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Thursday, 7 July 2011

Why walk on water?


One of Jesus’ most famous miracles was the time when he walked on water. This incident is recorded in Matthew 14, Mark 6 and John 6. Mark’s account reads as follows:
“45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:45-51)
This was a pretty cool miracle. But what does it mean? Was Jesus just showing off, or was he trying to teach something? Two rules of thumb when it comes to Jesus are: #1, pretty much everything he did was meant to teach something. #2, the Old Testament is our most important source for understanding the symbolism of his actions.

The Old Testament background that puts this incident in context is Yahweh’s power over the sea. The most famous example of this was the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Several other passages, some of them referring to this event, refer to Yahweh as making a path or even walking on the sea:
“[God] alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8)
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16)
“Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” (Psalm 77:19)
“Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isaiah 43:16)
“You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.” (Habakkuk 3:15)
A closer examination of two of the above passages reveals that they have remarkable textual parallels to the Gospel accounts of this miracle.

The first is Job 9:8. The Septuagint (LXX) is an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament which was the main Bible read by first century believers like Mark. Job 9:8 LXX reads, “Who alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground” (New English Translation of the Septuagint). In Greek, the phrase translated ‘walks on the sea’ (peripaton...epi thalassei) is nearly identical to the phrase translated ‘walking on the sea’ in Mark 6:48 (peripaton epi tes thalasses). This has led commentators to believe that Mark saw Jesus’ miracle as a realization of Job 9:8 LXX.

The second is Isaiah 43:10-16. We’ve already read v. 16, which referred to God making a way in the sea (an allusion to the parting of the Red Sea). Now let’s consider v. 10-13:
“10 ‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. 12 I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I am God. 13 Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?’”
The parallel between this passage and the account of Jesus walking on the water is not obvious in English – we again have to compare the Greek Septuagint of Isaiah to the Greek of Mark. A small but important phrase is used in both places: ego eimi. It is used by God in Isaiah 43:10 (where it is translated ‘I am he’), and by Jesus in Mark 6:50 (where it is translated ‘it is I’).

In Isaiah, the phrase ego eimi functions as an expression of God’s absolute, unique existence (see also Isaiah 41:4; 43:25; 45:18; 46:4; 51:12). God has always existed and always will, and there is no other! In Mark, the phrase ego eimi primarily serves simply to identify Jesus (“It’s me Jesus, not a ghost!”) However, given the extraordinary event and this Old Testament background, scholars have suggested that Jesus was also using the phrase to express something else:
“In the original setting of the story, ‘it is I’ probably served as an identification formula…However, Mark may intend his readers to see a more pregnant meaning in these words. In numerous places in the OT, God identifies himself with the words ‘I am’…This, along with the fact that in the OT, God is portrayed as walking on the waters, would further give to ‘it is I’ a theophanic sense.” (Robert H. Stein, Mark, p. 326)
A theophany is when God appears to men. So the point is, when Jesus walked to his disciples on the water and then said “It is I,” he was not only saying, “It is I, your teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.” He was saying, “It is I, the One who has power to make a path in the sea.” But as learned Jews would know from the Old Testament, it is Yahweh and Yahweh alone who rules the sea and traverses it freely. If we read between the lines, what is Jesus really saying about himself?

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