Joseph Francis Alward
Mark’s story of Jesus walking on water is analyzed for its Old Testament origins. The argument by Dennis R. MacDonald, author of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, that Mark may have based his story in part on some of the elements in the tale of Hermes’ flight to King Priam in Homer’s Iliad is discussed and rebutted.
Dennis R. Macdonald, in his book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark,1 claims that Mark based many elements of his gospel stories on tales in Homer’s epics, Iliad, and Odyssey. In several articles 2 I’ve summarized MacDonald’s arguments relating to different gospels stories. In this article I discuss his suggestion that Mark may have based his story of Jesus walking on water on a story in the Iliad.
Mark’s Water-Walking Story
In the following excerpt from
Chapter Six of Mark's gospel, Jesus and his disciples had just finished the
feeding of loaves and fishes to five thousand people at the sea shore.3
Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida,
while he dismissed the crowd. After
leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. When evening came, the boat
was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples
straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth
watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to
pass by them,4
but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They
cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to
them and said, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he
climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely
amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were
hardened. When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored
To help interpret the water-walking story, one must first understand that Mark’s goal in writing his gospel is to provide his readers the evidence which would back up his claim that Jesus is the son of God.5 A second goal, perhaps almost as important as the first, is to show that the Lord’s glory and power is there to be seen and heard, but that not all men are able to recognize this;6 such men have eyes but do not see, and ears but do not hear.7 Some who hear the word and receive it with joy nevertheless “quickly fall away” when trouble or persecution comes.8
In having the disciples fail to understand “amazing” acts performed by Jesus,9 Mark is letting his readers see that the disciples’ eyes are blind to Jesus’ miraculous acts, and their ears deaf to the word of the Lord. These failures allow the read to anticipate the ultimate failure of the disciples: treachery by one, denial by another, and abandonment by all.
The Old Testament Foundation of Mark’s Story
To recognize the Old Testament basis for much of Mark's story, one must recall that the Lord dwelled on mountains,10 hovered over the waters and treaded on the waves of the sea,11 and promised he would be with people who passed over dangerous waters.12 In one famous scene, the Lord came down from the mountain and identified himself to Moses with the words, “Ego eimi,” 13 which means, I am or, It is I. Not long after that, the Lord gave a demonstration of his glory by “passing by” Moses.14 To show his readers that Jesus was indeed the son of God, and was just like his father, Mark had Jesus do all of these things in his water-walking story.
Thus, Mark may have been closely following the millennium-old blueprint for the messiah’s future actions when he put Jesus on a mountain before he goes down to the lake and walks on water, intending to pass by the disciples in a display of his glory. Mark then has the disciples see a "ghost" instead of the miracle-working son of God and cry out in fear. This failure to identify was a literary device to allow Mark to allow Jesus--in a moment of drama as high as that found in the Yahweh burning bush identification scene15--to identify himself with the famous words, ego eimi, “It is I.”
Jesus then calm the disciples' fears and controls nature--all in a way that is reminiscent of the divine events described in the Old Testament. However, even after the multiplication of the loaves, the walking on water, and the stilling of the headwind, Mark has the disciples only be “amazed"; if they’d understood that they’d witnessed God’s power at work through Jesus, they wouldn’t have been surprised at all. Mark thus is laying the groundwork needed to allow the reader to understand why the disciples will later abandon Jesus at his arrest.
Virtually all of the particulars in Mark’s story about Jesus walking on water can be tightly and unambiguously connected with an Old Testament antecedent, or else explicated through Mark’s need to portray the disciples as incapable of receiving the word of the Lord. While MacDonald indeed makes it clear that he’s aware that “scholars have related nearly every detail in the story to a biblical antecedent,” he nevertheless believes that there are unnoticed “similarities between Jesus’ walking on the sea and Hermes’ visit to Priam...” 16 In the following, I will summarize the essential features of the story of Hermes and Priam, and then describe and analyze the similarities MacDonald has in mind.
