Believing that Jesus walked on water

January 13, 2012

"Walking on Water," Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

All the commentaries I’ve read this week on Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter walking on water, address the challenge of believing in this miracle. In the wake of the Enlightenment, some well-meaning Christian thinkers proposed alternate explanations: that in the dim light of the early morning, the disciples saw an optical illusion. Jesus, they said, was actually walking in shallow waters on the northern end of the lake.

I don’t buy it. First, this miracle of Jesus’ walking on water is historically well-attested in that it’s the only one, aside from the resurrection, that all four gospels have in common. (Only Matthew includes Peter’s attempt to walk out to Jesus.) Clearly, something remarkable happened on that lake. The disciples, whose testimony informed the oral traditions that led to the writing of each of the gospels, would have had plenty of opportunities to correct the record if the miracle had been misreported.

Besides, just as people in the first century knew that women didn’t get pregnant without the intervention of human fathers, they also knew that people didn’t walk on water. To believe otherwise is to be afflicted with this modern bias that people today are much smarter than people who lived a long time ago.

The disciples also understood that this miracle was a one-time, non-repeatable event that only Jesus (and Peter, with Jesus’s help) could perform. When Paul’s Rome-bound ship was sinking and his life was in danger in Acts 27, it’s not as if he said, “I’ll see you boys on the beach. I can just walk from here.”

Why wouldn’t Luke, the author of Acts, show Paul breaking the laws of physics in this miraculous sort of way? After all, wouldn’t it help those gullible people living in the first century to believe in Paul’s message if Paul demonstrated that sort of power? If Luke and other evangelists had so little regard for the historical truth of the miracles they recorded, why would Paul have to grab hold of a plank to float to shore?

No, people weren’t gullible back then, and the evangelists wrote what they wrote because they believed it happened. If they believed that Jesus had simply walked in shallow water, they wouldn’t have written it this way.

It’s also true that the evangelists aren’t simply reporting facts, as if they were trying to be objective journalists or historians. Matthew is shaping the story for his own theological purposes. It seems likely that Matthew is using this event as an allegory for the challenges his church faced. To say that, however, is not to cast doubt on the fact that Jesus walked on water or that Peter didn’t try to join him.

As a reflection on Matthew 14:22-33, the C.S. Lewis Bible includes the following excerpt from a letter Lewis wrote in 1951:

I do get that sudden feeling that the whole thing is hocus pocus and it now worries me hardly at all. Surely the mechanism is quite simple? Sceptical, incredulous, materialistic ruts have been deeply engraved in our thought, perhaps even in our physical brains by all our earlier lives. At the slightest jerk our thought will flow down those old ruts. And notice when the jerks come. Usually at the precise moment when we might receive Grace. And if you were a devil would you not give the jerk just at those moments? I think that all Christians have found that that he is v. active near the altar or on the eve of conversion: worldly anxieties, physical discomforts, lascivious fancies, doubt, are often poured in at such junctures… But the Grace is not frustrated. One gets more by pressing steadily on through these interruptions than on occasions when all goes smoothly.

C.S. Lewis, “When We Receive Grace” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1082.

2 Responses to “Believing that Jesus walked on water”

  1. Curtis Says:

    Brent,
    I showed up late for this one. Sorry.

    The walking on water settled for me when I discovered that “In beginning God…” culminated in ” up from the grave He arose.” Once I managed both ends of that spectrum, walking on water twernt “but a thang.”

    Sermonically, I always did and will tip my hat toward enlightenment writhing. Lord knows my belief is pressed daily by my bent toward unbelief. But, when Paul challenges to “give a reason for the faith that is in you.” I now respond, “I want to.”

    Thanks for the C.S. Lewis quote. And, from his own Bible no less. I have to get out more. 🙂

    (Mrs Wright. I know you taught us not to start a sentence with “And.” Please forgive me.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      How convenient to write your own Bible, huh? Makes it a lot easier to follow, I’ll bet. Mine would have fewer genealogies, that’s for sure. And the Sermon on the Mount would be much less demanding. 😉

      Starting a sentence with “and” (and “but”) is fine so long as you’re writing informally or colloquially. Our English teachers gave us those rules because they couldn’t trust us to be responsible.


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