A Biblical Anachronism?


Movies that take place in the past always run the risk of including some sort of  unintentional anachronism – that is, a chronological inconsistency.  For example, in this famous scene from the 1985 film, Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea Dance where his parents first met on a Gibson ES-345 guitar that wasn’t introduced until 1958. (1)  This is usually the result of poor research by a prop department or a lack of availability of something of the era.  More often than not, the general population doesn’t notice the flaw because most of us wouldn’t know a) what model guitar that was and b) when it came out.  And, quite frankly, most don’t care either.


There are always a few folks who do notice and do care, and so lists like Mental Floss’ “15 Obvious Movie Anachronisms” are published and the general public giggles at both those who notice such things and the multi-billion dollar movie industry that can’t spend the five minutes checking these things out.

If people don’t care about anachronisms in movies, I’m certain that nobody at all reads their Bibles looking for the same.  Yet, here I am, that one weirdo, who always struggles with the disciples initial reaction to seeing Jesus in the story of Jesus walking on water, which we will hear read on Sunday.  The NRSV renders it this way.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.”

Every time I read that part of the story, I wonder to myself, “did first century Jews believe in ghosts?”  It is well established that thoughts about the afterlife were still very much in flux in first century Judaism.  The Pharisees, Jesus’ main adversaries in Matthew (and another anachronism, but that’s for another post), believed in resurrection, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8), while the Sadducees didn’t believe in any of those things.  Further complicating the issue is that the word translated as “ghost” in the NRSV is a hapax legomenon in the Canon of Scripture.  It appears twice in the Gospels, but it seems Matthew took it directly from Mark when he brought this story into his Gospel.  Thayer tells us that the word is common in Greek literature, appearing in Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and others.  In Greek, it seems to mean something more like a supernatural appearance, which flows well from its Hebrew equivalent that connotes a vision.

Did the disciples believe in ghosts?  I can’t be sure.  Certainly, they experienced Jesus on the water as something supernatural, something they would not normally expect to see, something worth being scared witless over, but I wonder if our 21st century understanding of ghosts (see Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Witness, and Scooby Doo) create an anachronism in the story that clouds our understanding in an unhelpful way.  Or, maybe I’ve just fallen down another infamous Steve Pankey rabbit hole.  Either way, there’s another 500 words for you to ponder.

NB. If you are an astute reader of this blog, you’ll note that I wrote on this topic, with much more certainty, three years ago.  I only realized it when I saw that “Ghosts” was a tag I had used before.  But that’s why you read, isn’t it?  To see what new useless thing I’ll glom on to next.


Subtle Drama Lost

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Shortly after 6am this morning, I sat down in a rocking chair on my front porch to sip my first cup of coffee of the day.  It is the first day of school here in Bowling Green, so everything had to be moved ahead of the slower paced summer schedule.  I noticed, if only for its lacking, that the sun was not yet over the trees.  What had been an overwhelming brightness over the past several weeks was replaced by the redness of the newly risen sun, just barely peeking through the trees.  It was cool, the street was quiet, and I thought to myself, “this is the calm before the storm.”

By the Roman time keeping standard of the 1st century, 6am is the end of the fourth watch, the time stamp given for this week’s Gospel lesson in the Greek version (and honestly most others outside of the NRSV).  After a night spent in prayer, Jesus set out to meet up with the wind battered disciples on a boat somewhere near the middle of the Sea of Galilee by walking across the water.

I note the time of day as the fourth watch because I think it helps add in the subtle drama of the story.  We don’t know what time of year it was, so we can’t be for sure when the sun rise would have occurred on that particular morning, but the sky most definitely starts to gain light toward the waning hours of the fourth watch.  Unlike Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus seems to teleport from one location to another, Matthew tells us that somewhere during the period between 3am and 6am, Jesus walked to meet his disciples.  It would have taken him some time to traverse the roughly four mile hike from the south-western shore to mid-lake.  As he walked, the sky began to wake.  First light came, and as the sun approached the horizon, the twilight grew until the figure on the water began to come into focus for the disciples.

It isn’t so much that the time of day really matters for preaching, except that it kind of does.  When we miss these details, the story loses some of its power because we are no longer able to put ourselves within it.  With the return to a fourth watch translation (and the requisite teaching required to help people know what that means), we can begin to imagine ourselves within the story.  Many have experienced the twilight of the morning.  We know what it is like as what was once darkness gives way to light and more and more things come into view.  Sometimes, all it takes is one small detail of subtle drama to allow us to experience more fully what the disciples were feeling, to understand the story more fully, and find our place in an ancient encounter with the Savior of the World.

Being Called Out of the Boat

Over at the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary, Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center, suggests that the well-worn story of Jesus walking on water should be read less as a literal event and more as a real-life parable of the Kingdom of God.  This isn’t, I don’t think, intended to start a Jesus Seminar style debate on the historicity of the story, but instead to open our eyes to a new way of reading the text.

The standard read, one that I have used in the past, is summed up in the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.”  The assumption there is that Peter’s initial action is to be emulated, he stepped out of the boat, but his doubt caused him to sink.  Good disciples, therefore, will have a stronger faith and will walk on water right alongside Jesus.  This fails, I think, because of Peter’s attitude before he got out of the boat.  “Lord, if it is you,” Peter says, “then call me out to join you.”  Peter doesn’t walk on water because of his faith, but rather because of his doubt.

