- 22 And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. 24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. 25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. 26 And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.
Jesus in Bethsaida
Here we have yet another man being healed, this time of blindness. Alongside another giving-of-sight story that appears in chapter 8, this frames a series of passages where Jesus gives insight to this disciples about his coming passion, death, and resurrection. Readers must remember that the stories in Mark are not arranged haphazardly; they are instead carefully constructed to fulfill both narrative and theological purposes.
This healing story is different from many of the others, however, in that it contains two curious facts: first, that Jesus led the man out of town before performing the miracle and second that he needed two attempts before he was successful.
Why did he lead the man out of Bethsaida before curing his blindness? Why did he tell the man not to go into town afterwards? Telling the man to keep quiet is standard practice for Jesus by this point, however pointless it actually is, but telling him not to return to the town he was led out of is still odd.
Is there something wrong with Bethsaida? Its exact location is uncertain, but scholars believe that it was probably located on the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee near where the Jordan river feeds into it. Originally a fishing village, it was raised to the status of city by the tetrarch Philip (one of the sons of Herod the Great) who eventually died there in 34 CE. Sometime before the year 2 BCE it was renamed Bethsaida-Julias in honor of a daughter of Caesar-Augustus. According to Johns gospel, the apostles Philip, Andrew, and Peter were born here.
Some apologists claim that the residents of Bethsaida didnt believe in Jesus, so he in retaliation Jesus chose not to privilege them with a miracle they could see either in person or in retrospect by interacting with the cured man. Both Matthew (11:21-22) and Luke (10:13-14) record that Jesus cursed Bethsaida for not accepting him not exactly the act of a loving god, is it? This is curious because, after all, performing a miracle could readily turn unbelievers into believers.
Its not as though many people were followers of Jesus before he started curing illnesses, casting out unclean spirits, and raising the dead. No, Jesus got attention, followers, and believers precisely because of doing wonderful things, so there is no basis in asserting that nonbelievers wont be convinced by miracles. At best, one can argue that Jesus wasnt interested in convincing this particular group but that doesnt make Jesus look very good, does it?
Then we have to wonder why Jesus had difficulty making this miracle work. In the past he could speak a single word and have the dead walk or the mute speak. A person could, without his knowledge, be cured of a long-standing illness by merely touching the edge of his garment. In the past, then, Jesus had no lack of healing powers so what happened here?
Some apologists argue that such a gradual restoration of physical sight represents the idea that people only gradually acquire the spiritual sight to truly understand Jesus and Christianity. At first, he sees in a way that is similar to how the apostles and others saw Jesus: dimly and distorted, not comprehending his true nature. After more grace from God works on him, however, full sight is achieved just as grace from God can bring about full spiritual sight if we allow it.
This is a fair way to read the text and a reasonable point to make assuming, of course, that you dont take the story literally as well and discount any claims to its being historically true in every detail. Id be willing to agree that this story is a legend or myth designed to teach about how spiritual sight is developed in a Christian context, but Im not sure that all Christians would be willing to accept that position.