where the disciples might be expected to think they were seeing a ghost. In support of the parallel I note that these Jesus-ghost incidents in Mark and Luke are the only times either has a scene in which disciples think an image of Jesus is a ghost.

A third artifact from the sea voyage comes from Luke’s claim that the miracle of the loaves occurred in Bethsaida.174 Mark, as I argued above, says that Jesus and the disciples were crossing over to Bethsaida after the feeding of the five thousand. Since Luke has eliminated the sea voyage, he appears to have placed the miracle of the loaves at the location that would have been where Jesus and the crew landed after the crossing.

The Request for a Sign

Closely related to the sea voyage is the request for a sign after Jesus has landed the boat. In Mark, the request for a sign comes immediately after the Sea Voyage, ←96 | 97→although I argued that Mark has reversed the order of the request for a sign and the sea voyage from that in the proposed common source. Luke, at the very minimum, knows that Mark has placed the “sign” scene right after the sea voyage following Mark’s second story about the miracle of the loaves.

In my reconstructed version of Mark’s sequential narrative, after crossing over to Bethsaida (and after healing a blind man there,) Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign and Jesus responded, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” Luke appears to have moved the request for a sign into a different context.

Mark has a story about Jesus being accused of doing exorcisms with the aid of a demon.175 Luke has added to that story a feature missing from Mark’s version. “Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven.”176 This is the first part of Mark’s “sign” story.

A little further on, according to Luke, Jesus says, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”177 This is a variation on the second part of Mark’s sign story, about the generation wanting a sign, but in this case Luke’s version is filtered through a Q overlay.178 Although the two parts are separated, they are part of a connected series of teachings to a growing crowd. Shortly after that, as part of the ongoing interaction between Jesus and others at the location, Luke inserts the “yeast” passage.

Luke has placed the yeast warning and the request for a sign and Jesus’ response in a close narrative proximity occurring on the same day but has completely isolated the events from their original context and has transferred the negative criticism of the disciples to a negative criticism of the Pharisees.

The Satan Accusation

In Scene 5c, dealing with the identity of Jesus, after Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about his death and rising up, Jesus accused Peter of being an agent of Satan. John altered the scene by having Jesus say that one of the disciples was an agent of Satan but didn’t have him say who he was referring to. John added a gloss to indicate that the disciple referred to was Judas. Luke has omitted that scene. However, he appears to have again shifted a scene into a different context that eliminates the negative context.

In Luke, moments before the arrival of the police to arrest Jesus, he says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”179 These verses strike me as a ←97 | 98→sanitized version of the Satan accusation that takes away the negative impact of Jesus’ original accusation and places Peter in a more venerated situation.

Summary of Luke’s Variations

The two broad areas that we have explored above include the sea voyage (and its immediate aftermath) and the Satan accusation. In Mark, both events involve negative depictions of Peter and/or the disciples as a group. John has altered these scenes to eliminate any criticism of the disciples, but has maintained a close sequential agreement with Mark as to the unfolding of these events. Luke, on the other hand, has also altered these scenes to eliminate negative images of Peter but in less obvious ways and in a more scattered and disguised manner, moving the pieces out of the original narrative sequence. On a pragmatic level, it seems fair to say that John 6 adheres more closely to Mark’s sequential order than does Luke’s.

Having explained Luke’s additional departure from Mark’s sequential narrative, we are back to the interesting omission in both John and Luke of the duplicative material in Mark. At this point in the analysis, we may have only a coincidence, but as other parallels build up in the course of the subsequent analysis and it becomes clear that Mark, Luke and John know a common source, the coincidence becomes further evidence that Mark has disrupted the original narrative to account for his duplicative material.

In the course of my analysis in the subsequent chapters, agreements between John and Luke against Mark will often be considered evidence of what was in the proposed common source.

The Sequential Evidence

I have divided John 6 into 32 consecutive scenes and attached an additional scene from John 5, the death threat against Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, 33 scenes in all. With the exception of the Passover announcement, Scene 1d, I have identified a parallel scene in Mark for each of the other 32 scenes in John. In the analysis above, I have also made argument that certain scenes in John and Mark are out of their proper narrative order.

What I plan to do here is first explore the degree of sequential correlation between John and Mark if no changes are made to the existing order in either gospel and then look at how much additional correlation we find once my proposed re-ordering is introduced. Table 2.4, List of Scenes in John 6 and Mark that appear in the same narrative order, lists just those scenes in Mark and John where ←98 | 99→we currently find sequential agreement. For this purpose, I didn’t distinguish between Mark-A and Mark-B. I chose only one of the two scenes where there were duplicates.

Table 2.4: Scenes in John 6 and Mark following same narrative order

Table 2.4 shows 24 of the 33 scenes in the same sequential order. That constitutes just under a 75% agreement in the sequential order over a lengthy narrative arc. Even without reordering the other scenes this suggests a strong literary ←99 | 100→connection between John and Mark for this portion of the gospel. Either John copied from Mark or both copied from an earlier written source.

In the course of my analysis I argued that John switched the order of Scenes 2i and 2j (transition between the miracle of the loaves and walking on water) and moved Scenes 5a (erroneous perception of Jesus as a prophet) and 5b (erroneous perception of Jesus as an earthly king) out of order. I also proposed that Mark moved three Scenes out of order: 2e (the crowd numbered 5,000 people); 4c (witnesses did not understand the meaning of the loaves); and 4f (request for a sign).

There are also two additional scenes that presented problems. John’s Passover announcement (1f) is not present in Mark and we can’t determine if John added it or Mark removed it. This is the only incident in John 6 that isn’t paralleled in Mark. There is also the matter of the speech on obtaining eternal life (4g). Mark places it immediately after Act 5. John places it immediately before Act 5. That the scene is narratively linked to Act 5, “Who is Jesus?,” seems clear. Who has the correct order is difficult to say. It is my default position that, absent contrary evidence, I follow Mark’s order of events.

John’s switch in the order of two consecutive scenes (2i and 2j) is trivial, as is Mark’s placement of the 5000 people (2e) within the story of the miracle of the loaves. The slight variation in narrative order does not in any way negatively impact the issue of whether John knew written Mark or Mark’s written source. They reflect simple editorial resequencing within a very short story that simply reflects the author’s judgement about how to order the details within a story. For all practical purposes, the present locations of those three scenes is consistent with the two authors both independently knowing a common written sequential order that included all three scenes in their original locations.

That leaves only four out of 33 scenes that depart in a meaningful way from a common sequential order. The two variations in John (5a, 5b) were easily explained as part of John’s effort to rehabilitate a negative image of Peter as presented in Mark. The two scenes in Mark (4c, 4f) are the product of Mark’s need to re-edit a series of similar stories to avoid the appearance of duplication.

Given the high degree of sequential correlation, there should be little doubt that, at least for John 6, the evangelist clearly knew a long narrative arc that had the same sequential order that Mark knew. Given that both Mark and John each appear to have moved scenes out of order, plus John’s ability to track a parallel narrative that required a jump from Mark 6:51 to Mark 8:14, it is unlikely either is the written source for the other. Further confirmation of that thesis will be provided by the evidence presented in subsequent chapters.

←100 |


In the course of our examination of John 6 and its relationship to Mark, we uncovered several useful pieces of evidence. The following list outlines the key pieces of information.

Mark appears to have worked from at least two copies of an underlying source document that had some differences among several overlapping stories. In order to integrate both sources into his narrative and avoid the appearance of duplication, he rearranged scenes and redacted details from several stories.

The natural continuation of Mark 6:51 (calming of stormy sea) is Mark 8:14:21 (warning about yeast of Pharisees) but Mark broke the link and inserted several stories in between. This suggests that he has altered a written source.

The reconnection of Mark 6:51 to Mark 8:14 shows that Mark 8:10–13 (request for a sign) originally followed after Mark 8:14–26.

John and Luke omit all of Mark’s extra stories between Mark 6:51 and 8:14.

Mark has a previously unrecognized doublet of the calming of the sea miracle and may have deleted a second walking on water scene from his longer version of the calming of the stormy sea.

John moved John 6:14–15a, the public perception of Jesus as either a prophet or earthly king, from its original position between John 6:59 and 6:60 to its present position, an indication that John altered a written source.

John had an editorial agenda that included the elimination of negative portrayals of the apostles by shifting the behavior to those outside the inner circle. He also replaced negative images of Peter with positive images. I identified this editorial process as an “Apostle Filter.”

Luke appears to have used a similar filter but amended the scenes by transferring troubling portrayals into different contexts.

For the purpose of analysis, I divided all of John 6 into 32 consecutive scenes. I also added, for contextual reasons, the preceding scene from John 5 for a total of 33 scenes in all. Without recording any of the verses in either gospel, we saw that at least 24 of these scenes unfolded in the same sequential order that Mark had, a sequential agreement of just under 75% over a lengthy narrative arc. Even without restoring seven of the out-of-order scenes in Mark or John to the rightful place in the sequential narrative, we could see that the two authors must have each known a written source that contained at least 31 of those scenes in the same sequential order.

Of the remaining two scenes, one was a Passover announcement that appeared in John but not in Mark. The other was a teaching about eternal life that appears to be closely connected to the Act 5 “Who is Jesus?” unit. John places the incident immediately before Act 5. Mark places it immediately after. The lack of agreement ←101 | 102→suggests one of the two evangelists changed the order of the eternal life discourse and we can’t be certain who did so. Nevertheless, it is clear that it belongs with the 31-scene narrative arc that unfolds in the same sequential order.

While we clearly have a sequential agreement for a large number of scenes, Mark and John disagree as to whether the scenes were narratively connected or represented isolated events that follow one after the other.

In that regard we saw that Mark depicted Scenes 4e and 4f as unconnected scenes taking place in different geographic locations and that John deliberately omitted the narrative shift from a group of witnesses to the bread miracle on shore to a synagogue congregation that knew nothing about the bread miracle.

At the same time Mark has a large amount of narrative material between the end of scene 1e and the start of scene 2a. Although John implies that Scenes 1a–1e flowed contiguously into scene 2a, his placement of the Passover announcement in between showed that John 6 contains a chronological gap at the same location where Mark has several additional stories. It is possible therefore that John could have deleted or relocated some of the material in Mark’s narrative sequence.

The evidence suggests that Mark knew at least two written sources for the parallel set of scenes that appear in John 6 and that he must have relied on those sources for his gospel accounts, making a number of editorial redactions and changes to avoid the appearance of repeating himself with duplicate scenes. Because of variations in Mark’s two sources we have to assume that either Mark thought that some or all of the similar scenes were independent events or that he couldn’t clearly choose which version of events to follow and integrated both in a redacted format in an effort to harmonize his multiple sources. Because Mark’s two different versions of the bread miracle differ in assorted ways from John 6’s version, we have to conclude that in this early stage of transmission the texts were not yet fixed as to details within stories and that small changes were introduced into the manuscripts as they were copied over for transmission. That John and Luke both agree that there was only one miracle of the loaves, one that was consistent with the numeric details in the earlier Mark-A version, then that would have been the version that appeared in the proposed common source (subject to proof that such a common source existed).

The long sequential agreement between John 6 and Mark clearly indicate some sort of literary connection between the two that involved a lengthy manuscript (for at least this part of John) containing all the events in John 6 (except possibly for the Passover announcement). What is that literary relationship?

Because of John’s Apostle Filter I don’t think it is reasonable to conclude that Mark copied from John. So, either John copied from a written version of Mark or both knew a common written source for at least the events in John 6. The fact ←102 | 103→that the enhanced sequential agreement between John and Mark is based, in part, on the re-ordered version of Mark rather than Mark as it now appears provides a strong clue that John probably used a version of Mark’s source rather than Mark.