The Alleged Homeric Parallel
In the Homeric story, the Trojan King Priam and his herald, Idaeus, are traveling by chariot and wagon across the plain to fetch the body of Hector, Priam's son, from their enemy, Achilles.17 The god Zeus, looking down from Mount Olympus on the pair, takes pity on them, and sends Hermes, the messenger god, down to escort the men safely. Hermes "flies over the waves" of the Aegean Sea and "touches down on Troy…and from there he went on foot…" As Hermes approaches the men in the darkness, Priam’s servant notices Hermes “standing near them”; they mistake him for an enemy soldier and are terrified. Hermes calms them with a lie, telling them he is Achilles' aide. Hermes leaps into the chariot and guides the men safely through the enemy camp. Once they safely reach Achilles, Hermes tells Priam, "I am a god come down to you, I am immortal Hermes…"
MacDonald implies below that Mark may have had Jesus look down at the boat in the “dark” from atop the mountain to emulate Zeus, who saw from Mount Olympus the struggling Priam and his servant far away on the plain below:
Mark retained at least one distinctive trait from the story of Hermes. Like Zeus, Jesus is on a mountain and sees his disciples in danger, even though it is dark. Jesus’ telescopic vision occurs only here in the gospels.18
There are at least two things wrong with MacDonald’s interpretation here. First, Mark doesn’t say it was dark when Jesus saw the disciples struggling; Jesus saw the disciples when evening came.19 Evening begins when the sun begins to travel below the horizon, but the twilight could be sufficient to illuminate a boat large enough to carry twelve men, even if it's several miles away.
Second, MacDonald says that “Jesus’ telescopic vision occurs only here in the gospels,” but MacDonald is mistaken, I believe. In Matthew’s gospel, Matthew has Jesus up on a mountain with Satan, who “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” (Matthew 4:8) Telescopic vision” enabling Jesus to see kingdoms at the farthest reaches of the Earth seems to be exactly what Jesus has in Matthew’s gospel. Thus, Jesus sees the men on the boat either because there may be enough twilight to do so, or because Mark gives Jesus the same "telescopic" powers of vision that Matthew gives him in the story of Satan on the mountain, or both.
Mark’s letting Jesus see out to the middle of the lake in the early evening has nothing whatever to do with Homer’s Iliad, in my opinion.
MacDonald refers to
"Hermes' ability to walk on water," and implies that Hermes in fact
walked on water, just as Jesus did: “Jesus, too, walked on water.” 20 However, MacDonald provides no evidence
that Hermes ever actually walks on water, or even that tradition held
that he did so. In the story of Hermes'
visit to Priam, Hermes only flies over the waves, perhaps miles above
it; we can't be sure.21 Before we can accept MacDonald’s statement
that Hermes walked on water, we need to be shown some specific reference to walking;
if such existed, I imagine it would have been shown to us.
Mark’s readers almost surely sooner would have associated Jesus’ walk on water with the Lord, who hovers over water, and who is the father of Jesus, than they would with Hermes’ flight over water. Since Mark certainly would not have wished his readers to be conflicted over which image to hold in mind--the Lord’s, or Hermes’, Mark could not have been thinking of Homer in this instance.
that Mark’s dependence on Homer’s story may explain what he believes is a big
problem with Mark’s statement that Jesus “intended to pass them by":
Mark’s dependence on the epic also may explain a notorious problem. Mark states that when Jesus walked on the water “he intended to pass them by.” This phrase long has puzzled interpreters, for it suggests that Jesus had no intention of saving his disciples from the storm but only of manifesting his glory. 22
I don't agree that there's a “problem.” Mark does not say--or even imply--the disciples in the boat are in danger and in need of “saving.” All Mark says is that the disciples were “straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.” A little headwind doesn't mean these men are in danger. In fact, Mark perhaps intended readers to understand that the wind working against the progress of the boat was a metaphor for the adversities in life men must face; if they know that Jesus is with them at those moments, moving forward will seem easier. The reason Jesus was going to walk past the men, intending for them to see him was that he wanted them to know that the Lord was with them now, and would always be with them in difficult times--if they had faith.
