Joseph Francis Alward
January 20, 2001
Dennis R. MacDonald argues in his book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark,1 that Mark may have used some elements of tales in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to create fictional stories about Jesus and his disciples.
I will describe here what I believe is MacDonald’s failed attempt to show that many of the elements of Mark’s stories of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes were borrowed in part from Homer’s narration of two feasts in Odyssey.2
Mark’s Loaves and Fishes Stories
Recruiting Fishers of Men
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)
Sailing Off to Feed the Fish
So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed 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. 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. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." 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?" "How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." When they found out, they said, "Five--and two fish." Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down (literally, recline; Greek: anaklino) in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 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. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls (kophinos) of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand. (Mark 6: 32-44)
Walking on Water
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:45-52)
Old Testament Origin of Mark’s First Feeding Story
In this section I will show that Mark put Jesus and his disciples in a boat, had Jesus walk on water, and multiply loaves and fishes twice, all for the purpose of showing his audience that Jesus was at least as much a man of God as was the Old Testament holy men Elisha and Moses, and perhaps was even the son of God. At the same time, I will lay the foundation for completely rejecting not just most of the claims by MacDonald of intended parallels in Mark’s feeding stories to the twin feasts in Homer, but all of his claims
Fishers of Men
The Jeremiah and 1 Kings passages below are apparently the foundation for Mark’s story about Jesus recruiting disciples to be “fishers of men.”
However, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "when men will no longer say, `As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt’… I will restore them to the land I gave their forefathers. "But now I will send for many fishermen," declares the LORD, "and they will catch them. ….I will teach them-- this time I will teach them my power and might. Then they will know that my name is the LORD. (Jeremiah 16:14-16)
So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. "Let me kiss my father and mother good-by," he said…Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant. (1 Kings 19:19-21)
Mark wanted Jesus to emulate the Lord, who speaks of the “fishermen” who would gather up those straying Israelites the Lord brought out of Egypt. Moses was one of those fishermen; he led the chosen people in the old exodus. Mark wanted to make sure that his readers would understand that Jesus was the leader of a new exodus, a fisherman who would be the new and better Moses, so he has Jesus recruit fishers of men just like the ones spoken of in Jeremiah 16. Mark also made it clear that Jesus could get men to leave their family to follow him, just as Elijah could. Here are the two stories in Mark which parallel the ones in Jeremiah and 1 Kings:
Water Walking and Stilling the Waters
Mark doesn’t have Jesus walk on water until after he feeds the multitude on the sea shore--which will be described later; I mention the water-walking here following the fishers of men story to show that Mark used sailing as a literary device to allow Jesus metaphorically to calm still waters just as the Lord did, and to fish for recruits on the Sea of Galilee and later walk on its waters. Mark’s Old Testament sources for the calming of the sea and the water-walking episodes are given below:
He alone stretches out the
heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. (Job 9:8)
You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas, …who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves…
You rule over the surging
sea; when its waves mount up, you still them (Psalm 89:9)
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm…
But now, this is what the LORD says--he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. (Isaiah 43:1-2)
In the passage below, Mark has Jesus bring the disciples out of their distress by stilling the storm to a whisper, just as the Lord did, then he has him walk on water, just as the Lord described.
A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" (Mark 4:37-31
He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them…he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost…."Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. (Mark 6:45-51)
As I will show below, Mark's story of Jesus' miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes is patterned mainly after the one in the Old Testament about Elisha, but also uses important imagery from other Old Testament sources. The main difference between the Kings story about Elisha and Mark's story about Jesus is that Jesus is now on a boat, but only because Mark decided to put him there to let him still the waves, walk on water, and be a fisher of men, things spoken of about the Lord in the Old Testament. In the analysis below I will describe the Old Testament antecedents of Mark's story of Jesus' miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, beginning first with the source of the “sheep without a shepherd” reference.
Sheep Without a Shepherd
knew the verse below told the Hebrews that their savior would be a man
appointed by the Lord to be the shepherd of the lost sheep of Israel, so he
made sure he used the words “sheep without a shepherd" in association with
LORD…appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one
who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD's people will not be like
sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16-17)
When Jesus landed 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 (Mark 6:34)
Feeding Bread in the Desert
said, "This is what the LORD has commanded: `Take an omer of manna and
keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to
eat in the desert when I brought you out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 16:32)
And they departed into a desert place by ship privately (Mark 6:32 KJV)… Then he gave [the loaves of bread] to set before the people (Mark 6:41).
