Jesus’ miraculous walking on the water is described in Matthew 14:22-23, Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21. The discussion of this fragment below is predominantly based on the Markan version, with a few asides to the other versions when indicated. This article builds on the earlier articles The Tarichaean episode of the rebellion in Mark 3:7-12 and Matthew 8:18 (in two parts) and The stilling of the storm, an encoded account of the Roman cavalry attack on Tarichaeae. Below I will touch only briefly relevant items which I analyzed more in depth in these articles.
The Nestle-Aland translation of the Markan version of this paragraph goes 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; have no fear.” (51) And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, (52) for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
In the articles mentioned above I discussed the εἰς τὸ πέραν (eis to peran – to the other side) phrase which is also present in the first verse of the Markan and Matthean version of the fragment under discussion. In these earlier blogs I argued that this phrase is the encoded mention of Samaria, the region at the other side of the border. This region between Galilee and Judea was the first, intermediary destination of the Tarichaean revolutionaries and refugees on their flight to Jerusalem. Below I will try to show that the walking on the water fragment chronologically follows the pericopes about the Tarichaean episode of the war against the Romans, and that the εἰς τὸ πέραν code in the fragment under discussion also refers to Samaria. In the earlier fragments Jesus took the decision to flee from Tarichaeae in southern direction to Jerusalem via Samaria, and later gave the command for the actual flight εἰς τὸ πέραν.
In the first verse of the current fragment the ὄχλος (ochlos), the ‘crowd’ of revolutionary soldiers and refugees, is on its way ‘to the other side’. This εἰς τὸ πέραν mention is not without problems, and these I will address first. This phrase without any addition is only present in Matthew 14:22. Mark adds πρὸς Βηθσαïδάν (pros Bēthsaidan – to Bethsaida) and John has πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης εἰς Καφαρναούμ (peran tēs thalassēs eis Kapharnaoum – across the sea to Capernaum). Bethsaida is located at the northern and Capernaum at the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, so both versions point more or less in the opposite direction. Below I hope to show that εἰς τὸ πέραν in Matthew – without mentioning Bethsaida or Capernaum– is the historically correct (though encoded) version, and that Mark and John made additions to further obfuscate the reality behind this encrypted story or because they were not aware of it (anymore). Earlier I also identified Jesus’ disciples as encoded officers of the revolutionary army.
In this first verse also the use of the verb προάγω (proagō) is interesting. ‘Go before him’ in verse 45 is the translation of προάγειν (proagein). Remarkably αὐτὸν (auton – him) is not present in Mark. In Matthew it is, although here also it is missing in a few ancient manuscripts. Under προάγω Liddell & Scott present a specific military use of this verb: ‘II. seemingly intr., properly of an officer, to lead on [his troops], to advance, push forward.’ As this verb is used intransitively in Mark (and, as said, in some manuscripts of Matthew), and with the disciples as veiled officers and with the military nature of the other εἰς τὸ πέραν fragments in mind, I believe this specific meaning applies here. The final phrase of verse 45 is translated as ‘he [Jesus] dismissed the crowd’. In a military context the verb ἀπολύω can indeed have the meaning of discharging or disbanding an army, but this would be in contradiction with Jesus passing on the command to his officers. Ἀπολύω has ‘to loose from’ as basic meaning, and in my opinion it is this meaning that applies here. Jesus leaves his army, and this is repeated with a similar verb in the next verse.
It may be clear that there has never been a boat transporting an army over land from Tarichaeae to Samaria. Therefore, like in the stilling of the storm pericope, here also πλοῖον (ploion – boat) seems to be a code word. In the former fragment πλοῖον was the code word for the city of Tarichaeae, while this cannot be the case here with an army of revolutionary soldiers on the run. However, maybe a common underlying meaning of this code word can be pointed out. Maybe the boat is a symbol for a safe place in a hostile environment, the latter coded as the insidious sea. When Tarichaeae was besieged by the Romans, the city was the ‘safe boat’ of the revolutionaries. With the rebels on the run, the military column moving through hostile territory can be coded as a boat as well, just like their camp guarded by watchers at night. Therefore I decode πλοῖον as column or camp depending on the context. This boat-and-sea encryption is quite straightforward in the naval atmosphere of the Sea of Galilee region.
With the different decodings and alternative translation emphases proposed, the first verse could sound like this, eliminating ‘to Bethsaida’: And immediately he charged his officers to go quickly to the column of soldiers and refugees and lead on the troops to Samaria, the region at the other side of the border, [to Bethsaida,] while he loosed himself from the army.
Verse 46 supports my ‘loosing from’ translation in the verse 45. Now Jesus leaves his troops and he does so with a specific destination: the mountain. If we look at the route from Tarichaeae to the southwest, two mountains qualify for Jesus’ destination, Mount Tabor and Mount Moreh. However, Josephus only mentions Mount Tabor in his account of the war in Galilee, and unsurprisingly as a stronghold. He gives the following brief overview of the Galilean war at the very beginning of book IV of The Jewish War (verse 1-2a): (1) The Galileans who, after the fall of Jotapata, had remained in revolt against Rome, surrendered when Tarichaeae fell, and the Romans received the submission of all the fortresses and towns except Gischala and the forces which had seized Mount Tabor. (2) They were supported by Gamla, a city situated opposite Tarichaeae on the other side of the lake.
