Loaves and Fishes

             ©  Joseph Francis Alward
          March 14, 2001



Mark’s story about Jesus feeding of loaves and fishes to the five thousand followers on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is shown to be constructed from various passages in the Old Testament.  The second feeding, of four thousand, is probably just the same story, adapted for a Gentile audience.

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Old Testament Origins


Feeding of the Five Thousand

The Lord’s people are sheep and the Lord is their shepherd beside the water.


I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:23)


May the LORD…appoint a man…so the LORD's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16-17)

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters
(Psalm 23:1-2)


Mark has Jesus become shepherd to the people beside the water, just as the Lord did in scripture.



So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. (Mark 6:32)


But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. (33)


When Jesus landed (on the shore of the Sea of Galilee) and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. (34)


Elisha asks his servant, who has little food, to feed many men.


A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley …


"Give it to the people to eat," Elisha said.


"How can I set this before a hundred men?" his servant asked. (2 Kings 4:42-43)

Elisha isn't the only basis of Mark's loaves and fishes story.  During the exodus, Moses' people complained about having to eat manna and recalled the meat they ate in Egypt.  Moses asks the Lord, " Where can I get meat for all these people?", and the Lord responded by covering the land three feet deep in quail. (Numbers 11:13-21) 


Jesus asks his disciples, who have little food, to feed many men, just as Elisha did.


By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. "This is a remote place," they said, "and it's already very late. (35)


Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." (36)


But he answered, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "That would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" (37)


"How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." When they found out, they said, "Five--and two fish." (38)

The people are the Lord’s sheep; he has them lie down on green pastures.

There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. (Ezekiel 34:14-15)


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
(Psalm 23:1-2)

Mark makes the people Jesus’ sheep; he has them lie down on green grass.


Jesus directed them to have all the people sit (literally, recline; Greek: anaklino)  down in groups on the green grass (39)


Moses’ people of the old exodus are grouped in fifties, hundreds, and thousands.

But select capable men from all the people--men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain--and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens….He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  (Exodus 18:21-25)

Mark implies that Jesus’ disciples will each be in charge of a few groups of men in the new exodus, just as Moses selected leaders over groups in the old exodus.


So they sat (literally, recline; Greek: anaklino) down in groups of hundreds and fifties. (40)


Elisha miraculously multliplies the bread, gives it to one hundred men, and there was some left over.


But Elisha answered, "Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: `They will eat and have some left over.'" Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.  (2 Kings 4:43-44)


Mark has Jesus miraculously multiply the bread and fish, give it to five thousand men, and have food be left over, just as it was for the holy man of scripture.


41 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 set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.


43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls (Greek:  kophinos) of broken pieces of bread and fish.


44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.


The Lord provides food which satisfies his people.


The poor will eat and be satisfied
(Psalm 22:25-27)

I will bring Israel back to his own pasture and he will graze on Carmel and Bashan; his appetite will be satisfied (Jeremiah 50:18-20)


Mark has Jesus do what the Lord does:  provide food which satisfies his people.

42 They all ate and were satisfied



After walking on water to his disciples in the boat, Jesus and his men traveled overland about the country healing people and arguing with Pharisees before returning once again to the sea shore. (Mark 6:53-8:1) It's at this point where Jesus repeats a feeding of the loaves miracle to an almost identical number of people.  That story is remarkable in that it adds virtually nothing to our understanding of Jesus, other than the fact that his disciples become twice as stupid as they were just after the first feeding because their hearts are too hardened to understand that Jesus is the son of God even after another miraculous feeding.  Why are there two stories?


At first, gospel writers had their candidate for messiah looking for lost sheep only among the Hebrews.1 The fishes and loaves story given above contains many allusions to Hebrew scripture or culture, including sheep without a shepherd, lying down in green pastures, organization in fifties and hundreds, and the use of a particular type of reed basket (kophinos) favored for dietary reasons by Hebrews to gather the leftovers.2 Since the church fathers apparently weren’t recruiting into Christianity as many Hebrews as they’d hoped, they decided to expand their influence by extending Jesus' promise of salvation to the ones they initially had their gospel writers ignore--the pagan Gentiles.3   The editors of the New American Bible echo this view:



The two accounts of the multiplication of loaves and fishes…are considered by many to [have been] developed in two distinct traditions, one Jewish Christian and the other Gentile Christian, since Jesus in Mark's presentation (Mark 7:24-37) has extended his saving mission to the Gentiles.



Mark prepares the audience for the reaching out to the Gentiles by having Jesus cure the daughter of the Greek woman at Tyre in 7:24-30.4  Following that, he presents another fishes and loaves story which is almost identical to the first one.  The second story (see below), is clearly directed toward the Gentiles, because Mark sends Jesus to a multitude in Decapolis which had a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  In this feeding story there are no references to icons from the Old Testament or Hebrew culture that were present in abundance in the first feeding story:  no sheep without shepherds, no lying down in green pastures, no organization in fifties and hundreds, and the basket the disciples in the second feeding story is not the kophinos used by Hebrews, but the spuris5 commonly used by Gentiles. 

An extensive rebuttal to an argument that many elements of Mark’s two feeding stories were taken from Homer’s Odyssey is given in the article, Twin Feasts.



                     The Second Loaves and Fishes Feeding


Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. During those days another large crowd gathered. 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 set before 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 (Greek, spuris) of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand men were present. (Mark 7:31, Mark 8:1-9)







[1] St. Paul tells the Ephesians, "So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” (Ephesians 4:17-18) 

Jesus told his followers that they were to teach the word of God only to the chosen few: "Go not into the way of the Gentiles....but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  (Matthew 10:7)   See also the article, Jesus Excluded Gentiles.

[2]  Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek:  kophinos, basket.  In the 1871 commentary by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown (see Blue Letter Bible), the authors note:  “The [kophinos] was part of the luggage taken by Jews on a journey--to carry, it is said, both their provisions and hay to sleep on, that they might not have to depend on Gentiles, and so run the risk of ceremonial pollution.”

[3] The Gentiles were ripe for harvesting, and so the priestly fathers apparently changed their attitude and had scribes add following verses to the end of Matthew's gospel:  "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."  (Matthew 28:19-20).  What a remarkable turn-around this is:  just eighteen chapters earlier, in Matthew 10.5, Jesus was telling his disciples, "Go not into the way of the Gentiles."

[4] Mark 7:24-30.  Jesus cures Greek woman’s daughter as he reached out to the Gentiles.

[5]  spuris:  large basket, creel, the type favored by Gentiles .  Used by Paul to lower himself down over the prison wall in Damascus.  Biblical evidence that the spuris is larger than the kophinos comes from Mark 6:43 and 8:8, where we see that each kophinos holds scraps from whatever is miraculously multiplied from 5/12 of a loaf, while one spuris holds the scraps from one miraculously multiplied loaf, and is therefore 12/5 times a large as a kophinos.