Yes, Jesus Fed the 5000—But it Backfired Badly!

We all know the story of Jesus feeding the 5000; all four gospels include it. What many do not notice is that it backfired badly and created a crisis. We explore that crisis in this two-part article.

Mark 6 tells us:

[H]is disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”

“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 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 his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.

Matthew and Luke repeat Mark’s story with little variation, though Matthew adds that there were women and children in addition to the 5000 men.

Feeding of the Five Thousand by Ambrosius Francken the Elder (1544-1618)

Feeding of the Five Thousand by Ambrosius Francken the Elder (1544-1618)

Is the Feeding of the 5000 an Historical Event?

Historical? I think it is because of its multiple attestations and by the significance of the event indicated by John (we will talk about this next time). While all three synoptic gospels report the event, together they are only a single attestation as Matthew and Luke simply follow Mark’s account.

John, on the other hand, serves as a second attestation since he does not show dependence on Mark but represents a separate memory of the event. There also may be a third attestation; Mark 8 (followed by Matthew 15) reports a similar occasion known as the feeding of the 4000, but it is likely a memory of the same event with a variant number of the people fed. It has very similar construction and flow to the synoptic stories of the feeding of the 5000.

Mark’s report reads:

Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”

His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied.

He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present.

This reads almost identically to the story of the feeding of the 5000 except for the numbers: 4000 instead of 5000 fed; 7 loaves instead 5; no count on the fishes; and 7 baskets of leftovers collected instead of 12.

But there is also a considerable oddity if these are different events. Mark says:

His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

Why would the disciples ask such a question after having witnessed the feeding of the 5000? Instead they would anticipate, from Jesus’ request to feed the crowd, a repeat of the earlier event. So, from these three attestations, plus John’s larger picture of its significance, I conclude that this was indeed historical.

Is the Feeding of the 5000 a Miracle?

Jesus’ feeding a multitude from scant resources was BIG! But is it a miracle? Well that depends on the definition of ‘miracle’. If a miracle is a violation of physics, then I think this is not a miracle; I don’t believe God is in the business of over-riding the way the universe works.

However, I do think Jesus did wonders others could not. He healed people, but I think he drew on natural resources we don’t understand; as writer Arthur Clarke famously observed, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Jesus cast out demons, which I understand to be the healing of mental disorders; and he seemingly raised the dead when he likely aroused people from comas.

Jesus also did some nature miracles, like turning water into wine and walking on water, that I don’t understand at all. I don’t understand what he did or even why he did them; they seem like petty, insignificant tricks with little purpose. I wonder whether these ‘miracles’ occurred at all.

But regarding the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, I think it actually happened because of the multiple attestations and the significance John supplies to it.

How Did the Feeding of the 5000 Backfire?

The title of this article indicates that Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 backfired badly, but the synoptic gospels read as though it was very successful. The insight that the feeding of the 5000 was actually a failure—in fact a crisis—comes from the gospel of John that we will take up next time.

In this series: Insights into the Feeding of the 5000

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17 Responses to Yes, Jesus Fed the 5000—But it Backfired Badly!

  1. Ken Hogan says:

    You say: “I don’t believe God is in the business of over-riding the way the universe works.” Do you then view the Resurrection as a one-time suspension of policy?

    >

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Yes, unless it turns out that actual resurrection takes place within the physics of the Universe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ken Hogan says:

        A very interesting reply! Things happen today in the Universe that we are still trying to figure out – consider that will still have no theory that unifies quantum mechanics with Newtonian laws. That doesn’t mean one does not exist. The resurrection was then accomplished by way of laws of the Universe that are present, but not yet uncovered by us. I would ask you the same of the immaculate conception, but I reckon you would invoke the same logic.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Actually, Ken, my answer is not the same. Though I might be mistaken, I assume you refer to the virgin birth; the immaculate conception has to do with the birth of Mary–not Jesus.

          I seriously doubt that the virgin birth of Jesus every happened. On the one hand, it does seem to have two attestations (Matthew and Luke) that seem not to be dependent on each other; but it is not mentioned anywhere in the NT outside these two birth narratives. This seems odd for such an important event.

          Further, I don’t see the point or purpose of the virgin birth. And Matthew, in particular, seems to build on an OT passage that he interprets completely outside its original context and meaning. Just my opinion.

          However, there HAS been research and study in the field of parthenogenesis (occasional virgin birth) in humans. So such a thing might well be a rare event within the normal physics of the Universe.

          Like

          • Ken Hogan says:

            You are so gracious, and you are the theologian, not me! Yep, I was referring to the Virgin Birth. Right now I’m reading “The Bible Tells Me So” and it has been as liberating as your blog, in condensed form. A lot of things we THOUGHT mattered really don’t – I guess they do because if we confront alternatives we have to let go of some, uh, accumulated BAGGAGE!

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Ken, I am glad you are reading ‘The Bible Tells Me So’. Peter Enns is one of my favorite bloggers and book authors!

            Like

  2. Bob Howard says:

    The late William Barclay has an interesting understanding of this miracle — he sees it as the inspiration of the crowd to share what resources many may have brought with them. Think about the mothers in the crowd — have you ever known a mother to take her children anywhere unprepared!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ken Hogan says:

      I have also held this view of the loaves
      and fishes story for many years.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Bob, I am familiar with this understanding; it comes up in the conversation on the feeding of the 5000 from time to time. Of course Barclay might be right, but there is no suggestion in the story itself to support it. And the response of the crowd in the gospel of John seems to indicate something very different.

      By the way, I really like Barclay!

      Like

  3. John Draper says:

    I think you’re right. It probably did happen. Did it happen exactly as written? Probably not.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Temptation of Jesus in the Book of John | Jesus Without Baggage

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