My theorie places Jesus in the war between the Jews and the Romans, and I believe that reading Mark 3:7-12 with Matthew 8:18 provides a powerful example of this theory. The Markan fragment, which Nestle-Aland calls A Multitude at the Seaside, is traditionally considered to be a healing story of a popular Jesus to whom great masses turn for relief from their physical sufferings. However, below I will try to show that an in-depth reading of this fragment tells a rebellion story, with Matthew 8:18 seamlessly connecting to the story in Mark. I give the Nestle-Aland translation first, followed by my translation with the changes underlined. Afterwards I will discuss the different parts of the Markan text followed by the verse in Matthew, comparing them with the information Josephus provides on the relevant issues of both passages.
Mark 3: (7) Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea (8) and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude, hearing all that he did, came to him. (9) And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him; (10) for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. (11) And whenever the unclean spirits beheld him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” (12) And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.
Matthew 8: (18) Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side.
Mark 3: (7) Jesus retreated with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea (8) and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude, hearing all that he did, came to him. (9) And he ordered his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the vulgar mass, lest they should oppress him; (10) for he had taken care of many, so that all those who suffered from torments pressed upon him to touch him. (11) And whenever the unclean spirits beheld him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” (12) And he sternly reproved them not to make him known.
Matthew 8: (18) Now when Jesus saw great crowds all around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side of the border.
Discussion of the different themes in the Markan text
- Jesus’ retreat to the lake
I prefer to translate the Greek verb ἀναχωρέω (anachōreō) as ‘to retreat’ instead of ‘to withdraw’ because the former can have a military connotation, which is the case here as I hope to show below.
In The Jewish War III:453-461 Josephus relates that the inhabitants of Tiberias who were opposed to the rebellion surrendered the city to Vespasian. He furthermore mentions (v. 457b) that ‘Jesus and his supporters considered Tiberias no longer a safe place to stay in, and fled to Tarichaeae.’ Both cities were located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee with Tarichaeae to the northwest of Tiberias, so Jesus and his followers retreated to another city at the lake.
- A great multitude following Jesus
People from different parts of Palestine (Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea) and from the regions adjacent to Galilee (Transjordan in the east, Tyre and Sidon in the north) are drawn by Jesus’ reputation. If we combine this information with Jesus’ retreat to Tarichaeae the picture may become clearer. In War III:463, a few verses after referring to Jesus’ flight to Tarichaeae, Josephus reports the following: ‘For the whole body of revolutionaries was pouring into Tarichaeae, relying on the strength of the place and the proximity of the Lake of Gennesar, so-called by natives.’ Later on, in War III: 532-542, Josephus discusses the fate of the inhabitants of Tarichaeae after the Romans had retaken the city. In addition to its regular residents, Josephus first refers to ‘newcomers’ and subsequently to ‘expatriates’, ‘refugees’, ‘aliens’ and ‘wretches’. The last verse of this paragraph informs us that ‘the rest of this mob consisted mostly of people from Trachonitis, Gaulanitis, Hippos and Gadara, largely composed of rebels and fugitives.’ From the Galilean perspective these regions (the former two) and cities (the latter two) all lie beyond Jordan. In the year 61 CE, eastern Galilee had become part of the clien -kingdom of Herod Agrippa II and its inhabitants had tried to shake off the Roman/Herodian yoke. As Agrippa II had not been able to quell the revolt, eastern Galilee became the refuge for many Jews from Syrian regions around Galilee who had escaped death from ethnic violence. In War II:457-465 Josephus extensively discusses the ethnic war between the Jews and the Syrians after the ethnic turmoil in Caesarea in May 66 CE. In regions with a mixed population inside and outside Palestine (Galilee, the Syrian cities of the Decapolis lying predominantly east of the Jordan, Tyrus and Sidon in the north) the ethnic group that had the upper hand killed or drove away its ethnic opponents, followed by reprisals of the other party. Even though Galilee had a mixed Jewish/Syrian population, the refugee flow of Jews from Syrian territories was directed towards eastern Galilee as this region was in the hands of the Jewish rebels.