Anyway, MacDonald goes on to argue that the "notorious problem" with Jesus intending to pass by the disciples instead of rescuing them is caused by Mark's wishing to use distance between Jesus and the boat as the reason they failed to recognize him, for--Mac Donald believes--distance likewise seem to be the problem for the squire in the Iliad:
Priam’s squire saw Hermes “from up close” but not close enough to be distinguishable. Later, Hermes “drew near” and told who he was.23
But, this interpretation seems completely wrong. Homer does not say--or imply--that Hermes was ever too far away to be observed distinctly. Homer says only that Priam’s squire “saw Hermes standing near them.” MacDonald implies that as Hermes then “drew near,” his true identity became clear, suggesting that identification was facilitated by greater proximity, but that’s simply not true and not what happened at all. What happened was this: After initially lying to Priam and his servant, the trio then complete a journey together to Achilles’ ships, with Hermes presumably sitting beside Priam as he took the chariot reins and drove the men into Achilles’ camp. After they arrived, Hermes then jumped from the chariot to the ground 24 and said, “Sir, it is I, immortal Hermes.” This clearly wasn’t a case of Hermes’ actual identity being hidden owing to limitations placed on vision by separation, as MacDonald implies, because Hermes was quite close to Priam for quite a while before Hermes made his identity known.
I Am Who I Am
After flying--not walking--over
water to meet Priam, Hermes says, “I am Achilles’ aide.”; later he tells him,
“I am a god.” But nowhere are to be
found the words ego eimi, to parallel the words spoken by Jesus. Furthermore, these words from Hermes are
given to Priam on land, not water.25
Nevertheless, one cannot deny the slight parallel: In both stories, a god walks on--or flies
over--water, and then identifies himself.
But, the connection of Mark's story to the Old Testament is just too
strong to believe that Mark thought his readers would overlook it in favor of
the Homeric story. The story in Exodus
3:4 of the Lord telling Moses who he was has already been discussed. Below, we have Isaiah providing Mark even
more reasons to have Jesus identify himself and calm the disciples' fears:
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you …For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. Do not be afraid…for I myself will help you," declares the LORD… (Isaiah 41:10-14)
Thus, Mark has Jesus act just like the Lord, his father--exactly what his readers would expect. It seems extremely unlikely that Mark would have hoped his readers would make room for thoughts about Hermes’ flight to Priam by pushing out of their minds images of the Lord identifying himself to Moses and the Lord speaking to Isaiah. It’s practically inconceivable.
Taking Pity On Them
MacDonald says that "Zeus and Jesus both saw the dangers of those below and took pity on them." 26 I believe this is only half-true: Zeus took pity, but there’s no evidence that the disciples were in any danger on the water, or that Jesus took pity on them. Mark tells us only that the disciples were "straining at the oars" because of a headwind. But, this is nothing unusual; oarsmen almost always strain at the oars, and there are often headwinds; there's no indication the men were in danger.
If Mark wanted us to think there was a storm, and that the disciples were in danger, he would not have given the disciples a “headwind,” which is merely a wind which delays forward progress and makes rowing more difficult; Mark would have given the disciples a “furious squall,” just as he did when Jesus had to save the disciples in Mark 4:37-41.
It's clear that
Jesus was not intending to still the wind or to enter the boat and take
control: He was going to walk right
past them without stopping in a display of his holiness just like the
Lord's stroll past Moses. This is not a story about a savior rushing to the
rescue of those in danger. Mark has
Jesus walk out to his rowing men not out of pity, but to show them that the
Lord will be with them when the going gets rough. Mark has the disciples fail to understand this and thus signals
the reader that the next time the going gets rough for the disciples, they will
When Hermes reached
Priam’s chariot, he leaped in and took control. MacDonald points to this act as the possible reason Mark has
Jesus jump into the boat and still the wind:
He wanted to retain as many of the elements in the Homeric epic as
possible. But, there’s a much better
explanation for Mark’s decision to have Jesus get into the boat that has
nothing to do with Homer: He needed
Jesus to demonstrate that the Lord helps those who are with Jesus,
spiritually. In this case, while they
may not have been with Jesus spiritually, they at least were with him
physically. Thus, the wind stopped with Jesus got into the boat with the men
and their burden--the headwind--was removed.
