Disciples Misunderstand Jesus’ Words About Leaven (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21)

Submitted by admin on Fri, 2008-02-22 12:21.

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Jesus and his disciples boarded the boat to cross the Sea of Galilee and headed for Bethsaida on the northeastern shore of the lake. During the crossing, he admonished them to be alert and watch out for the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (“leaven of Herod” [instead of Sadducees], according to numerous manuscripts of Mark 8:15). The disciples mistakenly took his words to be a subtle reminder about food. They had forgotten to take bread for the trip and had only one loaf in the boat. Among themselves, therefore, they talked about not having brought a supply of loaves, perhaps even trying to fix blame for the neglect. (Matthew 16:5-7; Mark 8:14-16)

Becoming aware of their wrong reasoning, Jesus spoke of them as having little faith and a “heart” or mind that was dull, hard, or impervious to proper understanding. After asking them whether they could not see with their eyes and hear with their ears, he reminded them about the provision he had made with five loaves for five thousand men and with seven loaves for four thousand men. Jesus also had them answer how many baskets of leftovers they had collected afterward. In view of all they had witnessed, “How,” as he continued, could they not have understood that he had not spoken to them about loaves? The disciples then comprehended that he had not referred to the “leaven of the loaves” but to the “teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:8-12; Mark 8:17-21)

Based on the miracles they had seen, the disciples should have been able to conclude that Jesus’ ability to look after their needs was not dependent on external factors. Seemingly, they had not reached the point where they drew conclusions solidly grounded on their faith in him as the Son of God. They often viewed matters according to what the external circumstances suggested, and the influence of the prevailing thinking of the time interfered with their comprehension of Jesus’ words.

The “leaven” or teaching to which Jesus referred affected the people generally. Its permeating influence was harmful, as it hindered many from accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Son of God. In the case of the disciples, this “leaven” would have been detrimental to their spiritual well-being, and they needed to guard against it.

Although claiming to uphold God’s law, the Pharisees misrepresented its requirements, giving precedence to the tradition of the elders. Because Jesus did not share their exalted view of the ancient traditions and did not provide the “sign” they expected from the Messiah, the unbelieving Pharisees opposed and misrepresented him. The teaching of the Pharisees minimized the importance of love, justice, and mercy, which conflicted with Jesus’ teaching. (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42) To grow in being more like him as loving, just, and compassionate persons, the disciples needed to be on guard against the teaching of the Pharisees.

The Sadducees rejected much of what had been conveyed through the ancient prophets. (Acts 23:8) Therefore, their teaching likewise interfered with accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah and continuing to develop ever-greater faith in him.

Herod, specifically Herod Antipas of the Herodian dynasty and his supporters, had political objectives. With the emphasis on position and power, this “leaven” needed to be avoided. Repeatedly, Jesus had to make clear to his disciples that greatness in the realm where he was king did not mean occupying a prominent position for wielding authority over others but required laboring as a lowly servant. (Matthew 18:1-6; 23:11, 12; Mark 10:35-37; Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-27; see the Notes section for additional comments.)


Both Matthew and Mark mentioned the “leaven of the Pharisees” first. This may indicate that their teaching posed the greatest danger for the disciples. The influence of the Sadducees does not appear to have been as great on the people generally. According to first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, XIII, x, 5), so great was the influence of the Pharisees “over the multitude” that, “when they say anything against the king or against the high priest, they are presently believed.”

There is a possibility that the reference to the “leaven of Herod” or the “leaven of the Herodians” (according to other manuscript readings of Mark 8:15, including third-century P45) may be a parallel designation for the “leaven of the Sadducees” mentioned in Matthew 16:6. If so, the “leaven of the Sadducees” would apply to the teaching or beliefs of Sadducees who supported the Herodian dynasty.