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Feeding the Five Thousand

Note of the Day – March 18 (John 6:22-59)

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John 6:22-59

Today’s note will look at the relationship between the Feeding Miracle tradition (6:1-15) and the Bread of Life discourse (6:22-59) in the Gospel of John. There are three motifs from the Miracle tradition which are developed in the following discourse:

  1. The Passover setting—which is unique to John’s account, though Mk 6:39 could also indicate springtime.
  2. The eating of Bread, and
  3. The Eucharist (on these allusions, cf. the previous note)

These three themes run through the discourse, but it may be said that each dominates one of the three main sections. Verses 22-24 serve as the narrative introduction to the discourse, and are transitional, joining the discourse with the Feeding Miracle, etc, in vv. 1-21. Each of the three main sections builds on the dialogue/discourse format used in the Gospel—

  • Saying of Jesus
  • Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
  • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus

In addition, the three sections are joined together, forming a larger discourse, by way of a step-parallel thematic technique:

  • Miracle of the bread-loaves —>
    • Passover: manna / bread from heaven —>
      • Eating bread: Jesus the “bread from heaven”, Bread of Life —>
        • Jesus the Living Bread —>
          • Eucharist: eating his flesh/blood leads to (eternal) Life

Section 1 (vv. 25-34)

  • Principal saying by Jesus—verse 27:
    “Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]…”
  • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 29
  • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 28-31
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 32-33
  • Theme: transition from the Feeding Miracle (v. 26) to the Passover motif (i.e. the manna, “bread from heaven”, vv. 31-33)

Section 2 (vv. 35-50)

  • Saying by Jesus—verse 35:
    “I am [e)gw\ ei)mi] the Bread of Life—the one coming toward me (no) he will not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting into me (no) he will not ever thirst. …”
  • [Explanation by Jesus]—vv. 36-40
  • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 41-42
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 44-50
  • Theme: Eating Bread—Jesus as the “Bread of Life”, the Bread come down from Heaven

Section 3 (vv. 51-58)

  • Saying by Jesus—verse 51a (parallel to v. 35):
    “I am [e)gw\ ei)mi] the Living Bread stepping down [i.e. coming down] out of Heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age (to Come)…”
  • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 51b
  • Reaction/question by the people—v. 52
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 53-58
  • Theme: transition from Bread (of Life) to the Eucharist motifs (vv. 53-56ff)

I will not here discuss the rich texture and theology of the discourse; this has been done in some detail in an earlier note. The outline above is meant to demonstrate how the Gospel writer has developed the Feeding Miracle tradition, by making it part of the larger Bread of Life discourse, much as he did with healing miracle (and Sabbath controversy) episode in chapter 5. The Discourses of Jesus in John are complex and difficult to analyze, due to the sophisticated way that authentic historical traditions have been adapted and interpreted within the Johannine literary style/format (i.e. of the Discourses). This compositional style can be seen at many different points in the Gospel. Compare, for example, the close similarity of structure, language and ideas, between Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman (4:9-15) and that of 6:25-34 (above, cf. also Brown, p. 267). The parallel between Jesus as the living water (ch. 4) and the living bread (ch. 6) is unmistakable, and is clearly intentional within the context of the Gospel.

Also most difficult is the relation between the Bread of Life and Eucharist symbolism in second and third sections (vv. 35-58) of the discourse. As challenging as these passages have been for Christians throughout the ages, Jesus’ words must have been completely baffling to the first hearers, if we accept the essential historicity of the discourse (v. 59). Indeed, this is a prominent theme of the Discourses in John—the misunderstanding of his words by the people who hear him. The explanation by Jesus, within in the discourse format, expounds the true (and deeper) meaning of his words, much as we see him, on occasion in the Synoptics, explaining his sayings and parables to the disciples in private (Mk 4:10-20 par, etc).

John 6:60-65ff

As it happens, John records a similar sort of “private” explanation by Jesus to the disciples in vv. 60-65. This comes in addition to the exposition(s) within the discourse proper; as such, vv. 60ff functions as an epilogue or appendix to the discourse. There is a loose parallel, perhaps, to this in 4:31-38. Verses 60-65 have greatly complicated interpretation of the discourse (particularly the eucharistic motifs in vv. 51-58), since they contain a distinctly spiritual explanation of Jesus’ words. This section may be outlined as follows:

  • Reaction by the disciples (i.e. to the discourse)—v. 60
    “This account [i.e. word/discourse] is hard/harsh; who is able to hear it?”
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 61-65, which is framed by a question and a statement directed toward his disciples:
    “Does this trip you (up)?” (v. 61b)
    “But there are some of you that do not trust (in me)” (v. 64a)

