A friend asked me the other day to repeat my opinion, which he'd heard me give at one time, about an alleged discrepancy between Mark's and Luke's location of the feeding of the five thousand.
Here's how that concern about a discrepancy arises. Luke 9:10-12 says that the feeding of the five thousand took place near the town of Bethsaida. (It didn't take place in Bethsaida, because it was a deserted place, as verse 12 says. Some text families explicitly say in verse 10 that they went to a deserted area associated with the town of Bethsaida.) Here's a map of the region around the Sea of Galilee in the time of Christ. As you can see, Bethsaida is roughly on the northeast of the Sea of Galilee. (Yes, I'm aware that there is an archeological controversy about precisely which tell represents the location of Biblical Bethsaida. No, that doesn't affect the present discussion, because the archeological candidates are all pretty darned close together, and none of them is on the west side of the Sea of Galilee.)
Mark 6:45 says that after the feeding of the five thousand Jesus told his disciples to get into a boat and go ahead of him to the other side "to Bethsaida" (as it is usually translated).
From Mark 6:45 taken in isolation, one would naturally conclude that the feeding of the five thousand took place on, in some sense, the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee from Bethsaida--hence, on the west or northwest side. After all, Jesus is telling them to go away from the location of the feeding to the other side, and the narrator is calling this direction away from the feeding "to Bethsaida." Right?
It is from this phrase "to Bethsaida," using the Greek preposition "pros," that the entire idea of a discrepancy between Mark and Luke arises.
So as not to keep the reader in suspense, I will now float two relatively simple possible harmonizations concerning the phrase "pros Bethsaidan." First possibility: "Pros" should be translated here as "over against" rather than "to." This is a possible translation of the preposition. In this case, the narrator in Mark is saying that they were going to the other side which was "over against" (i.e. opposite) Bethsaida--exactly consonant with Luke's statement about the location of the feeding near Bethsaida. Second possibility: "Pros" should be translated with a more common meaning of "toward," but the feeding took place in a deserted area somewhat to the east of Bethsaida itself, so that they would pass Bethsaida as they crossed back over to the other side, going west. Hence, they might have been sent back to the other side (that is, to the region of Capernaum) and in the process traveled "toward Bethsaida."
But wait, there's more!
Much more. The reader, especially a reader impatient with harmonization in the gospels, might well sigh and say that one would consider those readings of "pros Bethsaidan" only if one were committed a priori to inerrancy, or only if one were deeply uncomfortable with contradictions in the gospels, or something to that effect. Why not just say that either Mark or Luke made a mistake?
At this point I want to emphasize the importance of considering the positive case for the reliability of the gospels and placing alleged contradictions against that backdrop. Too much focus on alleged contradictions and on possible resolutions, or even on despair of resolutions, can create a major "can't see the forest for the trees" problem. As it turns out, the location of the feeding of the five thousand, so far from being an embarrassment to the advocate of the reliability of the gospels, is a point that confirms the reliability of the gospels.
There are two undesigned coincidences related to the location of the feeding that confirm Luke's statement that it occurred near Bethsaida. I'll give them briefly, because I have more to say beyond this, but briefly, here they are:
Both Matthew (11:20ff) and Luke (10:13ff) record Jesus, in a completely different passage, calling down woe upon Bethsaida, saying that its inhabitants ignored "mighty works" done there and did not repent. But none of the gospels records anything else, other than the feeding of the five thousand, that could plausibly be regarded as a "mighty work" that the inhabitants of Bethsaida should have known about. Interestingly, the gospels record not only the feeding of the five thousand on that day but also healings among the crowd (see Luke 9:11). Hence, the feeding of the five thousand and the healings connected with it explain the "woes" against Bethsaida. (I note in passing that it is implausible that Luke engineered this deliberately within his own gospel, for the "woe" passage also mentions mighty works done in Chorazin, but Luke records no mighty work done in Chorazin at all.)
The other undesigned coincidence connected with the location of the feeding is the "Why ask Philip?" coincidence that some of my readers may have heard in talks given by my husband or others who present the argument from undesigned coincidences. John 6:5 states that Jesus asked Philip, specifically, where they can buy bread for the crowd. John never says that the feeding took place near Bethsaida. That statement is found only in Luke. But John does say elsewhere (1:44, 12:21) that Philip was from Bethsaida. This rather neatly explains Jesus' question specifically to Philip as to where bread could be purchased for the crowd.
So Luke's location of the feeding near Bethsaida, rather than on the other side of the Sea of Galilee away from Bethsaida, is independently confirmed, as well as the other details connected with those undesigned coincidences (Jesus' calling down woe on Bethsaida, Philip's home town, the fact that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread), and the location of the feeding thus supports the reliability of the gospels rather than undermining it.
But wait, there's more!
John's gospel also supports the conclusion that the location of the feeding was somewhere on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. John 6:16-17 says that, after the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples got into a boat and "started across the sea to Capernaum." The word translated "to" there is "eis" which can be translated in a variety of ways, including "toward." Capernaum is on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, so if they were going from east to west, away from the vicinity of Bethsaida on the northeast, they would indeed be going toward Capernaum.
But wait, there's more!
The very idea that Mark places the feeding of the five thousand in a different location from Luke is, as I mentioned above, based solely on the phrase "pros Bethsaidan," used for the direction the disciples were sent by boat after the feeding. If one gets a larger picture within Mark, one actually finds evidence that fits with the placement of the feeding on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee rather than on the northwest side. This evidence confirms Luke's location of the feeding and would create a problem within Mark itself if we insisted on interpreting "pros Bethsaidan" to mean that the feeding took place on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee. Hence it is misguided to say that Mark places the feeding in a location different from Luke's.
