When Jesus’ disciples saw him coming toward them walking across the water (Matthew 14:26; Mark 6:49), what did they think they were seeing? Nobody knows what was going through their minds, despite many people guessing over the years. However, many Bible translators have implanted something in the readers’ minds that may be wholly untrue. What?
Most English Bibles say ‘ghost’. Yet choosing that word has large implications. Firstly, it implies that the disciples believed in ghosts, but it also implies that they had an understanding of a spirit afterlife. Yet, if none of this is true, readers would be seriously misled.
The Greek word used in the account to describe what they saw was phantasma, which is the root of the English word phantom. Therefore, English Bibles say ‘ghost’ or ‘apparition’. However, the meanings listed in reference works give various definitions: vision, dream, apparition, phantom, and appearance.
A vision (a prophetic dream) and an apparition (a ghost), are two very different things. So which is it?
The answer may lie in the word used by the Aramaic versions of Matthew and Mark. That word is d’hezwah. That’s variously defined as appearance, vision, or sight with no reference to ghosts or spirits. It can actually be a very mundane word, used to describe how someone appears. It was used in the Aramaic translation of Genesis 12:11 where Abram says to his wife, ‘you are a woman of beautiful appearance’. Was Abram saying that Sara looked like a ghost?
It’s also the same word used to describe the visions and prophetic dreams of Daniel. We know that Daniel was not seeing the ghosts of dead people. He was seeing complex prophetic visions. Additionally, it’s used to describe the vision God gave to Moses, showing him how to make the Tent of Proofs (the Tabernacle). Again, there were no ghosts.
There is absolutely no suggestion of the ‘ghost’ of a dead person in the Aramaic word.
Further, according to ancient writings, Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, and it was likely the disciples’ native language. So they probably said the Aramaic word, not the Greek. Even if this were not true, the Aramaic Gospels would have been translated from Greek very early, and show how people understood the account back in the early days of Christianity.
In fact, additional definitions of the Greek word are indeed vision or dream, yes just like the Aramaic word. So it seems the Aramaic and the Greek words can agree.
The disciples probably did not say something meaning ghost. The word they said likely meant vision, meaning a miraculous prophetic vision, like those experienced by Daniel and Moses.
Therefore, this translation says ‘vision’.
Perhaps they even thought that the dangerous storm was part of the vision sent by God. When they cried out in fear, it may have been to ask God to end the terrifying ‘vision’ in which they thought they were trapped. Yet in reality, they were not in a vision. They were in a naturally-occurring storm, and the man walking on the water was their friend, lord, and teacher, Jesus.
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