Only two miracles are recorded in all four Gospels, the resurrection and the feeding of the five thousand. Clearly the most important of these is the resurrection as it is the basis of our faith. However, with regard to understanding the contrasting nature of the four Gospels I would argue that the feeding of the five thousand is more significant. The reason is that the resurrection is sufficiently vital that one would expect all four Gospels to carry it and for the details to be well known and rehearsed. In contrast the feeding of the five thousand, whilst miraculous, is no more miraculous than many other events that some of the Gospel writers chose to ignore. Thus these passages represent a rare opportunity to see an event in which the paths of all four Gospel narratives cross prior to the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
The scientific method dictates that one should postulate a hypothesis and then measure the incoming data against that hypothesis accepting or rejected the hypothesis dependant upon whether or not the data did what the hypothesis predicted. Following this method one would take one or more of the existing explanations for there being four Gospels and measure the four miracle narratives against those explanations. However there is a twofold problem with using this approach to analyze scripture. Firstly this form of supervised learning model is very poor at discovering things that are not already known; thus if these accounts are trying to show us something outside of what we know we would probably miss it. Secondly and most importantly scripture is our teacher, not our lab experiment. The Spirit may choose not to show us what the passage means if we approach it with the wrong attitude.
The approach of this paper is therefore to simply read and digest the four parallel accounts in the sequence that they present. The similarities and differences between each will be noted and some attempt will be made to ascertain if there is any pattern to the similarities and differences. It is hoped that this method will show both what actually happened and the meanings, or different meanings that can be derived from it. Finally an analysis will be done to see if this fits any of the accepted classifications of the four Gospels.
Mt 14:12 Then his disciples came and took away the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus. 13 When Jesus heard it, He departed from there
Given that the biography of the Lord's life is very heavily editorialized by the Gospel writers the context in which each of them places an event is usually significant. In this case the three synoptic Gospels place the feeding of the five thousand in exactly the same place although with a different emphasis. John's positioning, while very different at first inspection, may actually give us an important extra detail compared to the other three accounts.
Matthew's account is the most immediate and gripping. In verses 3-11 the death of John the Baptist has been narrated and at the end of verse twelve the disciples came to tell Jesus of it. Upon hearing the news Jesus leaves where he was, apparently alone. Whilst not explicitly stated the implication of Matthew's account would appear to be that the death of John and propelled Jesus into His action.
Mr 6:30 Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. 31 And He said to them, "Come aside by yourselves" For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.
Mark agrees that this event is subsequent to the death of John; however he broadens the context significantly. The Lord had sent out the disciples to preach and here we see that they are all returning to the Lord to tell Him all things they had done and taught. Mark also differs significantly in the nature of the departure. Firstly he states that the disciples were part of the group that traveled and even suggests it was for their benefit. Secondly he flatly states the reason as being that everything had been hectic.
Lu 9:10 And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done. Then He took them and went aside
Luke appears to take the difference between Matthew and Mark and magnify it. Leading up to verse 10 Luke had been discussing the mission of the disciples that had spread so that Herod had heard about it. Luke mentions that Herod had killed John previously but there is no particular timing given. The apostles are then taken aside although no particular reason is given.
In fact, rather than increasing the difference Luke has given the clue to join the three accounts together. Luke 9:9 is actually parallel to Matthew 14:1-2, Matthew then embarks on what is effectively a parenthetical section detailing the history of how verses 1&2 had happened. By verse 12 this historic section had come up to the present time and thus Matthew agrees with Luke. Mark of course agrees with them both but his emphasis corresponds to Luke's rather than Matthew's.
Joh 6:1 - After these things Jesus went
John does not give us an explicit context for this miracle. However he does give us a time-frame. In Jn 5:1 Jesus celebrates a feast which most commentators believe to be Passover. John 6:1 gives us an 'after these things' which tells us that a time is elapsing and John 6:4 tells us that this event occurred at a Passover. Thus we know that the 'after' in John 6:1 spans about a year at that the feeding of the five thousand took place around the 3rd Passover. Coupled with the synoptic accounts we also now know roughly when John the Baptist was killed and when the 12 were sent out preaching.
Mt 14:13 .. by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities. 14 And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.
