Pastor David B. Curtis


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Do You Believe in Ghosts?

Matthew 14:22-27

Delivered 06/16/24

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." (Mat 14:22-27 ESV)

You ask people today if they believe in ghosts, Christians and non-Christians alike, and you'll get so many differing opinions on the topic. Ghost stories and people's apparent experiences abound, and there is almost a never-ending supply of books and movies dealing with the topic. The topic of the paranormal is a real hot one for sure. Of course, when you ask what exactly a ghost might be, you'll also get a variety of responses, with the most common ones being either a once living person, or others may say it is just demonic activity posing as a deceased loved one to trick you. But here in our section of Scripture, we see pretty much our only real mention of this thing called a ghost, or a spirit as some translations have it. 

And though few of the commentators that I reference say much of anything about this verse to better understand it, the few that do, they also have varying interpretations. It seems to be one of those odd passages that not many people touch upon too much. After all – ghosts? In the Bible? The word used here is only used two times in Scripture; here in our verse in Matthew, and then in the correlating story in Mark. So, in actuality, whatever this thing is that they assumed they were seeing, it appears in only one story in Scripture.

The word here is phantasma, which I'm sure you recognize as a source for our common word phantasm and phantom. The word means either an appearance, or an apparition or something lacking the typical physical being. The Bible Background Commentary simply comments on these verses:

Belief in ghosts or disembodied spirits was common on a popular level in antiquity, even though the idea of ghosts contradicted popular Jewish teachings about the resurrection from the dead. (The Bible Background Commentary: New Testament)

As does commentator Albert Barnes:

They were afraid. The sight was remarkable. It was sufficient to awe them. In the dark night, amid the tumultuous billows appeared the form of a man. They thought it was a spirit an apparition. It was a common belief among the ancients that the spirits of people after death frequently appeared to the living. (Albert Barnes on Matt. 14:26)

And then we look at another great, modern commentator of our time:

Belief in human apparitions was a part of Yeshua's disciples' world view. The term used for "ghost" here is "phantasm." … used as a noun, it literally means: "apparition" or "ghost." This isn't the Greek word for "demon" in the New Testament. The disciples had a category for "disembodied spirit of a dead person" (a ghost). They didn't just think in demonic terms. (David B. Curtis, Teleporting? Delivered 11/20/16)

This is just a sample few, but you'll find many scholars and historians agree that at the time these gospel stories were written, it was a common belief that there was such a thing as a disembodies spirit of a dead person. And even though the word used here does differ from the other words used throughout the New Testament that are commonly translated in English as ghost or spirit, the general concept of a disembodied entity is similar among the various words. The other words most commonly used in similar manner to this general concept are the words pneuma or psuche, usually translated as spirit, ghost, or soul.

Now, I know some will disagree with that comment, claiming those words simply refers to breath of man, and dismiss the idea of the ancient Hebrews believing man has a dualism or separate spirit or soul in that sense. The topic has been debated by scholars for years, with learned men on both sides, so I will not attempt to dig too deep into the various avenues of argument. Suffice it to say, I do not adhere to such a singular position, and personally, I find that based on usage in Scripture as well as the lexicon's definitions, such a position is untenable. Although my ultimate goal this morning is not to deal specifically with that topic in depth, I will make a small case for my position.

Afterall, since we are looking at trying to understand what these disciples may have had in mind by saying they saw a ghost, it does require that we at least make a small attempt lay a general foundation for their belief system of the day on the topic, and these terms are central to that. So, before looking at some examples in Scripture, let's just briefly look at some of the more common lexicons and dictionaries before moving on. Vine's expository dictionary defines psuche, giving multiple Scriptures for each variant of the word—ten different usages in all—but the first three are related to our topic:

Psuche: denotes the breath, the breath of life, then the soul in its various meanings.

  • a) the natural life of the body – Matt 2:20; Luke 12:22; Acts 20:10, Rev 8:9; 12:11; cp. Lev 17:11; 2 Sam 14:7; Est 8:11
  • b) the immaterial, invisible part of man – Matt 10:28; Acts 2:27; cp. 1 Kings 17:21
  • c) the disembodied man, unclothed man – 2 Cor 5:3,4; Rev 6:9

Body and soul are the constituents of the man according to Matt 6:25; 10:28; Luke 12:20; Acts 20:10; and body and spirit according to Luke 8:55; 1 Cor 5:3; 7:34; James 2:26

Pneuma: the NT uses the word…as follows (giving 18 variants of which we'll highlight):

  • the immaterial, invisible part of man – Lk 8:55; Acts 7:59; 1 Cor 5:5; James 2:26; cp. Ecc 12:7;
  • the disembodied, unclothed man – Lk 24:37, 39; Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet 4:6;

Apparently, then, the relationships may be thus summed up, "Soma, body, and pneuma, spirit, may be separated, pneuma and psuche, soul, can only be distinguished.

