128 Commentary

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This page forms part of the resources for 128 Walking on Water in the Jesus Database project of FaithFutures Foundation

Crossan Inventory | 128 Literature | 128 Parallels | 128 Commentary | 128 Poetry | 128 Images


John Dominic Crossan

Crossan (1991:311f) notes the likelihood of an early collection of miracle stories, independently attested in Mark and John:

Crossan also cites Hull's view [Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition 1974] that miracles belong in the earliest layer of the gospel tradition but tend to be "washed out of the tradition and, when retained, were ... very carefully interpreted."

Crossan proposes that the origins of this story lie in Mark's decision to retroject earlier resurrection appearances back into the narrative. He explains the origin of 184 Transfiguration of Jesus as Mark using the resurrection story from the Cross Gospel with the two heavenly beings being transformed into Moses and Elijah, and suggests three other cases where appearance traditions become historical events in Mark:

Contrary to some scholars (e.g. Meier - see below), Crossan identifies the Sitz im Leben of these stories not in christological epiphanies but in disputes over authority and leadership within the early community:

I suggest that those latter [nature miracle] stories, including the above trilogy, had nothing originally to do with demonstrating the power of Jesus over nature but rather with establishing the power of leadership over the church and especially some leaders over others. (p. 397)

Crossan understands these "nature miracles" as ways of giving narrative expression to the Easter experience of Jesus' continued - albeit non-physical - company with his followers. Like 003 Bread and Fish, this episode of 128 Walking on Water affirmed the presence of the risen one and the authority of those leaders who were the recipients of the miracle.

According to Crossan, some elements of its original character as an appearance story can still be discerned in the present forms of the story and especially in John:

  • timing: Jesus comes "about the fourth watch" - "that is, towards morning" in Mark 6:48b and "as day was breaking" in John 21:4
  • intention: "he meant to pass them by" - c.f. Luke 24:28-29
  • reaction: the disciples think they are seeing a ghost in Mark 6:50a as in Luke 24:
  • reassurance: "It is I" - Mark 6:50b and Luke 24:39
The original point, however, was not just that Jesus could walk on and calm the raging sea but that he could and would do it to help the disciples succeed in their mission. And, of course, such a walk was itself a beautiful symbol of resurrection, of victory over death. It was the risen Jesus who assisted and thereby validated their authority. (p. 405f)

Crossan (p. 407) notes the possibility that the formation of the double miracle of meal and sea may reflect the influence of the exodus traditions, but with the order revered under the influence of Psalm 107:4-9,23-32 (see above).

Dennis MacDonald

In The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, MacDonald devotes a chapter to this story and another to the story in Mark 5:1-20. He begins by noting :

In no gospel does Jesus sail more often than in Mark, and, as far as we now know, no author independent of Mark ever related Jesus to things nautical. ... One of Mark's most enduring innovations was painting traditions about Jesus against a landscape replete with mountains, uninhabited regions, villages, and especially a sea. He presented four of the disciples as erstwhile fishermen who were able to provide Jesus with the boat that would later transport him across the Chinnereth. He told them to have it ready for him, so that he could avoid the crowds, and once used it as his pulpit. The disciples sail with Jesus across the lake several times, enduring a storm and rowing against contrary winds. Once they failed to provision the ship with enough bread, an oversight unpardonable for ancient sailors, who often had to traverse vast expanses. Several episodes echo sailing tales in the Odyssey. (p. 55)

MacDonald points out that Mark seems to have been responsible for the elevation of the Lake Chinnereth, a mere seven miles long and four miles wide, into "a ferocious sea, troubled by storms, mighty winds, and lofty waves." This literary re-imaging of the Galilean lake was already observed by the 3C pagan writer, Porphyry (see citation above, under Parallels.

MacDonald cites numerous parallels between the Odyssey and Mark, including shared use of rare vocabulary not found in the Greek (Septuagint) version of the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus Seminar

The commentary in The Acts of Jesus (p. 76f) observes:

Mark's account of the stilling of the storm brings us to the first of the so-called nature miracles. It also introduces a new and different sense of who Jesus is into the gospel story. ... [no longer] simply another charismatic sage with healing powers, but a Jesus who has the power to calm the seas and still the wind puts him in a category with the other gods -- with Yahweh, with Zeus, with Poseidon. In other words, the "christology" of this story is that of the early Christian community. For this reason alone, many scholars have concluded that the tale is the fictional product of the believing community.