Table 2.5, Proposed common source sequence behind John 6 and Mark, shows my reconstruction of the narrative order of events so far discussed. It follows my reordered sequences for Mark and John. The list includes locations where other stories may have been present in the proposed common source. I also list some of the events that John appears to have omitted, such as certain exorcisms and the call of the disciples.

Table 2.5: Proposed scene order in underlying source behind John 6 and Mark

In the table, I have placed an asterisk in the Scene column where John chose to remove scenes from his gospel. John’s omitted scenes will be added in to the final reconstruction of the original proposed common source. Highlighted cells in the Descriptions column indicate where additional scenes from the proposed common source may have been located but not yet confirmed. Italicized text in the Descriptions column indicates a short commentary on the scene. Highlighted verses indicate where a gospel departed from the sequential order of the proposed common source.


1 1. I will argue in this chapter that John 6 also contains an unacknowledged eighth pre-Passion miracle.

2 2. (Brown, New Testament Essays 1965), 269.

3 3. (Aland 1985), 128.

4 4. Mark 6:30–44, 8:1–9.

5 5. Mark 6:14–16, 8:27–30.

6 6. Mark 6:51–52, 8:14–21.

7 7. Mark 6:51.

8 8. Mark 6:48.

9 9. (Nelson 1979), 295; (Neil S. Wilson, Linda K. Taylor 2001), 356.

10 10. (Meier 1994), 905.

11 11. (Meier 1994), 905

12 12. (Meier 1994), 905

13 13. (Meier 1994), 951–956. Meier includes charts supplied by Raymond Brown.

14 14. (Brown, New Testament Essays 1965), 268–9.

15 15. (Brown, New Testament Essays 1965), 269.

16 16. (Meier 1994), 697.

17 17. John 6:2.

18 18. John 6:3.

19 19. John 4:46–54.

20 20. John 4:54. There is a similar problem at John 2:23, where there is a claim that witnesses had seen multiple signs, even though this comes before John reports on the “second sign” that Jesus performed. I’ll deal with that problem in Chapter 6.

21 21. John 2:11.

22 22. Mark 3:6.

23 23. Mark 3:7.

24 24. Mark 3:8.

25 25. Mark 3:11–12.

26 26. Mark 3:13.

27 27. Luke 6:11–19.

28 28. Mark 1:39.

29 29. John 20:30.

30 30. Mark 3:10–11.

31 31. John 6:67, 20:24.

32 32. Mark 6:32.

33 33. Mark 6:33.

34 34. Mark 6:34.

35 35. Mark 6:34.

36 36. (Aland 1985), 135.

37 37. (Dewey and Miller 2012), 87.

38 38. Mark 6:7–12, 30.

39 39. Mark 6:34.

40 40. Mark 6:34.

41 41. Mark 14:27.

42 42. Matthew 14:13–21, 15:32–39.

43 43. Luke 9:10–17.

44 44. Mark 6:37.

45 45. Mark 6:41.

46 46. Mark 8:6–7; John 6:11.

47 47. Mark 8:4; John 6:5.

48 48. Mark 6:39.

49 49. It is widely argued that Mark-A refers to a Jewish outreach by Jesus and Mark-B refers to a gentile outreach.

50 50. Mark 6:37.

51 51. Mark 8:4.

52 52. John 6:5.

53 53. John 6:6.

54 54. The menorah that stood in the first temple had seven branches (Exodus 25:32). The menorah used in the Festival of Dedication (Hanukah) has nine branches.

55 55. Mark 8:1.

56 56. Mark 6:45.

57 57. Mark 6:46.

58 58. John 6:14–15.

59 59. John 6:15.

60 60. John 6:16–17.

61 61. Cf. Mark 1:35, 14:32.

62 62. Mark 10:47–48.

63 63. John 6:22.

64 64. See John 7:30, 44, 10:39.

65 65. John 6:21.

66 66. Exodus 14:21–22.

67 67. Exodus 14:26–27.

68 68. Exodus 14:27.

69 69. John 6:17.

70 70. John 6:22.

71 71. Mark 6:50.

72 72. Mark 6:20.

73 73. Mark 6:51–52.

74 74. John 6:21.

75 75. John 6:22.

76 76. John 6:24.

77 77. John 6:25.

78 78. Mark 4:35.

79 79. Mark 4:35–41.

80 80. Mark 4:36.

81 81. Mark 4:36.

82 82. Mark 4:38.

83 83. Mark 4:39.

84 84. Mark 4:35.

85 85. Mark 4:36.

86 86. Mark 4:36.

87 87. Mark 6:45.

88 88. Mark 6:53.

89 89. (Freedman 1992), s.v., Gennesaret (Place).

90 90. Mark 6:49–50.

91 91. Mark 8:10.

92 92. Mark 8:11.

93 93. Mark 8:12.

94 94. Mark 8:13.

95 95. Mark 8:22.

96 96. Mark 6:51b–52.

97 97. Mark 8:14–21.

98 98. Mark 8:14–21.

99 99. Mark 8:16.

100 100. Mark 8:17.

101 101. Mark 8:19–20.

102 102. Mark 8:21.

103 103. (Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII 1966), 272.

104 104. Mark 6:49.

105 105. Mark 8:15.

106 106. Mark 8:16.

107 107. John 6:25.

108 108. John 6:26.

109 109. John 6:27.

110 110. John 6:28.

111 111. John 6:27

112 112. John 6:28.

113 113. John 6:29.

114 114. John 6:31.

115 115. John 6:32.

116 116. Mark 8:15.

117 117. Matthew 16:12. Matthew has substituted Sadducees for Mark’s Herod.

118 118. John 6:29.

119 119. John 6:30.

120 120. John 6:31.

121 121. John 6:32–33.

122 122. John 6:59.

123 123. Mark 8:11.

124 124. Mark 8:12.

125 125. John 6:40.

126 126. John 6:42.

127 127. John 6:49–50.

128 128. John 6:51.

129 129. John 6:52.

130 130. John 6:53.

131 131. John 6:58.

132 132. Mark 14:22.

133 133. Mark 14:23–24.

134 134. Mark 8:35.

135 135. Mark 8:38.

136 136. John 6:66.

137 137. Daniel 7:13.

138 138. Mark 8:33.

139 139. John 6:15.

140 140. Mark 8:33.

141 141. John 6:61–62.

142 142. John 6:63.

143 143. John 6:66.

144 144. John 6:69.

145 145. John 6:70.

146 146. John 6:71.

147 147. Mark 6:14.

148 148. Mark 6:16.

149 149. John 6:14.

150 150. Mark 8:28.

151 151. Mark 8:29.

152 152. Mark 8:30.

153 153. John 6:15a.

154 154. John 6:68–69.

155 155. John 6:60.

156 156. John 6:61–62.

157 157. John 6:64.

158 158. John 6:66.

159 159. Mark 8:32.

160 160. John 2:19.

161 161. John 2:21.

162 162. John 2:22.

163 163. John 6:60.

164 164. John 6:66.

165 165. Mark 8:33.

166 166. John 6:70.

167 167. John 6:70.

168 168. John 6:71.

169 169. John 6:68.

170 170. Luke 12:1.

171 171. Luke 11:53–54.

172 172. Luke 12:4–12.

173 173. Luke 24:37.

174 174. Luke 9:10.

175 175. Mark 3:20–30.

176 176. Luke 11:16.

177 177. Luke 11:29.

178 178. (Kloppenborg 1987), 75.

179 179. Luke 22:31–32.

←103 | 104→←104 | 105→ ←105 | 106→←106 | 107→←107 | 108→←108 | 109→


Aland, Kurt. 1985. Synopsis of the Four Gospels. English Edition, Revised printing. New York: American Bible Society.

Brown, Raymond E. 1965. New Testament Essays. New York: Doubleday Religion.

Brown, Raymond E. 1966. The Gospel According to John I-XII. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Dewey, Arthur J., and Robert J. Miller. 2012. The Complete Gospel Parallels. Salem: Polebridge Press.

Freedman, D. N., ed. 1992. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday.

Kloppenborg, John S. 1987. The Formation of Q. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International.

Meier, John P. 1994. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vols. Two: Mentor, Message, and Miracles. 4 vols. New York: Doubleday.

Nelson, Thomas. 1979. Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Wilson, Neil S., and Linda K. Taylor. 2001. Tyndale Handbook of Bible Charts and Maps. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers.

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The Paralytic on the Mat

In Chapter 2 I analyzed what I called the Prelude, a parallel between Mark 3:1–19 and John 5–6:3. Both gospel segments began with a Sabbath healing story that culminated in hostility between Jesus and the authorities. These Sabbath incidents, as previously discussed, were immediately followed in both gospels by four additional parallel events. At the time, I indicated that the content of the two Sabbath stories was significantly different and that for the purpose of analysis I was only concerned at that time with what occurred in each gospel following the onset of hostility towards Jesus after he healed on the Sabbath.

In John, the Sabbath story takes up all of John 5. In Mark, it is limited to just a few verses at Mark 3:1–6. In this chapter I will take a detailed look at how John 5 interacts with Mark. The connections are far more extensive than they appear on the surface and extend beyond Mark’s Sabbath story.

In John 5, Jesus heals a paralyzed man who was sitting on a mat and tells him to pick up his mat and walk. In Mark 2:1–12, Jesus also encounters a paralyzed man sitting on a mat and tells him to pick up his mat and walk. In John, the story takes place on a Sabbath day in Jerusalem and leads to charges of blasphemy and violating the Sabbath. Mark’s story also leads to charges of blasphemy, but his story is situated in Capernaum, in Galilee, and it doesn’t take place on a Sabbath, so Mark has no Sabbath conflicts in his version.

←111 | 112→

Among New Testament scholars there is some debate as to whether a literary connection exists between John’s story of the healing of the paralytic and Mark’s.1 Because of the many differences between the two gospel accounts most scholars reject any connection, arguing that the two stories constitute separate independent events. At the same time, however, many scholars have also called into question John’s claim that the healing happened on a Sabbath.2

John P. Meier, for example, who sees the two gospel stories as independent of each other, does believe the Sabbath infraction was a later amendment to the underlying tale.3 Johannine scholar Urban von Wahlde acknowledges the awkwardness of the Sabbath claim and suggests that it was probably added to the text to explain what followed afterwards.4 Much of what follows, though, depends on the claim that the event happened on a Sabbath. This suggests to me that John inserted the Sabbath claim in order to address additional issues through the story of healing the paralytic.

While Mark’s story about the paralytic doesn’t occur on the Sabbath, it appears in very close narrative proximity to two stories that do take place on the Sabbath and both involve hostile confrontations. One tells of the apostles plucking grain on the Sabbath5 and the other deals with Jesus healing a man with a withered hand, which follows immediately after the grain incident.6 The latter story is the one I used for comparative purposes in Chapter 2’s analysis of the Prelude. The closeness of these two Sabbath violation stories to Mark’s account of the paralytic provides a clue that something in those Sabbath stories may have induced John to incorporate some of those Sabbath issues into his own account of the paralytic.

Mark’s sequence of three stories raise several overlapping theological issues. It is my argument below that John knew versions of Mark’s three-story sequence and found Mark’s depiction of these issues troubling.

In the paralytic story, for example, Mark says that Jesus claimed to have authority to forgive sins. In Mark’s apostle story, Jesus says that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. These piecemeal depictions of Jesus’ authority could have been interpreted to mean that there were some areas in which Jesus didn’t have authority. This, I suspect, troubled John, because in his account of healing the paralytic on the Sabbath, John’s Jesus claims the Father gave him all authority to make judgments on all issues.7

In Mark’s two Sabbath conflict stories, Jesus engages in legal arguments to show that his actions fall under the law. In John’s Sabbath story, however, he makes no legal defense of his actions, claiming that his authority comes directly from the Father and he is, therefore, not bound by the law. In Mark’s story of ←112 | 113→the paralytic, Jesus says that the healing proves he has authority to act. This is in line with his legal defenses in the Sabbath stories, an attempt to show that Jesus functions within the law.