Thayer's lexicon gives many similar variants and usages for the word psuche, one of which is:

2c) the soul as an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death

And lastly, Strongs seems to alter or mixes them a little, saying psuche is the spirit of man, while pneuma is the spirit or rational soul of man.

So, I find that many of the major lexicons do in fact provide a clear opening for the position of a Scriptural teaching on a duality of man in this matter. For me, this argument in favor of dualism or not, is even found in Scripture. We find it also coupled with a denial of spiritual beings in general, including spiritual angelic messengers. The area of angels is likewise a topic of debate even to this day, so there really is nothing new under the sun. Those who would say there is no spirit, and there is no spiritual angel, and that angel just always means a physical messenger, they hold views that seem paralleled to the beliefs of the Sadducees:

For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, "We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?" (Act 23:8-9 ESV)

Apparently, the Hebrew people of the day in the Pharisee camp, unlike the Sadducees, had no issue with believing in the resurrection of the person's spirit from Sheol, the existence of heavenly spiritual beings known as the angels, as well as the existence of some sort of spirit-being that can speak to men. As Matthew Henry correctly states:

It seems, the existence and appearance of spirits were generally believed in by all except the Sadducees, whose doctrine Christ had warned his disciples against (Matthew Henry Commentary)

While we are not going down the path of a Sadducee discussion today, let it be known that I do not align with the Sadducees in these areas, or with the modern Sadducees who teach against most all things supernatural or of the spirit realm. But that brings us to our topic today, that of spirit beings or ghosts. Our verses tell us:

But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out in fear. (Matt 14:26-27ESV)

The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible has a listing for the word ghost, but it simply refers you to see the term "Spirit of the dead." When you go to that listing, you are presented with a large multi-page discussion on varying views of the use of other words in the OT – dealing with necromancy and related topics. Not a lot of help for our verse here, but does open a topic we will briefly discuss in a moment.

First, are there any other examples in Scripture where we might find the idea of a spirit being of similar use? Well, apparently as we just read a moment ago in Acts 23, the Pharisees believed in some kind of spirits that could talk to men. And considering the long history in the Hebrew Scriptures of the stories of angelic beings appearing and speaking to men, it is not surprising to hear them mentions angels speaking. But it is their use of being spoken to by a spirit that seems intriguing and related to our topic. When they say:

What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?" (Acts 23:9 ESV)

Note, they were not denying it as a possibility, so again, such an idea of a disembodied spirit does not seem to go against the Hebrew thought at this point. Some commentators say that what was possibly being addressed in this comment by these leaders, was possibly referencing back to the preaching Paul did in chapter 17 on Mars Hill where he spoke of the resurrection of Jesus, and these leader knowing that Paul spoke of receiving his message from Jesus directly. Knowing Jesus has died, the leaders would not go so far as to say He was divine, but they instead, could have been attempting to take him down to the level of simply an angel or spirit of a dead one communicating with Paul.

What else can we discover about the belief in speaking spirit beings? Well, as mentioned before, the meaning of the word implies that they do not have a typical physical being. And this understanding seems to align fine with the understanding and teaching directly from our Lord:

As they were talking about these things, [after his death] Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, "Peace to you!" But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." (Luk 24:36-39 ESV)

So what are a couple other things we can glean from here about their belief system? They see this familiar person they know, but knowing he has passed from the physical world, they seem to immediately assume they are seeing a spirit…HIS spirit.

This gives a pretty clear impression that they had no issue with believing in an existence of one's disembodied spirit after death, does it not? Commentator Adam Clarke puts it like this:

But if there be no such thing as a disembodied spirit, would not our Lord have shown them their error? Instead of this, he confirms them in their opinion… (Adam Clarke)

How exactly does he confirm their opinion, as Clarke states? Well, for starters, He does not rebuke them for believing something that some today state was not even a Hebrew belief at the time. No, he doesn't rebuke them, but instead, Jesus clarifies them in their belief by reminding them:

For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. (v 39)

He doesn't say "dummy, you know there are no such things as spirits." Instead, he essentially acknowledge that there are spirits, but simply states why he is not one. So, we can glean that these people believed that disembodied spirits exist, that they also have the ability to speak to people, and apparently can appear to people, since they believed that was happening now, but, that they did not have physical attributes, which Jesus confirms as indeed the case.

