The Gospel of John is typically acknowledged as having a high, divine Christology. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are far more disputed. In his recent, magisterial work, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel Richard Hays makes a forceful case, though, that among other roles (Davidic Messiah, Son of Man, etc.), Mark intentionally (though subtly) identifies Jesus as the coming God of Israel in the flesh.
Given that the book is all about the way the Gospel writers use and appeal to the Old Testament, his mode of argument is unsurprising. Hays examine a number of key texts in Mark where Jesus is doing curious things (forgiving sin, calming the seas, leading sheep without a shepherd, etc.) and connects them to Israel’s Scriptures which show these are things only God has the right or the power to accomplish. In that light, divine activity reveals divine identity.
While each of the texts he examines are worth engaging, one text I’d never seen discussed in this respect is Mark 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee (pp. 70-73).
Now, taken simply it seems like an obvious act of divine power, either by way of divine empowerment of a chosen agent (prophet), or direct divine presence. Though for the first, there don’t seem to be parallels. And for those tempted to suggest it, the Exodus doesn’t fit much since there God splits the seas and lets everybody cross on dry ground. And since Elisha’s splitting the Jordan is a mini-Exodus, nix that as well.
For the second suggestion, you could argue that it connects to the theme of subduing the powers of watery chaos, which in the Old Testament was a divine act, and is emphasized in Mark 4:35-41. Still, Hays points out that there isn’t an explicit Old Testament citation, and the image of God walking on the water isn’t a common one.
So how is Hays going to connect it to the Old Testament and the identity of Israel’s God? Well, he cleverly points us to this magnificent speech from Job extolling the power of God:
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
miracles that cannot be counted.
When he passes me, I cannot see him;
when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
If he snatches away, who can stop him?
Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
God does not restrain his anger;
even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet. (Job 9:4-13)
At first that might seem a slender thread to hang a reference on. But Hays calls our attention to a couple of confirming lines of evidence.
First, there is the basic linguistic link if you look at the Greek of Mark and the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translation of Job 9.
Second, connecting the two texts would clear up an oddity in Mark’s narrative. In the story, Mark tells us that originally Jesus “intended to pass them by” (Mk. 6:48). Matthew doesn’t include that tidbit, and commentators have puzzled over it for centuries. But then we turn to Job’s speech. In it, we see him marveling over the mighty works and power of God and he says, “When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him” (Job 9:11).
Thus, in Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. This metaphor, as we surely realize by this time, accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus. Thus, the story of Jesus’ epiphanic walking on the sea, read against the background of Job 9, can be perceived as the signature image of Markan Christology. (72)
Third, Hays adds that the verb parelthein (passes by) “almost surely alludes” to the story of God passing Moses by in Exodus 33:17-23 and 34:6. In that story, God passes by to show him his glory from behind, as it were, because for Moses to see him directly would kill him. The Septuagint uses the same work over and over, making it almost a technical term for a divine appearance. All of that together would fit with the theme of the incomprehension of the disciples (Mk. 6:51-52).
Finally, Jesus’ words of assurance to the disciples in the boat (“It is I [ego eimi]; do not be afraid”) should probably be heard, then, as an echo of Exodus 3:14. There God reveals himself as “I am who I am” (LXX: ego eimi ho on). That phrase becomes a stock self-identifying phrase of Israel’s God throughout Scripture (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 51:12; 43:11). So Hays:
“Thus, when Jesus speaks this same phrase, ‘I am,’ in his sea-crossing epiphany, it serves to underscore the claim of divine identity that implicitly present in the story as a whole.”(73)
Of course, this is just one teaser of a reading of one, subtle passage. But set in alongside of the rest of Hays’ dazzling exegesis of other key texts, the argument that Mark’s Jesus is only a divinely-empowered man becomes labored and torturous.
In this text, Jesus is the God of Israel who treads on the waters, who passes by, present to save, though mysterious beyond comprehension.
Soli Deo Gloria