"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 7 Jesus and the Passover
Jesus Walks on Water (plus a Geographical Transition) (Jn 6.16-24)
16Then when it was evening, his disciples went down to the lake1 17and, getting into a boat, set out across the lake to Capernaum. It had just got dark then and Jesus had not yet joined them, 18and the lake was stirred up by a great wind blowing. 19When they had rowed about 3 or 3.5 miles2, they saw Jesus walking upon the lake and getting near the boat, and they were afraid. 20But he said to them, 'It is I3: don't be afraid.' 21So they wanted to take him into the boat and at once the boat reached the land toward which they were making.
22On the next day the crowd, who had remained across the lake, saw that there had not been any other boat, only one, and that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples left alone. 23But boats from Tiberias came near to the place where they ate the bread when the Lord gave thanks. 24Then when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor were his disciples, they embarked on the boats and came to Capernaum seeking Jesus.
In three of the four gospels that include the story of the feeding of the 5,000, that event is closely associated also with an account of Jesus walking over the water to join his disciples in a boat. Only Luke does not include the latter story, showing that either he was unaware of it (an unlikely possibility) or did not feel constrained by the tradition to include it in his gospel. Thus we should likely look for a more compelling reason than just that it was part of a Jesus tradition to explain why John has included it, preferably one that reflects other themes and concerns of this part of his gospel. Brown (Brown 1966 pp 254-6) has a very helpful discussion of the story in this regard. He shows how it functions as a theophany (see the discussion of I AM sayings in the Introduction) and also how it, in conjunction with the following discourse on the bread from heaven, connects with important Exodus themes such as the passage through the Red Sea and the story of the manna.
If we are right to accept the reading in Jn 6.1 discussed above, then this passage across the Sea of Galilee was from the region of Tiberias roughly at the mid-point of the western shore to Capernaum on the northwest.
COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
Verse 20 contains the second of the seven 'absolute' occurences of 'I am', 'egō eimi'), in this gospel (see the discussion in the Introduction). Here the phrase can be construed both as a response to the disciples' fear, to be translated as 'It is I' (or more colloquially, 'It's me'), or as an assertion of Jesus' divine identity, echoing YHWH's response to Moses out of the burning bush. On either level, it can be seen as reassurance to those in the boat that what they are seeing is both real and salvific. See Bauckham 1998 pp 169-70 for a brief discussion of the link between Mark 6.50 (which also uses 'I am' in this same context of the storm and Jesus walking over the water) and John 6.20.
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If the suggestion made about v1 in the previous section is correct, then these verses indicate that local boats from the near-by city of Tiberias came along the coast to the region in which the events of vv1-15 took place and provided the crowd with passage up to Capernaum. Otherwise it would seem to imply a crossing from Tiberias to some other coastal area, from which they they crossed to Capernaum. That town was apparently well-enough known as Jesus' home base in Galilee that the crowd looked first for Jesus there.
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1Here and below, I have rendered 'thalassa' (θάλασσα), 'sea', as 'lake', when used in reference to the fresh-water Sea of Galilee
2Literally about 25 or 30 stadia; a stadion was about 606 feet, so 2.9 to 3.5 mi is indicated.
3Literally 'I am', 'egō eimi' (ἐγώ εἰμι)
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