The parallel passage normally associated with this one in Matthew runs Mark 7:31-37 but the last six verses of this deals specifically with an incident of healing which Matthew omits. Instead, the Gospel writer chooses to record simply a summary of a time of ministry to the crowds that came to Him before moving on - as does Mark - to the record of the feeding of the four thousand (Mtw 15:32-39, Mark 8:1-10).
Pp Mark 7:31
Although there’s just the one verse which runs parallel here, the implications are quite significant. The last event recorded by both Matthew and Mark has seen Jesus heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter by a word of authority (Mtw 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30) in an area which was probably close to the borders of the area over which Tyre and Sidon held authority and certainly outside the land of Galilee which Herod Antipas ruled over.
One would naturally expect Jesus to return in roughly the same way as He went out but Mark indicates that this isn’t the case. Rather, Mark 7:31 states that
‘...He returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee...’
which places Jesus’ journey northward rather than south and east back into the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee. From here, the record is silent as to the direction of Jesus’ journeying but we would expect that He travelled almost due east towards the northern tip of Herod Philip’s tetrarchy, entering that region near the city of Caesarea Philippi before following the well used routes due south towards the Sea of Galilee. Marklane notes that
‘The route followed is only vaguely indicated [by the text] and cannot be retraced now but it may have been designed to preclude the necessity of entering Galilee’
and this appears to have been the case. If Jesus had travelled the quicker route from where the woman’s daughter was healed, He would immediately have come across increasing numbers of crowds flocking to Him so that the speed of His journey would have been severely restricted. But, as we saw in Mtw 14:1-2,13 the other reason for removing Himself from Galilee was to forbid Herod from mounting an attempt at snatching Him away and this appears to be the more important of the two considerations for the route chosen.
In the territory of Herod Philip, the king whose wife Herod Antipas had taken, He was more likely to find a friendly ally who wouldn’t give Him over into the hands of the Galilean king if His whereabouts became known.
But Jesus doesn’t appear to have been taking the circular route to arrive back in His home town for, having arrived near the Sea of Galilee around Bethsaida (as the route would have taken Him), He travels (Mark 7:31)
‘...through the region of the Decapolis’
where the incident of the healing of the deaf and mute man takes place (Mark 7:32-37) and the feeding of the four thousand men (Mark 8:1-10) made certain by the information given to us in the last verse of the passage which has Jesus travelling across the lake to the western shoreline to Dalmanutha, also known as Magadan (Mtw 15:39).
Matthew’s summation of Jesus’ ministry, then, in Mtw 15:29-31 should be understood to be what transpired in the region, a large area which had its northern and western borders on the south eastern tip of the Sea of Galilee, extending some sixty miles south to reach an eastern line which almost touched the northern most extension of the Dead Sea.
Jesus’ journeying, therefore, up until the time He sails across the Lake was predominantly in territory that had ‘strong Gentile associations’ and Mark 7:31’s statement that Jesus returned to the Sea of Galilee after journeying through the Decapolis may actually be an indication that He didn’t so much as touch the immediate area surrounding the Lake and was skirting the area even further east than a direct journey from Caesarea Philippi would suggest. Zondervan comments somewhat surprisingly that Jesus reached the eastern shore of the Lake
for the name of the city which lay close to the Lake’s edge isn’t mentioned by either of the two Gospel writers. It may be the case that this was the best place from which the band of disciples could hire a boat to get them across to the other side, to Magadan (Mtw 15:39), but we might just as easily think of them finding a fishing boat further south and paying the owner to take them across. It would certainly be unlikely that they had their own boat at their disposal simply because they’d left the land westwards and, we assume, their boats were pulled ashore on the western side of the Lake. We could assume that, knowing that they needed to leave the region sooner rather than later, a disciple or two was sent to get the boat - but we’re starting to get into some heavy speculation here with very little evidence in the Gospels’ text!