The explanation in vv. 62-63 is comprised of three sayings, which must be taken together:

“Then if you should look upon the Son of Man stepping up to where he was at (the) first(, how will you react)?” (v. 62)
“The Spirit is th(at which) makes (one a)live; the flesh does not help (in) anything” (v. 63a)
“The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you (they) are Spirit and Life” (v. 63b)

The first saying (a rhetorical question) emphasizes the divine origin of the “Son of Man” (Jesus), and foreshadows his departure back to the Father. It is at the time of his departure that the Spirit will come to the disciples (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:13-15; 20:22-23; cf. also 8:39). The second saying clearly states that the Spirit (of God, and Christ) is that which gives life; the flesh plays no role, or is of no use in this. In the third saying, Jesus identifies his words with the Spirit and with the life the Spirit gives. The disciples, at this point in the narrative, could not possibly understand the significance of these things, since they foreshadowed events which had not taken place. They simply had to trust Jesus. This is the emphasis of verses 64-65, and in the tradition which follows (vv. 66-71). Not all of Jesus’ disciples truly trust in him, but only those chosen and given to Jesus by the Father (i.e. the Elect believers). Here the author seems to have joined to the discourse a separate tradition, with similarities to several found in the Synoptics—i.e., the calling of the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13-19 par) and the confession by Peter (vv. 68-69; cp. Mk 8:29 par). On the latter point, compare Peter’s words in Mk 8:29/Lk 9:20 and Jn 6:69 respectively:

“You are the Anointed One [xristo$] of God”
“You are the Holy One [a%gio$] of God”

It is another example (among many) of how the Synoptic and Johannine traditions are so very similar, and yet, at the same time, so very different.

References marked “Brown” above are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29 (1966).

Note of the Day – March 17 (John 6:11ff, 16-21)

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Having discussed John’s version the Miraculous Feeding episode in the previous note, before proceeding to the Bread of Life discourse, it is necessary to examine briefly two aspects of the Feeding Miracle tradition:

  1. Its connection to the Walking on Water episode, and
  2. The eucharistic allusions in the tradition

The Walking on Water (Mk 6:45-52; Matt 14:22-33; Jn 6:16-21)

The episode of Jesus walking on the water follows directly after the Feeding miracle, both in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark/Matthew) and in John. Being thus preserved in two separate lines of tradition, it would seem that the Feeding miracle and the Walking on Water were connected at a very early point. Mark and Matthew follow the same basic narrative, the main difference being the Matthean addition in vv. 28-31 (involving Peter’s walking on the water out to Jesus). Mark certainly has the earlier form of the tradition, confirmed by the parallel in John. The common elements of the tradition are:

  • Jesus goes up the mountain (to be) alone—Mk 6:46 / Jn 6:15b; however, there are two (very) different explanations for Jesus’ departure:
    —Synoptic: Mk 6:45-46a
    —John: 6:14-15a
  • The disciples go out by boat across the lake, though with a different geographical location indicated:
    —to Bethsaida (Mk 6:45)
    —to Capernaum (Jn 6:16-17)
  • At evening, the boat is in the middle of the lake—the wind is rough and the disciples are (having difficulty) rowing—Mk 6:47-48a / Jn 6:16-19a
  • The separation between Jesus and the disciples is indicated
  • After a time/distance, they see Jesus coming to them, walking on the water—Mk 6:48b-49a / Jn 6:19a
  • The disciples are frightened by the sight of him—Mk 6:49b-50 / Jn 6:19b
  • Jesus tells them not to be afraid (Greek: e)gw\ ei)mi mh fobei=sqe)—Mk 6:50b / Jn 6:20
  • Jesus comes into the boat and a miracle occurs—Mk 6:51 / Jn 6:21

Mark’s ending probably reflects the original tradition. John’s account has been adapted to fit the verses following (22-23ff) which join the Bread of Life discourse to this episode. Mk 6:52 is an addition, most likely by the author, which points back to the feeding miracle.

