Jesus walking on water

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This article is about the Christian miracle. For other uses, see Walk on Water.
Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

Jesus walking on water is one of the miracles attributed to Jesus in three of the Canonical Gospels: Mark, Matthew and John.

The story says Jesus sent his disciples by ship to the other side of the Sea of Galilee while he remained behind, alone, to pray. Night fell, the wind rose, and the ship became caught in a storm. In the midst of the storm and the darkness the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea. They were frightened, thinking they were seeing a spirit, but when Jesus told them not to be afraid, they were reassured. Jesus entered the ship and calmed the storm, and they went on to the shore. According to the version in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter walked on the water towards Jesus, but became afraid and began to sink, and Jesus rescued him.[1]

Christian teachings consider the episode a miracle intended to show the importance of faith, and the control of Jesus over nature. Biblical scholars view the story as playing a part in the assertion of the divinity of Jesus among early Christians. In this view, it is seen as a demonstration that God the Father is willing to share divine power with Jesus.[2][3]

Some scholars have suggested that this was a real, but not miraculous event, but many modern scholars regard the story as creative symbolism, or a pious legend. George Young considers the story as fantastic art which should be analyzed by literary-critical methods.

Biblical narrative[edit]

In the New Testament narrative, the earliest description of this episode is in the Gospel of Mark.[4] A similar episode, the Calming the storm, also involves a ship on the lake but takes place much earlier in the gospel narratives. In all three gospels this episode follows the narrative of the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus had withdrawn by ship to a desert place "belonging to"[5] Bethsaida after hearing of the death of John the Baptist, but was followed by the crowds on foot.[6][7]

The account describes how, during the evening, the disciples get into a ship to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, without Jesus who had gone up the mountain to pray alone. During the journey on the sea the disciples are distressed by wind and waves, but see Jesus walking towards them on the sea. They are startled to see him, but he tells them not to be afraid, and gets into the ship. The wind ceases, and they reach the shore.[7]

The later Gospel of Matthew adds an element[8] in which Peter gets out of the ship and walks on the water, but becomes afraid of the storm and begins to sink. He calls out to Jesus for help; Jesus catches him and reproves him for his lack of faith, before leading him back to the ship whereupon the storm stops. In this version, the astounded disciples describe Jesus as the Son of God.[7]

The last of the Canonical gospels to be written, the Gospel of John, written around the end of the first century,[9] does not have the story of Peter walking on water but adds some details, such as that they were headed towards Capernaum and were five or six kilometers away from their departure point. John's narrative continues the events into the next day, when a crowd of five thousand come to Capernaum and ask Jesus how he had crossed over, having seen the disciples leave without him. Jesus does not answer that question, but tells them they followed him not because they had seen signs, but because of the free loaves they had eaten the day before, and advises them not to seek earthly gains, but aim for a life based on higher spiritual values.[7][10][11]

This episode takes place in Galilee before the key turning points half way through the gospel narratives, in which Peter proclaims Jesus as Christ and sees the Transfiguration. After those events Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem.[12]


Christ walking on the sea, by Amédée Varint

Christian teachings[edit]

The walking on the sea episode has specific interpretations within Christian teachings and has been viewed by scholars as important due to its perceived impact on the formation of Christian ecumenical creeds, as discussed below.[2]

One aspect of the pericope is how it highlights the relationship between Jesus and his apostles. Merrill Tenney states that the incident is in essence centered on that aspect, rather than their peril or the miracle itself.[13] Dwight Pentecost and John Danilson state that this miracle was deliberately designed by Jesus to instruct his apostles and increase their faith.[14] David Cook and Craig Evans note that "of little faith" is a somewhat common expression in Matthew (e.g. 8:26 when Calming the storm or 16:8 regarding bread and the Pharisees just before the Confession of Peter) and may mean "of no faith".[15]