Now let's take a brief look at a few other examples of encounters in Scripture that might bolster the belief of being able to encounter a spirit or apparition. Interestingly, this verse in Job often appears listed as a cross reference alongside of our verse in Matthew of the ghost on the water:

A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice: 'Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker? (Job 4:15-17 ESV)

We won't spend any time on this verse, just an interesting cross reference to our story. Some say this verse could simply be an angelic messenger, even though other appearance of angels never seems to be so mysterious. But leads us into the next topic, of angels. And of course, we find angels – apparently spirit beings, not human messengers – simply appearing to men and speaking to them many times throughout Scripture. Maybe they took on a physical form as they sometimes did, or maybe they appeared as apparitions, we're not told. One such example is Zechariah:

And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. (Luk 1:11-13 ESV)

Do we have any other mention in Scripture to give us additional evidence that the Hebrew people believed in speaking, spiritual beings? Well, there is that clear case in 1 Samuel when Saul went to the witch at Endor, and we are given our only real case of successful necromancy clearly stated in Scripture:

He said to her, "What is his appearance?" And she said, "An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe." And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" … (1Sa 28:14-15 ESV)

So, again, a disembodied spirit speaking to man. Now, this last one I wish to mention is a slightly different angle, and while the verse is not directly on topic, but the explanations from some of the commentators provide a little touch upon our topic and reference the general beliefs at the time which may indeed relate to our topic.

The story is from Acts 12, where Peter was brought out of prison by the angel. After he left, he went to Mary's house, where people were gathered, praying for him. He knocks, a servant girl answers, hears him and runs and tells others that he has arrived. In response to the servant girl:

They said to her, "You are out of your mind." But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, "It is his angel!" (Act 12:15 ESV)

Going down the rabbit hole of what they could possibly have meant by angel here, is a study in itself. Many make reference to the Hebrew beliefs in guardian angels, which is interesting in light of Dave's recent dealing with the topic too, but we are not hear to explore that. But in general, some respectable commentators reference how there was a belief that surely it meant Peter has passed away, and was appearing in some disembodied form, because the idea of Peter's release from prison was thought so impossible to them. Jamieson, Fausset-Brown say this of angel here:

…his disembodied spirit, his ghost; anything, in fact, rather than himself. Though this had been the burden of their fervent prayers during all the days of unleavened bread, they dispute themselves out of it as a thing incredible. (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown)

Adam Clarke has this to say about the thoughts of the time:

…it was also an opinion among the Jews, even in the time of the apostles, as appears from Philo, that the departed souls of good men officiated as ministering angels; and it is possible that the disciples at Mary's house might suppose that Peter had been murdered in the prison; and that his spirit was now come to announce this event, or give some particular warning to the Church. (Adam Clarke on Acts 12:15)

I won't go into why I would disagree with how Philo came to his point on the departed souls being angels, but the main point is to show, at close to the time of these Scripture stories taking place, there were these general concepts held by the people in regards to the spirits of men.

Now, of course, one may be quick to point out, that at the time in history, and includes men like Philo and Josephus, these people were following a Hellenistic Jewish system. They were mixing the surrounding Greek culture with their Hebrew beliefs, and that is why they can come up with these views. This may indeed be a leading factor. However, that does not do much to change the idea that at the time of the Lord and his disciples work, this was a common belief among those people, including themselves, the ones living and telling the events of the New Testament Scriptures. And I find these do not stray from the evidence we've seen in the Hebrew Scriptures, and are not contradicted by the words of Christ and his apostles.