John, however, appears to reject that approach, since his authority to act comes directly from the Father, not the Law. While John acknowledges that deeds are evidence of a connection to God, his story of the Sabbath conflict, as we shall see, suggests that he wants people to accept Jesus’ authority to exercise judgment based on the words he teaches and not on the deeds he performs.

In Mark, the apostles engage in what appears to be a clear violation of the Sabbath. As I pointed out in Chapter 2, John altered stories that portray the apostles in a negative light by substituting non-apostles for the apostles.

The above examples give some evidence that John is addressing multiple issues spread out through Mark’s three stories. For these and other reasons, it is my view that John melded together all three of Mark’s stories to provide a single integrated account that addressed the overlapping theological concerns those stories presented to John. To the best of my knowledge the idea that John merged the story of the paralytic with that of the two Sabbath conflicts remains original with me. John’s transformation of the material has made it extremely difficult to see the many connections between all three stories in Mark and John 5, but careful analysis below will reveal that John 5 does indeed derive from a combination of these three stories in Mark.

The Man on the Mat in Mark 2:1–12

According to Mark, early in Jesus’ mission, before he had aroused any antagonism from hostile opponents to his teachings, he had developed a reputation for healing and exorcism.8 Upon completing a mission that involved numerous exorcisms and healings he returned home to Capernaum.9 When the local residents learned he had come back, a large crowd gathered, blocking access through the doorway.10

As the crowd listened to Jesus, four men carrying a paralytic on a mat appeared.11 Unable to get past the crowd in order to reach Jesus, they climbed on to the roof of his house, dug a hole through it, and lowered the paralytic on the mat down before him.12 Duly impressed with their faith, Jesus turned to the paralytic and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”13

Nearby, several scribes were seated. Somehow, among the din and from a distance, they were able to hear Jesus’ words from inside the house and they began to discuss amongst themselves what Jesus had just said.14 “Why does this fellow ←113 | 114→speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone [emphasis added]?”15

Jesus realized they were discussing this issue and rebuked them. “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins [emphasis added]”16 he turned to the paralytic and said, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”17

The now-healed paralytic followed Jesus’ command and picked up his mat and walked away, but he never said anything to Jesus about what happened. Implicitly, Jesus had healed the paralytic moments earlier when he told the man his sins were forgiven but nobody, including the paralytic, realized that until Jesus told him to get up. The crowd was amazed at what happened and glorified God. “We have never seen anything like this!”18 Mark doesn’t specifically say how the scribes reacted, but they may have been among those who were astonished at what had just transpired.

As I observed above, the main message of this story is that by healing the paralytic Jesus proves that the “Son of Man” is authorized to forgive sins in the here and now. Keep in mind that the story only shows an authority to forgive sins; it doesn’t indicate authority to undertake any other actions that may seem to violate Jewish law.

The Man on the Mat in John 5

John’s story of the healing of a paralytic on a mat encompasses a wider range of activity than Mark’s because he placed the event on a Sabbath. This leads to more extensive confrontation because of alleged Sabbath violations in addition to accusations of blasphemy. I have divided John 5 into four broad sections, each described below.

1) John 5:1–9a: In this section Jesus comes upon the Jerusalem gate and sees many invalids lying about the porches around a pool known for its curative powers. He noticed one invalid, a man lying on his mat unable to walk, who looked as if he had been suffering by the pool for a long time. John says the affliction had lasted for 38 years but we are not told how he knows that detail.

Jesus approached the man and asked if he would like to be made well. The man responded that he has no one to help him into the water when it is stirred up (presumably when the healing powers are released) and whenever he tries to get ←114 | 115→over to the pool people get in front of him and block his way. Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”19 Suddenly, the man was cured. He picked up his mat and walked off but said nothing to Jesus about what had just happened.

2) John 5:9b–13: As the man walks off with his mat, John tells us for the first time that this day was a Sabbath. This meant that carrying the mat pursuant to Jesus’ instructions would have been a violation of the Sabbath proscription against labor. As the healed paralytic walked on, some Jews confronted him about this illegal behavior.

The man responded that the person who had made him well told him to pick up the mat and walk. When the crowd asked who told him to do this, he looked around, but Jesus had disappeared into the crowd and the man didn’t know his name.

3) John 5:14–18: Later, Jesus encountered the man in the temple and said, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you [emphasis added].”20 Implicit in Jesus’ instruction, but not specifically set forth, is that the man had been made well because his sins had now been forgiven.

During this second encounter between the man and Jesus, the healed paralytic identified Jesus to the crowd as the man who cured him and told him to pick up the mat. This led the Jews to start “persecuting” Jesus for “doing such things on the Sabbath.”21 Presumably, but not explicitly stated, the complaint is about Jesus healing on the Sabbath as opposed to telling the man to pick up his mat and violate the Sabbath but it may also be the case that both actions are the subject of the accusation. The text is also vague as to the nature of this persecution at this point in time and there is no indication yet of any actual attempt to physically harm Jesus. In response, Jesus confronted the crowd and defended his actions by declaring that “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”22

According to John,

For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.23

The idea that Jews thought Jesus made himself equal to God by referring to the deity as his Father seems somewhat inconsistent with John 8:41, where the Jews say, “we have one father, God himself.” But, let’s put that aside.

Despite the alleged threats, no physical assault takes place. I say alleged because John doesn’t describe any hostile actions. He merely asserts that this is what the Jews wanted to do. This is the first reference to any previous desire to kill Jesus ←115 | 116→for the Sabbath violation, and presumably it relates back to the earlier vague reference to “persecution”, but this alleged hostile desire is revealed only in the later context of wanting to kill Jesus for blasphemy.

Note here a slight but significant editorial shift from Mark’s version of the story. In Mark, it is Jesus’ statement that sins have been forgiven that leads to the charge of blasphemy; in John, Jesus also said, implicitly, that the sins had been forgiven, but that is not what leads to the accusation of blasphemy. It is his very next statement, that he and the Father are both working, that induces the crowd to charge blasphemy.

In both stories, Jesus forgives sins and in both stories Jesus is accused of blasphemy for equating himself with God. But John has placed a narrative barrier between the forgiving of sins and the charge of blasphemy by inserting a statement in between the two events, a statement introduced as a defense against the charge of violating the Sabbath. John has shifted the story away from accusing Jesus of blasphemy for forgiving sins and has placed the blasphemy in the context of defending his Sabbath actions by claiming that he and the Father are both working.

4) John 5:19–47: Although the crowd had just expressed its desire to kill Jesus for violating the Sabbath and for blasphemy, Jesus remains in place, unharmed, and launches into a long speech in which he defines his relation to the Father and argues that if the Jews believed in Moses they would believe in him, because Moses wrote about him. The speech is steeped in Johannine theology and it is mostly material that Mark would not have included if it was found in his source. Among the things Jesus says in this speech we have the following.

“The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son [emphasis added].”24

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life [emphasis added].”25

For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.26

“and [the Father] has given him [i.e., Jesus] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man [emphasis added].”27


John and Mark both link “authority” to make judgments to the fact that Jesus is “the Son of Man.” But in Mark, Jesus offers the healing as proof of his authority. ←116 | 117→In John, on the other hand, Jesus doesn’t claim that healing the paralytic proves he has authority. Jesus just asserts that he has been given all authority to execute judgement and offers eternal life to those who “hear his words and believe.”

In Mark, Jesus was given authority to forgive sins and heal in the present. John has expanded upon that principle, saying that he has been given authority to determine who will receive eternal life in the future, a power which includes the authority to forgive sins but encompasses so much more. John’s Jesus has the authority to act above and outside the law.

John 5 ends with Jesus still addressing the crowd and invoking Moses as his witness. Despite the alleged death threats, no further action is described. No one tries to stone or arrest Jesus. The next thing we know, Jesus is heading towards Galilee at the beginning of John 6.

Comparing John and Mark re Healing the Paralytic

John and Mark share several story elements in their respective accounts of the healing of the paralytic but some of the most important parallels appear in differing contexts. We also find several significant differences in the story details. Because of the different contexts and major inconsistencies most scholars tend to consider the two stories independent of each other, based on unrelated incidents. However, as I will show below, when we examine the way in which the two stories differ, we will see that John has simply replaced the underlying theological motifs with a Johannine agenda. When this is accounted for, we will see that John and Mark worked from a common version of the underlying story about healing of the paralytic.

I’ll start with a brief summary of the ways in which John and Mark intersect with respect to the healing of the paralytic. Next, I’ll review the significant ways in which the two stories diverge. Lastly, I’ll show how almost all those differences can be reconciled.

Points of Intersection

When we compare the two stories about the healing of the paralytic certain common elements emerge but in some instances the contexts differ.

In both stories there is a paralytic on a mat.

In both stories the man suffered because of past sins. Mark’s Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven.” John’s Jesus says “See, you have been made well! Do not sin ←117 | 118→any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” While they don’t use the same words, John and Mark are clearly expressing the same thought.

In both stories the man is made well because the sins are forgiven. In Mark, the forgiveness is directly expressed and serves as the crux of the story. In John, the principle is clearly implied by Jesus’ warning to the paralytic about avoiding sin in the future, but John has put some narrative distance between the act of curing the paralytic and the explanation of how he was cured. This served to remove forgiving sin as the basis of the blasphemy charge.

In both stories Jesus is accused of blasphemy for equating himself with God. But the two stories disagree as to what statement served as the basis of the blasphemy accusation. John has removed the debate over forgiving sin and inserted a non-legalistic Sabbath defense between the statement about sin and the hostile reaction to Jesus’ actions. If we remove the Sabbath claim we have a direct narrative link between forgiving sin and Jewish accusations of blasphemy, as Mark has it.

In both stories Jesus defends his actions on the ground that the Son of Man has the authority to do what he did. Mark says, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” John says Jesus has “authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” John’s version of the story gives Jesus a wider range of authority, more specifically, the right to grant eternal life (implicitly by forgiving the sins of those who have faith in Jesus as the man sent by God to bring salvation).

In both stories Jesus tells the man to “stand up, take your mat.” Mark adds “Go to your home.” John adds “walk.” The parallel wording here was sufficiently close that Kurt Aland identified it as a synoptic parallel.28

In both stories the man picks up the mat and walks away without thanking Jesus.

Despite the variations in context the above intersections strongly hint at a common source story. Nevertheless, we must also account for the many divergences between the two stories, not just the contextual differences referenced above but the many story details that don’t match up.

Points of Divergence

John and Mark have several substantial disagreements. The following list highlights many of the issues that need to be addressed.

John places the story in Jerusalem. Mark says it happened in Capernaum.

John says the day was a Sabbath; Mark does not.

Mark says four men carried the paralytic on his mat to meet up with Jesus. John says Jesus found him lying on a mat by the pool.

←118 | 119→

In Mark, the crowd prevented the paralytic from reaching Jesus for a cure. In John, the crowd prevented the paralytic from reaching the pool for a cure.

In Mark, the men who carried the paralytic to Jesus climbed up on the roof and dug a hole in it so they could get past the crowd and down to Jesus. In John, no one climbs up on a roof or digs a hole through one.

Mark says that the man needed to be lowered through a roof to be cured by Jesus. John says the man needed to be lowered into a pool in order to be cured by the waters.

In Mark, Jesus explicitly says that the sins of the paralytic were forgiven at the time of the healing in a public forum. John implicitly says that the paralytic’s sins had been forgiven but does so later in a private conversation.

Mark says the accusation of blasphemy resulted from Jesus saying that the sins were forgiven. John says the accusation arose because of statements made in defending himself against accusations of working on the Sabbath.

