By Reverend Mark Hunnemann
It has surprised me the number of seminary trained Christians whom I respect point to the text in Mark 6 as proof positive that Jesus believed in ghosts. They say it is the clearest text of Jesus affirming the existence of human spirits/ghosts populating the earth, and that Jesus Himself believed in ghosts because He did not correct his disciples when they thought/said Jesus was a ghost as He walked on the water. Though I dealt with this in my book, I want to address this again in more detail. What I want to do is take the cumulative evidence to show that Jesus was NOT affirming the existence of ghosts. As we shall see, the Holy Spirit's intent for this text is antithetical to the notion of ghosts. "Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened."
1. It is important to put this text in context. Mark, spokesman for Peter, wrote this "docudrama" in order to persuade people to be followers of Jesus--words and actions of Jesus are presented by Mark to draw true disciples to our Divine Messiah. This episode is "hooked" into the preceding narrative of Jesus miraculously feeding over 10,000 people by using the word "immediately". (5,000 was just the men) Jesus is trying to show his obtuse disciples that He was the "greater then Moses" by giving us eternal Bread, and not ephemeral manna.The parallel text in Matthew 14, which includes Peter walking on the water, is also followed by the word "immediately". This is important because the authors want us to connect what had just happened (empirical evidence of Jesus' deity as seen in miracle of feeding of large multitude)The disciples were eyewitnesses of this profound miracle. In order to interpret this text correctly, we must remember that didactic/teaching texts interpret historical narratives.Both in the OT and NT followers of God did and said many wrong things, which are not always corrected by the editor. The classic case is Jepthah (Judges 11:30--who vowed to kill the first thing that came out of his tent, if God gave him victory. His daughter came out of his tent to congratulate him and was condemned to death. Jepthah had made an unbiblical vow--which the bible had made provisions for him to repent of. However, it seems that he did not repent and felt obliged to follow through with his horrible vow--he killed his daughter. However, the editor does not explicitly condemn this act. The inspired editor assumed prior knowledge of his readers. Anyone conversant with Leviticus/Deuteronomy would know that wrongful vows should not be acted upon, and that Jepthah SHOULD have known human sacrifice was repugnant to God. The editor assumes this prior knowledge, but does not give commentary. That is that danger of drawing doctrine from the silence of historical narrative. The same is true of the NT. Many evil words and actions are recorded in the historical books of the bible but are not always condemned. It is HISTORY. In the NT there are numerous examples of the disciples saying/doing whacko things prior to Pentecost,but Jesus did not always correct them (e.g. Transfiguration experience where Peter stuck his foot in his mouth, again)....a precedent of the disciple NOT being rebuked by Jesus for saying stupid things.
2. What was the Holy Spirit's intent in above text? Was it to prove the notion of ghosts? NO!! This text, and its parallel text in Matthew 14. was included to prove that Jesus was Yahweh! How sad and ironic that it is used to "prove" that Jesus believed in ghosts. Jesus intentionally "walked by them" in order for them to see Him, and thus give empirical evidence that He was the Creator of Heaven and Earth. By walking on the water Jesus wanted them to see Him walking in the midst of a ferocious storm to show He was the Lord of creation. "it is I....."ego eimi"...I AM" echoing Exodus 3:14 )By walking on the water in a furious storm He was demonstrating that He was Lord over creation, and that there was no need to be afraid. Not only Jesus' actions but His words were designed to show the disciples that He was/is God Almighty. The Septuagint uses the same word for "passed by" when Moses experienced God "passing by" him )Exodus 33:19,22....giving Moses/disciples a glimpse of God's glory. In Mark 6:48 "walking on the sea" echoes the Septuagint Job 9:8 where "God trampled upon the sea"....same Greek words. The Holy Spirit's intent in this text is to accent the deity of the Lord Jesus--King over creation (see Mark 4).
3. First century Judaism was rife with superstition and theological confusion. For example, Jewish leaders believed in salvation by good works, and the popular superstition of a plentitude of ghosts was rampant, as it has been since the dawn of time. Peter and the rest of the disciples were deeply effected by common superstition, and were very slow to change until after Pentecost.
4. Why would they call Jesus a "ghost" when they had just seem him a few hours earlier...very much alive? Was He a ghost of a living Person? Perhaps they were terrified because they thought this was a demon trying to deceive them? That is an option not often mentioned. Either way, with an abundance evidence for Jesus' deity, why would they call Him a ghost? How could God be a ghost?! This is (and the parallel text) is the only place that "phantasm" is used, which can mean superstitious imagination.
5. Recall that the Holy Spirits intent was to exalt the deity of Jesus, and the disciples de-exalted Him by calling Him a "ghost".
6. So, why did not Jesus correct them? First, we do not know if Jesus corrected them or not because in many cases the entirety of what Jesus said is not recorded. But my guess is that He did not correct them....not then, anyway. Why? They were deathly afraid! He was keen on comforting them, and not correcting them.It is an argument from silence to say that Jesus must have agreed with them since He did not correct them.The most common negative command that Jesus uttered was, "Do no be afraid!" If your child was drowning, and you jumped in to save them, what would be your first words to them?
7. In a context in which the deity of Jesus is being accented, it must have broken Jesus' heart that His disciples responded so faithlessly. He "walked by" in a manner to empirically display His Lordship over the storm, but the lesson was lost on them. Instead they became wild-eyed with fear, and superstition enveloped them like a cocoon.
8. To say that Jesus must have believed in roaming human spirits because He did not (that we know of) correct His disciples, is an argument from silence--a logical fallacy. Jesus/apostles did warn us of Satan and demons, but they never warn us of roaming human spirits. This is NOT an argument from silence because knowing who populates the spirit realm is utterly necessary for discernment and victory in spiritual warfare. As an exorcist, how can I properly proceed if I do not know exactly who/what may infesting the house/person? Jesus never cast out a human spirit from a human...only demons.
9. Not all historical narratives are bereft of teaching or editorial comment.v.52 is an inspired editorial commentary on this whole episode--they were afraid and their hearts were hardened. Faith Vs fear, and teachability vs hardened hearts. Unlike many historical narratives, this one is concluded with an editorial comment. This is extremely important in interpreting this text accurately. Everything...EVERYTHING...the disciples did and said has a shadow cast over it. Everything they said and did was compelled by fear and hard-heartedness. Their comment re: Jesus being a ghost was an expression of both fear and hardness of heart. They did not learn from the feeding of the 5,000 (or the 4,000) that Jesus was God almighty. How utterly tragic that they would call Him a ghost, when what He was doing and saying displayed that He was the culmination of the I AM". It is difficult to over-state the significance of this concluding comment...it renders the ghost comment utterly suspect.
10. The epistles were written largely to interpret the actions and words of Jesus. After Pentecost, ghosts are never mentioned again--except the deceased spirits in heaven or hell (e.g. Moses and Elijah). To those who are unduly affected by the fact that the bible does not mention Jesus correcting their comment that He was a ghost, was He a ghost in that text? NO! As parents, do we correct our kids EVERY TIME they make a mistake? The bible says that would break their spirits if we do. If your child was in danger of drowning and was frightened, would you feel the need to immediately correct them of anything dumb they may have uttered in their terror? I hope not....rather we would embrace them.
With an issue as significant as ghosts, we cannot camp on a text in which we are told explicitly that they were full of terror and hardness of heart, which casts a long shadow over everything they said. It is much more plausible that their cry of "ghost" was fueled by superstition.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.