These are a few examples of why, for me, Scripture seems quite clear that the Hebrew people had no issue with a belief in spiritual beings, as well as a belief of an out of physical body existence of a spirit that could be seen and talked to. Another accurate quote from commentator Adam Clarke:

That the spirits of the dead might and did appear, was a doctrine held by the greatest and holiest of men that ever existed; and a doctrine which the caviliers [fault finder or quibbler], free-thinkers and bound-thinkers, of different ages, have never been able to disprove. (Adam Clarke)

Another area of discussion on this topic which we briefly mentioned, comes into play when we view the Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, on the term ghost, which it defines as:

The spirit of a dead person, thought to survive death as a discrete, and potentially active or sentient being. Belief in ghosts was widespread in the ancient world, as was the idea that ghosts knew the future and could thus be used for necromancy. Common in the Hebrew Bible is the idea that ghosts, or the "shades" of the dead, reside in Sheol, a dark and shadowy underworld realm, where they exert little or no influence on the living. Also frequent in the Bible and in Jewish tradition in general is a polemic against necromancy. (Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period)

I'm not going to spend any real time dealing with the idea of Sheol, shades, etc. since I have already given more extensive teachings on that topic in the past. However, this quote brings us to another topic that I mentioned a moment ago, one that provides additional evidence for an ancient Hebrew belief in a spiritual existence after death. The practice of necromancy was common among the nations, including within the tribes of Yahweh's people. The same dictionary has this to say of necromancy:

A type of divination that works by calling on the dead for insight into the future. Although banned in biblical legislation, the practice continued to flourish. Thus Saul supposedly removed necromancers from the country, yet could easily find one to call up Samuel when needed. (Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period)

The fact that they made laws against the act of seeking to talk to the dead shows that they held it as a possibility to be able to talk to the dead. After all, does it make any sense for them to outlaw a practice that they didn't even believe was possible to succeed at to begin with? We find Scripture stating:

"Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:31 ESV)
"If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people. (Lev 20:6 ESV)
There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. (Deu 18:10-12 ESV)
And when they say to you, "Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter," should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? (Isa 8:19 ESV)

So, again, these prohibitions go a long way is helping us to understand what the concept held by the ancient Hebrews was. As author John Cooper summarily states:

But surely if the Israelites did not believe the dead existed or that they could be consulted, there would have been no need to warn them against such practices. As Ringgren concludes, "belief in an afterlife is also indicated by the practice of necromancy…" (Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, John W. Cooper)

Now, the Hebrew concept or term shaal, which means "to ask or inquire," leads some to suppose that it is the word that the term Sheol is derived from, possibly due to a connection with necromancy, or calling upon the dead. Sheol, in Hebrew literature, is understood as the place of the dead, or the underworld. Let's take a look at a common ancient Hebrew concept of the underworld?

Here is a familiar image of the ancient Hebrew concept of the world's cosmology. It is a common representation used to show what the general understanding of the set-up of our planet. You will—and have—seen this in past discussions of the Hebrew concept of cosmology. This image is a clear representation, where, not only do we find in Scripture that their belief system teaches the concept of a flat plane being contained within a dome firmament, but that it also clearly teaches a belief in the existence of a literal underworld within the lower portions which contains the spirits of the dead. This is the cosmology of the Tanakh.

Now, a quick side note that I find intriguing, but have not explored. I found a quick reference in someone's writing regarding the cosmology model and the three-tiered world – a heavenly realm, and earthly realm for humans, and an underworld for the dead, and their connection to Scripture such as the commandment:

"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exo 20:4 ESV)

While we typically apply the water under the earth to mean sea creatures, I cannot help but wonder if in Hebrew thought, there is more there, possibly relating to things in the underworld and connections to necromancy. A topic to explore for another day maybe, but I just found it interesting enough to share.

Another related side note of possible connection and interest, is that back around 2014, there were all kinds of posts and scientific articles coming out about how tests are showing that there are great oceans amounts of water deep towards the earth's core. Articles with titles like:

  • Massive 'ocean' discovered towards Earth's core
  • Huge Underground Reservoir Holds Three Times as Much Water as Earth's Oceans
  • There May Be a Second Massive Ocean Deep Beneath the Surface
  • New Evidence for Oceans of Water Deep in the Earth
  • Deepest water found 1000km down, a third of way to Earth's core

I just find it kind of interesting, since the Bible speaks of waters under the earth, and connects the underworld with the idea of deep waters. Back to where we were in our topic discussing the general idea of the underworld. Philip Johnston in his work The Shades of Sheol, has this to say about the underworld:

The most important term for the underworld is clearly [Sheol], for several reason: (a) It is the most frequent, occurring sixty-six times. (b) It always occurs without the definitive article ('the'), which implies that it is a proper name. (c) It always means the realm of the dead located deep in the earth, unlike other terms which can mean both 'pit' and 'underworld'… Obviously, the Hebrew term 'Sheol' has different nuances in different contexts, but these are nuances of the single basic concept of the underworld. Views to the contrary cannot be sustained. (Shades of Sheol, Philip Johnston, chapter 3)