MacDonald suggests that Mark might have imitated some of the elements of Homeric epic in order that his readers, who were well-versed in Homer, would see the heroic deeds of Jesus in light of similar ones in the epic, and compare Jesus favorably to Homeric figures. In ancient Greece this practice was known as aemulatio, which essentially means "imitation, but better." In the case of the walking on water story, MacDonald argues that if Mark imitated Hermes’ visit to Priam, he also emulated him by giving to Jesus the power to walk on water without the aid of a magical device such as the winged sandals Hermes had to use. 27 This is a highly questionable “gain.” Wouldn’t Mark’s readers be just as impressed with a god which could create such a wondrous magical device, especially since it gave its wearer the ability to fly over water, not merely walk?
MacDonald notes Hermes is a liar, and Jesus is not: Hermes didn’t tell the truth at first when he identified himself as Achilles’ aide, while Jesus said right away, “It is I.” If imitation was intended, MacDonald believes that Jesus is made better than Hermes because Mark has him tell the truth right away. 28
But, surely Mark
wouldn’t have given a thought to the absurd alternatives: allowing Jesus to remain silent and keep
walking, or having him lie and say he was, indeed, a ghost. Mark’s narrative left him no choice but to
have Jesus identify himself. Thus,
Jesus can’t be awarded points for doing what narrative logic dictates he must
initially posed as an aide to Achilles not for immoral reasons, but for the
best of reasons: He wanted Priam and
his servant to know that they were no longer in danger of attack by Achilles’
men. When you compare the two--Hermes
and Jesus, Hermes actually looks better.
In addition, Hermes’ intended to help Priam and his servant, while Jesus did not intend to help the disciples. So, once again, we see that Jesus looks worse than Hermes; if Mark was intending for Jesus to emulate Hermes, he did a terrible job. With gains of such dubious value, it seems highly unlikely Mark would have risked his readers being sidetracked toward the even more dubious--and extremely faint--parallels in Homer and away from the rock-solid Old Testament foundations of his story.
MacDonald’s alleged parallels to Homer’s story of Hermes’ visit to Priam are so faint as to be, in fact, nonexistent. Given that Mark’s story is filled with references to the Old Testament, and its internal consistency and ability to explain itself so powerful, it's virtually impossible to see any merit in MacDonald's notion that Mark relied on Homer. Not a single detail of Mark's story is better explained by a connection to Homer. Furthermore, in advancing his argument, MacDonald seems to make many unwarranted assumptions, and even errors. For example, it wasn’t necessarily “dark” when Jesus saw the men on the boat “when evening came”. The disciples are not in danger. Jesus does not show “pity.” Jesus does have “telescopic vision.” Hermes does not walk on water. Iris’s use of ego eimi has nothing to do with the Hermes’ visit. Distance had nothing whatever to do with identification in Hermes’ visit with Priam. Jesus comes out looking worse--not better--than Hermes. Finally, what are we to make of the fact that first Jesus is compared to Zeus, then to Hermes?
MacDonald perhaps anticipates analyses such as this one would appear, so he asked beforehand for leniency:
The [suggested] parallels…place special demands on the reader: patience, generosity, and, above all, imagination…Some parallels between Homer and Mark inevitably will be weaker than others…29
In advancing his suggestion that Mark may have had Jesus imitate Zeus, then Hermes, MacDonald asks for far too much generosity and imagination, in my opinion.
 Most translations leave no doubt that Mark tells us that Jesus intended to pass by the disciples:
He intended to pass by them (NASB
He meant to pass by them (RSV)
he wanted to pass by them (New English Translation)
He was going to pass by them (Worldwide English)
He meant to pass by them (New American Bible)
and would have passed by (KJV)
 “The beginning of the
gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark
1:1)…”And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am
well pleased.’” (Mark 1:11)
 Mark 4:1-25. Jesus uses the parable of the sower to explain that for some men the word of the Lord doesn’t sink in, doesn’t take root.
