I have been reading the gospels lately, and have gotten through Mark, John, and yesterday finished reading Matthew.
Although I’ve read them before, this time has been especially exciting. In particular, I have a few thoughts on how Mark stands out.
It has to be understood first something about the authorship of Mark and its relation to the other gospels. Likely, Mark was written first, though it used to be thought that Matthew was first (and Matthew appears first in the ordering of the Bible). Mark is shorter, and the theory is that Matthew and Luke were both based on Mark, as much of Mark appears in both of them (but not each other). These three are called the synoptic gospels, because they all tell similar, frequently overlapping, accounts.
Mark also may have been an eyewitness as a boy. There is mention of a boy toward the end of his gospel, with no other apparent significance or purpose other than perhaps some sort of self-identification on the part of the author.
But the substance of Mark is where things get especially interesting. It is an open question as to whether Jesus truly was divine, or if he actually performed miracles. Mark is the most hazy as to whether miracles were actually performed. This even seems to include the Resurrection. The New International Version of the Bible that I am reading notes that after the scene when Jesus’s body is discovered to be missing from its tomb, the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with Mark 16:8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (The End.)
So, no witnessing of a resurrected Jesus in the earliest manuscripts of the earliest gospel.
As for the other miracles, the most explicitly symbolic seems to me to be the Feeding of the 5,000, followed by the Feeding of the 4,000. In each of these events, Jesus has thousands of people gathering near him. These people need food, and there is a question for Jesus and the disciples as to whether these people should be sent away so that they might find food for themselves. In each case, Jesus insists to the disciples that the crowd not be sent away, and that the few loaves of bread and couple of fish they have with them should be split up and shared. After the crowds are invited to sit down, Jesus gives thanks to heaven, and their food is passed around. There are so many leftovers of crumbs and broken pieces that several baskets are filled (they end up with much, much more than they started with). An apparent miracle!
But what else could explain this passage? Well, Jesus of course is a teacher and knowledge is the type of thing that, when shared, can easily accumulate without diminishing whatsoever. If these events are to interpreted symbolically, then that would seem to be an obvious, straight-forward explanation. But should this be interpreted symbolically?
One clue is that this odd event occurs twice, the first time with 5,000 people and the second time with 4,000. The numbers seems to be different, not out of empirical accuracy, but only so that the reader might see that this is not the same event being told twice, but rather is two distinct occurrences. The reader should not disregard or skip over either of these events, but rather focus on them all the more for their emphasis by way of recurrence.
Let’s keep reading for more context. Following the first Feeding, Jesus walks on water. The water-walking event is explicitly connected to the Feeding, with Mark stating that “Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51-52).
Mark says that the disciples were amazed because “they had not understood about the loaves.” But what was there to understand? In particular, what could be understood such that seeing Jesus walking on water would not inspire their amazement?
Thankfully, we get more insight into the meaning of the Feeding events later, following the Feeding of the 4,000. The text reads as follows:
“The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it'” (Mark 8:11-12).
What?! No sign?! If the Feeding of the 4,000 (or the Feeding of the 5,000 that comes earlier) is meant to be read as a literal miracle, then it would be pretty odd to immediately follow the event with Jesus insisting that “the truth” is that no “miraculous sign . . . will be given.”
We have to therefore consider that the Feedings are not necessarily included as literal miracles in order to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity (which could not fail to always inspire amazement), but rather are representing the potential value of what Jesus has to offer (a kind of knowledge or teaching).
So is Jesus walking on water also a symbolic event? Well, Jesus in that event is not explicitly trying to demonstrate his divinity, but is instead explicitly helping and providing the disciples with strength. Just as the 5,000 needed food, and Jesus gave them something of symbolic meaning, a similar thing is happening here. “He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them . . . Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves” (Mark 6: 48, 51-52). A clear connection: the loaves are symbolic, and if you understand the loaves, you understand the point of Jesus walking on water as also being symbolic.
Their faith gets the disciples through the rough waters, and Jesus appearing on water is just a laughably accommodating mechanism for inspiring their too-easily-shaken faith. If they had understood about the loaves, they would not have needed to see Jesus on the water. Their faith alone could have strengthened them, if they believed. The reader is implicitly encouraged to be better than the disciples.
That’s how the events go in the Gospel of Mark. Now, compare Matthew, which is actually far more explicit about the Feeding of the 5,000 and of the 4,000 as being symbolic: “Don’t you remember the five loaves and the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking about bread?” (Matthew 16:8-11).
Now, look and see the differences in Matthew’s telling of the walking on water event compared to Mark. (In both gospels, the events proceed in roughly the same order, with the water walking event happening somewhere between the two Feedings.) Matthew adds the details that while Jesus is out on the water, Peter actually gets out of the boat, walks on the water himself, and approaches Jesus. Peter loses faith, however, and begins to sink: “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'”
So, catch some of the differences? Matthew does not follow Mark in explicitly relating the water walking event to the earlier Feeding event and the miraculous loaves of bread. Instead, for Matthew, the water walking event has as its primary purpose something different. By having Peter fail to walk on water as well as Jesus does, the emphasis is more on showing us the type of person Peter was–his desire to be like Jesus and his relative inferiority, which he never really overcomes (remember the cock crowing). The emphasis is not, as in Mark, simply on Jesus’s ability to strengthen all those who would have faith in what he offers.
I’m not saying the Matthew version lacks value, but it does seem to care less than the Mark version about providing the reader a means of interpreting the gospel miracles symbolically.