Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Jesus Multiplied Loaves AND fish

In the new series of videos on the Sunday readings we've been making at JP Catholic, we've been focusing on the Feeding of the Five Thousand and John 6. If you haven't seen it you can find the latest one here. Here I want to go a little deeper than I'm able to go in the videos.

Feeding of the Multitudes and Elisha
Scholars generally recognize that Jesus’ miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish evokes the story of Elisha’s miracle of the loaves in 2 Kings 4:
2 Kings 2:42–44: A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How am I to set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 So he set it before them. And they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
There are many parallels between the two stories:
―As bread (ἄρτους) plus another item is brought (ἤνεγκεν) to Elisha (cf. 2 Kgs 4:22; 2 Kdmgs 4:22), so too the bread (ἄρτους) plus the fish (cf. Matt 14:17-18; Mark 6:38; Luke 9:13) are to be brought to Jesus (φέρετέ only Matt 14:18).
―As Elisha instructs his servant to give the men the bread: “Give to the people and let them eat”: (Δότε τῷ λαῷ καὶ ἐσθιέτωσαν) (cf. 2 Kgs 4:22; 4 Kgdms 4:42), Jesus instructs the disciples to give the bread (and fish) to the crowds (δότε αὐτοῖς ὑμεῖς φαγεῖν) (Matt 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16).
―As the servant of Elisha protests because there is not enough for everyone (cf. 2 Kgs 4:23; 4 Kgdms 4:43), the disciples inform Jesus that there is not enough food protest because there is not enough for everyone (cf. Mark 6:37; Luke 9:13-14; implied in Matt 14:15).
―As in 2 Kings 4 where the men eat and food is left over (2 Kgs 4:24), the people eat and food left over (cf. Matt 14:20; Mark 6:43; Luke 9:17).

Feeding of the Multitudes and Israel in the Wilderness
But scholars also recognize that the story of Jesus’ miracle seems to evoke Exodus traditions, in particular, the episode of God feeding the Israelites in the wilderness with the manna and quail. In his recent monograph, Peter-Ben Smit, explains “. . . the intertextual connections of the feedings and the Exodus traditions are so strong that they should be assumed to be of significance. A narration of a miraculous abundance of bread in a lonely place in the context of a prophetic movement is hard not to associate with the Exodus.” [1] Indeed, the allusion to the manna story in the account of the feeding of the multitudes is widely recognized.[2]

Note the elements common to both stories: language of “wilderness” (ἔρημός; cf. Exod 16:1, 3, 10, 14; Matt 14:13, 15; Mark 6:32. 35; Luke 9:12); the description of the need for food (cf. Exod 16:2-3; Matt 14:15; Mark 6:35; Luke 9:12); the giving of miraculous “bread” (ἄρτους; cf. Exod 16:3, 4, 8, 12, 15, 22; Matt 14:17-18; Mark 6:38; Luke 9:13)[3] is provided with another item (cf. the quail in Exodus 16; the fish in the Gospels); the food is gathered up into receptacles (cf. Exod 16:17; cf. Matt 14:20; Mark 6:43; Luke 9:17). In addition, as in the Gospel story, we find that no matter how much or how little manna the people gathered they never ran out (cf. Exod 16:18). The major difference here is that in the wilderness there was no manna left over as in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand.

Indeed, by evoking Exodus Jesus likely signifies eschatological hopes, which were frequently linked with New Exodus imagery.[4] Josephus reports that a number of “imposters” (go/hv; cf. Ant. 20.97; 20.160) arose who apparently made claims that they would bring about the eschatological victory of Israel. He tells us that many were led astray by them because of their promises of “marvels and signs” (Ant. 20.168; cf. B. J. 2.258-60; 6.286-87)―terminology Josephus elsewhere associates with the Exodus (cf. Ant. 2.327).[5] In fact, the term "signs" is used primarily to describe those miracles Moses performed to authenticate his prophetic identity before the people of Israel. These figures would often perform signs reminiscent of Moses and Joshua. For example, Josephus tells us about a man named Theudas, who gathered the people to the Jordan River, promising to make it part (Ant. 20.97-99). There was also a figure known as “the Egyptian,”―remember, Moses was raised in the house of Pharaoh!―who stood on the Mt. of Olives promising to bring down the walls of the city and then led followers out to the desert with promise of the performance of signs and wonders (Ant. 20.167-68), e.g., like Joshua. Such actions evoking such traditions were clearly meant to signal eschatological hopes―e.g., the “New Exodus”.

