Friday, December 9, 2011

Fishy Bread

Jesus was rejected in His hometown. Then He got more bad news, John the Baptist was beheaded. At least that is according to Matthew. Mark and Luke record that Jesus sent out the Twelve Apostles on their first mission and then relay the story of John the Baptist losing his head. John records Jesus snubbing some Pharisees with circular logic prior to this study, where all four Gospels then unite to tell the following fish tale.

Fishy Bread
How does a miracle happen? God makes it happen, of course. By that very nature, or super-nature, there certain details which we would not be expected to know about the execution of a miracle, yet other details would be obvious. For example, how did God part the sea during the Exodus? A strong wind blew throughout the night before, driving the sea back (Exodus 14:21). These mechanical details flesh out a miracle into something believable, but without them, miracles can seem a little suspect. Take the miraculous feeding of the 5000 men, for example.

Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-45, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15 all record the miracle in essentially the same way. Jesus has compassion on a bunch of people who have come to listen to His teaching and to be healed. He asks His disciples what food they have to share with the crowd, and they answer that they have five loves of bread and two fish. (John's version has the bread and fish being supplied by a little boy; apparently he was the only one smart enough to pack food for a trip.)

So, how did Jesus feed 5000 people with a little bread and even less fish? Matthew 14:19-20 records it essentially the same as Mark 6:41-43 and Luke 9:16-17:
And He directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to Heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. NIV
The question still remains; how did Jesus feed 5000 people with a little bread and even less fish? Sure, it was a miracle, but what happened exactly? Did the loaves and fishes multiply right when Jesus gave thanks? Did the little broken bits of bread grow before their eyes? Did it rain manna from Heaven? Did the disciples realize that there was magically more food they were distributing than there should have been?

We have three supposedly-different accounts of a miracle without one of them describing what actually happened. Is that strange to anyone else?

John's account makes a miracle possible. In John 6:11, we find:
Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. NIV
As you can see with John's version, it seems as though Jesus is the one distributing all of the food Himself. That fixes the problems of the disciples knowing exactly when the miracle happened and seeing the bread multiply.

However, John's version has its own issues. After the feeding, John reports that the people took to heart the miracle so much that they thought Jesus was the Prophet prophesied by Moses, and they wanted to make Him their king (John 6:14-15). Yet just a scant eleven verses later, Jesus claims that those very same people are only following Him for the free food (John 6:26)!

So miracle of the feeding of the 5000 has an odd lack of details in the Synoptic Gospels, while John appears to contradict himself, but the story is not over yet. Who could forget the later miraculous feeding of the 4000?

Matthew 15:29-39 and Mark 8:1-10 both record an additional miraculous feeding, this time of 4000 people. Yet again, both accounts leave out the details of how exactly the miracle happened (Matthew 15:36, Mark 8:6-7).

It is so very strange that all of the record of these two miracles lack what should have been the most memorable detail, namely the miracle part! I cannot help but wonder if there is an alternative explanation, a less miraculous origin; or if the miracle changed in the telling. Here is a theory:

Each of these accounts record how many basketfuls of food were collected after everybody ate (Matthew 14:20, Mark 6:43, Luke 9:17, John 6:13, Matthew 15:37, Mark 8:8). Jesus and His disciples were not working, but instead were traveling the country. They needed food. They needed to survive based on offerings from others. Perhaps the original miracle was the large quantity of food all of the people left behind for the disciples; in a sense it was God providing for them. Yet that was just not awesome enough, so very soon afterward the story got jazzed up Jesus multiplying the food, but poor literary vision prevented the author/editor from inserting the appropriate miraculous details.


  1. Yours is quite a fascinating analysis. I haven't seen anyone before point out quite the same weakness in the fish and bread stories.

  2. Thanks Paul! It is really weird, huh?

  3. Two new books on the feeding stories. The first book points out a lot that's wrong with them, and also mentions both Hebrew and Hellenistic influences that probably gave birth to such a miracle tale:

    Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. and John 6:1-15 (Studies in Judaism) by Roger David Aus

    The second book argues that the fourth Gospel author simply rewrote the feeding stories in the earlier Gospels and added his theological imagination to the rewritten mix. Quite a long sustained argument challenging those who think the fourth Gospel was composed by an independent eye witness:

    Rewriting the Feeding of Five Thousand (Studies in Biblical Literature) by Steven A. Hunt

    Good stuff, I read them both recently.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Anonymous!

    I would not be surprised to find Hebrew or Hellenistic influences as the seed for this miracle, but it would be interesting to see the take on it. I might check that out if I get a chance.

    As for the second book, from my studies, I can see the conclusions you describe about copying, tweaking, and John not being a unique eyewitness.

  5. I would personally find sharing a small amount of food fairly between a large number of people more impressive (at least when considering compassion) than miraculously multiplying a bounty on hand.

    That would be a practical lesson that could easily be duplicated by anyone.

  6. Sharing such a small amount would have been nice, huh Anon?

    1. As true God, Jesus performed a miracle of the highest order (creating something from nothing). As true Man, he (from the elemental ingredients) produced the work of human hands, namely, baked loaves. The speed at which this occurred is what sets it apart from the everyday miracles. The Jews consider bread a gift from God! I am reminded of a statement offered by a baker friend of my wife as she watched bread baking: "It's not me doing this". Absence of certain details in the narratives are due to the witnesses reporting what they saw rather than what they did not understand (i.e. how is something made from nothing? ).

  7. Anonymous
    You said "Absence of certain details in the narratives are due to the witnesses reporting what they saw rather than what they did not understand (i.e. how is something made from nothing? )."

    I think I understand what you are saying, but, at the same time, you are highlighting the point I am making. They did not report what they saw. They did not report the bread appearing from nothing. They did not report the surprise they upon reaching into the baskets and continually finding more bread. They did not mention a sudden pile of bread to distribute. If they had, I would not have been able to make the main point of the post.

    They would not have to understand it to witness it. And given that people tend to remark upon the remarkable, seeing such a miracle occur should have been included in the text, in my opinion.

    1. You said, "They did not report the bread appearing from nothing...the surprise...upon reaching into the baskets and continually finding more bread to distribute...etc."

      I can understand that these details might make for better prose, but you and I both know intuitively that the observers were surprised - don't we? Feeding what was probably at least 10,000 people (factoring in woman and children) with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish are the only details necessary to drive home the point that Jesus has done something remarkable and astonishing.
      In other words, the author is merely "cutting to the chase."

  8. Anonymous, do not forget that what we have here is four authors telling basically the same story six times. I could easily understand one, or maybe even two authors "cutting to the chase" as you say, but it does not make sense for none of the four authors mentioning the miraculous appearance of the bread in the six times in which they spoke about it. Plus, when you have verses like Matthew 16:9/Mark 6:52, it is not so clear that they were sufficiently surprised.