Doron Nof, a professor of oceanography, said a rare combination of water and atmospheric conditions in the Sea of Galilee 2,000 years ago may offer a scientific explanation for one of the miracles recounted in the Bible.
Nof said a patch of ice floating in the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a freshwater lake, would have been difficult to distinguish from unfrozen water surrounding it.
"I'm not trying to provide any information that has to do with theology here," Nof said in an interview Wednesday. "All we've thought is about the natural process. What theologians or anybody else does with that, it's their business, so to speak."
According to the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark and John, Jesus' disciples were out on the Galilee at night when a storm came up. Jesus walked to the terrified men, who thought he was a ghost, according to the accounts.
Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary, lightheartedly dismissed the idea that Jesus walked on ice.
"I'm just cold to the theory," said Bock, author of "Breaking the Da Vinci Code," which defends traditional Christian beliefs challenged in Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code."
"I tend to treat it as a real miracle," Bock said. "Almost all the nature miracles are challenged in one degree or another."
Other reaction to the theory has not been so restrained.
"I get hate e-mail on the average every three minutes," Nof said. One e-mail called him "the most stupid person on the planet" and closed by wishing that he "go to hell where you belong."
Nof's research appears in the April issue of the Journal of Paleolimnology, a publication on the reconstruction of lake histories. Nof's co-authors are biostatistics professor Ian McKeague of Columbia University and atmospheric science professor Nathan Paldor of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
They came up with the theory after studying records of long-ago water temperatures in the Mediterranean Sea, based on core samples of shells and other animal remains taken from the bottom.
The records indicated that two lengthy periods 2,500 to 1,500 years ago were chilly enough for ice patches to form during cold spells on the Sea of Galilee, said Nof, a native of Israel.
The unfrozen water surrounding the ice would have come from salty springs along the lake's western shore, he said. Salty water freezes at lower temperatures than fresh water.