"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 7

Section 7.1: A Passover Sign: the Loaves and the Fishes (Jn 6.1-15)



GENERAL COMMENTS


[[Consider whether you want a table here as for the healings above]]

This miracle of feeding is one of the few that is found in all four of the gospels, but the details are slightly different in John. Further, when attempting to compare them, we have to keep in mind that Matthew and Mark also relate a second miraculous feeding (Mt 15.32-9, Mk 8.1-10), of 4,000, which some scholars believe is a duplicate version of the feeding of the 5,000. Brown provides a valuable analysis of these accounts from the perspective of his interest in questions of the originality of John's particular tradition (Brown 1966 pp 236-50). Here I am mainly concerned simply to compare the four versions of the feeding of the 5,000, so I will not be dealing with the 4,000 here.

In Matthew's Gospel (Mt 14.13-21), the feeding apparently takes place on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had withdrawn to a deserted place, but when he arrived there he saw a large crowd. He healed those who were in need of healing and then his disciples came to him and suggested Jesus send the crowd away to a place where they could buy food. Jesus challenged them to provide for the crowd themselves but they objected that they had only 5 loaves and two fish. Thereupon, Jeus had the crowd sit and then he took the bread and fish, looked up to heaven, gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave them to the disciples for distribution to the crowd. All have as much as they want, and twelve baskets were filled with what was left of the broken pieces. Five thousand men are fed, besides women and children.

Mark (Mk 6.30-44) and Luke (Lk 9.10-17) are very similar to Matthew's account. The details vary -- for example, in Mark and Luke it is made explicit that the crowd has followed Jesus and his disciples to the deserted place, in Luke the destination is given as a city called Bethsaida. But the core of the story is the same: Jesus challenged his disciples to feed the crowd, they objected that it was impossible for them, so Jesus made enough for all from the meagre provisions available. Twelve basketsful of bread pieces were left over.

These accounts are more similar to one another than they are to John's account of the feeding: in John, the location is apparently the west side of the lake, and it is Jesus and not the disciples who first expressed a concern for feeding the crowd; only John explicitly provides a Passover date. And the challenge to the disciples is in John a test of Philip alone. Nevertheless it seems clear that we are dealing with differing traditions about the same event: the number of those fed is the same across the board, echoes of the four-fold Eucharistic act (Take, Bless, Break, Give) are detectable in the language of all four accounts, the disciples mention 200 denarii-worth of bread in both Mark and John.

The three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all emphasise the remoteness of the area where the miracle took place, repeatedly calling it a "deserted place" (Mt 14.13,15; Mk 6.31, 32, 35; Lk 9.12). They also underline the relatively unplanned nature of the crowd's presence: Jesus and his disciples go apart for prayer and rest, not to teach and heal, but the crowd get wind of it and rush there. Hence it is not surprising that, as the subsequent story reveals, they have brought no supplies for a long visit to a deserted place. The implications of this tell strongly against the very common modern naturalistic explanation of the feeding, that when Jesus and the disciples get and share the five loaves and two fish they inspire or shame the crowd to share the supplies that they have, so that there is enough and to spare. The Synoptics seem to be deliberately framing the story to restrict such explanations and demonstrate that the miraculous solution is, after all, the most probable. John is not so emphatic in describing the remoteness of the location (although it is implied), though his readers likely knew Mark and so would be familiar with that version of the event. But in the later discussion and discourses John makes a link between the feeding of the Israelites with manna in the desert and the feeding of the crowd in this deserted place. Such a link supports an interpretation in which direct divine intervention is the key to the feeding.

