It can be argued that Jesus was an active participant in the war of the Jews against the Romans, and the strength of this theory is aptly supported by Mark 3:7-12 in combination with Matthew 8:18. The Markan fragment, called A Multitude at the Seaside in the Nestle-Aland edition, is traditionally considered a healing story involving great numbers of people flocking to meet a popular Jesus, seeking relief from their physical sufferings. However, below I will attempt to demonstrate that at in-depth reading this pericope describes an episode of the revolt in Eastern Galilee, with Matthew 8:18 seamlessly connecting to the story in Mark.
I will first offer the Nestle-Aland translations, followed by my translations 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.
iscussion of the different parts of 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 has a connotation that is more unambiguously military in nature, 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 asserts (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 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 neighbouring Galilee (Transjordan to the east, Tyre and Sidon to 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 the reference 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.’ Further on, in War III: 532-542, Josephus discusses the fate of the inhabitants of Tarichaeae after the Romans reconquered the city. In this passage, alongside its regular residents, Josephus refers to ‘newcomers’ and further on to ‘expatriates’, ‘refugees’, ‘aliens’ and ‘wretches’. In the last verse of this paragraph he informs us that ‘the rest of this mob consisted mostly of people from Trachonitis, Gaulanitis, Hippos and Gadara, largely composed of rebels and fugitives.’ As seen from Galilee, these regions (the former two) and cities (the latter two) all lay beyond the Jordan. In the year 61 CE Eastern Galilee had become part of the client kingdom of Herod Agrippa II and its inhabitants had rebelled from early on against 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 of Palestine (Galilee, the Syrian cities of the Decapolis lying predominantly east of the Jordan, Tyrus and Sidon to the north) the ethnic group that had the upper hand killed or drove away its ethnic opponents, followed by reprisals taken by the other party. Although Galilee had a mixed population, the flow of Jewish refugees driven away from Syrian territories was directed towards Eastern Galilee as this region was in the hands of the Jewish rebels.
Josephus does not report any ethnic violence in the Jewish mainland of Judea. There probably was no ethnic conflict in this southern region as its population was predominantly Jewish. Perhaps Mark added Judea, Jerusalem and Idumea to his list to obscure the regions involved in an ethnic war and to make his enumeration – and consequently Jesus’ appeal – more impressive.
- A boat was readied for Jesus because he was 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. Perhaps this story is about more than just one boat for a leading figure and his inner circle. Josephus tells us 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 the precautionary measures in both texts is identical: to create an escape route for people threatened by a crowd. Mark uses the noun ὄχλος (ochlos), which is translated in Nestle-Aland as ‘crowd’, while 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. I therefore translate θλίβω as ‘to oppress’, in keeping with BDAG.
An important question concerning the use of ὄχλος is whether this noun had been used previously in a military context in 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 – specifically 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 (plèthos). For the threatening crowd in verse 9 he uses the noun ὄχλος. We can discern two different crowds in this passage not only because of their different behavior (devotion versus hostility) but also because of Mark’s use of two different nouns to distinguish two distinct armies.
- 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 refer to Jesus’ activities, is consistently translated as ‘to heal’ and the focus of his interventions is predominantly on 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’ pericope, and I believe this analysis is relevant here as well. The general meaning of θεραπεύω is ‘to take care of’ and it is this general meaning that fits 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 because its basic meaning is ‘scourge’ or ‘plague’, and ‘torment’ or ‘suffering’ are its 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 the Roman/Herodian occupation and from the ongoing ethnic war.
- The agony of the unclean spirits
In the 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 the recent ethnic massacres still fresh in their minds, 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 “prostrating” 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 against the Romans were its Syrian inhabitants, while the newcomers were the Jewish rebels as we have seen 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 prostrate before Jesus and call him ‘Son of God’.
- Jesus’ desire to remain anonymous
With the prospect of the city being taken by the Romans, Jesus decided it was not the moment to start an ethnic bloodbath inside the walls, so he saved the lives of the Syrian part of the Tarichaean population. In return he compelled them not to identify him to the Romans as the rebel leader if he were to be taken prisoner.
Discussion of Matthew 8:18
This sentence, which has no parallels in the other gospels, also depicts hostile crowds around Jesus and this makes it an interesting verse to consider in conjunction with the Markan fragment above. We have already demonstrated the Markan fragment to be a veiled description of the Tarichaeaen episode of the war against the Romans, maybe we will encounter the same hostile crowd here, connecting both passages.
In the translation I have given above I suggest translating the Greek περὶ (peri) as all around and not simply as around Jesus. With this translation choice we see Jesus surrounded by a vulgar mass.
This condition of being surrounded matches Josephus’s description of the final phase of the siege of Tarichaeae precisely. In the Markan fragment we saw that the defenders of the city were driven back inside the walls. From that moment on the Romans threatened the city from the three sides not exposed to the water: from the north, the west and the south, while the defenders had boats ready for evacuation over the lake in the east. Josephus then describes Titus’s bold cavalry attack from the lake waterfront, which means that the Romans also attacked the defenders of Tarichaeae from the back or 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 refer to the same two elements as cause and effect. Titus’s daring attack from the lake side of the city meant that the Romans were all around the defenders, and this provoked the flight of Jesus with just some of the refugees and the revolutionary army. The only difference is that Matthew refers to a decision to flee and Josephus to an actual flight.
Finally, I will 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 just over the border. This may also be the case here. Josephus says that Jesus and his following fled to Jerusalem. The shortest route from Galilea to Judea implies the passage through Samaria. Matthew says something similar as Samaria was the region on the other side of the Galilean border that had to be crossed to reach Jerusalem.
There are quite a few tell-tale signs of the flight to Jerusalem further on in the gospels the first stage of which 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.
Matthew 8:20, two verses after the verse discussed above, offers The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Jesus portrays the Herodians (the foxes) and the Romans (the birds of prey) as far better off than he who is on the run. The middle section of Luke’s gospel provides a wealth of additional information on Jesus’ flight to Jerusalem. See my blog article ‘Galilean refugees in a tight spot (Luke 9:51-62)’.