 Jesus asked [his disciples]: “Do you still not see or
understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and
ears but fail to hear? (Mark 8:17-18)
Mark seems to be having Jesus imitate the Lord, who said to Isaiah,
“This people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.” [Isaiah 6:9-10]
 Explaining to his disciples what happens to some people who hear the secrets of the kingdom of God, Jesus says, “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” (Mark 4:16-17)
 Mark lets his disciples be so inattentive, or stupid, or both, that they don’t notice that the loaves and fishes were multiplied at the first and second feedings of the multitudes. Later, Jesus, has to explain to them what their eyes should have seen: More bread and fish came back as scraps than went out:
Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?" "Twelve," they replied. "And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?" They answered, "Seven." He said to them, "Do you still not understand?" (Mark 8:17-21)
The disciples also don’t recognize that Jesus didn’t just do something “amazing,” as if he were a magician, when he walked on water; he was showing them that he was the son of God, and the power of the Lord was working through him.
Mark’s depiction of the failures of the disciples prepares the readers to feel no surprise when they see the disciples run away (Mark 14:46-50) in Jesus’ hour of greatest need, Peter too cowardly to admit that he knows Jesus (Mark 14:66-72), and Judas sell Jesus (Mark 14:10-11, 43-46).
 The Lord’s foundation is the mountain. In many places in the Old Testament the mountain is described as God's foundation or dwelling: Psalm 87:1, Genesis 22:14, Numbers 10:33, Exodus 3:1, 3:12, 4:27, 15:17, 1 Kings 19:8, Numbers 3:1, Numbers 20:23, Psalm 74:2.
This isn't the first time Mark puts Jesus on a mountain. Jesus goes to a mountain to choose his disciples: "Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve--designating them apostles" (Mark 3:13-14)
 Walking on Water.
Now the earth was formless
and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was
hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2)
He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. (Job 9:8)
 Master of the Waters. The Old Testament makes it clear the Lord is the master of the waters:
But now, this is what the LORD
says:…"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you
are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you
pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you…Do not be afraid, for I
am with you (Isaiah 43:1-5)
You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. (Psalm 89:9)
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be
dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you …For I am the
LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you. Do not be afraid…for I myself will help you," declares
the LORD…(Isaiah 41:10-14)
But now, this is what the LORD says…"Fear not…I will be with you …For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… "You are my witnesses….so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he….I am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed….You are my witnesses….that I am God. (Isaiah 43:1-12)
God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." (Exodus 3:4)….God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." (Exodus 3:14)
The words used in the
Septuagint version at Exodus 3:14 are ego eimi , “It is I”, or, “I am” ;
in Jesus’ call to the disciples in the boat, and in response to the high
priest’s question, Jesus answered, eimi ego (Mark 14:62). Thus, Mark may be using this opportunity to
invite the reader to believe that Jesus is identifying himself as the son of
God to the disciples.
 Passing By. When the Lord was shows his glory, power, mercy, and compassion, he “passes by” his people. Mark had Jesus do the same thing, because, after all, he was the son of the Lord, and like father like son.
Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory." And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion…. When my glory passes by (Exodus 33:18-22)
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and
stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in
front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD…" (Exodus 34:5-6)
The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." (1 Kings 19:11)
 Inexplicably, MacDonald tells us about the beating wings of Hermes' sandals driving up ocean spray in another story--the story of Hermes' visit to Calypso in Book 5 of Iliad--in a completely unrelated tale. Furthermore, that was not water walking, either: It’s only flying close enough to the water to bring up spray.
 MacDonald, p.153.
 MacDonald, p. 153.
 The Samuel
Butler translation of the Iliad does not mention
that Hermes “drew near” to reveal his true identity, but it wouldn’t matter if
those words had been used: It’s clear
that distance was never an issue in the question of identifiability.
 In the visit by Iris to Priam, Iris said, "Take heart…and do not be afraid….I am (eimi) a messenger to you from Zeus." MacDonald seems to use this excerpt from Homer in an attempt to sharpen the parallel to Jesus' words, ego eimi, but that would be inappropriate, because it relates to a completely different episode in Iliad, not to the visit by Hermes to Priam. Thus, I don't see the reason for MacDonald's mentioning this, unless it is to suggest that perhaps Mark thought his readers might recall Iris' words and mistakenly associate them with Hermes' conversation with Priam, which would then give them license to compare the words to Jesus' ego eimi. That seems to be too far-fetched a scenario to be worth argument, however--if, indeed, that’s what MacDonald had in mind.
 MacDonald, p. 151.
 MacDonald, p. 153.
 MacDonald, p. 153.
 MacDonald, p. 9.