On the Sea of Galilee
AN ACCOUNT recorded at Mark 4:35-41 reports that Jesus and his disciples boarded a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. We read: “Now a great violent windstorm broke out, and the waves kept dashing into the boat, so that the boat was close to being swamped. But he [Jesus] was in the stern, sleeping upon [the] pillow.”
This is the only place that the Greek word for “pillow” occurs in the Bible. Scholars therefore do not know the exact meaning of the word as used here. Most Bibles translate the word “pillow” or “cushion.” Yet, what was the nature of it? Mark’s use of the definite article, the pillow, suggests that it was part of the boat’s equipment. A boat discovered near the Sea of Galilee in 1986 has brought to light a possible understanding of this Greek word as used by Mark.
Research reveals that the 26-foot-[8 m]long boat was powered by sail and oars. It was used for fishing and had a stern deck to hold the large and heavy seine net. The remains of the boat are dated to between 100 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. and may represent the type of boat used by Jesus and his disciples. Shelley Wachsmann, involved in the excavation of the boat, authored the book The Sea of Galilee Boat—An Extraordinary 2000 Year Old Discovery. He suggests that the “pillow” Jesus slept on was a sandbag used for ballast. A veteran fisherman from Jaffa experienced in seine-net fishing said: “When I was young, the boats that I worked on in the Mediterranean always carried a sandbag or two. . . . The bags were kept on board for ballasting the boat. But when they were not in use, we stored them under the stern deck. Then, if someone was tired, he would crawl in beneath the stern deck, use the sandbag as a pillow, and go to sleep.”
Many scholars believe that Mark’s description meant that Jesus slept on a sack of ballast sand beneath the stern deck, the most protected part of the boat during a storm. Whatever the exact form of that pillow, the more significant point is what happened thereafter. With God’s backing and power, Jesus calmed the storm-tossed sea. Even the disciples asked: “Who really is this, because even the wind and the sea obey him?”