Musings on Mark: Mark vs Matthew vs John on Jesus Walking on Water

One of the few stories shared by both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John is the story of Jesus walking upon water. (Well, almost all of the Synoptics – Luke omits it.) Each version is different in one way or another.

The Markan Version

The Markan version (Mark 6:45-52) comes on the heels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (6:30-44). Jesus forces the disciples into their boat and tells them to head to Bethsaida. He then dismisses the crowd and heads up to a mountain to pray. When evening comes and while he is still on the land, Jesus sees that the disciples are having difficulty crossing the lake due to adverse winds. He then walks towards them on the sea and intends to pass by them. The disciples think he is a ghost and cry out in terror. But Jesus tells them to not fear and identifies himself. He then gets into the boat with them and the wind died down. The scene ends with the classically Markan motif of the disciples’ inability to grasp what they’ve just witnessed and grounds that inability in their hardened hearts, especially with regards to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.

Jesus and the disciples end up in Gennesaret (6:53) and not Bethsaida.

The Matthean Version

The Matthean version (Matthew 14:22-33) also comes on the heels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (14:13-21). Jesus forces the disciples into their boat to go to the other side of the lake. He then dismisses the crowd and heads up to a mountain to pray. When evening comes and while he is still on the land, the boat is far from the shore and the disciples are having difficulty with adverse winds. Jesus then walks towards them on the sea. The disciples think he is a ghost and cry out in terror. But Jesus tells them not to fear and identifies himself.

Matthew’s version includes a scene not found in the Gospel of Mark. While in the Markan version Jesus gets into the boat upon identifying himself, in Matthew’s Gospel Peter responds to Jesus’ identifying of himself and asks to come out onto the turbulent waters. Jesus tells him to join him but as soon as Peter notices the strong wind he becomes afraid and starts to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus takes his hand, turning the episode into a lesson about faith. Jesus and Peter then get into the boat and the wind died down. The scene ends not with a statement about the disciples’ inability to grasp what they’ve just witnessed but with worshipping Jesus and declaring him to be the Son of God.

Jesus and the disciples then end up in Gennesaret (14:34).

The Johannine Version 

The Johannine version (John 6:16-21) also comes on the heels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14). Following that miracle, the crowds wanted to make Jesus king and so he heads up to a mountain so he can get away from them (6:15). When evening comes, the disciples head down to the sea and get into their boat to head to Capernaum. As they are on the sea, it becomes dark and a strong wind begins to blow. When they are three or four miles into their journey, they see Jesus walking on the water and coming toward them. This terrifies them. But Jesus tells them not to fear and identifies himself. The scene ends with the disciples wanting to bring Jesus into the boat and the boat “immediately” reaching the shore near Capernaum.

Jesus and the disciples then end up in Capernaum (6:24-25).

So Many Differences!

Reconciling these stories is an impossible task and here are some reasons why:

  • The Markan version ends with the disciples not understanding what they had just seen (Mark 6:51-52) but the Matthean version ends with the disciples worshipping Jesus and declaring him to be the Son of God (Matthew 14:33).
  • The Matthean version includes a story about Peter (Matthew 14:28-32) that neither the Markan or Johannine versions have.
  • In the Markan version, only Jesus gets into the boat with them (Mark 6:51) whereas in the Matthean we are told that “they got into the boat” since Peter was outside of it due to the added narrative (Matthew 14:32). And in John it doesn’t seem that Jesus gets into the boat at all, merely that the disciples wanted him to get in and that it was apparently unnecessary since they were already at the shore near Capernaum (John 6:21).
  • In the Markan version, Jesus “intended to pass [the disciples] by” (Mark 6:48; a topic we will discuss in a future post). But this detail is omitted by both Matthew and John.
  • In the Markan version, the disciples in their boat are apparently close enough to shore that Jesus can see them struggling against the wind (Mark 6:48) but in the Matthean version the boat was “far from land” and there is no statement about Jesus seeing their struggle (Matthew 14:24). The Johannine version makes this more explicit by stating that the disciples were three or four miles into their journey (John 6:19).
  • In the Markan version, the disciples were to go to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45) but end up in Gennesaret (Mark 6:53) whereas in John they are headed to Capernaum (John 6:16) and end up in Capernaum (John 6:24-25). In Matthew the disciples are to go to “the other side” of the sea (Matthew 14:22) and end up in Gennesaret (Matthew 14:34).
  • In the Markan and Matthean versions, Jesus dismisses the crowd and heads up to the mountain alone to pray (Mark 6:45-46, Matthew 14:22-23). But in the Johannine version he goes up the mountain to escape the crowd trying to make him king (John 6:15).

It is clear then that these are not stories intended to be read as complimentary to one another. They can’t be. But what this does teach us is that the Gospel writers were not giving us literal history. Rather, they were painting their own portraits of Jesus. If the details in their version contradicted previous versions, who cared? They were intended to address the community of which they were a part, not anyone else’s.

And that should only bother the inerrantists.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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