Jesus walking on water
The story tells how, following the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus sent the 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 a detail found only in Matthew, Peter "walked on the water" towards Jesus, but he became afraid and began to sink, and Jesus rescued him.
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 episode as instrumental in asserting the divinity of Jesus among early Christians. In this view, the episode's demonstration that God the Father is willing to share divine power with his son Jesus impacted the affirmation of the belief in the divinity of Jesus in the Christian ecumenical creeds.
Critical scholars do not share the traditional Christian perspective, some stating that it was not miraculous and that the disciples saw Jesus walking on the shore, but were confused by darkness. Others regard the story as an example of creative symbolism, or a pious legend. George Young considers the story as fantastic art which should be analyzed by literary-critical methods.
In the New Testament narrative, this episode appears in the gospels of Matthew (14:22-33), Mark (6:45-52), and John (6:16-21). This episode is distinct from the Calming the storm episode which 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 In all three gospels this episode follows the narrative of the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus had withdrawn by ship to a desert place "belonging to" Bethsaida after hearing of the death of John the Baptist, but was followed by the crowds on foot.
In all three accounts, during the evening the disciples got into a ship to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, without Jesus who went up the mountain to pray alone. John alone specifies they were headed "toward Capernaum". During the journey on the sea the disciples were distressed by wind and waves, but saw Jesus walking towards them on the sea. John alone specified that they were 25 or 30 furlongs away from their departure point. The disciples were startled to see Jesus, but he asked them not to be afraid. In John and Mark's accounts Jesus then got in the ship.
Only Matthew's account mentions Peter asking to come unto the Lord on the water. After Peter came down out of the ship and walked on the water, he became afraid of the storm and began to sink. He called out to Jesus for help. Jesus caught him and reproved him for his lack of faith, and led him back to the ship whereupon the storm stopped. Also in Matthew the astounded disciples called Jesus the Son of God.
In all three accounts, after Jesus got into the ship the wind ceased and they reached the shore. Only John's account has their ship immediately reach the shore. Matthew and Mark's accounts end at this point, but John continues to narrate the events of the next day, when the crowd of the five thousand came to Capernaum and asked Jesus how he had crossed over, having seen the disciples leave without him. Jesus did not answer that question, but told the crowd that they followed him not because they had seen signs, but because of the free loaves they had eaten the day before, and advised them not to seek earthly gains, but aim for a life based on higher spiritual values. In John's account this discussion about the loaves then led to the Bread of Life Discourse about "true bread" from heaven.
This episode took place towards the end of the Ministry of Jesus in Galilee before the key turning points half way through the gospel narratives where Peter proclaimed Jesus as Christ and saw the Transfiguration. After those events Jesus began his final journey to Jerusalem.
For a direct comparison of the three New Testament accounts, please see the comparison table in the section below.
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.
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. Dwight Pentecost and John Danilson state that this miracle was deliberately designed by Jesus to instruct his apostles and increase their faith. 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".
Richard Cassidy states that this episode sheds special light on the position of Peter among the apostles and the relationship between Jesus and Peter. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Scholars such as Ulrich Luz and separately Dale Allison view the pericope as instrumental in asserting the divinity of Jesus among early Christians. 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. 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.
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. The lack of any record of protests against the truth of this and other miracles is held to be proof of their historical reality. 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).
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.
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. 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).
Finally are those scholars who regard the story as an example of “creative symbolism”, or myth, which probably was understood by a part of the audience literally and by others allegorically. Rudolf Bultmann pointed out that the sea-walking theme is familiar in many cultures. 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”. 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.
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), or within the New Testament, as an originally simple story later embellished with Hellenistic and Old Testament details. 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).
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.
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.
A different explanation for Jesus walking on the sea is suggested by Doron Nof of Florida State University. Nof has suggested that Jesus may have walked on a thin sheet of ice, and not water, given that salty springs along the lake shore may be circulating at cold temperatures. However, Nof's study concluded by stating that "whether this happened or not is for religion scholars, archaeologists, anthropologists and believers to decide on."
Comparison of the three gospel accounts
|Matthew 14:22-34||Mark 6:45-53||John 6:15-21|
|22 ¶ And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.
23 And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.
|45 ¶ And straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people.
46 And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray.
|15 ¶ When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.|
|---||47 And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land.||16 And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea,
17 And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.
|24 But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.||48 And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them:||18 And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.|
|25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.||and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them.||19 So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship:|
|26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.||49 But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out:
50 For they all saw him, and were troubled.
|and they were afraid.|
|27 But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.||And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.||20 But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid.|
|28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
|32 And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.||51 And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased:||21 Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.|
|and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.
33 Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.
¶ 34 And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret.
|52 For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.
53 And when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Jesus Christ walking on water.|
- Biblical cosmology
- Calming the storm
- Life of Jesus in the New Testament
- Ministry of Jesus
- Miracles of Jesus
- Parables of Jesus
- Walking on water
- Matthew 14:22–33
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- Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (International Critical Commentary) by Dale C. Allison and W.D. Davies 2005 ISBN 0-567-08249-0 page 244
- Luke 9:10
- Steven L. Cox, Kendell H Easley, 2007 Harmony of the Gospels ISBN 0-8054-9444-8 pages 99-100
- The Chronological Study Bible by Thomas Nelson 2008 ISBN 0-7180-2068-5 page 1144
- John 6:17
- 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
- The Life and Ministry of Jesus: The Gospels by Douglas Redford 2007 ISBN 0-7847-1900-4 pages 189-207
- Merrill Chapin Tenney 1997 John: Gospel of Belief ISBN 0-8028-4351-4 page 114
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- Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew-Luke by David C. Cook and Craig A. Evans 2003 ISBN 0-7814-3868-3 page 303
- 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
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- The Apostles' Creed: God's special revelation by Alan Robinson 2005 ISBN 1-898595-46-1 pages 35-36
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- Young 1999, p. 4
- A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 141
- Young 1999, pp. 8–9
- Young 1999, pp. 9–10
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- Adela Yarbro Collins: Mark: a commentary. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007, p. 328-333. ISBN 978-0-8006-6078-9.
- Pseudo-Eratosthenes: Catasterismi fragment 32 = (pseudo-) Hesiod: Astronomy
- Young 1999, pp. 12–15
- Young 1999, pp. 16–17
- 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
- George W. Young: Subversive Symmetry, 1999, p. 112-145, 149ff., 157f., 181-184.
- Jesus was walking on thin ice The Guardian, Thursday 6 April 2006
- A Cold, Hard Explanation for a Biblical Feat NY Times April 4, 2006
- Pentecost, J. Dwight (1981). The words and works of Jesus Christ. Zondervan. ISBN 0-310-30940-9.
- Witherington, Ben (2001). The Gospel of Mark: a socio-rhetorical commentary. Erdmans. ISBN 978-0802845030.
- Young, George W. (1999). Subversive Symmetry: Exploring the Fantastic in Mark 6:45-56. Brill. ISBN 90-04-11428-9.
Jesus walking on water
Feeding the Multitudes
Miracles of Jesus
Blind Man of Bethsaida
Miracles of Jesus