Mark says that the Son of Man had authority to forgive sins. John says that the Son of Man had all authority to judge who will receive eternal life.

Mark says that Jesus healed the paralytic to prove that he has the authority to forgive sins. In John, Jesus makes no such argument, and offers his words as proof of his authority from the Father.

Together, these differences create an impression that John and Mark worked from different underlying stories. But when we look more closely at how and why the stories differ, the connection between the two becomes more apparent.

Reconciling the Differences Between John and Mark

John places the healing of the paralytic on a Sabbath, and this leads to arguments over his alleged violation of the law and to accusations of blasphemy. But did this story originally take place on the Sabbath? It seems unlikely. Here I would like to discuss a few issues that suggest John took a non-Sabbath event and transformed it into a Sabbath healing.

First, there is the positioning of the claim in the narrative flow. This is the issue that troubles so many scholars and I agree with them. John tells the healing story first, without alerting us that there was a Sabbath issue related to this healing. He appends the Sabbath notice to the end of the report, but this information is intended to draw our attention to the man carrying the mat in violation of the Sabbath and makes no mention of a Sabbath healing violation.29 The conflict over healing only comes out later.

←119 | 120→

Second, not only doesn’t John alert us in the beginning of the story that a Sabbath violation was about to occur, after the healing and the Sabbath announcement Jesus disappears from the scene and only reappears later to face charges of blasphemy for his non-legalistic defense against violating the Sabbath.

Third, if the story originally took place on the Sabbath, why would Jesus tell the man to pick up the mat and carry it away after he was healed and then abandon him? He would have to have known that he was telling the man to violate the Sabbath and there is no reason for him to do so. Jesus had already cured him. Lifting and carrying the mat had nothing to do with the healing or with exhibiting faith in Jesus.

This same instruction appears in Mark’s version of the story and it has no reference to the Sabbath. This suggests that John is working from a written source in which the paralytic was healed on a non-Sabbath day. If it were a Sabbath day Jesus could have, and should have, simply said “walk,” and avoid putting the man through any further indignity.

Fourth, Jesus never offers any defense for the man when Jews accuse him of violating the Sabbath by carrying the mat, suggesting that this carrying act didn’t really trigger any Sabbath violations.

Fifth, after the Jews learned that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, John says only that they persecuted him, a vague description about what actions were taken. It is only after the Jews want to kill Jesus for blasphemy that John throws in an allegation that they also wanted to kill him for violating the Sabbath. This suggests that the death threat alluded to here originally referenced only an accusation of blasphemy and not any Sabbath violation.

Sixth, John places the incident outside of a Jerusalem gate by a pool noted for its healing powers. He says many invalids were there. This is inconsistent with the claim that the day was a Sabbath. According to the Mishnah, a late second-early third century compilation of Jewish rulings on the law and other matters, it would violate the Sabbath to go to a bathhouse let alone engage in certain physical acts of labor for the specific purpose of healing.30 For instance, the Mishnah forbids the anointing of one’s limbs with wine or vinegar in order to relieve pain,31 or sucking vinegar through one’s teeth if the application is for the benefit of the teeth.32 It also prohibits pouring cold water over a dislocated hand or foot.33 It even prohibits the eating of certain foods because of their healing powers.34

If this pool by the Jerusalem gate was known for its healing properties and many people regularly gathered there for healing purposes on the Sabbath, it seems highly probable that the Jewish authorities would have posted guards to make sure no one tried to violate the Sabbath by using the pool’s healing powers. ←120 | 121→Yet John says many invalids were gathered around the pool and using it for healing purposes.

The Carrying, Climbing, Digging and Lowering Problem

One of the most significant areas of disagreement between John and Mark, perhaps the most important in terms of story details, concerns how Jesus interacted with the paralytic prior to healing him. Mark says that the paralytic was brought to Jesus’ location by four men carrying him on a mat. Because the crowd blocked the doorway the men climbed up on the roof, dug a hole, and lowered the paralytic down in front of Jesus. In John, Jesus is not in a house and comes upon the paralytic who is already present at the scene before Jesus arrives. No one carries the paralytic to Jesus; no one blocks the paralytic’s approach to Jesus; no one climbs up on a roof; no one digs a hole in a roof; and no one lowers the man down.

Such an array of narrative inconsistencies helps explain why so many scholars have trouble making a connection between the two gospel accounts. But something important is overlooked. John placed the event on a Sabbath and Mark didn’t. All these specific differences with Mark—carrying, climbing, digging, and lowering—involve what would be a violation of the law if they happened on the Sabbath. These actions would have triggered protests from the assembled scribes who would have denounced the men who carried the mat, climbed a building, dug a hole, and lowered a man through the roof.

If John incorporated those activities into his Sabbath story, he would have a lot of explaining to do and a lot of distractions to deal with. John had already shifted the theme of the story from a legal conflict over healing on the Sabbath law to a blasphemous conflict over his extra-legal authority to override the Sabbath because he was working with the Father. Having to add in additional explanations for Sabbath violations by assorted individuals acting on their own initiative would dilute or obscure his message. So, he eliminated what would be considered violations, and, as we shall see, he did so in a very clever fashion.

First, he removed all those Sabbath offenses. He depicts no carrying, no climbing, no digging and no lowering. Next, and this is the clever part, he replaced the goal of reaching Jesus for a cure with the goal of reaching the pool for a cure. And, in doing this, he retained the literary links to the original account.

Instead of carrying the man to reach Jesus for a cure, John shows the man already in place and wanting to reach the pool for a cure. There is no longer a need to climb up on the roof and dig a hole to get the paralytic to Jesus.

←121 |

Instead of having a crowd block the path to Jesus for a cure, John shows a crowd blocking the paralytic’s path to the pool for a cure.

Instead of having to lower the man down through a roof to get to Jesus for a cure, John shows that the paralytic had to be lowered down to get into the pool for a cure.

So, in line with the sequential activities in Mark in which the paralytic tries to reach Jesus for a cure, we have a parallel set of activities in John in which the paralytic tries to reach the pool for a cure. At the same time, the man makes no attempt at moving forward to obtain any of these goals. This means that the man commits no Sabbath violation to obtain a cure.

Had he physically attempted to reach or enter the pool on the Sabbath, there might have been a potential Sabbath violation to deal with. If we recognize that John has reworked the underlying story to eliminate the violations that would have occurred if Mark’s activities occurred on the Sabbath, we can eliminate one of the chief obstacles blocking our ability to see that John and Mark worked from a common story about the healing of the paralytic.

The Forgiving of Sins

In Mark, prior to healing the paralytic, Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” This triggers a charge of blasphemy in that the scribes believe that Jesus is equating himself with God because only God can forgive sins. In John, prior to the healing, Jesus says, “Do you want to be made well?” There is no mention of sin here. The accusation of blasphemy occurs in the course of Jesus defending himself against a charge of violating the Sabbath by healing, when he says, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” Here too the authorities accuse Jesus of equating himself with God.

So, in both Gospels Jews accuse Jesus of blasphemy for equating himself with God, but the settings are different. In Mark the focus is on the authority to forgive sins. In John it is on the relation between Jesus and the Father. But the sin issue remains present in John.

Prior to the charge of blasphemy, John’s Jesus meets up again with the man he had healed and says to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” Although John’s Jesus doesn’t use the same words as Mark’s Jesus, he expresses the identical thought. In both gospels the paralytic’s condition had been caused by his past sinful behavior and he could only have been cured if his sins were forgiven.

In Mark, when Jesus raised the sin issue, the Jews became hostile and accused Jesus of blasphemy. In John, immediately after Jesus raised the sin issue ←122 | 123→the Jews become hostile but don’t yet raise the blasphemy charge. John inserts a non-legalistic Sabbath violation defense by Jesus in between the statement about sin and the accusation of blasphemy.

John’s insertion shifts the blasphemy debate from an argument about authority to forgive sins to an argument about the relationship between Jesus and the Father. John has separated the explanation for the cure from the act of the cure so that he could substitute his own theological message. That message has to do with the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

The Son’s Authority

In both Mark and John, Jesus claims that “the Son of Man” has authority to act on God’s behalf but they disagree as to how the claim is presented. In Mark, Jesus says, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” and then tells the paralytic “stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”35 Mark offers the ability to heal as proof that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. John arranges matters differently. He separates the healing of the paralytic from any claim about Jesus’ authority.

In the first part of the story in John, Jesus tells the paralytic, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Mark and John clearly describe the healing of the paralytic in virtually identical language. But where Mark portrays an immediate conflict between Jesus and the Jews at the time of the healing, John has delayed the conflict to a later time. Nevertheless, in both Mark and John, despite John’s break in the continuity, the issue of authority follows immediately after the accusation of blasphemy.

Mark claims an authority only to forgive sins. John claims an authority to judge everything36 (implicitly including the authority to forgive sins) and this includes authority over the Sabbath because he is working with the Father. And this authority is given to Jesus so that “all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.”37 Jesus then adds in the kicker. “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life [emphasis added].”38 Note here that proof of authority comes from his words, not deeds.

In both Mark and John, Jesus defends himself against charges of blasphemy by claiming to have authority from God to do what he did. But John has shifted the thrust of the story from an argument over forgiving sin in the present to an argument about judging all actions and granting eternal life in the future. Mark’s Jesus offers proof of authority through healing in the present; John’s Jesus offers ←123 | 124→proof of authority through his words, not works. He asks that people have faith that God has given him authority to judge and not rely on what acts he performs.

John downplays the theme of Jesus alleviating suffering in the here and now as proof of authority to forgive sins and substitutes a promise of eternal life in the future for those who have faith in him as the messenger. Essentially, John has superimposed his theological agenda over an existing story that presented a different theological point of view.

The Death Threat

John 5:18 describes two different death threats in connection with the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. One is for violating the Sabbath; the other is for blasphemy. Both notices are combined in a single sentence, but John merely asserts that this was the case. At no time does John 5 describe any specific effort to physically harm Jesus or arrest him. He eventually leaves unscathed. Earlier, when just the Sabbath violation was in issue, John does say the Jews persecuted Jesus but still doesn’t indicate any actions taken to harm him.

In Mark’s story about healing on the Sabbath, he too says the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, but doesn’t quote any Jew making such a threat. There too, no immediate physical assault on Jesus is described. Only after he leaves unharmed do the Jews forge a plot to kill him.39

To this extent, John and Mark agree on the Sabbath death plot. Both say that Jews wanted to kill Jesus for violating the Sabbath, neither quotes any Jew making a threat, neither depicts any physically specific harmful act taken against Jesus in the course of the confrontation and Jesus leaves the scene without any apparent difficulty. Whatever plots there may have been occurred after Jesus left.

John is no more forthcoming with the death threat for blasphemy. He quotes no Jew threatening Jesus, he describes no action to harm Jesus; and Jesus leaves the scene without any difficulty. In Mark’s version of the blasphemy story, there is no death threat. The ability to heal diverts attention away from the charge and everyone praises Jesus’ glorious teaching. Since John has merged the Sabbath story with the blasphemy story, the plot to kill is applicable to both accusations.

The Blasphemous Words

Another important difference between John and Mark concerns the nature of the blasphemy. In Mark the charge is triggered by Jesus forgiving sin. There is no connection to a Sabbath violation. In John, the charge arises from Jesus’ defense ←124 | 125→against violating the Sabbath. “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” Clearly, the thrust of the blasphemy charges is significantly different. However, consider the sequential nature of the narrative.

In John, after Jesus tells the man not to sin anymore, it is his very next statement that becomes the springboard for the blasphemy charge.40 In both Mark and John, Jesus talks about sins. In both instances hostility immediately breaks out. In Mark it is an accusation of blasphemy; in John it is an accusation of violating the Sabbath. Jesus’ very next statement in John, defending his Sabbath actions, triggers the blasphemy accusation. John’s Sabbath insert shifts the charge of blasphemy from the narrow issue of forgiving sins to the broad issue of working with the Father on all matters, including forgiving sins and overriding the Sabbath law.

