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Power over Water: Sources on the Graeco-Roman Background

For my upcoming presentation entitled “Jesus’ Imperial Authority over the Sea” at the regional SBL conference, I have been greatly influenced by the following two sources:

  • Adela Yarbro Collins, “Rulers, Divine Men, and Walking on the Water (Mark 6:45-52)” in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament World: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi, eds. L. Bormann, K. del Tredici, and A. Standhartinger (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 207-227.
  • Wendy J. Cotter, The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

However, there has been push-back against the purported parallels advanced in the former two works in the following article:

  • Brian D. McPhee, “Walk, Don’t Run: Jesus’s Water Walking is Unparalleled in Greco-Roman Mythology” Journal of Biblical Literature 135.4 (2016): 763-777

McPhee makes the fair point that, in Graeco-Roman mythology, the ability to travel on the sea or air or to soar above the sea and other inhabitable places is explained on the basis on running at extraordinary speeds or relying on some magical device. Thus, the exact parallels with Jesus “walking” on water break down. However, I still think that the efforts of emperors like Xerxes, Alexander the Great, and Caligula to build bridges across water were intended to demonstrate their mastery over the waves and to intimidate their enemies. Xerxes even orders the flogging of the Hellespont when a storm destroyed the bridges that he had constructed over it (Herodotus, Histories 7.35). Moreover, there is still a reference to the hubris of Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” in imagining that he could sail on the land and walk on the sea (2 Macc 5:21; 9:8). Of course, arrogant human monarchs could not accomplish the feat that Jesus did, but Yahweh delegated to Jesus the authority to rule over the chaotic sea as the sovereign ruler whom He anointed.

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