Richard Cassidy states that this episode sheds special light on the position of Peter among the apostles and the relationship between Jesus and Peter.[16] In Cassidy's view the episode implies that Peter had faith in Jesus and acknowledged Jesus' extraordinary powers, and by considering to walk on water himself, wanted to share in the act of Jesus before the other disciples for he considered himself closest to Jesus.[16] Cook and Evans note that the "Lord Save me" cry of Peter is similar to Matthew 8:25 and Mark 4:38 in the Calming the storm episode and again emphasizes the reliance of the disciples on Jesus.[15]

Cook and Evans also echo Pentecost's interpretation that the detail regarding "many stadia away" and "battered by the waves" were intended to emphasize that Jesus could walk on the water far away from the shore, on a rough sea, thus establishing his dominance over nature.[14][15] R.T. France has also pointed out that the details regarding the boat being a long way from the shore, and the portrayal of Peter sinking are intended as a confirmation of the depth of the water.[17]

Scholars such as Ulrich Luz and separately Dale Allison view the pericope as instrumental in asserting the divinity of Jesus among early Christians.[2] Alan Robinson sees the pericope as important in establishing the belief in the early Church that the disciples viewed Jesus as the Son of God.[18] Dale Allison states that Matthew's presentation emphasizes that God the Father is willing to share divine power with his son and that the impact of this pericope on the affirmation of the divinity of Jesus in the ecumenical creeds is undeniable.[3]

Historical-critical analysis[edit]

François Boucher Cathédrale Saint-Louis (1766) Versailles

Scholars who hold that the story records actual events do so on the basis that Jesus, as Son of God, was above the laws of nature; or, in a variation, that Jesus projected an image himself while actually remaining on the shore.[19] The meaning of the episode is held to be inherent in its miraculous nature: "The meaning of the pericope (story) ... only has meaning ... if it is understood as relating a miraculous event which really took place" (Leopold Sabourin, 1975).[19]

In recent scholarship, Bart Ehrman has championed the view that in general, it is impossible to either prove or disprove supernatural events such as miracles using the historical method, for proving them would require belief in a supernatural world not amenable to historical analysis, and disproving them would require historical evidence that is usually hard to come by.[20]

Still, some scholars have held the view that while this event took place, it was not miraculous: Albert Schweitzer, for example, suggested that the disciples saw Jesus walking on the shore, but were confused by high wind and darkness; some scholars who accept this "misperception thesis" argue that Mark originally wrote that Jesus walked on the seashore rather than on the shore, and that John had a more accurate version.[21] Others have held that the entire episode is a "pious legend" (B.H. Brunscombe, 1937), based perhaps on some lost incident; perhaps Jesus waded through the surf (Vincent Taylor, 1957), or perhaps he walked on a sand bar (Sherman Johnson, 1972, J.D.M. Derrett, 1981).[22]

Finally are those scholars who regard the story as an example of “creative symbolism”, or myth,[23] which probably was understood by a part of the audience literally and by others allegorically.[24] Rudolf Bultmann pointed out that the sea-walking theme is familiar in many cultures.[23] In Greek and Roman tradition, Poseidon or Neptun, respectively, is the god of the sea traveling in his chariot over its surface. Human beings can be endowed with this power, typically the sons of Poseidon by human mothers like Orion, to whom “was given [...] as a gift the power of walking upon the water as though upon land”.[25] Furthermore, the motif of walking on water was associated with kings like Xerxes or Alexander, but also rejected and satirized as humanly impossible and as proverbial for the arrogance of the rulers by Menander, Dio Chrysostom or in 2 Maccabees 5:21.[24]

Others look for an origin in the mythic world of the Old Testament itself (Christ's victory over the waters paralleling Yahweh's defeat of the primeval Sea, representing Chaos),[26] or within the New Testament, as an originally simple story later embellished with Hellenistic and Old Testament details.[27] In the Hebrew Bible, God gives power over the sea, e.g. to Moses (Ex 14:21-29) or to Elijah (2 kg 2:8).[24]

Adela Yarbro Collins concludes that the text characterizes Jesus as Messiah and king of Israel endowed with divine properties.[24]

