Gospels

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

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

Recently, I decoded Mark 3:7-12 and Matthew 8:18 to be describing the Tarichaean episode of the war against the Romans in 67 CE. I believed these fragments to be the only ones that told the story of this episode of the war, but after rereading Mark chapter 4, I have changed my opinion. Upon 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 reads 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 for the first sentence above has been discussed extensively in my 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 a destination of the flight, Matthew 8:18 refers more extensively to the war than Mark 4:35 which lacks any reference to the army and the siege. Still, the Markan verse suggests that the event described took place in the evening, a piece of information Matthew does not provide. This extra information exposes 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.

Considering the presence of war references in the first verse of this fragment, I naturally checked the rest of this fragment as well and I believe it contains two further references to the Tarichaean war episode, one in verse 36 and another in verses 37-41.

Verse 36 recounts that ‘they’ took Jesus to the boat after leaving the crowd and also that other boats were 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 causing somebody to move: to seize, to catch, to intercept, to take prisoner. It looks as though 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. Is Jesus parting company from his own army or is he urged by his officers to do so from the Roman army? The involvement of several boats seems to indicate the latter. Moreover, Josephus refers to a military action in which Jesus and his soldiers end the confrontation with the Roman army and flee to their boats. In War III:467-468 Josephus describes this scene before the walls of Tarichaeae as follows: (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 and what Mark may be describing is his reluctance to retreat to the ships. Verse 36 also somewhat enigmatically states ‘as he was’ indicating that Jesus was not quite himself when his disciples urged him to flee to the lake. Was Jesus still elated by his small success? Was he angry at his followers for their readiness to flee? Was he exhausted after his daring exploit? Whichever may have been the case, Jesus and his men continued their assault on the Romans from their boats with bow and arrow.

Verses 37 to 41 then go on to describe the stilling of the storm. Given that they come after the encoded war verses it does not seem plausible that these verses describe a natural phenomenon and that Jesus’ miraculous intervention ends it. I believe that this part of the fragment describes another event in the same episode of the war. Crucial to 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 on the shore of the lake this seems to be a quite straightforward encoding.

In Mark 4:37a, the tempest begins with the rising of a strong wind. It is interesting to compare this verse with its 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 a rallying cry to his soldiers in the preceding verses, War III:497-498 reads 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 and the force of the attack. Most interestingly the War fragment combines Titus’s surprise attack and the flight of Jesus and his men.

Mark 4:37b reads 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, which 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’ – again his disciples – go and awaken him. Assuming this story describes a real tempest, it is inconceivable that Jesus is sleeping during a violent tempest. This may indicate something else took place. The versions in Matthew and Luke also state that the disciples went and woke him. This ‘walk’ suggests a certain distance needs to be covered, more than the few meters from the middle of a small boat to its stern.
The principal meaning of the Greek πρύμνᾰ (prumna) is the stern of a ship. Accordingly the steersman of a ship is the πρυμνήτης (prumnētēs), who operates from the stern. However, πρύμνᾰ also has a metaphorical use. 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, that is, the command post of the revolutionary army.
This decoding makes Jesus’ inappropriate sleep understandable. 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 to help, asking: Leader, do you not care if we perish? In its general sense, the Greek verb ἀπόλλῦμι means ‘to destroy utterly, to kill, to slay’, and its medium voice means ‘to perish’. The verb ‘to perish’ hints at 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 tames the wind and a great calm arises. In this encoded war context Jesus’ taming of the wind could refer to his instructions to organise the defence against the assailants. The Greek verb for the the wind to stop blowing is κοπάζω, the basic meaning of which is‘to grow weary’ and whose derived meaning is ‘to abate’. With the wind being the code for the Roman cavalry, it is obvious that the basic meaning of κοπάζω applies. Holding the Romans back temporarily was a significant achievement as it allowed 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 verses 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 logical place for verse 35 is also at the following point in the story: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” It draws the following picture at sunset on the day of Titus’s attack. Titus and his men occupied the lower part of the city after its Jewish defenders temporarily stopped Titus’s advance, and when darkness fell both armies held their ground. Outside the city the Roman legions retreated to their camps, as illustrated by Josephus’s description of the flight of the defenders of Gischala later that year. 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 trust?”
This is followed by verse 41, of which the first part is traditionally translated as And they were filled with awe, which it could be argued 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 meanings of φοβέω and φόβος are ‘to terrify’ and ‘terror, panic, great anxiety’, respectively, based on the mortal fear that incites people to flee. Regardless of whether 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 read as follows, with my translation choices underlined, omitted information in bold and decoded phrases in non-bold Roman typeface. Verses 35 and 41b have been translocated and subtitles are added.

(The retreat of Jesus and his followers to boats waiting on the lakeshore 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 on 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 trust?” (41a) And they were terrified and overcome with 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. Mark therefore 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 would be lost, so that only a bizarre, miraculous story remained.