Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
The Question of Jesus’s Identity
[p.133]The imprisonment and subsequent execution of John the Baptist was a crucial factor in the ministry of Jesus. It probably affected not only his movements and those of his disciples over the ensuing period but also his concept of himself and his mission. It is reasonable to assume, moreover, that John’s death influenced Jesus’s own expectation of death, which was to play such an important role in the calling of his disciples and his instructions to them.
Execution of the Baptist
The well-known account of John’s execution is given by Mark (Mk 6:14-29). The “King Herod” referred to by Mark was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. In condemning Herod’s unlawful relation to Herodias, the former wife of Herod’s brother Philip, tetrarch of the territory northeast of Galilee from 4 BCE to 34 CE, John showed the same courage that apparently characterized all his preaching. Herod’s main reason for the imprisonment of John, however, may have been his fear that John, who seems to have had a considerable following, might incite a rebellion. This, at least, was the opinion of Josephus, who recorded John’s imprisonment and execution1 but made no mention of Herodias’s daughter and the events recorded in Mark immediately leading to John’s death.2
[p.134]The question of Jesus’s relationship to the Baptist is a matter of primary concern to the Gospel writers, who attempted to establish Jesus’s superiority to John and insisted on his independence of the Johannine movement. The Lukan infancy narrative, for example, and the accounts of Jesus’s baptism, particularly in John’s Gospel and in Matthew, clearly set Jesus apart from John and subordinate the Baptist to him. However, notwithstanding this apologetic strategy of the Gospels, the Baptist must be acknowledged as an important historical figure in Palestine quite apart from Jesus and his ministry. It is not improbable that at the baptism, Jesus identified himself as a follower of John, and that following the Baptist’s arrest and imprisonment he became the chief inspiration and leader of the eschatological movement which John had initiated.
Feeding the Five Thousand
Major events in Jesus’s ministry from this time forward—the feeding of the five thousand, the confession at Philippi, and the Transfiguration—can be best understood against the backdrop of John’s imprisonment and death. These events gave Jesus a sense of urgency about his own future, prompting the question about his status as John’s successor and bearer of the Elijah mantle: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29).
The traditions about Jesus feeding the crowds, recorded in Mark 6:30-44 and Matthew 14:13-21, and the reports of incidents preceding and following this event are puzzling. Mark and Matthew both record two miraculous occasions of feeding large numbers of people with a few loaves and fishes, first the five thousand and later the four thousand (Mt 14:13-21, 15:32-39; Mk 6:32-44, 8:1-10). The second “feeding” is not included in Luke’s or John’s account. Those New Testament historians who regard the accounts in Mark and Matthew as two versions of a single event are probably correct.3 Also, the occasion for the feeding of the five thousand is described differently by the Gospel writers. In Mark and Luke the feeding follows the return of the apostles from their missionary journeys when they withdrew [p.135]to find seclusion and rest (Mk 6:30f; Lk 9:10). Matthew, however, connected this event with the arrest and execution of John the Baptist: “Now when Jesus heard this [the execution of John], he withdrew.”
In Matthew’s account, Jesus withdrew across the lake presumably to be outside the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, who had executed John (Mt 14:13). A crowd gathered as Jesus came ashore. However, this was not the usual gathering of the curious and of those who came for healing or exorcism, but more likely a gathering of John’s disciples and others aroused by the death of the Baptist, including people strongly opposed to Rome. A serious confrontation with Herod seemed inevitable.
The Fourth Gospel places this event near the Passover (Jn 6:4) and suggests that in feeding the multitude Jesus may have intended a feast or banquet celebrating the coming of God’s kingdom. In any case this was a critical juncture in Jesus’s ministry, for according to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus proclaimed openly his identity as the Messiah and God’s son. Apparently the hope for a messiah who would be a national leader, a hope strong among the Galileans, was capturing the imagination of Jesus’s followers. But he resisted the effort to make him king.4
When the people saw the sign which he had done [the feeding of the multitude], they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!”
Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself. (Jn 6:14f)
Later, according to John’s account, Jesus returned to Capernaum. There he elaborated on the meaning of the sign given at the feeding, that he was the bread of life sent from God. John recorded that many of the disciples were offended by the apparent literalness of Jesus’ teaching about eating his flesh and many withdrew from his company (Jn 6:60f, 66f).
[p.136]The strong sacramental flavor of the Johannine account is less evident in the synoptic Gospels. Nevertheless, the Feeding of the Five Thousand (or four thousand) has great significance for the Synoptics, not simply as a miracle of feeding a great throng from five loaves and two fish but even more as a sign of Jesus’s purpose to usher in the Kingdom of God. In the synoptic presentations it seems intended as a symbol of the messianic banquet.5 In fact, in all four Gospels this story is laden with symbolism and is later related to the Last Supper. In the Gospel of John, Israel’s eating manna in the desert is interpreted as foreshadowing Jesus as the bread from heaven (Jn 6:31-35, 47-51, 58).
Apparently by the time John wrote his Gospel, probably not earlier than the end of the first century, the feeding of the multitude had been invested by the Christian community with sacramental meaning. However, some other meaning seems intended by the synoptic accounts. Mark points out that Jesus had compassion on the great throng because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34). But there is more here than a story of Jesus’s compassion, for when the disciples, realizing the lateness of the hour, requested that Jesus send the people to nearby villages to obtain food, Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37). This was unexpected. Apparently, Jesus anticipated the time soon to come when he would be arrested and executed just as John had been. Then the disciples must assume leadership of “the flock.” But they did not fully understand Jesus’s metaphor about the loaves and the twelve baskets left over which apparently symbolized the apostles’ responsibilities that would follow upon Jesus’s death. [p.137]They were unable “to see” beyond what was immediately before them—the temporal realities of hunger and bread. Later Jesus’s meaning would become more apparent in his discourse on leaven.
The event of Jesus walking on the water, one of the so-called “nature” miracles which supposedly defy natural law, may well have been an illusion or hallucination experienced by one or more of his exhausted disciples as they struggled with their boat. For in Jesus’s time there was no understanding of natural law describing the regularity of nature.
And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” (Mt 14:25-27)
This entire episode is omitted from Luke, but for Matthew and Mark the event had significance beyond simply describing Jesus’s miraculous power over nature. Its main value in Matthew comes from the confession of those in the boat: “Truly you are the Son of God” (Mt 14:33).6 However, in Mark the event does not lead to a confession. On the contrary, the disciples do not understand its meaning. Mark’s view must be understood in connection with other crucial events and sayings of Jesus: the feeding of the five thousand, the discourse on leaven, and the Transfiguration. All of these events have to do with the disclosure of Jesus’s identity and, in Mark’s view, the failure of the disciples to discern his true nature and role as the Messiah. Mark reported that when Jesus came to them and got into the boat, the wind ceased. “And,” he continues, “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mk 6:51f). References to “the loaves” could only refer to the five loaves which fed the crowd. Apparently, for Mark, what the disciples could not grasp about the miracle of the loaves was the identity and real significance of Jesus—that he was not merely the Jewish Messiah [p.138]but also the Son of man and Son of God who must suffer and die and be raised up. This motif is continued by Mark and the other synoptic evangelists in Jesus’s discourse on leaven.
