“He could do no mighty work”

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)

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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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

18 thoughts on ““He could do no mighty work”

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve come to similar conclusions in reflection on the Jn 9 “man born blind” and Jn 11 “raising of Lazarus” accounts. It was quite surprising to discover that in John, which I tend to think of as having a very high Christology, Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as performing healings through prayer.

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    1. Great point, I hadn’t caught that. I would take those prayers to represent Jesus appealing to the Father that the Father might act through the spirit.

      Even according to the developed christology of GJohn Jesus is not the source of miraculous power then; the Father either works in/through Jesus or the Father gives Jesus deeds in order that Jesus might perform them on the Father’s behalf. I’m sure there are other ways GJohn preserves a highly primitive christological outlook as well. So thanks for the fruitful comment.

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      1. This thought is somewhat tangentially related, but it has occurred to me to draw a link between Jesus’ affirmation in Jn 11 that he knows that the Father always hears him and the Synoptic portrayals of Jesus’ incredulity at the weakness of others’ faith. When you are well-pleasing to God and your requests are always (well, almost always — the present post discussing an example of a probably rare exception to the “rule”) granted, it might be difficult to grasp how ineffectual “ordinary mortals’ ” prayers can be.

        Jesus’ prayers were granted, the apostles prayers were granted (“you will do greater works than I, since i go to the Father”); something has changed between then and now. I tremble to think that perhaps we are not as pleasing to the Father as were the heroes of old.

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  2. Great read here (though I think there are Christological implications nonetheless). There is some irony: Jesus routinely casts out (‘ekballō’) spiritual forces and is himself cast out by a spiritual force. In the latter, though, it is to face off with the veritable prince of all the demons, Satan. And in defeating Satan, the doom of all the demons is writ large.

    There’s a reason Mark is my favorite Gospel. There’s so much to it!

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      1. Well, if Jesus is controlled by the Spirit and his own agency is diminished, then this suggests to me a Christology *much* lower than either the Johannine or even Matthew and Luke. I mean, what kind of Messiah is he that is not entirely in control?

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        1. Good point. I would say that even in his most exalted states Jesus is never in control of God’s spirit. Mark gives us a glimpse of Jesus as happily possessed/controlled. The other Evangelists preserve the more becoming view of Jesus as someone who is consciously in perfect harmony with the spirit.

          As far as what the Messiah should be, I think both of these views work because the Messiah is supposed to be obedient to God, “a man after God’s own heart.” I kinda address that here: https://scribesofthekingdom686237748.wordpress.com/2019/08/13/virgin-birth-in-ancient-context-sowing-the-fathers-%cf%80%ce%bd%ce%b5%e1%bf%a6%ce%bc%ce%b1/

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