Parabolically speaking, however, Jesus’ word to the doubting Peter is his word to each and every one of us, “come.”  From the earliest of days, one of the images used to describe the Church is that of a boat.  As time went by, our architecture began to mimic this imagery and churches were built to look like upside-down ships and the large area where the congregation gathers took on the name “nave” which comes from the Latin “navis” which means ship.

“Saint-Sulpice, Nave, Paris 20140515 1” by DXR / Daniel Vorndran – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

While Peter’s testing of Jesus is not to be emulated, the reality is that every day in the life of faith is an experience of getting out of the ship.  We might return to the nave on Sunday and/or Wednesday and/or every day of the week, but we don’t get to stay there.  Just as Jesus compelled his disciples to get on the boat and go on ahead of him, we are called to leave the ship and join Jesus out in the chaos of life.  Sometimes, the waters are calm.  Often, the waves are swirling and wind is howling.  It is more than likely that we will begin to sink on a regular basis.  But Jesus is there, hand out stretched, saying “Be not afraid, I AM.”

It is a ghost!

As a child of the 80s, I am obliged to be a big fan of the Ghostbusters movies.  I’m even getting excited that an all-female reboot is being discussed as a possible Ghostbusters 3, though the lack of Harold Ramis is tempering that a bit.  For all my love for the Ghostbusters movies, I’ve never been real big on other forms of paranormal activity.  I don’t like scary movies, Casper the Friendly Ghost has always felt hokey to me, and the rash of ghost spotting shows that are just people whispering in the dark that hit reality TV in the last 5 years or so leave a lot to be desired.  Being a paranormal skeptic and one who subscribes to the Orthodox view of angels (that we don’t become one when we die), I’ve always found the response of Jesus’ disciples to his walking on water to be peculiar.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.”

The Greek word provides perhaps the best transliteration in all of Scripture, phantasma, which means apparition or specter.  N.T. (Tom) Wright has a short article on the various understanding of the afterlife in first century Greek and Jewish philosophy.  In it, he suggests that ghostly visitations were an understood part of life in Greek culture.  It makes sense then, that the disciples, living in a highly Hellenized Israel would have had it in their minds to even consider Jesus walking on the water as a ghost.  It follows then, that their reaction, being terrified and crying out in fear, makes sense.  Of course, even if they didn’t believe in ghosts, the night and the water would have been enough to have their nerves on the edge anyway.

As I ponder the reaction of the disciples, I can’t help but think of those times in my own life when despite my faith in God and his divine providence, I’ve been terrified.  Certainly not of ghosts, mind you, but of any number of other silly things: exams, job interviews, asking my wife to marry me, moving to Foley, becoming a dad.  It seems as though fear continues to be a part of normal life, even when we claim our faith in Christ.  Perhaps that’s why “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” was a part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  We will find ourselves tempted to choose fear over faith.  We don’t have to look very far to see evil at work in the world.  We are rightly terrified from time to time, but then Jesus calls out, “Take courage!” or “Take heart!” or “Cheer up!  I’m here, you need not be afraid.”

Lord, Save Me!

The 14th chapter of Matthew is a juicy bit of text.  You’ve got the soap opera-esque story of the death of John the Baptist and Jesus’ slight of hand in the feeding of the 5,000.  This week, we’ll hear the famous “ye of little faith” that follows Peter’s attempt to mimic Jesus and walk on water, and the chapter wraps up with Jesus healing the sick by them simply touching his robe.  It is a chapter full of power: false and closely guarded and true and freely given away.  It is also a chapter that we tend to think we know rather well.

The folks over at Sermon Brainwave on WorkingPreacher.org, started a new argument in my mind however, when they began to discuss how we should read Peter’s words to Jesus as he began to sink.  Karoline Lewis begins the debate by noting that Peter doesn’t cry out “I’m sinking” or “This is unfortunate,” but rather Matthew puts on his lips some very specific language, “Lord, save me!”

Given Jesus’ response, I have always seen this as the moment of doubt that Jesus chastises in the next verse, and while someone at SB agrees with me (I can never remember which male voice is which), at least a couple of the scholars on the podcast see it differently.  Instead of a proclamation of fear and doubt, they see these words from Peter as a confession of faith.  Given the specificity of these words: the fact that Peter didn’t say, “Jesus, do something” or “Oh crap, I’m drowning” I’m wondering if maybe they are on to something.

First, Peter calls Jesus kyrie, Lord: not rabbi or teacher or brother or friend, but Lord.  In this moment of decision, Peter recognizes Jesus as Lord.  Second, he asks to be saved, sotzo, a word used repeatedly by Matthew to mean salvation in its many forms.  Jesus is named Jesus, the angel says, because he will save the people from their sins.  Those who seek to be healed by Jesus are saved.  The hemorrhagic woman is saved by her faith.  Peter seeks also to be rescued, saved, made whole.

The trouble comes in the next verse.  If Peter’s cry isn’t doubt, but a statement of faith, then what is the doubt that Jesus admonishes?  Jesus uses 2nd person singular and thereby is addressing Peter alone when he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Was it the fear that Jesus was a ghost?  That he tested Jesus, “If it is you…”?  That he panicked in the waves?  It is always interesting to note how a small change in focus can have a wide-ranging impact on a text.  So, dear reader, what do you think?  Is Peter confessing Jesus as Lord here or is he simply a man hoping not to drown?