Bible Stories for Grownups -

Feeding of the 5000, not to mention the 4000

Mark 6:30-44, Feeding of the 5000
Matthew 14:13-21, Feeding of the 5000
Luke 9:9-17, Feeding of the 5000
John 6:1-14, Feeding of the 5000
Matthew 15:1-6, 10-11, 15-38, 16:5-12, Feeding of the 4000

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Mark 6:30-44, Feeding of the 5000, not to mention the 4000 (7/6/2009)

The idea of a Messianic Banquet is found in several places in the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah says that the LORD will prepare for a rich banquet of food and wine for all peoples, at which he will remove mourning, destroy death, and provide salvation (Isaiah 25:6-12; 55:1-3). Ezekiel says that God will feed his flock on rich pasture, where they will rest in safety with his servant David as their shepherd (that is, a descendant of David Ezekiel prophesied long after the time of King David himself) (Ezekiel 34:11-31). Joel says that God's people will eat to their heart's content and know that the LORD is among them (Joel 2:26-27). Even the gloomy Jeremiah says that God will bring back a remnant of his flock to safe pasture under the rule of a virtuous Branch of David (Jeremiah 23:3-6). The rabbis developed the idea further in their writings and teachings, even predicting what would be on the menu (e.g., the Leviathan) and who would be sitting where. So by the first century there was a lively tradition that the coming of the Messiah would be the occasion of a great feast for God's people.

Matthew 14:13-21, Feeding of the 5000, not to mention the 4000 (7/7/2009)

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "Synoptic Gospels." "Synoptic" is from the Greek words "with" and "eye," and this label is usually explained by saying either that these three Gospels all take the same point of view or that you can line them up side by side and look at them all at once. Both explanations are more-or-less true.

Matthew and Luke do differ in fairly systematic ways from Mark, which was written first. "The Feeding of the Five Thousand" doesn't illustrate any of the systematic differences, strangely enough. Mark is a brief, action-packed, straightforward gospel, and when Mark and Luke change Mark's story, they tend to add details to it that they remembered on their own or got from other sources. Mark's version of this particular story, however, is about half again as long as Matthew's and Luke's. For the material that they take from Mark's gospel, Matthew and Luke most often use Mark's exact words, although in the story "The Feeding of the Five Thousand," they don't. Another difference between Mark and the other two, which you also can't see in this story, is that Matthew and Luke tend to suppress details in Mark that apparently make Jesus seem to them to be "ordinary." For example, in reporting Jesus' healing of the man with a withered hand, Mark says that Jesus looked around at the Pharisees "with anger, being grieved" (Mark 3:5), but Luke says only that he "looked around" at them (Luke 6:10), and Matthew doesn't say (Matthew 12:12-13).

When you are interested in an event, you read the newspaper, watch TV, and follow up with a weekly news magazine to get the "whole story." If you want to get the grown-up version of a Bible story that is told more than once, you need to read it in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.

Luke 9:9-17, Feeding of the 5000, not to mention the 4000 (7/8/2009)

One of the things children learn in Sunday School is that Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. That's pretty impressive, but it's not the whole story. The truth is that the crowd was actually a lot larger than that. Luke says "they were about 5000 andres men" [i.e., adult male human beings, not "people"]. Matthew says "the ones who ate were about 5000 andres men, besides the women and children." Mark says "the ones who ate were about 5000 andres men." John says that Jesus said, "Make the anthropoi people sit down.... so the andres men sat down, in number about 5000."

All four gospels agree that there were 5000 men in the modern American sense of adult males. Two gospels explicitly add that there were other people women and children. So how big was the crowd? We can only speculate, but if even half the men had a wife and one child along, that's 10,000 people. One of the few new insights I gained into the New Testament by reading it in Greek was that the crowds that followed Jesus around were enormous. I suppose I could have noticed that in English, but for some reason I never did.

John 6:1-14, Feeding of the 5000, not to mention the 4000 (7/9/2009)

Ancient Church tradition says that when the eye-witnesses to Jesus' ministry were beginning to die off, John was encouraged to write a gospel that focused on the Judean ministry, which the existing Synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke had largely omitted. So we aren't surprised that even the most cursory reading of the Gospels shows that the Synoptic Gospels are very similar to each other, and John is very different. Only one miracle is reported in all four Gospels, and that is the "Feeding of the Five Thousand." One reason may be that it was so impressive and so significant that each writer wanted to include it for his own audience. Another reason may be that it bridges the time periods of the Judean and Galilean ministries. Remember that it was shortly after Herod beheaded John that this miracle occurred and that Jesus withdrew to Galilee.

Another difference between John and the Synoptics is that the Synoptics are long on events, miracles, and teaching, and short on explanations of what it all means. John is just the opposite. He describes only nine miracles, but he presents each miracle in a context that shows its spiritual significance, usually he explains the spiritual significance in detail, and often he comments to the effect that some of the observers believed, and some didn't.

In Matthew, Mark, and John, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is immediately followed by the incident in which Jesus comes on foot to the disciples on the boat in the middle of the lake. Matthew says nothing that refers back to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Mark says only that the disciples were amazed by this new event, because they hadn't understood about the bread. John gives the lake incident only a few verses, because he wants to explain about the bread! So he reports a long teaching that Jesus gave the next day about the Bread of Life, which the Synoptics do not. Our reading for today is long, because it includes this explanation. If you are tired of reading about the miracle, skip down to vs. 24.

Always read each story in all Gospels in which it occurs, in order to get a grown-up understanding of the context.

Matthew 15:1-6, 10-11, 15-38, 16:5-12, Feeding of the 5000, not to mention the 4000 (7/10/2009)

I always have trouble remembering whether it was the "Feeding of the 5000" or the "Feeding of the 4000." Were there 5 loaves or 7 loaves? Two fish or a few fish? Men or people? Twelve baskets of leftovers or seven? That stuff I learned so long ago in Sunday School gets hazy!

Actually there were two similar miracles, as reported by Matthew and Mark: But Jesus says, Don't get hung up on the bread! Listen to what he's really saying! And what he's saying is that here is a powerful sign of the coming of the Messiah to welcome us into the riches of the Kingdom of God.

More Bible Stories for Grownups

Old Testament Stories

New Testament Stories



The Tower of Babel

Noah's Ark

Jacob and Esau

Stories About Joseph

Moses Parts the Red Sea

Joshua Parts the Jordan

Samuel's Call

David and Jonathan - Part 1

David and Jonathan - Part 2

The Lost Tribes of Israel

Hezekiah's Reprieve

Ruth, Jonah, and Divorce

Feeding of the 5000

Three Parables of Jesus

Six Short Stories About Jesus


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