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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Feeding the Multitudes
FEEDING THE MULTITUDES.—The Gospels give us two accounts of multitudes miraculously fed by our Lord. In the first instance (reported in Mark 14:15-21, Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17, John 6:5-13) the number is given as 5000, exclusive (so Mt.) of women and children. In the second instance (reported in Matthew 15:32-39, Mark 8:1-9) the number is given as 4000, Mt. again adding women and children.
1. It will be better to consider these instances separately, and to treat the feeding of the 5000 in the light of the first three Gospels. The Synoptics agree that the place was a desert one on the east side of the Sea of Galilee; and Lk. fixes it at Bethsaida Julias (see Capernaum). Mk. and Lk. connect the withdrawal to this place with the return of the Twelve and their report, Mt. with the execution of John the Baptist. Mk. seems to be correct, since he gives the specific reason that they needed rest, which they could not otherwise secure. All agree that a vast multitude followed them to their place of resort, thus defeating their purpose, and that it was the disciples who called the attention of Jesus to the needs of the people. Jesus then commanded His disciples to provide food for the multitude. One feels that He was preparing their minds for what He was about to do. Their astonishment at His command led them to point out the impossibility, if not absurdity, of the requirement, since they had but five loaves and two fishes. Then follows the astounding order to seat the people in groups easily accessible to the disciples, the blessing of the loaves and fishes, the distribution of the meagre supply, the satisfaction of the hunger of all, and the gathering up of the fragments.
Attempts have been made to rob this account of its miraculous character, the favourite method being to assume that the evident determination of Jesus to assuage their hunger induced those in the vast company who had supplies of food, to share, in the spirit of Jesus, with those who had none. The difficulty with this explanation is that the disciples, who had every opportunity of seeing what was done, thought that the multitude was fed with the five loaves and two fishes only. Against this, neither Mark 6:52 nor John 6:26 is evidence, as Beyschlag will have it (Leben Jesu, i. 330). The immediate context in both passages shows that both Jesus and the Twelve thought of the transaction as miraculous. Admitting the miracle, some have thought to explain it as a miraculous satisfaction of hunger with a little, rather than as a multiplication of the loaves and fishes. This is contrary to the text in all four of the Gospels, which unite in saying that twelve baskets of fragments were taken up. This would be more than there was at the beginning (see art. Basket), thus virtually affirming the multiplication. We are shut up, then, to the alternative of regarding the account as legendary, or else as a miraculous multiplication of their food supply. There are some difficulties in the way of believing it miraculous. (1) The question of Jesus, ‘How many loaves have ye?’ reminds one of the question of Elisha (2 Kings 4:2), ‘What hast thou in the house?’ and so suggests an imitation of Elisha’s miracle, as in fact the whole process of multiplication suggests the miracle of the meal in the jar and the cruse of oil of 1 Kings 17:11-16. (2) The record is a trifle obscure. The whole stress is on the loaves, both in the gathered fragments, especially in Jn., and in the subsequent references of Jesus (see Mark 8:19), while the fish are ignored. (3) Usually, also, when such a miracle was performed, the observers are said to have been profoundly impressed (see Mark 4:41; Mark 5:42; Mark 7:37), but here no comment follows. (4) Besides, it seems to be in contradiction of His avowed purpose not to give the Jews what would be to them a convincing sign. As to all but the last of these difficulties, it may be said that they are, in themselves, not serious. The fourth assumes that the miracles of healing would not, but that a miracle such as the feeding would convince the Jews, and so be just the kind of sign the Jews demanded. But, in fact, the sign the Jews required and Jesus refused to grant was some miracle performed to order, and regardless of human need. Such a miracle as the feeding lacked these two characteristics. It was spontaneous, and it met a human want. In favour of the historicity of the miracle is the further fact that it is recorded in all the Gospels. The tradition was not open to question in the mind of any one of the Evangelists.
2. With regard to the second recorded instance, the feeding of the 4000, the case is quite different. It is found in but two of the Gospels. Lk. and Jn. evidently thought of but a single feeding. It is easy to see how the second account might have grown out of the first, and the similarities are so great as to suggest that it did have its origin there. The question of Jesus concerning the number of loaves, the remarkable circumstance that a second time the disciples had so little food with them, the seating of the people on the ground, the distribution to the Twelve for redistribution among the multitude, the eating until they were filled, the gathering of the broken pieces into baskets, are suspiciously like the feeding of the 5000. It is difficult to see how the disciples, with the memory of the feeding of the 5000 fresh in their minds, could have questioned Jesus as to the source of supply for this second company. And here it is that the narrative as given by Jn. sheds light on the question under consideration. Jn. betrays the fact that the same narrative was differently told, since he combines elements of both narratives as related by Mt. and Mark. Mt. places the second feeding on a mountain; Jn. locates the feeding on a mountain. Jn. and Mt. and Mk. (second instance) agree that Jesus proposed the feeding. Mk., according to his usual custom of emphasizing the teaching as primary, and of making the miracles secondary, makes Jesus teach the shepherdless sheep out of sympathy, while Mt. makes this sympathy prompt Him to heal them, and Lk. combines the two; this in the first feeding. In the second this sympathy was elicited by their hunger. In the second the point of difficulty with the disciples (according to Mt. and Mk.), or with Jesus (according to Jn.), was not the expense, as in the first, but that of securing so much food in a desert place. This certainly looks as though Jn. had heard both accounts and deliberately undertook to combine them into one, or else as though the differences in the account of the same story led Mt. and Mk. to believe that there were two feedings. In any case Lk., by implication, and Jn., almost directly, favour the single feeding—that of the 5000. The only serious difficulty in this elimination of the second feeding is the record in Mark 8:19-20 (cf. Matthew 16:9-10), according to which Jesus is made to refer to the two feedings as separate events. The denial of the second would make it necessary to affirm that the words of Jesus are incorrectly reported. But here Mt. is evidently dependent upon the collection of narratives by Mk., not Mk. upon the collection of sayings made by Matthew. Mt. and Mk. are not two independent witnesses. We may not be able to account satisfactorily for the misunderstanding of Mk. in this case, but his testimony could hardly offset that of Jn., unless we were obliged, which we are not, to suppose that Mk. got his information on this point directly from Peter. Even if this were so, we should have to make our choice between Peter and Jn., which, in view of all the facts, would turn out in favour of the latter.
The significance of the feeding of the multitude for the humaneness of Jesus is not less great than that of the healings. The power was His, and He used it for the good of His fellow-men in whatever way was needful for their immediate welfare, and for setting an example of helpfulness in the everyday affairs of life to His disciples in all the centuries to follow.
Literature.—Trench and Taylor on Miracles; Edersheim, Life and Times, i. 675 ff., ii. 63 ff.; Andrews, Life of our Lord [1893 ed.], 320 ff., 333 ff.; Bruce, Training of the Twelve, 118; Westcott, Gosp. of St. John, in loc.
C. W. Rishell.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Feeding the Multitudes'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/f/feeding-the-multitudes.html. 1906-1918.