 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


Earlier in the gospel the evangelist's indications of time were fairly specific: in chapter 1 and the start of chapter 2 the period from John the Baptist's witness to the marriage at Cana is identified as a week, during which Jesus travelled from wherever he was with John and his disciples, likely 'on the other side of Jordan' (see Jn 3.26), to Cana. But the time indications get progressively less precise. From Cana he went down to Capernaum for 'a few days' (Jn 2.12) -- a less specific indicator. After that we're told that he went to Jerusalem for Passover but when he left Capernaum or when he arrived at Jerusalem are not mentioned. In chapter 3, Jesus was apparently still in Jerusalem for his conversation with Nicodemus and then in the Judaean countryside for a baptismal ministry but no length of time is given. We know that his move from the countryside to Galilee (specifically Cana) via Samaria in chapter 4 was subsequent to that baptismal ministry but not when it happened. In chapter 5 we learn that he afterward went up to Jerusalem for a festival and healed a man on the Sabbath but we don't know which festival or how long he was there.

Chapter 6 begins here with as imprecise a time indication as chapter 5, just 'afterwards'. All we know about the timing of the feeding of the multitude near the Sea of Galilee is that it was sometime after the festival of chapter 5 (though we do learn subsequently that Passover is near (Jn 6.4)). Given this imprecision it is difficult to go along with those who feel that the events of chapter 5 in Jerusalem likely took place after the events of chapter 6, because then Jesus' movements would be from Galilee (chapters 4 and 6) to Jerusalem (chapter 5) rather than from Galilee to Jerusalem and back to Galilee again. But with no precise indications of time we simply do not know enough to say that those journeys are implausible. In the absence of any evidence of textual dislocation it is better to keep chapters 5 and 6 where they are. See Bultmann 1971 p 209 and Brown 1966 pp 235-6.

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Why add this aside? It may be an attempt to anticipate a reader's objection, perhaps one that the Elder has dealt with before in his teaching about Jesus. I imagine it as intended to answer someone saying or thinking, 'Hey, if Jesus is really the Son, then he knows everything, so why is he asking Philip for directions to the nearest take-out?'

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Why does the crowd identify Jesus as the prophet to come into the world, ie, the prophet like Moses of Deteronomy 18.15 (that verse is in context here? At Passover time it seems reasonable that the people may have drawn a connection between the bread that Jesus miraculously provided and the manna given in the desert, thus making a link between Jesus and Moses. This connection would have been reinforced in their minds by the Passover Haggadah, which would likely have mentioned the manna. So the sign of the bread would have readily been interpreted as a sign of the prophet-to-come. It could also be readily interpreted as a sign that Jesus was the Messiah, as verse 15 suggests. For the miraculous provision of food in abundance suggests the Messianic feast, a time in which all will enjoy the plenty of the age to come, based on the prophet's reflection in Isaiah 25.6-8 on the banquet that YHWH will prepare for YHWH's people. (For more about this text from Isaiah and the Messianic feast, or eschatalogical feast as it is sometimes know, please see Joseph Blenkinsopp, tr and comm, Isaiah 1-39 Anchor Bible Commentary 19 (Doubleday, 2000) 357-60 and Phillip J. Long, "Messianic Banquet Imagery in the Second Temple Period", paper delivered at The Evangelical Theological Society Midwest Regional Meeting, Ashland, Ohio, 2009.) Jesus' retreat to the mountain implies that the crowd's reaction to the possibility of a Messianic sign exceeded his desire or his expectations, although it is not clear why he would not have expected such a reaction to what he did.

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The reading of the majority of the manuscripts here is'tēs thalassas tēs Galilaias tēs Tiberiados' literally 'the Sea of Galilee of Tiberias'. Some scribes found the use of two names for the same place awkward and tried to solve the problem by dropping one name for the lake, calling it just 'Sea of Galilee' or 'Sea of Tiberias'. Clearly most scribes were not concerned, probably interpreting it (as most modern translators do) as meaning 'the Sea of Galilee, that is, the Sea of Tiberias'; see the NRSV and the Revised English Bible for two idiomatic renderings of the majority text.

However, one small group of manuscripts, including the Codex Bezae (fifth-century), has the reading 'tēs thalassas tēs Galilaias eis ta merē tēs Tiberiados', (across) the Sea of Galilee to the region of Tiberias'. Like Brown, who gives this reading in his translation while flagging it as disputed (see Brown 1966 p 232). I have chosen to follow it with a warning flag because it may help to make better sense of the location of events in this chapter.

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