“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the charges critics like to level at the Scriptures is that they are so riddled with contradictions that they can’t possibly be trusted to convey anything resembling the truth. In most cases this charge is fairly easy to dispatch. Occasionally, though, a thoughtful reading seems to suggest that some of these critics have a point. After all, when there are multiple versions of the same stories – as happens fairly frequently in the Gospels – and the versions seem to be contradictory at so many different points, what are we supposed to do with that? This morning we’re going to start talking about one of Jesus’ most famous miracles: walking on water. Before we get into the details of the event itself, let’s talk about why we think this really happened.
The quick and simple answer to why we think Jesus really walked on the water is because the Bible tells us He did. The trouble is, “the Bible” doesn’t actually tell us anything. You see, too many of us who have spent much time around the church have been taught to think in terms of “the Bible says this” or “the Bible says that.” On its face, that’s a pretty handy justification for why we should follow the various ethical guidelines of the Christian faith. We do this or that because the Bible says. In this way, the Bible is being recognized as the final authority on all such matters (you know, after God).
There’s a catch here, though. Within the pages of our Bibles we can find a number of good and encouraging things which if applied diligently will lead to our personal flourishing and the flourishing of our communities. On the other hand, we can also find things that seem just the opposite. The catch is that “the Bible” doesn’t say any of them. The reason for this is that the Bible as we think of it today is not a book the way we think about other books. That’s a common error we make and are even taught to make when it comes to thinking about the Scriptures. The truth is that the Bible is a collection of ancient documents written by as many as 40 different authors over the span of 1,500 years in three different ancient languages. We don’t have any of the original manuscripts, but we have a sufficient number of copies (and by “sufficient” I mean orders of magnitude more than we have of other trusted ancient documents) to give us a pretty high degree of confidence that we know what was originally written. But while there is a consistent story being woven through all 66 documents, each author brought his own culture and customs and context and style to the table such that you simply cannot treat the whole thing through the lens of one author. Conversely, but equally as true, you cannot treat one author through the lens of the whole thing. What this means is that, again, thinking or speaking in terms of “the Bible says” is meaningless. We need to stop doing it.
Okay, so then, how do we know Jesus walked on water? We believe that because Peter told us He did and he was there. So did and was John. And Matthew too. These were three eye-witnesses who had no reason to make up something like this and who all included details that did not at all fit the pattern of an author of that time who was making something up. Case in point: Mark’s telling of it (using Peter as his source) concludes with the observation that the disciples not only didn’t understand what Jesus did, but instead of opening them up to believing in Him more, it resulted in the hardening of their hearts in disbelief. Why tell a story like this only to make yourself look like a faithless idiot when it was over?
That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that when you read Matthew’s and John’s versions of the story, they present it with enough altered details that it seems like we should throw it out for all the contradictions. What are we supposed to do with this?
We start by stopping to breath for a second. Then we reach for a bit of perspective. The historical case for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is airtight. People try and deny it all the time, of course, but they do so in ignorance. A careful examination of the available evidence points insistently to the fact that the historicity of the resurrection is the only reasonable conclusion. All four Gospel writers include the story of the resurrection. If they all got that right, why would they need to make up something like Jesus walking on water to make Him look even more powerful? If you can predict and pull off your own death and resurrection, of course you can walk on water. If you have that level of control over the natural world and even death itself, causing molecules of water to somehow condense under your feet as you walk such that you stand on top of them instead of sinking through them should be a no brainer. In other words: making up the story about Jesus walking on water just to make Him look good doesn’t make sense.
Well, maybe they did it to make themselves look good. After all, Matthew’s version includes the part about Peter’s getting out of the boat and walking on the water with Jesus. That surely boosted Peter’s stature in the early church. Yes, but Matthew was writing near the time that Peter was martyred in Rome. He didn’t need a stature increase. What’s more, even though Peter walked on the water with Jesus, he comes off looking like a faithless coward, not someone you want to put in charge of anything or whose authority you want to try and cite to justify something you want to do. And, when Mark was writing Peter’s version of the story, he didn’t include Peter’s walking on the water. If Peter wanted to make himself look good, don’t you think he would have included his walking on water in his own telling of it?
Okay, but still, look at all the differing details. Matthew doesn’t give us their destination, but makes it sound like the disciples got into the boat of their own volition. Mark tells us they were heading for Bethsaida and got in the boat because Jesus told them to go. John says they were heading to Capernaum and did so on their own. John says Jesus went up to the mountain by Himself to get away from the crowds before the disciples hit the waves. Mark makes it sound like the order was reversed. From all three versions of the story we can’t really tell how long they were rowing against the waves before Jesus walked out to them. John makes it sound like they arrived at their destination as soon as Jesus got in the boat. Mark and Matthew make it sound like they still had to row on a bit further. Contradictions, right?
Well, maybe not.
Let’s start here. Have you ever heard multiple different people relate the same experience? Usually the big picture is the same, but the details may vary from one retelling to another. For instance, if there is an accident in a busy intersection, the police are going to get statements from the various witnesses to the event. The odds are good that all the various stories are not going to line up exactly. Some of the variance may seem contradictory. But a careful detective can take all of the different versions and piece together a pretty good picture of what happened. Something like that is happening here. All three eye-witnesses were there in the boat. They saw what happened. But in their subsequent retellings, they didn’t quite get all the details exactly the same. As a matter of fact, when the police are investigating a crime, if multiple witnesses all have exactly the same recollection of something, that’s an indication that they’re making something up to hide what really happened.
Something else to keep in mind is that in the first century, expectations for accuracy in storytelling were not the same as we have today. Today, with all the video access we have, we expect to know exactly what happened in an event down to the smallest detail. Then, as long as the big event was on point, there was some wiggle room for the rest of what was happening around it.
In terms of some of the specific “contradictions” I just mentioned, there are good answers to those. For instance, when it comes to how quickly they arrived at their destination once Jesus got in the boat, John may have been giving the summary version. It felt like they were suddenly there once Jesus arrived. It may have actually taken a bit longer, but in their shock of seeing what they say, they didn’t really notice the rest of the journey. Mark and Matthew, on the other hand, let the narrative run a bit longer. On the matter of their destination, Capernaum and Bethsaida were in the same basic neighborhood. It may be there was a common landing point at the part of the Sea which gave access to both cities. Where I live, if you leave Charlotte heading east, someone could describe you as heading toward Albemarle, Red Cross, Locust, Oakboro, Norwood, or Stanfield, and be generally correct. I live in Oakboro. Most people, even in Charlotte, don’t know Oakboro exists. I’m more likely to tell someone I live in the direction of Albemarle just to avoid having to explain more. It also could be that by the time John was writing 30 years later, Capernaum had gained sufficient prominence relative to Bethsaida that his audience was more apt to know where Capernaum was and so he labeled that as their destination.
Okay, fine, but what’s the point of all of this? The point is that we can trust this story really happened. In spite of the variance in retellings, we have no reason to doubt that Jesus really did walk on the water. Using this same kind of thinking process, we can have confidence in the rest of what we find in the Gospels as well. And we don’t have the confidence because the Bible says anything, but because we trust the eye-witness reporting and historical investigation work of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When you read the Scriptures, read with confidence. You are reading history; the incredible history of God’s working through people like you and me to reveal Himself and His plans to the world in Christ.