Mark's Sleepy Jesus (& Extra Boats): Studies in Mark, Pt. 2

As I continue to work through Mark’s narrative and the works that have been written to try to explain it, I am constantly amazed at the lack of attention that commentators tend to pay to certain passages that seem obscure. For example, when it comes to a couple of phrases in Mk. 4.35-41, it seems that the majority of interpreters simply gloss over them (some simply skip over them with no mention at all). Take the statement in 4.36 for instance, which says, “…and other boats were with Him.” Every single commentary I read (over 40 of them), said something akin to: “the boats mentioned here are not mentioned in the other accounts and are a simple embellishment by Mark; they have no other role in the story.”

But can the "other boats" just be written off so easily? I would suggest not. I would also suggest that Mark wasn’t just wasting ink but rather, these boats are indeed, part of the story he wants to tell and as such, they are included for a reason, even if only minor! And what about the other odd phrase found here (the first part of the same sentence), which says, “Leaving the crowd, they took Him in the boat just as He was.” What does that mean, “Just as He was?” Well, again, the answers usually given are not satisfying. The most commonly accepted answer seems to be: “As He was" means "as He was sitting in the boat.” I find this interpretation unacceptable.

What I want to do here is to give some better answers to the questions that 4.36 raises. However, to do that, I need to first reiterate a couple of the main points of my previous post on Mark’s account (Studies in Mark, Pt. 1): 1) The disciples already knew Jesus when He called them and He already knew them, and 2) The disciples were not called to abandon everything instantly or in a haphazard manner, much less forever.

I should say here that, there seems to be no proof whatsoever that any of the disciples who were fishermen left that trade for good! Again, see the previous post (and the discussions about it) for more details. What this means, then, is that they kept and maintained their vocations and their boats. Even a cursory reading of Mark’s account shows us that time and time again, Jesus has the disciples get a boat ready for Him (presumably “their” boats since Jesus wouldn’t have mandated stealing somebody else’s; on a side note, one wonders if the disciples may have used their boats as tools to gain honor status before Jesus—e.g. He’s riding in my boat today since He rode in yours yesterday).

So, when we read 1.16-20, where Jesus “calls” the fishermen to follow, it is not meant to be taken in the sense that they just abandoned everything forever; it is simply meant to suggest that they followed Him at the moment (and remember, in the wake of losing their leader, John the Baptist, they were quite eager to follow). Thus, in 3.9, when Jesus tells the disciples to have a boat ready for Him, He is telling them to get “one” of their boats ready. Again, we wonder if they fought over it like they did later on in 9.34 where they are arguing over who is the greatest!

When we get to 4.1, we finally see Jesus getting in a boat; a boat owned by a disciple. In the scene just before this one, Jesus is at His home and the people have crowded Him. It is this same crowd in 4.1 that has followed Jesus to the lake. His inner-circle has followed Him there too. Now, we have to remember that Jesus is out in public at this point; He is not sitting in a boat on someone’s private lake. So, when He gets to where the boats are located, along with the crowds following Him, it is only reasonable to assume that there were other boats with fishermen in them, around. Therefore, there are people (the crowds who had followed Him) on the shore and there are people already there in boats (the fishermen).

It is at this point that I would argue that we have to flashback to Mk. 1.16-20. We remember from that episode that Simon and Andrew had a boat and so did James and John. But Mark gives us some extra information here. He says that Zebedee was on the boat with some hired help. We know from the 1986 excavation of a boat from Lake Galilee that the average boat was pretty sizeable. The one that was uncovered could hold a five person crew and about the same amount of passengers. (The excavated boat was 26.5 ft. long, 7.5 ft. wide, 4.5 ft. deep, could hold about 1 ton and was dated between 40-70 AD.) It is this type of boat that, in Mark’s account, Jesus travels in. For instance, Mk. 6.45-54 appears to describe such a boat!