As Josephus does not mention Mount Moreh anywhere in War, the situation is clear. When Tarichaeae was reconquered by the Romans, three pockets of resistance remained: Gischala in Upper Galilee, Mount Tabor in Lower Galilee and Gamla in Gaulanitis east of the Jordan river. This military situation elucidates Jesus’ detour. After the fall of Tarichaeae Mount Tabor, located near the main road to Samaria, was still in the hands of the rebels. Jesus went there to pray (or to make vows, which may be a more plausible translation of προσεύχομαι in this context), but probably not on his own as this fortified hill was still occupied by the rebels. Maybe Jesus took the risk to leave the protection of his army to go and confer with his fellow leaders of the rebellion on Mount Tabor.
Verse 47 depicts the situation on a certain evening with the ‘boat’ in the middle of the ‘sea’ and Jesus alone ‘on land’. As the Mount Tabor region is one day’s journey from Tarichaeae, this must have been the evening of the first day of the flight. I believe we should not interpret the Greek μόνος (monos – alone, only) as Jesus who was all alone on the mountain, but as Jesus who was the only one from the refugees who left for the mountain, while all the others remained together. After the ‘boat’ and ‘sea’ codes, the additional ‘land’ element completes the geographical encryption of this fragment. The boat is not accidentally in the middle of the sea (remarkably omitted in the Nestle-Aland translation). This phrase expresses that the Jews were camping in the middle of hostile, Roman occupied territory. Probably it is not a coincidence that Mount Tabor is located almost exactly halfway between Tarichaeae and the Samaritan border. What then could be the meaning of Jesus being the only refugee on land? With the sea as a hostile environment, the land may be a friendly environment, which points to territory in the hands of the Jews. The Greek γῆ (gē – earth or land) is frequently used for a specific country or region, and in the Jewish context for the land of Israel. Contrary to ‘sea’ as a code for hostile, Rome controlled territory, ‘land’ may be the code for territory controlled by the revolutionaries, or liberated land. As the revolutionary army did pass near Mount Tabor and camped in its neighborhood, Jesus did not have to travel a long distance through Rome occupied territory to meet his fellow commanders on liberated soil.
Mark 6:48a speaks of the difficult progress of the crowd because the wind is against them, and in the parallel verse in Matthew it is the waves that hinder the column. Earlier I decoded the wind as the Roman cavalry and the waves as a flood of soldiers. The difficult progress of the rebels seems to be due to their being pursued by the Romans. In verse 48b Jesus returns to the camp in the last quarter of the night, and watchers notice him approaching through hostile territory, and it is this activity that is encoded as walking on the sea. It is interesting to notice that water (ὓδωρ – hudōr) has no place in any version of this paragraph except in the ‘Peter’ digression in Matthew 14:28-31 which seems to be a later addition. This may be a supplementary argument for a coded message. On his return Jesus seems to have had the intention to avoid the watchers. Had he kept silent his detour to Mount Tabor? The watchers are terrified and cry out when they see someone – an enemy!? – approaching. Then Jesus makes himself known and tries to calm down the watchers. Then Jesus enters the camp, and this coincides with the end of the Roman pursuit. Probably this is not a pure coincidence as Jesus returned during the night. Maybe the Romans decided not to continue their pursuit the next day, or after his return Jesus initiated a tactic intervention that discouraged the Romans.
The final verse 52 has nothing to do with this event.
A decoded reconstruction of this fragment could sound as follows, with my translation choices underlined, information omitted by the author in bold and decoded terms upright.
(45) And immediately he charged his officers to go quickly to the column of soldiers and refugees and lead on the troops to Samaria, the region at the other side of the border, [to Bethsaida,] while he loosed himself from the army. (46) And after he had left them, he went up on Mount Tabor to make vows together with the rebel leaders there. (47) And when evening came, the column of soldiers and refugees was in the middle of hostile territory, and he was the only one on free land. (48) And he saw that they were harassed in making headway, for the Roman cavalry was opposed to them. And about the fourth watch of the night he returned to them, walking on Rome controlled soil. He meant to pass by the watchers, (49) but when they saw him walking on hostile soil 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 me; do not panic.” (51) And he proceeded towards them to the camp and the cavalry attack ceased. And they were utterly amazed.
[(52) for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.]
The version in John does not yield interesting additional information except for the final sentence. Nestle-Aland translates as follows: And immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. Decoded and with the military use of the verb ὑπάγω (basic meaning ‘to lead or bring under’ –meaning in a military context ‘to withdraw, to retire’) this verse may say: And immediately the column arrived at the land to which they were retiring.
I believe we have uncovered the consistent usage of εἰς τὸ πέραν (eis to peran – ‘to the other side’) as ‘to Samaria’ in this and the previous articles. This was the starting point for a full decoding of the fragments involved as telling the story of the Galilean revolutionaries from their initial flight from Tiberias to Tarichaeae until their eventual arrival at the border with Samaria. Two famous miraculous stories, the stilling of the storm and the walking on the water turned out to be encoded accounts of events of the Galilean phase of the war against the Romans.
The latter story hardly conveys military information and therefore seems to be superfluous. It is totally devoted to a small particular feat of their leader. Jesus crossed enemy lines completely on his own, without the support of a platoon of elite soldiers or even a few body guards. This was another of the numerous daring acts of their leader, like for example the stealing of Roman horses before Tiberias or attacking the Roman camp under construction before Tarichaeae. This may explain the amazement of Jesus’ following after his return from Mount Tabor.
From the arrival of the rebels at the border with Samaria onwards, Luke takes the lead in recounting the experiences of revolutionary army and the refugees. In Luke 9:52-53 this account, spread over several chapters of this gospel, starts as follows: (52) And he [Jesus] sent scouts ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; (53) but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. See my analysis of these and the next verses in the blog article Galilean refugees in a tight spot (Luke 9:51-62).