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2019-03-14

Note of the Day – March 14 (Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

The next topic to be discussed in this series, dealing with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, is the tradition of the Miraculous Feeding (of the Five Thousand), surely one of the best known (and loved) of all Jesus’ miracles. Its appeal among early Christians is indicated by the fact that it is one of the only traditions to appear in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John). There has also been preserved a second Miraculous Feeding tradition (of Four Thousand) among the Synoptics. This latter point makes clear that, despite the popularity of the episode, it is surrounded by numerous critical questions and problems, which much be examined. Like the Baptism of Jesus (the first part of this series), the Miraculous Feeding makes for an ideal test-case in the study of the preservation and development of the Gospel Tradition.

Let us begin by addressing the most difficult question first—the occurrence of two Feeding Miracle episodes in the Synoptics (Mark/Matthew), each of which has a very similar outline, and many similar details as well (cf. below). The main question is: does this reflect two distinct historical events, or two versions of the same event? Most critical commentators hold to the latter view. Not only are the two episodes so closely alike, but, as we shall see, the account in John contains elements and details found in both Synoptic episodes. This would seem to confirm the critical view. However, at the same time, in the Synoptic narrative, Jesus himself refers to both of the miracles, mentioning distinct details from each. If the critical view is accepted, then the episode in Mk 8:14-21 par would have to be regarded as a kind of literary fiction. On the other hand, if one accepts the authenticity (and essential historicity) of Mk 8:14-21, then this would be proof that the two miracle stories reflect two historical episodes. Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, are more inclined to accept the text—in this case, the Synoptic tradition (including Mk 8:14-21)—at face value.

In this study, I will proceed as follows:

  • Comparison of the two Feeding Miracles in Mark (without reference to Mk 8:14-21)
  • Analysis of the two Miracle-stories in the context of the Synoptic (Markan) narrative
  • A brief study of the differences in the tradition(s) as recorded/developed by Matthew and Luke, and
  • Examination of the tradition in John, in relation to the great “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6

Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10

First let us consider the similarities between the two episodes, as they are found in Mark:

  • Jesus and his disciples had traveled to a desolate place (6:31-32, 35; 8:4b)
  • A great crowd had followed Jesus there (6:30, 33f; 8:1)
  • Concern for the people, and how they could be fed (6:34-36; 8:2-4)
    —specifically Jesus is said to have had compassion on them
  • A question from the disciples regarding how food could be found for so many (6:37; 8:4)
  • Jesus asks his disciples “how many loaves do you have?” (6:38a; 8:5)
  • There are on hand only a small number of bread loaves and a few fish (6:38b ; 8:5b, 7a)
  • Jesus directs the people to sit down (6:39; 8:6a)
  • Jesus blesses, breaks and divides the loaves, along with the fish (6:41; 8:6-7)
  • All the people eat and are satisfied (6:42; 8:8a)
  • A number of baskets full of leftovers are gathered [by the disciples] (6:43; 8:8b)
  • The size of the crowd is identified by the (round) number of the men who ate—5000/4000 (6:44; 8:9)
  • Afterwards, Jesus and his disciples are described as getting into a boat, with a specific geographical location indicated, i.e. relative to the lake (6:45; 8:10)

There are also some notable differences:

  • The second episode contains no references to the travels and ministry work of Jesus, as in the first (6:30-34; but compare Matthew 15:29-31)
  • In the first episode, the disciples appear to initiate the concern/effort to feed the people (6:35-36), while in the second this is done by Jesus (8:2-3)
  • In the first episode, Jesus challenges the disciples to give the people something to eat (6:37)
  • The first episode contains detail regarding the people sitting down on the ground in groups (6:39-40)

Clearly, the similarities far outweigh the differences. The two episodes, of course, involve different specific numbers—5 loaves / 12 baskets / 5000 men vs. 7 loaves / 7 baskets / 4000 men—but these are rather minor compared with the overall points of agreement.

How does the Gospel of Mark make use of these two episodes in the context of the narrative? The author was clearly aware of the similarities between them; indeed, this is an important aspect of the symmetry and parallelism of the narrative in 6:14-8:30. I outlined this in a recent note; here it is again:

  • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the declaration by Herod—6:14-16
    [inclusion of an associated tradition, 6:17-29]
  • Feeding Miracle (5,000): the disciples/12 baskets—6:30-44
    Miracle on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—6:44-52
    (they did not understand about the miraculous loaves)
  • Healing Miracles6:53-56
  • Conflict/debate with religious authorities over tradition and ritual—7:1-23
    including a Parable and explanation by Jesus (vv. 14-16, 17-23)
  • Healing Miracles: 2 episodes—7:24-30, 31-37
  • Feeding Miracle (4,000): the disciples/7 baskets—8:1-10
    Teaching on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—8:11-21
    (they did not understand, re. the miraculous loaves)
  • Healing miracle—8:22-26
  • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the confession by Peter—8:27-30

In my view there is a definite (chiastic) symmetry to this section in Mark. Consider first—the framing episodes (6:14-16; 8:27-30) involving the question of Jesus’ identity, in which the general reaction by people to Jesus is noted (i.e. identifying him as “Elijah” or one of the Prophets). At the same time, Herod and Peter each make a declaration regarding Jesus’ identity:

  • Herod—he is John the Baptist raised from the dead (6:16)
  • Peter—”You are the Anointed One” (8:29)

The second pair of (parallel) episodes are the two Feeding Miracles:

  • Reaction to Jesus (declaration by Herod)
    Feeding of the Five Thousand (6:30-44)
    Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-10)
  • Reaction to Jesus (confession by Peter)

The parallelism is reinforced by the inclusion, after the miracle, of an episode where Jesus and his disciples are together on the water (6:44-52; 8:11-21), and reference is made to the bread-loaves of the miraculous feeding (6:52; 8:19ff). The first episode involves a miracle (Jesus’ walking on the water), the second, teaching. A third parallel can be found in the healing miracles of 6:53-56 and 7:24-37:

  • Reaction to Jesus (declaration by Herod)
    —Feeding of the Five Thousand
    ——Healing miracles narrated (6:53-56)
    ——Healing miracles: 2 episodes (7:24-37)
    —Feeding of the Four Thousand
  • Reaction to Jesus (confession by Peter)

Finally, at the center of the section, we find the debate between Jesus and the religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) regarding religious tradition and the interpretation of the Law (7:1-23). This theme carries through the remainder of the section, especially the instruction of Jesus to his disciples in 8:11-21, in which he warns them of “the leaven of the Pharisees [7:1ff] and Herod [6:14-16ff]” (v. 15). It is part of the reaction to Jesus’ ministry that is illustrated in this section. While the people may react to Jesus at one level—viewing him as a miracle working prophet like Elijah (note the allusions in the feeding miracle[s] to 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Kings 4:42-44), or otherwise—his true disciples ultimately will recognize him as “the Anointed One” (and Son of God).

Thus we can see that the two Feeding Miracle episodes play a pivotal role in the Markan narrative, and are important in demonstrating Jesus’ identity—the primary theme of 6:14-8:30. In the next daily note, I will examine how these traditions were utilized in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.