Now, I can offer two options that, to my knowledge, no scholar has yet to offer. First, it is a possibility that the disciples got a number of boats ready for Jesus in hopes that He would choose theirs (maybe they could score some brownie points with Him, they thought). We see them do this type of thing repeatedly, so, it is not out of place or character. However, the second option I have to offer may be more plausible. It seems to me that in a manner similar to how Jesus found Simon, Andrew, John, etc. when He first “called” them, is how He would have found their boats on this day too. When he showed up on shore, Zebedee and co. would have been working. Further, there could have been other fishermen on the water, in their boats too. Thus, when Mark tells us that there were “other boats” with Jesus, he is probably referring to Zebedee and the hired crew, along with the disciples. This is where we need to take into account the two parts of the "Sermon on the Boat" where Mark tells us that there were “others” there with Jesus in private (4.10, 34)!

The picture, then, is of a number of boats surrounding Jesus. Probably, some of the people on these boats He and His disciples knew (or were even related to). The story does not mandate a reading that suggests that the other boats traveled to the other side with Jesus, though it is certainly possible to read it that way. If they did, then Jesus’s entourage is sizeable here. If they didn’t, then they were sitting around listening to Jesus’s teachings and explanations while He was close to the shore. It might be telling, though, that the custom of Jesus asking people to “follow” doesn’t show up here; they may have stayed. This, in my opinion, is a much better answer than anything else I’ve come across and in may ways brings fresh insight to the story.

This takes us back to the other point previously raised: What does it mean that “they took Him just as He was”? In Greek, the statement is: “paralambanousin auton os hn en toi ploioi.” It could literally read, “they take Him as He was in the boat.” I need to point out here, another important point that I have yet to see any scholar make. In verse 38, there is almost an equal statement, compare the Greek: “Kai autos hn en thi prumnhi” (And He was in the stern…”). Of course, there are some differences, but there are also similarities, namely, the parts that say “He was in the…”

What I would argue is that these verses should be taken together to be referring to the same thing: Jesus sleeping. That is the action of Jesus in verse 38 and I think verse 36 should be read in the same way. Therefore, when 4.36 says that “they took Him as He was in the boat” it should be understood that Jesus is already sleeping. Thus, the disciples have started to the other side of the lake, perhaps not knowing why, but simply carrying out Jesus’s wishes to do so. He is asleep as they begin (it is night after all; and we should keep in mind that this is the prime time for fishing, perhaps this is why they waited until then to leave and it was during this time of waiting that Jesus went on to bed). In my estimation, this makes much better sense than anything that has yet to be offered (and you should know that I am saying that humbly, not arrogantly!).

Lastly, one thing that scholars have noted is how this story has echoes of the Jonah story. I would agree that Mark may be telling the story in such a way as to remind his audiences of that narrative. If that is the case, in light of my above research, I would add to the points already made, that, before the sailors even set the ship off to sail, Jonah is already sleeping! This makes sense of Mark’s statement about them taking Jesus as He was: sleeping!

One of the things I am realizing more and more is just how important it is to read the Gospels from a literary-critical perspective. When we fail to do this, we overlook stuff, write it off as insignificant and just miss out on so much. We have to remember that Mark wasn’t into wasting time, parchment or ink; when he wrote something, he wrote it for a reason: because it was a part of the story. Sometimes (probably many times), it is those little details that open up so many new vistas for us in our studies. May we think more creatively and diligently when it comes to studying and interpreting The Text.


  1. Michael, I don't know if you see new comments when they pop up on these old articles. But I just wanted to say I really appreciate your work here. And I continue to be amazed how (though there are theological places where we differ) we are so often on the same track biblically, asking the same questions! I am researching this pericope for Sunday's teaching, and I have been scouring my commentaries (and the web--wasting too much time actually) to get some insight into: why mention the other boats? and what does Mark mean by 'just as he was'? I was getting frustrated by the gloss-overs everywhere, when I remembered your studies here at pisteuomen. Lo and behold, you have a whole article directed exactly to these two textual questions! What are the chances?!


  2. Tim, yes, I am notified when old posts are commented on.  I'm glad to see that you were asking these questions and that my post was able to, perhaps, offer a new or even helpful perspective.  I hope that you'll look here FIRST from now on :) .  Let me know if I can help with anything.  BTW, it is the "gloss-overs" that make me continue to love biblical studies! Asking new questions, reviving old ones, etc. etc. is to a great degree, what biblical studies is all about.  Good to see you're asking questions, especially questions of these sorts (which may seem insignificant but can actually have great significance on how we understand, interpret and apply the overall story).