Matthew, 14:27: “but immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “take courage! it is i; do not be afraid.”
The story of the miracle of Jesus walking on the water is narrated in three gospels, the gospel according to Mark (6:45 to 52), the gospel according to Matthew (14:22 to 33) and the gospel according to John (from 6:15 to 21). Prior to this story, Jesus had performed the miracle of the multiplication of five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a crowd of more than 5000 people. Subsequently, he commanded his disciples to get into the boat and precede him to Bethsaida in Galilee, a town north of Lake Tiberias. Lake Tiberias, or Gennesaret or Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, is the largest freshwater lake in the state of Israel, about 53 km in circumference. It is situated 213 meters below sea level, and is the largest freshwater below sea level lake in the world. The Jordan river runs from north to south, flowing into the lake. In the old testament it is termed Kinneret sea while in the new testament it is called the Lake or the Sea of Galilee, Gennesaret or Tiberias. The name derives from Tiberias city, which Herod Antipas founded on its north shore about 20 AD in honour of emperor Tiberius. Jesus was standing on the banks of the lake dismissing the crowd of people who were acclaiming him following the miracle of the bread and the fish; then he promptly retreated to the mountain to pray. When Jesus saw his disciples were only halfway to their destination and were having great difficulty due to the strong winds and rough sea, he decided to go to them walking on the water. The disciples believed they were seeing a ghost and were extremely frightened. Jesus, however, turned and spoke to them: “be of good cheer! it is I, do not be afraid”. The gospel according to Matthew alone recounts the episode in which Peter, addressing the master says, “29 and he said, come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. 30 but when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, lord, save me. 31 and immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, o thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? 32 and when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased”. Jesus then entered the boat and the wind and the waters were calm, and they quickly reached their destination.
The historical accuracy of the event has not actually been ascertained. In John Meier’s studies on the miraculous stories of the gospels, and in particular the second volume of his book, a marginal jew: rethinking the historical Jesus, vol. 2: mentor, messages and miracles, regarding the miracle of walking on water, he maintains that it is a purely theological narrative, void of historical foundation. oral tradition, according to John Meier, entwines references in the old testament (Jesus’ answer, “I am” corresponds to the early church vision of Jesus as the yahweh) and post-resurrection perceptions. The narrative would fall under the category of the apocalyptic genre, intending this term as characterized by intense symbolism and light-shadow contrast. Initially, Jesus gathered his apostles onto a boat and sent them away on their own, while he retreated alone to the mountain to pray, promising to meet them on the other side of the “sea”. Jesus had no need to pray, he himself being God; however, when he transformed into the human persona and condition, he accepted the responsibility of the human need to communicate with God. Jesus is the second person of the holy trinity; therefore, as a man, he desired to communicate with the father, although he had always communicated with him. He needed to share his humanity with the father and as a human Jesus had human needs such as eating, sleeping and resting. The apostles were in great difficulty trying to reach the other shore, but when Jesus appeared to them, all ended well. According to John Meier, this episode is a metaphor in the church immediately following Easter wherein Jesus left his disciples at ascension, promising to return, consequently visiting them from time to time to encourage them (via the eucharist). The function of all apocalyptic literature is to comfort a community in need.
The Jewish population was not at all a seafaring people. They feared water and considered it a symbol of chaos, danger, the unknown, all that is frightening, turmoil, confusion and the darkness at the beginning of creation. The exegesis of the miracle interprets the boat as a protected area where one feels safe. At some point in life, though, one must leave this protected environment as it begins to sink, and continue on one’s path in life. The storm is a metaphor signifying disruption of lives as well as one’s own being. the waves are the temptations that try to knock one down, make him sink into the waters and drown. The water that enters the boat splashing the disciples refers to the experience of sin, weakness and human frailty. In this circumstance, however, change is happening as the night is coming to a close and light is becoming discernible. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water, they were deeply troubled, crying out in fear, “it’s a ghost”; the intense light surrounding Jesus prevented them from recognizing him. They were not able to see beyond evil and their ordeal that the hand of God was coming and that “all things”, as Paul wrote, “work together for good to them that love God” Romans 8:28. Matthew does not mention that Jesus “wanted to overtake them”. The boat was many furlongs away from the banks of the river and was in difficulty because of the strong head wind. Jesus reached the disciples walking on the water in the hours of the fourth vigil. The fourth vigil coincides to the Roman division of the night, from three to six o’clock in the morning. A furlong measures about 185 meters. Walking on water is a symbolic gesture, reminiscent of the biblical image of God who “treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8; cf. Psalms 77:20). When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water, they thought it was a ghost and cried out in fear. In the gospel according to luke, the disciples will once again believe he is a ghost when he appears before them resurrected (cf. Luke 24:37-39). In this instance, Jesus anticipated the manifestation of his paschal glory, in the same manner as will occur during the transfiguration. Jesus then said to them: “be of good cheer, it is i; be not afraid.”