Matthew's account of the setting of this miracle is extremely concise. He notes that the Lord traveled by boat and emphasizes that the quest was for isolation; both that he went to a deserted place and that he was by Himself. He then notes that the multitudes went on foot to see Him; that the Lord had compassion upon them and healed their sick.
Mr 6:31 to a deserted place and rest a while. 32 So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves. 33 But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. 34 And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things.
Mark's account is in many ways a graphic and action packed expansion of Matthew's. He agrees that the trip was taken in a boat and that the destination was deserted. However, he doesn't make isolation the only goal; he also states that they were aiming to rest and notes that the disciples were taken too. The expansion largely occurs in the behavior of the multitude. In Mark's account they spy the ship leaving, and run on foot so that when the ship lands they are there and waiting. In Matthew they heard the ship had left and traveled to meet it. As Jesus disembarks from the ship the group they had been trying to avoid was there waiting for him. Mark does not just note that Jesus had compassion upon them but also why: because they were like sheep without a shepherd. It is interesting that in Mark's account the Lord does not heal; he teaches. This suggests that their 'shepherdlessness' was more related to lack of direction than lack of care.
Lu 9:10 .. aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida. 11 But when the multitudes knew it, they followed Him; and He received them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who had need of healing.
The account in Luke is remarkably factual and un-interpretive. The reason and mode of the departure, simply that it was done. Luke does however give some geographical information; the deserted place belonged to a city called Bethsaida. Unfortunately that doesn't give us a precise location today as Bethsaida has been lost. There are however two sites proposed of which the most famous is e-Tel a mile and a half from the northeastern shore of the Lake of Galilee. Most dictionaries say that Bethsaida means 'house of fish' although it has been suggested that the actual root of the Hebrew means 'house of the box-lunch' which would be ironic. Luke also omits the note that the Lord had compassion upon the multitude; he does note that they were received. He also clears up the disagreement between Matthew and Mark over what the Lord did. He went around speaking of the kingdom and healed those that needed it. He also comments upon the difference that the multitude in Matthew had heard whereas in Mark they had seen. Luke notes that they went when they knew. I suggest that some of the eventual five thousand saw the ship and ran, following Mark's account. Others then heard this had happened and the crowd grew to its' eventual size.
Joh 6:1 After these things Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased 3 And Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. 4 Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near.
John also does not provide a reason for the Lord's departure and he provides the geographic detail that it was the Sea of Galilee they crossed. He does provide a motive for the crowd however; they had seen the miracles he had performed upon the sick. John also gives us the timing of the event which is the Lord's third Passover of His ministry. However the most startling feature of John is that the passage implies that Jesus' response to seeing the multitude was to withdraw with His disciples further up a mountain!
I believe the way to harmonize the accounts on this matter is to view the setting phase as taking the best part of a day. The Lord is greeted by people on the shore and a steady stream turn up. He talks to them and heals for a while and then withdraws with His disciples further up the mountain; ready for the next phase of the miracle to begin.
Mt 14:15 When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food." 16 But Jesus said to them, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." 17 And they said to Him, "We have here only five loaves and two fish."
Matthew presents a very simple statement of the problem. He notes the time un-emotively and states that the disciples came to the Lord with what is effectively a command. It is interesting that the first two things they tell Jesus are completely obvious; that the place was deserted and the time. The disciples in this version already have the solution; that the multitude should depart and that they should buy food. The Lord replies that they didn't need to go away and that the disciples should feed them. In Matthew's account the disciples appear to have already done a survey and know that there are only five loaves and two fish. Specifically it should be noted that in Matthew the whole exchange is in one continuous burst of three sentences.
Mr 6:35 When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, "This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. 36 "Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat." 37 But He answered and said to them, "You give them something to eat." And they said to Him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?" 38 But He said to them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they found out they said, "Five, and two fish."
Mark again appears to be an expanded form of Matthew and indeed the longest version of this part of the story. It is also one in which the emotional stakes have been raised. Firstly Mark moves from a simple statement of evening to pointing out that the day was far spent. The feeling of tiredness and 'end of a long day' has immediately surfaced. The disciples come to the Lord with a similar statement to Matthew but add that the multitude have nothing to eat. Incidentally this kills the standard liberal explanation that the generosity of the young boy prompted others to share food. Mark omits the Lord's assurance that the multitude does not need to go away; but keeps the command to the disciples to feed the multitude.
