In the last post in the “Musings on Mark” series we did a brief overview the three different versions of the episode wherein Jesus walks on water that we found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. We noted that there were a number of differences between the two accounts that made it clear there could be no reconciling of them. Today we will dive into the text of Mark 6:45-52 specifically.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Mark’s Gospel that so much of it takes place around the Sea of Galilee. The first eight chapters of the Gospel follow Jesus as he calls the first disciples, exorcises demons, heals the infirmed, and teaches the disciples and the crowds that followed him. All of this takes place in the towns around the Sea of Galilee. In the scene prior to 6:45-52 the disciples are invited by Jesus to go away with him to a secluded location following their own mission of preaching and exorcism in the surrounding villages (6:6b-13, 6:30-32). But they are spotted and as they sail by boat to the “deserted place” the people rush to follow (6:33) so that when Jesus and the disciples arrive on land they are greeted by a large crowd (6:34). In the ensuing narrative (6:35-44) we read how Jesus feeds five thousand men with only five loaves of bread and two fish. It is one of the most impressive of Jesus’ miracles1 and one of his most famous.
Back to the Boat
With the people fed, Jesus tells us his disciples to get back into the boat and make their way to Bethsaida, a town on the northeastern shore of Galilee (6:45). Now, here are a few things to keep in mind: first, the sole reason that Jesus and the disciples left from where they had been in 6:30 to the “deserted place” from which they fed the five thousand was so that they could “rest a while” (6:31), implying they were wearied from their ministry throughout the region (6:7-13, 30); second, they had already sailed from one shore to another; third, they must have spent a considerable amount of time feeding the five thousand; and finally, we are told twice that it was getting late in the day (6:35). And now, as night approaches, Jesus tells them to get back into the boat and head to Bethsaida. Surely the disciples would have been exhausted! That’s Jesus for you.
So the disciples hop into the boat and begin their voyage from the “desolate place” to the town of Bethsaida while Jesus, having dismissed the crowds, heads up the mountain to pray (6:46).3 At this point the reader may be thinking, “With the disciples in their boat headed to Bethsaida and Jesus on land, how is he going to reach Bethsaida?” He could certainly walk there. After all, the people don’t follow him by boat when he sails from one area of the Sea of Galilee to the “deserted place” (6:33). In fact, they do it so quickly that when the disciples arrive they are greeted by the crowd! (6:34) But it this what we should expect? Of course not.
Jesus with the Elf Eyes?
Evening comes and with it sunset. The Markan author then tells us that the boat was still out on the water4 and that Jesus was on land (6:47). He is stressing this fact because of what comes next in the narrative flow. And what comes next is absolutely incredible but it does leave you scratching your head.
Let’s start with the first part of 6:48. The author tells us that Jesus “saw that [the disciples] were straining at the oars against an adverse wind.” Let’s stop for just a moment and think about this. He saw that they were straining? How was he able to see them? There are a couple of possibilities. The first is that, given the context, the disciples weren’t that far from shore and so seeing them would have been difficult but not impossible. Given that there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of time between the moment the disciples leave for Bethsaida and when Jesus seems them, perhaps they were closer than we think. Couple that with the wind working against them, they might not have been but a mile or so out from the shore. And if Jesus is still up on the mountain where he had been praying then he certainly could have seen them.
Or something else may be going on.
In Matthew’s redaction of the Markan story we read that the boat “was far from the land” (Matthew 14:24) and there is nothing about Jesus seeing anyone. Similarly, in the Johannine version of the story (which may have been based upon the Markan version) we are told that the disciples “had rowed about three or four miles” (John 6:19) and that it was dark (John 6:17) but nothing about Jesus seeing them from shore. So both Matthew and John interpreted Mark as meaning the disciples were pretty far from shore by the time Jesus walks out to them but neither of them say anything about Jesus seeing them. And they may have done away with that notion because of how difficult it would be to see anyone given the conditions.
But if Matthew and John are interpreting Mark correctly then it would mean that Mark did believe Jesus saw the disciples rowing far from shore. What do we make of that? Well, it shouldn’t be all that surprising considering what we’ve seen Jesus do prior to this story and what he is about to do in it. Jesus has been given power and authority by virtue of his being the messianic Son of God. He is quite literally driven by the Spirit (cf. Mark 1:12). So seeing the disciples miles from shore in the dark is nothing compared to all the miracles he has already performed and that which is about to in what follows.
In the next “Musings on Mark” we will continue to explore this story, especially the words “He intended to pass them by” (6:48).
1 And it is a true miracle. How can anyone get full off of just bread and fish?
2 From Lane T. Dennis, executive editor, The ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1,894.
3 There are moments in the Gospel of Mark where we see Jesus prefer such solace. Before he embarks on his preaching tour in Galilee we are told (in rather awkward terms) that “[i]n the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (1:35). Similarly, before he his handed over to the chief priests by Judas, Jesus and his disciples go to Gethsemane and it is there a “distressed and agitated” Jesus leaves the disciples behind so he can pray alone to God for escape from his fate (14:32-42).
4 The Greek text literally reads “in [the] middle of the sea” (en mesô tês thalassês) which could be understood to mean that the disciples were out in the middle of the lake. However, it is best understood to mean “simply that the boat was ‘out on the lake’ rather than docked or near the shore” (Rodney J. Decker, Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text [Baylor University Press, 2014], 174).
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.