By performing a sign reminiscent of Israel’s desert wanderings Jesus thus likely signals his intention to fulfill eschatological hopes. Here we might add one further detail: Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to have the crowds sit in groups―a detail only present in Mark and Luke (Mark 6:39//Luke 9:15). This element also seems to evoke Exodus traditions. Moses had arranged the people into groups of a thousand, five hundred, one hundred and ten in Exodus 18:25 and Numbers 31:14. Indeed, that the Qumranites were also concerned with such groupings, associating it them with the organization of Israel in the eschatological age (cf. 1QS 2:21-22; CD 13:1; 1QM 4:1–5:17; 1QSa 1:14–15, 28–29), further supports the idea that the reference in the Gospels relates to New Exodus imagery.

The Fish and the Manna
But what of the fish? Is there any significance to their presence in the story?

The appearance of the fish may also be seen as an allusion to the story of the manna. Fish are closely linked with the gift of the quail in Numbers 11. The account begins with people complaining about not having the fish they ate in Egypt (cf. Num 11:5). In Numbers 11:22, Moses tells the Lord,
“The people among whom I number six hundred thousand on foot; and thou hast said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’  Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to suffice them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?”
In response to this, the Lord, “…brought quails from the sea” (Num 11:31). In connection with this it is worth noting that Wisdom 19:12 describes the Lord providing the quail, which “came up from the sea” (ἐκ θαλάσσης).[6] The quails then are described almost as sea creatures, i.e., fish.[7] The giving of fish to the Israelites is also associated with the wilderness traditions in Sipre Num. 11:22, where they are said to have come from Miriam’s well.

One other note about the fish. Scholars have recognized that, as in other places where table-fellowship figures prominent in Jesus’ ministry, the miracle of the feeding of the multitude seems to evoke imagery of the eschatological banquet.[8] Some scholars have noted that the eschatological banquet itself may be modeled on the covenant meal celebrated at Mt. Sinai after the Exodus (cf. Exod 24:9-11).[9] Indeed, there is other evidence that traditions relating to the eschatological banquet were tied to Exodus hopes. We have already noted that the organization of the people into groups in Mark and Luke evoke the wilderness traditions. Strikingly, these groupings were specifically used by the Dead Sea Community to describe the messianic banquet (cf. 1QSa 2:11–22). Furthermore, other texts relate that the people of God will receive manna in the eschatological age (cf. 2 Bar. 29:8[10]; Eccl. Rab. 1:9[11]; Tg. on Song of Songs 4:5[12]).

The emphasis on the abundance of food provided by Jesus (e.g., twelve baskets of leftovers), evokes texts closely associated with the tradition of the messianic banquet in which the eschatological age is linked with the Lord’s provision of an abundance of food (Isa 23:18; 62:8; Jer 31:10-14; Ezek 36:29; Joel 2:19; 2 Baruch 29:3-30:1).[13]

Given the presence of fish in the miracle it is interesting to note that that later sources preserve traditions describe the meal of the eschatological banquet as consisting of the sea monster Leviathan (cf. 2 Bar. 29.3-8; cf. 4 Ezra 6.49-52; b. B Bat. 74b-75a). In light of this it is possible that Jesus’ act of providing not only loaves but fish alludes to these traditions.[14] In fact, Marcus who points out that the prophecy in 2 Baruch not only envisions the eating of the Leviathan but also the manna (2 Bar. 29.3–8).[15] He goes on to point out, “This passage has several other noteworthy parallels to our story: the revelation of the Messiah, the marvelous fruitfulness of the ground… and the statement near the end that ‘those who are hungry will enjoy themselves.”

