Proper 4B

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


  • Deuteronomy 18:15-20 & Psalm 111
  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
  • Mark 1:21-28

Gospel: Jesus the Galilean Jew

Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum

This week's passage in Mark 1 serves as the opening act of Jesus' public activity in Mark's narrative. It locates Jesus in the Galilee and, in particular at Capernaum. It represents him teaching in the synagogue. And it remembers Jesus as a healer.

The key aspect of this week's Gospel is not the architecture of the place where the prayer gathering (Gk: synagogue) was held, but Mark's choice of a healing as the opening public act in Jesus' ministry.

Matthew and Luke both seem to know Mark's version, but they choose to treat the opening act of Jesus' public ministry rather differently:

  • Matthew eliminates the story of the demoniac being healed, and reduces Mark's account to a general summary paragraph that then serves as an introduction to Matthew's chosen opening act: the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-7:29).
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ... [Matt 4:23-5:3]
Matthew retains Mark's description of the crowd's reaction (Mark 1:22) to conclude Jesus' inaugural address:
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

  • Luke goes in quite another direction altogether. Prior to Mark's account of Jesus healing the demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue, Luke has Jesus make a formal appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth:
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:14–30 NRSV)

Fresh from his temptations in the wilderness, and without yet having called any disciples (that will come ch 5 for Luke), Jesus attends his hometown synagogue and publicly announces his mission as the one anointed (i.e., the Messiah or Christ) with the spirit of the Lord to usher in the messianic era with good news to the poor, pardon for prisoners, sight to the blind, etc. In Luke, it is only after being rebuffed by his hometown that Jesus retires to Capernaum.

Each of the Gospel authors has chosen to introduce Jesus' public ministry in different ways. John, remember, uses the story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. This diversity gives us permission to put aside the question of what Jesus actually did when starting his ministry, and to ask instead, Why does Mark choose a healing as the quintessential activity of Jesus?


While we cannot be sure how long his public activity lasted, Capernaum seems to have been the base for Jesus' activities prior to his final trip to Jerusalem.

John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) devote several pages to a discussion of Capernaum in the First Century (pp. 81-97). The most salient features to note are as follows:

  • POPULATION: around 1,000 persons on 25 acres of land
  • BUILDINGS: none of the Greco-Roman architecture of a significant urban center: no gates, no defensive fortifications, no civic structures (theater, amphitheater, hippodrome), no public bathhouse, no public latrine, no basilica for civic gatherings or commercial activities, no constructed agora (market) with shops and storage facilities
  • STREETS: no sign of planning in layout of streets, no streets appear to have been paved, no channels for running water, sewage disposed on the site, no plaster surfaces, no decorative fresco, no marble of any kind, no ceramic roof tiles (contra Luke 5:19)
  • INSCRIPTIONS: none from 1C or earlier have been found
  • HOUSES: used local dark basalt, crooked wooden beams, straw, reeds, mud. Poor quality of construction. No evidence of skilled craftsmen. Mostly single storey and with thatched roofs (as implied in Mark's version of Jesus healing a paralyzed man). Several abutting rooms centered around a courtyard. Usually just a single entrance.
  • BOATS: lakeside location supported a fishing industry, but town shows no evidence of wealth. The nearby discovery of a 1C fishing boat in 1986 (during a drought that lowered the water level) confirms the impression of a community struggling to survive but with considerable ingenuity in making the most of limited resources.

In one of his classic turns of phrase, Crossan describes Capernaum as "not a sought-after spot, but a good place to get away from, with easy access across the Sea of Galilee to any side." (p. 81)

Further details about the excavations at the Capernaum site are available from the Franciscan web site.

The impressive remains of a stone synagogue in Capernaum are something of an anachronism as there is no evidence of such buildings in Galilee during the time of Jesus. It seems Mark may have confused Jesus' participation in synagogue "gatherings" with the practice of his disciples later in the first century, when synagogue buildings did begin to appear in the Galilee and Jesus' followers used them as places to promote his message.

In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine erected a fine marble synagogue in Capernaum to provide a suitable venue for the ministry of Jesus to be remembered. The remains of that building are still visible today.

See also: Photos and text of Capernaum and its ancient synagogue(s)

Galilee in the time of Jesus

In recent years research into the Galilee in the Roman period has made significiant advances.

