Matthew Chapter 14:24-36

This, technically, is part of the Feeding 5,000 story. If you’ll recall, when last we saw our heroes, Jesus was alone on the mountain, and the disciples were heading off in the boat.

24 τὸ δὲ πλοῖον ἤδη σταδίους πολλοὺς ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ἀπεῖχεν, βασανιζόμενον ὑπὸ τῶν κυμάτων, ἦν γὰρ ἐναντίος ὁ ἄνεμος.

25 τετάρτῃ δὲ φυλακῇ τῆς νυκτὸς ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς περιπατῶν ἐπὶ τὴν θάλασσαν.

And the boat had moved many stadia from land, it was tested by the waves, for there was a contrary wind. (25) In the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking upon the sea. 

First, a “stadion” was the length of a “stadium”. The latter is the Latinized form of the former. A stadion was about 200 yards long, a bit shorter than a furlong. This was considered the premiere event of the Olympic games; well, this and the four-horse chariot race. Years were often designated as the one in which Pentathelos won the stadion, or Hippodromos won the four-horse chariot. So “many stadia” is an indeterminate length. Now, the question is “how wide is the Sea of Galilee?” Well, in verse 34, we’re told that they landed in Genesseret, which is on the western shore. The northeastern part of the shore line looks to be the most empty per a map of the ancient sea. So from there back across to Gennesseret looks to be about 10 km. So the boat could simultaneously be many stadia from both shores. Mark, in fact, says it was ‘in the middle of the sea’.

Now, comparing this story to Mark, there are a couple of things to note. First, Matthew makes a liar out of me. After the big rant about adding the detail of dropping Jesus in a desolate place, here Matthew leaves out the detail of the disciples “straining at the oars”, which would be necessary if the wind was against them. There are ways to sail into the wind, but these were not sophisticated boats. Oars were sufficient when the wind was absent or contrary. So why is the detail dropped? I have no good explanation. Perhaps Matthew thought he could tell a better story than Mark. Or perhaps he saw no need to repeat every detail; although adding them was quite appropriate. Why did he drop Salome’s name from the story of the Baptist’s death?

Finally, in Roman times, the night was divided into four watches, each of three hours (although sometimes it’s only three, starting at 9:00 pm, rather than 6:00 pm.) So this was the last watch of the night, somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 am. Either very late, or very early. Given that they see Jesus at some distance from the boat, closer to 6:00 would make more sense. And it would depend on the season; I’m guessing warmer weather based on the picnic they just had, so the light would come earlier than in the cold months. Interestingly, Mark says that this occurred “when evening had come”, rather than nearer to dawn. These are the sorts of discrepancies that are truly puzzling. The language overlaps between Mark and Matthew, and Matthew and Luke certainly suggest that the later evangelist had an actual written copy of the previous, or both previous evangelists in the case of Luke (the notion of Q notwithstanding). So if they’re using remarkably similar words, why are they mixing up the details? If the wordings weren’t so close, we could easily ascribe it to different oral traditions, in which case difference in detail would be completely understandable. But the wordings are close, so these differences are difficult to explain.

24 Navicula autem iam multis stadiis a terra distabat, fluctibus iactata; erat enim contrarius ventus.

25 Quarta autem vigilia noctis venit ad eos ambulans supra mare.

26 οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης περιπατοῦντα ἐταράχθησαν λέγοντες ὅτι Φάντασμά ἐστιν, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ φόβου ἔκραξαν.

27 εὐθὺς δὲ ἐλάλησεν [ὁ Ἰησοῦς] αὐτοῖς λέγων, Θαρσεῖτε, ἐγώ εἰμι: μὴ φοβεῖσθε.

The disciples seeing him walking about upon the water were disturbed, saying that “It is a phantasm”, and out of fear they cried out. (27) Immediately he [ Jesus ] spoke to them, saying “Buck up, it is I. Do not fear.” 

I would dearly love to know, truly know, what is meant here by “phantasm”. This is a strict transliteration of the Greek word, a simple and straightforward substitution of Latin/English letters for their Greek counterpart. So it’s like dropping the German word “geist” into the middle of an English sentence, untranslated. Most of us would get it, but we may not know all the implications. We would mentally translate it as “ghost” and go about our business. But that’s not to say we would truly understand what the author meant. So it is here, I believe.

