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Paula Jordan

Jesus and Peter on the Water, 1949, Charcoal drawing on plywood, 180 x 180 cm, Evangelische Lagerkapelle Friedland, © Family of Paula Jordan; Photo by the author, reproduced with permission of Innere Mission und Evangelisches Hilfswerk im Grenzdurchgangslager Friedland e. V.

Philipp Otto Runge

Christ Walking on the Water (Calling of Saint Peter), 1806–07, Oil on canvas, 116 x 157 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, bpk Bildagentur / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg / Photo: Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY

Francisco de Goya

The Drowning Dog, 1820–23, Mixed method on mural transferred to canvas, 131 x 79 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid, P000767, Copyright of the image Museo Nacional del Prado / Art Resource, NY

Easter Before Easter

Comparative Commentary by

The story of Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee can best be read as an Easter story. It begins with Jesus gone, and the disciples alone and desperate. Then he appears to them in the most incredible way. In walking on the water—as in his resurrection appearances—he reveals his true identity. Fear gives way to trust; the disciples reach the shore safely and continue their mission.

With its tensions and contradictions between fear and joy, doubt and faith, this Easter story before Easter shows the rich dynamics of a mature and paradoxical faith in Christ.

In Mark’s version, ‘good news’ does not ring out loud and clear. Jesus does not walk on the water in order to save the struggling disciples. Actually, he seems about to pass them by. His disciples think he is a ghost and scream (6:49). He tries to comfort them but the horror does not leave them, nor does their incomprehension. This fits with the approach of an Evangelist who does not proclaim the radiant Easter faith we find in the other three Gospels, and who ends his Gospel (as he ends this episode on the Lake) by preserving a note of fear (Mark 16:8).

John meanwhile mentions a strong wind, but no real danger. The disciples are afraid, but not too much, because Jesus immediately comforts them: ‘It is I!’ (6:20). They recognize him and understand everything. By contrast with Mark, John tells this story as though Easter faith is unproblematic, and can be taken for granted by Jesus’s own.

The most exciting version of this story is Matthew’s, which navigates a passage between Mark’s note of questioning and John’s emphasis on assurance. Matthew is the only one of the three who seems to have realized that this is a central Easter story, and a very dramatic one. 

It’s a story which he imbues with an almost Gothic atmosphere. Jesus withdraws, the disciples remain alone (as they do after Good Friday). They are in danger of their lives, in the middle of the night, in severe distress at sea: not just struggling into a difficult headwind, but ‘beaten by waves’ (14:24)

Then he comes to them; they look at him; he does not pass them by. That is their salvation. Walking on the water is not the miracle itself, but only a means to an end: a new relationship in faith. The key to salvation lies in the word with which Jesus Christ identifies himself to his believers, just as he does after the resurrection. The one who seems at first like an apparition on the water is Jesus, just as the one who appears among his disciples in a locked room after his burial is the very one with whom they walked during his lifetime.

But Peter, whose role in this story is unique to the Matthean account, cannot simply believe this. Like Thomas in John’s Gospel, he needs a proof for the truth of this self-identification by Jesus. Therefore, he puts his master and himself to a test. Surely, ‘if it be [Jesus]’ (v.28), the miracle of walking on water must be replicable. So Peter leaves the boat, walks a few steps, then looks around. He sees the real situation he is in and begins to sink. His master saves him and admonishes him.

One would like to know in what tone he asked Peter: ‘Why did you doubt?’ (v.31). Peter could easily have answered by saying that human beings cannot walk on water just as a dead person cannot come to life again. But he has just had an incredible and undeniable experience of consoling closeness and saving intimacy. So he silently goes back into the boat with his master. All is well again. Peter remains silent, but his friends now do understand and make a confession: they identify Jesus as the Son of God.

To present this dynamic story in a picture is an extreme challenge. Perhaps that is why relatively few have tried. As an artist you have to decide whether you want to focus on the one aspect or another: bewildered fear or miraculous faith. So, Paula Jordan—like John—has put comfort and salvation in the foreground of her drawing and reduced all that is frightening. In Francisco de Goya’s Dog on the other hand—just as in Mark—one can see the opposite: the depiction of naked loneliness and creaturely fear, with only the vague expectation of something that might help. But a synthesis of both moments was achieved by Philipp Otto Runge who—like Matthew—created the visual idea of a mature and dynamic Easter faith able to embrace paradox.