Did Jesus claim to be God? And in the Synoptic Gospels did He claim to be God? In John’s Gospel Jesus’ deity is much more unambiguous and more explicit than in the Synoptics, and some academics have even claimed that in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, Jesus never claimed to be God.
Is that true?
In his book, The Case for Jesus, Roman Catholic scholar Brant Pitre points to the evidence of Jesus’ walking on water as evidence of Jesus’ deity.
You might think that’s not obvious, since Peter walked on water, too, and he’s not deity. The trick is looking a little closer at the text and trying to see it as a Jew steeped in the Old Testament might see it.
Here is the episode as given in Mark. I’ve put two key terms in bold:
Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away. And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray. Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land. Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by. And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, “Be of good cheer! It is I [Egō eimi]; do not be afraid.” Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled (Mark 6:45-51).
Jesus said, Egō eimi, which means “I am.” You’ll miss that in most translations, which put it as, “It is I!” (KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, CSB, GNT, DRB) or “It’s me!” But Jesus said, “I am.”
As you may know, “I am” is also the name of God:
Then Moses said to God, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Moreover God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’ Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying, “I have surely visited you and seen what is done to you in Egypt”’” (Exod 3:13-16).
Of course, “I am” can be a simple way to identify yourself. If someone asked me, “Are you Shawn Lazar?” I could say, “I am.” Or if someone asked, “Are you Daphne’s father?” Again, I could answer, “I am.” And that would not be evidence of my deity!
And maybe that’s all that Jesus meant— “It’s me!”
So how can you decide what Jesus meant by saying, “I am”? Was He claiming to be deity or not?
Consider when and where Jesus is saying that—during a miraculous display of power! Just as God spoke out of the burning bush (showing His sovereignty over it), Jesus said, “I am” while walking on a windy sea!
But notice further how Mark says that Jesus “would have passed them by.” That’s an easy detail to miss, but you shouldn’t. In fact, it’s a significant OT allusion, especially in this miraculous context. How so?
As Pitre explains, “In the Old Testament, the expression ‘passing by’ is repeatedly used to describe what God does when he appears to human beings” (The Case for Jesus, 129).
For example, do you remember when the Lord appeared to Moses in bodily form (i.e., a theophany)? He put Moses in the cleft of the rock, covered him with His hand, and then passed by (Exod 33:19, 22; cf. Exod 12:23, 27; 34:6; 1 Kgs 19:11; Ezek 16:6, 8).
If you take the walking on water, add the passing by, and combine that with the “I am”—what you get is more than a miracle, but a theophany! This was Jesus revealing His deity to His disciples.
Did the disciples fully understand what was being revealed to them? No. I think their reaction to the cross was proof of that. But the seeds were planted, and they had a gut reaction, an instinctual response to what was happening before their eyes. No wonder the parallel account in Matthew says that at that point the disciples—monotheists all— “worshiped Him” (Matt 14:33).