At the point Mark inserts a significant new piece of information; the disciples offer to go and buy two hundred denarii of bread. Two hundred denarii is 7 months wages for a laborer, about $8,000 today. This seems to imply either than the disciples had significant funds at this point, or that they were being sarcastic. I am inclined to believe they did have the resource. We know that a number of disciples came from this region and were men of means. The amount is also about the right sum to feed the number of people present.
However the other new feature Mark inserts is that this exchange actually happened in two sessions. First the Lord asks them how many loaves they have; then they go and find out. It is interesting that they report on loaves and fishes; even though the latter had not been asked about.
Lu 9:12 When the day began to wear away, the twelve came and said to Him, "Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding towns and country, and lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place here." 13 But He said to them, "You give them something to eat." And they said, "We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we go and buy food for all these people."
Luke contains elements similar to both the other synoptic Gospels but he also omits pieces and adds some of his own. Luke seems to agree with Mark that the day was getting very late. He also agrees with both the writers considered that the disciples came to the Lord and with the same suggestion. However he also adds that the group should look for lodging too. This is significant in that it shows that at least some of them were too far from home to be able to travel back before nightfall.
With Mark he states that the Lord told them to give the multitude food. He also mentions that the disciples offer to buy food for the multitude; however he does not state the cost and he places the offer after the number of loaves and fish have been ascertained.
Joh 6:5 Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?" 6 But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. 7 Philip answered Him, "Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little." 8 One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to Him, 9 "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?"
John offers the second longest account of this section of the narrative and broadly agrees with Mark with regard to the sequencing. However he offers significant extra detail with regard to the exact players and appears to provide a very different account of how this miracle is instigated.
Within the synoptic Gospels we have seen the disciples approach Jesus about the multitude; I believe John shows us why. The multitude where heading towards the spot where Jesus was. We are not particularly told they had ill intent but it is never good to be the focus of a large, unfed mob approaching nightfall. It should also be remembered that John has already told us that Jesus and His disciples had withdrawn from the crowd; yet they had hung around. This suggests that they were expecting more than they had already received.
In John's version of events we see the Lord instigate the notion that they should buy provisions; note too that Philip is the one questioned. A number of the commentators believe that Philip may have been the quartermaster of the group. Philip does not suggest that buying bread is a good idea: in fact he suggests that two hundred denarii worth would barely be adequate. However it is possible that the point the Lord is making here is not the cost of the food; it could well be that enough food for 5,000 people was not readily available late at night in a small village. The disciples' suggestion may actually not have been possible to implement.
John then introduces Andrew with the statement regarding the five loaves and two fishes. John provides extra detail here: firstly that the food came from a lad and secondly that the loaves were barley loaves and that the fish were small. The disciple goes on to stress the inadequacy of this amongst the people present.
The accounts here conflict sufficiently that I think it may be worth stating a sequence of events that combines the accounts. In the following words in italics are pure conjecture, those in normal face definitely happened although I could be wrong about the sequencing:-
The Lord interacts with the people during the data and then withdraws up the mountain towards evening with His disciples. The disciples spend time in conversation with the Lord but then go and mingle with the crowd. The disciples sense the unrest amongst the crowd or possibly see them heading toward the Lord and the disciples go to the Lord first with the statement that the crowd has no food and should be told to depart. Jesus looks up and sees the crowd coming. He states that they don't have to go and then asks Phillip where the bread is to be bought. Receiving a negative response He turns to the other disciples and tells them that they should give the crowd the food. One disciple then assumes that the order is to buy the 200 denarii worth of bread Philip mentioned. The Lord then asks them how many loaves they have. Andrew then goes and finds out and comes back with the response of five loaves and two fishes.
Mt 14:18 He said, Bring them hither to me. 19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.
Mr 6:39 And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass 40 And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties. 41 And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all.
Lu 9:14 For there were about five thousand men. Then He said to His disciples, "Make them sit down in groups of fifty." 15 And they did so, and made them all sit down. Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude.
Joh 6:10 Then Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11 And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted.
It is interesting that four accounts that have shown significant divergence to this point suddenly agree almost totally in all but the smallest of details. It is as if the four strands of thought cross at exactly this point. I suspect that it is also the Spirit ensuring that the miraculous part of this miracle is well attested. The accounts are sufficiently similar that I shall break from the previous pattern and discuss the four accounts together rather than sequentially.
