The stories go as follows, with the corresponding content opposite each other (my emphasis):
|Matthew 14:34-36||Mark 6:53-56|
| (34) And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.
(35) And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent round to all that region and brought to him all that were sick,
(36) and besought him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well.
| (53) And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret, |
and moored to the shore. (54) And when they got out of the boat, immediately
the people recognized him, (55) and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people
on their pallets to any place where they heard he was. (56) And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or country, they laid the sick in the market places,
and besought him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well.
Besides the extra content in Mark, there is one crucial difference between both versions: the difference between the men – the male inhabitants – of Gennesaret in Matthew 14:35, and the people (in fact ‘they’) in Mark 6:54b. I believe we should address this difference first because in my opinion a correct interpretation of this pericope depends on a sound decision which of both is original: ‘males’ or ‘they’? Did Matthew narrow the recognizers to the male half of the population, or did Mark extend the males to the whole population? Which of both is more plausible when gathering sick people?
At first sight Mark’s version seems to be original, as it seems plausible that both sexes were involved in gathering the sick. What then could have inspired Matthew to exclude the women, and – at the same time – to remove the details of the gathering and transport of the ill?
In my opinion we should look at this pericope the other way around. Maybe Matthew’s ‘male’ version is original, and maybe Mark has led this pericope away from its original meaning by replacing ‘men’ by ‘the people’ in general, at the same time adding an explanation on physical illness or disability. Does πάντας τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας necessarily point to physical illness if an explanation in that direction is not provided? The expression κακῶς ἔχειν indicates that the person described is in a bad shape, but this deplorable condition doesn’t have to be confined to physical health. Without Mark’s physical health specification people in a more deplorable condition in general (materially, socially, psychologically) can be meant. The ‘only males’ description in Matthew could in itself point to a situation which was reserved for men, which is suggestive for a military context. Men were gathering other men. At the end of the pericope the people involved (the males involved?) feel better. The effect of Jesus’ action is not described with θεραπεύω, the verb for physical healing, but with διασᾠζω in Matthew and with σᾠζω in Mark. Although these verbs can be used in a health context, their meaning is much broader, with the general meaning of ‘keep from harm, preserve, rescue’, referring primarily to the positive effect of what leading figures did for the people under their protection. So maybe Jesus is not depicted here a miracle healer but as a leader.
This brings us to the touching of the fringe of Jesus’ garment by the sick. This behavior relies on Numeri 15:37-41, with the use of identical terms. The core of the Numeri verses depicting this practice is the total dedication to God of the person involved, culminating in the last words ἐγὼ κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὑμῶν, ‘I am the Lord your God’. Maybe this is what the men who came to Jesus did: they totally committed themselves to God, and to the Zealot commandment to have only God as their master. This commitment brought about a positive change in the mind of these poor wretches: a new project, new hope, new enthusiasm, expressed by the verb (δια)σᾠζω.
I believe that the reality behind this pericope in Matthew is described by Ben-Sasson in A History of the Jewish People p. 271: Landless farmers, refugees from various places and unemployed temporary labourers constituted the reserves from which the increasingly frequent riots and rebellions drew their manpower.
The picture which arises from Matthew’s version of the story of the healing of the sick in Gennesaret is the picture of Jesus (son of Saphat) making his round in the Galilean countryside recruiting soldiers for the Zealot revolutionary army. Arriving in Gennesaret some man recognize him, and they make their round in the neighboring villages where they easily find numerous men in a deplorable situation who want to fight against the Romans in the hope of an amelioration of their pitiable situation. They come to Jesus and as a kind of ‘oath of allegiance’ to the Zealot ideals they touch the fringes of the garment of the leader of the rebellion in their region. Maybe they spoke out an accompanying formula like ‘God alone is my Master’. This recruitment mission took place at the beginning of the war against the Romans (second half of 66 CE, first half of 67).
Although in general I adhere to Markan priority, in this pericope Matthew has priority over Mark. This pericope is an example of the complexity of the editing of the gospels.