Friday, December 16, 2011

Walking on Fluid Myth

John the Baptist was beheaded, and/or Jesus gave some circular logic to the Pharisees, leading into the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand men with just a little bread and two fish, which unites all four Gospel accounts. But only for an instant. Matthew, Mark, and John continue on together, while Luke skips the following tale entirely.

Walking on Fluid Myth
Give a man enough rope, and he will hang himself. That common proverb I take to mean that if you let a guilty man continue to speak and act, he will incriminate himself. The same could be said of the Scriptures, and the guilt is that they have been constructed from fiction as opposed to the facts which they claim to have. Often times, this can become obvious with just the smallest amount of scrutiny, such as we see in the anecdote of Jesus walking on the water. Of course, it is also possible that this truth was not meant to be factual, so we will conclude with a slightly different perspective to make it real again.

The anecdote of Jesus walking on the water is found in Matthew 14:22-36, Mark 6:45-56, and John 6:16-24. They are all a little different, as you might expect from three different witnesses, but the differences are a little too divergent to be the tales of actual witnesses. Let us take a look, one by one, starting with Mark.

Mark 6:45-47 states that "immediately" after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus sent His disciples on a boat on the Sea of Galilee to head towards Bethsaida in the evening. Meanwhile, He dismissed the crowd and prayed on a mountain top. Next, in Mark 6:48-50:
He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night He went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw Him walking on the lake, they thought He was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw Him and were terrified... NIV
So Jesus was walking on the water; quite a miracle! Consider that walking on anything requires some serious physics; namely "normal" force and friction.

Gravity keeps you on the surface where you are walking, but that surface also must hold you up, pushing you in a force equal and opposite to your weight. This force is known as the normal force in engineer-speak, which is impossible for water to do in a liquid state when it is free to be displaced, at least when we are speaking of a supporting a human foot at walking speed.

Friction is what prevents your feet from sliding out from underneath you when you walk and allows you to propel yourself forward. If you have ever tried to walk on ice, you know what happens when you have little friction. How much friction do you think the water of a lake has at its surface? Not much. Water does have considerable fluid friction which allows you to swim, but it is very difficult to swim just by skimming your hands across the surface.

I know, I know, it is a miracle, so physics do not apply. Yet they are still important to consider. Why? Because walking on water requires a complete abatement of physics. It is not that Jesus was magically lighter, or the surface of the water became solid for Him, it is that He was locomotive in an impossible manner for humans. So Jesus may as well have been flying out to them, flapping His arms like a bird, as opposed to walking.

Flying would have been a more logical transport method too, given that the verses tell us that strong winds were blowing which made the surface of the lake very rough (John 6:18). Assuming that Jesus did walk on the water, it must have been like trying to walk on a giant water bed which had an internal wave machine. It would have been a miracle just to stand upright in that tumult, let alone walk in a coherent fashion.

Physics aside, Mark has Jesus about ready to walk right by the disciples as they struggled in the boat! It appears that He would have done so too, if it was not for the fact that seeing Jesus scared the disciples enough to yell in fear.

Mark 6:50 continues on with Jesus calming down His disciples, leading to the next pair of interesting verses in Mark 6:51-52:
Then He climbed into the boat with [the disciples], and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. NIV
The "about the loaves" is a reference to the feeding of the five thousand. According to Mark, the disciples did not understand that the feeding was a miracle from God; that Jesus wielded the power of God and that they should have faith that God would provide for them. Why? Because their hearts were hardened. That is, the hearts of the disciples, the guys who had given up life to follow Jesus! Mark is the only Gospel to suggest that the hearts of the disciples were hard, doing so here and Mark 8:17.

It is hard to imagine that the disciples would have hard hearts keeping them from understanding Jesus' power and incarnation, given that, according to Mark, Jesus had previously exorcized a demon (who yelled that Jesus was Jesus was God's Holy One), healed many people including Simon's/Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-34), healed a leper, healed a paralytic man, healed a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:1-6), calmed a storm, sent demons into swine, and raised a girl from the dead. Beyond that, Jesus also had given the disciples power to drive out demons and heal people when they went out on their first mission!

The storm is immediately calmed when Jesus is in the boat. Mark 6:53-56 closes out the story with the boat landing, and people coming from all around to be healed by Jesus. Those who even only touched Jesus' cloak were healed as well.

In Matthew's version, Matthew does not mention Jesus being about ready to walk past His disciples, but other than that, the story is basically the same up to when Jesus approaches the boat (Matthew 14:22-27). Then it changes completely.

In Matthew 14:28-31, Simon/Peter calls out to Jesus, who then tells Peter to walk out to Him. Simon/Peter does start walking out, but then has doubts, sinks into the water, and yells for Jesus to save him. Jesus grabs Simon/Peter's arm and scolds him for doubting.