A few points of interest:

  • Until the time of Antipas, Galilee had not had to support a local aristocracy as those with power had always been based outside Galilee.
  • Galilee had no historical association with Judah/Judea and Jerusalem, and even after the annexation in Hasmonean times seems to have had little sense of affiliation with Jerusalem.
  • While Herod the Great began his career as governor of Galilee, his efforts (and his publicly-funded building projects) were all based in the south.
  • Antipas began to invest in public infrastructure in part to keep the tourist dollars local, rather than encouraging his subjects to visit (and spend their carefully hoarded shekels at) the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • There were no unambiguously "purpose-built" synagogue buildings in Galilee until around the third century CE, and the term is best understood as "community gathering" (assembling outdoors or in any other convenient space) rather than as a dedicated Jewish religious centre.
  • There is no evidence of either priestly or Pharisee activity/presence in Galilee in the time of Jesus. This develops in the lead up to, and shortly after, the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73CE.
  • And an oddity that we often overlook: Herod Agrippa II was a close ally of both Josephus and Vespasian, and maintained a Jewish court-in-exile based at Caesarea Philippi in the far north of the Jordan valley throughout the Jewish war and long afterward. The instruction to flee to mountains when you see the approaching catastrophe could be advice for Jewish devotees of Jesus to head to the mountains of southern Lebanon. Ted Weedon sees GMark being composed in the villages around Caesarea Philippi and influenced in part by early drafts of Josephus Wars - which Josephus himself says were sent to Agrippa II for review and comment.

Such research into "historical Galilee" around the time of Jesus tends to raise the question, what kind of "observant Jews" might have been found there in the time of Jesus? The critical point in that question may be what the phrase "observant Jew" would have meant ca 25 CE.

The material now coming out from the Galilee specialists is that the area was distinctively Jewish, but lacked a long tradition of association with (and reverence for) Jerusalem and its temple. Rather - extending over several centuries - Galilee was a less developed area that typically was administered (ie, taxed and plundered) by powerful elites based in cities around its periphery, and Jerusalem was simply the most recent of these at the regional level, while Rome represented the latest example of the territorial empire (which tended to manage places like Galilee through traditional local elites - none of which were indigenous to Galilee).

"Observant Jew" would mean different things to a Jew in Judea, (Qumran), Galilee, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, etc. None of these groups, ca 25 CE, can be labelled as "observant Jews" if we mean by that the rabbinic Judaism of the Mishnah and Talmud. In the case of Galilee, some scholars are suggesting that the locals may have considered themselves "Israelites" rather than "Jews."

This suggests that HJ would have understood himself as a pious Jew (note the biblical names attributed to his parents and siblings: Joseph, Miriam, Simeon, Jacob, Jude). However, his kind of Jewishness was not likely to have been constructed around either the Temple cult nor weekly readings of the Torah in a Synagogue presided over by a rabbi or some other religious official.

Jesus was most likely illiterate, like his peers in small Galilean hamlets; but seems to have been a gifted oral poet, a prophet, a healer and a holy man. He was not a scribe, a priest, a rabbi nor a rebel.

We may presume Jesus practiced his Jewishness in ways typical of early 1C Galileans in small hamlets. One of our problems is that we have so little data about just how such Galileans practiced their Jewishness in that place and at that time. The on-going excavations at Bethsaida are increasing our knowledge of Jewish identity markers in specific Galilean sites during the Herodian period. Some Galilean sites may have been founded (in the case of Nazareth) or ethnically-cleansed (in the case of Bethsaida) under a Jerusalem program to increase the presence of Jewish settlers with a stronger affiliation to Jerusalem than would otherwise have been the case in the region.

Luke and Matthew both dress Jesus in the garb of Torah-observant Jewish communities in the post-Temple context after the war of 66-73 CE. While we may be confident that these descriptions are anachronistic in describing him that way, It is quite another thing to be confident about how to describe Jesus and his Jewish peers in Galilee more accurately.

Jesus as healer

During his lifetime, Jesus was considered a healer. From today’s perspective, many of the cures attributed to Jesus seem related to psychosomatic maladies. Jesus usually healed by the use of words alone; his cures were sometimes effected instantaneously. The Jewish scriptures provided generative models for constructing healing stories about Jesus as physician. Greco-Roman tales also served as models for stories about Jesus.

In addition to the 6 reports of exorcisms attributed to Jesus—all outside John’s Gospel—19 cures or resuscitations are attributed to Jesus in the earliest gospel traditions. While affirming the description of Jesus as a healer, the Jesus Seminar had difficulty in finding stories it believed to be reports of actual cures. Most of the reports seem to have been shaped by the later tradition and were designated either gray or black. Even so, the following core of 6 healing stories are designated pink in The Acts of Jesus:

See also these additional notes:

  • John Dominic Crossan (The Birth of Christianity, 293–304) discusses the distinction between diseases that require curing, and illnesses that require healing. Not all illness manifests itself in disease(s), but without attention to the illness patients will not consider themselves to have been healed, even if the physical and/or psychological malfunction of the disease is ameliorated.

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