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In yesterday’s note, partly in commemoration of the traditional feast of Corpus Christi (first Sunday after Trinity), I examined the New Testament expression of “breaking (of) bread” (as in Acts 2:42, 46; Luke 24:35, etc) in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) in the early Church. There is one other major passage where this image occurs—the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The tradition surrounding this miracle is unique in that: (a) it is one of the only episodes recorded in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John); (b) it is one of the only instances where something like the same narrative occurs twice in the same Gospel (Matthew/Mark). For this reason (among others), it proves to be an interesting ‘test case’ in terms of how early Gospel traditions may have developed, as well as being illustrative of the key differences between traditional-conservative and critical viewpoints in this regard.

I will divide the discussion into three main sections, each of which will be treated in a daily note:

  • Survey of the passages, with a brief study of the source-critical and historical-critical questions
  • A more detailed comparative study of the narratives
  • An examination of the Eucharistic elements of the traditional narrative—their possible origins and influence in the early Church

Today’s note will is devoted to the first of these—namely, a survey of the passages, study of key source-critical and historical-critical questions. To begin with, a miraculous feeding of five thousand men (plus women and children) is narrated in Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15. As will be seen, all four narratives are quite close, both in outline and much detail as well; typically the the three Synoptic accounts are extremely close, while there are more substantial differences between the Synoptics and John. This brings up two separate, but related, source-critical questions:

  1. What is the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels?
  2. What is the relationship between the Synoptics and John?

The first question is usually addressed in the wider context of the so-called “Synoptic Problem”—how to explain the substantial agreement (including wording, order, other detail) between two and/or all three Synoptic Gospels. Today, there is a rough consensus among many (if not most) critical scholars that corresponds with the so-called “Two-Document” and “Markan priority” hypotheses, according to which:

  • Mark was written first, and both Matthew and Luke made (extensive) use of Mark, including the overall narrative plan and arrangement.
  • Matthew and Luke also made use of a second major (written) source, primarily consisting of blocks of Jesus’ sayings and teachings—this is the so-called “Q” source. Usually this is assumed to be a distinct written document, but it is perhaps safer to refer to it more generally as a collection of shared tradition(s).
  • Matthew and Luke also each made use of other sources—collections of tradition, whether written or oral—not found in the other Gospels, and often labeled “M” and “L” respectively.

While not without difficulties, this does, I believe, represent a reasonably sound working hypothesis. At the very least, if Matthew and Luke did not make use of Mark, then they must have made use of an early Gospel framework very similar in both content and arrangement. In particular, the position of the feeding miracle within the overall Gospel framework is similar between the Synoptics. Assuming, for the moment, the “Markan priority” hypothesis, here is the position of the episode in Mark:

1. Mk 6:1-6: The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (saying in v. 4)
2. Mk 6:7-13: Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve (saying/commission in vv. 10-11)
3. Mk 6:14-29: Herod and the death of John the Baptist
4. Mk 6:30-44: The feeding of the Five thousand
5. Mk 6:45-52: Episode at sea—Jesus walking on water (reference to the feeding miracle in v. 52)
6. Mk 6:53-56: Summary references to healing miracles by Jesus
7. Mk 7:1-23: Sayings of Jesus in context of disputes with Pharisees and Scribes (at least two blocks of sayings, vv. 6-13 and 14b-23)
8. Mk 7:24-37: Two healing miracles

If we compare the position in the Gospel of Matthew, it is nearly identical; the only structural difference is that Jesus’ commission and sending out the Twelve occurs somewhat earlier (Matt 10:5ff) and serves as the introduction and narrative focus for a lengthy block of sayings vv. 16-42 added to the portion (vv. 5-15) he presumably inherited from Mark. The arrangement in the Gospel of Luke differs even more considerably:

  • The story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth occurs earlier (at the beginning of his ministry), and in different/expanded form, in Lk 4:16-30
  • The material corresponding to Mark 6:45-8:26 for the most part is not found in Luke; as a result the confession of Peter, Jesus’ first Passion prediction (with related sayings), and the Transfiguration (Lk 9:18-36) follow immediately after the miraculous feeding episode in Lk 9:10-17

Notable differences between the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand will be mentioned in the comparative study in the next day’s note.

The second question (see above) has to do with the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Even though there is relatively little common material between John and the Synoptics, scholars have at times proposed that the author of the fourth Gospel utilized one (or more) of the other three. For example, there are some notable details in common between the Passion/Resurrection narratives of Luke and John, but other (apparent) minor points of agreement as well. However, in my view, most of these similarities are best explained by a shared common tradition rather than literary borrowing. I would concur with a good number of scholars today that there is very little (if any) clear evidence that the author of the fourth Gospel even knew (let alone used) any of the other three Gospels. At least one strand of evidence to this effect will be presented in the comparative study offered in the next day’s note. This means that, if we take Mark as the earliest Synoptic (and partial exemplar for the other two), then, at several key points, the Gospels of Mark and John are both drawing from an early tradition (or block of tradition), such as that involving the feeding of the Five thousand. By all accounts the “common portion” shared by John here is modest, limited to the traditions corresponding to Mark 6:30-52.

There is a far more serious historical-critical issue related to these passages, one which demonstrates a rather clear divide between traditional-conservative and critical approaches to the Gospels. The difficulty can be summarized by the fact that, in the Gospel of Mark (and in Matthew) there are two different miraculous feedings which are largely identical, differing mainly in specific vocabulary and other detail. This second episode is a feeding of Four (instead of Five) thousand men, as narrated in Mark 8:1-10 (par Matthew 15:32-39). The traditional-conservative view would tend to take these at face value as separate historical episodes; however, the number of similarities makes this hard to maintain in the light of objective analysis. The critical view would generally hold that these are separate versions of the same episode which have been preserved in different form; but there are difficulties with this view as well, as we shall see. Critical scholars are most reluctant to harmonize differences and discrepancies in Scriptural narrative by positing separate (similar, or nearly identical) events. For example, because of the different apparent chronology between John and the Synoptics, some traditional-conservative commentators would hold that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice; however, I regard this as highly unlikely—apart from the variant position of the episode (‘early’ vs. ‘late’), there is virtually no evidence to support a tradition of two (largely identical) Temple-cleansings. The situation is more complex with the “Anointing of Jesus” episodes in the Gospels; there it is likely that we are dealing with two traditions—one represented largely by Luke 7:36-50, the other primarily by Mark 14:3-9 and the Matthean parallel. As in the case of the miraculous feeding narratives, the Johannine account shows a mixture of details found in the other versions, which is somewhat hard to explain if we are dealing with different historical events (or traditions). This will be explored in greater detail in the next note.

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