Jesus and the Law
Gennesaret lies at the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee between the sea and high rolling hills. This well-populated, fertile area near Capernaum was a trade center and the base of Jesus’s Galilean ministry. Perhaps the news of Jesus’ teachings had preceded him and his disciples, for the people’s enthusiasm was high. They flocked to him bringing their sick to the marketplaces where they might touch even the fringe of his robe (Mk 6:36).7
Here Jesus encountered a group of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. They asked him why his disciples did not live according to the tradition of the elders but ate with defiled hands (Mk 7:5). Jesus had become well known in Galilee. He had attracted much attention and apparently was a subject of discussion wherever he went. He was accepted mainly by the common people, who found hope and consolation in his teachings of the kingdom. But the religious leaders were often opposed to him. The fact that the Pharisees and scribes who came to confer with Jesus were from Jerusalem suggests that they may have been an official delegation sent to investigate him.8 Their complaint that Jesus’s disciples failed to respect the established ceremonial practices was serious for those who strictly observed the Law and tradition. Jesus’s reply to the question with a counter question followed a pattern of argumentation common in rabbinic controversy. “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mt 15:3).
As has been indicated, the tradition of the elders to which the Pharisees and Jesus referred was the extension of the Mosaic Law [p.139]sometimes called the Oral Law, a legal tradition that had issued from the practical necessity of adapting the written Mosaic Law to the growing complexities of everyday life. For the Pharisees and the scribes, who by common consent were responsible for interpreting the Law, the oral tradition was a body of religious and moral principles second in importance only to the Written Law, the Torah. According to Josephus, the Sadducees were strong defenders of the Written Law but, unlike the Pharisees, were not adherents to the oral tradition.9
Among the rules and observances of the oral tradition was a ceremony for the washing of hands before eating. Observing the tradition of the elders in this instance was more than a matter of sanitary regulation; it was a religious duty. Torah required ceremonial observances for many kinds of defilement (Lv 14:15-20). Moreover, through the years the elders had added rules to protect the Law against defilement just as a fence protects property.10 As they explained it, one might be defiled and break the Law without knowing it, such as unconsciously or unavoidably touching a Samaritan in the marketplace.
Jesus’s countercharge against the Pharisees raised the question as to what it is that defiles a person. His answer was that nothing going into a person’s mouth can defile him. In his response Jesus referred to one of the ten commandments, “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex 20:12), then added, addressing the Pharisees and scribes, “But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father'” (Mt 15:5). With these words Jesus condemned a tradition which permitted a person by means of a vow to keep his property from being used for the relief of his parents. This was in his view a manipulation of the law of God.11 When the disciples reported [p.140]to Jesus that the Pharisees were offended by his teaching, he cautioned them against the Pharisees, calling them blind guides: “And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:14).
Peter’s request, reported by Matthew, that Jesus explain the parable implied that although the Pharisees seemed to understand Jesus’s points about blindness and what defiles, the disciples did not (Mt 15:12-16). Mark’s account is explicit at this point when Jesus said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, … What comes out of a man is what defiles a man” (Mk 7:18-20).
The Gospels, especially Matthew, often give a distorted picture of the Pharisaic religion. It is unfortunate that in the Gospels most of the references to the Pharisees occur in accounts of Jesus’ conflict with them. Since the Gospels were written during a period of conflict with Jewish authorities, they reflect the attitudes of the Christians of the time in which they were written. Much that was basic in Jesus’ religious and moral teachings was acceptable to the Pharisees. Some of the Pharisees were intensely legalistic, as is evident from the Gospel accounts. However, others were more liberal in their teachings and quite unlike those pictured in the New Testament in conflict with Jesus. Jesus was not opposed to the Law, and his teachings on the whole were consonant with the basic Pharisaic doctrines. Like the great teacher Hillel, a Pharisee who was his near contemporary (ca. BCE 60-CE 10), Jesus stressed the spirit rather than the letter of the Law. A more balanced account of the Pharisaic religion is provided by R. Travers Herford:
The Pharisees are commonly regarded as the opponents of Jesus, the men who had reduced Judaism to such a condition that Christianity was the reaction by which the free prophetic spirit was liberated from the bondage of the Law. Historical justice is thought to be satisfied by remembering against them the stinging gibe—”Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” Yet, however natural this view may be, it is obviously inadequate and superficial. It takes no account of the reasons why the Pharisees were what they were, nor of the process by which they became such, nor of the fact that being what they were they have [p.141]continued to order their lives by the same principles of religion and morality down to the present day. Nor does it take account of the consideration that if the Pharisees had been in their real nature and characters such as they are usually depicted, and Pharisaism the organised hypocrisy commonly supposed, such continued existence and unfailing vitality would have been impossible.12
The Disciples’ Blindness
According to Matthew, Jesus crossed by boat to the west side of the Sea of Galilee to the locality known as Magadan, which probably included Magdala. Then he was accosted by a group of Pharisees and Sadducees who had come to test him, requesting a sign from heaven—a Semitic idiom for a sign from God. But Jesus was distressed by their skeptical attitude and preoccupation with signs as proof. He complained that although they were able to discern the weather from the appearance of the sky, they could not interpret the signs of the times. His reply was, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Mt 16:4). In Matthew, the sign of Jonah may be a reference to the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The expression “sign of Jonah” does not appear in Mark’s Gospel. Mark reports that Jesus simply refused to give them a sign (Mk 8:12). On another occasion Luke provides a possible explanation for Jesus’ refusal—Jesus would present no sign except that which Jonah offered the men of Nineveh, namely, a call to repentance (Lk 11:29-32). As the Assyrians of Nineveh had recognized God’s demand in Jonah’s call to repentance, so the Jews should recognize the authenticity of Jesus’ proclamation. And since they were blind to this sign, it was unlikely that another more spectacular sign would convince them.13
At this point, according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus left for the other side of the sea and on the way the disciples discovered they had forgotten to bring bread (Mt 16:5; Mk 8:14). Disturbed by their failure to grasp the full meaning of his comments about bread, Jesus rebuked [p.142]them for their lack of discernment. “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Mt 16:6).14 Presumably the meaning of “leaven” here is the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees had compromised teachings of the Jewish religion, especially in regard to Roman and hellenistic culture, in an effort to retain their status and control of the central religious establishment in Jerusalem. In Matthew the term “leaven” is used in Jesus’s attack on the skepticism of the Pharisees about the Kingdom of God—their doubts about the coming of the kingdom as a historical reality, and their doubt that God’s anointed, the Messiah, would bring the kingdom. Matthew regarded their disbelief as evidence of perversity. In his account of Jesus’s discourse against the Pharisees, Luke explicitly referred to the leaven of the Pharisees, “which is hypocrisy” (Lk 11:37-12:1). Leaven or yeast works quietly from within. Often its presence is not known until it has transformed the “whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6). In either case Jesus’s statement apparently meant that the skepticism of the Pharisees might work silently and insidiously among his disciples and be unnoticed until it dampened or killed their commitments and hopes.
In both Matthew and Mark, the disciples are represented as entirely missing the point of Jesus’s warning. Their response that “we have no bread” (Mk 8:16) indicates their blindness. According to Mark, Jesus, aware of his disciples’ discussion about bread, pressed the point. “Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see? … And do you not remember?” (Mk 8:17f). Clearly in Mark’s view they have not seen and remembered the disclosure of Jesus’s identity in the events of feeding the multitude and his walking on the sea. Apparently for Mark, the disciples continued to believe in traditional Jewish ways and not as the Christians believed in Mark’s day that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. But Mark left the matter without further explanation. According to Matthew, however, Jesus explained his cryptic remarks so that “they under-[p.143]stood.” Matthew repeatedly softened Mark’s account of Jesus’ harshness toward the disciples, especially Peter. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus made certain that the disciples understood that in the reference to the leaven he was not speaking literally of bread but was referring rather to the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 16:6, 11f).