Literary-critical analysis[edit]

Biblical scholar George W. Young dismisses the naturalistic explanations, the traditional and the historical critical perspectives. He contends that these methods of exegesis rely on factual interpretations and fail to capture the full meaning of the text based on its structure. Instead, Young explores the pericope with literary-critical methods as narrative art. Young views the text as fiction, and uses tools and terms often associated with fantastic literature to analyze it.[28]

Young analyses the pericope as the expression of three entangled, conflicting perspectives on reality: (i) the “conventional reality” based on sensory perception; (ii) the “impossible” vision of Jesus resulting in the astonishment of the observers; (iii) the narrator's metaphysical comment in verse 52 identifying Jesus as the Son of God.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Matthew 14:22–33
  2. ^ a b c Matthew: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 by Frederick Dale Bruner 2004 ISBN 0-8028-2670-9 page
  3. ^ a b Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (International Critical Commentary) by Dale C. Allison and W.D. Davies 2005 ISBN 0-567-08249-0 page 244
  4. ^ (6:45-52)
  5. ^ Luke 9:10
  6. ^ Steven L. Cox, Kendell H Easley, 2007 Harmony of the Gospels ISBN 0-8054-9444-8 pages 99-100
  7. ^ a b c d The Chronological Study Bible by Thomas Nelson 2008 ISBN 0-7180-2068-5 page 1144
  8. ^ (14:22-33)
  9. ^ Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz, The historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide (Fortress Press. 1998), page 36. Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible (Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985) page 303.
  10. ^ (6:16-21)
  11. ^ Who do you say that I am?: essays on Christology by Jack Dean Kingsbury, Mark Allan Powell, David R. Bauer 1999 ISBN 0-664-25752-6 page 83
  12. ^ The Life and Ministry of Jesus: The Gospels by Douglas Redford 2007 ISBN 0-7847-1900-4 pages 189-207
  13. ^ Merrill Chapin Tenney 1997 John: Gospel of Belief ISBN 0-8028-4351-4 page 114
  14. ^ a b J. Dwight Pentecost; John Danilson (photography) (2000). The words and works of Jesus Christ. Zondervan. pp. 234–235. ISBN 0-310-30940-9. Retrieved 2011-10-04. 
  15. ^ a b c Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew-Luke by David C. Cook and Craig A. Evans 2003 ISBN 0-7814-3868-3 page 303
  16. ^ a b Four Times Peter: Portrayals of Peter in the Four Gospels And at Philippi by Richard J. Cassidy 2007 ISBN 0-8146-5178-X pages 70-73
  17. ^ France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. p. 567. ISBN 0-8028-2501-X. 
  18. ^ The Apostles' Creed: God's special revelation by Alan Robinson 2005 ISBN 1-898595-46-1 pages 35-36
  19. ^ a b Young 1999, pp. 2–3
  20. ^ A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 141
  21. ^ Young 1999, pp. 8–9
  22. ^ Young 1999, pp. 9–10
  23. ^ a b Young 1999, p. 10
  24. ^ a b c d Adela Yarbro Collins: Mark: a commentary. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007, p. 328-333. ISBN 978-0-8006-6078-9.
  25. ^ Pseudo-Eratosthenes: Catasterismi fragment 32 = (pseudo-) Hesiod: Astronomy
  26. ^ Young 1999, pp. 12–15
  27. ^ Young 1999, pp. 16–17
  28. ^ George W. Young: Subversive Symmetry. Exploring the Fantastic in Mark 6:45-56. Brill, Leiden 1999, p. 1-6, 23. ISBN 90-04-11428-9. Online preview
  29. ^ George W. Young: Subversive Symmetry, 1999, p. 112-145, 149ff., 157f., 181-184.


Jesus walking on water
Preceded by
Feeding the Multitudes
Miracles of Jesus
New Testament
Succeeded by
Blind Man of Bethsaida
Miracles of Jesus