Ancient Origins ran a couple of unusual articles by John McHugh this week about the Biblical story of how Jesus walked on water, and they were… weird. McHugh correctly notes that the different versions of the story recorded by the Gospel writers are not identical, and he is also right that the Biblical authors wrote long after the events they claimed to record. But then Hugh tries to argue that the story is astrological and revolves around Greek mythology and Mesopotamian linguistic puns. This seems like a bridge too far for me, particularly since there are more immediate potential cultural influences for a story of walking on water than long-lost Mesopotamian wordplay.
Attempts to explain that miracle of the walking on water have fallen into a few categories. Some have tried to argue that the event really happened and was supernatural in origin. Others have explained it as confusion by the Apostles, who actually saw Jesus walking on the seashore or standing on a sandbar. (This is a particularly silly rationalization.) Still others have declared it a complete fabrication. Perhaps the most interesting set of explanations revolves around parallels with the contemporary Greek and Jewish worlds. For example, 2 Maccabees 5:21 writes that the arrogant ruler Antiochus was so prideful that he thought he could turn the land into sea and make the sea passable by foot. Several Greek writers also wrote of walking on water as an almost proverbially impossible act.
Given this, there is no particular reason to imagine a complex astronomical symbolism when there are simpler alternatives that better fit with how the audience for the Gospels would have understood the story in its cultural context.
Anyway, McHugh, who holds a master’s in archaeology from Brigham Young University, relates the story to Greek mythology, but of a decided older cast. He cites Hesiod to the effect that the ancient hunter and giant Orion could walk on water: “there was given him as a gift the power of walking upon the waves as though upon land” (trans. Hugh Evelyn-White). The line comes from Pseudo-Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi, which cites the Astronomia attributed to Hesiod. While the ancients all believed this to be a genuinely archaic poem, some modern scholars believe it to be a Hellenistic forgery. Either way, it predates the Jesus story by at least a few centuries.
McHugh writes that Vergil, Pseudo-Hyginus, and Pseudo-Apollodorus both wrote the same of Orion, though this isn’t strictly true. Hyginus (Astronomica 2.34) certainly did, but Vergil (Aeneid 10.763ff.) writes that Orion walked through the waters—i.e., he was so big that he waded through them. Pseudo-Apollodorus (Library 1.4.3) says that Poseidon gave him the power to stride across the sea.
McHugh locates this story in the stars because Orion’s constellation stands near to water-themed constellations. “Orion’s outstretched legs portray him striding away from celestial land and onto the astral “Sea” delineated by the eight, contiguous aquatic constellations consisting of the Dolphin, Goatfish, Southern Fish, Water-pourer, Sea Serpent, River, Twin-Fishes, and Ship.” This is a difficult argument since Orion stands atop Lepus, a rabbit, and the proximity of one constellation to another is no real indication of its role in the Greek mythology of Hellenistic times. A particular challenge comes from the fact that the Greek constellations were in many cases adaptations of Babylonian ones, which only imperfectly correlated with Archaic Greek myths. The story of Orion, for example, is so old that much of whatever his original myth had been was lost, leaving only traces.
But McHugh’s entire framework is also off. He thinks that Orion’s myth transferred to Jesus in a three-part process:
The first is the Hellenic belief that the constellations portrayed an incontrovertible pictographic record of sacred history. The second was the belief Jesus had ascended into ouranos, the “sky, heaven”, which is precisely where one finds these hallowed, stellar still-frames. And the third was the Mesopotamian belief that polysemous meanings embedded in the constellation-gods’ cuneiform title imparted immaculate knowledge.
The Greeks did not consider the constellations to be “sacred” history, since polytheistic Greeks did not consider their myths to be sacred stories in the same sense that Abrahamic faiths considered their writings to be sacred. Nor were the constellations “incontrovertible.” Indeed, no two ancient authorities tended to agree on what exactly the constellations depicted. The myths and legends associated with them had so many variants that Apollodorus spent most of his time just listing what different writers had to say.
But here is the weirdest part of McHugh’s analysis, building on the idea that the story of the magi in the Gospels proves that the writers were familiar with “Mesopotamian astrological esoterica” in detail, and not simply in general or by reputation:
Moreover, cuneiform astronomical-astrological texts refer to Orion by the Sumerian title DINGIR DA-MU. And since DA-MU meant “child” or “son” in Sumerian, the name rendered “Son-god”. DINGIR was the Sumerian word for “god” and it also served as a logogram which stood for the Akkadian word sha/“of”. Therefore, polysemous readings encrypted in one of Orion’s titles yielded the words: “Son, Of, God”.
I am at a loss as to where McHugh gathered this information. The name he ascribes to Orion appears in no source I could find. Its ancient name was Sipa.zi.an.na in Sumerian and MUL.APIN in Babylonian, according to scholarly sources. It doesn’t help that McHugh mixes together Sumerian and Babylonian material without distinguishing clearly between the two.
McHugh also alleges that that the boat involved in the Jesus story was Jason’s Argo from Greek myth:
The Greek Argo appears to be the derivative of a Mesopotamian “Cargo-Ship” written Makurru in Akkadian, or MA 2-GUR8 in Sumerian. Cuneiform literature describes the Makurru-boat as a divine ship constellation stationed in the southern reaches of the night sky; and it has its prow torn off in a popular religious myth. Thus it’s hard to imagine a better correlation between two constellations: the Greek Argo—like the Mesopotamian Makurru-boat—is a deified ship positioned in the southern region of the night sky that, astonishingly, is missing its bow!
Ugh. I don’t really feel up to going into this in detail, but the Greek constellation Argo Navis—later divided into three smaller ones—is not of Sumerian origin. Instead, it is one of the oldest Greek constellations, for which evidence dates back prior to the Greek adoption of Babylonian astronomy c. 500 BCE. The constellation is believed to have an Egyptian origin, at least according to the Greeks (specifically, Plutarch), and there is no evidence whatsoever that the Sumerians or Babylonians recognized it as a ship-shaped constellation. The claim comes from pan-Babylonist-inspired claims that the zodiac and all the constellations are the Epic of Gilgamesh writ into the stars, but there is no evidence in favor of the claim. The pan-Babylonist writers believed that the Epic of Gilgamesh was itself a zodiac, with each tablet corresponding to a constellation, but such Victorian and Edwardian fantasies were long ago demolished. That they have been revived here is unsurprising but nevertheless depressing.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.