Jesus’ miraculous walk on the sea 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 side references to the other versions where 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. I will touch only briefly on relevant items I have already analysed in greater detail in these articles.
The Nestle-Aland translation of the Markan version reads 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 phrase εἰς τὸ πέραν (eis to peran – to the other side) which also appears in the first verse of the Markan and Matthean version of the fragment we are discussing here. In my earlier blogs, I argued that it is a encoded reference to Samaria, the region at the other side of the border. This region between Galilee and Judea was the first stop for the Tarichaean revolutionaries and refugees on their flight to Jerusalem. Below I will try to show that the fragment on walking on the sea follows chronologically on the pericopes about the Tarichaean episode of the war against the Romans, and that εἰς τὸ πέραν in the fragment being discussed also refers to Samaria. In the earlier fragments, Jesus decided to flee south from Tarichaeae to Jerusalem via Samaria, and later gave the command for the actual flight εἰς τὸ πέραν.
In the first verse of Mark 6:45-52 the ὄχλος (ochlos), the ‘crowd’ of revolutionary soldiers and refugees, is on its way ‘to the other side’. This use of εἰς τὸ πέραν is not without problems, and these I will address first. Matthew (14:22) is the only one to use this phrase without any additions. 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 lies on the northern shore and Capernaum on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, so these versions both point more or less in opposite directions. Below I hope to show that εἰς τὸ πέραν in Matthew – without mention of Bethsaida or Capernaum – is the historically correct (although encoded) version, and that Mark and John made additions either to further obfuscate the reality behind this encrypted story or because they were no longer aware of it. Earlier I had also identified Jesus’ disciples as encoded officers of the revolutionary army which, as you will see, is quite relevant.
Something that jumps out in the first verse of Mark 6:45-52 is the use of the verb προάγω (proagō). ‘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 offer 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), in conjunction with the conclusion that the disciples are veiled references to officers and with the military nature of the other εἰς τὸ πέραν fragments, 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. The basic meaning of ἀπολύω is ‘to loose from’, 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 was never a boat transporting an army from Tarichaeae to Samaria. Therefore, like in the stilling of the storm pericope, πλοῖον (ploion – boat) seems to be a code word here also. In the stilling of the storm, πλοῖον was code for the city of Tarichaeae, but it doesn’t fit here with an army of revolutionary soldiers on the run. However, there may be a shared underlying meaning. Maybe the boat is a symbol for a safe place in a hostile environment, the latter being represented as the insidious sea. When the Romans had Tarichaeae under siege, the city was the ‘safe boat’ for the revolutionaries. With the rebels on the run, the military column moving through hostile territory, as well as their camp at night, can be symbolised by a boat as well. Therefore I interpret πλοῖον to be a ‘column’ or ‘camp’ depending on the context. This boat-and-sea encryption is quite self-evident in the naval atmosphere of the Sea of Galilee region.
With the different proposed decodings and alternative translation emphases, the first verse could read as follows, 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 verse 45. Jesus leaves his troops and he does so with a specific destination in mind: the mountain. If we look at the route from Tarichaeae to the southwest, two mountains qualify for Jesus’ destination, Mount Tabor and Mount Moreh. Josephus only mentions Mount Tabor in his account of the war in Galilee, and unsurprisingly he refers to it 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 doesn’t 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 sheds lights on the reason for 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). Maybe Jesus took the risk of leaving 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 Mount Tabor 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 of 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 geographical reference to the position of the boat is not accidentally in the middle of the sea (remarkably omitted in the Nestle-Aland translation). This phrase expresses that the Jews found themselves in the middle of hostile, Roman occupied territory. It is probably not a coincidence that Mount Tabor is located almost precisely 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 set up camp in its neighbourhood, Jesus did not have to travel a long distance through Roman occupied territory to meet his fellow commanders on liberated soil.
Mark 6:48a speaks of the crowd’s difficult progress because the wind is against it, and in the corresponding 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 the result of being pursued by the Romans. In verse 48b, Jesus returns to the camp in the last quarter of the night, and watchers notice him approach through enemy 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 intended to avoid the watchers. Had he kept silent about his detour to Mount Tabor? The watchers are terrified and cry out when they see someone – an enemy!? – approaching. Jesus makes himself known and tries to calm down the watchers and then he enters the camp which coincides with the end of the Roman pursuit. It is unlikely to be a pure coincidence that Jesus returned during the night. Maybe the Romans decided not to continue their pursuit the next day or perhaps Jesus created a tactical diversion that throw the Romans off their scent.
The final verse 52 has nothing to do with this event.
A decoded reconstruction of this fragment may read as follows, with my translation choices underlined, information omitted by the author in bold and decoded terms in non-bold Roman typeface.
(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 consult with 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 it 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 read: 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 in previous articles. This was the starting point for fully decoding the fragments involved and revealing them for what they are: the story of the Galilean revolutionaries from their initial flight from Tiberias to Tarichaeae to 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 stage of the war against the Romans.
The story of walking on the sea scarcely conveys any military information and therefore seems to be superfluous. It is completely devoted to a small particular feat of their leader. Jesus crossed enemy lines entirely on his own, with no support from 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 in Tiberias or attacking the Roman camp under construction in 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 the revolutionary army and the refugees. In Luke 9:52-53, this account, spread over several chapters of his 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 verses following in the blog article Galilean refugees in a tight spot (Luke 9:51-62).