What we have to conclude, though, is that it’s quite impossible to be certain as to the exact route which saw Jesus come ashore at Magadan at the end of Matthew chapter 15 - but there was certainly no attempt by Jesus to return into Galilee with any great rush.
Jesus’ popularity must certainly already have been quite significant in the Decapolis and not just because local news would have spread across the Lake with the people who were travelling through the area. Firstly, in Mtw 4:25, we read a note at the very beginnings of Jesus’ ministry but which probably sums up the entire Galilean time of outreach to Israel (my italics) that
‘...great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan’
The great miracles which were being done within the land, therefore, would have been witnessed by the people who were normally resident in the Decapolis and, returning home, it seems only natural that they would have found it virtually impossible to remain silent concerning what had been transpiring ‘across the Lake’.
But Jesus had also visited this region on one previous occasion and delivered two demoniacs who lived close to the shores (Mtw 8:28-34). Although one of them was specifically commanded to ‘go home’ and tell those who were his friends what God had done for him, he rather (Mark 5:20)
‘...went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him...’
so that Jesus’ fame must have been ever more widely circulated seeing as they had eye-witness evidence of one of Jesus’ miracles (as they must have done in others returning from Galilee who’d been healed of their various diseases).
When Jesus enters the Decapolis, therefore, He wouldn’t have been unknown to the inhabitants and it surely couldn’t have been very long before crowds of people began gathering to Him. This is the first extensive time of ministry in this area, however, having been asked to leave when He last set foot on their soil (Mtw 8:34) and Jesus mirrors the instructions He gave to those who He was healing in Galilee (for example, Mtw 9:30-31) by ordering them not to make Him known (Mark 7:36) - but He might as well have been talking to a brick wall for they paid little or no regard to His words.
I noted on my previous brief dealing with the Decapolis that it was
‘...a Hellenised area, a confederation of ten Gentile/Greek cities that had committed themselves to certain duties and functions but which retained their own independence over the areas of land which were under their recognised control. Although Rome took an active part in the administration of the region, the Decapolis retained a fair amount of autonomy and went about its business as it saw fit on a day to day basis.
‘The Jewish religious leaders, however, considered the area too unclean to venture very far into because of its paganisation’
but this is not to say that there weren’t populations of Jews resident here. Marklane (supported by Markcole) notes that
‘The location of the episode in the Decapolis [about a mission to the Gentiles], however, proves nothing as to the participants since there were sizeable colonies of Jews in nearly all of the cities’
At face value, we may, therefore, think that it was only to the Jews that Jesus had now come and that the word would have gone out to all the Jewish population that the ‘great Rabbi’ Jesus was in the locality to heal and deliver any who had need.
But, as I said on a previous web page, it’s difficult to be sure just how a non-Jew could have been identified and excluded from those waiting and wanting to be healed - did they have to bring a note from the leader of their local synagogue?! So, that Gentiles were also being ministered to in the Decapolis is logically acceptable.
But there’s more than this in Matthew’s text that would indicate that we shouldn’t think of the percentage of Gentiles being ministered to as being in the minority. At the close of Mtw 15:31, the writer records for us that those who were witnessing the multiplicity of miracles being performed
‘...glorified the God of Israel’
a title which is only found in one other place in the NT in Luke 1:68 on the lips of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, and there it’s prefixed by the word ‘Lord’. There’s a similar phrase used in Acts 13:17 (‘the God of this people Israel’) but here Paul is addressing not only Jews but also those ‘who fear God’ a clear indication that converted Gentiles were present and a good reason why the phrase was being used.
The phrase, therefore, is extremely unusual and we shouldn’t pass it by, thinking that it’s so common in the OT as to be almost what’s expected. Even though it’s found identically in only one other place and there on the lips of an Israelite, it isn’t a particularly good way of recording the fact that the Jews were giving glory to the God that they already acknowledged and worshipped - the implication is more likely that those who were giving glory to Israel’s God were predominantly Gentile in character or, at the very least, people who had drifted away from a pure service of YHWH, an easy thing to do in a Hellenised world as the Decapolean area was at that time in its history.