The first thing we note from all four accounts is that the Lord instructed that the multitude should sit on the ground. From the previous section we knew that the mob was advancing and had the potential to become unruly. The Lord was not prepared to be hustled into a miracle. Matthew implies that the Lord commanded the multitude; the other three make clear that the Lord transmitted the command through the disciples. In fact throughout this entire section we see the Lord working exclusively through the apostles. Luke records that the Lord instructed that they should sit in groups of fifty, Mark affirms that they sat in fifties and hundreds. Matthew tells us they were to sit on the grass, Mark tells us the grass was green and John tells us there was a lot of it. Luke and John agree that there were about 5,000 men present.
The three synoptics are then in agreement that the Lord took the loaves and the fish; Matthew adds that the Lord asked for them to be handed to Him. John implies that the Lord took the bread first and dealt with the fish in a later cycle. Again the three are in agreement that the Lord looked up to heaven, blessed and then brake. John does not deal with the looking to heaven but notes that the Lord gave thanks for the items He was blessing. Additionally John does not note that the bread was broken before distribution.
There is some disagreement about the relative treatment of the loaves and the fishes. Matthew only discusses the loaves being given to the disciples to hand to the multitudes. Mark has a similar narrative for the bread but then adds that he divided the two fishes amongst them all. In fact Mark almost implies that the Lord distributed the fish. In Luke the two entities are treated exactly the same way, blessed, broken and given to the disciples to hand out. John is similar to Mark in that the bread and fish are seen as two cycles; however he implies that the disciples set down the fish. However he also adds the detail that the fish were distributed as much as was wanted.
Whilst I believe that these are all literal, physical accounts of that which occurred; I also believe that this sign can contain deeper meanings beyond that which is obvious. In particular the previous section contains some symbols that are sufficiently important that I think it is worth considering them at this point.
The first is really given to us by Mark 6:34 when he notes that the multitude are like sheep without a shepherd. Then he informs us in verse 39 that they are made to sit on green grass. In fact the word Mark uses for 'sit' is anaklino which really means to recline. This would appear to be an allusion to Ps 23:1-2 where David states the Lord is his shepherd that makes him lay down in green pastures
The bread is a little harder. The ability to fill the poor with bread was an Old Testament promise and we know that this miracle of provision did cause the crowd to consider Jesus to be the Prophet that was to come. However, there is a meaning suggested by the Lord, in John 6:35, where the Lord says that He is the bread of life. Additionally there is clearly a close parallel with the miraculous provision of Manna subsequent to the Exodus. Finally it would be hard not to parallel the bread broken in Matthew and Mark with the symbols of the Lord body given at the last supper. Combined I believe the bread speaks of the Lord as our ongoing Spiritual provision; the fact that our spiritual natures require sustenance that can only come from the Lord Himself.
I cannot think of anything directly related to this miracle that explains the fish. However it may be significant that in both Matthew and Mark the two fishers of fish are instructed that they will be fishers of men. Fish have to die before they can do you any good. I believe that the fish may speak of the provision of the Lord in salvation.
If these suggestions are correct then the treatment of the loaves and fishes in the preceding section are significant.
All four writers are unanimous on two matters; firstly that the multitude was filled and secondly that twelve baskets of fragments were collected by the disciples. On just about every other detail we again see the authors beginning to head in differing directions. I believe the two agreed details are vital which is why the spirit ensured they were well attested.
The filling of the multitude is of course a testimony to the sufficiency of Christ. He never does this inadequately or in a mediocre fashion. Phillip had stated that two hundred denarii would be enough for each to have a little. This is typically how the human mind works; what to we need to get this problem solved. Christ did not give everyone a little; he ensured there was bounty.
The twelve baskets of fragments of course add extra weight to the sufficiency; it could be seen as an overabundance. However I believe the actual meaning is rather more suggestive. The Greek word rendered basket is kophinos which appears in the NT only in relation to this miracle. It has been suggested that this was really the Jews' traveling basket which would suggest that these were the baskets the disciples were carrying with them. This is also suggested by the fact that there were twelve. In which case the twelve full baskets does not suggest that too much was produced. It shows that the disciples that had been laboring serving the multitude had been provided for too. Further, whilst the multitude had received a single meal; the disciples had received enough for the journey ahead of them.