The first bit of evidence to this effect, not very strong in itself but suggestive, arises in another undesigned coincidence. Mark 6:31 says that Jesus and his disciples were bothered by crowds "coming and going" prior to the feeding of the five thousand and that Jesus suggested that they go away somewhere. The phrase "coming and going" suggests that these were not merely crowds following Jesus, specifically, but that there was some kind of bustle where they were. This fits with the statement in John 6:4 that the Feast of Passover was near at hand, especially if Jesus and the disciples were in or near Capernaum, a major hub. If they left Capernaum in a boat and went away, then they might well have gone along the top of the Sea of Galilee and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Bethsaida, just as Luke says.
But wait, there's more! (I've saved the best for last.)
Mark itself tells us where the disciples ended up when they landed on the other side--that is, the "other side" from where the feeding of the five thousand took place, the "other side" to which Jesus sent them after the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:45), the "other side" about which there was supposedly a discrepancy between Mark and Luke.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. (Mark 6:53)So when they had crossed over to the other side, they landed at Gennesaret. Look at the map. Where is Gennesaret? (And by the way, the location of Gennesaret is independently known. It doesn't depend on some specific interpretation of this passage.) It's on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee! It's also within a stone's throw of Capernaum. In other words, it's not on the same side as Bethsaida. It's approximately where we would expect the disciples to end up if they went away in the boat from the vicinity of Bethsaida, where Luke says the feeding took place, going (in general terms) toward Capernaum, as John says, across the top of the Sea of Galilee, and landed on the other side--going from the northeast to the northwest shore.
If we were to interpret "pros Bethsaidan" in Mark 6:45 to mean that the feeding took place on the same side of the Sea of Galilee as Capernaum and Genessaret and that they crossed over afterwards in a boat to Bethsaida, we would have an apparent conflict within Mark with verse 6:53, which says that when they crossed over they landed at Gennesaret.
So Mark doesn't "place" the feeding of the five thousand on the west side of the Sea of Galilee after all.
This means that we have reason within Mark itself for reading "pros Bethsaidan" in one of the ways suggested above. This does not solely arise from a desire to harmonize Mark and Luke or Mark and John. Independent evidence from multiple gospels, including Mark, consistently points to approximately the same location for the feeding of the five thousand, with the single phrase "pros Bethsaidan" in Mark being the only outlier. Hence, it is entirely rational to translate or interpret that one phrase in a way that is consistent with multiple, independent lines of other evidence. By doing so, we get a unified picture that makes sense of all of the evidence.
So far from being strained, this procedure is a careful, tough-minded way of making use of evidence and seeing if there is a reasonable picture that can explain all of it. This doesn't always work. Sometimes there may be an intransigent bit of evidence that just doesn't fit in with the rest, and there's nothing wrong with admitting as much when it happens.
But it's unfortunate that sometimes we get a picture of apparent biblical discrepancies that leaves out some evidence and hence that gives a skewed view. Even relatively conservative interpreters may sometimes feel mired in a slough of despond, slogging through discrepancies and trying to pull themselves out. Or, to change the metaphor, may feel bothered to death by claimed discrepancies like an attacking cloud of midges. It could be tempting to think that one is breaking free of that feeling by not attempting harmonization at all, by coming to disdain it. But that is not a correct evidential approach, even when we simply think of the gospels as historical documents. It is entirely common for different witness testimonies to have apparent discrepancies. Sometimes these are real, but surprisingly often they are merely apparent, and the real picture of what occurred fits both accounts when more is known.
In the present case, any casting of the issue as, "There seem to be a lot of discrepancies surrounding the geography of the feeding of the five thousand" or "Mark appears to place the feeding of the five thousand in a different location from Luke" is, frankly, incorrect. Hence it contributes unnecessarily to that feeling of being mired in or pestered by nuisance discrepancies. But in fact, there aren't a lot of apparent discrepancies surrounding the geography of the feeding of the five thousand. There is a unified picture of it as occurring on the northeast of the Sea of Galilee with one outlying phrase in one gospel. Mark and Luke do not appear to place the event in two different locations. Nor do Mark and John. Rather, Mark itself has a geographical indicator that places the feeding on the east side (namely, that afterwards they went over to the other side and landed at Genessaret) and another geographical indicator (the outlying phrase "pros Bethsaidan") that could be interpreted to place it on the west side. So Mark's own gospel contains evidence that is consonant with the united evidence of Luke, John, and with undesigned coincidences between and among them (one involving Matthew as well), placing the feeding on the northeast side.
It is a little ironic that I am saying all of this, since I am open in principle to saying that there may in fact be places where a gospel author got some minor detail wrong. I even have candidates for such places in my own mind. In no way does my livelihood depend upon signing a statement subscribing to inerrancy. But I also think that the gospels are very, very reliable, that real witness testimony turns out to be reconcilable often when at first it appears to be irreconcilable, and that harmonization should be given a good shot before one concludes that there is an actual error. That, I believe, is not piety but merely responsible scholarship. The exciting thing is how often, when one gets a bigger picture, one finds oneself freed from that heavy sense of "so many problems," because one sees alleged discrepancies against a wider background of evidence for reliability. Sometimes, as in the present case, that wider background even helps to explain some particular alleged discrepancy. This is, to my mind, a much healthier approach than either a) becoming highly cavalier about saying that some gospel author was wrong or confused, b) becoming highly negative about harmonization, and/or c) turning to highly dubious claims of "literary device" according to which gospel authors deliberately changed details for the sake of some literary or theological effect.
None of that does justice to the real-life texture of the texts as historical memoirs.