Jesus’ house in the gospel of Mark is the Herodian palace in Tiberias

Jesus’ house in the gospel of Mark is the Herodian palace in Tiberias

The Greek noun οἶκος (oikos – ‘house’) appears in all four gospels. It is used to describe the house of private persons, the temple of Jerusalem as God’s house or the palace of rulers. It is also used four times for Jesus’ house in Capernaum. Remarkably it is only in Mark, the oldest gospel, that we see a reference to Jesus’ οἶκος.

At first sight the οἶκος passages in Mark are irrelevant and therefore superfluous. The first occurrence in Mark 2:1 reads as follows: And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home (literally ‘in (the) house’). In the next verse, the gathering of many people is recounted: And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he [Jesus] was preaching the word to them. How should we imagine this gathering in combination with Jesus’ house? Were so many people gathered inside the house that it was packed to the door? Or were they outside in one of the streets of Capernaum, and was this street packed up to the door?

If we take a look at all four οἶκος occurrences in Mark (2:1, 3:20, 7:17 and 9:28), and assuming that the οἶκος is Jesus’ private dwelling, some remarkable things catch the eye.

The first observation is that Jesus’ family is involved only in 3:20. In this verse, Jesus is not even in the house with his family, as could be expected, but his family goes out to seize Jesus. As this verse begins with the phrase that Jesus ‘went to the house’, it could be imagined that his family left its home and went out to seize Jesus before he arrived there. This reading however is not without problems, as this verse says And he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. Jesus and the crowd are already in or at the house.

A hectic event seems to be described, the more as the next verse tells that Jesus was beside himself. In another article, I identified ὄχλος (ochlos – ‘crowd’) in several gospel fragments as the rank and file of the Galilean revolutionary army during the war against the Romans. I believe we can read the sentence above also as the gathering of Jesus and a multitude of soldiers at the οἶκος. In combination with the initiative of his family, this gives the strange situation that Jesus’ family members left (their private house, presumably) to go and seize Jesus who was in emotional turmoil in the οἶκος where a crowd of revolutionary soldiers had gathered. This seems to indicate that Jesus’ οἶκος and his family home are two different buildings.

Secondly, in three of the four ‘house’ passages the ὄχλος is present, as already mentioned above for 3:20. Only verse 2:1 speaks of ‘many’ (πολλοὶ - polloi) but this seems to point at the same thing, as ὄχλοι πολλοί can be found several times in the gospels. This means that Jesus’ ‘house’ has a connection with an important armed force. A connection between Jesus’ private house and his army is not impossible, but it is improbable at least.

Finally, in 7:17and 9:28 Jesus uses the οἶκος together with his disciples. Maybe here also we can discern a military situation. While the ὄχλος is the rank and file of the army, Jesus and his disciples seem to be the command of the revolutionary forces. If Jesus and his officers were using an edifice together, this building seems to have been their headquarters. Verse 7:17 combines ‘house’, ‘crowd’ and ‘disciples’ and is therefore the most elucidating occurrence of οἶκος. In that verse, Jesus and his officers leave the rank and file of the army and enter their headquarters.

In a previous entry I identified the Jesus of the gospels as Jesus son of Saphat in Josephus and also uncovered Capernaum as the code word for Tiberias. Is it possible, against this backdrop, to find a passage in the works of Josephus that sheds light on a building in Tiberias that can qualify as the residence of the army command of the revolutionaries?

In Life verse 65, Josephus tells the leaders of Tiberias that he has brought orders from Jerusalem to seize the palace (οἶκος) built by Herod the tetrarch because it contained representations of animals forbidden by the Jewish law. Then Josephus continues as follows in the subsequent verses (66 and 67): Capella and the other leaders for a long while refused this [Josephus’s seizure of the palace], but were finally overruled by us and assented. We were, however, anticipated in our task by Jesus son of Sapphias, the ringleader, as already stated, of the party of the sailors and destitute class. Joined by some Galilaeans he set the whole hall (αὐλή – aulè) on fire, expecting, after seeing that the ceilings of a few rooms were gilded, to obtain from it large spoils. (Translation based on H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb 186, with some new translation choices I will explain below.)

Jesus and his followers seized the Herodian palace of Tiberias because they were eager to plunder it. As some ceilings were gilded, they set these rooms on fire as they saw this as the fastest and easiest way to acquire the gold.

Where I translate καθαιρέω (kathaireō) in verse 65 as ‘to seize’, all other translations I consulted translate the term as ‘to demolish’, which is a possible translation. However, the demolition of this palace is not the smartest military decision. What would the rebels win by demolishing a vast and solid building that could serve them well? Building on this initial demolition translation, the translators later report that Jesus outmarched Josephus’s demolition attempt by setting fire to the whole palace. However, this is not how the text reads. For the ‘the whole palace’ translation the Greek text gives τὴν πᾶσαν αὐλὴν (tēn pasan aulēn), which I translate as ‘the whole hall’. A more specific translation of αὐλή would be ‘audience hall’, the most prestigious and therefore most luxuriously decorated chamber of the palace. With these probably more realistic translation choices Josephus was not sent to destroy the palace but to occupy it, as in war circumstances it is logical for the victorious party to take over the property of an expelled ruler. However, before Josephus could carry out his intention Jesus occupied the palace and set a small part of it on fire to obtain the gold present in its ceilings. As this palace was an important symbol of oppression, the revolutionaries acted accordingly and made it their headquarters. Jesus and his officers stayed and met there, the rank and file of the army stayed outside in the forecourt when they gathered there. These three categories, leader, officers and rank and file reflect the hierarchy of the Galilean revolutionary army.

In Mark 2:2 the attendees were so numerous that the whole forecourt was filled up to the gate. In this verse Jesus addresses his men ‘preaching the word’. As I discussed elsewhere, the Greek noun λόγος on different occasions in the New Testament is used as a veiled description of the revolutionary messianic message, and this could be the case here also. Jesus seems to be giving his soldiers an enthusing and motivating speech.

In my translation below of these four passages the decoded words are upright, alternative translation choices are underlined and the re-inserted information which Mark has deliberately omitted is in bold. In the military atmosphere of this story I also translate θύρα (thura) as ‘gate’ instead of ‘door’ and μαθηταὶ (mathètai) as ‘officers’ instead of ‘disciples’.

Mark 2:1-2

And when he returned to Tiberias after some days, it was reported that he was in the palace. And many soldiers were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the gate; and he held a speech on the revolutionary message.

Mark 3:20

And he went to the palace, and the rank and file of the army came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard this, they went out to seize him, for they said ‘He has lost his senses.’

Mark 7:17

And when he had entered the palace and left the rank and file of the army, his officers asked him about the parable.

Mark 9:28 (on casting out an unclean spirit)

And when he had entered the palace, his officers asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’

By omitting crucial information and by using code words or ideas, Mark has utterly dehistoricized the war fragments above. Mark’s obscuring interventions are strengthened by poor translation choices due to Mark’s initially misleading message. Even after Mark’s dehistoricizing interventions, Matthew and Luke eliminated the four οἶκος fragments. After the analysis above we can assume that they did so not because they found these references to Jesus’ family home superfluous, but because in their eyes the potential connection between Jesus and the Herodian palace, which was transformed into the rebel headquarters, remained too sensitive.