Jesus and the disciples had arrived in Bethsaida that day. The reason for the trip to Bethsaida was Jesus wanted his disciples to rest—and eat. Ministry had been going wide open. In fact, the disciples had just returned from proclaiming the message of the kingdom in the cities/towns of Galilee. Only Peter tells us what Jesus told the disciples before setting sail and why this trip was so necessary: “And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and rest for a while.’ (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat)” (Mark 6:31b).
They went to Bethsaida to get away, but guess what. The couldn’t get away. They had just a little time for themselves, but it was on the boat, not when they arrived in Bethsaida. The authors of the Gospels mention that the crowd figured out where Jesus was heading with his disciples. They took off on foot and arrived before Jesus or shortly thereafter (Mark 6:33). There is a textual issue here. Some manuscripts read προῆλθον (“they arrived before”) and some προσῆλθον (“they came”). Let me put the issue in the form of a question: Does Mark (or should we say Peter, given the historical data connected to the Gospel according to Mark?) say some from the crowds in Capernaum take off on foot and beat Jesus and the disciples to Bethsaida, or does he say that those people made their way to Bethsaida and went to Jesus and the disciples once they (the crowds) arrived? It's an interesting question, isn't it? On the one hand, how could some people travel on foot from Capernaum to Bethsaida, crossing the Jordan River toward the end of the trip, before Jesus and his disciples could make the trip via boat? Herein lies the heart of the issue. For some, this is what they would call an "error" in the Gospel. But is it?
Here's a snapshot of the readings and supporting manuscript evidence:
Reading 1: προῆλθον ("they arrived before")
Manuscript Evidence: א B 157 892 1342 l770 l1780
Reading 2: προσῆλθον ("they went to")
Manuscript Evidence: L Δ θ 579 1241 1424 l184 l211 l384 l387 l773
Reading 3: προσῆλθεν ("it [i.e., the group collectively] went to" or just an orthographical issue, in which case this would further support Reading 2)
Manuscript Evidence: 13
Reading 4: συνῆλθον ("they came with")
Manuscript Evidence: D 28 700 33
Reading 5: Includes both προῆλθον and συνῆλθον (The text would read something like "they [the crowd] arrived before them [the disciples] and together they [the crowd] went to him [Jesus]")
Manuscript Evidence: P84 Byz etc.
Now I've left off the words surrounding the main verb. These definitely need to be considered to get the best grasp of the issue in Mark 6:33, but for our purposes we will be okay.
You will notice that the difference between Reading 1 and Reading 2 is just a single letter (σ or no σ). This single letter affects what preposition is prefixed to the verb. Is it "to" or "before"? Reading 2 and Reading 3 are basically the same thing. In other words, we are dealing with the same prefixed preposition. The issue involving that reading is whether or not the verb is singular or plural. We're not really going to wrestle too much with any of these. We just want to point out a couple of things.
How in the world can these people in Capernaum take off on foot and beat Jesus and the disciples to Bethsaida? Well, we see in the manuscript evidence what looks like an attempt to wrestle with this issue. Bruce Metzger said this:
"It is probable that προῆλθον was altered to either προσῆλθον or συνῆλθον by copyists who thought it unlikely that the crowd on the land could have outstripped the boat (it is beside the point to observe, as Lagrange does, that the wind may have been contrary). Thus, both external evidence and internal considerations converge in making it probable that the reading with προῆλθον is the original." (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 78)Is that what took place though? Did Mark (Peter?) say they got there before Jesus did, and then the copyists wrestled with how difficult that sounded and just changed the text ever so slightly? I mean, all they had to do was add a little tiny letter and the whole issue went away. Well, that assumes, of course, that Reading 1 is correct. I believe it is. That reading is attested to by Alexandrian and Byzantine manuscripts. The longer reading in some of the Byz mss is a different issue though, not our focus here.
Bruce Metzger made a reference to Lagrange's comment about the wind direction on the Sea of Galilee that particular day at that particular time. Metzger dismissed the whole idea. And perhaps rightly so. But maybe I can offer another possible solution. Maybe Reading 1 is correct, and maybe the "quiet place" to which Jesus called his disciples was not Bethsaida. Maybe they took their time crossing the Sea of Galilee. At this point in Jesus' ministry the crowds are literally everywhere. The people know who he is and they are waited on every beach for him to set foot. At some points he can't even get off the beach. Maybe it's reasonable to think Jesus knew that if he wanted some time to rest, some time away from the crowds during the day, the only place he was going to find it was out on the water. If they took more time than it actually took to travel from point A to point B, specifically because they were trying to rest and gather some strength, then wouldn't that make it less difficult for certain scholars who view Mark 6:33 as one of those places in the New Testament that contains an error? Seems like it would to me. What's clear is this difficulty in what Mark says is not a modern difficulty. Copyists saw it as a difficult one early in the transmission of the text.