Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and the Paralytic on the Mat

Mark 2 and John 5 both have stories about Jesus healing a paralytic lying on a mat that seem to share some common features. Yet the details of the respective stories are so different that many (most?) scholars question whether the two stories share a common literary heritage. The consensus seems to be that they two accounts are unrelated and evolved from different sources. In The Case for a Proto-Gospel I argue otherwise.

In Mark, the story focuses on Jesus’ authority to forgive sin. Just a few verses later, Mark then follows with two separate sabbath violation stories that focus on whether Jesus’ actions violated the law. Mark’s three stories together deal with the authority of Jesus. In the paralytic story, healing the paralytic proves Jesus’ authority to forgive sin. In the two Sabbath violation stories, Mark argues (rather ineffectively I might add) that Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath fell within the law.

 In John, the paralytic story is placed on a Sabbath day and expands to over the same type of Sabbath violations in Mark. In this manner, John has introduced all of the authority questions raised in Mark’s three stories, with the paralytic substituting for the sabbath actors in Mark’s story. For example, it is the healing of the paralytic on the Sabbath that serves to elucidate Jesus’ authority on all of the Markan issues. In The Case for a Proto-Gospel I argue that John has integrated variations on Mark’s three authority stories and integrated them into a single account.

The argument was that Mark’s three stories offended John’s theological sense of Jesus’ authority and John had to rewrite Mark’s three stories. From John’s theological perspective, Mark’s stories presented several problems. First, John objected to the use of healing as proof of authority. Second, Mark’s argument about authority to act in one area(to forgive sin) left open the possibility that Jesus lacked authority (for example, to grant eternal life) in other areas. Third, Mark shows Jesus proving his authority to act in the two sabbath stories fell within the law. John believed that Jesus’s authority stemmed from the Father and that he was given all judgement over all matters and his authority was outside and above the law.

By combining all three of Mark’s authority stories into a single incident, John could demonstrate his authority to judge all matters in a single story and eliminate his objections to Mark’s piecemeal presentations. But the act of combining the three stories on a thematic  level resulted in significant differences on a detail level. John substituted characters, activities, and arguments for those in Mark. While reviewing these stories, I had thought that what John had done had seemed quite obvious, but apparently scholars have thoroughly overlooked these explanations.

There appear to be three major arguments against John’s paralytic story being based on the same literary ancestor behind Mark. Key story details in Mark are missing from John.  The latter has placed the story on the Sabbath. He has also involved the paralytic in various Sabbath incidents, none of which are present in Mark in the form that John has them.

The key details in Mark that are missing in John are that the paralytic was brought to Jesus house by men carrying him on a mat, climbing past the crowd onto Jesus’ roof, digging a hole in the roof, and lowering the man down to Jesus to be cured. The reason those details are missing from John, however, is that John’s story takes place on the Sabbath and the actions taken to get to Jesus would all be unauthorized Sabbath violations that John would have to account for if  he included those events.

Instead, in John’s story, the paralytic is still blocked by a crowd, but one which keeps him from reaching a pool with curative powers. The paralytic still needs to be lowered down to be cured (by the pool’s waters) but he can’t get to the pool. John has replaced the difficulties of getting to Jesus for a cure with the difficulties of getting to the pool for a cure. In this way, no one violates the Sabbath. John’s narrative, however different, clearly alludes to the events in the Markan narrative.

As to the Sabbath issue, I have already explained how John used that to combine all three of Mark’s authority stories. By adding in the Sabbath claim, John has made the healing of the paralytic a substitute for Mark’s healing of the man with a withered hand.

A full discussion of all the details and arguments takes up a major chapter in The Case for a Proto-Gospel so I’ll stop here with a list of the ways Mark and John parallel each other and a list of the ways they disagree.

When we compare the two stories about the healing of the paralytic certain common elements emerge but in some instances the contexts differ. That is why it is difficult to see the commonality between the two gospel accounts.

  • In both stories there is a paralytic on a mat.
  • In both stories Jesus tells the man to “stand up, take your mat.” Mark adds “Go to your home.” John adds “walk.”
  • In both stories the man picks up the mat and walks away without thanking Jesus.
  • In both stories the man suffered because of past sins. Mark’s Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven.” John’s Jesus says “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” While they don’t use the same words, John and Mark are clearly expressing the same thought.
  • In both stories the man is made well because the sins are forgiven. In Mark, the forgiveness is directly expressed and serves as the crux of the story. In John, the principle is clearly implied by Jesus’ warning to the paralytic about avoiding sin in the future, but John has put some narrative distance between the act of curing the paralytic and the explanation of how he was cured. This served to remove forgiving sin as the basis of the blasphemy charge.
  • In both stories Jesus is accused of blasphemy for equating himself with God. But the two stories disagree as to what statement served as the basis of the blasphemy accusation. John has removed the debate over forgiving sin and inserted a non-legalistic Sabbath defense between the statement about sin and the hostile reaction to Jesus’ actions. If we remove the Sabbath claim we have a direct narrative link between forgiving sin and Jewish accusations of blasphemy, as Mark has it.
  • In both stories Jesus defends his actions on the ground that the Son of Man has the authority to do what he did. Mark says, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” John says Jesus has “authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” John’s version of the story gives Jesus a wider range of authority, more specifically, the right to grant eternal life (implicitly by forgiving the sins of those who have faith in Jesus as the man sent by God to bring salvation.)

Despite these many parallel story features, scholars still have trouble seeing that John is working from the same story of the paralytic that Mark is using. In any event, here also is a list of many of the detail differences that cause scholars to doubt a literary connections between the two gospels.

  • John places the story in Jerusalem. Mark says it happened in Capernaum.
  • John says the day was a Sabbath; Mark does not.
  • Mark says four men carried the paralytic on his mat to meet up with Jesus. John says Jesus found him lying on a mat by the pool.
  • In Mark, the crowd prevented the paralytic from reaching Jesus for a cure. In John, the crowd prevented the paralytic from reaching the pool for a cure.
  • In Mark, the men who carried the paralytic to Jesus climbed up on the roof and dug a hole in it so they could get past the crowd and down to Jesus. In John, no one climbs up on a roof or digs a hole through one.
  • Mark says that the man needed to be lowered through a roof to be cured by Jesus. John says the man needed to be lowered into a pool in order to be cured by the waters.
  • In Mark, Jesus explicitly says that the sins of the paralytic were forgiven at the time of the healing in a public forum. John implicitly says that the paralytic’s sins had been forgiven but does so later in a private conversation.
  • Mark says the accusation of blasphemy resulted from Jesus saying that the sins were forgiven. John says the accusation arose because of statements made in defending himself against accusations of working on the Sabbath.
  • Mark says that the Son of Man had authority to forgive sins. John says that the Son of Man had all authority to judge who will receive eternal life.
  • Mark says that Jesus healed the paralytic to prove that he has the authority to forgive sins. In John, Jesus makes no such argument, and offers his words as proof of his authority from the Father.

I have explained above how all of these variations can be explained by John’s placing the story on the Sabbath in order to also incorporate Mark’s two sabbath violation stories as they relate to the problem of how to explain the source of Jesus’ authority.


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