Jerusalem or Capernaum: The Man on the Mat in Luke 5:17–26

Perhaps the most irreconcilable difference between John and Mark concerns where this story happened. Mark locates it in Capernaum while John places it in Jerusalem. For some scholars this suffices to dismiss the idea that the two stories have a common identity. A look at Luke’s version of the same episode, however, adds an interesting overlooked twist to the debate.

Although on the surface Luke’s version of the healing of the paralytic seems to follow Mark’s storyline, he does have a couple of odd diversions that seem to elicit no more than an “isn’t that interesting” observation from scholars who might make note of them and quickly move on with just the briefest of comments. Let’s take a closer look.

He begins with the following introduction. “One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem).”41 This opening departs from Mark in a significant way.

To begin with, Luke doesn’t say where the incident took place whereas Mark very specifically says it happened in Capernaum. Luke’s use of the transitional words “one day” also signifies a break in the narrative, isolating the story both chronologically and geographically from what precedes it. In addition, he adds Pharisees to the story, and says they gathered together from several regions, Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee. Mark makes no mention of Pharisees being present and clearly indicates that the crowd was local in nature, nothing more than neighbors who had learned that Jesus had come back to town.

In addition, Mark says that the healing took place in the home of Jesus. While Luke retains the fact that the man was lowered down through the roof of the ←125 | 126→building where Jesus was standing, he conspicuously omits Mark’s claim that this was Jesus’ house. This further severs Luke’s locale from Mark’s locale. Why would Luke diverge from Mark’s straightforward claim about the event taking place in Jesus’ house?

Luke’s opening description is thoroughly uninformative as to where the story happened. He says that it happened in a location where Pharisees, coming from “every village” of Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem, were present but doesn’t say where this location was. As written, the setting could have been in any one of those three regions or even in some fourth location outside of the three regions mentioned.

What was such a major gathering of Pharisees doing at such a location? Nothing in Luke’s account suggests that they had all journeyed there to hear Jesus teach. The most likely location where such a large gathering of Pharisees would take place would be in Jerusalem, on the occasion of a religious festival.

Why would Luke, who used Mark as a source, create such ambiguity as to location when Mark has such a clear and unequivocal declaration that the incident occurred in Capernaum, especially where Luke so closely follows the balance of Mark’s account? One gets the impression that Luke is torn between two versions of the story, one placing it among Pharisees gathering in Jerusalem during a religious holiday and the other, as Mark has it, in Capernaum among the locals.

Luke’s odd diversion from Mark suggests he knew a variation of Mark’s story that aligned more closely with John’s account than Mark’s. This second version would have been similar to what John knew; Jesus healed the paralytic in Jerusalem during a festival. Faced with the contradiction between two sources, and unable to resolve the conflict, Luke diplomatically fudged the matter over with ambiguous language that could support either claim.

Implicit in this argument is that Luke’s second source, while placing the incident in Jerusalem, followed Mark’s arrangement about the paralytic being lowered down through the roof of a building where Jesus was located. It is likely that in the original version Pharisees were present at the time Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic. Had the proposed underlying source supported John’s story details against Mark’s, Luke may not have recognized it as the same story that Mark told and probably wouldn’t have altered the location.

Luke’s indication of a possible Jerusalem location raises an additional question. Did Mark change the location from Jerusalem to fit his theological agenda or did his source place the event in Capernaum? We can’t be sure, but Mark is very careful to keep Jesus away from Jerusalem until the final days before the crucifixion. So, he might have had a motive to change the location if his source placed the incident in Jerusalem. If that were the case, it would account for his dropping ←126 | 127→Pharisees out of the story. Unfortunately, we lack enough information to decide one way or the other, but Luke certainly suggests that both he and John may have had a written source that placed the story in Jerusalem during a festival.


In looking at John’s account of the healing of the paralytic and comparing it to Mark we see two major types of difference.

First is the theological arrangement. John has replaced Mark’s narrow focus on Jesus having the authority to forgive sins in the here and now with a Johannine emphasis on Jesus’ authority to render judgment in the future on everything (including forgiving sins and working on the Sabbath) in order to grant eternal life to those who believe him. In Mark, healing is the proof of authority. In John, words, not deeds, are proof of authority. On the theological level John has replaced the underlying theology with the Johannine theology.

Second is the collection of routine story differences. Mark talks about men carrying the paralytic to meet Jesus, climbing on a roof, digging a hole, lowering the man down. But Mark’s story doesn’t take place on the Sabbath. John places the story on the Sabbath. This means that most of the ordinary story details in Mark—carrying, climbing, digging, and lowering—would constitute a violation if they occurred on a Sabbath. Therefore, John had to eliminate what would be distracting violations of the law in order to focus on his broader theological message.

Consequently, John removed those actions from his story. But he did so by placing a parallel set of story elements into his account. In the parallel, the goal of reaching Jesus for a cure was replaced by the goal of reaching the pool for a cure. Crowds still block the paralytic’s way to a cure; the paralytic still must be lowered down to reach a cure.

Once we appreciate that John’s use of the Sabbath in connection with his account of the healing of the paralytic required that he make changes to the underlying source story details as reflected in Mark, we can see that John and Mark worked from a common account of the healing of the paralytic.

The Mekhilta Sabbetta of Rabbi Ishmael

So far, we have been concerned primarily with how John’s version of the healing of the paralytic interacted with Mark’s version of a similar event. We also need to look at how John’s account interacts with Mark’s Sabbath violation stories. But ←127 | 128→first, I want to look at an ancient Jewish text known as the Mekhilta Sabbetta I, which provides some insights into how the Gospel Sabbath stories may have evolved over time.

Towards the end of the first century and the early second century two rabbis, Akiba and Ishmael, set out to provide a systematic analysis of the laws of Moses. Both had been alive when the Romans destroyed the Temple. Their period of great influence overlapped the final redactions of the Gospel of John and probably the production of the Gospel of Luke and perhaps the Gospel of Matthew.

These two great Jewish legal scholars were rivals in that each had their own academy and differed in their methodological approach. Their teachings played a key role in what later became the important compilation of Jewish law known as the Mishnah (c. 220 C.E.). Because these writings were part of a systematic effort to comment on the Jewish law, the original texts most likely go back to the time of their teachings and were probably written down by their students at the time of these studies. Because these teachings were transmitted through their academies it is unlikely that they saw any significant alterations over the next few generations. Several Jewish scholars, though, believe that in the course of transmission there may have been some redacting of the texts over the next century or two.

Only a small portion of those writings have survived, and they have been collected under the title The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael.42 The term “mekhilta” is Aramaic and means something like “rules.” The subject matter of the Mekhilta seems to have been an exegetical analysis of the Book of Exodus on a verse by verse basis. A larger body of study encompassing all of the Torah has been assumed.

For our purposes I want to focus on one very brief passage from the Mekhilta that has come to be known as Mekhilta Sabbetta I, a commentary on Exodus 31:13, in which God instructs Moses to command the Israelites to keep the Sabbath.43 The subject matter under discussion is whether one can break the Sabbath to save a life. The dialogue is of considerable interest for our review of the gospel Sabbath accounts. In the space of about one page, the text quotes arguments from several rabbis, including the following.

The first speaker, Rabbi Eleazer b. Azariah, says, “If in performing the ceremony of circumcision, which affects only one member of the body, one is to disregard the Sabbath laws, how much more should one do so for the whole body when it is in danger!”44

Rabbi Akiba adds this observation. “If punishment for murder sets aside even the Temple service, which in turn supersedes the Sabbath, how much more should the duty of saving life supersede the Sabbath laws!”45

←128 | 129→

Within these principles the rabbis provide three examples of actions that are permitted in violation of the Sabbath. One is circumcision. The second is punishment for murder. The third is Temple service. From the idea that these three acts are permitted on the Sabbath, the sages teach that the greater good of saving a life must also be permitted on the Sabbath. This is a traditional form of Jewish argument. If the lesser act is permitted than certainly a similar greater act is also permitted. It is a form of argument that we will see being used in the various gospels to defend Jesus’ actions.

The argument is of a form known as a fortiori. Hyam Maccoby, a scholar of early rabbinic writings says the early Jewish name for this form was qal wa-homer, which he translates as “light and heavy.”47 He describes the principle as “What is known about something that is ‘light’ can be known ‘all the more so’ about something ‘heavy’.”48 A written description of this argument can be traced to sometime in the first or second century.49

From these principles we can see that Jewish teachers held that one can break the Sabbath if it was necessary to save life. But we can also see from Rabbi Simeon’s interpretation that the purpose of the Sabbath is to benefit you, not cause you to suffer. At the same time, we saw from the Mishnah (cited above) that taking actions designed to heal an illness or injury on the Sabbath would be a violation of the law. If we read the two sets of doctrines together, a fair reading of the Sabbath healing rule would be something like, “If no additional harm will come from waiting until after the Sabbath, you should wait until after the Sabbath, but if life is threatened or lasting harm will occur as a result of delay, you are justified in breaking the Sabbath to avoid the tragedy.

A Sabbath Argument in John 7

John 5 ends with Jesus addressing the crowd amid hostile debate. The action then suddenly switches to Galilee in the beginning of John 6. Although the ending of John 5 seems complete in and of itself, John 7, which purports to describe a subsequent trip to Jerusalem, contains additional material related to the charge of violating the Sabbath, and it very likely belongs to the original Sabbath violation story known to John.

←129 | 130→

John 7, though, presents several problems regarding its construction and its chronology and I’ll have more to say about it in later chapters. For now, I just want to concentrate on one portion, John 7:14–24. I have divided it into three separate sections, each easily severable from the other and each serving a different function within John’s gospel. It is the last part that is my primary concern, but the first two segments are also of interest.

1) John 7:14–15: “About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’ ” John doesn’t say what teaching elicited that reaction and this appears to be the only place in John’s gospel where he says Jesus taught but doesn’t tell us what he said. This may reflect the fact that John has moved this passage away from its original location and the reaction was to something said elsewhere in a different story.

Aland, in his Synopsis of the Four Gospels, suggests that the Jewish response may parallel that in Mark 6:2.50 In the previous chapter I noted that several scholars identify John 6:42 with Mark 6:3. Mark 6:2 and 6:3 are both from the same episode, generally referred to as the Rejection at Nazareth. I will analyze the connection between John and this episode in Mark in greater detail in Chapter 5. For now, the important point is that John appears to have imported this response from another story.

2) John 7:16–18: “Then Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.’ ”51

This is the first part of Jesus’ response to the Jews who just praised his (unstated) teaching. Note the specific theme here. Jesus’ words are proof that he is speaking on God’s behalf. The language and theme clearly reflect Johannine theology and suggests the evangelist inserted it between the two surrounding passages to form a bridge (from God) between them. (I’ll have more to say about this passage in Chapter 5.) It connects the awe over Jesus’ teaching in the previous passage on one side and the teaching (from God) about healing on the Sabbath in the subsequent passage on the other side. Originally the surrounding passages would have been independent of each other.

3) John 7:19–24: This is the portion that is of interest for our purposes. Here is the passage in its entirety.

“Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! ←130 | 131→Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus answered them, “I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment [emphasis added].”

The text clearly reflects the existence of a conflict between Jesus and some group of Jews over the issue of healing on the Sabbath, but it doesn’t appear to be this group of Jews. This crowd just praised Jesus for his teaching and knows nothing about any death threat for a Sabbath violation for healing. They are shocked by his allegation that this is the case. “You have a demon,” they proclaim. That is, Jesus must be out of his mind to say such a thing.

