This is the last of short series of notes on the miraculous feeding narratives (of the 5000/4000) in the Gospels. In the prior notes, I have discussed a number of critical questions related to these narratives, along with a comparative study of the passages. Today, in the concluding note, I will look at Eucharistic elements in the narrative; this brings us back to notes I posted earlier in the week, following the (traditional) commemoration of Corpus Christi (the “body of Christ” in the Eucharist) this past Sunday. This entailed a study on the expression “breaking (of) bread” as a kind of shorthand reference to the Lord’s Supper in the early Church; in an examination of the relevant passages, I left unaddressed the miraculous feeding narratives, to which I now turn for today’s note.
Let us begin with Mark’s account (Mk 6:30-44); the key verse is v. 41:
“And taking [labw\n] the five bread-loaves and the two fish (and) looking up into the heaven, he spoke well of [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] (it) and broke down [kate/klasen] the bread-loaves and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside them [i.e. the people], and the fish he divided (among) them all”
Matthew’s account (Matt 14:13-21, v. 19) is simpler, but shows only minor differences, most notably perhaps the use of kla/w (“break”) instead of the compound verb katakla/w (“break down”). Luke’s version (Lk 9:10-17) of this verse (v. 16) is almost identical with Mark.
On the surface, there might not seem to be much relation to the Eucharist here; after all, there is no mention of a cup, nothing to suggest symbolism of Jesus’ body (or blood), plus the mention of fish—is there actually a connection to the Lord’s supper? The answer is yes, and there are several reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.
1. The Greek verbs used
Look at the Greek verbs indicated in square brackets in Mk 6:41 above, and you will see that, with just one slight variation, they are the same verbs (and in the same sequence) used to describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22 par):
And in their eating, taking [labw\n] bread (and) blessing [eu)logh/sa$] he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, “Take (it)—this is my body”
The only difference is that there, instead of the verb katakla/w (katakláœ “break down”), the simple verb kla/w (kláœ “break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in a previous note, the same sequence of four verbs also is used in the Emmaus scene, when the disciples finally recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst:
Lk 24:30: And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he blessed [eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…
2. Textual evidence from the Feeding of the Four Thousand
In some ways, the wording in the Markan account of the feeding of the Four thousand (Mk 8:1-9, v. 6) is even closer to that of Jesus’ acts of institution at the Last Supper:
And taking [labw\n] the seven bread-loaves (and) giving good favor [i.e. giving thanks eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he broke [e)kla/sen] (them) and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside (the people)…
The parallel version in Matthew (Matt 15:32-39, v. 36) differs little. Interestingly, in Mark 8:7, in Jesus’ handling of the fish, there is a textual variant—some manuscripts read eu)xariste/w, others read eu)loge/w. The verb eu)xariste/w (eucharistéœ, “give/grant good favor, give thanks, be thankful/grateful”) also appears in Jesus’ acts of institution as recorded by Luke (Lk 22:17, 19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24); it is also used in John’s account of miraculous feeding (Jn 6:11).
3. The Context in the Gospel of John
If we compare the wording in Jn 6:11—
Therefore Yeshua took [e&laben] the bread-loaves and giving good favor [i.e. giving thanks, eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he gave throughout [die/dwken] to the ones (having) lain back [i.e. lain/sat down]…
it is noteworthy that we do not find nearly so close a parallel to Jesus actions at the Last Supper. Noticeably missing is any mention of breaking the bread (though “broken pieces” [kla/smata] are mentioned in v. 12). This may well be an indication that John has inherited an early form of the tradition which was not yet shaped to fit the eucharistic imagery to the same extent (as we see it preserved in the Synoptics). However, the Johannine form of the narrative would have a considerable influence on Eucharistic formulae and imagery in the early Church, as we shall see below.
The miraculous feeding episode in John serves as the basic setting for the great “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in Jn 6:22-59, a discourse in which most commentators find at least some reference to the Eucharist (especially in vv. 53-58). I must admit that I am not as inclined to see references to the concrete (material) sacrament in these verses as many commentators do—especially if we are to regard these in any meaningful way as authentic words of Jesus. I see the Eucharistic imagery here as of a more general type, referring primarily to the work of the Spirit as conveying the real [but spiritual] presence of Christ and eternal life to the believer (much as the apparent references to baptism in Jn 3)—foreshadowing, perhaps, the true and proper meaning of the sacrament. However, that there is Eucharistic imagery, especially in vv. 53-58, I do not deny.
4. Early Christian tradition
Here I will limit discussion to several points and one or two references which show that early Christians understood a definite Eucharistic aspect or element to the miraculous feeding episode.
a. The Johannine context. As mentioned above, the miraculous feeding is followed by the Bread of Life discourse, which has certain eucharistic elements. While the extent to which the eucharistic aspect applies to the meaning and intent of Jesus’ original words may be debated, there can be no doubt that Christians early on made the association. The Gospel of John is best dated somewhere between 70-90, and may include a late (c. 90-95) redaction.
b. As discussed in an earlier note, the “breaking (of) bread” appears to have served as a kind of shorthand reference to the Eucharist. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where the breaking of bread is mentioned, there appears to be some connection to the Lord’s Supper. By way of “catch-word (or catch-image) bonding”, any occurrence of breaking bread in the narrative would likely have been associated with the Eucharist from a very early time on.
c. The use of the verb eu)xariste/w in John’s account (as in the Synoptic feeding of the four thousand) may have helped to increase the use of the verb in association with the Eucharist (a word which, of course, derives from a transliteration of the related noun eu)xaristi/a [eucharistía]).
d. There are a number of parallels between John’s account of the miraculous feeding and references to the Eucharist in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” [of the Twelve Apostles]).
- The Bread is simply called kla/sma (plur. kla/smata), “broken (piece[s])” in Didache 9:3-4 as in the feeding miracle (cf. Jn 6:12)
- Note especially the prayer in Did 9:4:
“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”
With the following details:
- The bread scattered on the mountains (only in John’s account [v. 3] is a mountain setting mentioned).
- The verb translated “brought together” (suna/gw) is the same used in Jn 6:12-13 for the gathering up of the fragments (kla/smata). The same verb is also used in a Eucharistic setting in Did 14:1. The image of the (twelve) disciples gathering up the twelve baskets of fragments “so that nothing might be lost” [Jn 6:12b] was a suitable symbol of Church Unity, as the Didache clearly indicates.
- The mention of the Kingdom (of God/Christ); perhaps coincidentally, John’s account is the only one which makes any reference to a king (v. 14f).
- Note the three relevant details in succession in Didache 14:1:
“having been brought together [sunaxqe/nte$], break bread [kla/sate a&rton] and give good favor [eu)xaristh/sate—i.e. technically ‘celebrate the thanksgiving/eucharist‘]
Despite the name ascribed to the writing, the Didache is almost certainly not a product of the Apostles. It is typically dated sometime between 125-150 A.D., but may possibly preserve earlier tradition. It is a “church manual” of sorts, and provides at least a partial glimpse of what early Christianity may have been like in the first half of the second century (a generation or two after the later writings of the New Testament).