Mathen is fairly certain that the phrase cannot be taken any other way and so writes (my italics)
‘That many of the people on whom these miracles were being performed were Gentiles by birth is clearly implied in the manner in which their thanksgiving and praise is described...This certainly reads as if it means that they ascribed honour to the God who originally was not theirs but the God of another people’
However, for just about any view, there’s also an opposite one. Mathag uses quite strong language in his refusal to accept such an inference and is categorical that (my italics)
‘Contrary to many commentators...it cannot be insisted that this language must come from Gentiles. The idea that the healings of this pericope were performed for Gentiles makes 15:24 and the narrative of the Canaanite woman absurd. Had the evangelist intended Gentiles, he would have made that clear’
But there’s a big difference between the previous story about one Syrophoenician woman at a time when no ministry was being performed and here where large crowds are gathering together to have their physical needs met. I have already noted above about the impossibility of being able to determine which people were Jews and which Gentiles within the crowds which were flocking to Him so that there must have been times even if Gentiles were generally being refused ministry which I doubt when Gentiles were healed of their sicknesses and delivered of the demonic.
The phrase ‘the God of Israel’ is unexpected in this passage and, because of the context of Jesus being in the Decapolis, it’s more expected that we should take it as a title on the lips Gentiles or a description as to who they were acknowledging was at work in their midst. Matfran contrasts and compares both the previous passage and the one now being considered by stating that
‘It’s as if [Matthew] is anxious that Jesus’ apparently reluctant response to one Gentile should not be seen as the whole story’
and this certainly appears to have been the case except that it’s clear that these incidents took place closely together in Jesus’ life rather than the author of the Gospels deliberately placing them in close proximity. Although Jesus is acutely aware that His ministry is primarily to Israel (or, perhaps, ‘solely’ to Israel would be better if Mtw 15:24 is taken literally and without exception), He doesn’t feel constrained by it - in much the same way as a present day believer who’s called to a locality to preach the Gospel feels in no way constrained in declaring the Gospel to others who come to listen to Him from outside His God-given area - or to speak to people who are from a different ethnic lineage such as the Greeks were here.
It would be right for Jesus to minister to everyone who came regardless of any insistence that their Jewishness was proven.
Besides, we need to come back to that phrase ‘they glorified the God of Israel’ and point out that it’s not the sort of phrase which one would have been expecting here.
Therefore it’s more likely that Gentiles are being referred to but where another outreach to the Jews was primary to Jesus’ intentions.
Accepting that the writer of Matthew is deliberately using the phrase to indicate that Gentiles were not only present but experiencing the benefits of Jesus’ ministry which was overflowing to them, we need to note that their response to glorify the God of Israel is based upon the miracles which they’re witnessing that are performed on (Mtw 15:30)
‘...the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb...’
an echo of the role of the Messiah prophetically described in Is 35:5-6 which would meet the physical need of
‘...the blind...the deaf...the lame...the dumb...’
As Matfran notes
‘...it is the Messianic blessings of Israel in which these Gentiles are privileged to share’
and, although there’s no indication that the mission of the Messiah might at any future time be thrown open predominantly to the Gentiles, they’re quite able to receive the blessings of the coming Kingdom alongside the Jews in much the same way as a spring bursts up and soaks anyone who’s standing close enough.
Finally, we can note that Jesus once again goes up onto the mountain as He has done previously before He delivered the Sermon on the Mount to His disciples (Mtw 5:1) and as He’d done both before the miraculous multiplication of the five loaves and two fish (John 6:3-4) and after He’d dismissed the crowds who’d been fed (Mtw 14:23).
Mountains are quite a regular occurrence throughout the Decapolean area and the mention of one doesn’t help us to locate the place where the event may have taken place. But we can be sure that Jesus was away from any major city during this time of ministry as was His now usual habit as the crowds began to grow to ever-increasing sizes.
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