Yes, we can parse out the word, but that does not mean we truly understand the concept behind it. For example, I once read a really interesting argument that, to Elizabethan audiences, the ghost of Hamlet’s father would not be understood as a ghost in the sense that we understand ghost, but as an apparition of the devil. What did the Graeco-Roman world understand a ghost to be; or the Jewish world? This is not a simple question. I’ve read enough about magic and the occult as understood in different periods of time to know that the same term can have different emphases, or even meanings, in different times and places. This would be beneficial in this context because it could shed some light on the idea of an afterlife; that is what “ghost” means to us: a post-mortem event. Jesus, however, was not dead yet, so “phantasm” would mean…what, exactly? Sort of an astral projection? Jesus’ disembodied spirit? These are the sorts of questions one asks when one starts to take the mechanics of such “supernatural” occurrences seriously, and try to figure out how something is possible, what it implies. A ghost is the disembodied spirit of someone dead, returning from the afterlife, or never having fully passed to the afterlife. This entails that we have a non-corporeal aspect, and that, while non-corporeal, it can be visible under certain circumstances. But there is also the idea that “supernatural” may only mean we haven’t figured out the natural cause.

Sorry, couldn’t resist “buck up”. But that’s really only a colloquial version of “Take heart!”. Which is a colloquial version of “Have courage!”. 

26 Discipuli autem, videntes eum supra mare ambulantem, turbati sunt dicentes: “Phantasma est”, et prae timore clamaverunt.

27 Statimque Iesus locutus est eis dicens: “Habete fiduciam, ego sum; nolite timere!”.

28 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν, Κύριε, εἰ σὺ εἶ, κέλευσόν με ἐλθεῖν πρὸς σὲ ἐπὶ τὰ ὕδατα:

29 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Ἐλθέ. καὶ καταβὰς ἀπὸ τοῦ πλοίου [ὁ] Πέτρος περιεπάτησεν ἐπὶ τὰ ὕδατα καὶ ἦλθεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν.

Answering him Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you upon the water.” (29) And he (Jesus) said, “Come”. And getting out of the boat, Peter walked about on the water and came towards Jesus.” 

This part of the story is only in Matthew. Did Matthew have a source–the so-called ‘M’ material? Or is this the product of Matthew’s own creativity? Hard to say, but my inclination is the latter. Too many–far too many–scholars treat the evangelists as scribes, or compilers, who lack talent as authors. Of course, to admit that the evangelists made up elements, or entire stories, is to admit that they did not come from Jesus. Mark, I think, was probably closest to being a compiler who added very little of his own. Luke and John, were very creative authors. Luke in particular does not get the credit he deserves: The Good Samaritan, The Good Shepherd, The Prodigal Son…the list goes on. Some of the most beloved and widely-recognized stories from the NT come from Luke, and Luke alone.

In the previous section I was close to contradicting myself–or at least appearing to do so–when discussing which stories got lengthened, and which got shortened. Here, I think, we get the answer. Mark’s long stories get shortened; Matthew adds details in specific places. That’s not a contradiction. Matthew added an enormous amount of material, of course, but in different ways. Some was whole cloth, such as the Sermon on the Mount; here, it’s more like a patch, or more like a bit of embroidery. Here’s a theory: dropping things like Salome’s name don’t change the direction of the story. Adding a detail such as Jesus being dropped in an empty stretch of shore doesn’t change the direction, either. It does, however, add emphasis. Adding this piece about Peter leaving the boat does add a new dimension to this story; Jesus not only has the power to defy the laws of nature, but he as the power to give this power to others, This both emphasizes and extends the point. These are the areas where Matthew adds to Mark; overall, they increase the stature of Jesus. That is when Matthew adds to the story, and that is how legends grow, and how the subject becomes increasingly larger-than-life. And some of the omissions serve this purpose too. By omitting that Jesus could do no miracles in his hometown, Matthew eliminates a perceived limit on Jesus’ power. By omitting the bits in Mark 3 that his audience thought that Jesus had taken leave of his senses, and that his family felt compelled to come rescue, Matthew eliminates another perceived limit to Jesus’ stature. 

