I’ve been enjoying teaching through the Gospel of Mark in an ongoing Webinar series called “Translation Notes.” We focus especially on the words and grammar of the Greek text, trying to answer questions that arise when translating to English.
A few weeks ago I taught a session on Mark 4:35-41, where Jesus exercises authority over the elements by calming a storm that had the disciples fearing for their lives—and already starting to drown.
Paying attention to Mark’s Greek helped me see two important parts of the narrative that could be easy to miss.
First, in Mark 4:37, when the “furious squall” (NIV) comes up, the waves are breaking into the boat where Jesus and his disciples are. Mark says, “the boat was already (ἤδη) filling up.”
This is an important detail, especially with ἤδη = already. The point at which the disciples call out to Jesus is not when they see storm clouds, or when they’re worried a storm might come, or even when they’re sure it is coming. The storm is already there, the waves are already breaking, and the boat is already getting swamped (so NRSV). Not just wet—drenched.
This means the disciples must have felt like they were seconds away from drowning. This isn’t a cute story or an object lesson for them: “Teacher, doesn’t it matter to you that we’re dying?”
Translations that give “we are about to die” or “don’t you care if we drown?” or “we’re going to drown” seem to soften the force of the present indicative verb Mark uses: we are dying. And don’t you care, Jesus?
I think this makes the story all the more relatable. We can cry out to Jesus not just in moments of feeling like we’re about to die, but in moments of actual dying.
A second important point in the narrative: before the disciples can utter this desperate prayer to Jesus, they find him sleeping. Mark narrates it like this:
καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν ἐν τῇ πρύμνῃ ἐπὶ τὸ προσκεφάλαιον καθεύδων.
= And he was in the stern, on a pillow, sleeping!
Major translations tend to change the Greek word order in translation, so that it reads, “But he was in the stern, sleeping on a pillow.”
But I think the word order as Mark has it is worth preserving in English, because Mark is heightening the drama:
And he… (okay, phew, Jesus is at least around!)
…was in the stern… (wait, what’s he doing in the back of the boat?)
…on a pillow… (at a time like this? He’d better not be sleeping!)
I struggled to find any English translation that translated it this way, but Eugene Peterson’s Message (supposedly a paraphrase—certainly more thought-for-thought than word-for-word) gives us, “Jesus was in the stern, head on a pillow, sleeping!”
It’s a short sentence, but I think Mark’s word order is deliberate—it’s like a slow-motion nightmare where the already-dying disciples find the worst possible outcome: the one who can save them is asleep.
Those two moments in the story—of actually beginning to die and of terror at Jesus’s being asleep—are worth inhabiting as readers today. Or maybe a better way to say it is that we already feel like we inhabit those moments, and we need to acknowledge it. Mark reminds us that we’re in good company: the company of the dying and terrified. And he invites us to cry out to Jesus, even in our dying, even when it looks like Jesus is fast asleep.