Gospels

The stilling of the storm, a coded account of the Roman cavalry attack on Tarichaeae

The stilling of the storm, a coded account of the Roman cavalry attack on Tarichaeae

Recently I decoded Mark 3:7-12 together with Matthew 8:18 as describing the Tarichaean episode of the war against the Romans in 67 CE. I thought that both fragments were the only ones to tell the story of this episode of the war, but after rereading Mark chapter 4 I have changed my opinion. On close inspection the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark 4:35-41 (parallels in Matthew 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25) seems to provide additional information on the battle of Tarichaeae.

The Nestle-Aland translation of this pericope in Mark goes as follows (my subdivision):

(35) On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

(36) And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

(37) And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. (38) But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (39) And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (40) He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (41) And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

The parallel verse in Matthew of the first sentence above has extensively been discussed in the blog article The Tarichaean episode of the war against the Romans in Mark 3:7-12 and Matthew 8:18. With the combination of four veiled war elements, an army, an encirclement, a decision to flee and the destination of the flight, Matthew 8:18 refers more extensively to the war than Mark 4:35. In the latter verse the army and the encirclement are absent. However, the Markan verse says that the event described took place in the evening, a piece of information that Matthew does not provide. This extra information brings about an interesting parallel with Josephus’s War IV:106. This verse describes the flight of a great number of revolutionaries and refugees from the encircled Galilean city of Gischala under the cover of darkness about two months after the battle of Tarichaeae: At nightfall, John, seeing no Roman guards around the town, took his chance and, taking with him not only armed followers but also a large number of non-combatants with their families, fled to Jerusalem.

With the war content of the first verse of this fragment it was obvious to check the rest of this fragment for veiled war information. I believe we can discern two more Tarichaean war events in this pericope, one in verse 36 and another in verse 37-41.

Verse 36 recounts that ‘they’ took Jesus in the boat after leaving the crowd, and that other boats were also involved. In the parallels in Matthew and Luke ‘they’ are Jesus’ disciples, and in Mark also we can infer from the context that it is Jesus’ disciples who take him to the boat. The Greek word for this action is παραλαμβάνω (paralambanō). This verb does not describe the friendly act of inviting someone to move or of accompanying somebody. It has a connotation of pressure or force applied to urge somebody to move: to seize, to catch, to intercept, to take prisoner. It looks as if the officers were urging their leader to depart from the crowd.
In the blog post mentioned above I discussed the Greek noun ὄχλος (ochlos – crowd) and concluded that on various occasions ὄχλος is the code word for the rank and file of armies, the Jewish revolutionary army as well as the Roman army. Does Jesus leave his own army or is he urged by his officers to depart from the Roman army? With the involvement of several boats Jesus does not seem to leave his own men. Moreover, Josephus describes a military action in which Jesus and his soldiers end the confrontation with the Roman army by fleeing to their boats. In War III:467-468 Josephus describes the following skirmish before the walls of Tarichaeae: (467) While the Romans were entrenching their camp, Jesus and his supporters, undeterred by the strength and perfect discipline of the enemy, made a sortie, and at the first onset scattered the workmen and tore down a short length of the wall. (468) But when they saw the legionaries mustering, they withdrew quickly to their own lines before sustaining losses; the Romans pursued and drove them to their ships. Jesus is the leader of this sortie, which may give a hint to his reluctance to retreat to the ships. Verse 36 also has the enigmatic phrase ‘as he was’ indicating that Jesus was in a special mood when his disciples urged him to flee to the lake. Was Jesus still aroused by his small success? Was he angry at his followers for their readiness to flee? Was he exhausted after his daring exploit? Anyway, from their boats Jesus and his men continued the fight by shooting arrows at the Romans on land.

Verses 37 to 41 then describe the stilling of the storm. After the preceding encoded war verses it would be implausible that these verses describe a natural phenomenon and Jesus’ miraculous intervention to end it. I believe that this part of the fragment describes another event in the same episode of the war. Crucial in Mark’s encoding of this passage is the continuation of the action on the lake, while there are strong indications that this is not the case. In my opinion the core element of the encoding of these verses is the continued use of the noun πλοῖον (ploion – boat or ship) while the action has shifted to the πόλις (polis – city). For a city at the shore of the lake this seems to be a quite straightforward encoding.

In Mark 4:37a the tempest starts with the rising of a strong wind. It is interesting to compare this verse with the parallel in Matthew 8:24a: And behold, a great booming arose in the lake. Booming is the translation of the Greek σεισμός (seismos); a σεισμός of the earth for example is an earthquake. Traditionally σεισμός in this verse is translated as ‘storm’ or ‘tempest’, but this translation seems to be inspired by the Markan version of this verse, that has ἄνεμος (anemos), blast. However, σεισμός never describes the natural phenomenon of a storm.
If we search Josephus’s War for a military activity that caused great booming coming from the lake, we find Titus’s surprise cavalry attack on Tarichaeae through the waterfront of the lake. After an encouraging speech to his soldiers in the preceding verses, War III:497-498 goes as follows: With these words he [Titus] leapt on his horse and led his troops to the lake, rode through the waterfront and entered the town first, followed by his men. Terror-struck by his audacity, none of the defenders on the ramparts ventured to fight or offer resistance. Abandoning their posts, Jesus and his supporters fled across country, while the rest rushed down to the lake.