As for shortening the story of the Gerasene demonaic, or omitting Salome’s name, it’s almost as if he figured that Mark told those stories in full, and so another full retelling didn’t add to the record. As such, some of the details could be eliminated and there would be no loss to the tradition. Recently, I saw someone question why Mark survived as a book. Let’s face it: Matthew does re-use almost all of Mark, so the result is that Mark becomes pretty-much redundant. Or worse. Mark includes some unflattering details about Jesus and the disciples, so he’s arguably worse than redundant. I don’t recall if this was addressed, but the corollary or the converse to this question of Mark’s survival is, if Mark survived as an independent work, why didn’t Q? I would suggest that Mark survived because he was seen as the original, the basis for the Jesus story. He was the foundation. As such, perhaps he was held in a degree of reverence, despite the warts he gives to the portrait of Jesus. Given, this, why wouldn’t Q also survive, as the foundation document for Jesus’ teaching, just as Mark was the foundation document of Jesus’ life and ministry? Why didn’t Q survive? The short answer is because it never existed in the first place. 

28 Respondens autem ei Petrus dixit: “ Domine, si tu es, iube me venire ad te super aquas ”.

29 At ipse ait: “ Veni! ”. Et descendens Petrus de navicula ambulavit super aquas et venit ad Iesum.

30 βλέπων δὲ τὸν ἄνεμον [ἰσχυρὸν] ἐφοβήθη, καὶ ἀρξάμενος καταποντίζεσθαι ἔκραξεν λέγων, Κύριε, σῶσόν με.

31 εὐθέως δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ἐπελάβετο αὐτοῦ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ὀλιγόπιστε, εἰς τί ἐδίστασας;

Seeing the [ strong ] wind, he became afraid, and beginning to plunge into the sea he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me.” (31) And immediately Jesus taking hold of his [ Peter’s ] hand, he lifted him up and said to him, “Ye of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Just and interesting observation: “seeing” the wind. A bit of poetic license there. Of course, what he saw were the effects of the wind, but let’s not get too pedantic here.

More important is Peter’s lack of faith. Of course, Peter only did the human thing: he freaked out. Actually, this is a bit like Wile E. Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons. He could run off a cliff and keep going, until the moment he looked down and realized that he was standing on thin air. Only then did he fall. And so it is with Peter. He believed in Jesus, so when Jesus told him to come, Peter jumped over the side and walked on the water. But when he thought about it, believing–or understanding–that people don’t walk on water, he began to sink. Jesus could do it because he was divine. Peter couldn’t, because he wasn’t. Of course, he could because Jesus allowed it, but Peter’s faith–or lack thereof–didn’t allow it.

In a way, this substitutes for the part of Mark 6 where Jesus couldn’t perform any miracles because of the lack of faith. And so Peter demonstrates this here. But the onus is more squarely on Peter; Jesus grants the power, it’s Peter’s fault he failed. The lack of faith is key in both places, but here it’s not Jesus who is limited. So this is another reason to add this part of the story, to demonstrate the need for faith, and to demonstrate what can happen if one’s faith is strong enough.

30 Videns vero ventum validum timuit et, cum coepisset mergi, clamavit dicens: “ Domine, salvum me fac! ”.

31 Continuo autem Iesus extendens manum apprehendit eum et ait illi: “ Modicae fidei, quare dubitasti? ”.

32 καὶ ἀναβάντων αὐτῶν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον ἐκόπασεν ὁ ἄνεμος.

33 οἱ δὲ ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες, Ἀληθῶςθεοῦ υἱὸς εἶ.

And climbing up into the boat, the wind ceased. (33) Those in the boat prostrated themselves before him (Jesus), saying “You are truly the son of God”.

This last declaration of the disciples was also added by Matthew. In Mark, they were simply amazed. So here again we have a new detail that serves to elevate Jesus, to emphasize that this is no mere mortal, to set Jesus apart. I have one problem. What does “son of God”, or “Son of God”, or “son of (a) god” mean? To be blunt, we understand, completely, what the last one means. Why? Because it’s so common in Graeco-Roman myth and culture. All of the great Greek heroes were sons of gods or goddesses. Such a being was not immortal, but was certainly a cut above the rest of humanity, superhuman in some sense of the word.

