by Professor Dan Lioy
My previous blogpost spotlighted Lydia McGrew’s treatise, Hidden in Plain View (DeWard Publishing; 2017). In it, she explores a variety of “undesigned coincidences” appearing in the Gospels and Acts to affirm the reliability of the Gospels. I used McGrew’s foundational premise to consider an episode recounted in the three Synoptic Gospels, in which Jesus and His disciples experienced a violent windstorm while in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.
In the current blogpost, I want to lift up for consideration a second episode involving Jesus, His disciples, and the Sea of Galilee. The intent is to showcase another example of how seemingly unrelated details in various Gospel accounts provide objective, internal evidence that the episode being narrated actually occurred in space-time history. As before, rather than repeat the pericopes McGrew provides in her treatise, I am putting forward one of my own.
Before doing so, however, it is important to clarify two different methods for reading the Gospels. As outlined by Mark L. Strauss (Four Portraits, One Jesus; Zondervan; 2020), while each approach has its place, neither should dominate and displace the other.
So, on the one hand, the Gospels should be read “vertically,” that is, “on their own terms” by “following” the “plot” or “storyline” of each narrative from “top to bottom” or from “beginning to end.” After all, the Spirit “inspired four distinct Gospels with unique themes and purposes” (rather than one gigantic mishmash of Gospel snippets).
On the other hand, the Gospels should also be read “horizontally,” that is, by “comparing their accounts with one another.” Doing so permits readers to “more clearly identify” each Gospel’s specific “themes” and discern their unique theological perspective.
Strauss cautions that “harmonizing” (or synthesizing) the Gospels into a “single story” runs the risk of “distorting or obscuring” the “unique contribution” and distinctive voice of each “Gospel writer.” That said, “harmonizing” is potentially “helpful,” especially involving efforts to address “historical questions” about Jesus of Nazareth’s “life” (including what He taught and did).
It is the last point made above that is a key concern in research done by McGrew (and others). As I noted in my previous blogpost, the accuracy of seemingly minor, trivial details found within parallel narratives in the Gospels makes a compelling case for the precision and exactitude of the entire accounts in which they appear.
So, then, as I stated earlier, the second episode I want to discuss involves Jesus, His disciples, and the Sea of Galilee. Starting with Matthew 14:22, it leaves readers with the impression that there was a sense of urgency in Jesus’ decision to dispatch the Twelve without any delay.
The above occurred right after Jesus miraculously fed over 5,000 men. This is in addition to an unspecified number of women and children (vss. 13-21).
It is unclear, though, from the text why Jesus wanted His disciples to enter their fishing vessel “immediately” (vs. 22, NIV) and head back to the “other side” of the lake. In fact, the Greek verb rendered “made” by the NIV is translated “constrained” in the KJV.
The preceding term conveys the notion of forcing someone to do something. Given Jesus’ sense of urgency, it’s almost as if He was insistent on the Twelve leaving the scene at once. The Johannine account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding clarifies the acute nature of the situation. The amazing supply of food prompted many to wonder whether Jesus was the prophet that Moses referred to in Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18 (John 6:14). Whether this prophet was to be a forerunner of the Messiah or the Messiah Himself is unclear, though the Pharisees questioned John the Baptizer as if the Prophet and the Messiah were separate individuals (1:20-21).
In any case, the crowd saw significant signs in Jesus’ ministry that He was someone worthy of being the Prophet whom Moses described. For instance, Jesus miraculously fed the people a kind of Passover (6:4) that filled 12 baskets with leftovers—symbolically, one for each of the 12 tribes. Further, Jesus’ miracles hinted at what the people were expecting when the Messiah would come, namely, that abundant wine would flow and enough food to feed all Israel would fall like manna from the heavens (Amos 9:13).
The common Jewish expectation was that the Messiah would be a great military leader who would ride triumphantly into Jerusalem on a powerful horse and brandish weapons of war. Evidently, in their desperation, the crowds wanted to force Jesus to become their king. Yet, the kind of ruler they demanded, namely, a brigand who would overthrow Israel’s oppressors, was not in God’s plan (John 18:36-37).
Mark 6:45 clarifies that as Jesus’ disciples started back across the lake, He directed them to head to Bethsaida. This town was located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, Jesus dispersed the crowds, went up the side of a nearby mountain, and spent the night “alone” (Matt. 14:23) to “pray.”
John 6:16-17 indicates that it was in the evening when the Twelve made it to the shoreline of the lake and entered a nearby boat. By the time it became dark, Jesus’ disciples were somewhere in the “middle of the lake” (Mark 6:47, NIV). John 6:19 adds that they had “rowed about three or four miles,” when the weather suddenly deteriorated.
Soon the Twelve were struggling to control the vessel (Mark 6:48), for gale-force winds from the east had swept down on the lake. As the turbulent waters “buffeted” (Matt. 14:24, NIV) the craft, the disciples found themselves rowing unsuccessfully against the winter windstorm. Perhaps they felt just as panic-stricken as they did during the earlier incident recorded in 8:23-25. Yet, unlike the previous episode, Jesus was not initially with the Twelve. This does not mean, however, that Jesus had abandoned them. After all, Mark 6:48 states that Jesus, though geographically separated from the disciples, supernaturally saw them “straining at the oars” (NIV).