The phrase “I am” (egô eimi, I am) is inspired by the phrase in the bible that describes the name of Yahweh (Exodus 3:14: “and God said unto Moses, I am that I am:” (cf. Deuteronomy 32.39; Leviticus 19:1-4). The phrase, “when evening came” had been cited previously, therefore was redundant, but the evangelist’s intention was to emphasize the impact of the scene of the Lord when “he was standing up there alone”. Jesus will be alone in Gethsemane, he was alone here as well; the disciples accompanied him but did not follow him. The term “ wind “ appears three times in the account, signifying its totality. The wind was against the disciples revealing their resistance to go to the Pagans, as they believed strongly in the supremacy of Israel that should dominate the Pagans, not on the contrary, serve them, which explains the symbolism of the strong head wind. “At the end of the night “... God comes to assist the needy at the break of dawn... “he went to them, walking on the sea”. This passage refers to the book of job, which specifies God is the only one who walks on the sea. The sea, as mentioned above, signified chaos and it was a natural force that man was not capable of subduing or calming; the only one who could walk on the sea was God. The evangelist is therefore affirming that Jesus is demonstrating his divine status. “But, seeing him walking on the sea, the disciples were troubled, saying, “it’s a ghost!” and cried out in fear.” The disciples had not yet clearly understood precisely who Jesus was because a human clearly could not have divine status. They believed Jesus was a messenger of God, a prophet, and had not yet fully comprehended that Jesus is God. Peter said, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” And he said, “come.” Peter got out of the boat and he walked on the water going toward Jesus. The presence of Jesus and his word encouraged Peter making him realize he could walk on the sea, that he could dominate evil and suffering and that he could overcome the impossible because he was now in the presence of the one who can do everything. The exegesis of this passage refers to believers when they hear and see his grace next to them; they feel stronger, more confident, supported by something and someone. Jesus invites them to continue to walk on the water, and together crush and dominate evil. They must, though, find the courage to leave the boat, their last safe place, take the risk of losing their life, risk death and decide to risk everything, only for him. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25).
The miracle of Jesus walking on the water has many similarities also in earlier accounts of diverse religious cultures. In ancient egyptian mythology, the God horus walked on water as did Orion the giant hunter and son of Poseidon in Greek mythology. Hindu, Buddhist and Greek traditions narrate stories of persons walking on water as well. During a flood in the Ganges, Buddha walked on the water and so did one of his disciples, who started to sink because his faith had diminished, precisely as Peter had done. The iconography of the miracle has been presented over the centuries in a variety of examples, in an almost unchanged pattern: Jesus walking on the water, the boat with the disciples, the stormy waters, Peter who is saved by Jesus (the most illustrated). The oldest example is the frescoes located in Dura Europos, the ancient city in Mesopotamia of the kingdom of Palmyra, situated today in Syria, where a Christian home-church hosts a series of frescoes dating to the first half of the third century, which have been preserved almost intact over the centuries. Unfortunately, today (2016) the Isis group has subjected the site to extensive damage and destruction.
Lorenzo Ghiberti created the panel of the miracle of Jesus walking on the water in a later phase of his work on the North Door of the Baptistery of Florence probably between 1415 and 1416. the panels he created in this period include the resurrection of Lazarus, chasing the merchants from the temple, entry of Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus before Pilate, Jesus walking on the water and the resurrection, which reveal a greater independence of the constraints of the frame and the structure of the scenes is more complex, composed of numerous characters set in elaborate landscape and architectural settings (Krautheimer, 1956). The figures in the composition of the panel are crowded and seem to be looking for space that the quatrefoil frame is obstructing. Ghiberti composed the panel according to the episode as described in the gospel according to Matthew: Jesus is saving Peter who is on the verge of sinking into the stormy waters. Ghiberti portrayed the boat as a contemporary vessel, holding the eleven apostles crowded into the small vessel (not to scale), caught in the moment of feverish activity steering the boat and at the same time full of wonder and fear, intent on discussing what is happening. Jesus is standing on the waves, in chiastic pose, expressing calm and solemnity at the same time, extending his hand to save Peter. The dynamism of the figures and of the background permeates the entire composition. The apostles each in a different pose and the roughness of the sea are portrayed in a counterpoint of rare compositional skill. The boat is tilted, pitching in the waves, which Ghiberti emphasizes by obliquely inclining the mainmast and its transverse and the rolled up sail, the stays and supporting shrouds are all portrayed in great detail. There is a strong pathos emanating from the scene in which the figure of Christ alone is wisely still and deliberately detached from the disturbing event, becoming the centre of the composition.
Although it actually does not refer to the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, we must also mention the land art installation conceived and completed in June 2016 by the artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev. The installation was conceived as a walk on the water upon a 4.5 kilometre long floating pier, on the surface of Lake Iseo in Italy.