If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s the idea that John presents Jesus as divine and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) present Jesus as a mere man. And when you combine all the Gospels together, only then do you end up with a vision of Jesus as both God and man.

In fact, it is precisely this characterization of the matter that makes people doubt the historicity of John. It makes it seem like folks originally viewed Jesus as just a normal guy, but then, over time, their views evolved more and more until you end up with something like the Gospel of John. Thus,  you can’t trust this later, more-divine version of Jesus. You have to go back to the earlier (and purportedly more human) version of Jesus in the Synoptics.

To be sure, there’s a sliver of truth to this characterization (which is why it has survived so long). It is true that John’s Christology is certainly more straightforward and unequivocal. One might even argue that it is more “developed”—depending on what is meant by that term. Indeed, John’s portrait of Jesus is unique in many ways, which also explains why his Gospel is so well-loved.

But it does not follow that the Synoptic Gospels somehow deny Jesus is God, or portray Jesus as merely and only human. Instead, I think it is more accurate to say that the Synoptics present Jesus as God in ways that are less overt than John, but are nevertheless clear about his identity as the God of Israel.

As just one example, let’s take the well-known story of Jesus walking on the water. And let’s consider that story as it is told in Mark’s Gospel—the very Gospel that critics argue presents Jesus as the least divine and the most human. Here’s the text:

47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded (Mark 6:47-51)

Now, we can begin by acknowledging that walking on the water is a pretty impressive miracle in its own right. And we might think that’s enough to show the divinity of Jesus. But critics would fire back (and rightly so) that merely doing an impressive miracle doesn’t make one divine. Didn’t Moses do impressive miracles? Are we suggesting he’s divine? Of course not.

But there’s more to the story than just the impressiveness of the miracle. When we dive into the particulars we quickly realize this story contains a number of features that connect the actions (and words) of Jesus to the actions (and words) of Yahweh in the Old Testament.  The connections are impressive enough, in my opinion (and the opinion of others), to suggest that Jesus is being presented as the God of Israel.

1.  In the OT, it is Yahweh who “walks on the sea”

If you think about it, walking on water is a bit of a random miracle. Why would Jesus perform this task in front of the disciples, as opposed to just, say, transporting himself into the boat in a miraculous fashion? No doubt, it is because of the way this action is identified with the God of Israel:

The parallels of the Greek construction here are particularly impressive. Jesus is performing the actions of Yahweh.

2. In the OT, it is Yahweh that “passes by” people when he reveals himself

One of the strangest parts of the account in Mark is the statement that Jesus intended to “pass by” the disciples. This seems odd at first glance. Is Jesus on his way to somewhere else? But again, the OT links are notable here. At numerous times in the OT, Yahweh reveals himself by “passing by” someone:

3. In the OT, it is Yahweh that calls himself “I AM”

In case one is not persuaded by the links above, Jesus’s language of self-declaration here is quite significant. While passing them by, Jesus invokes the divine name: “I AM” (ἐγὼ εἰμί).  It is not evident in most English translations because they take ἐγὼ εἰμί as Jesus merely saying, “Hey guys, it’s me.” But, the context we’ve discussed above suggests Jesus is doing more. He’s identifying himself as the LORD.

Curiously, the very feature that is regarded as distinctively Johannine (“I AM”) is invoked in a Synoptic Gospel.

4. In the OT, it is Yahweh who calms the wind and waves

The last stage of this miracle should not be overlooked. Jesus calms the winds and the waves, similar to how he did so earlier in Mark 4:35-41. Again, this provides a direct link to the way Yahweh is portrayed in the OT.

In sum, there’s more going on here than just a miracle. It’s a miracle that has a number of distinguishing features that link the actions of Jesus to the actions of Yahweh in ways that cannot be chalked up to mere coincidence.

What does that mean? That means that Mark’s Jesus is not presented as merely human, while John’s Jesus is presented as fully divine. All four Gospels, in their own distinctive ways, present Jesus as both God and man.


10 Responses

  1. A while ago I started to work through Mark’s Gospel listing the evidence for the divinity of Jesus and by the end of chapter 9 I had found ten of them. I’ve never come across the view that the synoptic gospels portray Jesus as merely human – probably because I never encounter liberals in the church or read their books – and from my researches I can say with confidence that this view is utter tosh.