It was during the “fourth watch of the night” (Matt. 14:25, KJV; between 3 A.M. and 6 A.M.), that Jesus decided to reunite with the Twelve. Eventually, they could see Jesus coming closer to their boat.
Not even the windstorm, waves, and gravity could deter Jesus. Yet, as He was walked in their direction on the surface of the “sea” (vs. 26), it seemed as if He intended to “pass by them” (Mark 6:48).
At first, the Twelve did not recognize who was heading toward them. This is understandable given the fierce winds and the disciples’ terror-stricken emotional state. There is also the fact that they had never seen Jesus walk on water.
So, the Twelve concluded that Jesus must have been a “ghost” (Matt. 14:26, NIV). The underlying Greek noun refers to some sort of phantom or apparition.
Just as quickly as the disciples begin screaming, so too did Jesus respond with familiar words of encouragement. Not only were they to “take courage” (vs. 27), but also no longer to “be afraid.” The reason is that Jesus had arrived to rescue them.
“It is I” (vs. 27) is more literally rendered, “I am.” It is the same exact declaration appearing in Mark 6:50 and John 6:20.
Throughout the Fourth Gospel, there are numerous other great “I am” statements (6:35; 8:12, 58; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:5). These point back to the divine assertion in Exodus 3:14 that the Lord is the self-existent, ever-living Creator.
Beginning in Matthew 14:28, the narrative shifts the focus to Peter and his request that Jesus allow Peter to walk on the water to the Savior. Perhaps the wording of Peter’s entreaty (“Lord, if it’s you”; NIV) expresses not so much Peter’s ambivalence about Jesus’ true identity as a desire from Peter for reassurance amid a potentially life-threatening circumstance.
In any case, Jesus gave Peter permission to leave the vessel and make his way on the surface of the lake (vs. 29). Initially, the situation seemed to go well for Peter.
Perhaps with a sense of exhilaration, Peter stepped down from the boat and began walking on the water toward Jesus. At this moment, though, the gale-force winds on the lake continued and distracted Peter (vs. 30).
Suddenly, “doubt” (vs. 31) replaced Peter’s “faith.” Indeed, he became so preoccupied with the strength of the “wind” (vs. 30) that he felt anxious.
Peter’s apprehension was so intense that he shrieked, “Lord, save me!” The same Greek verb rendered “cried out” is used both here and in verse 26. This observation suggests that the Peter (along with the rest of the Twelve) remained in a state of alarm, even if it was temporarily masked by exuberance at seeing Jesus.
At once, Jesus extended His hand and grabbed Peter. The Savior followed this action by censuring Peter for having so “little faith” (vs. 31). Jesus also questioned why Peter ever doubted the Lord’s ability to protect and preserve any of His disciples from danger. Rather than becoming faint-hearted, Peter should have remained courageous and resolute in drawing closer to Jesus. Once the two arrived at the watercraft, the previously violent “wind” (vs. 32) immediately died down.
Mark 6:51 indicates that the Twelve were utterly astonished by what had just transpired. Verse 52 links the episode back to the preceding incident involving Jesus’ miraculous feeding of thousands of people. Readers learn that the Twelve failed to obtain any insight from it, and for this reason their “hearts were hardened.”
Here we see a mixture of both doubt and faith within the disciples. For instance, Matthew 14:33 clarifies that the Twelve prostrated themselves in worship before Jesus. Such a response is remarkable given that the disciples were monotheistic Jews (believing in only one God).
Also, while the Twelve bowed down in adoration, they declared Jesus to be the “Son of God” (vs. 33). This title means that He, as the divine-human Messiah, exercised the power and authority of the Creator (Job 9:8; Ps. 77:19). Noteworthy is the fact that Jesus neither denied the statement nor rebuked His followers for making it.
The conclusion I reached in my previous blogpost merits repeating here. In stepping back from what has been said, it is clear that there are various incidental details in the parallel Gospel accounts that correlate well with one another.
A superficial reading might suggest that the particulars appear to be random. Even so, an objective analysis of the data indicates that this explanation fails to account adequately for the jigsaw-puzzle-like way in which all the information fits seamlessly together. It is therefore difficult to explain how even a small portion of the coincidences could have arisen through a deliberate fabrication, embellishment, or outright distortion of facts.
Consequently, the most logical conclusion is that the Gospel writers either were close to the events when they took place (such as Matthew and John) or had access to actual eyewitnesses of those events (such as Mark and Luke). In both cases, as deduced from the above discourse, these writers were accurately reporting what happened.
Short bio: Dan completed his doctoral studies at North-West University. He is widely published and has a particular interest in intertextuality between the testaments, Biblical ethics and spiritual care in professional settings. Dan has extensive experience in tertiary education and a passion for scholarly excellence.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.