Because John 7:14–15 is probably out of sequence and John 7:16–18 appears to be a Johannine contrivance to form a bridge to this Sabbath defense, the present location of this passage is highly suspect. In support of that argument, the opening language strongly suggests a link to the end of John 5. Let’s take a closer look.

This Sabbath argument begins with, “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?”52 This meshes well with the conclusion of John 5, where Jesus, in defending his actions on the Sabbath says, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”53 John 5 ends with Jesus defending his actions on the Sabbath by saying that Moses wrote about him; In John 7:19, Jesus resumes his Sabbath defense by saying the crowd ignores what Moses wrote by trying to kill him. Looking at the two sets of passages in tandem suggests that together they form a tightly integrated defense to the charge of violating the Sabbath.

John 5:45–46: Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.

John 7:19–24: “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus answered them, “I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

←131 | 132→

In the first passage Jesus argues that Moses accuses the Jews of not following the law in general. In the second passage he reiterates that charge, saying that none of them keeps the Law of Moses, and gives a specific example related to the Sabbath. He argues from Moses’ teaching that healing on the Sabbath is permitted. The two passages go from the general to the specific, linked together by the repeated theme that Jews fail to follow the Law of Moses.

What may particularly strike you about the legal defense is its apparent similarity to the teaching of Rabbi Eleazer from the Mekhilta. John’s Jesus says, “If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath [emphasis added]?”

Compare that to language used by Rabbi Eleazar. After pointing out that one breaks the Sabbath for circumcision, “how much more should one do so for the whole body when it is in danger [emphasis added]!” John appears to know the argument, even using similar language. But there is a slight difference between John and Rabbi Eleazar.

The rabbi is talking about saving a life. Jesus is talking about healing someone who could be healed the next day. Jesus has amended the argument. He has taken the position that if circumcision on the Sabbath allows you to heal a small part of the body, then one must be authorized on the Sabbath to heal a larger part of the body, to wit, a paralyzed part of the anatomy. Whether the argument would have been accepted is a different question. But John’s Jesus has adapted the argument that also appears in the Mekhilta.

John’s placement and use of this legalistic defense has an interesting theological implication. By separating it from the original story it no longer functions as a defensive response to accusations of violating the law. This is reinforced by the claim that the crowd had no idea that Jesus has been accused of violating the law. Instead, it serves as an accusation against the Jews that they don’t follow their own law.

By attacking the Jews for not following their own law, John’s Jesus doesn’t expressly place himself under the law. John’s broader theological theme is that Jesus’ actions aren’t restricted under the law because his authority comes directly from his relationship to the Father.

The John 7 passage does raise a few problems with the consistency of John’s narrative, though. He begins with the protest that Jesus “performed one work, and all of you are astonished” and then makes a legalistic argument about why it was alright for him to heal on the Sabbath. Note here that there is no reference of any sort to the blasphemy accusation or any threat to kill him because of blas←132 | 133→phemy. Jesus seems to suggest that if we can just recognize that his healing actions were lawful, the troubles would all go away. The entire context is that people want to kill him for healing on the Sabbath, not for blasphemy. Yet, blasphemy constitutes the much more serious crime. And the blasphemy charge had nothing to do with the healing. It had to do with his words of defense in John 5.

This scenario also creates something of a chronological conundrum for John. On the one hand, its narrative logic links it directly to the end of the John 5 speech where Jesus claims Moses wrote about him. On the other hand, Jesus says that the Jews want to kill him for healing but makes no mention of the blasphemy charge. Yet, John places the blasphemy charge before the two speeches about Moses. This suggests that John has switched data around and that at some point there must have been some sort of separation between the Sabbath accusation and the blasphemy accusation, which in turn suggests that John has merged stories together when he says in the same sentence that the Jews wanted to kill him for both blasphemy and violating the Sabbath.

A Source Issue

John’s wording of the Sabbath defense contains textual clues indicating that he has worked from a written source, and that this source had already been altered from an even earlier written source. John writes that Jesus said, “Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs).”54 Note the problem here. John has corrected the statement Jesus made. Jesus says Moses gave circumcision to the Jews and John says it was the patriarchs. Why would John do this? His Jesus is perfect. His Jesus doesn’t make mistakes. Why didn’t John change the statement so that Jesus referred to the Patriarchs?

The most likely answer is that John had a written source and that the argument citing Moses may have already been widely known. But there is a secondary problem. It wasn’t the patriarchs as a group that gave circumcision to the Jews; it was Abraham, the first of the patriarchs. Surely, John knew this. Why didn’t he say Abraham? I suspect that this “Patriarchs” correction was also in John’s written source, meaning that the written source was at least once removed from an earlier version of the text. Since John apparently saw it as more technically correct than the attribution to Moses, he may have chosen to leave it as is.

The issue here is not who gave circumcision to the Jews. It is that John believed there was an error in the statement attributed to Jesus and John felt the need to gloss it over, suggesting he worked from a written source. In fact, although Moses never directly says that there is a legal requirement for circumcision, all Jews at the ←133 | 134→time believed that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis, in which Abraham institutes the practice of circumcision as a religious obligation. Therefore, an argument could be made that Moses, as the author of Genesis, handed down the law of circumcision by telling the story of Abraham.

It may be in this sense that the author of the original reference to Moses and circumcision used the term. The reason he did so was that the underlying source author wanted to connect Jesus’ circumcision argument for healing on the Sabbath with Moses as the giver of the law, explicitly arguing that Jesus was the successor to Moses as the new law-giver. This elevates the legal argument from simply a legalistic defense that Jesus didn’t violate the law to a more theological claim that Moses has told the Jews that Jesus is the new law-giver and that they shouldn’t waste their time by accusing him of wrong-doing on this or any other issue.

However, there is another problematic source issue. If the written source that reached John had already been altered by the time he received it, then we can’t really be sure what was in the Sabbath story that appeared in the original written source. As I will show below, the Sabbath healing story went through a variety of transformations such that even Matthew and Luke rejected Mark’s version of the story. I suspect that by the time the source reached John, the specific Sabbath story varied significantly from what may have been the version appearing in Mark.

Separating John’s Sabbath Stories from His Paralytic on the Mat Story

John 5 (together with the John 7:19–24 excerpt) incorporates two stories about Sabbath conflict. In the one, Jesus heals the paralytic. In the other, Jesus instructs the paralytic to pick up his mat and walk. The accusations of violation, however, come in reverse order. First, the man carrying the mat is accused of violating the Sabbath. He says he just followed instructions from the man who healed him. This leads to accusations against Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.

Other than the paralytic’s own claim that he was following instructions, no defense is offered for his actions and Jesus makes no direct defense of his instruction to pick up the mat and carry it around. Implicitly, Jesus’ claim to have all judgment in order to grant eternal life encompasses his authority to give the instruction, but there is no explicit acknowledgment of such.

As to Jesus’ act of healing on the Sabbath, we have two defenses. The first is the alleged blasphemous claim that he was working because the Father was working. By claiming the right to work on the Sabbath because his Father was working, ←134 | 135→Jesus implies authority over the laws of the Sabbath because of his relationship to the Father. They would be subsumed under his broader claim that the Father “has given all judgment to the Son.”55

The second was his legalistic argument about circumcision, which was displaced to John 7:19–24 and moved into a different context. Since the defense involves the right to heal, we can assume that John made use of a Sabbath healing story. Because he merged that story with the story of the paralytic’s healing, we can’t know what the original Sabbath infirmity was.

The first defense involved a broad Johannine claim about who Jesus was. The second presents a more traditional Sabbath defense, like what we see in the synoptic gospels.

John’s specific legalistic Sabbath defense is not present in the other gospels. The final development and redactions of John’s gospel are widely thought to have been completed in the early part of the second century, at about the same time or later than the arguments in the Mekhilta were being made. It is not improbable that John may have known the specific argument about circumcision from the Sabbath discussions of his time and adapted it for his own use, substituting this argument for the one that originally appeared in his source. I’ll say more about John’s alternative arguments after reviewing the accounts in the other gospels. Before turning to the specifics of Mark’s Sabbath violation stories, though, observe the following broad sequential agreement between Mark and John.

Jesus heals a paralytic on a mat.

Someone acting under Jesus’ direction violates the Sabbath.

Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath by healing.

In John the three stories are intermingled with no straight line from one element to the other, but the sequence above within John 5 is accurately set forth. In Mark, each story is separately told and follows the indicated order, but the sequence is interrupted by two intervening pericopes that fall between the healing of the paralytic and the first Sabbath hostility story.

Mark’s Sabbath Violation Stories (Mark 2:23–3:6)

Mark has two stories about Sabbath hostilities between Jesus and the Jews. The first tells of Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in a field on the Sabbath.56 The second involves the healing of a man with a withered hand in a synagogue on the Sabbath.57 Neither story appears in John.

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Mark places the two Sabbath stories one after the other and they follow shortly after his account of the healing of the paralytic. In between Mark tells of only two other events: the recruiting of Levi and a subsequent discussion about why the Pharisees’ and John the Baptist’s disciples fast and Jesus doesn’t. Neither of these two intervening stories appears in John and neither seems to be of much interest to him. John doesn’t even mention the name of the apostle Levi in his own gospel. (Matthew calls this apostle Matthew and John doesn’t mention that name either.58) And contemporary manners and practices are of little concern to John unless they can serve in some way to promote his gospel of eternal life through faith.

As presented, Mark’s two Sabbath stories appear to take place in Capernaum on the same day but neither the place nor the day is specifically mentioned in either story. Mark’s language is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for a chronological separation between the two stories and Luke explicitly says they occurred on different days.59

Although Matthew and Luke both use Mark as a source both seem to know similar variations from each of Mark’s accounts, suggesting some sort of widely circulating diversions from Mark’s description of events.

Plucking the Grain (Mark 2:23–28)

Mark says that on a Sabbath Jesus and the disciples were crossing a grain field and the disciples began to pluck heads of grain. This caused some Pharisees to complain. “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”60 What Pharisees are doing in a grain field on a Sabbath, which is very probably outside the permitted Sabbath walking zone, isn’t explained, nor do the Pharisees complain about what might be an unauthorized Sabbath stroll by the disciples.61 Jesus responded.

‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’62

This is the entire story. The Pharisees allege a violation of the law by the disciples and Jesus offers an argument to justify their actions. The argument can be divided into three parts.

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The David story.

The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.

So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.

Mark’s David story is deeply flawed. The incident cited by Mark comes from 1 Samuel 21:1–9. It tells of David’s flight from Saul. There were no companions with David although he asked for the bread on the deceptive claim that it was for his companions whom he was going to meet up with.63 The priest involved was Ahimelech not Abiathar and he wasn’t the High priest.64 Abiathar didn’t become High Priest until after David became king.

The incident took place at a village called Nob, barely mentioned anywhere else in the bible. It appears to have been a sanctuary of some sort in that priests were present. Mark’s use of the term “the House of God [emphasis added]” as opposed to “a House of God” gives the false impression that the incident took place either in the Temple or the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was not in Nob. The Temple wouldn’t be built until Solomon’s time.

The bread in the Nob sanctuary was not reserved just for priests. It was given over to David on condition that his men had kept themselves away from women.65 And, of course, this David story didn’t take place on the Sabbath.

The second part of the argument, about the Sabbath being for humankind, is a direct parallel to the argument appearing in the Mekhilta, in which Rabbi Simeon says, “The Sabbath is given to you but you are not surrendered to the Sabbath.” This does not mean that Mark knew the Mekhilta. Rather, it suggests that this principle was well-known before the Mekhilta, at least at the time that Mark was writing. But, as with John, the argument in the Mekhilta had to do with saving life and Mark does not apply it to that principle. Mark would need to have made the argument that the hunger of the apostles threatened their life. But he makes no such dire claim.