There are two main views that tend to be put forth regarding what the ancient Hebrews and Scripture teaches on the topic. Of course, pinning down any concrete central beliefs of the ancients can be a tough, especially as we find continued revelation altering their concepts over the centuries. But some things seem quite clear and less disputable to most scholars, and the topic of their belief in the underworld is one of those. In discussing the possibility of holding a Hebrew concept of "nothingness" after death, author John Cooper states:

For the best of my knowledge, no recognized Old Testament scholar has ever made that claim [of "nothingness" after death]. In fact there is virtual consensus that the Israelites did believe in some sort of ethereal existence after death in a place called Sheol. (Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, John W. Cooper)

And then, after mentioning another scholar's lengthy quote on the concept of a post mortem existence in a subterranean place, Cooper goes on to state:

…this statement would be endorsed by anyone knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scripture. As far as I know, the general description [of post death existence in the underworld] is undisputed among Old Testament scholars. (Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, John W. Cooper)

Again, I won't go into a lot of details making this point, but our purpose of touching on the topic today was sipt and belief is some kind of existence after physical death, and because of that, held a belief in the possmply to lay the foundation that the Hebrew people did in fact have a conceibility of contact with them, and had laws against pursuing that act.

So, with all of that as a backdrop, we now come to our main topic, to examine the disciples use and fear in seeing a ghost on the water. Two points in the story worth highlighting are that this event takes places on the sea, and it is during the night. Some commentators mention it was a common belief at the times, that ghosts come out more at night.

The Jews, especially the sect of the Pharisees, had a notion, from whom the disciples might have theirs, of spirits, apparitions, and demons, being to be seen in the night (John Gill on Matt. 14:26)

So, when at night are we to understand this took place. The Scripture tells us it was during the fourth watch:

And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. (Mat 14:25 ESV)

Now, typically, the Jews divided the night into three four-hour blocks., but by the times this took place, the Roman division of the night into four three-hour shifts was in place.

These blocks are divided starting at six PM, so the first watch from six to nine was called evening, the second was nine to twelve call midnight, the third was twelve to three and called cock-crowing, and the fourth watch of our verse, would have been between three and six, the morning watch. Something else that might slip by, but I found interesting and worth noting, is the events and timing that transpired before this event. In the verses preceding the ghost sighting, we are told a few things to give us an idea of the timeline.

Remember, this is right after Jesus fed the five thousand with the five loaves and two fishes after preaching to the crowds all day, and it is now approaching evening, the first watch. So, after feeding them and collecting the baskets of leftovers, we are told:

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. (Mat 14:22 ESV)

So these disciples are now loading things up into a boat as the first watch approaches, and they push off to sea. But they are sent on alone, as we are told that our Lord stays behind:

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. (Mat 14:23 ESV)

Now, he comes down and is done praying. Then we are told, it is dark and he looks out:

…but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. (Mat 14:24 ESV)

The parallel story in john tells us more details about how far away the boat was. We are told:

When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. (Joh 6:19 ESV)

The verse that follows is our verse, which notifies us it is now the fourth watch of the night. What can we therefore assume about the prayer life of our Lord? He went up to pray when evening was approaching - the first watch. Now he has come down, saw them on the boat, and headed out to them during the fourth watch. That would be apparently a good nine or more hours later. How does that compare with your prayer life?

Or maybe it wasn't quite that long after all. I mean, it tells us he approaches the boat on the fourth watch, but it doesn't say exactly which watch it was when he left. I mean, maybe walking on the rough sea to get to them by the fourth watch, was a lengthy process? You know, he had to zig zag and dodge the waves. Maybe for every three steps forward, the wind and waves pushed him back two steps, and so it took him multiple hours to actually reach the boat. Yeah, that makes his prayer life seem less intimidating, right?

You ever stop to wonder about what it was possibly like walking three to four miles on the rough waves of the sea? He calmed the seas with a word. Do you think as he walked, there was a calm, level path ahead of him to his destination? I know, just things we can only speculate on, but maybe never even ponder on.

