Doron Nof finds natural mechanisms for some of Christianity's greatest miracles.

Credit: Lisa Kyle Young

The Bible is filled with accounts of natural phenomena that defy explanation: the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water and the flooding of the world for 40 days and nights, to name a few. If it’s science’s job to explain the mechanisms behind seemingly illogical events, Doron Nof, a physical oceanographer at Florida State University, is its shepherd. In 1992, Nof devised a theory to explain the parting of the Red Sea. Last month, Nof made waves again with a scientific rationalization for how Jesus may have walked on water. His answer: The son of God was supported by ice.

Nof determined that temperatures in Israel in Jesus’ day were 10° F cooler than today. With the right three-day cold front, “spring ice,” as he refers to it, could have formed in the Sea of Galilee. The meteorological phenomenon could have made it appear as if someone was walking on water, when they were in fact, gliding on ice.

Seed asked Nof to discuss his theory as well as his greater brush with science and religion that it’s caused.

According to your theory, Jesus didn’t walk on water in the Sea of Galilee, he was just trampling on ice?
What I think is possible is that there was ice there during his lifetime. There is a very high likelihood there was ice above those salty springs—actually above the plumes generated by the salty streams, next to the village where he supposedly lived. Whether he walked on it or didn’t walk on it or if it’s related to the Biblical story, I don’t know, but it’s possible.

Courtesy Doron Nof

How does this phenomenon that you call “spring ice” come about?
The Galilee is a freshwater lake. And just as when a regular river dumps into the ocean, the [river] water floats on top because it’s freshwater on top of salty water. At the Galilee, it’s the opposite: the springs of salty water get into the freshwater lake. So the water from the springs sink to the bottom and form a plume, and it is only above the plume that freezing could take place—not the entire lake.

How thick would ice need to be to support a full-grown man.
It’s about 6 inches or so. It would have needed to stay cold for about two to three days.

What is the likelihood of the same ice build-up to happen again?
Zero. The climate 2,500 years ago was much cooler. In today’s climate, there is no way that the ice could form. On top of that, these salty springs have been diverted—they no longer empty into the Sea of Galilee. Even if they were still there—they diverted about 50 years ago—the likelihood of that ice today is literally zero.

Doesn’t the fact that the ice is not likely at all to form now, and the fact that it formed only on rare occasions, make Jesus’ walk at least a little miraculous?
Well, that’s subject to the interpretation of the reader. I don’t view it as miraculous, but maybe some other people do. We are talking about ice now—we need to distinguish between that and whatever the Biblical story is. There was a reason why the ice could have formed then and not now, and that’s because the climate was cooler then. Climate changes; it doesn’t stay fixed. If you look at how the climate was in the last 15,000 years, there have been tremendous fluctuations in it.

You were also behind a controversial theory in the ‘90s that explained how the Israelite’s crossed the Red Sea. Is that at all related to this explanation of Jesus walking on ice?
That was totally different; that had to do with wind. The part of the Red Sea where the Israelite’s supposedly crossed is very long and narrow and not very deep—maybe 30 meters—related to the rest of the ocean. And if the wind blows for a very long time it could expose a ridge that is normally submerged, and the idea is that maybe somebody crossed on that ridge.

What kind of criticism have you received regarding your explanation for Jesus’ walking on water?
I have been getting a lot of mail, maybe 200 to 400 e-mails a day. A lot of it is negative and some of it not negative. It’s hard to judge what that means because only the extremists tend to send you e-mails. I can tell you that if you were to Google my name last week you would have gotten about 500 or 700 hits, a typical result of a scientist with my seniority. If you Google it today, you would get 95,000 hits. The story propagates, and people talk about it somewhere.

What made you so curious about studying religious phenomena?
My view is that the Bible is a historical book and was written and re-written many times, probably. I think that [this particular miracle] is perhaps based on something natural that happened, but not frequently enough for people to get used to it. Again, this is my view. It doesn’t mean it’s the correct view, but that’s the view I took before I started that research. It doesn’t mean other people need to view it that way.

It’s a part of science to explain events like this. Why are people so sensitive to these theories? What nerve does it touch?
Somehow they think somebody is attacking their beliefs, but really nobody is attacking their beliefs. All I say is that, as a natural scientist, I think it is my job to tell you what happened 2,500 years ago at that lake. What you do with the information that I tell you is up to you. If you believe that it explains it or not, you be the judge. But as a scientist, I tell you that is what happened.

Do you have any opinion on other issues where science and religion collide, such as intelligent design?
I’d rather shy away from that.

Do you have any ideas on how Jesus turned water into wine?
Not a clue.

Originally published May 1, 2006


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