Most of Mark’s Gospel prior to the passion narrative revolves around a body of water the author calls the Sea of Galilee. It is the geographical focal point where Jesus calls his disciples, preaches to the crowds, travels (by boat), and performs his miracles — including many that involve the sea itself. It is a dangerous body of water whose raging waves must be quelled by Jesus on one occasion to save his shipmates.
There is, in fact, no “sea” in the Galilee region of Palestine. There is a lake in the right location that matches the geographical description of Mark’s sea in many (thought not all) respects. But no ancient writer prior to Mark ever mentions a body of water called the Sea of Galilee, and some of the reasons Mark gives the sea such a prominent role are often overlooked.
A Lake of Many Names
The largest freshwater lake in Israel went by several names in antiquity. The Old Testament refers to it just three times, calling it the Yam Kinneret (Chinnereth). Unlike many languages, ancient Hebrew did not distinguish between salty and fresh bodies of water; yam could refer to both. The LXX simply translates it as the sea of Chenara (Num 34:11) or Chenereth (Josh 12:3, 13:27).
Like English, Greek and Latin did distinguish between lakes (limne) and oceans (thalassa). Josephus variously referred to the lake as the lake of Gennesar, the lake of Gennesaritis, or the lake of Tiberias. Pliny the Elder referred to it as lake of Gennesaret or Taricheae in his encyclopedia, Natural History. Strabo called it the lake of Gennesaritis¹ in his opus Geography.
Genessar and its variations come from the plain of Gennesaret, which lay on the northwest side of the lake. The name is ultimately a Grecized form of the Hebrew Kinneret (Chinnereth), which was an ancient city in the upper Jordan valley. Tiberias and Taricheae were two other important Roman cities near the lake, and their names were used to identify the lake in Roman times.
Porphyry of Tyre, a Greek philosopher of the third century, was one of the first pagan writers to investigate Christian claims. The surviving quotations of his work include some canny observations about Mark:
Another section in the gospel deserves comment, for it is likewise devoid of sense and full of implausibility; I mean that absurd story about Jesus sending his apostles across the sea ahead of him after a banquet, then walking across to them “at the fourth watch of the night.” It is related that they had been working all night to keep the boat adrift and were frightened by the size of the storm [surging against the boat]. (The fourth watch would be the tenth hour of the night, with three hours being left.)
Those who know the region well tell us that, in fact, there is no “sea” in the locality but only a tiny lake which springs from a river that flows through the hills of Galilee near Tiberias. Small boats can get across it within two hours. [And the lake is too small] to have seen whitecaps caused by storm. Mark seems to be stretching a point to its extremities when he writes that Jesus—after nine hours had passed—decided in the tenth to walk across to his disciples who had been floating about on the pond for the duration!
As if this isn’t enough, he calls it a “sea”—indeed, a stormy sea—a very angry sea which tosses them about in its waves causing them to fear for their lives. He does this, apparently, so that he can next show Christ miraculously causing the storm to cease and the sea to calm down, hence saving the disciples from the dangers of the swell. It is from fables like this one that we judge the gospel to be a cleverly woven curtain, each thread of which requires careful scrutiny. (Translation by R. Joseph Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, 1994.)
The Sea in the Other Gospels
The other canonical Gospels (including John, in my opinion) were based on Mark and had a tendency to correct perceived errors of geography and history in the material they used. How did they deal with Mark’s references to the Sea of Galilee?
Luke mentions the lake by name only once. In 5:1-11, his version of the calling of the disciples (parallel to Mark 1:16-20), he calls it by its standard name, the lake of Genneseret. In four other instances, he calls it “the lake”. (Mark’s second reference to the Sea of Galilee in 7:31 has no parallel in Luke.)
Matthew, on the other hand, is content to follow Mark in calling it the Sea of Galilee. In fact, he refers to the “sea” (thalassa) eleven times to Mark’s seven.
John adopts a compromise. He calls it the “sea of Galilee of Tiberias” in 6:1, adding the normal Roman name to Mark’s name, and he continues calling it the “sea” afterward. The author of the Johannine appendix also calls it the Sea of Tiberias, probably on the basis of 6:1.
Analysis of Mark’s Wording
Mark, then, is giving the lake in Galilee a name that is unattested in any earlier source, and very possibly an invention of his own. And it’s not just the name; as we saw from Porphyry’s remarks, he treats it in the narrative as a sea rather than the small lake that it is.
Some commentaries simply note that calling the lake a sea is a Semitism and leave it at that — as if all is explained. Thiessen (Gospels in Context, 237-39, cited by Collins in Mark (Hermeneia) p. 157 n. 1) went further, arguing for an Aramaic setting behind Mark. But are we really supposed to think that a Greek author writing to a Greek audience didn’t know the difference between a lake and a sea? Other commentators propose that Mark was influenced by the Septuagint, which I find lacking for two reasons: (1) The lake is an obscure geographical feature in the Old Testament, barely mentioned at all. (2) Mark does not use the Septuagint’s name for the sea, Chenara/Chenereth. (After I had nearly finished this article, I discovered that Notley [2009, p. 185] raises the same objection.) Additionally, neither of these explanations helps us understand how the sea functions in Mark’s Gospel.
