Did the Disciples Believe in Ghosts? : Studies in Mark, Pt. 30

The whole scene of the disciples thinking that Jesus was a “ghost” really fascinates me (Mk. 6.45-56). After Jesus has told the disciples to go ahead of Him, He goes up on to a mountain to pray. From atop the mountain, He looks out and sees the disciples having a hard time rowing against the wind. Moments later, He comes down the mountain, walks out to them on the water and they think they’re seeing a ghost.

Now, the episode itself is quite incredible. Yet, I think there is even more going on than originally meets the eye that makes this story even greater than first appears.

In my opinion, there are a few important words in this narrative that must be analyzed to get at what is going on. One of those terms is phantasma, that is, “ghost” or “apparition.” (Of course, this is from whence we get our word phantom.) This word also occurs in the Matthean account of this tale (Mt. 14.26). This word refers to a being from the spiritual realm. It can denote a demon or some type of god or goddess.

Another important term here is the word thalasses, which means “sea.” As is well known, it was a common belief in the ancient world—especially in Jewish circles—that the sea(s) inhabited spiritual creatures, usually evil ones (see for example, Rev. 9-11 and even Job). Now, many commentators have had a heyday with this. In fact, a large sum of those who have written on this passage have argued that here, the disciples must have thought that the “ghost” came up out of the evil sea to attack them.

Bultmann and others actually took this a bit further and suggested that the whole story was really nothing more than a myth whose aim was to show Jesus’ power over evil (e.g. Jesus walking or treading on top of the domain of the evil spirits shows His power over them). This is an interesting story but I don’t believe it is the best one that could be told. Just as well, it raises a lot of questions about authorial credibility, the historicity of Jesus’ words and deeds, why would Jesus appear as an evil spirit if He was not one, etc. Thus, I do not subscribe to this view.

One word that has been zeroed in on in this story is parelthein, which means, “to pass by.” Indeed, it does seem odd that Jesus “willed” or “desired” to “pass by” the disciples! Numerous scholars have argued that Mark does not use parelthein accidentally. In fact, it is often argued that Mark used this word so that his readers would be reminded of Old Testament passages such as 1 Kings 19.11 where God’s “passing by” of Elijah was actually God’s way of saving and protecting him. Thus, in the story of the disciples in the boat, Jesus’ passing is an idiomatic way of saying that He was aiming to save and protect them. While this view is incredibly compelling, I’m still not sure that I can commit to it. (I have argued against it here: Jesus Walks On Water. I also argued in that post that Jesus’ walking on water served the specific purpose of teaching the disciples something about His relationship to them.)

For me, there seems to be something more going on. In fact, I have been pondering an idea that, as far as I know, has yet to be mentioned. This merits a look at another word: anemos (Mk. 6.48). This word is a Greek word that means “wind.” In his account, Mark says that the disciples could not progress because they were straining against the anemos. Perhaps it is because the “evil sea spirits” or the “theophanic” interpretations have dominated conversations of this passage that the term anemos has been overlooked. I, however, think it is “the” key to going deeper with this story.

In ancient Greece, there were many cults. Of course, each cult revered its special god(s) or goddess(es). A very prominent cult was the Cult of the Anemoi, that is, the cult of the wind gods. There were various gods of this cult (8, I believe, N, NE, E, SE, etc., one for each direction). Now, I need to be clear here. I do not believe that the disciples subscribed to these cults. However, I do believe that it was highly likely that they were aware of such cults. Even more, I believe that this awareness informs their ideas that Jesus was a “ghost.” Let me give some examples.

All throughout Greek literature, we find mention of the Anemoi (especially in hymns written about them). Personally, I have read hundreds of these fascinating accounts, not the least of which appear in Homer’s works. In fact, in my opinion, Homer had a great fascination with them; he speaks of them often, usually personifying them. Others personified them too, often portraying them as spiritual beings having the appearances of humans. Actually, most of them were pictured as having beards, donning cloaks and occasionally carrying weaponry (e.g. Boreas, Kaikias, Apeliotes, etc.). Here is an excerpt from Hesiod’s Theogeny (note the personification and the use of the word Anemoi):

"Zeus in tumult of anger cast the typhoon giant Typhoeus into broad Tartaros. And from Typhoeus come boisterous Winds (Anemoi) which blow damply, except Notos (South Wind) and Boreas (North Wind) and clear Zephyros (West Wind). These are a god-sent kind, and a great blessing to men; but the others blow fitfully upon the seas. Some rush upon the misty sea and work great havoc among men with their evil, raging blasts; for varying with the season they blow, scattering ships and destroying sailors. And men who meet these upon the sea have no help against the mischief. Others again over the boundless, flowering earth spoil the fair fields of men who dwell below, filling them with dust and cruel uproar." [869]

My point in showing this passage (I cannot show the hundreds of others, in fact, I have included 15 accounts at the end of this post that the beginning reader might be interested in) is to point out that perhaps scholars have focused too much on the evil sea beings and because of this, have totally missed out on the evil wind beings (again, to my knowledge not one person has ever argued this, until now). Notice that in Mark 6.45-56 it is not even the waters or the seas that are the source of the disciples’ problems. Instead, it is the “wind” that is giving the disciples a fit. Moreover, the disciples freak out when, as they are rowing into the wind, see a being. In a world where hundreds if not thousands of accounts of personified wind beings existed, doesn’t it make more sense, then, to say that it is likely that the disciples thought the “ghost” was an evil amenos? I think so. However, when they realized that it was not an evil being but rather Jesus, who as a real, physical human, climbed into their boat, they were shocked.

Is it possible that they were thinking He created and thus came out of the storm and that is why they were so stunned? Were they temporarily confused, that is, did they think that this Jesus they had been following was, after all, just another one of the wind gods? I think this option is highly likely. It may even help us make sense of the “hard hearts” and not “understanding the loaves” comments. Taken together, these two statements refer to the previous scene where Jesus “taught” about who He was. Yet, the disciples had not grasped His “teachings” and thus, they also misunderstood the miracles (notice in that story that Jesus teaches about Himself before He ever does the miracle! I have written about that here: Feeding Story). Thus, by including these two statements in the boat scene, Mark is showing that if the disciples would have previously gotten what Jesus had said, they would have never confused Him with a wind god or anyone or anything else.

In my opinion, then, reading the story this way reveals something profound not only about the misunderstandings of the disciples but also about Jesus’ relationship to them and also about His human / divine nature. So, to return to the title question: Did the disciples believe in ghosts? Well, it appears that they did. However, to them, these ghosts represented wind gods or spiritual wind beings! This is what they had mistaken Jesus for. Yet, in the end, Mark shows that Jesus is not just some other cultic or mythological figure. Nor is Jesus some evil wind (or even sea) being. Moreover, Jesus is not some personified phantom or ghoul, instead, He is the God-Man who desires to be among the people, so much so that He is willing to walk out to them, go through the storm with them and get into the boat beside them. What a great God we serve!


*Here are a few passages from select works concerning the Amenoi:

Hesiod, Theogony [378]
Homer, Iliad [23.194]
Homer, Odyssey [10.1]
Apollodorus, The Library [E7.10]
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica [4.819]
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy [2.549]
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy [3.580]
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy [4.1]
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy [14.467]
Ovid, Metamorphoses [4.663]
Ovid, Metamorphoses [11.430]
Virgil, Aeneid [1.50]
Suidas s.v. Ges agalma
Hyginus, Preface
Statius, Thebaid [1.205]

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