The inclusion of the Walking-on-the-Water episode in John causes some difficulty for the author, in terms of joining the Bread of Life discourse to the Feeding miracle. The awkwardness of verses 22-23 is largely the result of his inclusion of the Walking-on-Water episode (vv. 16-21). He clearly felt compelled to include it, which indicates again the strength of the (early) Gospel tradition. Even so, there are several (subtle) details which demonstrate Johannine adaptation of this traditional episode:

  • When the disciples are out on the water, John specifically states that there was darkness [skoti/a] (v. 17). There is definite theological significance to this word in the Gospel of John, where darkness is contrasted with Christ as the light (1:5; 8:12; 12:35, 46; cf. also 20:1, and note 1 Jn 1:5; 2:8-11). The reason for the darkness is clearly stated: “Jesus had not yet come toward them”.
  • In the Synoptic version, the storm/wind is decidedly negative—it is something against which the disciples struggle (Mk 6:48), and which Jesus’ presence immediately calms (v. 51). These details are absent from John’s version; there the storm/wind seems to function as a kind of theophany, marking the presence and appearance of Jesus, prior to his coming near the boat (vv. 18-19).
  • The presence of Jesus is signified by his words to the disciples—e)gw ei)mi mh fobei=sqe (“It is I! do not be afraid!”). The words are identical in the Synoptics and John, being part of the original tradition. However, in John, they take on deeper significance. The expression e)gw ei)mi could also be rendered “I am (he)”, “I am (Jesus)”, or, literally, “I am”. As such, the expression appears numerous times in John, in the famous “I Am” sayings of Jesus, which begin with the Bread of Life discourse (v. 35). This is the second occurrence of e)gw ei)mi, spoken by Jesus, in the Gospel (cf. 4:26, and compare 1:20-21; 3:28).

The Eucharistic Allusions

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 gave good account to [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] (God) 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) giving good account [eu)logh/sa$] (to God), 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 (kataklᜠ“break down”), the simple verb kla/w (klᜠ“break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in an earlier 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 gave good account [i.e. 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 (words of) 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 (words of) 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). This will be discussed in the next daily note.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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]).
  4. 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 (the mountain setting in Jn 6:3 [cf. also Matt 15:29]).
  • 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).

Note of the Day – March 16 (John 6:1-15)

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John 6:1-15

Having now discussed the miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic Gospels (cf. the previous two notes), it is time to examine the tradition as it appears in the Gospel of John. The corresponding passage in the fourth Gospel is found in Jn 6:1-15. The narrative setting of this episode in John is, of course, quite different:

  • Jesus has previously been in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1ff), and is now in Galilee (6:1); this abrupt shift would seem to indicate that we are dealing with the inclusion of traditional material, and no real attempt has been made by the author to smooth over the seam. Note the generic opening words, “After these things…” (meta\ tau=ta).
  • The occasion of Passover is mentioned (v. 4), which is almost certainly an insertion by the author to connect the miracle explicitly with the setting of the “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in 6:22-59.
  • Consider how the author includes the episode of Jesus’ walking on the water (6:16-20) right after the miraculous feeding, just as in the Synoptic tradition (Mark/Matthew), even though it doesn’t seem entirely to fit the narrative context in John (note the rather awkward transitional description in vv. 22-23). I take this as an indication that the two episodes were already coupled together at a very early point in the Gospel tradition. The connection with the walking-on-water episode will be discussed further in the next note.
  • There is, certainly, nothing at all like the Bread of Life discourse following the feeding miracle in the Synoptic Gospels—it appears to be a tradition unique to John.

As I mentioned previously, the account of the Miraculous Feeding in John is interesting in that it appears to contain details or elements from both miracle episodes in the Synoptics. Special details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic feeding of the 5000:

  • Crossing the Sea of Galilee (by boat) (v. 1; cf. Mk 6:32)
  • Reference to Jesus’ healing the sick (v. 2) [cf. Matt 14:14; Luke 9:11]
  • Jesus looks (up) and sees the “great crowd” [polu\$ o&xlo$] (v. 5; Mk 6:34)
  • Specific mention by the disciples of the cost of (at least) 200 denarii to feed so many people (v. 7; Mk 6:37)
  • The number of loaves (5) (v. 9)
  • The specific (round) number of men in the crowd (5000) (v. 10)
  • The mention of grass (v. 10; Mark 6:39, par Matt)
  • There are twelve baskets [kofino$] of fragments left over (v. 13)

Details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic (Matthew-Mark) feeding of the 4000:

  • The specific location along/across the Sea of Galilee (v. 1) [cf. Matt 15:29]
  • Jesus going up onto a mountain (v. 3) [cf. in Matt 15:29, but note also the mountain theme in Mk 6:46 par. Matt).
  • Jesus takes the initiative regarding the crowd (v. 5) [cf. Mark 8:2-3 par]—however this is more of an original/distinctive element of John’s narrative.
  • Jesus’ question (v. 5b) is quite similar to the question by the disciples in Matt 15:33 (par Mk 8:4). The author’s comment in verse 6 suggests that he was uncomfortable with such a question coming from Jesus.
  • The verb “sit/fall back” [a)napi/ptw] is used (v. 10) instead of “lay back/down” [a)nakli/nw/katakli/nw]; also, there is no mention of the crowd sitting down in groups of fifty, etc.
  • Jesus “gives thanks” [eu)xariste/w] (v. 11) as in Matt 15:36 and MSS of Mk 8:7, instead of “bless” [eu)loge/w]
  • Jesus specifically directs the disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12; cf. Mk 8:6, 8, but also note Matt 14:20)