The entire program of seeing or not seeing, believing or not believing, is of central importance to the Gospel writers and to the early Christian church whose views they expressed. But the failure of the early disciples was a special problem for Mark, involved as he was in the difficulties caused by the Jewish-Roman War and the subsequent disaster for the Jews and Christians. For Matthew and Luke the problem was different. In their day (ca. CE 80-90) both Judaism and Christianity were engaged in reconstructing their respective religious communities. The Jewish and Christian communities lived in close proximity, making claims, engaging in apologetics, and leveling charges and countercharges. This probably explains in part why there are excessive denunciations of the Pharisees in Matthew. The problem of the disciples’ failure to understand Jesus, of primary concern in the Gospel of Mark, was in Matthew secondary to the blindness and perversity of the Pharisees. For Matthew, the Pharisees had become the prime example of stubborn disbelief, the primary concern of the church in his day. Also both Matthew and Luke faced the need to preserve the integrity and unity of the Twelve in order to support an organizational structure for the church.
From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus drew to himself the poor and afflicted. In an account reported only in Mark, friends at Bethsaida brought a blind man to Jesus and urged him to touch the man, apparently in the belief that his actual touch would restore sight (Mk 8:22-26). Taking the blind man by the hand, Jesus led him out of the village, spat on his eyes, and then touched them. That the blind man saw is of special import to Mark. “Do you see anything?” At first the man saw, but not clearly. “Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was [p.144]restored, and saw everything clearly.” In an earlier and very similar report found only in Mark (Mk 7:31-36), Jesus healed a man who was deaf and could not speak plainly. In each case Jesus took the afflicted person aside in private and thereafter enjoined him to avoid publicity. And both healings were effected by the use of saliva and by touching.15
Those scholars may be correct who believe Mark was hinting at more than literal blindness here, that there is a symbolic relationship between the blind man, only gradually coming to see clearly, and the intellectual and spiritual blindness of the disciples. Under this quite plausible interpretation, the “seeing” and “hearing” are miracles of discernment.
The Confession in Caesarea Philippi
The district of Caesarea Philippi north of Galilee was named in honor of the Emperor Tiberias Caesar by the tetrarch Herod Philip. It was called Philippi to distinguish it from the important Mediterranean seaport Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea, which had been founded in honor of Augustus by Herod the Great. From the Sea of Galilee the journey to this area up the lower slopes of Mount Hermon was a distance of perhaps twenty miles. This was gentile territory and apparently Jesus withdrew there to seek seclusion and to ponder the question of his leadership following the death of the Baptist. This was a critical time for Jesus. His acceptance by the people had reached its height. Many of his followers, according to the Gospel of John, would have rallied to his leadership in revolt against Rome, but Jesus refused to be identified with national leadership or as a messiah of rebellion.16 At this critical point when the understanding and loyalty of his dis-[p.145]ciples were crucial to him, Jesus questioned them about his identity. Their reply that some believed him to be John the Baptist returned from heaven or Elijah or Jeremiah or “one of the prophets” perhaps came as no surprise. For there was a popular Jewish tradition that Elijah or Elijah’s spirit would return at the end of the age, and Jesus may have already encountered the belief that he was that ancient prophet returned.
Apparently Jesus’s pressing concern at this point was not so much how others regarded him as what he meant to his own most intimate disciples. How did they regard him? What was their conception of the meaning of his proclamation and role in restoring the kingdom? According to Mark, Peter replied, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29). The term Christ is from the Greek word Christos which translates the Hebrew term Messiah or one anointed. The Hebrew term does not refer to a divine being. It gradually became an honorific title signifying one who was chosen as God’s agent.17 All three synoptists reported that Jesus enjoined the disciples to tell no one of their belief that he was the Messiah. Although in these gospel portraits he clearly regards himself as having a messianic mission to prepare the way for the kingdom, it is not clear that he considered himself to be the Messiah.
The account of Peter’s confession, which has played a large role in Christian history, appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels. But only Matthew contains Jesus’s reply to Peter. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:17-19).18 Thus, Matthew claims, full responsibility as leaders of a continuing earthly community was given to Peter and those few disciples. Again, those scholars are probably correct who believe [p.146]that these verses simply expressed the beliefs of the later church, added to the briefer account of Mark in order to support the church’s claim that Peter held the keys of ecclesiastical authority.19 In Mark’s Gospel there is no report of a blessing on Peter or suggestion of revelation or church authority.
