Sunday, February 7, 2021

The feeding of the five thousand (Notes on John 6:1-14)

The feeding of the five thousand is, with the exception of the resurrection itself, the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels. Apparently there was general agreement that the story illustrates something essential about Jesus, that no account of his life could omit it. I admit to being somewhat puzzled as to its significance, but perhaps the process of writing these notes will clear things up for me a bit.

[1] After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.

The last we have been told (John 5:1), Jesus was in Jerusalem, nowhere near the Sea of Galilee. Later, in v. 17, the disciples get in a ship and go back "over the sea toward Capernaum." Since Capernaum was on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we might assume that where he went in v. 1 was to the opposite shore. That would have put him most likely somewhere in the Tetrarchy of Philip -- at any rate, no longer in Galilee.

[2] And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased.

All of the healing miracles recorded up to this point in the Gospel have been in and around Jerusalem, which is also the last place the Gospel mentions Jesus being before this episode. Had the multitude followed him from there? Is it possible that Jesus crossed over the Sea of Galilee for the express purpose of shaking off some of these camp followers, but to no avail?

[3] And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples.

This would perhaps have been in what is now called the Golan Heights. Going up into the mountain was perhaps another attempt to escape the crowd.


[4] And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.

Why is this mentioned here? No further mention of the Passover is made, and the feast plays no explicit role in the story that follows. Is the purpose just to tell us approximately what time of year this episode took place? Elsewhere in this Gospel, feasts of the Jews are mentioned to explain why Jesus is visiting Jerusalem, and certainly it would have been normal to go to Jerusalem for the Passover. In John 7:1, we are told, "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him" -- but that is after the events described in John 6 and seems to be explaining why he hesitated to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, six months after Passover.

Just how nigh is "nigh"? Are we to understand that the events recorded in John 6 took place during Passover, and that Jesus and a multitude of Jews neglected to observe that feast, staying instead in the mountains of the Golan region? Or did the events of John 6 all take place before Passover, and is John 7:1 explaining why Jesus could not very well go to Jerusalem for Passover after that?


[5] When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, "Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?"

[6] And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.

[7] Philip answered him, "Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little."

Mark (8:2-3) and Matthew (15:32) both say that the multitude had been with Jesus for three days, eating nothing during that time, and that his motive for working a miracle was that he would "not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way" (Matt. 15:32). Here, in contrast, it appears that the multitude has just recently arrived -- he "lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him." But perhaps there is no inconsistency. Jesus already knew that this multitude had followed him from Judaea to Galilee, and then followed him across the sea. He sees now that, surprise, surprise, they have followed him up the mountain as well. He wants to send them away but, knowing they have been following him around for some time now, feels he ought to give them a square meal first.

A "penny," or denarius, was apparently a day's wages for a farm laborer (see Matt. 20:2), not that the exact figure is important. Philip just meant that it would cost much more money than they had at hand.

Did Jesus really say this to test Philip? If so, what was the test? When Philip replied that it would cost a great deal of money to buy bread for everyone in the crowd, did he pass or fail? I guess we should assume he failed, since his response is pretty much what any normal person would have said in the same situation; if that counts as passing, it's not much of a test. What would have been a "passing" answer? To suggest that Jesus work some miracle? To say, "Man shall not live by bread alone?" Jesus says nothing to Philip in reply, either to commend him for his solid grasp of economics or to ye-of-little-faith him, so this supposed testing of Philip doesn't seem to play any important role in the story as we have it. I suspect that v. 6 is either guesswork by the author or a gloss by a later hand, its purpose being to explain why Jesus would ask such a seemingly foolish question.

Another possibility is that Jesus' original plan was to send Philip to buy whatever amount of bread they could afford, even though it would plainly be insufficient, and that Philip's willingness to go and do so anyway would constitute "passing the test." Jesus would then magically multiply the loaves and show that Philip's faith had been justified -- but this plan changed when Andrew informed him that they already had a few loaves and fishes, making the shopping trip superfluous.


[8] One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto him, [9] "There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?"

[10] And Jesus said, "Make the men sit down."

 Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.

The Golan Heights are still grassy today -- not what one typically thinks of as a Middle Eastern landscape.


Five thousand is about the size of a full Roman legion -- a lot of people, especially for that time and place. (In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem -- "the great city" -- had a population of perhaps 75,000, and Nazareth almost certainly fewer than 2,000.) And this is the number of people who were with him after he had crossed the Sea of Galilee and climbed a mountain -- that is, deliberately made it difficult for people to follow him. If, as seems likely, most of them had followed him all the way from Jerusalem, the number is even more impressive.


[11] And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.

[12] When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.

[13] Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.

It's really hard to imagine how this was experienced. As is typical, no account is given of the working of the miracle itself, only the result. Somehow, in the end, everyone was full, and they had gathered up 12 baskets of crumbs.

Was everyone's hunger magically satisfied after eating only a tiny amount of bread? But the 12 baskets of fragments make it clear that it was not that simple, that the bread itself had been multiplied. Did the disciples keep tearing pieces off their loaves, only to find that the loaves were no smaller than before? Did the pieces that were torn off grow? Perhaps each time a piece of bread was torn in half, each of the two halves was magically enlarged just a bit in a way that was not readily perceptible, but the bread was torn so many times -- each loaf was torn into 1,000 pieces -- that the cumulative effect of all these slight enlargements was something that was, after the fact, obviously a miracle.