[1] See Smit, Fellowship and Food in the Kingdom (WUNT 2/234; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2008): 69–71.
[2] See Green, The Gospel of Luke, 363; Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 191-96; Collins, Mark, 322; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 402-5; Joel Marcus, Mark 1:417; France, Gospel of Mark, 262; Nolland, Luke 1―9:20, 442; Ludger Schenke, Die wunderbare Brotvermehrung: Die neutestamentlichen in Erzählungen und ihre Bedeutung (Würzburg: Echter, 1983), 104–107. Such allusions were also caught be ancient interpreters (cf. Cyril of Alendarida, Comm. On Luke 48).
[3] The connection between the manna and the bread is, of course, underscored in the Johannine account (cf. John 6:25-34).
[4] The term has now become part of the academic vocabulary. See Pitre, Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile, 139, who writes that in the prophetic literature, “the future return from exile is ividly depicted in terms of a New Exodus”. He cites numerous examples (Hos 2:14-23; Isa 40:1-11; Isa 52:1-12; Jer 3:15-24; 16:14-15; 23:5-8; 30-31). Likewise, see Andrew C. Brunson, Psalm 118 in the Gospel of John: An Intertextual Study on the New Exodus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 154: “The widespread and general hope of deliverance and restoration can be divided into three distinct yet interlinked categories which account for all of the expectations: the return from exile; the defeat of Israel’s enemies; and the return of Yahweh to live and reign among his people. I will refer to this complex of restoration hope as the New Exodus, a phrase which although not specifically found in the ancient texts yet adequately describes the eschatological program presented by the Prophets and also ties these longings to the paradigmatic deliverance in Israel’s past.”
[5] In fact, the term shmeĩa is used primarily to describe those miracles Moses performed to authenticate his prophetic identity before the people of Israel. See the discussion in Rebecca Gray, Prophetic Figures in Late Scond Temple Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 125-130.
[6] See Farrer, A Study in St. Mark, 291; Richardson, “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” 145; Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 591 n 69.
[7] This is pointed out by Marcus, Mark, 1:411; Nolland, Luke, 1:442.
[8] See, e.g., Nineham, Mark, 178: “Here perhaps we come near the original significance of the incident; it may have been intended by Jesus as an anticipation, more or less sacramental in character, of the Messianic Banquet, designed to communication his conviction that he was the one men would soon see presiding over the Messianic Banquet, and also perhaps to consecrate those who shared the food as partakers in the coming messianic feast, as to given them a guarantee that they who had shared his table in the time of his obscurity would share it in the time of his glory.” See also, e.g., Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 402–3; Collins, Mark, 322–23; Fenton, Gospel of Matthew, 242; Healy, Gospel of Mark, 128; etc.
[9] A connection that seems to have been established in Jewish tradition.
[10]“And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time.”
[11] “As the former redeemer caused manna to descend, as it is stated, Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you (Ex. XVI, 4), so will the latter Redeemer cause manna to descend, as it is stated. May he be as a rich cornfield [tsp is read as ttp ‘pieces of bread] (Ps. LXXII, 16).” Cited from A. Cohen, trans., Midrash Rabbah: Ecclesiastes (vol. 8 of 10; London/New York: The Soncino Press, 1983), 33.
[12] “Your two deliverers, who will deliver you, the Messiah son of David and the Messiah son of Ephraim, are like Moses and Aaron, the sons of Jochebed, who are compared to two fawns, twins of a gazelle. In virtue of their meritorious deeds they were feeding the people of the House of Israel for forty years in the wilderness with manna, plump fowl, and water from Miriam’s well.” Cited from Philip S. Alexander, The Targum of Canticles: Translated, with a Critical Introduction, Apparatus, and Notes (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 135.
[13] Boring, Mark, 187: “That so much food was not only left over, but left behind is another indication of eschatological extravagance. The disciples gathering the fragments is a counter-picture of the Mosaic manna, which could not be preserved (Exod 16:4–5; 13–21...), and portrays the messianic times, when hunger will be replaced not merely by adequacy but by extravagance (cf., e.g., 2 Bar. 29.5).”
[14] Marcus (Mark, 1:410) who points out that the prophecy in 2 Baruch not only envisions the eating of the Leviathan but also the manna (2 Bar 29.3–8). He goes on to point out, “This passage has several other noteworthy parallels to our story: the revelation of the Messiah, the marvelous fruitfulness of the ground… and the statement near the end that ‘those who are hungry will enjoy themselves.” In addition, see Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 591 n 69; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 481.
[15] Mark, 1:410.


