Real Bible Studies, Matthew 14, The Death of John

The entirety of Matthew 14 corresponds with Mark 6:14-56. As with other sections borrowed from Mark, Matthew makes notable changes to the story, which tailors the meaning to his audience, and these changes hint at the message Matthew wishes to convey to his readers. Mark 6 begins with the story of Yeshua’s rejection at Nazareth that Matthew added as part of the lesson of the parables — which Mark does not mention — and moves on to the calling of the Twelve, the death of John, feeding the five thousand, walking on water, and concludes with the the healings at Gennesaret. Matthew 14 starts with John’s death, omits the calling of the Twelve, then moves to the feeding of the five thousand, walking on water, and the healing miracles at Gennesaret.

Death of John

In his account of John’s death, Matthew condenses the details but largely tells the same story as Mark. This is one of the possibly anachronistic elements in the Gospels, since John’s death is dated during the reign of Herod Antipater, which ended with his exile around 39 CE; it’s his grandnephew, Herod Agrippa II, who has to deal with the Jewish revolt twenty-seven years later. Since every male in that family was named Herod, it implies this was a surname rather than a given name, so it could have been the later Herod who made the connection between Yeshua and John. What’s notable is that accounts of Yeshua’s ministry set off rumors that John had been resurrected, which implies there was more to John’s ministry than simply baptizing people in the Jordan River.

This brings up the important point that all the canonical Gospels and many of the non-canonical ones pay homage to John, and associate Jesus with him. Luke goes so far as to make Jesus John’s first cousin. Much of Yeshua’s message in Matthew about the Kingdom of Heaven mirrors John’s. The historian Flavius Josephus simply records John’s death and reports the widespread belief that Herod Antipater’s defeat in a notable battle showed God’s displeasure at John’s execution. It’s in the Gospels where we get a fuller accounting of it.

Even if Yeshua was operating during the Jewish uprising, there may have been enough people left who recalled John to draw comparisons, and perhaps Yeshua encouraged such comparisons. Matthew and Mark definitely want to convey the impression that Yeshua was a contemporary of John, but it’s John’s disciples, not John himself who inquires about who Yeshua is even when they claim they’re asking on his behalf. Except for his brief appearance at the start of both Gospels, John does not physically appear in either Matthew or Mark, and the reports of his death are second hand.

Feeding the Five Thousand

While Mark skips from John’s death to the feeding of the five thousand — reporting only that the Twelve check in with updates on their progress — Matthew ties the accounts together by having John’s disciples inform Yeshua, who withdraws by boat to “a lonely place” upon learning of John’s execution. The crowd gets there ahead of him, though, so Yeshua begins ministering to them. Also, Mark specifies that the crowd consists of five thousand men, but Matthew indicates that women and children are there as well, which implies many more than five thousand individuals. This could have been intended to obscure the intent of the gathering, since five thousand men assembled in an isolated area could be construed as a militaristic force. It could be another alteration designed to hide the fact that the event occurred during the Jewish War.

The feeding miracle itself may be intended as symbolic or represent a custom now lost to modern readers, sharing what one has, even if it’s inadequate for the size of the crowd. It’s entirely possible that they just passed around the loaves and each person broke off a small bite, but even then, that’s stretching the resource to the extreme. It could also be an exaggeration typical of tall tales, especially given the amount said to have been taken away at the end. In any event, Matthew doesn’t add much else that’s not in Mark’s account.

Walking on Water

Yeshua dismisses the disciples and spends some time in private reflection and prayer. While they’re crossing the water, they look up and see Yeshua walking across the waves. Matthew doesn’t include any sort of explanations or symbolism that’s not in Mark, so readers should gather that both Gospels intend the incident to be read as an actual occurrence. How the two authors handle the details differs significantly. Matthew once again takes the opportunity to cast doubts on a rival sect.

In Mark’s Gospel, as soon as the disciples see him, Yeshua gets in the boat and the winds cease. Matthew, however, has Peter call out, asking Yeshua to let him to leave the boat, allowing him to walk on the waves as well. It goes okay, until Peter is frightened by the wind, and begins to sink, prompting Yeshua to save him. Once they’re both back in the boat, Yeshua chastises Peter for his lack of faith, before commanding the winds to calm. Many Christians regard Peter as the chief apostle, “the Rock” upon which Jesus built his Church. A notable exception were the Gnostics, who believed Mary Magdalene was foremost among Jesus’s followers. It’s safe to assume, from Matthew’s account, that the congregation of which he was a part also did not hold Peter as chief among the disciples, though he was part of Yeshua’s inner circle.


After all the turmoil and excitement of John’s death and Yeshua’s exploits in Chapter 14, Matthew ends by having Yeshua and crew disembark at Gennesaret, where he’s recognized. The people there bring out their sick so Yeshua can heal them. Matthew records that people need only touch the hem of his garment to be healed.

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