Divinity of Jesus

Do the Synoptic Gospels Portray Jesus as God? Rethinking Jesus Walking on the Water

February 6, 2023

Do the Synoptic Gospels Portray Jesus as God? Rethinking Jesus Walking on the Water

February 6, 2023

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:

  • Job 9:8: The Lord is the one “walking on the sea” (περιπατῶν … ἐπὶ θαλάσσης)
  • Mark 6:48: Jesus is the one “walking on the sea” (περιπατῶν ἐπὶ θαλάσσης)

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:

  • God said to Elijah: “’Go and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold the Lord passed by.” 1 Kings 19:11
  • Mark 6:48: “He meant to pass them by”

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.

  • “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Exodus 3:14
  • “Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘I AM. Do not be afraid.’” Mark 6:50

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.

  • “He made the storms be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Psalm 107:28
  • “And the wind ceased” Mark 6:51

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.

 

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