There are two other explanations I think have more merit.
The Sea as a Symbol of Chaos in the Old Testament
God’s control over the raging, chaotic sea is a common theme in the Old Testament, from the creation myths of Psalms and Isaiah to the crossing of the sea in Exodus. Elizabeth Malbon (see bibliography) gives some examples she thinks are relevant to Mark’s portrayal of the sea, notably LXX Psalm 106 (MT Psalm 107):
Those who used to go down to the sea [LXX: thalassa] in boats, doing business on many waters—it was they who saw the deeds of the Lord and his wondrous works in the deep. He spoke and the tempest’s blast stood, and its waves were raised on high. […] they cried to the Lord when they were being afflicted, and out of their anguish he brought them, and he ordered the tempest, and it subsided to a breeze, and its waves became silent. (Psalm 107:23-25, 28-29)
Mark presupposes the connotation of the sea as chaos, threat, danger, in opposition to the land as order, promise, security. …The threatening power of the sea is manifest, but the power of Jesus’ word is portrayed as stronger; Jesus stills the storm and walks on the water, overcoming the threat of the sea; Jesus causes the swine possessed by unclean spirits to rush to their deaths in the sea (5:23a, b), turning the threat of the sea to his own purpose. (p. 376)
Mark’s reliance on Psalm 107 is also suggested by his odd mention of other boats:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. (Mark 4:35-36)
Those who used to go down to the sea in boats, doing business on many waters—it was they who saw the deeds of the Lord and his wondrous works in the deep. (Psalm 107:23)
The possibility that Mark’s use of the sea is symbolic rather than historical is strengthened by the fact that his itinerary of sea crossings don’t always make geographical sense as described. There is also the story of the Gerasene demoniac that reimagines Gerasa, a city over 45 km from the lake in reality, to be right by the shore; and the route by which Jesus returns to the sea Mark 7:31 (“Then he returned from the region of Tyre by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee through the midst of the Decapolis.”) is just plain impossible if taken literally. (Nineham draws attention to these and other geographical problems with Mark, and concludes that the author was not well acquainted with Palestine. See Nineham, p. 40.)
A Markan Odyssey
Dennis R. MacDonald (professor of religion at Claremont School of Theology) is a well-known proponent of the view that the author of Mark deliberately uses themes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to develop his story. As MacDonald notes in his books, students in the Greek-speaking world used the technique of imitatio to learn composition, and Homer was the most popular model to use. The literary culture was infused with Homer; no literate Greek learned to read and write without acquiring extensive familiarity with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Mimesis, or imitation of famous works, was not considered plagiarism, but a time-honoured technique for composing new stories.
To put it another way, there is little doubt that all the authors of the New Testament learned to read and write Greek through extensive study of Homer.
When MacDonald turns his tools for mimetic analysis to Mark, he finds numerous parallels with Homer. One that is relevant for our topic is a passage about Odysseus in Od. 10. Like Jesus in the stilling of the storm (4:35-41), Odysseus and his companions set sail with multiple ships (twelve ships to be precise — a rather biblical number). Odysseus sleeps while a terrible gale drives the ships and the crewmen despair. But Mark’s Jesus is greater than Odysseus, for Odysseus is powerless to affect the winds, which are controlled by the god Aeolus; but in Mark, Jesus does in fact wield the divine ability to control the wind. (MacDonald 2015, loc. 742ff)
Another sea-related parallel is the episode of Jesus walking on the water in 6:45-52. In Iliad 24, the god Hermes has golden sandals that let him walk across the water, and Priam and Idaeus are terrified when they first see Hermes approach at night, much like the disciples’ reaction to Jesus on the sea at night. Hermes then joins Priam and Idaeus in their chariot and leads them to their destination, just as Jesus joins the disciples in the boat to and takes them to Gennesaret². Similar stories occur elsewhere in Homer as well as in Vergil’s Aeneid, which also heavily borrowed from Homer (Ibid. loc. 1049ff).
In MacDonald’s view, the sea — which plays such a crucial role in the Homeric epics — is used by Mark as a setting in which he can draw on those same Homeric themes to demonstrate that Jesus has powers over nature that only a god could have. According to MacDonald, this addition of “fictionalizing” (as MacDonald puts it) elements to the historical Jesus served “to bring his teachings into clearer focus” while also depicting Jesus as “more compassionate, stronger, and wiser than the gods and heroes of the Greeks.” (Ibid. loc. 2780) The Homeric stories selected for imitation by Mark are also frequently the same ones borrowed by Vergil in the Aeneid, making Jesus a rival not only to the Greek heroes, but also to Aeneas and the Roman emperors. (Ibid. loc. 157)
Why the Sea of Galilee?