Josephus does not report on ethnic violence in the Jewish mainland of Judea. Probably there was no significant ethnic conflict in this southern region as its population was predominantly Jewish. Maybe Mark added Judea, Jerusalem and Idumea to his list to obscure the ethnic-war regions and to make it – and thus Jesus’ attraction – more impressive.
- A boat prepared for Jesus because he is threatened by a crowd
Mark’s text suggests that Jesus’ disciples prepared a single boat for him to protect him from his obtrusive following. However, the gospel writers frequently isolate Jesus from the context in which he operates and that may be the case here as well. Maybe this story is about more than just one single boat for a leading figure and his intimates. Josephus says the following about the naval precautions of the defenders of Tarichaeae (War III:466): The inhabitants had a sizeable fleet ready on the lake to evacuate them if they were defeated on land, and equipped for naval combat, if necessary. The purpose of both precautionary measures is identical: to create an escape route for people threatened by a crowd (ὄχλος – ochlos).
While traditionally ὄχλος is translated as ‘crowd’, I prefer ‘vulgar mass’. (‘Rank and file’ would also be an option.) In Josephus it is clear that the defenders of Tarichaeae were threatened by the vulgar mass of the Roman army that besieged the city. The composition of the Markan text suggests that the ὄχλος is the great number of Jesus’ followers described in verses 7 and 8. That Jesus was to expect great suffering from his own following is bizarre, while this is exactly what the verb θλίβω (thlibō) expresses. Therefore I translate θλίβω as ‘to oppress’, in line with BDAG.
An important question concerning the use of ὄχλος relates to whether this noun had previously been used in a military context in ancient Greek literature. The answer is yes. In Cyropaedia 6.1.26 the Greek author Xenophon uses ὁ ὄχλος τῶν στρατιωτῶν (ho ochlos tōn stratiōtōn) – ‘the vulgar mass of the soldiers’ to describe an army. In The Peloponnesian War 6:64 and 7:62 the Greek historian Thucydides also uses ὄχλος in a military context. If Mark uses ὄχλος as a veiled description of an army – i.e., the Roman army – he and Josephus may be describing the same historical event.
It is also remarkable that Mark uses different nouns to describe the crowds in this fragment. For the two devoted crowds in verse 8, the people from Galilea who follow Jesus and the people from the surrounding regions who come to him, Mark uses the noun πλῆθος (plēthos). For the threatening crowd in verse 9 he uses the noun ὄχλος. So wee can distinguish two different crowds here not only because of their different behaviour (devotion versus hostility) but also because of Mark’s use of two different nouns to distinguish between two different armies which is clearly the true identity of these 'crowds'.
- The people under Jesus’ care
After mentioning the threat caused by a hostile ὄχλος, Mark returns to the people under Jesus’ care. The verb θεραπεύω (therapeuō), which is frequently used in the gospels to describe Jesus’ activity, is traditionally translated as ‘to heal’ and the objects of his interventions are predominantly bodily afflictions. In my blog article on Jesus’ recruitment of revolutionary soldiers I suggested a social interpretation of the Healing of the sick in Genessaret passage, and I believe this analysis is relevant here also. The general meaning of θεραπεύω is ‘to take care of’, and this general meaning suits the situation described here. Nestle-Aland translates ὃσοι εἶχον μάστιγας (hosoi eichōn mastigas) in verse 10 as ‘all who had diseases’. The Greek noun μάστιξ (mastix) does not primarily refer to disease as its basic meaning is ‘scourge, plague’, with ‘torment, suffering’ as derived meanings. Jesus did not miraculously cure a great number of people with bodily diseases but he took care of a multitude of people who suffered from the disrupting social and economic effects of Roman/Herodian occupation and from the ongoing ethnic war.