Alex said...

Very cool post. I enjoyed it. It leads me to a question. Do you think the vast majority, if not all, of Jesus' acts (non-speech acts) were primarily symbolic meant to point to himself as Messiah, redeemer, what have you? Or at the very least, did the writers of the gospels tend to take all of the stories this way? My only thought, is what if the concept of "allusions" in the gospel is nothing more than speculation, and all Jesus was really trying to do was just feed hungry people to show his power and love.

So which is it: a) symbolic to show messiahship, redemption, fulfillment of Exodus, etc., or b) a show of his goodness, love, and power so people would look to him for salvation. I think a) is the way that scholarship typically interprets it, while b) is the way the lay church typically interprets it. Heck maybe both are true, but I'd be curious to hear what you think?

John Ottens said...

Fantastic, Michael. Very thought-provoking. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


When God acts, He acts with a purpose. That is to say, He wastes none of His works - everything He creates, causes, and dose is for a good cause, including permitting evil to exist. Since Jesus is the God-Man, His works all have a purpose, a good purpose. Because nothing but God can reveal Himself to man and can draw man to Himself (revelation and prayer), it must be that, in all that Jesus did, said, and thought, including the appearance of His Humanity, He revealed His Father, and thus Himself, since He is God from God; and because God is Goodness Itself, He also revealed the Divine Attributes - Holiness, Justice, Love and Mercy; and because God came down from Heaven to save mankind, being our Rock and our Savior, in light of His promise to Israel, He further revealed His mission of redemption, His salvific work, and His office as Redeemer and Messiah, Savior and King of Israel, the universalized Israel, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In brief, Jesus, in all of Himself, His whole being, revealed God, His Word, and His Wisdom - i.e., the Most Blessed Trinity.

As for the authors of the Gospels, it is the Apostles. The Gospels are their memoirs. If it was not so, they would just be other false gospels, like the so-called "gospel of Judas". The early heretics and schsmatics of the Church knew what the Gospels so, they attempted to fool many with pseudo-gospels, false apostolic memoirs. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church was able to find the four authentic Gospels, which we now read in the New Testament.

Sister Mary Agnes said...

Alex, your question provoked this thought for me: through this Messianic sign, Jesus fulfills our most elevated and lofty desires. That is because the "New Exodus" (which the mulitplication miracle is a sign of) leads us to the "New Promised Land" which is Heaven. Heaven is nothing less than the Beatific Vision and participation in the life of the Trinity.

At the same time, the multiplication miracles show Jesus' goodness, love and concern for the most basic of our human needs. None of our needs are too small for God to care about. Thank you for your question. It reminded me to recognize God fills all my needs and desires.

Just a thought . . .

Michael Barber said...


Great question. To answer it from a historical perspective, I think Matthew 11:2-6 is important here. In fact, most scholars recognize that the saying bears a remarkable similarity to 4Q521--both combine Isa 35 and Isa 61. Suffice it to say, it is widely considered authentic. For one thing, it is hard to imagine the church inventing a saying which appears to suggest that John the Baptist did not know whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.

Here we read: "Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, 'Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?' 4 And Jesus answered them, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.'"

The implication here is that Jesus sees all of his miraculous actions as in general supporting his messianic mission. Thus I think it is safe to assume that even if Jesus worked a miracle simply out of compassion for someone or thing he clearly ALSO knew it would reinforce his larger eschatological claims.

As for other symbolic acts--e.g., cleansing the temple--I think the sayings associated with them (e.g., Isa 56:7 in the temple action) make it clear that Jesus intends to convey an eschatological message in them.

Now of course one could take a radically skeptical view and insist that the sayings have all been added by the evangelists. Why on earth one would insist on accepting the authenticity of the deeds but doubting the sayings is beyond me. In general, though, I think however a good case can be made for the authenticity of both.

So I think in general, yes, Jesus' miraculous acts and his symbolic deeds seem to point to his messianic mission. He certainly seemed to think so. That's not to say that we can over interpret a passage and possibly read too much into it.

Hope that helps.