The number of details in common with the feeding of the 4000 is striking—another indication, perhaps, that the two narrative episodes (of the 5000 & 4000) stem from a single historical tradition. It is also worth pointing out some details which are unique to John’s account:

  • The Passover setting (v. 4), though the mention of “green grass” (Mk 6:39) might generally indicate springtime.
  • Jesus’ specific question about buying food for the crowd (v. 5), described as intended to test the disciples (Philip) (v. 6)
  • The mention of specific disciples Philip (v. 5-7) and Andrew (v. 8), which may indicate a distinct Johannine tradition (cf. 1:40-46).
  • The boy with the loaves and fish (v. 9)
  • The loaves specified as “barley” [kriqino$] and the fish as “dried-fish” [o)yarion, instead of i)xqu$/i)xqudion]
  • Jesus’ command to his disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12), along with the use of suna/gw (“bring together”) instead of ai&rw (“lift [up/away]”)
  • The reaction of the people to the miracle in vv. 14-15.

The significant number of details unique to John would seem to be incontrovertible evidence that John has not derived his account from any of the Synoptics, but has inherited an early Gospel tradition, some version of which is shared by the Synoptics as well. For a convenient chart comparing all of the miraculous feeding narratives in detail, see R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible vol. 29: 1966), pp. 240-243.

Several of the details have a theological significance in the context of John’s Gospel. These include:

  • Reference to Jesus’ miracles as “signs” (semei=a) (v. 2, 14)
  • The reference to Jesus going up the mountain, using the verb a)ne/rxomai (v. 3)
  • The Passover connection (v. 4)
  • The people coming to(ward) Jesus, with the verb e&rxomai (v. 5)
  • The eucharistic allusions (v. 11), which are scarcely unique to John’s account, but which have special importance in connection with the Bread of Life discourse that follows.
  • The salvific context of Jesus’ words to his disciples in v. 12
  • Jesus’ identity in relation to popular Messianic conceptions—i.e. as Prophet (v. 14) and Davidic ruler (King, v. 15)

Some of these are especially important in terms of the discourse which follows in vv. 22-58. But before proceeding to that discussion, it is necessary first to address two topics related to the Miraculous Feeding tradition: (1) its connection with the walking-on-water episode, and (2) the eucharistic emphasis. These will be covered in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – March 15 (Matt 14:13-21; 15:32-39; Lk 9:10-17)

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In the previous daily note, I examined the two Miraculous Feeding episodes in the Gospel of Mark (6:30-44; 8:1-10), noting the similarities (and differences) between them, as well as their place within the Markan narrative (6:14-8:30). Today, I will look at how this tradition has been utilized and developed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39

Matthew follows the Markan narrative in recording both Miraculous Feeding episodes (of the 5,000 and 4,000). Indeed, Matt 14:1-16:20 appears to follow the entire outline of Mk 6:14-8:30 fairly closely. The main differences are:

  • An expanded version of the walking on water episode (cf. 14:28-33)
  • The sayings of Jesus in 15:13-14 and 16:2-3
  • An expanded version of Peter’s confession (with Jesus’ response) in 16:16b-19

The structure of Mk 6:14-8:30, with its rather careful symmetry (cf. the prior note), I would attribute, on the whole, to the author of the Gospel (trad. Mark), rather than to an earlier stage in the Gospel Tradition. If so, then the presence of the same outline in Matthew would provide strong confirmation, at this point, of the critical hypothesis that Matthew made use of Mark’s Gospel. The author (trad. Matthew) has certainly included episodes corresponding to Mark 6:30-44ff and 8:1-10ff (Matt 14:13-21ff; 15:32-39ff), at more or less the same positions in the narrative. Notably, the basic information from Mk 8:11-21 is repeated in 16:5-12—i.e., Jesus’ own reference to both of the Feeding Miracles.