Miraculous Multiplication of the Loaves
In the Old Testament there’s a story about a holy man miraculously feeding a hundred men with just a little bit of bread. The doubtful servant is the prefigurement of Jesus’ disciples who will likewise doubt that many people can be fed with so little bread.
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. 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 4:42-44)
Mark obviously had in mind the story above about “the man of God” who ordered his incredulous servant to feed many men with just a little bread. In that story, Elisha tells his servant, "Give it to the people to eat"; miraculously they were all fed. Jesus had to be at least as great a "man of God" as Elisha was, or else the people would be less likely to accept him as their savior, so Mark had Jesus say the same thing to his disbelieving disciples, with the same result. Furthermore, just as the Kings author only told us how many men Elisha fed and that there were leftovers, so Mark likewise only told us how many men were fed by Jesus, and that there were leftovers. If Elisha thought it was important only to mention men, then to complete the comparison to God’s holy man Elisha as strong as possible, Mark mentions only men, too. The relevant portion of Mark’s story is repeated below, followed by a table which summarizes the comparisons between the Old and New Testament feeding stories.
[Jesus said] “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, "… Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" "How many loaves do you have?" he asked.…they said, "Five--and two fish." Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down (literally, recline; Greek: anaklino) in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 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. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls (kophinos) of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand. (Mark 6:37-44)
Elisha’s Miracle Feeding Story
Jesus’ Miracle Feeding Story
“How can I set this before a hundred men?"
“Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?“
"Give it to the people to eat.”
“he gave them to his disciples to set before the people”
“and they ate and had some left over”
“They all ate [and there were leftovers]”
Only the number of men fed was given (100)
Only the number of men fed is given (5,000)
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) When Mark has Jesus miraculously multiplying in the loaves in response to this same question from his disciples (in the second feeding story, coming up), "But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?", (Mark 8:4), he is showing us that Jesus is better than Moses, and perhaps as good as the Lord.
Lie Down in Green Pastures in Fifties and Hundreds and Fifties
Mark wanted his readers to think that Jesus was Moses and the Lord all wrapped up into one. Just as the Lord would have his chosen people lie down in rich pastures and Moses would arrange his people of the old exodus in fifties and hundreds, so would Jesus, the leader of the people of the new exodus, have his people lie down in green pastures in groups of fifties and hundreds.
will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his
scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will
rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds
and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the
countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on
the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land.
I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be
their grazing land. 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
Fifties and Hundreds
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.
Jesus directed them to have all the people sit [literally, lie down; Greek: anaklino] down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. (Mark 6:39-40)
Eating to Satisfaction
The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him (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 on the hills of Ephraim and Gilead (Jeremiah 50:18-20)
[After Jesus had the people of the new exodus lie down in green pastures, he had his disciples distribute the loaves and fishes]The people ate and were satisfied (Mark 6:42)
Heart-Hardened Men Didn’t Understand God
The Exodus author uses “hardened heart” in the passage below to refer to Pharaoh’s unwillingness or inability to understand that Moses is like God, or has power given to him by God. Readers will recall the foolish Pharaoh couldn’t understand the power of god working through Aaron and Moses.3 whose “heart was hardened” even after repeatedly witnessing miracle after miracle from the men of God.
Then the LORD said to Moses, "See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. (Exodus 7:1-3)
MacDonald, in his comparison of the uncomprehending disciples to the “uncomprehending companions” of Odysseus,4 apparently unintentionally points to a more plausible reason for Mark’s negative portrayal of his disciples: Mark wanted his readers to compare Jesus to Moses and the Lord, and the foolish, unbelieving disciples to the foolish, unbelieving Pharaoh. Mark was expecting his readers to note the folly of the disciples when he had the disciples fail to understand that Jesus had god-like powers even after they had seen him work four miracles in their presence: Jesus cured the Gerasene demoniac5 and the hemorrhaging young girl,6 multiplied the loaves and fishes, and walked on water. The message to his readers was obvious: Don’t you, too, be as stupid as the Pharaoh, who even after seeing God work several miracles, he still failed to understand God’s power.
He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
In a little while we will see Mark will return to this theme of the disciples' Pharaoh-like stupidity and to a passage in Isaiah when he has Jesus express his disappointment with his disciples after they fail to understand his power even after a second multiplication of the loaves.