Anyway, the prayer time was just an interesting thing that hit me here after examining the break down of the different watches. Now, the second thing about our verse worth noting, is that this event takes place on the sea. You've heard it said many times from this pulpit, how the Hebrew people of that time feared the sea and viewed it as a gateway to the underworld. We noted earlier how based on the ancient cosmology, there were the waters under the earth. Many times, throughout Scripture, we see the sea/water associated with chaos and evil.

wherever the sea is mentioned in the Old Testament it… appears… as a menace on the edge of the inhabited world, whose dangerous and uncanny power is broken only when it meets dry land. (Martin Noth, The History of Israel)

For Noah, the waters of the deep were a part of the great judgment from Yahweh. For not only was it to rain excessively, but the water from below was to break forth also:

In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. (Gen 7:11 ESV)

The waters under the earth held much negative connotations for the people, and it was linked with the underworld and place of death and spirits.

Like the upper sea, the lower sea is a physical place, contiguous with the earth.  The underworld, sometimes called Sheol, was thought to be located somewhere beneath the earth, a place you go down to (Num 16:30; Isa 14:11; 57:9; Job 7:8), and thus was identified with the infernal sea and conceived of as a watery place (2 Sam 22:5–6 = Ps 18:5–6; Jon 2:3–7; Job 26:5–6). (Cho, Paul Kang-Kul, The Sea in the Hebrew Bible: Myth, Metaphor, and Muthos)

The ancient Israelites were not historically a seafaring people. Seafaring played a small part, but not near as important to her economic and political fortunes as agriculture, horticulture and land trading routes were. They typically stayed close to shore when it came to the water it seems. The scenario before us, then, becomes a different picture if we take all of this into consideration. It is dark—the time when spirits were more naturally expected to be seen; and they are out in the water—a place they tended to associate with being connected to the underworld where spirits were.

So, it really is not much of a surprise that, when seeing a human form coming towards them, walking unnaturally among the waves and water, that they might suppose it to be something other than a physical human man. However, without first affirming the foundational belief of disembodied spirits in Hebrew thought, this totally makes no sense at all. There is a twist here though, as some scholars have pointed out. Michael Heiser dealt with the issue on a 2012 podcast looking at this ghost topic. First, he lays the foundation by agreeing with what we've seen so far:

It may sound surprising, but the ancient world of which the New Testament was a part actually had many stories about ghosts and what scholars call "post-mortem appearances" of the dead. (Michael Heiser, Naked Bible 25, Greco-Roman Ghost Stories and the Bible (Part 4 of 8-part series), 2012)

He then goes on to make a point, that when you gather and look at the overall genre of writings that fall into the realm of "ghost stories" there are lots of things, basically "rules," truths or stock elements, that the genre of ghosts would adhere to. This is not unlike the same type of elements and rules we have in different type of story genres today.

These are things that are acknowledged and set forth across the board by anyone writing in that genre. We all know these things even as non-writers. For instance, if someone today were to write a story in the genre dealing with vampires, you would surely assume to find them stating that a way to repel a vampire is what? —a cross (or garlic). Or how about, the most common way to kill a vampire is how? —a wooden stake. Or werewolves, this may be a little tougher for some, but what is the standard way to kill a werewolf? —a silver bullet. How about zombies, they are all the rage these days. Everyone knows the only way to really kill a zombie is how? —shoot or destroy the head.

We could go on and on, but point being, these types of rules can be found in many types of genres, and people who write within the genre are typically expected to adhere to those stock methods. The same was true when it comes to what you find in the ghost stories of the first century people. Stories and experiences of ghosts, apparitions, etc. were common place among the Jews, the Greeks and the Romans, and while they may stray a little here and there in areas, for the most part, these adhered to the same guidelines of understanding.

Heiser references a 2008 writing by Jason Robert Combs from yale, dealing with this ghost story in Mark and Matthew. Combs seeks to point out the apparent absurdity found in this verse, which we'll get to in a moment.

Exegesis of the pericope of Jesus' walking on the water is enhanced by an understanding of ancient beliefs about ghosts, as described in tales of hauntings and similar phenomena in Jewish, Greek, and Roman sources. By identifying in this ancient literature characteristics common to the Markan account, one may detect how Mark initially establishes the expectation for a phantasmic appearance and then diverges significantly to emphasize the disciples' misconstrual of Jesus' messiahship. (Jason Robert Combs, A Ghost on the Water? Understanding an Absurdity in Mark 6:49–50)

Then, he spends a good amount of time looking at all of the differing views of ghosts, spirits, demons, etc. that are found not only among the Scriptures and 2nd Temple Hebrew literature, but also some of the common views from other local cultures. A good amount of his focus was seeking to find a possible connection with water appearances, but in general, he was looking at the how, when, and why these different entities tend to operate and appear. When he circles back to the story in Mark, after looking at all of the typical types and functions of ghostly apparitions, he notes:

In Mark, the ostensible phantom appears at night, specifically at the fourth watch, and causes fear. These few features are commonly associated with the haunting specter. Ghosts who haunt typically appear in dreams or at night and pester the living to have their remains properly buried. …

… Besides the dreams, the need for vengeance or proper burial, and the location of haunting, there are three additional common features that, as noted above, appear more obviously in Mark: (1) ghosts appear at night; (2) though difficult to see, they look as they did in life, yet pale or shadowy; and (3) they cause fear and terror for the living whom they encounter. A fuller examination of how each of these three characteristics functions in Mark 6 and other ghost stories will make clear that Mark fulfills the audience's expectations for a ghost story before he diverges in a significant way. (Combs, A Ghost on the Water? Understanding an Absurdity in Mark 6:49–50)

His comment on the significance of the fourth watch was an interesting note. He points out that the fourth watch is when the sun was not visible, but the rays of light were beginning to illuminate things. He notes that contrary to our modern concept of ghosts, they did not actually glow, and that it would take a bit of light in order to see them, and too much light would make them impossible to see, making the fourth watch a prime time. But his main concern with this story, is the absurdity of it. He points out:

Mark, then, has set the scene for a classic tale of a haunting specter through his use of the word φάντασμα [ghost], the nighttime hours, the faint light of an approaching dawn, and the disciples' fearful response. Yet Mark diverges drastically from one key component of ancient ghost stories that involve water: ghosts cannot walk on water. (Combs, A Ghost on the Water? Understanding an Absurdity in Mark 6:49–50)

He goes through all kinds of understandings in all kind of cultures and writing, and while water is often mentioned, it is typically seen as a hindrance to ghosts. It is a barrier or boundary, something you cross at death, things like that. But never is there a time when the ghost would touch or walk upon it. Actually, in many stories, contact with water is very detrimental to the ghost.

So, knowing all of the typical ins and outs of how ghosts work, what they can and cannot do, and all of the common knowledge things people of that time would have understood, why would they believe something so illogical as to think it was a ghost they saw coming across the water at them? The author, Combs, makes reference to an extensive work that I think assists in our scenario. He says:

Adela Yarbro Collins has written a thorough treatment of the Greco-Roman texts that parallel Jesus' walking on the sea and has quite convincingly demonstrated the wealth of evidence for gods, god-gifted rulers, and divine men walking on the sea. (Combs, A Ghost on the Water? Understanding an Absurdity in Mark 6:49–50)

So, it was probably fairly common knowledge at the time of Mark's writing that while ghosts could not walk on water, divine men and gods could. However, the disciples do not assume this figure coming towards them is a divine man or god, they think it is a ghost, an apparition of a dead person.

It is possible that from a distance, in the dark, among the turmoil of the sea around them, that they only saw the figure, and did not recognize it to be Jesus. We seem to get a hint of this being the case in that immediately after they cried out in fear, He spoke to them, identifying himself. This was an aspect that not many commentators mentioned, though Sproul seems to consider it:

Imagine this experience from the disciple's point of view. Their attention was fixed ahead, to the west, as they struggled to move the boat forward (a struggle they have been working at for the first three watches of the night already).  Then, they caught sight of something behind them on the sea. Looking closely, they finally discerned the figure of a man, but he was not swimming or wading; he was walking on the surface of the heaving sea. (R.C. Sproul, St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary: Matthew)

But the point is, they should have already assumed it was not a ghost, but something divine, which of course in hindsight, we know it was. Heiser sees Combs point, stating:

Anyone familiar with the literary elements of a ghost story would have known that Mark was not describing a ghost. He was describing a god—some divine figure. Mark cast the disciples as basically spiritually clueless or blind to something that should have been obvious.