The differences between Matthew and Mark in the two Miraculous Feeding episodes are relatively slight, the most significant being:

Miracle #1 (14:13-21)

  • A simplified narrative introduction (vv. 13-14; compare with Mk 6:30-34), giving the basic information:
    —That Jesus departed to a “desolate” place, and crowds followed him there (v. 13)
    —and Jesus’ reaction to seeing the people, with the specific detail that he healed the sick among them (v. 14, cf. also Lk 9:11)
  • Matthew’s introduction (v. 13a) also makes a smoother transition with the Baptist episode immediately prior; Mark, by contrast, refers back to the mission of the Twelve.
  • The beginning of the narrative proper (vv. 15-16) is also simpler than in Mark. The author omits, or otherwise does not include, the disciples’ question (Mk 6:37) and Jesus’ question to them in response (6:38a, “How many loaves…?”); however, he also adds the words of Jesus in v. 16a: “They have no business going [i.e. there is no need for them to go] away…”.
  • There is no reference to the crowd sitting down in groups (Mk 6:39-40).
  • Verses 19-21 are very close to Mk, with a small addition in v. 21b.

Overall, Matthew’s narrative is simpler and smoother, with some of the dramatic and local detail of Mark’s account absent.

Miracle #2 (15:32-39)

  • Matthew’s version is framed by specific geographical references, in relation to the sea of Galilee (vv. 29, 39; cp. Mark 7:31).
  • We also have the detail of Jesus going up into the hill(s)/mountain (v. 29b)
  • The references to healing miracles (vv. 30-31) have been integrated more closely into the narrative of the miraculous feeding (cp. Mk 7:32-37).
  • The basic narrative of vv. 32-38 is quite close to Mk 8:1-9, with minor differences in wording.
  • There is a small difference in the geographical location at the close of the episode (v. 39; Mk 8:10).

Again, Matthew’s narrative is a bit simpler and more streamlined, by comparison with Mark. In both miracle episodes, the author adapts the tradition to set it more clearly within the context of Jesus’ ministry—especially the healing miracles of Jesus (cf. 14:13-14; 15:29-31). The second half of the Galilean Period in Matthew covers 10:1-16:20, and has a clearly defined theme of the disciples’ participation in Jesus’ ministry, along with the theme of discipleship. Matthew includes much more traditional material between the mission of the Twelve (10:1-5ff) and the confession of Peter (16:13-20) than do the other Gospels. The author retains the Synoptic (Markan) structure in 14:1-16:20, including the two Feeding Miracles, but sets them within a more developed and expansive narrative outline.

Luke 9:10-17

If Matthew appears to have used the Gospel of Mark at this point (cf. above), it is less clear in the case of Luke. The main reason for this is that the author has omitted (or has otherwise not included) the material corresponding to Mark 6:53-8:26, including the second Feeding Miracle (Mk 8:1-10). As a consequence, there is no way of knowing whether he knew of the second episode, and/or what he thought of it. If Luke made use of Mark’s Gospel, then he intentionally omitted that entire section; however, we must also consider the possibility that he inherited a Synoptic narrative that was simpler/shorter than Mark. Insofar as Luke records the Miraculous Feeding tradition, he follows a version that more or less corresponds to the first miracle in Mark (and Matthew). The following points of comparison may be noted:

  • Luke retains the Markan connection with the mission of the Twelve (v. 10; Mk 6:30); the importance of this will be indicated below.
  • Luke uniquely records the geographical reference which locates the miracle in the area around Bethsaida (cp. Mark 6:45).
  • Like Matthew (cf. above), Luke has a simpler narrative introduction (vv. 10-11) than does Mark. Verse 11 would seem to be simplified version of Mk 6:33.
  • As in Matthew, there is incorporated into the narrative a summary reference to Jesus healing the sick in the crowd (v. 11b; Matt 14:14).
  • Luke adds the specific detail that Jesus spoke to the people “about the Kingdom of God” (v. 11); this definitely would seem to be an (editorial) addition by the author (on this theme, and wording, cf. Acts 1:3, also Lk 4:43; 8:1; 9:2; 17:20; 19:11).
  • Verses 12-17 generally follows Mk 6:35-44, but with simpler narration; with Matthew, the two questions in Mk 6:37-38 are omitted. There are a number of other (minor) agreements in wording between Matthew and Luke (cf. vv. 11-14, 17 par).
  • Luke has set the mention of the crowd’s estimated size earlier in the narrative (v. 14); instead, his version of the episode closes with the gathering of the twelve baskets of leftovers (v. 17).