The third part of Mark’s argument is problematic. Beginning with “So,” it implies that the preceding statement about the Sabbath being for humankind leads to the conclusion that Jesus is lord “even of the Sabbath.” As presently understood, I don’t think the conclusion follows and I don’t think it is necessary to make sense of it for our purposes. However, I want to touch on a possible understanding of “Son of Man” that may have meant something different in the underlying source than it did for Mark.

It is clear from its use in the gospels that the phrase “Son of Man” has a strong theological connection to Daniel 7:13–14, a messianic apocalyptic reference to “one like the son of man.” However, in Aramaic, the same term has also been ←137 | 138→used as a simple locution for “I” or “human being,” with no deistic, messianic or apocalyptic implications.66 Unfortunately, while we know that the Aramaic usage appeared in written form not long after the time of Jesus, we don’t have any textual evidence from the time of Jesus that this usage was in circulation. Many scholars, therefore, won’t accept that Son of Man has at least a partial connection to the Aramaic understanding.

What I strongly suspect here is that the underlying source author used “Son of Man” in its Aramaic context but Mark understood it in its apocalyptic function. In the Aramaic context, Jesus’ remark about the Son of Man being lord even of the Sabbath makes good sense. He would be arguing that since the Sabbath is for the benefit of humanity then any human being is lord of the Sabbath. Therefore, Jesus concludes, his authorization to the apostles to pick grain is allowed because he, as a human being, can authorize an action that alleviates suffering for the benefit of other human beings. In this way, the third part of Mark’s argument logically flows from the second. I don’t think Mark understood it in this manner, but it does eliminate what appears to be a logical fallacy in his argument. Mark, I suspect, simply copied the entire argument from his source.

An interesting element of Mark’s concluding argument is his use of the words “even of the Sabbath [emphasis added].” It implies that there were prior indications that Jesus had authority over other legal concerns and that he also has authority over the Sabbath as well. This suggests a reference back to the healing of the paralytic just a few verses earlier. There, Mark tells us that Jesus had authority to forgive sins. Now he tells us Jesus has an additional authority, to wit, authorizing people to break the Sabbath law.

The phrasing, however, raises an interpretation problem. Does it mean that there are some things that Jesus doesn’t have control over? Judging from alterations by Matthew and Luke to Mark’s account (see below), many Christians had problems with Mark’s language. John implicitly addresses this issue by asserting that all judgment has been given to Jesus.

Variations in Luke 6:1–5 and Matthew 12:1–8

Luke and Matthew each draw from Mark’s version of this story but they share five variations from Mark’s account. The following lists highlights the departures from Mark.

In Mark, the disciples pick the grain but don’t eat it; in Luke and Matthew the disciples eat the grain.

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In Mark, Jesus refers to when David and his companions “were hungry and in need of food?” Luke and Matthew both drop the phrase, “in need of food.”

Both Matthew and Luke not only omit Mark’s erroneous mention of Abiathar, neither mentions even the presence of any priest.

Both Matthew and Luke delete that part of Mark’s Jesus response that says “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

Both Luke and Mathew also use the same shortened form of Mark’s Sabbath defense by Jesus. Mark says, “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” Both Luke and Matthew drop out “even,” eliminating the possible interpretation that there are some things Jesus is not lord over.

So many verbal similarities between Luke and Matthew against Mark are highly unusual. This has led some to suggest that a version of the episode appeared in Q,67 but some of the leading Q scholars don’t include this episode in their proposed Q text.68

The changes seem to reflect a significant theological revision of Mark’s story, one that had enough circulation to reach both Matthew and Luke. To begin with, they add in that the apostles ate the grain but remove the phrase “in need of food” from the David story. They also removed the argument that the Sabbath was made for mankind. Finally, they eliminate the phrase “even of” from Mark’s description of Jesus’ authority over the Sabbath.

The thrust of the changes in Luke and Matthew elevate Jesus from Lord “even of’ ” the Sabbath to Lord “of” the Sabbath. This changes the sense so that it doesn’t necessarily allow for Jesus’ authority to be limited.

I have the impression here that the author of these changes recognized that starvation might authorize a breaking of the Sabbath law under the principle that the Sabbath was given to mankind, and wanted to create a situation in which Jesus authorized a breaking of the Sabbath not because life was in danger but because Jesus, as “lord of the Sabbath” could make any Sabbath rules he wanted. So, the author made sure to show that the disciples ate the plucked grain even though they weren’t in need of food, and then removed the line about Sabbath being for the benefit of mankind as Jesus (the theological Son of Man) was the one who determined the rules for the Sabbath.

Matthew and Luke, despite both using Mark as a source, both chose to make this same set of identical changes. It clearly suggests a strong sense of dissatisfaction with Mark’s version of the story and reflects some theological evolution in Christian circles. Whatever the source, Mark appears to be the earlier form as he is unlikely to have made these changes to what would otherwise have been a clean ←139 | 140→theological story line. Matthew has also added an additional argument to his account of the grain field. He says,

Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.69

In the Mekhilta, argument was made dealing with the principle that the priests are authorized to violate the Sabbath to perform temple services. Matthew has made a theological jump that makes use of the proper form of legal argument. Starting with priests violating the Sabbath for temple services, he says that something greater than the temple is here. He means Jesus. From this he jumps to the conclusion that Jesus is lord of the Sabbath.

Matthew’s argument is an enhancement of Mark’s. Matthew eliminated the entire premise of Mark’s argument that Jesus was lord of the Sabbath and substituted this new argument. Interestingly, he eliminates one of the arguments used in the Mekhilta and draws upon another. This is not to argue that Matthew or Mark knew the Mekhilta. I am suggesting, though, that the thrust of the arguments used in the Mekhilta were probably already in service when the gospels were written.

Comparison Between John and Mark

John’s story about the man carrying the mat on the Sabbath is obviously very different than Mark’s story about the plucking of the grain. But we do have some points of intersection between the two worth exploring.

First, in both Mark and John the first accusation of a Sabbath violation is against a person taking direction from Jesus. In Mark it is the disciples. (One can assume from the presence of Jesus on the scene and the defense offered that Jesus had told them it would be okay to eat the grain.) In John it is the man who was told by Jesus to pick up his mat. As I pointed out in the previous chapter, on several occasions John made editorial changes whenever the disciples were accused of negative behavior. He either substituted someone other than the disciples as the actors or enhanced the description to make the disciples look better.

Second, in both Mark and John, this first accusation of violating the Sabbath is immediately followed by a second accusation of violating the Sabbath by healing.

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Third, in both Mark and John, the person acting under Jesus’ instructions is accused of violating the Sabbath, but no action is taken against the violator.

Fourth, Mark’s defense that Jesus was “lord even of the Sabbath,” modified later by Matthew and Luke to “lord of the Sabbath,” seems to be similar in spirit to John’s defense of Jesus’ actions, “My Father is still working, and I also am working,” implying the same principle, the Jesus has authority over the Sabbath. John’s Jesus has been given charge over the Sabbath by the Father. As if to emphasize the point, John’s Jesus further argues, “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing.”70 To this we must also add Jesus’ direct statement, referenced above, that “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son,”

Noticeably missing from John’s first Sabbath violation story, the carrying of the mat, is the lack of any defense by Jesus for the man’s actions. He is left twisting in the wind for his alleged violation of the law. What seems to have happened in John is that the evangelist took the phrase “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” from Mark’s first violation story and transformed it into the what became the basis of the blasphemy accusation, that the son of the Father can work on the Sabbath because the father has authorized him to do so. This is then also used as a non-legalistic defense for healing on the Sabbath rather than for authorizing someone (i.e., the paralytic, the apostles) to break the Sabbath. The original legalistic defense for healing on the Sabbath was shunted off to John 7. Having used the theological defense in John 5 the author didn’t want to dilute it with a legalistic argument in the same narrative arc. Similarities between John and Mark as to this first conflict story include the following:

A person (the paralytic or an apostle) acts on Jesus’ instructions.

The person is accused of violating the Sabbath.

Jesus makes an argument that he has authority to suspend the Sabbath law. In Mark, Jesus says he is lord of the Sabbath. In John, Jesus makes an argument that he could violate the law because he is doing the father’s work and then makes the larger claim that his is granted judgment over all matters.

No action is taken against the person accused of the Sabbath violation.

The Man with the Withered Hand (Mark 3:1–6)

In Mark’s second Sabbath violation story Jesus entered a synagogue and met a man there with a withered hand.71 “They” watched to see if Jesus would cure the man on the Sabbath so that they could accuse him of violating the law.72 Mark ←141 | 142→doesn’t initially explain who “they” are but at the end of the story it appears that “they” were the Pharisees and perhaps the Herodians.73 Implicit in Mark’s claim that “they” watched so that they may accuse him is that “they” believed Jesus had the power to heal, but Mark makes no direct connection between their action and what they must have believed about Jesus’ powers.

When Jesus sees the man with the withered hand, he says to him come forward. At this point he turns to the watchers and asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”74 The watchers remained silent, implicitly indicating that they couldn’t challenge Jesus’ argument. Nevertheless, Jesus was angry with them because he thought they were hardhearted.75

Jesus told the man to stretch out his hand. He did so, and the hand was cured. This caused the Pharisees to immediately leave to conspire with the Herodians about how to “destroy” Jesus.76

The question asked by Mark’s Jesus homes in precisely on the question at the root of the discussion in the Mekhilta Sabbetta I. Can you break the Sabbath to save a life? The problem, however, is that in Mark’s case the man’s life isn’t threatened. The act of healing could be put off to the next day with no additional damage. This induced Mark to amend the principle by going from “saving life” to “doing good” on the Sabbath.

Here Mark presents a different argument. Mark is trying to argue that if some larger good (saving life) is authorized then some lesser good (healing) is authorized. This is contrary to the basic form of the “light and heavy” argument used by the Rabbis. The proper form of the argument is that if some lesser good is authorized then a similar greater good must also be authorized. Mark has gone from the greater act, saving life, to a lesser act, doing good by healing an injury that can wait to the next day without further harm.

John, as I pointed out above, followed the proper form of argument even though he changed the nature of the act in issue. As we will see below, Luke and Matthew, like John, both introduced new more sophisticated arguments as to Jesus’ right to heal on the Sabbath.

Matthew’s Version of Mark’s Sabbath healing (Matthew 12:9–14)

In Matthew, contrary to Mark, it is the watchers who raise the legal issue in the hope that Jesus would give the wrong answer and they could accuse him of wrongdoing.77 Moreover, they ask a question that directly covers the situation. “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath [emphasis added]?”78 This is the direct issue ←142 | 143→in question, as opposed to the issue of saving life, and they have made a clear open direct challenge to Jesus regarding the Sabbath rules. The argument in the Mekhilta was that it was lawful to save lives, but not necessarily to heal. The question by the watchers asks Jesus to defend this lesser act of healing. Jesus responds,

Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath [emphasis added].79

Note that the italicized portion of the answer contains a truncated version of Mark’s statement by Jesus, omitting the issue of life and death. Matthew has filled in what Mark has missed. He provides an example of a good act allowed on the Sabbath, saving a sheep, and argues that if such a good act is allowed towards a sheep, then a similar good act is allowed for a human being (because a human being is more valuable than a sheep). Matthew has turned the tables on the watchers. They asked if it is lawful to cure on the Sabbath. His Jesus provided a legal argument that it is lawful on the Sabbath to do a good act to alleviate suffering, which implicitly includes curing an individual who suffers. Matthew’s defense follows the traditional form of legal argument.

The watchers make no response to Jesus’ argument, and because Jesus offered a legal defense to curing on the Sabbath and no response issues forth from his opponents, Jesus can act as if they accept his argument and proceed accordingly to heal the man. Nevertheless, following Mark, Matthew adds that the Pharisees wanted to destroy Jesus, but he omits Mark’s claim that they conspired with the Herodians.80

A question we will touch on in a moment is where Matthew got this additional legal argument from. Was it his invention based on knowledge of Jewish arguments or were there sources floating around that had differing versions of Jesus’s confrontation over healing on the Sabbath?