Maybe the attack through the waterfront is the σεισμός of Matthew’s version. Mark and Luke use the imagery of a blast, emphasizing the speed as well as the force of this action. Most interestingly the War fragment combines Titus’s surprise attack and the flight of Jesus and his men.

Mark 4:37b says that the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. Here we encounter the city-to-boat encoding. The Greek word for ‘wave’ is κῦμα, and this noun can also be used metaphorically for a flood of men (Liddell & Scott p. 858). Decoded this phrase says that the floods of Roman cavalry threw themselves upon the city, so that the city was already filling.

In the next verse Jesus is sleeping in the stern, and ‘they’ – his disciples again – go and awaken him. Assuming that this story describes a real tempest, Jesus’ sleep during a violent tempest is an inconceivable element of the story. This may indicate that something else is recounted here. The version in Matthew and Luke also says that the disciples went and woke him. This ‘going’ suggests a certain distance to be covered, more than the few meters from the middle of a small boat to its stern.
The basic meaning of the Greek πρύμνᾰ (prumna) is the stern of a ship. Accordingly the steersman of a ship is the πρυμνήτης (prumnētēs), operating from the stern. However, πρύμνᾰ can also be used metaphorically. Aeschylus uses πρύμνᾰ πόλεος (prumna poleos – the stern of the city) for a city’s acropolis. The metaphorical use of πρύμνᾰ may hint at a specific topographic area within the city (elevated above the rest and therefore easier to defend) or a special function (government, administration). Maybe in this case it is just the place where the πρυμνήτης, the steersman of the military operations, was staying, in other words the command post of the revolutionary army.
This decoding makes Jesus’ inappropriate sleep comprehensible. Exhausted from the hectic activity of the days before Jesus was taking a nap, not expecting an attack at that moment. Jesus’ officers, knowing where he was, hurried to the command post to wake Jesus and begged him for help, asking: Leader, do you not care if we perish? The Greek verb ἀπόλλῦμι means ‘to destroy utterly, to kill, to slay’, and its medium voice means ‘to perish’. This perishing hints to a violent death, more in line with the imminent massacre in a captured city than with a shipwreck.

In verse 39 the ‘miracle’ takes place: Jesus blames the wind so that it ceases, and a great calm arises. In this encoded war context Jesus’ blaming of the wind could be his instructions for the organization of the defense against the assailants. The Greek verb for the ceasing of the wind is κοπάζω, which has ‘to grow weary’ as basic meaning, and ‘to abate’ as a derived meaning. With the wind as code word for the Roman cavalry, it is obvious that the basic meaning of κοπάζω is applicable here. The temporary holding back of the Romans was an important achievement, as it enabled an unhoped-for flight under the cover of darkness. I believe that verse 41b expresses Mark’s admiration for the defenders of Tarichaeae who temporarily brought an elite unit of the Roman army to a halt under Jesus’ command. Both verse 39 and 41b have the combination of wind and sea, and as such form a strong unit (my emphasis): (39) And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (…) (41b) And they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” In the reconstruction below I translocated verse 41b accordingly.

The logic place of verse 35 is also at this point in the story: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” This gives the following picture at sunset of the day of Titus’s attack. Titus and his men occupied the lower part of the city after its Jewish defenders temporarily stopped the formers’ advance, and when darkness fell both armies held their ground. Outside the city the Roman legions retreated into their camps, as Josephus’s description of the flight of the defenders of Gischala later that year illustrates. This interruption of the fighting created the opportunity to flee, and Jesus gave the order to do so. This was a dangerous undertaking as the main force of the Romans was located in the camp(s) outside the city. Jesus notices the anxiety of his officers and asks them: “Why are you afraid? Have you no thrust?”
Then follows verse 41, of which the first part is traditionally translated as And they were filled with awe, which in my opinion is a misleading translation. The basic meaning of the verb φοβέω (phobeō) and the noun φόβος (phobos) has to do with fleeing, ‘to flee’ and ‘flight’ respectively. The derived meaning of φοβέω and φόβος is ‘to terrify’ and ‘terror, panic, great anxiety’ respectively, based on the mortal fear that urges people to flee. No matter if Mark used the basic or the derived meaning, this phrase refers to the imminent flight through the lines of a dreaded enemy.

A decoded reconstruction of this fragment could sound as follows, with my translation choices underlined, omitted information in bold and decoded terms upright. Verses 35 and 41b have been translocated and subtitles are added.

(The retreat of Jesus and his followers to boats on the lake after a skirmish outside the walls of Tarichaeae)

(36) And fleeing from the rank and file of the Roman army, his officers urged him into the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

(The surprise attack of the Roman cavalry on Tarichaeae via the waterfront of the Sea of Galilee, and the subsequent flight of Jesus and his followers)

(37) And a great Roman cavalry attack came to pass, and the floods of men threw themselves upon the city, so that the city was already filling. (38) But he was in the command post, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Leader, do you not care if we are killed?” (39) And he awoke and blamed the Roman cavalry, and said to those who came out of the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the Roman cavalry grew weary, and there was a great calm.

(41b) They said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the Roman cavalry coming from the sea obeys him?”

(35) On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to Samaria at the other side of the border.”

(40) And he said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no thrust?” (41a) And they were terrified with a great panic.

It may be clear that the topics discussed in this pericope were too sensitive to be spread openly in the hostile environment of the Roman empire. Therefore Mark encoded these war events so that the story was accessible for the informed insiders but not for the enemy. In later times this notion of the encoding of war information has got lost, so that only a bizarre miraculous story remained.