The ‘omission’ of the Synoptic traditions in Mk 6:53-8:26 means that the Lukan account of this portion of the Galilean Period looks very different than it does in Mark or Matthew. Consider that the section from the mission of the Twelve, through to the confession of Peter, takes up just twenty verses in Luke (9:1-20). By comparison, the same relative division of the narrative in Matthew covers nearly seven chapters (10:1-16:20). The outline for this portion of Luke is amazingly simple:

  • Jesus with his disciples—the Mission of the Twelve (9:1-6)
    The reaction to Jesus: the question of Herod (9:7-9)
    —The Twelve return to Jesus, telling him of their mission work (9:10)
    ——The Feeding Miracle (9:10-17)
    —The Twelve baskets gathered up (by the Twelve) (9:17)
  • Jesus with his disciples—praying together (with the Twelve) (9:18ff)
    The reaction to Jesus: the confession of Peter (9:18b-20)

The central section in bold represents the Feeding Miracle. Luke’s streamlined account, more than the other Gospels, uses the Feeding Miracle here to represent and summarize the ministry of Jesus. The connection with Jesus’ disciples (the Twelve) is more prominent as well. This is almost certainly the reason why mention of the estimated size of the crowd was moved back to verse 14—so that the feeding miracle would conclude with a reference to the twelve baskets gathered by the disciples (i.e. symbolic of the Twelve). Indeed, the Greek of verse 17 specifically ends with the word dw/deka (“twelve”).

For another comparison of the Feeding Miracle episode(s) in the Synoptic Gospels cf. my earlier note on this topic.

Having compared the versions of the Synoptic tradition(s), it now remains to turn to the account of the Feeding Miracle in the Gospel of John. In so doing, we will return to the critical question (i.e. originally one or two miracles?), as well as examine the unique way that the tradition has been adapted in the Fourth Gospel, through its connection with the great “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6. This will be the topic of the next daily note.

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

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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.

Note of the Day – June 23

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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 (kataklᜠ“break down”), the simple verb kla/w (klᜠ“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).

 

Note of the Day – June 22

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In the previous day’s note, I offered a comparison of the miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic Gospels, including a comparison of the similarities between the feedings of the 5000 and the 4000 in Mark/Matthew—similarities which serve as a reasonably strong argument in favor of the critical view that the two narrative episodes are based on a single historical tradition (or event). I also mentioned at least one good argument (on objective grounds, apart from any particular view of inspiration/inerrancy) in favor of the traditional-conservative view that these really do represent a record of separate events. This will be discussed in the second half of today’s note; however, to begin with, let me offer a comparison of the miraculous feeding narrative in John vs. the Synoptics. The corresponding passage in the fourth Gospel is found in Jn 6:1-15. The narrative setting of this episode in John is, of course, quite different:

  • Jesus has previously been in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1ff), and is now in Galilee (6:1); this abrupt shift would seem to indicate that we are dealing with the inclusion of traditional material, and no real attempt has been made by the author to smooth over the seam.
  • The occasion of Passover is mentioned (v. 4), which is almost certainly an insertion by the author to connect the miracle explicitly with the setting of the “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in 6:22-59.
  • Note how the author includes the episode of Jesus’ walking on the water (6:16-20) right after the miraculous feeding, just as in the Synoptic tradition (Mark/Matthew), even though it doesn’t seem entirely to fit the narrative context in John (note the rather awkward transitional description in vv. 22-23). I take this as an indication that the two episodes were already coupled together at a very early point in the Gospel tradition.
  • There is, certainly, nothing at all like the Bread of Life discourse following the feeding miracle in the Synoptic Gospels—it appears to be a tradition unique to John.

Special details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic feeding of the 5000:

  • Reference to Jesus’ healing the sick (v. 2) [cf. Matt 14:14; Luke 9:11]
  • Specific mention by the disciples of the cost of (at least) 200 denarii to feed so many people (v. 7; Mk 6:37)
  • The number of loaves (5) (v. 9)
  • The specific (round) number of men in the crowd (5000) (v. 10)
  • The mention of grass (v. 10; Mark 6:39, par Matt)
  • There are twelve baskets [kofino$] of fragments left over (v. 13)

Details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic (Matthew-Mark) feeding of the 4000:

  • The specific location along/across the Sea of Galilee (v. 1) [cf. Matt 15:29]
  • Jesus going up onto a mountain (v. 3) [cf. in Matt 15:29, but note also mountain theme in Mk 6:46 par. Matt).
  • Jesus takes the initiative regarding the crowd (v. 5) [cf. Mark 8:2-3 par]—however this is more of an original/distinctive element of John’s narrative
  • Philip’s response to Jesus question (v. 7) shows a partial similarity to Matt 15:33 (but also Mk 6:37, see above)
  • The verb “sit/fall back” [a)napi/ptw] is used (v. 10) instead of “lay back/down” [a)nakli/nw/katakli/nw]; also, there is no mention of the crowd sitting down in groups of fifty, etc.
  • Jesus “gives thanks” [eu)xariste/w] (v. 11) as in Matt  15:36 and MSS of Mk 8:7, instead of “bless” [eu)loge/w]