The Second Feeding Story
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. This 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.7 The fishes and loaves story I’ve just discussed 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.8 Since the church fathers 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.9 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 7:24-30.10 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 spuris11
commonly used by Gentiles.
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 (spuris) of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand men12 were present. (Mark 7:31, 8:1-9)
The story above is the same as the one directed toward Hebrews in Mark 6, minus the Hebrew culture and the Old Testament references. In both stories, Jesus and his disciples arrive at the sea shore to find about four or five thousand hungry people, the disciples doubt they can feed them, Jesus has the people lie on the ground, he blesses the food, miraculously feeds them all, and there are leftovers. The twin presence of these feeding stories is owing to the church fathers felt need to have their Jesus fables appeal not only to the Hebrews but to the Gentiles as well.
Before we turn to the feasts
in Homer, I will show where Mark once again evokes memories of the foolish
Pharaoh to tell his readers that they mustn't be like the uncomprehending
disciples, who risk the same fate at the Egyptian king. We pick up the story
just after the second loaves and fishes feeding. Note that this time, Mark uses Isaiah to drive home his message.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!" He said, "Go and tell this people: "`Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. (Isaiah 6:8-13)
And having sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples…The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat… "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?…."Do you still not understand?" (Mark 8:10-21)
The Feasts of Nestor and Menelaus
Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, and his companions sail off to seek information regarding the fate of his father. They arrive at the castle of Nestor, king of Pylos, where Nestor and hundreds of men are sacrificing bulls at the sea shore. Pylos extends his warm greetings and hospitality, but knows nothing of Odysseus’s whereabouts. Nestor recommends that Telemachus travel to the home of Menelaus, the king of Sparta, to ask him about his father. At Sparta, Telemachus is once again welcomed to a feast, this time at a wedding party.
All that day did they travel…straight to the abode of Menelaus and found him in his own house, feasting with his clansmen in honor of the wedding of his son, and also of his daughter whom he was marrying to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles….the gods were bring [her] marriage about..he was sending her [to Achilles' city]….neighbours and kinsmen were feasting in his house. There was a bard …and two tumblers [to entertain the guests]…[a] servant told Menelaus, " there are some strangers come here…What are we to do? Shall I …tell them to [go] elsewhere..?" Menelaus was very angry and said, "… you never used to be a fool, but now you talk like a simpleton…you and I have stayed often enough at other people's houses before we got back here, where heaven grant that we may rest in peach henceforward…show the strangers in that they may have supper”…[a] servant brought them bread…the carver fetched them plates of all manner of meats and set cups of gold by their side…. [soon] they had had enough to eat and drink…Helen came down from her high vaulted and perfumed room… (Odyssey, Book 4)
my attention now to MacDonald’s claim that “Mark’s models here probably were
Elisha’s multiplication of bread in 2 Kings 4 and the feast of Nestor to
forty-five hundred men at the shore of Pylos in the Odyssey.”
(MacDonald, p. 176)
The Alleged Homeric Connection
MacDonald believes that while Mark’s two loaves and fishes feeding stories definitely have a connection to Elisha’s miraculous feeding story, he nevertheless believes that there are “subtle differences between the two [Marcan] accounts” which are “impossible to explain from biblical antecedents.” 13 He notes that
One should observe in the two feeding stories significant differences impossible to explain from biblical antecedents. Although both stories take place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus arrives at the first location by boat and at the second by land. Although in both stories Jesus commands the crowds to recline, only in the first do they do so in well-organized groups. The thousands fed in the first story were men, no women; those fed in the second presumably included women. The presence of two stories instead of one, the connections of the stories with sailing, the emphasis on hospitality….may be evidence that the evangelist had in mind the twin feasts that begin Books 3 and 4 of the Odyssey…[T]he parallels between Homer and Mark extend beyond generalities. Details in the story of Nestor’s feast not found in the story of Menaleus appear in the feeding of the five thousand and not in its twin. The chances of these correspondences deriving from accident are slim. The most satisfactory explanation is Mark’s imitation of the epic.” 14
Now I’ll lay out MacDonald’s case, then show why I think it’s badly flawed. Readers should be alert to the principal elements of these two stories which MacDonald regards as important to his argument: MacDonald points to the first Homeric feast the sea shore, organized in nine eating groups of five hundred men each. Strangers from the sea arrive, are graciously welcomed, seated on soft sheepskin, fed well, and treated with extraordinary hospitality. Then, the men travel overland to a second feast attended by both men and women; a servant is scolded after suggesting that the visitors be sent away, and then the guests are cordially welcomed. Unlike at the first feast, there is no organization into eating groups in the second feast. MacDonald particularly points to Mark’s use of the word “symposia” to describe the eating groups of fifties and hundreds; he calls the use of this word “[p]erhaps Mark’s clearest flag” signaling Homeric influence.