    And probably the most dramatic moment at which Jesus uses the divine Name from Ex.3:14 (LXX) ‘ἐγὼ εἰμί’ is recorded in Mark 14:62 when he is being questioned by the High Priest. Any idea that Mark presents Jesus as a mere man is blatant falsehood.

  2. On this subject I recommend Simon J Gathercole’s book “The Pre-existent Son”, Grand Rapids, Michigan & Cambridge UK: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006
    Trevor R Allin

  3. Great article. It’s interesting that all of your Synoptic Gospel examples come from Mark, and that Mark’s gospel opens by declaring his express intention to demonstrate Jesus as “the Son of God”.

    Also, how does the Septuagint translation of Job 9:8 compare to the original Greek of Mark 6:48 in terms of “walking on the sea”?

  4. This incident is a nice example that shows how John’s Gospel shows concern that people brought up on the Synoptics weren’t getting the message, so he focuses on things to bring out the deity of Jesus, as the author notes. Yes, walking on water is something a human could do – Peter in fact did for a while. John’s account sharpens how it can be seen as the incarnate version of Israel crossing the Red Sea – which in the Palestinian Targums of the Pentateuch, involved the divine Word in the pillar of fire and cloud. The Targum of Isaiah 43 interprets the promise of being with his people “through the waters” historically, of Israel’s Red Sea crossing – which took place at night, amidst a strong wind (two features of the disciples’ sea crossing), so there is added reason to relate the miracle to Isaiah 43 and see the “I am He” of the Gospels as the same as the “I am He” of Isaiah, = “I am YHWH” (Hebrew I am He goes into Greek idiomatically as ego eimi which is what you have in the Gospels). Typically the Targums render the divine “I am He” as “My Word will be for your help,” which is what the Gospels show the Word-become-flesh doing; the Synoptics > saving them from drowning; John > getting to the other side – both features again from Israel’s crossing in Exodus 14. For more see my book the Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology (Baker, 2010), and my 2006 article in the Westminster Theological Journal, The Targum of Isaiah and the Johannine Literature.

  5. I think it’s important to see a distinction between Jesus being identified *with* God, and Jesus being identified *as* God. I think most of your examples could reasonably fall into the “Jesus being identified *with* God” category. I think this uncertainty is one explanation for the “development” in John.

  6. While I agree with point no. 2 — In the OT, it is Yahweh that “passes by” people when he reveals himself, the Shekinah pauses as he passes by, as well. I saw him in a tornado up close as he passed by in it almost thirty years ago.

    But I understand your sentiment in that Yahweh passed by both Moses and Elijah, the very two that Christ Jesus spoke with on the mount. Peter, James, and John were eye witnesses of this encounter.

  7. I think you have posted before about Isaiah 40 being Mark’s starting point in contrast to John’s Genesis 1. Isaiah speaks of the glory of the Lord being revealed & Here is your God (verses 3,5 & 9). Both fit harmoniously with God in redemption history & speak to His use of diversity, personality & choosing whom He will.

    It reminds me of the way DNA/RNA code is imagined as something ordinary that just popped out of the blue. The attempt/desire to explain away the Triune God & Theology is as old or young as the hills.

  8. “Jesus again wants the disciples to understand the epicentre of His reason for coming. His reason for coming was not just to be a great miracle worker, and by being a great miracle worker, relieve suffering of the fall. His purpose was not just to be a great teacher and unfold the truths of the Kingdom. The epicentre of His mission was the cross and the tomb.” Paul Tripp/Mark 9:30-37/What is Greatness?

  9. There is something else about this story that has bugged me. Why did Mark who relies upon the personal memory of Peter as the main source of this gospel account leave Peter out of the picture? Peter calls Mark his son in I Peter 5:13. They are in Rome together. Yet, there is not a hint of Peter walking on the surface of the water that Matthew records. Did Peter tell Mark to leave it out? Why is Peter left out of Mark’s account? I wonder.

  10. I know I have posted a few times.
    And you have chosen Jesus’ walking on water. But here is another.
    In Mark 2:7 the teachers of the law charge Jesus with blasphemy.
    “He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
    With the miracles of Moses, they come after Moses seeks God and pleads for answers, direction etc.
    With Jesus, the miracles come of His own accord.