When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 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.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:47-52)
The more I read the Gospel of Mark, the weirder the Gospel seems. It is not necessarily weird in and of itself, but the relationship between my expectation of what the Gospel says and what it actually says is often discordant. I am perhaps too influenced by Matthew’s and Luke’s glosses, emendations, and so forth. So that whenever I return to Mark, I find some passages to be quite startling. And this is one of them. And it is what the other Gospels drop from this passage that stopped me in my tracks while reading it.
On the surface, it is a rather familiar passage: Jesus walking on water. But most likely, whenever most people think of Jesus walking on water they think of the version in Matthew and think of Mark more often when Jesus calms the sea (Mark 4:35-41). Matthew’s version is much longer, and alters the text quite a bit. After a rewriting of the introduction, a shift occurs:
And early In the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt 14:25-33)
As Matthew does elsewhere (such as in Peter’s confession), he promotes Peter as the preeminent disciple, though a brash one, and uses this episode to illustrate this evolving view of Peter’s significance that is not found so much in Mark.
In appending the story, Matthew has completely changed the point of the story as it is found in Mark. In Matthew, it promotes Peter’s faith as great, but ultimately insufficient. It is a story of faith and doubt—something that seems fitting for the Gospel of John (and, n.b., this is one of those few synoptic episodes that has a counterpart in John—see John 6:15-21). And it is a further illustration of Jesus’ identity as “the Son of God.” For Mark, on the other hand, there is little discussion here of faith and doubt. It is rather yet another illustration of the disciples’ lack of understanding—something that is highlighted in Mark, but consistently muted in Matthew and Luke (see their discussions of the “Mystery of the Kingdom”). Luke, interestingly, drops this entire episode.
John also drops quite a bit without making Matthew’s additions—in fact, John’s version is the shortest of all of them:
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
Firstly, in each case, the episode is attached to Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes. But for Matthew, this seems to be a weak attachment; it is one of narrative sequencing. Whereas for Mark there is a more inherent connection. In John, too, Jesus walking on water is not only set up by the multiplication of loaves, but subsequently sets up the whole “I am the bread from heaven” speech, and is able to integrate the episode more fully.
But both Matthew and John do not have a few interesting phrases. Both have dropped quite a bit. Other than John dropping the whole “ghost” thing, both Matthew and John drop the following parts:
He intended to pass them by.
And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Why would these phrases be dropped? Or why would Mark have them at all? The first is rather ambiguous. For Matthew, the entire episode is a set-up, a lesson on faith and doubt and to demonstrate Jesus’ greatness as “the son of God.” This is not present in Mark’s text. In fact, Jesus simply “intended to pass them by.” Perhaps Jesus is hoping not to be seen, and if that is his intention, from Jesus’ perspective it is not setting up a scene of faith and doubt—the scene, or the revelation of the scene, is completely accidental (though, of course, not from the narrative perspective). Is this part of the whole “messianic secret trope”? If so, it seems a slight inversion of it. That is, elsewhere the disciples are supposed to be witnesses of things as the receiver of secrets and mysteries that are concealed to the public, while here it was supposed to be concealed from them.
Perhaps it makes the reader suspect that there may have been many times Jesus has just passed by and the miraculous has gone completely unnoticed. Or is it that Jesus knew they wouldn’t comprehend, and therefore did not intend for them to see. It also has the (perhaps unintended) connotation that things do not always go as Jesus planned. One can see why John would have dropped this phrase, since there Jesus is always in control of his actions and knows what will happen—what others responses will be. Here, Jesus intended one thing, but his will and his actions do not fully coincide.
The second is quite startling. It firstly directly relates the disciples’ astonishment with their failure to understand the loaves. Why? One should recall that there are two loaves and fishes episodes in Mark (6:30-44; 8:1-9). It is one of the many doublets that characterize the document. Other than the numbers being different between the two episodes is a strange similarity: the disciples’ response is equally incredulous. There is no development between the two. It is a tribute to their denseness. And this denseness is now expressed in their astonishment on the sea.
Next, it says, “their hearts were hardened.” Not only are the disciples’ hard-headed, but hard-hearted. This language has a clear echo throughout the Bible. One immediately thinks of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. It is something that typically occurs with God’s enemies (Exod. 7:3, 14). No wonder this was dropped in the other gospels. But, nonetheless, why does Mark portray the disciples similarly to God’s enemies, like Pharaoh, in the Bible?