At this point, just as his intimate disciples were finally grasping the fact of his messiahship, Jesus confronted them with the awful announcement that he must suffer and die. Both Mark and Matthew describe Jesus’s effort to lead his disciples from the popular view of the Messiah as a kingly figure to his view that it was his destiny to suffer for his people. A growing hostility against him was clearly evident in his encounters with religious leaders, and opposition from civil officials seemed inevitable. It was clear to the Gospel authors, writing many years after the fact, that Jesus’s mission must be consummated in Jerusalem. And it was equally clear that the consummation required his death. Matthew says, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). For all three synoptists Jesus was the Son of man and this was the first prediction of his passion (Mk 8:31; Lk 9:22). In Mark, Jesus clearly explained that the Son of man was to be killed and after three days rise again. And Mark added that Peter took Jesus and “began to rebuke him” (Mk 8:32f). For Peter, as for any Jew who believed in the messianic promise, the belief that the Messiah would be killed was an utter impossibility. Peter, the most outspoken and vigorous of the Twelve, apparently hoped, as did the others, for a Jewish Messiah who was a patriot, a deliverer, a soldier, an empire builder—a greater David. Jesus’s rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” was a rejection of Peter’s view of the messianic role. Also, this rebuke would have countered typical Jewish messianic expecta-[p.147]tions which, presumably, were still being promoted by some Christians when Mark’s Gospel was written.
According to the synoptic writers, Jesus’s appointed role was to suffer and be killed. His way would not win favor or friends but rather would generate hostile and powerful enemies. The end for Jesus would not be acceptance but rather disbelief, rejection, and death. Discipleship in the immediate future would be exceedingly dangerous and would require total loyalty and self-denial: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,”20 and “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:34f).21 These were the terms and promises of discipleship in the time of the early church. The synoptists conclude this episode with Jesus’s statement that there would be some remaining who would not taste death before the Kingdom of God had come with power (Mk 9:1; Lk 9:27; Mt 16:28).
According to Luke, about eight days after Peter’s confession Jesus went into the mountains to pray, taking with him Peter, John, and James.
And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory. … (Lk 9:29-31)22
Matthew referred to the events on the mountain as a vision (Mt 17:9). The occasion for this event, the Transfiguration, may have been the [p.148]fall agricultural festival, Sukkot (the Festival of Booths), which celebrated the harvesting of grapes and other crops. The custom of dwelling in temporary huts was a reminder of God’s protection during the Hebrews’ early experience in the desert.23 Also one aspect of Sukkot was the expectation that invisible guests might appear—illustrious figures from the past such as the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.
Moses’s position as founder of the Hebrew religion, the author of Torah, was acknowledged by all Jews. Elijah, as champion of the people in whom God’s spirit was expressed most powerfully, was second in the tradition only to Moses. Elijah was a redemptive figure of major importance in popular Hebrew-Jewish lore. His return in power before “the great and terrible day of the Lord” was prophesied in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. In the Jewish apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach), Elijah is portrayed as a prophet “like a fire” whose word “burned like a torch.” This explanation of his great miracles is the dominant theme of Sirach 48:1-12. In the end, Elijah was “taken up by a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with horses of fire,” and it was predicted that he would come “at the appointed time with warnings … to reconcile father and son and to restore the tribes of Jacob.”24 According to popular tradition, both Moses and Elijah were translated and taken into heaven, which gave them special status among Hebrew-Jewish heroes.
To the accounts of the other evangelists, Luke added that at the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus about his departure, which was to occur in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31). Jerusalem, the very center of the Jewish religion, was of special importance in Luke’s Gospel. Luke held that it was God’s plan that the new Israel was [p.149]to originate in Jerusalem with Jesus’s rejection of the “old” institutions of Judaism which had been identified with that ancient city.