A "naturalistic" explanation I have seen proposed is that the lad's generosity in sharing his small stash of food inspired the others in the crowd to do the same -- something along the lines of the Stone Soup folktale -- and that no actual magic was involved. However, the crowd certainly reacted as if something literally miraculous had occurred.


Whatever the mechanics of the miracle, I think the significant thing is that Jesus (in some way) multiplied food provided by one of the members of the crowd -- rather than, say, turning stones into bread (as, according to Matthew, the devil had once tempted him to do) or causing manna to rain down from the sky. The miracle was not a pure deus ex machina, but was an amplification of human effort.

Seeing a crowd of 5,000 hungry people, the lad offered to share his obviously inadequate loaves and fishes, and Philip passed this offer on to Jesus -- and Jesus said, Okay, let's do it. He accepted the paltry offering, gave thanks for it, had the disciples distribute it to the multitude -- and somehow or other (we are not told how, probably because it's not the point), it was enough, enough and to spare.

I think the moral here is that we are to do what we can, offer what we can -- even if it seems laughably inadequate, even if it seems as if it could not possibly have any real effect or "change the world" -- and leave the results to the Lord.

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.

And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls (Alma 37:6-7).

After all, if I didn't believe something like that, why would I even be writing this? Why bother with these notes of mine that are read by a few hundred of the billions of people in the world and probably taken to heart by far fewer than that? Why bother doing anything at all, we who are not destined to be movers and shakers? Trying to guess the probable (and probably insignificant) consequences of our actions is a trap. Just do good things and leave the rest to God. That is the moral of the story of the feeding of the five thousand.


[14] Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.

Modern readers will probably take this in a general sense -- he worked a miracle, he must be the Messiah -- but the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus' time had a very specific set of expectations.

"That prophet" refers to the Prophet like unto Moses, called by the Samaritans the Taheb, whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18. If the beliefs of early 20th-century Samaritans are any indication, this Prophet was to prove his identity by means of three signs, the greatest of which was to be that he would "produce the omer of manna which our fathers ate, while in the wilderness, for forty years." This is perhaps what the people had in mind when they concluded Jesus was the Prophet after seeing him miraculously provide food in the wilderness -- not manna exactly, but perhaps they considered it close enough. This connection is strengthened by the references to manna in the "Bread of Life" discourse that follows.

5 comments:

Bruce Charlton said...

"the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels."

Perhaps because it was observed but the most people, therefore became the most famous miracle?

The explanation you give seems to make sense. Which was not the case for a CofE bishop I saw preaching on this event - who said it was Not a miracle, and was meant to teach the importance of sharing and equality.

As you say, if the miracle is explained away as sharing, then why did so many people regard it as a miracle?

"The miracle was not a pure deus ex machina, but was an amplification of human effort."

This is the case for several of the miracles - where there is some kind of intermediary used - like the healing of the blind man by anointing his eyelids.

I suppose this is only a problem for those who see divine creation as ex nihilo.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"Perhaps because it was observed but the most people, therefore became the most famous miracle?"

That's likely true, since it directly involved 5,000 people. However, the Fourth Gospel is not really a "biography of Jesus" compiling the best known events in his life. There is no direct account, for example of Jesus' baptism by John, the calling of the twelve, the transfiguration, or the Last Supper. The author must have some special reason for choosing to include the episodes he does.

"This is the case for several of the miracles - where there is some kind of intermediary used . . . I suppose this is only a problem for those who see divine creation as ex nihilo."

It never occurred to me to see it as a "problem," simple an observation about how God tends to go about his business. As the Book of Mormon says in the passage I have quoted, the Lord God doth work by means.

Bruce Charlton said...

My understanding of the reason for including this episode is given a little later:

[26] Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. [27] Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

I think this is one of the passage that explain the nature of life everlasting in Heaven, by drawing contrasts with this life. (Another is the Samaritan women at the well, where water is used in an analogous way.) This way of explaining 'concepts' strikes us nowadays as symbolic, metaphorical, or 'poetic' - but I think it worked differently and more directly on Men 2000 years ago.

Francis Berger said...

First off, great post.

"I think the moral here is that we are to do what we can, offer what we can -- even if it seems laughably inadequate, even if it seems as if it could not possibly have any real effect or "change the world" -- and leave the results to the Lord."

I like this observation very much.

I also like your interpretation of the "multiplying" of loaves and fish here. I think your mention of Christ's temptation to turn stone to bread in Matthew is especially significant in this regard. Every time I encounter Christ's temptation to turn loaves to stone, I am reminded of the Grand Inquisitor scene in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (the GI speaking to Christ):

"'Decide for yourself who was right: You or the One who questioned You that day?
Remember the first question, though not in literal terms, its sense was this: 'You want to go into the world and are going there with empty hands, with a kind of promise of freedom which they in their simplicity and inborn turpitude are unable even to comprehend, which they go in fear and awe of—for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and human society than freedom!
Look, you see those stones in that naked, burning hot wilderness? Turn them into loaves and mankind will go trotting after you like a flock, grateful and obedient, though ever fearful that you may take away your hand and that your loaves may cease to come their way.'
But you did not want to deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, for what kind of freedom is it, you reasoned, if obedience is purchased with loaves?"

The author of the Fourth Gospel appears very cognizant of the dilemma Jesus faced in the Golan Heights. Make the miracle too obvious, and the people would follow him for the sake of earthly bread rather than spiritual bread. Jesus's decision make the miracle a subtle one appears to be steeped in great wisdom and understanding.

Does that make any sense?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Excellent comment, Frank.

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