Theophany at sea or apathetic Jesus?

Mark leaves a curious note in his telling of Jesus’ sea crossing that has left interpreters puzzled. Though seemingly uncharacteristic of Jesus, the evangelist writes that he “desired to pass by” his swamped disciples (ἤθελεν παρελθεῖν αὐτούς) (Mark 6:48).

For many readers this is troubling. Why would Jesus desire to pass by his helpless friends rather than assist them as he did before (Mark 4:35-41)? Is this willful neglect on the high seas?

The theophany solution

One popular solution to this problem is provided by Richard Hays in his book Reading Backwards. In his view, the sea crossing scene falls into the genre of theophany. By “passing by” his nautical onlookers, Jesus discloses his identity as YHWH, the God who reveals his glory by “passing by” Moses and Elijah (Exodus 33:22, 34:6, 1 Kings 19:11).
Further, Hays draws attention to LXX Job 9:8-11 where the Lord YHWH is said to “tread the waves of the sea.” The writer of Job goes on: “if [the Lord] should pass me by I will not know it” (ἐὰν παρέλθῃ με οὐδ᾽ ὧς ἔγνων).

Hays puts the finishing touches on his argument by commenting on Jesus’ declaration: “It is I” (Mark 6:50). According to Hays, Jesus here applies to himself YHWH’s name, ἐγώ εἰμι, “I am,” as recorded in LXX Exodus 3:14.

Altogether then, Hays has presents a strong and interesting case. Jesus desires to pass by his disciples, not in order to avoid them, but in order to reveal to them his true identity as YHWH.

Some problems

What at first glance appears to be a watertight argument, however, does have some serious holes in my view. Here are a few.

  1. The use of παρῆλθον, “pass by,” in aquatic context more decisively invokes Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea than it does YHWH’s mountainous manifestations (cf. Exodus 15:16, Deuteronomy 2:29, Joshua 4:23, Nehemiah 9:11). The fact that both the Markan and Johannine traditions place the sea crossing immediately after a wilderness feeding also suggests that this is a Mosaic miracle and not a theophany (cf. Mark 6:30-52, John 6:1-21).
  2. While LXX Job 9:8-11 does have YHWH walking on water (v. 8) and YHWH passing someone by (v. 11), it does not have YHWH pass by while walking on water. Verses 9 and 10 shift the context away from the chaotic sea and onto the awesome and inscrutable heavens. Moreover this “passing by” of YHWH is not a theophany at all. There is no manifestation of blinding glory; what occurs is totally unseen.
  3. The identification of ἐγώ εἰμι as the Greek rendering of the divine name in Exodus 3:14 is less than convincing as well. In the Hebrew text the name appears twice, once as אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, “I am who I am,” and once as just אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, “I am.” The LXX opts for a non-literal translation of both portions. “I am who I am” becomes ἐγώ εἰμι ὤν, “I am the one who is,” and “I am” becomes ὤν, “the one who is.” Thus Moses is told to tell the Hebrews that ὤν, “the one who is,” sent him, not that ἐγώ εἰμι, “I am,” sent him (Exodus 3:14b). In the Greek, “I am” appears to merely introduce the divine name, ὤν, rather than be part of the name itself (cf. Revelation 1:8, 4:8, 11:17). So since the link between ἐγώ εἰμι and the divine name cannot be secured, the translation “It is I” in Mark 6:50 remains the most probable rendering.
  4. Mark’s first interpreter, Matthew, omits the phrase “he intended to pass them by.” Is Matthew opposed to the theophanic reference or has he not recognized it? Had Matthew not recognized Mark’s supposed purpose, as is likely, he may very well have omitted the embarrassing note. Matthew has a habit of deleting or changing Mark’s enigmatic texts (cf. Mark 1:41, 3:21, 6:5, 8:22-26, 14:52, 16:8). Luke, the second interpreter of Mark, omits the sea-crossing scene altogether. Luke has a habit of deleting Markan material that appears to be redundant.

In my view there are more than enough holes here to warrant exploration into other, easier solutions.

Neapolitan_Lighthouse,_1842._-_Ivan_Aivazovsky.jpgThe apathetic Jesus

It seems to me that one of the blind spots in this discussion and others like it is our assumption that Jesus ought to act in a certain way. While we are drawn to a Jesus who is always generous and understanding because we value such traits, this is not the Jesus preserved in the Gospels, especially the Jesus preserved in the Gospel of Mark. In fact, if we read Mark carefully, we should not be at all surprised that Jesus intended to pass by his disciples. On more than a few occasions Jesus reinforces his expectation that the disciples should operate independently of him. Consider these examples.

  1. Jesus tells his followers that “whatever” they ask God for in prayer it will be awarded to them if they believe, even mountains being thrown into the sea (Mark 11:22-24, cf. John 14:12). The Markan Jesus likewise prizes faith as effective for healing (2:5, 5:34, 7:29, 10:52).
  2. When Jesus’ disciples fail to cast out a demon from a boy, Jesus scolds them harshly saying “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19, cf. Matthew 17:20). Like an impatient teacher, Jesus is here sorely disappointed in his students for their lack of faith. Now Jesus must finish what his disciples failed to do.
  3. In the first feeding episode Jesus commands his disciples to give the people food themselves: “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37). Jesus apparently expects his disciples to relieve their hunger with a deed of power.
  4. In the first rescue-at-sea account Jesus sleeps during the storm. The disciples wake him up and ask “do you not care that we are perishing?”(Mark 4:38). From their perspective Jesus is not taking the situation seriously. Yet Jesus asks them why they are afraid and then demeans their faith as little (ὀλιγόπιστος) (Mark 4:40). The disciples take Jesus’ behavior (i.e. sleeping) as apathetic and reckless, but Jesus takes their behavior (i.e. waking him up in fear) as faithless. So given Jesus’ insistence that his disciples replicate their master’s works by faith, Jesus appears to be upset that his disciples woke him up instead of calming the storm themselves.
    • Matthew uses ὀλιγόπιστος three others times with similar effect: when Peter fails to walk on the water like his master (Matthew 14:31), and when the disciples are worried they will not have sufficient clothing or food (Matthew 6:30, 16:8).

All of this suggests that Mark’s Jesus expected his disciples to take care of their own problems by imitating their master’s faith. Jesus believed that if their faith was strong there would be nothing to fear and nothing to impede their power.

It makes a good deal of sense then that Jesus sleeps during a storm in one case and desires to walk past the boat in another. The disciples need to learn how to work as their master works. They won’t be able to rely on Jesus’ faith forever.

So why did Jesus cross the sea? Probably to get to the other side.

9 thoughts on “Theophany at sea or apathetic Jesus?

  1. I have to say, that theophany argument is a labor of love. A lot work went into making that… work.
    I thought your objections were good ones, and I also think a good objection is, “How would anyone at all see Jesus walking past them while they were swamped and therefore think, ‘Oh, he obviously must be God?’”


    1. Hmm yeah. It certainly wouldn’t have appeared as a theophany to those in the boat. It would also make more sense as a theophany if we had Jesus in his glorious and blinding state, like at the Transfiguration.


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