In keeping with Jewish tradition respecting Sukkot, which was a thanksgiving festival, Peter proposed making three booths, places of honor, for Jesus and the two guests.25 Mark’s explanation of Peter’s proposal suggests that Peter’s concept of Christ, perhaps representing the views of early Jewish-Christianity, was mistaken. Peter’s conditioning in the “old way” led him to conclude that Jesus stood in the Hebrew-Jewish tradition with other great figures of the past. “Let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mk 9:5).26
Mark’s comment that Peter “did not know what to say” is consistent with his rather negative assessment of Peter (Mk 9:6). Luke replaces this with the phrase, “not knowing what he said,” as though to indicate that Peter was entirely innocent of any misunderstanding about Jesus’s unique and superior status (Lk 9:33). Then a voice came out of a cloud which had covered them, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mk 9:7). It is significant that the three Synoptics agree that after the voice was heard, Moses and Elijah vanished and only Jesus remained. For the Gospel writers, says G. B. Caird, “There was no need for three tabernacles: the divine glory, imperfectly and partially revealed under the old dispensation, was now being gathered up in the sole person of this Jesus who had set his face to go to Jerusalem. He stood alone, and the cloud of the divine presence overshadowed him and his.”27
According to Mark, as Jesus and his disciples descended the mountain, he charged them “to tell no one what they had seen, [p.150]until the Son of man should have risen from the dead” (Mk 9:9). At this point Mark commented that the disciples were questioning together what resurrection from the dead meant, and they asked Jesus why the scribes say “that first Elijah must come.”28 This is the occasion in Mark for Jesus to make a significant statement about Elijah. Elijah “does come first to restore all things. … But I tell you Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased” (Mk 9:11-13). Matthew underscored the fact that Elijah had already come but the people did not recognize him. Matthew concluded that the disciples understood that Jesus was speaking to them of John the Baptist (Mt 17:13). Thus, Matthew explicitly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who had already come. This point is not sufficiently clear in the text of Mark, where one might suppose that Jesus played the Elijah role. However, it is clear in Matthew that it is the Baptist who is identified as Elijah and not Jesus. Matthew’s reference to the Baptist may be seen simply as a strategy to support his contention that Jesus is the Christ and not a lesser figure such as John, who was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
In the Synoptics a central theme connects the confession in Philippi, the Transfiguration, Jesus’s censure of the crowd following his healing of an epileptic boy, and the second prediction of his passion: the failure of understanding and belief and the power of positive belief. Prior to Jesus’s return from the mountain, the father of an epileptic boy had asked Jesus’s disciples to cast out the demon (or dumb spirit), but they were not able to do so (Mk 9:18). Jesus anguished at their failure and lamented, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?” Then the father petitioned Jesus, “If you can do anything, … help us.” Jesus quickly responded, “All things are possible to him who believes.” He then exorcised the evil spirit from the boy (Mk 9:19-26).
After the events in Caesarea Philippi and at the Transfiguration, a sense of urgency apparently came upon Jesus. Mark re-[p.151]ported that they passed through Galilee and “he would not have anyone know it” (Mk 9:30).29 This was the occasion for Jesus’s second prediction of his passion. He said of the Son of man that “they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” (Mk 9:31; Mt 17:23). Mark concluded the episode with another severe rebuke of the disciples because they did not understand Jesus’s prediction and were afraid to ask him about it (Mk 9:32). The failure to understand on the part of the disciples does not appear in Matthew’s account. Clearly in his view, the disciples were distressed because they did, in fact, grasp the meaning of Jesus’s declaration (Mt 17:23). Luke attempted to soften Mark’s conclusion about the disciples’ failure with his explanation that the purport of Jesus’ words was concealed from them, “that they should not perceive it” (Lk 9:45).
2. Matthew’s account of the execution of John the Baptist follows Mark but adds that after John’s disciples buried him, they “went and told Jesus” (14:12). Luke mentions the execution (9:7-9) but does not give the events leading to John’s death. John’s execution is not reported in the Fourth Gospel.