But what about the other two? We Christians have been dancing around for the past 2,000 years pretending that we understand the term, when I don’t think we do. Not really. What is the prayer that Jesus taught us*? Here’s a hint: it starts “Our father”. Not “Your father”, or “His father”, in reference to Jesus, but first person plural. “Our father”. And did not Paul state that we are all children of God?( Literally, he said “sons”, but that’s an archaic grammatical rule and nothing more.) “Our father”; “children of God”. How are these different from Son of God? These expressions entail that we are all a son/daughter of God. Why is this a special category for Jesus? Greek was written in ALLCAPITALSWITHNOSPACESBETWEENWORDS. As such, we cannot glean any insight from whether Matthew capitalized “Son” or not. And the difference between “son of” and “Son of” is marked, and very important. But it’s a difference that did not exist when Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, & c. wrote.

How did one become a son of God? Perhaps not the same way that one became a son of a god. The latter process was very straightforward, following the rules of human procreation. How do we get to be a son of God? Has that actually been described? Were Adam and Eve the son and daughter of God? No. They were created from the dust of the earth, animated by the divine breath. But wasn’t this the genesis of Jesus? The creature of dust–Mary–was breathed into, so that the divine breath animated a child in her womb. Yes, there is a difference, but is it a distinction that actually makes a difference? So can we truly say that Jesus was the Son of God because the sacred breath conceived him, but Adam was not the Son of God because the sacred breath animated mere dust?

Now that I’m getting started here, I realize that this is not something that can be summed up in the middle of a comment. Regrettably, I must leave the topic for the time being. I will revisit it, at length, I suspect, as a special topic. I haven’t done one of those in a very long while.

* For some reason or another, James P Tabor claims that this was actually handed to Jesus from John the Dunker. I’m not at all sure what his argument for this position might be. In The Jesus Dynasty, he presents this as settled, which indicates to me that this is a thesis he had argued in a previous work that I have not read. Nor will I ever read it, based on the absolutely abysmal understanding of historical process I found in The Jesus Dynasty. Professor Cole in GRH 201–Greek History To The Death Of Alexander–would have failed me if I had handed in an essay so utterly devoid of historical reasoning.

32 Et cum ascendissent in naviculam, cessavit ventus.

33 Qui autem in navicula erant, adoraverunt eum dicentes: “Vere Filius Dei es!”.

34 Καὶ διαπεράσαντες ἦλθον ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν εἰς Γεννησαρέτ.

35 καὶ ἐπιγνόντες αὐτὸν οἱ ἄνδρες τοῦ τόπου ἐκείνου ἀπέστειλαν εἰς ὅλην τὴν περίχωρον ἐκείνην, καὶ προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ πάντας τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας,

36 καὶ παρεκάλουν αὐτὸν ἵνα μόνον ἅψωνται τοῦ κρασπέδου τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ: καὶ ὅσοι ἥψαντο διεσώθησαν.

And having crossed, they went upon land to Gennesaret. (35) And the men from that place recognizing him (Jesus) sent to the entire surrounding countryside, and they brought to him all those having maladies. (36) And they beseeched him so that only they may touch the hem of his garment. And howsoever many touched were preserved. 

Gennesaret is on the eastern shore of the lake, not terribly far south of Caphernaum. It’s well within credibility that Jesus was known there. This whole story, the landing in Gennesaret, the healings, and the bit about touching the hem of his garment are all in Mark. Once again, the story is shortened somewhat. Matthew, generally, does not dwell on the miracles the way Mark did. This is an interesting distinction to note, since it indicates that Matthew was much less interested in a wonder-worker than he was in the Son/son of God.

34 Et cum transfretassent, venerunt in terram Gennesaret.

35 Et cum cognovissent eum viri loci illius, miserunt in universam regionem illam et obtulerunt ei omnes male habentes,

36 et rogabant eum, ut vel fimbriam vestimenti eius tangerent; et, quicumque tetigerunt, salvi facti sunt.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 11, 2015, in Chapter 14, gospel commentary, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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