Why did Mark name his sea after the region of Galilee and not call it, say, the Sea of Chenereth as we find in the Septuagint? Geographically speaking, Galilee borders two lakes — the Lake of Gennesaret and Lake Semechonitis a bit further north — so that description already introduces some ambiguities.
One possibility is that the Messiah was expected to restore northern Israel (the region of Galilee) — Gentile territory ever since the Assyrian conquest — to the Jews. The most famous Old Testament test to convey this idea is Isaiah 8:23-9:1:
In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
The Greek Septuagint is worded somewhat differently and can be interpreted as a future prophecy:
Do this first, do it quickly, O country of Zebulon, land of Naphtali, by way of the sea, and the rest who inhabit the seashore and beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations, the district of Judea. O you people who walk in darkness, see a great light! O you who live in the country and in the shadow of death, light will shine on you!
Thus, Jesus’ association with Galilee and “the sea” becomes a means of identifying him as the Messiah. (Eidsvåg, p. 177) And even though the Septuagint clearly intended the Mediterranean Sea, the early Christian community associated it with Lake Gennesaret. Mark may be making a veiled reference to Isaiah 9:1 when, in his second and final reference to the “Sea of Galilee” in Mark 7:31, he has Jesus make a journey from Tyre to Sidon (taking Isaiah’s “way of the sea” to the idealized northern boundary of Zebulon) and then through Naphtali and the Decapolis (Isaiah’s “land beyond the Jordan”) to the sea (Notley p. 187).
Matthew makes the Isaianic connection more explicit, for when he copies the arrival of Jesus in Galilee and the beginning of his ministry by the sea from Mark, he inserts the aforementioned quotation from Isaiah as a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus (Matt. 4:15-16)³. It is no surprise, then, that Matthew embraces Mark’s use of the term “Sea of Galilee”.⁴
Whether the toponym “Sea of Galilee” was an invention of Mark’s or of the early Christian community he belonged to (so Notley), it is clearly a theological innovation that associates Jesus with an Isaianic “prophecy” and then-current Jewish views of the region of Zebulon and Naphtali. It was also important for Mark that his story take place on and around a perilous sea — and not merely a placid lake — in order to fully illustrate his views of Jesus.
MacDonald’s thesis of Homeric influence throughout Mark might be more controversial than the numerous and well-established cases of imitating the Old Testament, but neither explanation of Mark’s “sea” motif excludes the other. Mark’s Jesus stands in both the Jewish and Greek traditions, commanding the weather like a Homeric deity and subduing the chaotic sea like the God of Israel.
For those of us raised in Christian environments, familiarity with Mark’s Gospel may prevent us from appreciating its mythologizing nature. Even the geography of Jesus’ ministry may include elements that have been specially chosen or even invented for their symbolic value.
- Strabo might have confused Lake Gennesaritis with Lake Semechonitis further north. Nevertheless, his knowledge of the name is relevant.
- Mark’s geography becomes confusing at this point, however, since the disciples were instructed to cross to Bethsaida (on the lake’s east shore), but they end up in Gennesaret on the wrong side of the lake (on the west shore) after Jesus joins them.
- Matthew modifies the Greek text of Isaiah further, stating that a light “has risen” on the people — putting it in the aorist tense as a fulfilled prophecy and using the word “rise” to remind readers of the star that rose at Jesus’ birth.
- The pairing of Zebulon and Naphtali has additional meaning for Matthew. The twelve tribes and their associated regions took on additional layers of meaning in the Targums being written in the first and second centuries. Zebulon was the seaside-dweller, a merchant and master of boats as well as the tribe of Jonah, an archetype for Jesus in the Synoptics. Naphtali, where Jesus’ hometown of Capernaum was located, was a fisherman and a messenger, the “bearer of good news”. This symbolism almost certainly must also underly Mark’s narrative of a Jesus who disciples fishermen and crisscrosses between Zebulon and Naphtali throughout his ministry, though it is made more explicit in Matthew. See Derrett and Tassin below.
R. Joseph Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, 1994.
Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “The Jesus of Mark and the Sea of Galilee”, JBL 103/3 (1984), pp. 363-377.
D.E. Nineham, Gospel of Saint Mark (Pelican Gospel Commentary), 1968.
Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia: a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible).
R. Steven Notley, “The Sea of Galilee: Development of an Early Christian Toponym”, JBL 128/1 (2009), pp. 183-188.
Dennis R. MacDonald, Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero, 2015.
Gunnar Magnus Eidsvåg, The Old Greek Translation of Zechariah, 2016.
J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Ἦσανγὰρἁλιεῖς (Mk. I 16): Jesus’s Fishermen and the Parable of the Net”, Novum Testamentum 22/2 (1980), pp. 108-137.
Claude Tassin, “Zabulon et Nephtali dans le Targum : un éclairage de Mt 4,13–16 ?”, The Targums in the Light of Traditions of the Second Temple Period, 2014.