The number of details in common with the feeding of the 4000 is striking—another indication, perhaps, that the two narrative episodes (of the 5000 & 4000) stem from a single historical tradition. It is also worth pointing some details which are unique to John’s account:

  • The Passover setting (v. 4), though the mention of “green grass” (Mk 6:39) might generally indicate springtime.
  • Jesus specific question about buying food for the crowd (v. 5), described as intended to test the disciples (Philip) (v. 6)
  • The mention of specific disciples Philip (v. 5-7) and Andrew (v. 8).
  • The boy with the loaves and fish (v. 9)
  • The loaves specified as “barley” [kriqino$] and the fish as “dried-fish” [o)yarion, instead of i)xqu$/i)xqudion]
  • Jesus’ command to his disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12), along with the use of suna/gw (“bring together”) instead of ai&rw (“lift [up/away]”)
  • The reaction of the people to the miracle in vv. 14-15.

The significant number of details unique to John would seem to be incontrovertible evidence that John has not derived his account from any of the Synoptics, but has inherited an early Gospel tradition, some version of which is shared by the Synoptics as well. For a convenient chart comparing all of the miraculous feeding narratives in detail, see R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible vol. 29: 1966), pp. 240-243.

What, then, of the traditional-conservative view which would regard the miraculous feedings of the 5000 and 4000 as authentic separate historical events? As I mentioned above, there is one main piece of objective evidence in its favor: namely, the tradition recorded in Mark 8:14-21 (par Matthew 16:5-12). Actually, according to standard methods of analysis for the Gospels, one should distinguish three elements in this passage, which follow a relatively common pattern:

  • Narrative setting (v. 14)
  • Saying of Jesus (v. 15)
  • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 17-21), following the question/misunderstanding of the disciples (v. 16)

The saying of Jesus about the “leaven of the Pharisees” is found in all three Synoptics—it is part of the parallel sequence in Matt 16:5-12 (v. 6), perhaps inherited from Mark, and is also found in Luke 12:1 but there in a very different context. It is Jesus’ exposition in Mk 8:17-21 which is of particular interest here, for he refers to both feeding miracles (in some detail!) If one is to regard vv. 17-21 as being in any way an authentic dialogue, then one is also forced to admit that the two miraculous feeding narratives both reflect historical events. This creates something of a dilemma for critical commentators—for if, on the other hand, the two feeding miracles are versions of a single event, then the entire dialogue of vv. 17-21 must effectively be regarded as an early Christian creation. Indeed, many critical scholars, I am sure, are inclined to accept the authenticity of the saying in v. 15 much more so than the expository dialogue in vv. 17-21.

It is interesting that there also appears to be literary significance to the parallel presentation of the two miraculous feedings, at least in the Gospel of Mark; note the following structure:

  • Feeding miracle (of the 5000)—Mk 6:30-44
    • Episode in a boat at sea (miracle of Jesus)—vv. 45-51
      • Statement about the loaves; disciples’ lack of understanding—v. 52
  • Feeding miracle (of the 4000)—Mk 8:1-10
    • Episode in a boat at sea (saying of Jesus)—vv. 14-15ff
      • Discussion of the loaves; disciples’ lack of understanding—vv. 16-21

While not constructed as carefully as similar arrangements of narrative episodes in, say, the Gospels of Luke or John, the parallelism is clear enough. There are then, other concerns besides historical accuracy/reliability that make it important to maintain a distinction between the two miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic tradition.

Note of the Day – June 21

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In the previous day’s note I introduced some of the critical issues (source- and historical-critical) surrounding the miraculous feeding of the multitude (5000 & 4000) narratives in the Gospels. To demonstrate several points more clearly, today I will present a modest comparative study of the passages. To begin with, it is worth noting just how close are the three Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand. The passages to compare are: Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17. The introductory/transition portion of the narrative (Mk 6:30-34; Matt 14:13-14; Lk 9:10-11) shows much greater variance:

  • Occasion/setting: the return of the Twelve from their mission (Mark/Luke) vs. Jesus hearing about the fate of John (Matthew)
  • The extended narrative in Mark (vv. 31-34) including additional dialogue and a longer mention of Jesus’ compassion for the crowd
  • Matthew and Luke do not have the narrative portion of Mark 6:31-34, presenting a simpler narrative setting—Matthew/Luke agree (against Mark) in mentioning Jesus’ healing the sick in the crowd

There are other minor differences as well, such as Luke specifying the location as Bethsaida (Lk 9:10) and the mention of Jesus speaking about the kingdom of God (v. 11). The common elements are: (a) Jesus withdrawing (to a secluded place) with his disciples, (b) the crowd following him, (c) an expression of Jesus’ care/compassion for the crowd. Here is a comparison of the core narrative which follows (using the NASU translation), with significant differences (additions, modification or reordering of material) italicized (note also the simpler descriptions in Matthew/Luke compared with Mark):

Mark 6:35-44

35 When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and it is already quite late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But He answered them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?” 38 And He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food and broke the loaves and He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and they picked up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces, and also of the fish. 44 There were five thousand men who ate the loaves.

