Feeding of 5000

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Gospel of John, The Gospels


In John 6:8-9, Andrew brings a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish to Jesus, and then asks, "But how far will they go among so many?" I've been wondering about that very same thing. How did five loaves and two fish feed 5000 men? What do scholars say about the feeding stories?


Since this is the one miracle story that is reported in all four gospels, scholars spend most of their time talking about the similarities and differences between them, and then trying to make sense out of that comparison. Each evangelist had his own version of events, highlighting or omitting various details to further whatever theological point he was making. But that hardly gets to the root of the question: How do people think of these feeding stories in a post-modern world

Basically, there are three options. The first is that when the lad came with five loaves and two fish, others also brought out their loaves and fish. Since three small loaves would have provided sustenance for one man for one day, the boy had food left over to share – and so did everyone else. In a sense then, the miracle is that people were willing to share with others the little they had. And everyone was satisfied.

The second option is that this was a sacramental meal, meaning that each person got a tiny tidbit and they were all "spiritually" satisfied. While one or both of these ideas has been advanced by some and rejected by most, neither reflects what the words of the text really say.

Jesus "took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. When they had all eaten, twelve baskets were filled with leftovers." This suggests that Jesus did something that was inherently miraculous. The fact that no one commented about it only adds to the mystery. This has puzzled scholars forever. Yet, there may be some plausible explanations for this as well. We are reminded of several Old Testament stories that focus on feeding large numbers of people with small amounts of food. One took place when Elisha fed one hundred men with twenty loaves of barley, the food of the poor. There was also a young lad involved in that story (see 2 Kings 4:42-44). A widow woman was able to feed Elijah, herself and her son for the duration of the drought with only a handful of flour in a jar (see 1 Kings 17:7ff.).

But the greatest story, of course, comes from the exodus and the wilderness where the children of Israel were fed with manna for forty years – basically food out of heaven. John is the only one who tells us that the Jewish Passover was near – a festival that celebrates the story of the Exodus. John locates this feeding on a mountainside, but Mark says it took place in a "desert place" (i.e. wilderness). This feeding miracle, then, repeats what happened in the wilderness with Moses. And let us not forget that Moses stated in Deuteronomy 18:15, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him." This was considered to be a messianic prophesy.

In feeding 5000 men with a few loaves and fish, Jesus fulfilled this messianic promise. This is the sign, the beginning of the second exodus. Jesus is the one who is able to supply people's needs. He continues in John's Gospel by referring to himself as the "true bread that God gives" (6:32ff); "the bread of life" (v.35, 48); "the living bread that comes down from heaven" (v. 51). He finished what Moses started.

The irony, of course, is that the people didn't get it. They saw the sign and began to say, "Surely, this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." Jesus had to leave quickly because he knew they were about to make him king by force. They had misunderstood. Jesus was referring to the heavenly Kingdom; they were all focused on an earthly kingdom. So the question remains: are the stories true in a literal way? It's probably safe to say that most scholars accept them as written in the larger context of signs and messianic promises.

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