Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (3 August 2014)



  • Genesis 32:22-31 & Psalm 17:1-7, 15 (Isaiah 55:1-5 & Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21)
  • Romans 9:1-5
  • Matthew 14:13-21


Gospel: Bread and fish

It seems that an open table was an integral aspect of the way Jesus engaged people in the experience of God’s domain as a present reality, unrelated to the Temple ritual. Many of his sayings and miracles are remembered as having their life setting in the context of a communal meal.

The complex 016 Supper and Eucharist provides some insight into this dimension of the early Jesus tradition:

(1a) 1 Cor 10:14-22
(1b) 1 Cor 11:23-25
(2) Mark 14:22-25 = Matt 26:26-29 = Luke 22:15-19a[19b-20]
(3) Did. 9:1-4
(4) John 6:51b-58

This week’s Gospel takes us to another way in which that tradition was preserved. Since the meal features the everyday fare of Galilean fish and Mediterranean bread (rather than the ritual elements of bread and wine), it is possible that this preserves an authentic memory of a meal involving a large number of people. On the other hand, the miraculous dimensions of the story seem to reflect some development in the tradition, and perhaps even a post-Easter setting for the core event.

In any case, it may be worthwhile to review the texts that John Dominic Crossan associates with this complex in the historical Jesus inventory.

1 Corinthians 15:6

Next he appeared to a crowd of more than five hundred believers at the same time, most of whom are still alive, although some have died.

This short text comes from the list of resurrection appearances cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. It has been suggested by some scholars that this event, which seems otherwise unattested in the New Testament, may be the core event for either the multiplication of the loaves or the Pentecost story (or both). No matter what view we hold on those possibilities, it is clear that this is a very early reference to a tradition about some miraculous event involving a large crowd of people. The tradition predates Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and may be dated to some time in the 40s and traced to the earliest Jesus community in which Paul’s own Christian instruction took place after his conversion. We cannot really say whether that community was located in Antioch, Damascus or Jerusalem. Paul’s own statement in Galatians leaves the question open:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin;12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days;19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia,22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ;23 they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”24 And they glorified God because of me. [Gal 1:11-24]

John 6:1-15

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9″There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

It may be something of a surprise to see a passage from the Gospel of John listed as a source and dated prior to Mark’s Gospel, but this is presumably because this event is understood to be one of the items from the “Miracle Collection” that may have served as a source for both Mark and John.

11. Miracles Collection now imbedded within the Gospels of Mark and John. Of the seven miracles in John 2-9, the five in John 5,6 (two),9,11 which have Markan parallels, appear in the same order in Mark 2,6 (two),8 and Secret Mark. Collections of Jesus’ deeds, like collections of Jesus’ words, were already being composed by the 50s CE. [Crossan, Historical Jesus, 429]

The various common elements in Mark and John are impressive, and the more so if they share a common source in a pre-gospel tradition rather than John using Mark as a source.

Mark 6:33-44 and 8:1-10 (and parallels)

Five Thousand Fed – Mark 6:33-44

Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

=Matt 14:15-21
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

=Luke 9:12-17
The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish -unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so and made them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

It is clear that Mark (followed later by Matthew and Luke) knows a tradition similar to that found in John 6. The common elements include:

  • location near the Sea of Galilee
  • questions about the cost (and availability) of food for such a crowd
  • five loaves and two fish
  • reference to grass
  • all are satisfied
  • fragments and left overs are collected afterwards
  • twelve baskets
  • 5,000 figure

However, Mark has also given us a variant of the same tradition and there are some subtle differences between the two stories.
Four Thousand Fed – Mark 8:1-10

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, /2 / “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. /3/ If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way -and some of them have come from a great distance.” /4/ His disciples replied, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” /5/ He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” /6/ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. /7/ They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. /8/ They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. /9/ Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. /10/ And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.

=Matt 15:32-39
/32/ Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” /33/ The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” /34/ Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” /35/ Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, /36/ he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. /37/ And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. /38/ Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. /39/ After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

(Note that Luke omits the duplicate account of the multiplication miracle.)
What are we to make of this variant?

The following suggestions come from Dean W. Chapman [The Orphan Gospel. Mark’s Perspective on Jesus. Sheffield, 1993] and they invite us to see the symbolic layers to these familiar stories:

… why did Mark feel it necessary to have two feeding stories? In a work as short as Mark’s Gospel, it seems odd that the author would devote so much space to the same kind of miracle, especially since it did not seem to impress the participants. Since Mark had Jesus stress the number of baskets, it may be that the numbers twelve and seven were both necessary, in Mark’s eyes, if the disciples were going to discover Jesus’ identity. It is not much to go on, but there must be some reason why Mark devoted such a large part of his work to the telling of two nearly identical stories.
The Village Idiot Theory does offer a solution: Mark told the story twice because he did not know any better. This suggestion has been made by more than one Markan scholar. But here too the Village Idiot Theory stretches the limits of credulity, especially considering the eight verses (8.14-21) that Mark spent on interpreting the feeding. …
There is an alternative hypothesis: that both numbers, in fact both feedings, were essential parts of the sign which revealed Jesus as the Christ. Only when both parts were in place could the disciples be expected to ‘see everything clearly.’