The Seminar's voting on the various texts related to this tradition was as follows:

  • Jesus Walks on Sea (Mark 6:45-52 = Matt 14:22-27) - BLACK 0.00
  • Stilling the Storm (Mark 4:35-41 = Matt 8:18,23-27 = Luke 8:22-25) - BLACK 0.00
  • Walking on the Sea (John 6:16-21) - BLACK 0.00

John P. Meier

Meier devotes almost 30 pages of his second volume (A Marginal Jew: II. Mentor, Message and Miracles. 905-33) to a discussion of the gospel accounts of Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm. This is part of an even larger discussion of the nature miracles.

Two considerations lie at the heart of Meier's discussion:

  • the early and independent attestation in Mark and John
  • the primitive association of Jesus walking on the sea with the miracle of the feeding

Meier understands Mark's account to be using a pre-existing tradition also used by John, but he sees the essence of the story's meaning as the element of divine epiphany rather than a miraculous sea-rescue:

The use of the phrase "to pass by someone" in OT narratives of theophany illuminates the point Mark is making ... Jesus wished to reveal himself to his disciples in all his divine majesty and power by demonstrating his dominion over the unruly forces of wind, sea, and waves. He acts toward them as Yahweh or Yahweh's personified divine Wisdom acts in the OT. (p. 907)

Meier argues the version in John 6 may be closer to the original pre-Markan form of the tradition, and that it survived in John with minimal editing because (1) it was a subsidiary element to the story of the feeding miracle its core, and (2) its central focus on the epiphany of Jesus as the divine Wisdom was entirely congenial to John's high christology:

For John, the Jesus who walks on the turbulent sea is the eternal Word made flesh, divine Wisdom who bestrode the waves of chaos in the OT. Hence Jesus' "I am" echoes the divine name of Yahweh revealed in Exod 3:14-15 and the formula of revelation regularly used in Deutero-Isaiah. Indeed, given the overarching context of Jesus' ego eimi in John's Gospel, the surface meaning of "It is I" almost necessarily resonates with the deeper meaning of "I am." (p. 910)

Meier outlines several OT passages that provide examples of epiphanies involving demonstrations of divine power over the sea. The passages he cites are all included in the material cited at Jesus and the Stormy Sea. Meier observes at one point:

This tendency to attribute to divine Wisdom the imagery used elsewhere of the God who dominates the waters of the sea as he creates the world and redeems Israel is extremely important to John's high christology and to the miracle of John 6:16-21 in particular. A great characteristic of the Fourth Gospel is that it applies to Christ much of the OT speculation about divine Wisdom active in creation and redemption. (p. 916)

Meier turns to the question of historicity only after his detailed consideration of the tradition-history and theological focus of this story. he eschews any rejection of the miraculous on philosphical or theological grounds, and then makes a clear case against historicity.

Citing the criteria of discontinuity and coherence, Meier notes that miracle stories "that have some claim to go back to an event in Jesus' life have two things in common:" (1) they meet some real need on the part of the recipient, and (2) they do not focus on the person or status of Jesus:

... the walking on the water does not cohere with the miracle stories that have a good chance of going back to some event in Jesus' ministry. Indeed, this miracle story is emphatically discontinuous with them. Instead, it is continuous with the christology of the early church, especially with an early thrust toward a high christology that tended to associate Jesus with Yahweh or to make Jesus the functional equivalent of Yahweh. (p. 921)

Meier is quote certain that the story originates in the theological imagination of early Christianity, acting under the influence of their conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead by God and shaped by the OT epiphany traditions. For Meier, the primitive association of this walking on the water miracle with the feeding miracle prompts the question of why the secondary story was attached to the feeding miracle. He suggests that the walking on water story was intended as a commentary on the significance of the multiplication miracle:

In other words, the eucharistic symbolism that begins in the story of the feeding of the five thousand continues into the story of the walking on the water. The first story reflects what the Christian "crowds in the wilderness" of this world experience when the risen Jesus once again gives thanks, breaks the bread, and gives it to those who have followed him and are hungry because they lack their own resources. What I am suggesting is that, to a small church struggling in the night of a hostile world and feeling bereft of Christ's presence, the walking on the water likewise symbolized the experience of Christ in the eucharist. (p. 923)

Meier then notes some firm conclusions from his work:

  • the story of the walking on the water is a creation of the early church and does not go back to an incident in Jesus' public ministry
  • there is no need for naturalistic explanations of the story's origins
  • Matthew's story of Peter walking on the water can also be dismissed as a creation of the church