And [Jesus] could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:5-6)
And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:58)
Matthew’s subtle redaction of Mark here and elsewhere has led many to suspect that Mark represents a more primitive and more human stage in the development of Christology. Whereas the power of Mark’s Jesus is limited (perhaps by the faith of Jesus’ audience), Matthew’s Jesus is not constrained; he is free to work mighty deeds as he sees fit.
In addressing this problem Christians tend to appeal to kenotic Christology, a theory in which God the Son empties himself of his divine power and privilege for a time in order to share in the fallen human lot. Mark 6:5 then gives voice to this Christological arrangement while Matthew prefers to leave it implicit. Thus a high Christology in Mark is preserved and accusations of Matthean embarrassment are brushed aside.
Possessed by the spirit
In my view, however, Matthew’s editorial discomfort in this passage should lead us down a different path, one unrelated to Christology. The early Christian understanding of Christ’s miracles prompts us to make this change of course. Rather than ascribe Christ’s deeds of power to Christ himself, the Evangelists consistently ascribe them to the spirit of the Father: “God worked through [Christ]” mighty deeds of power (Acts 2:22); Christ went about healing and exorcising “because God was with him” (Acts 10:38, John 3:2); by “the spirit of God” Christ drove out demons (Matthew 12:28, Luke 11:20); the Father who “dwelled in [Christ] did his works” (John 10:10). At least in the first century then, there was no ambiguity in regards to who it was that performed Christ’s mighty works: it was God through the spirit.
What this insight implies is that Matthew’s discomfort with Mark 6:5-6 has little to do with Christology. Instead, Matthew is concerned with the relationship between Christ and the spirit. For Matthew, Christ and the spirit always work in conjunction. But as we can see from the following verses, this is not always the case for Mark. The Markan Jesus is less the possessor of the spirit and more the possession of the spirit.
- In Mark the reception of the spirit at Jesus’ baptism is marked by the violent “tearing open” of the heavens (σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς). In Matthew the heavens are merely “opened” (ἠνεῴχθησαν).
- In Mark the spirit comes down “into” (εἰς) Jesus. In Matthew the spirit falls “upon” (ἐπί) him. According to the former account Jesus is possessed by the spirit; according to the latter account Jesus is anointed or accompanied by the spirit (cf. Matthew 12:18).
- The spirit that tears open the heavens in order to possess Jesus proceeds to “throw” (ἐκβάλλει) him out into the wilderness (Mark 1:12). The same verb appears in Mark 9:22 but there it is not the Holy Spirit but an unclean spirit who hurls a boy into fire against his will. The 2nd century Gospel of the Hebrews also attests to the fact that some early Christians believed Jesus to have been forcefully possessed by the spirit at this point. After he is baptized, this gospel says the spirit dragged Jesus into the wilderness by the hair. In light of the coercive connotations surrounding the scene then, Matthew prefers to have Jesus “brought” or “led” (ἀνήχθη) by the spirit into the wilderness.
- Matthew’s redaction of Mark’s account of the hemorrhaging woman is perhaps most telling of all.
- In Mark Jesus becomes aware that “power went out from him” after the healing has taken place. He then asks what is presumably a genuine question: “Who touched me?” (5:30). Mark’s telling of the story thus implies that the spirit within Jesus healed the woman apart from Jesus’ will and without his knowledge.
- Matthew recognizes this implication and edits accordingly. Not only does Matthew omit the involuntary issue of power, he also removes Jesus’ question. Instead, Jesus intuits the faith in the woman’s heart and declares her well (9:21-22). Immediately following the declaration, she is made well.
Despite this being only a handful of texts, there is a clear and consistent pattern here. On the one hand Mark’s Jesus is the vessel of the spirit’s sometimes volatile work (cf. Acts 16:6-7). On the other hand Matthew’s Jesus practically embodies the spirit (cf. John 10:30, 14:8-11).
These two competing conceptions of Christ’s relationship with the spirit generated the two texts which began this discussion (Mark 6:5-6/Matthew 13:58). In one case Jesus’ will to heal is obstructed by the spirit’s unwillingness. In the other Jesus’ will is in agreement with the spirit’s.
Needless to say, Matthew’s portrayal of this relationship won the day both in terms of Christ and in terms of believers. The indwelling spirit became largely inconspicuous, equated with the moral conscience of the church hierarchy.