- The agony of the unclean spirits
In my blog article on ethnic murder in the synagogue of Tiberias I argued that the unclean spirit in Luke 4:31-37 was a Syrian, a member of the ethnic group opposing the Jews in the mixed Galilean population. With their foreknowledge of recent ethnic massacres, the Syrian inhabitants of Tarichaeae were scared to death when a great number of Jewish revolutionaries gathered in their city. They tried to save their lives by humiliatingly submitting themselves to the leader of the rebels. In War III:492-494 Josephus describes the situation in the city after a battle outside the walls that compelled its defenders to seek protection inside: But there a new terrible strife awaited them. The residents had not wanted to fight from the beginning because of their possessions and their city; now, after the defeat, they were still more opposed to it. But the newcomers, who were very numerous, insisted all the more to hold them to it. There were mutual angry recriminations, shouting and uproar as if the two parties were on the point of blows. We can assume that the residents of Tarichaeae who did not want to fight the Romans were its Syrian inhabitants, while the newcomers were the Jewish rebels as we saw above. The ‘shoutings’ in Josephus and the ‘cried out’ in Mark 3:11 are from the same ‘kra-’-stem: κραυγή (kraugē) in Josephus, ἔκραζον (ekrazon) in Mark. The Syrian inhabitants in their agony lie before Jesus and call him ‘Son of God’.
- Jesus desire to remain anonymous
With the perspective that the city would soon be taken by the Romans, Jesus decided that it was not the moment to initiate an ethnic bloodbath inside the walls, so he saved the lives of the Syrian segment of the Tarichaean population. In return he entreated them not to point him out to the Romans as the leader of the rebels in case he would be taken prisoner.
Discussion of Matthew 8:18
This sentence, which doesn’t have parallels in the other gospels, also presents hostile crowds around Jesus, and therefore it is interesting to discuss this verse in combination with the above Markan fragment. While we disclosed the Markan fragment as a veiled description of the Tarichaeae episode of the war against the Romans, maybe we encounter the same hostile crowd here, which may connect the two passages.
In my translation above, I suggest translating the Greek περὶ (peri) as all around Jesus and not simply as around him. Although subtle,this translation choice allows us to imagine Jesus encircled on all sides by a vulgar mass.
This encircling on all sides exactly matches Josephus’s description of the final phase of the siege of Tarichaeae. In the Markan fragment we saw that the defenders of the city were driven back inside the walls. From then on the Romans threatened the city from the three land sides of the city: north, west and south, while the defenders had boats ready for evacuation on the lake to the east. Then Josephus describes Titus’s bold cavalry attack through the waterfront of the lake, which means that the Romans also attacked the defenders of Tarichaeae from the back, from the ‘safe’ eastern side. War III:497-499: With these words he [Titus] leapt on his horse and led his troops to the lake, rode through the waterfront and entered the town first, followed by his men. Terror-struck by his audacity, none of the defenders on the ramparts ventured to fight or offer resistance. Abandoning their posts, Jesus and his supporters fled across country, while the rest rushed down the lake. There they ran into the enemy advancing to meet them; some were killed as they boarded their boats, others as they tried to swim to those who had put out before.
Josephus and Matthew mention the same two elements as cause and effect. Titus’s daring attack from the lake side of the city signified that the Romans were all around the defenders, and this provoked the flight of Jesus with the revolutionary army and some of the refugees. The only difference between both sources is that Matthew mentions the decision to flee and Josephus the actual flight.
Finally I discuss the εἰς τὸ πέραν (eis to peran – ‘to the other side’) at the end of this verse. Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English dictionary mentions Thucydides 3:91 where πέραν probably refers to a country at the other side of the border. This may be the case here also. Josephus says that Jesus and his following fled to Jerusalem. The shortest route from Galilea to Judea implies the passage through Samaria. Matthew suggests something similar, as the region at the other side of the Galilean border that had to be crossed to reach Jerusalem was Samaria.
There are quite a few vestiges of the flight to Jerusalem further on in the gospels. Its first stage is recounted in Mark 10:32: And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were in shock, and those who brought up the rear were frightened.
Two verses later, Matthew 8:20 gives The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head (and parallel in Luke 9:57). Jesus portrays the Herodians (the foxes) and the Romans (the birds of prey) as far better off than he who is on the run. In the middle part of his gospel Luke gives a great deal of additional information on Jesus’ flight to Jerusalem. See my blog articles ‘Galilean refugees in a tight spot (Luke 9:51-62)’ and ‘Jesus son of Saphat in Josephus’s War and Life and the Jesus of the gospels: one and the same person’.