Lu 9:17 So they all ate and were filled, and twelve baskets of the leftover fragments were taken up by them.
Luke gives the briefest account of the results. The only extra detail he adds is that they ate and were filled; he does this in common with Matthew and Mark. In his handling of the fragments he does not specify what the fragments were of although he does mention they were left over. From the Luke account you would assume it was fragments of loaves and fishes that remained.
Mt 14:20 So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. 21 Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Matthew's account at the point reads almost identically to Luke's except that because of what has come earlier the narrative would lead you to assume that it is only bread that has been distributed and then collected. Matthew then adds that there were five thousand men present plus women and children. This is, of course, similar to the point John and Luke had made earlier. However it is interesting that Matthew (and Mark) both use the numbers to underline the extent of the miracle whereas Luke and John both use it to underline the extent of the problem.
Mr 6:42 And they did all eat, and were filled. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes. 44 And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.
Mark is explicit is explicit in saying that twelve baskets of fragments were collected, and fishes were collected. This would appear to suggest that it was bread that went into the baskets; fishes were collected but this was a separate event. Mark also makes two significant changes to the number that ate. First he does not mention the women and children but most significantly he states that 5,000 ate of the loaves; he does not mention how many ate of the fish. This is not dissimilar to John's statement in the previous section that the fish were distributed as people wanted them.
Joh 6:12 So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, "Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost." 13 Therefore they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten. 14 Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world."
By far the most detailed account of this phase of the miracle is given by John. He does however omit the multitude eating. Interestingly in place of eating, which is omitted only by John, he notes that the multitude responded by knowing that Jesus was the prophet prophesied in Deuteronomy.
He adds that the gathering of the fragments was initiated by the Lord and that the purpose was that nothing be lost. This shows us that it was the Lord ensuring that the disciples were provided for and that the sustenance, which speaks of Himself, is precious and should not be wasted. John is even more explicit than Mark that it was the barley loaves that were collected and he agrees with Luke that they were leftover fragments.
It is interesting to view the statements of the four Gospel writers in the context of the symbols suggested in the previous section:
Lu 9:18 And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"
I have broken from the normal Gospel order to consider this section as Luke is entirely unique. Whilst John was the only one to provide this miracle with no prologue; Luke is the only one to avoid the epilogue. Luke moves from the miraculous provision into Peter's confession of Christ and then the transfiguration. This shift is in addition to Luke's generally terse treatment of the miracle in general. It is almost as if Luke is really treating the miracle itself as a prologue to the recognition and glorification of Christ himself. The miracle is being treated as a proof step in the establishment of something else; rather than as an end in itself.
Mt 14:22 And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. 23 And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.
Matthew adopts the typically Marcan eutheos to convey the urgency with which the Lord constrained the disciples to enter the ship. It is remarkable that when beset by a mob, or even when threatened by a terrifying storm there was nothing that the Lord felt would be damaging to His disciples. When faced with the aftermath of noteworthy success the Lord felt it to be unwise for the disciples to hang around. I suspect the word constrained in quite indicative too; the disciples were more than happy to loiter to bask in the glory of what had happened. Matthew also makes clear however that He intended to follow where they went. The narrative does not specify where; only that it was the other side.
In much the same way that Matthew opened by stressing the Lord's desire to be alone the closure emphasizes His isolation. First he sends away the multitudes - then he climbs a mountain to pray. Late even had now come and the Lord was alone.
Mr 6:45 And straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people. 46 And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray.
Mark's account is almost identical to Matthew. He does however add where they were being sent; to Bethsaida. This is the town that this land belonged to and therefore was not a long journey; it is also the place from which a number of the disciples came. They truly were being sent home. They had been central; and indeed the primary visible actors in the miracle. But now they were to return home and the behind the scenes work was to be done by Christ. Mark however does not emphasis the time or isolation of the Lord.
Joh 6:15Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone. 16 Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea,
John adds the extra detail that explains the haste expresses by Matthew and Mark. The crowd were going to attempt to forcibly make Jesus king. This is a true indication that even now the Lord had set himself towards the cross. The crucifixion was not a mistake: when He had a ready army of five thousand men He chose isolation and prayer over earthly adulation. It is interesting that John too emphasizes that after this great miracle and learning experience for the disciples the Lord wished solitude. John also stresses that it was late although in his account it appears as if the disciples move towards the sea was self motivated and at a leisurely pace.