Matthew 14:15-21

15 When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and the hour is already late; so send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!” 17 They said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” 18 And He said, “Bring them here to Me.” 19 Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds, 20 and they all ate and were satisfied. They picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. 21 There were about five thousand men who ate, besides women and children.

Luke 9:12-17

12 Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” 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 perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.” 14 (For there were about five thousand men.) And He said to His disciples, “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so, and had them all sit down. 16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.

Let us now turn to the two accounts of the miraculous feeding of the Four thousand, in Mark 8:1-9 and Matthew 15:32-39. Luke does not record this separate feeding episode, which may not be all that significant since here in the narrative he has nothing corresponding to the entire section of Mark 6:45-8:26. As in the case of the feeding of the Five thousand, Matthew’s version is simpler than Mark’s, but, apart from slight differences in wording and arrangement, is otherwise extremely close. In many ways, the feeding of the 4000 gives the impression (according to the critical view) of being closer to the earliest historical tradition of the feeding miracle—it is a more streamlined narrative, with fewer signs of editing. The historical critical question, of course, is very much in dispute (for traditional-conservative commentators at least); but consider just how close the two narrative episodes actually are—in each we have:

  • A large crowd has followed Jesus, and is now in a deserted/distant place with no opportunity to obtain food
  • Jesus has compassion on the crowd
  • Mention of sending the crowd away
  • Question of the disciples about trying to feed such a large number of people
  • Jesus asks what food they have—just a small number of bread loaves and fish
  • Jesus instructs the crowd to sit down
  • Jesus blesses/gives-thanks and gives the food to the disciples to distribute to the crowd
  • All in the crowd eat and are satisfied
  • Baskets full of fragments remain and are gathered up
  • The (round) number of men in the crowd is stated (5000/4000)

There are, of course, notable differences—both substantive and in detail—but the similarities are striking; it is a fairly strong argument in favor of the critical view that we are dealing with two versions of the same underlying historical tradition. That two separate events would have occurred—and been narrated—in such a similar fashion seems rather unlikely. As critical commentators are fond of mentioning, there is also the historical implausibility of the disciples, having recently witnessed the first dramatic feeding miracle, having the same doubts again about being able to feed such a large crowd (but cf. the notice in Mark 6:52). The main differences between the two narrative episodes can be summarized:

Feeding the 5000

  • It is stated that Jesus had compassion on the crowd
  • The disciples ask Jesus to send the crowd away (to find food)
  • Jesus tells the disciples to give the crowd something to eat
  • The disciples tell Jesus what food they have (response to Jesus inquiry in Mk)
  • Five loaves, and two fish
  • Jesus commands the crowd to lay-back/recline [a)nakli/nw/katakli/nw] in groups
  • Jesus “blesses” [eu)loge/w] the food
  • Twelve baskets [ko/fino$] of fragments left over

Feeding the 4000

  • Jesus states that he has compassion for the crowd
  • Jesus says he is unwilling to send them away (to find food)
  • The disciples question how they can feed such a large crowd
  • Jesus asks the disciples what food they have (as in Mk’s version of feeding the 5000)
  • Seven loaves, a few (small) fish
  • Jesus has the crowd sit down [a)napi/ptw] (no mention of groups)
  • Jesus “gives thanks” [eu)xariste/w] (in Matt; “bless” [eu)loge/w] in Mk some MSS)
  • Seven woven-baskets [spuri/$] of fragments left over

To a large extent, these differences are variations in vocabulary and specific detail, of the sort that might naturally occur during the development and transmission of ancient tradition. If the critical view holds, then, at some point early on, two versions of the story (with differing details and vocabulary) crystalized, developing to become distinct enough to be preserved as separate narratives in the Synoptic tradition. In fairness I think it can be said that, without the need to safeguard a particular view of the inspiration (and/or inerrancy) of Scripture—that is, if such a narrative ‘doublet’ occurred in any other ancient writing—there would be little question that a single historical tradition underlay both narratives. However, there is at least one strong argument (on objective grounds) in favor of the traditional-conservative view, and this will be discussed in the next day’s note—along with a comparison of the miraculous feeding narratives in John and the Synoptics.

Note of the Day – June 20

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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.