Chapman notes that many people have suggested (“since at least as early as the fourth century”) that one feeding miracle was performed for Jews and the other for Gentiles. Jewish features of the feeding of the five thousand have been said to include the location in Galilee rather than in the Decapolis, the different Greek words used for “basket” in the two stories, and the significance of five loaves (suggesting the five books of Torah?). Chapman notes many of these proposals and even suggests some more of his own. However, his comments on the significance of the Greek terms for “desert” seem especially interesting.

In the story of the five thousand, the word for desert is eremos: “the same word that describes where John was preaching (1.4), where Jesus was tempted (1.9), where the Israelites received the Ten Commandments (Exod. 19.1-6), and where the prophet Hosea envisioned the Lord forming a new agreement (covenant) with his people … (Hos. 2.14).” (p. 63) However in the second story Mark uses the word eremia, which has a similar meaning but occurs nowhere else in the NT except in Matthew’s parallel to Mark’s story. Chapman observes that while eremos occurs 374 in the Greek version of the Old Testament, eremia occurs only 5 times — and always refers to Gentile territory:

  • Those nations (which will not serve Jerusalem) will be utterly laid waste. (Isa. 60.12)
  • [Edom] shall become a desolation. (Ezek. 35.4)
  • I will make [Edom] a perpetual desolation. (Ezek. 35.9)
  • The [Egyptian] workman … toiled in the wilderness. (Wis. 17.17)
  • [Babylon] will be grieved at her own desolation. (Bar. 4.33)

On balance, Chapman suggests that Mark was affirming the priority of Jews among the followers of Jesus while also asserting the proper place of the Gentiles within the early Jesus movement. There was a symbolic meaning, as Mark tells the story, in the five loaves and twelve Jewish baskets (kophinos) of scraps, and also in the seven loaves that resulted in seven Greek baskets (spuris) of scraps. Could the layers of meaning have also included the fact that the sum of five and seven is twelve, and traditionally there were twelve loaves of sacred bread before the altar in the Temple? Why does Mark’s Jesus focus the attention of the disciples on the meaning of the loaves and of the baskets left over?

Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying,”Watch out–beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them,”Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them,”Do you not yet understand?”

Luke 24:13-33, 35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This much-loved Easter story, found only in Luke, preserves a memory of meals together (“the breaking of the bread”) as moments of encounter with the risen Lord present among his followers. The historicity of the episode is dubious, but the understanding of sharing bread with one another as a profound moment of encounter seems to lie close to the center of Christian experience. As Michael Morwood reminds us (for example in Praying the New Story), this is not so much about invoking an absent God to come join our celebration as recognizing that God is always present, and that God’s presence is identified and named in the breaking of the bread together.

Luke 24:41-43

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

John 21:9,12-13

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

These two brief references to bread and fish again occur in the context of the Easter traditions.

Crossan (Historical Jesus, 398) cites two archaeological reports that also point to the significance of bread and fish in the meal traditions of early Christianity:

… paintings on the walls of the earliest Christian catacombs in Rome, dating from slightly before 200 A.D., characteristically depict seven or eleven male figures, presumably the apostles, seated at table, about to partake of two fish and five loaves … [and] … two fish also appear accompanied by five loaves of bread, in early Christian funerary carvings and inscriptions. (Richard Hiers & Charles Kennedy , 21-23). This data matches with independent findings that “there are no known Last Supper scenes in catacomb or sarcophagus art” (Irvine, 25)

In other words the common meal tradition, with its simple fare of bread and fish, may be a more authentic reflection of the practice of Jesus and his first followers than the last supper tradition with its stylized ritual of “the bread” and “the cup.”

Jesus Database

  • 003 Bread and Fish – (1?) 1 Cor 15:6; (2) John 6:1-15; (3a) Mark 6:33-44 =Matt 9:36; 14:13b-21 = Luke 9:11-17; (3b) Mark 8:1-10 = Matt 15:32-39; (4) Luke 24:13-33,35; (5) Luke 24:41-43; (6) John 21:9,12-13.
  • 232 The Disciples Return – (1) Mark 6:30-32 = Matt 14:12b-13a = Luke 9:10.


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