Mt 16:9 "Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? 10 "Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? 11 "How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?
Mr 8:19 "When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?" They said to Him, "Twelve." 20 "Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?" And they said, "Seven." 21 So He said to them, "How is it you do not understand?"
Matthew and Mark both carry a sequel to the feeding of the five thousand; the feeding of the four thousand. The two passages above however are in the context of the Lord having warned the disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees. The disciples assume He is concerned because they have no bread. The Lord then draws this miracle to their minds again. He then asks in seeming exasperation 'How is it you do not understand?' Clearly these miracles are not supposed to be a mystery. They are something that is to be understood.
It therefore behooves us to ensure we understand these miracles ourselves. In this context it is interesting that neither Luke nor John felt the repetition of the miracle or the reminder was necessary for this understanding to take place. Additionally the reminder only occurs where the second feeding miracle does; which suggests the second miracle is supposed to help with the understanding of the first.
In understanding the difference between the miracles the obvious distinction to be made is in the numbers; five loaves fed five thousand with 12 baskets left over. Seven loaves fed four thousand with seven left over. What has often been taught is that God can do even more the less sufficient we are ourselves. However this teaching overlooks a fairly huge difference in the Greek underlying the word the KJV translates as basket. The twelve baskets were relatively small travel baskets. The seven baskets were 'spuris' which were really hampers; for example it is the word used of the basket that lowered Paul was lowered over city walls in. Thus in the first miracle there was enough left over for the disciples; in the second there was a huge amount of food provided.
A deeper look at the second miracle is really beyond the scope of this essay but it is interesting that on the second occasion the four thousand had been there for three days and the Lord stated that if they went home they would faint on the way. This can be viewed as a post resurrection version of the story where believers are struggling to wait for the Lord's return. Seven is the number of perfection and the feeding shows that four thousand can be fully satisfied. The remainder is now in seven baskets showing it is related to the provision and not the disciples who would not longer be around.
Notwithstanding the interpretation of the second miracle I think the actual interpretation of this miracle; or at least the level of understanding that the Lord demands that we attain is that He can provide. We can, quite profitably, ascertain deeper and beautiful meanings and nuances. But we should not loose sight of the basic lesson; the Lord can feed everyone from almost nothing. We should not be fretting about provision or supply. The Lord can and does supply.
Whilst all the points in this summary have been mentioned in the above text they are repeated here in tabular form for easy reference.
|Subsequent to John's death
|Disciples return from preaching and healing tour
|Disciples return from healing tour
|No prologue given
|Reason for departing
|Fatigue of disciples
|Who (apparently) went?
|Jesus and disciples
|Jesus and disciples
|Where did they go?
|Deserted place belonging to Bethsaida
|Over the sea of Galilee
|Why did the multitude go?
|They heard the Lord had gone
|They saw the Lord go
|They knew the Lord had gone
|They saw the miracle he had done
|What did the Lord do?
|Have compassion and heal the sick
|Have compassion and teach
|Received them, taught of the kingdom and healed those that needed it
|Go up into a mountain with His disciples
|Who mentions the problem?
|How are the loaves and fish mentioned?
|In one narrative without prompting.
|The disciples are asked what they have and go to find out.
|In one narrative without prompting.
|Mentioned by Andrew as belonging to a lad.
|How are the 200 denarii mentioned?
|In response to being told to provide food.
|Not explicitly mentioned although buying food is.
|Mentioned by Philip after being asked by the Lord where food should be bought.
|What was blessed?
|Bread and fishes both blessed together.
|Bread and fish both blessed together.
|Bread and fish both blessed together.
|Bread and fish both blessed but loaves first.
|What was broken
|Bread and fish both broken.
|Bread and fish both broken.
|Bread and fish not broken.
|What was distributed?
|Bread and fish both distributed but fish mentioned separately.
|Bread and fished distributed.
|Bread distributed. Fish distributed as much as wanted.
|Did the multitude eat?
|What was picked up?
|Fragments - nature unspecified.
|Bread and fishes both recovered.
|Fragments - nature unspecified.
|Disciples into ship; Lord to mountain
|Disciples into ship; Lord to mountain
|Really a change of subject
|Crowd wish to make Lord king. Disciples to ship; Lord to mountain.