What we do see from Matthew is how substantially an evangelist might alter a source story with new details and a change of facts. Matthew, clearly working from Mark as a source, has altered the specific order of Mark’s narrative and substituted an entirely different and more sophisticated legal defense to Jesus’ act of healing on the Sabbath. John has also substituted a different defense. Given Matthew’s reaction to Mark, it would not undermine our argument about drawing upon a common source to say that John may have known a version of the story used by Mark and, like Matthew, chose to replace the weak defense with a better one.

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The Man with Dropsy in Luke 14:1–6

I have already remarked on the numerous linguistic agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark regarding the grain field episode, which suggest either a very unusual coincidence or the sharing of a common source such as Q or some other written document. As to the man with the withered hand Luke adheres closely to Mark’s version but does have a couple of changes. He tells us up front that the watchers were Pharisees and Scribes81 and at the end, although the watchers “were filled with fury,” they do not plot to kill Jesus.82 Luke says only that they discussed among themselves what they should do about him.

Luke, however, also has an additional Sabbath violation story not present in Mark. It tells of the healing of a man suffering from dropsy and, most interestingly, it incorporates elements like those Matthew added to Mark’s withered hand story. The comparison below suggests that Matthew and Luke both knew a common written story in which these elements were present.

In Luke’s second story, Jesus joined some Pharisees for a Sabbath meal but, again, “They were watching him closely.”83 In front of him was a man with dropsy.84 When Jesus sees the man, he turns to the Pharisees and asks, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?”85 This is the same question that Matthew uses in his version of Mark’s withered hand story, but it doesn’t appear in Luke’s version of Mark’s story. The watchers remained silent in response to the question and Jesus took the man, healed him, and sent him away.86 Why Jesus sent the man away is not explained.

After the man departs, Jesus asks, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?”87 Luke says that no one could reply to this question either. Luke continues the story with a parable about hospitality, but we need not examine it. Again, Luke’s legalistic defense is virtually identical to the one Matthew inserts into his version of Mark’s withered hand story and which, again, is also missing from Luke’s version of Mark’s story.

Despite a few trivial differences in detail, Matthew’s version of the withered hand story tracks more closely with Luke’s account of the man with dropsy than it does with Mark’s telling of the man with the withered hand. While the disease differs (dropsy versus withered hand) and the setting (synagogue versus dinner) the main features of the stories in Matthew and Luke closely align with each other against Mark.

In Matthew’s withered hand story and Luke’s dropsy story the initial question is the same. Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath? This is different from the question initially asked in Mark’s story and it more closely targets the issue in ←144 | 145→question. Mark placed it in the context of life and death, which wasn’t relevant to the situation. Matthew and Luke placed it in the context of alleviating suffering. Although Matthew and Luke disagree as to who asked the question, that is the same disagreement that Matthew has with Mark. Luke’s form of the dropsy story, therefore, more closely parallels the narrative structure of Mark’s withered hand story than does Matthew’s.

In Matthew’s withered hand story and Luke’s dropsy story Jesus make a legal argument about rescuing creatures that fall into a well on the Sabbath. Matthew places the argument before the healing. Luke places it after. But Mark has no such argument at all.

At the same time, in both Mark’s withered hand story and Luke’s dropsy story the Pharisees watch to see if Jesus will heal in order to catch him out. Matthew eliminated the watching angle and substituted the change as to who asked the initial question. So, in Matthew, instead of watching Jesus to catch him out, they question him to see if he can defend such actions. Again, Luke’s dropsy story more closely aligns with the narrative structure of Mark’s withered hand story than does Mathew’s.

These similarities between Matthew and Luke strongly suggest that they both knew a written Sabbath healing story that contained these same elements missing from Mark’s story. Whatever the source and nature of this common background, it shows us how the early poorly designed legal arguments present in Mark’s story evolved into more sophisticated presentations such that the original story was almost unrecognizable in the altered form. In fact, if Matthew hadn’t mentioned the withered hand infirmity one would be more likely to identify his story with Luke’s dropsy story than with Mark’s withered hand story, even though Matthew used Mark as a source.

In form, though, Luke’s dropsy story looks to me like a close parallel to Mark’s withered hand story and I suspect it may have been a variation on the story used by Mark. Luke, however, appears to have seen it as an independent incident. How Matthew saw it is hard to say. He may have just adopted the legal arguments and added them to his version of Mark’s story, or he may have seen it as an alternative version of the story and adopted it whole.

Mark’s Sabbath Elements in John

John’s merger of a story about the healing of a paralytic with a story about a healing on a Sabbath, coupled with his overlay of Johannine theology onto the un←145 | 146→derlying stories, has made it difficult to see the underlying Sabbath parallels with Mark. Nevertheless, we can extract from John a few traces of Mark’s stories.

John’s account has two Sabbath violation stories. In the first a man following Jesus’ instructions is accused of violating the Sabbath. In the second, Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath by healing. This is the same sequential accusation structure that Mark has, but there are some story details that differ.

Mark’s first story involved the apostles plucking grain from a field. John’s first story involves the man carrying the mat. In both stories an accusation against the violator is made but no punishing action is taken. In Mark, Jesus defends the apostles’ actions by making the claim that he is the lord of the Sabbath. In John, Jesus makes an argument that evokes that principle but wraps it in Johannine theology. He says that he is working, and the Father is working. When we couple this defense with Jesus’ remark that all judgment has been given to him by the Father, we can see that John has incorporated into his story the idea that Jesus is the lord of Sabbath and has the authority to execute judgment as to what is right and wrong on the Sabbath.

Two key differences between John and Mark concern the specific act and the specific actor. In Mark, the act is plucking grain and the actor is an apostle. In John the act is picking up the mat and the actor is the paralytic. Clearly, they are different.

However, we have already seen in the previous chapter that when John sees a story about apostles being accused of behaving in a way that places them in a negative light, John either substitutes a non-apostle for the apostle, or gives the apostle an enhanced image. At the same time, we also know through Mark that telling the paralytic to lift the mat was such a key element of the story that Mark and John used almost identical language to describe it. Since the instruction to lift the mat was a well-entrenched element of the paralytic story, and John placed the story in Jerusalem away from any grain fields, his merger of Mark’s first Sabbath story with the healing of the paralytic led him to substitute the lifting of the mat by the paralytic for the actions of the apostles in the grain field.

The primary theological function of Mark’s first Sabbath story was to give Jesus authority to allow someone to break the Sabbath. As described above, John incorporated that idea into his version of events but gave Jesus an enhanced authority that combined both the forgiving of sin and the authority to decide what can be done on the Sabbath.

Mark’s second story is a simple account of healing an infirmity on the Sabbath followed by a legal defense that said healing the afflicted was allowed on the Sabbath. John didn’t want legal arguments to get in the way of his larger theological ←146 | 147→arguments. So, he shifted the defensive passage to John 7 and transformed it into an accusation against the Jews for not following their own law. Nevertheless, the text makes clear that the passage was a defense of healing on the Sabbath and that John’s Jesus used a circumcision argument known to the Jewish sages to make the case. We also saw that the argument had been severed from the speech that Jesus made towards the end of John 5 about Moses. We also know from John’s gloss on the story about who gave circumcision to the Jews that he was working from a manuscript that was at least once removed from the original. Therefore, we don’t know what other changes were made to the story before it reached John.

We also don’t know what the victim suffered from in John’s original Sabbath healing story, so we can’t compare the specific infirmity to the one in Mark. But Luke’s dropsy story shows other deformities could easily have been substituted in transmission.

John’s legal argument also differs from Mark. In that regard we see that even Matthew substituted a completely different legal argument for healing from the one that Mark used. Matthew and Luke showed us that more advanced legal arguments were being composed after the advent of Mark’s story and were starting to receive wide circulation. It is not surprising, therefore, that John would have used a more advanced argument than the one used by Mark’s source.

Structurally, the Sabbath template healing debate is simple. Heal and make a legal defense that healing is lawful on the Sabbath. The specific malady doesn’t really matter, and which defense doesn’t really matter. Luke’s dropsy story, Mark’s withered hand story, and Matthew’s use of the legal arguments present in Luke’s dropsy story as a modification of Mark’s withered hand story shows us how different maladies and legal arguments can coexist.

Expanding the Prelude to John 6

In the previous chapter I analyzed what I referred to as the Prelude to John 6. I described it as incorporating John 5 and having a direct connection to John 6:1–3. I pointed out that John 5 dealt with a hostile reaction to Jesus for healing on the Sabbath and that Mark also had such a story. At the time, however, I cautioned that while the content of the two stories differed, I was only concerned with what Mark and John say happened after Jesus healed on the Sabbath. The analysis there showed that Mark and John each followed the Sabbath violation with a sequence of parallel stories that appeared to be based on a common source, although John may have deleted some details from those stories.

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We have now had the opportunity to analyze John 5 and the Markan parallels. If we can accept the argument above that John merged the story of the healing of the paralytic with the two Sabbath violation stories in Mark, we can now see that John and Mark both knew the following three-story sequence.

A story about the healing of a paralytic on a mat, leading to charges of blasphemy against Jesus for equating himself with God by forgiving sins, and Jesus, the “Son of Man,” proving that he had such authority by healing the paralytic.

A story about a Sabbath violation by someone following Jesus’ instruction, with Jesus claiming that the “Son of Man” had authority over the Sabbath.

A story about Jesus being accused of violating the Sabbath by healing someone, with Jesus making a legal argument that healing on the Sabbath is permitted.

In Mark there is a slight break between the healing of the paralytic and the two Sabbath violation stories. In between he has two stories absent from John. John, on the other hand, has done a lot of rearranging of story details but even within his alterations of narrative order we can find the following sequence: (1) healing the paralytic, (2) accusation that someone following Jesus’ instructions violated the Sabbath, (3) an accusation that Jesus violated the Sabbath by healing, and (4) a hostile reaction to Jesus’ act of healing.

We can now see that John 5 consists of three stories that follow the same order in Mark and form a run-up to John 6. This means that John 5 and John 6 form a relatively tight sequence of stories that shares an almost identical story order known to Mark, with only trivial variations that don’t undermine the common connection.


A review of the evidence shows that John and Mark each knew a three-story sequence that promoted certain theological views. In Mark, each of the theological arguments appears in a separate story. Because of objections to how the set of stories reflected on Jesus’ authority, John integrated the three stories into a single event that presented an alternative theological message. Mark’s three theological arguments included the following.

Healing a paralytic proves the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on God’s behalf.

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The Son of Man can authorize people to break the Sabbath because the Son of Man is “lord even of the Sabbath.” (Later modified by Matthew and Luke to lord “of the Sabbath.”)

A proper understanding of the Law of Moses authorizes the healing of an infirmity during the Sabbath.

John had several problems with the messages as set forth in Mark’s stories and needed to address those issues. His objections included the following.

The piecemeal listing of areas of authority (i.e., forgive sin, control the Sabbath) left open the possible interpretation that there were some areas where Jesus had no authority.

Jesus did not need to argue that his actions were legal under the law because his authority allows him to supersede the law.

Asking people to believe in Jesus because of his deeds of power undermined the principle that people needed to have faith in Jesus because his words proved that he spoke on behalf of the Father.

People should be more concerned with obtaining eternal life in the future through faith in Jesus than they should with the alleviation of suffering in the here and now.


XVIII, 720
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XVIII, 720 pp., 22 tables

Biographical notes

Gary Greenberg (Author)

Gary Greenberg is the author of The Judas Brief and Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John . He served for over a decade as the President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York. Presently retired, he holds a Juris Doctor degree from Seton Hall University.


Title: The Case for a Proto-Gospel