Muslim YouTube polemicist Yahya Snow recently excerpted a clip from one of my apologetics webinars, in which Dr. Mike Licona, the guest speaker that week, stated that the most difficult apparent discrepancy between the gospels is the location of the feeding of the five thousand miracle, and on this point Mark seems to be “confused”.
According to Luke 9:10, the event of the feeding of the five thousand took place in Bethsaida. However, according to Mark 6:45, following the feeding of the five thousand miracle, Mark tells us,
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.
This presents an apparent contradiction. If Jesus and the disciples were already in Bethsaida, why does he tell his disciples to get into the boat and go to the other side of the lake, to Bethsaida? At first glance, it looks like a contradiction between the accounts. A closer inspection, however, reveals that it is no such thing.
The first thing to note is that we have independent confirmation that the event occurred in a deserted area near Bethsaida. In John 6:5, Jesus turns to Philip to ask where they should go to buy bread. John 1:44 and 12:21 tell us that Philip was from Bethsaida. It is Luke’s account that tells us that the event took place in Bethsaida, thus explaining why Jesus turned to Philip in John’s gospel. Luke does not tell us that Jesus turned to Philip, but rather that he turned to “the disciples” (Luke 9:14). This hand-in-glove fit, or undesigned coincidence, provides an independence of attestation.
Thus, there is good reason to believe that the feeding of the five thousand miracle took place in Bethsaida.
Moreover, in Matthew 11:21, Jesus says,
“Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
This is paralleled in Luke 10:13. It is thus among the Q sayings of Jesus (those sayings of Jesus that are attested in Matthew and Luke but are absent in Mark, suggesting that they go back to an early source). There is no other record of mighty works in or near Bethsaida, but the feeding of the five thousand is said to have occurred after a day of healing miracles as well.
The greek text says that the disciples were to enter into the boat and προάγειν εἰς τὸ πέραν πρὸς Βηθσαϊδάν (proagein eis to peran pros Bēthsaidan). The greek word pros can mean “over against.” Another possibility is that, in going over to the other side (to the Capernaum side) they were going to pass Bethsaida–that is, that the actual location of the feeding was slightly to the east of Bethsaida itself. Hence, when they left in Mark to go to the other side, they could have been going “toward” Bethsaida. Either of those interpretations of pros will work in Mark.
There is yet further confirmation of the location of the miracle as being somewhere “across the top” of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum. It is Mark himself who says that they didn’t even have leisure to eat before the feeding, because there were “many coming and going” (Mark 6:31), and that they got into the boat to get away from the crowds. That fits well with their being in the region of Capernaum prior to going away. There is still a further undesigned coincidence involved there which connects Mark and John. It was just before the Passover (John 6:4), and there would have been crowds coming through Capernaum, travelling down to Jerusalem. Thus, the picture is well-explained by their going from the Capernaum region (on the top west coat of the Sea of Galilee) across the top of the region around Bethsaida, and then, when they returned “to the other side”, returned to the northwest side. In fact, Mark explicitly says (Mark 6:53) that they landed at Gennesaret when they had crossed over! Thus, this actually, far from contradicting, confirms the idea of which direction they were going. If they were really crossing over “to Bethsaida” as if to land at or near Bethsaida, they couldn’t have landed at Gennesaret!
Thus, pros Bēthsaidan, even within Mark itself, cannot be taken to mean that the feeding of the five thousand occurred in a radically different location from the region of Bethsaida named explicitly in Luke and otherwise confirmed by undesigned coincidencces.