The traditional methods of classifying the Gospels have been discussed elsewhere. This particular miracle creates some significant difficulties for most of the theories. The first thing to note is the huge amount of deviation between the accounts especially at the level of fine detail. Whilst they all clearly refer to the same event each does so in a very distinct manner. Secondly there is no real similarity between any two accounts. Sometimes Matthew and Mark combine against Luke. Sometimes Matthew and Luke combine against Mark. Sometimes Mark and Luke combine against Matthew. Sometimes three combine against Matthew, sometimes against Mark. None of the higher critical theories I have encountered can explain all of those combinations without special pleading.
Thirdly the other strange thing about this account is that the Gospels do not fall into their usual stylistic pidgin holes. Mark is usually brief; he is the most detailed in the rendering of this account. The detailed and precise Luke is the shortest account and is abnormally vague in particulars. The most obvious Old Testament allusions come from Mark and John not Matthew. Whilst Luke closes with theology John continues with a boisterous narrative. Luke who is supposed to be interested in people's attitudes assiduously avoids mentioning them even when the other three writers do.
I believe that the high degree of factual selection makes the written for different people argument very difficult to defend. Recall that if you simply had one of these four accounts and attempted to act out the scene then you would do quite different things for each Gospel. Whilst the four accounts can be harmonized to co-exist there is not reasonably explanation why Jews would need to be told that bread was distributed whilst Romans would need to be told it was bread and fish. It makes no sense at all that the Roman's would need the teaching aspect emphasized whilst the Jews would need to know about healing. This is not four different translations of the same event; it is clearly the result of highly selective word choice and editing. That cannot reasonably be explained by preference of the audience.
The other traditional alternative is that four characters of the Lord are being shown; kingship, servility, humanity and deity respectively. Again the narrative appears determined to defy classification. The potential for kingship is mentioned in John not Matthew. The lonely walk is stressed in Matthew not Mark. Healing is stressed in Matthew, mentioned in Luke, ignored in the 'servile' Mark in favor of teaching. In fact Mark stresses the role and work of the disciples. The heavenly minded John is the only one to mention the crowd disturbances.
For me the understanding of this miracle hinges upon the bread and fish. I also believe that the symbolic interpretation given fits well with the explanation I have detailed before. Specifically Matthew is a transition document showing why the Jews were put to one side. Mark is the Gospel, the good news of salvation. Luke is the reference guide for New Believers and John is a wrapper around the Gospel designed to cause us to see Christ.
Then in Matthew we see the fish un-served and untaken. Whilst feeding can happen from Matthew there is no provision for salvation. Mark sees salvation as a separate thing distributed alongside spiritual nourishment, this you would expect from an evangelist preaching the Word and leading people to Christ. Sadly for Mark he sees some of the salvation going spare. Luke sees salvation and nourishment inextricable linked; as is appropriate for a believer. John sees the nourishment and salvation going out separately; he accepts that not everyone eats of the fish. However he doesn't see any of it as wasted.
Isa 53:11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied
We have seen that the feeding of the five thousand happened immediately after the death and burial of John the Baptist around the time of the third Passover of the Lord's ministry. We have seen that the Lord set out to take the disciples to one side and was met by a growing crowed. The Lord ministered to them before withdrawing up a mountain toward evening. The crowd expectant of more motivated the disciples to suggest sending them home. The Lord retorted that they should be fed. The disciples felt this required buying food; the Lord instead distributed five loaves and two fishes between them all. The loaves probably speak of spiritual nourishment and the fishes of salvation. The net result is that all were filled and that enough was left to feed the disciples on their journey. The Lord closed this miracle by sending the disciples home and Himself going into a mountain to talk to His father.
The accounts are easily harmonized but each has a distinct character that does not fit the traditional classifications or even the traditional observations regarding how the Gospel writers work. It has been suggested that the accounts do fit with a pattern of each Gospel having a different purpose for a different stage in history and life.
Whilst we didn't see it finally within the essay, finally within our Bibles we were reminded that the Lord Himself referred back to this miracle and was amazed that people should not understand it. I propose that even if the rest of this essay is obscure to you or maybe just plain wrong then the one thing that the Lord demands that we take away from the feeding of the five thousand is that He will provide.And as we go through the coming weeks let us remember that the same Lord who provided in a desert place can and will provide for us today.