OK, so, it is important to remember that Simon/Peter was a fisherman who knew how to swim (Matthew 4:18, Mark 1:16, Luke 5:5, John 21:7). A fisherman afraid of drowning is about as likely as an eagle being afraid of heights. This little snippet seems to be utter fiction. The question is why?

The answer may come from Matthew 14:32-33. In bold contrast to the hardened hearts found in Mark's disciples, Matthew's disciples worship Jesus as the Son of God after He got back in the boat and the winds calmed down. It could be that Matthew had a copy of the story which was similar to Mark's, but he did not like the idea of the disciples having hard hearts. So instead, Matthew paints the scene as a budding of the faith of the disciples in Jesus.

Matthew 14:34-36 then concludes exactly like Mark 6:53-56.

John's version of the miracle is abbreviated, lacking details about the time bracket when Jesus came to His disciples, the hard hearts, Simon's/Peter's wet walk, and the generic healing miracles at the end of the tale, which is replaced by focus on the crowd which was left behind (John 6:22-24). This odd focus on the crowd left behind is a mark of fiction, because the eyewitnesses of the Gospel accounts were with Jesus. These differences will also come to mind a little later in this study.

John does add one more miracle, in that as soon as Jesus gets in the boat, it immediate appears on the shore where they were heading (John 6:21). (I need to get a Jesus installed into my car!)

It is interesting to note that Luke not only edited this anecdote completely out of his Gospel, but also went so far as to stage the feeding of the five thousand in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) to avoid needing a boat trip. Perhaps Luke found this story a little too far fetched as well, or perhaps Jesus flaunting His power by working non-beneficial miracles was too far out of His character for Luke to accept.

A Different Perspective
There are some scholars throughout history which have claimed that the stories of the Gospels were never meant to be taken as literal history. Instead, they were supposed to be read as allegories. If so, we would expect for the stories to have some gaps in logic and incongruities within a literal context (which there are sometimes) and the appearance of symbolism (which there is sometimes). If so, the truth which they were meant to convey was transcendent of any specific, real event.

Consider that according to Matthew 14:25 and Mark 6:48, Jesus went out to His disciples during the fourth watch. In Roman security, there were four, three-hour watches for the night. So the fourth watch is the watch just before daybreak, just before sunrise, just before the epiphany of realization brought about through the light.

Jesus, after meditating in prayer alone (Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46), came down to the disciples in a fully enlightened state, able to walk on water; water being a symbol of the fluidly transient spiritual world, as opposed to the solidity of the material world. In fact, Matthew 14:26 and Mark 6:49 even go as far as claiming the disciples thought Jesus was a true spirit, in the form of a ghost.

In Mark's version, the disciples are simply amazed, because, as the fourth watch time reference implies, they were on the cusp of enlightened, but not quite there yet. I suspect Matthew's scene with Simon/Peter was an insertion into the story by a later author who may not have been in tune with the allegory. However it could be that Matthew more specifically makes the case that the enlightenment regarded absolute faith in God, and that Simon/Peter was just shy of achieving it due to doubts creeping in.

The disciples had struggled to make any headway against the winds on the lake (Matthew 14:24, Mark 6:48), but when Jesus gets into the boat, the winds immediately calm down (Matthew 14:32, Mark 6:51). So the disciples, still very much as material men, struggled greatly to make progress on this spiritual journey by themselves. However, with Jesus, with the guidance of someone who had already attained this enlightenment, the journey became much easier.

You may have noticed a lack of references to John's account here. There are some critics who have suggested that the Gospel of John was written partially with the purpose of fighting the growing Gnostic movement, which had held to concepts that the message of Jesus was about enlightenment, and special knowledge had been attained by the disciples once they had attained a certain level of spiritual consciousness. Curiously, and in support of that theory, we find most of the spiritual enlightenment symbolism vacant from John; Jesus does not pray on the mountain, there is no reference to the fourth watch (and actually it appears as though it would be more like the young side of the middle of the night), there is no mention of Jesus being thought to be a ghost, and, finally, Jesus does not make the journey easier, He makes the journey over as soon as He gets in the boat. The spiritual message is effectively neutered.


  1. This is an enormously interesting post. Let's see if I can make myself understood as to why.

    There are two camps of Bible interpretation: (1) literally historic, (2) all allegory.

    Let's be real, the literalists also claim allegory when it's convenient. But you have basically given me many reasons to believe the NT doesn't work either way.

    It's just an awful piece of in-congruent writing that doesn't pass any literary tests. In other words, useless. Christians make it work by manipulating it, twisting it, explaining it away. But no matter how you see it it DOESN'T ADD UP. It just doesn't. It isn't worth anyone's time. It doesn't even fit in the category of "good myth."

  2. Yeah exfundy, as I see it now, I too think that it just does not add up. I suspect that there may be some truth behind the theory that some of the anecdotes were meant to be taken as allegory, but they have been merged with narrative which, by all appearances, was meant to be taken literally too. It is really a mess when you try to hold everything together into one cohesive story.