This historical point on understanding ghosts is apparently not something all commentators recognize however. For Sproul continued on in his section to say:

They ran through the categories that reason offered to explain the extraordinary phenomenon, and they quickly came to the conclusion: "It is a ghost!" What else could it be? They understood the basic principles of buoyancy. They knew that human beings could not remain on the surface of the water but always sank into it. But a ghost, a disembodied spirit, would have no problem coasting across the water without sinking. (R.C. Sproul, St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary: Matthew)

So, yes, logically they had to assume it was not just a simple man that they were seeing. However, they should have thought bigger and better, and not at all considered it a typical ghost experience. Something was wrong with their thinking, and the story as given to us in Mark does indeed seem to further make the connection with the still clueless understanding the disciples had towards Jesus. Mark tells us:

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mar 6:51-52 ESV)

It is easy for us on this side of things, to look at them and wonder just how could they be so clueless with all of the things they are seeing. Are they still looking for a physical king, and not comprehending fully what is taking place before their own eyes?

After all they have seen, they should know that the one they are dealing with, is in fact the divine one sent from Yahweh, but they aren't quite there yet. As Sproul puts it:

What had they not understood? Simply put, they should have understood the One with whom they had to do was God incarnate. Who else could feed thousands and thousands of people with a few loaves and some fish? But instead of seeing the presence of God, they saw the presence of a liberator from the military oppression of Rome. They did not understand. (R.C. Sproul, St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary: Mark)

Mark is letting us know, that even after the earlier feeding of the five-thousand miracle, they still were dull of heart – still not truly understanding who Jesus was. Combs goes on:

In Mark the disciples' insistence on believing the absurd seems to emphasize, to the extreme, their failure to believe in Jesus. This is exactly what Mark records. After Jesus identifies himself, Mark describes the astonishment of the disciples, their lack of understanding, and the reason for that lack: their hearts were hardened (6:51–52). The disciples' lack of understanding has long been recognized as a Markan theme that appears throughout the Gospel. Here it forms a striking narrative portrayal of cognitive dissonance: the disciples clearly want Jesus to be something that he is not, to the point that they are willing to believe the absurd when Jesus approaches them as something much grander than they had imagined. Gods and divine men walk on water; ghosts do not. But when the disciples see Jesus walking on water, they believe the impossible rather than the obvious. (Combs, A Ghost on the Water? Understanding an Absurdity in Mark 6:49–50)

However, it does appear that this event, though totally misunderstood at the time, may have been the final "ah ha" moment for them. Even after seeing so many miracles, before this event, they were still not getting it, yet Matthew's account of this story reveals their attitude after this water walking event, by telling us:

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (Mat 14:32-33 ESV)

Once they were blind, but now they appear to see. After the feeding of five thousand, their heart was still hard, but after the water walking, they see who he really is. It just seems like it took so much for them to finally begin to realize what was going on. When you're reading through the Scriptures, and you run across an interaction where Jesus does something, have you ever stopped to wonder how you might react if you were there?

Like I said, on this side of things, we already know the whole general story, so it is easy for us to fall into an overly critical mindset towards the apparent blindness of these followers. But as you're reading the narratives in Scripture, consider stopping sometimes, and clear your mind of what you know, and try to put yourselves in the disciples' shoes with only what they knew at the time. What might you have thought by these things you were seeing and experiencing? It may really change your opinion and view, giving you a new perspective on what these poor fishermen struggled with as they experienced these astonishing things.

To sum this all up, in the case before us today, it seems quite clear that during the time frame of the disciple's boat ride, the general understanding among not only the Greeks of the day, but also within the Hebrew culture, was that there is a clearly understood belief of disembodied spirits being indeed an acceptable concept and reality.

In this scenario, their minds jump right to the conclusion that they were seeing such an entity. We also saw that their mind similarly jumped to the same conclusion when the "deceased" Jesus showed up at the house, in their presence. They were not condemned or corrected by their Lord for holding such a view, but the view was confirmed when he instead proved that he was not as they thought.

We also saw that historically, based on the laws forbidding the practice, it is clear that the ancient Hebrews believed in the ability to contact the departed dead, and of course we saw the one clear Scripture reference to a time when the art of necromancy was successful, which seems to seal the case in my opinion.

In this story, after all the followers of Christ had experienced, they should have seen his walking on the water as a true act of divinity from the start. For the very culture of the day understood that only the divine could walk on water. Yet instead of seeing a divine character approaching them, they jumped to the conclusion of absurdity, thinking instead that what they were seeing was a ghost.

We also noted that it was the Sadducees of their time that took issue with these types of beliefs, and I pray that this little message may in some small way help lead others away from such a belief system. But alas, we can see how those same beliefs, as well as many other ancient doctrinal disputes, still rear-up and thrive in some circles in today's church, which I guess just goes to prove that the wisdom of Solomon indeed still holds true, for:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecc 1:9 ESV)

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