Did Jesus Really Walk on Water?

Matthew 14: 22-33

22 Then He directed the disciples to get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent away the crowds.23 And after He had dismissed the multitudes, He went up into the hills by Himself to pray. When it was evening, He was still there alone.24 But the boat was by this time out on the sea, many furlongs [a furlong is one-eighth of a mile] distant from the land, beaten and tossed by the waves, for the wind was against them.25 And in the fourth watch [between 3:00—6:00 a.m.] of the night, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.26 And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified and said, It is a ghost! And they screamed out with fright.27 But instantly He spoke to them, saying, Take courage! I Am! Stop being afraid!28 And Peter answered Him, Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.29 He said, Come! So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, and he came toward Jesus.30 But when he perceived and felt the strong wind, he was frightened, and as he began to sink, he cried out, Lord, save me [from death]!31 Instantly Jesus reached out His hand and caught and held him, saying to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt?32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.33 And those in the boat knelt and worshiped Him, saying, Truly You are the Son of God!

The Sea of Galileee

The Sea of Galilee is fed by the Jordan River, rainfall and springs on the northern side.  More properly designated a lake, the Kinneret (the OT and modern name) is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide.  At its deepest point the lake is only 150 feet deep.  The rabbis said of it, “Although God has created seven seas, yet He has chosen this one as His special delight.” (http://www.bibleplaces.com/seagalilee.htm)

This lake is so big it is called a sea.  Throughout the bible we see it as a center of fishing and in fact the disciples who were fishermen were recruited from the banks of this sea (including Peter).

I am

It intrigued me that this version used “I am” for Jesus’ response.  If we look at the original text, which is Greek, we see that the same words are used here as they are elsewhere (John 8:58 for instance) where Jesus says “I am” to state that He is God: ego eimi εγω ειμι

Walked on Water

This part of the passage has been a troublesome spot in my mind for some time.  I have heard that the original text does not specify that Jesus walked on the water, as it is a preposition used to mean at, around, by, etc.  I have heard both sides: that it is a generalization open for interpretation and that it is very specific.  Quite honestly, when I looked this up, I hoped and expected it to be very specific.  However, it is not specific at all.  I have even found quite a lot of commentary challenging the Christian faith by this very passage, claiming that Christians (bible translators included) choose to believe that Jesus walked on the water instead of near the banks or at the edge of the sea.  Without further ado, let’s look at the original text.

The Greek word used for “on” in our English translation is “epi”.  It translates literally into : 1) upon, on, at, by, before 2) of position, on, at, by, over, against 3) to, over, on, at, across, against.  That certainly leaves it open in regards to what Jesus was doing in relation to the water, doesn’t it?  Furthermore, I looked up the next two occurrences of “on the water” in verses 28 and 29; the same Greek words are used.  Doubting that this is more “general” than it should be I even looked up the word for “walking” which is “peripateo” which defined means, 1) to walk 1a) to make one’s way, progress; to make due use of opportunities.  At least this didn’t open the door for Jesus swimming or treading water, did it?  One of the reasons the New Testament was written in Greek was not only because it was the common trade language (much like English is today), but also because it is a very specific language, which would leave little question to the meaning the writers were trying to portray.  So what do we do with this?  Is it possible that Jesus was walking on the shore and Peter merely walked through shallow water to Him?  Do we as Christians take this story and twist it to mean what we want it to mean because it supports our faith?  Are we acting just like others who we claim pick out scripture and twist it to mean what they want it to mean to support their own ideals?

Keep Reading

If the story ended here, surely it would cause a great chasm in the Christian faith and disrupt what we rely upon as the Word of God and its reliability.  If we continue reading the story, particularly verse 30, we see that Peter begins to drown/ sink.  How can someone drown when they are walking on or close to the shore?  Furthermore, how would Peter, a fisherman (one who is probably comfortable with being in the water on the shore) suddenly drown in ankle or even knee-deep water?  The original text of verse 30 gives us “katapontizo” which we translate into “sink or drown.”  This literally translates into, “to plunge or sink into the sea,” a very distinct word.

Moreso, we can compare this instance with the moment Jesus “recruited” Peter, as he was standing on the shore with his fishing boat.  You know, when Jesus tells him that he will become a fisher of men?  This is in Mathew 4:18, “18  Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 And He *said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  It is interesting here that clearly, Jesus has to be near the sea (the same sea, actually) and the same author uses a different word to describe Jesus being “near” the sea (as opposed to being on the sea).  The word here used is “para” meaning “from, of, at, by, besides, near.”  Why does the author use different words? He is trying to convey two different meanings.  If it didn’t matter, then why didn’t he use the same word in both instances?  We also have an opportunity in this verse to see the word Mathew chooses to explain something that is literally in the water (the nets), which is “eis” meaning “into, unto, to, towards, for, among.”

You of Little Faith

One last portion that I think defines the situation was how Jesus “saved” Peter from drowning.  In verse 31 we see that He “caught and held him,” but how did He do this?  Did Jesus pick Peter up, did He reach out His hand, or did He scoop Peter up as we are taught in Marine Corps water survival class in order to side stroke them back to land?  I find it interesting that the Greek word used to describe Jesus reaching out to Peter is distinct in that it implies the power of God being involved, cheir, meaning “1) by the help or agency of any one, by means of any one 2) fig. applied to God symbolising his might, activity, power.”  Certainly, it could be questioned if this secondary meaning is a result of the passage or vice versa.  The point here that I want to focus on (since my next installment will involve the implications of this story), is that if Jesus was indeed helping Peter, that he truly needed help.  This is to contrast when someone merely stumbles and we offer a hand to help them back up.  We continue reading through the sentence and see the word that we translate into “caught” as epilambanomai meaning “to take in addition, to lay hold of, take possession of, overtake, attain, attain to.”  A metaphorical use of this word also appears in the definition which means “ metaph. to rescue one from peril, to help, succor”.  The original text indicates that not only was Peter literally drowning and sinking in the sea, but that Jesus’ actions literally saved his life.

What does this mean?

Simply looking at this story as being partially true or partially false is not possible, given the original language and context with which it was written.  Either Mathew correctly wrote an account of what happened or he made it all up.  Whether or not you believe in the story’s credence, to me it doesn’t seem as though the story itself is incongruent.

The language of Jesus walking on the water is unique to when He was walking near the water. Peter was at risk of dying, Jesus saved him.  There is a difference between Jesus and Peter swimming in the water and walking on the water.  It should also be noted that there is a difference between the language that is used here is different than if Jesus was swimming in the water or if Peter said, “let me swim out to you” since the Greek word for swimming is “kolumbao,” literally meaning “1) to dive, to swim” instead of the text we read which is clearly used to describe walking towards someone.

The story of Jesus and subsequently Peter walking on the water must be accepted as either entirely false or entirely true, a small example of how we must look at the bible; either it is all true or all false.

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