4. M. Goguel holds the view common among scholars that “The refusal of Jesus to accept the title of king, and to use the force supplied by his followers, coupled with the supernatural power which God would give him to overthrow the Tetrarch, led to the immediate collapse of his influence over the masses” (Maurice Goguel, The Life of Jesus, trans. Olive Wyon [New York, 1949], 377).
5. The feeding of the five thousand at Mark 6:40 and Luke 9:14 is reminiscent of the ordering of the multitude in hundreds and fifties during the Exodus (Ex 18:21-23). Also it bears resemblance to the story of Elisha’s feeding the hundred in 2 Kings 4:42-44.
M. Goguel says, “The idea of this [Messianic] Feast was so widespread in the Judaism of that day that it is quite natural to think that Jesus may have had it in mind when he invited the multitude, to whom he had just been speaking about the kingdom of God, to sit down to this meal. To him also the distribution of the loaves was a symbol of the Messianic Feast” (Goguel, Life of Jesus, 368f). Also, see A. Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, trans. W. Lowrie (New York, 1964), 171f.
The parallel passage in Mark (7:1) seems to indicate that only the scribes were from Jerusalem; a similar description of Jerusalem scribes is found in Mark 3:22.
11. “Corban” (Mk 7:11) was a declaration that one’s property was to be given to the Temple. Under this provision a clever or unprincipled person might retain the use of his property for his lifetime without assuming any obligation to his parents as required under the fifth commandment.
14. In Mark (8:15), Jesus’s warning is against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herodians. This represents a strange alliance between the Pharisees, whose interests were essentially religious rather than political, and a political party, the supporters of Herod.
In that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see (Is 29:18).
17. M. Goguel, in interpreting John 6:66-69, observes of Peter’s confession that “while it appears to be a statement of belief in Jesus, [it] is really and mainly a declaration of personal attachment and loyalty. So at the very moment when Jesus is being pursued by Herod, and deserted by many of his disciples, Peter proclaims the undying attachment and loyalty of the Twelve” (Goguel, Life of Jesus, 385).
19. According to M. S. Enslin, the passage “thou art Peter and upon this rock” is “a late addition to the earlier account given in Mark.” Matthew’s addition of Jesus’s blessing and exaltation of Peter is seen by Enslin as protecting the “worthiness” of Peter’s image in the church against possible misunderstanding of Jesus’s rebuke in Mark 8:32f (Morton S. Enslin, The Prophet from Nazareth [New York, 1968], 165).
20. The reference to the “cross” in Mark and Matthew is probably a warning of possible martyrdom. It was no doubt a post-crucifixion usage of the term that entered into the language of the church. Some, however, have thought that it may have been a rather common metaphor referring to the burdens of discipleship.
22. This story recalls the circumstances of Moses’s epiphany on Mount Sinai. According to Exodus “the cloud covered it [Mount Sinai] six days” and “he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (Ex 24:16), and “he [Moses] came down from the mountain” and “the skin of his face shone” (Ex 34:29f). See the parallel accounts in Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; and Lk 9:28-36.
23. According to some Jewish scholars, in an early biblical calendar of events Sukkot marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next (Ex 23:16). Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York, 1980), 74. For a description of Sukkot and other traditional services and feasts of the Jews, see Yaacov Vainstein, The Cycle of the Jewish Year (Jerusalem, 1953).
25. The Sukkot festival requirement in Leviticus 25:39-43 that “all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths” for seven days is claimed by some Jewish scholars to have been grafted to the historic occasion of the Exodus (Ex 12:37; 13:20). The biblical commandment to dwell in booths helped preserve the Israelite memory as nomads in the wilderness. See Zeev Meshel, “An Explanation of the Journeys of the Israelites in the Wilderness,” Biblical Archaeologist 45 (1982), 1:19f.
28. “Elias,” the Graecized name employed in the New Testament portion of the King James Version, is rendered “Elijah” in the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, and most modern translations.