Walking on Water in Matthew's Gospel: "A Proper Doxological Ending"?

Bruce N. Fisk

1. Strategic Texts

2. A Puzzling Episode

Mark 6:45-52 (RSV)

Matthew 14:22-33 (RSV)

6.45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Beth-sa'ida, while he dismissed the crowd. 14.22 Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds
6.46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went
up on the mountain to pray. 6.47And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 6.48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.
14.23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 14.24 but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; 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, 6.49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; 6.50 for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear." 14.25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 14.26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out for fear. 14.27 But immediately he spoke to them, saying, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear."
  14.28 And Peter answered him, Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water." 14.29 He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; 14.30 but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." 14.31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?"
6.51 And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 6.52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. 14.32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 14.33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

Matthew's Miracle: A Closer Look

Beware of demanding that Matthew write history the way we today expect it to be written. The Gospels are not chronicles or dispassionate accounts or detached catalogs of events. Their authors want to persuade us of something!

Random Reflections on Historiography in the Canonical Gospels
The authors of the Gospels really did want to get the story right; they understood their faith to rest upon events that occurred in history (and not upon stories about those events).
  1. The substantial verbal, chronological and conceptual overlap among the gospels strongly supports their fundamentally historical agenda.
  2. The striking contrast between the gospel narratives and many apocryphal accounts confirms the evangelist's essentially historical conservatism and non-mythological orientation.
  3. One mark of historical authenticity in the gospels is the presence of potentially embarrassing, cryptic or scandalous material. For further remarks on the "criteria of authenticity," go here.
  4. The Gospels are interpreted histories; they are not, nor do they pretend to be, impartial, disinterested or objective. They are portraits, not photographs.
  5. It is entirely inappropriate to demand of the ancient world the modern passion for verbatim reportage, transcripts, sound-bites and "objective" journalism. (Honest post-moderns recognize that "objective reporting" is neither possible nor desirable.) We should expect the evangelists to write their histories without transcending the historiographical values and approaches of their own day.
  6. Such creative license does not mean the gospels are unfaithful or untrustworthy; sometimes the barest facts (like the plainest photographs) distort reality, while interpretive renderings show things very clearly. Linguistic maxim: to say the same thing in a different context, it must be said differently.
  7. In the case of conflicts and tensions between two or more Gospel accounts:
  8. It serves no useful purpose to pit an evangelist's theological agenda over against his concern for historical veracity, as if writers must choose between the two. The Gospels are thoroughly historical and thoroughly theological.
  9. These reflections do not begin to explain how divine inspiration took place, except to suggest that God has chosen to work through, rather than around, the historiographical and literary conventions of the ancient world.