The Journeys to the Feedings
Although both stories take place
on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus arrives at the first location by boat
and at the second by land.15
Just as Homer’s Telemachus went by sea to the first feast, and overland to the second feast, so did Mark have Jesus go by sea to the first feeding and overland to the second one. MacDonald suggests there’s more than just coincidence at work here: “Jesus sailed to the first feast but traveled overland to the second, even though it, too, took place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.” It’s virtually impossible to see Homeric design here; Jesus arriving at the second feast overland, just as Telemachus did, seems to be just an unimportant and unsurprising literary coincidence.
After the first feeding, Jesus travels overland about the country for several days, working miracles, arguing with Pharisees, going all the way to the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, before finally turning around and coming back inland to the Sea of Galilee. It seems just too much to believe that Mark had Jesus leave the shores of the Sea of Galilee after the first feeding, travel all over the country on foot, working miracles, arguing with Pharisees, just so he can have him return overland, instead of in a boat, to the scene of another feast on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, all for the purpose of giving his readers the opportunity to compare Jesus’ behavior favorably to that of the gracious hosts in Homer.
What is believable is that the editor who eventually put all of the various Marcan episodes together may not have paid too much attention to the order in which they appeared, as long as the stories weren’t blatantly contradictory. Thus, the Marcan editor sandwiched a side trip overland to Tyre and Sidon where Jesus worked a few miracles in between the two loaves and fishes stories. It was a good thing he did that, too; otherwise, it would have been highly suspect that two feedings of nearly the same improbably large size took place one right after the other, and doubly suspicious that the disciples couldn’t remember at the second feeding what they’d seen a short while earlier, namely, that Jesus had the power to multiply food loaves and fishes. And, of course, people would wonder how and why the disciples so quickly changed from the smaller kophinos baskets to the larger spuris baskets. The editor may have wanted to give the disciples time to forget what they saw, and to change baskets, so he sent Jesus across country for a few days before letting him go back to the sea shore.
The Organization of the Eating Groups
Although in both stories Jesus commands the crowds to recline, only in the first do they do so in well-organized groups.16
MacDonald suggests that there’s a possible intentional correspondence in the grouping of diners at the first feasts in Homer and Mark. In Homer, there were nine groups of five hundred each while Mark had Jesus put the diners in groups of two different sizes: groups of one hundred, and groups of fifty. This seating in groups in the first feeding story may have been intended by Mark to remind his readers of the grouping in Homer, MacDonald believes, but I don't believe it.
Mark forces Jesus to put the 5,000 in at least 51 different groups (49 x100 + 2 x 50), and as many as 99 groups (98 x 50 + 1 x 100). Surely Mark would not have thought it probable that his readers would connect four to eight dozen groups of diners in Mark to only nine in Homer; the disparity in numbers of groups is just too great. Furthermore, if Mark had been intent on using his seating arrangement to mark a parallel with Homer, he would had a much better way to do it: Mark only needed to have Jesus say is, “Put them in ten groups of 500.” This grouping would have been sufficiently unlike Homer’s nine groups of 500 to hide amateurish and obvious copying, but sufficiently like Homer to represent a flag.
In any case, I believe an excellent reason why Mark had Jesus put the multitude in groups of fifties and hundreds has already been provided: Mark was having Jesus organize the people of this new exodus the same way Moses organized the people of his exodus: in “thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.” 17 Given this background, how likely is it that the Mark who wrote these verses thought that his readers would cast aside the wonderful symmetry and symbolism attached to the Moses-Jesus exodus organization in favor of Homer’s nine groups of five hundred men roasting bulls?
The Genders of Those at the Feasts
The thousands fed in the first story were men, no women; those fed in the second presumably included women. 18
Both authors speak only of men attending the first feast. If we accept the majority of translations, which don't speak of only men at the second feast (the NIV translation give above refers to "men"), to give MacDonald the benefit of the doubt, one can reasonably infer from the story that there were women at the second feeding in Mark, because Mark does not tell us only the number of men fed, as he did with the first feeding. Women are also presumably present at the wedding feast in Homer. MacDonald observes that it is not surprising that only men are present the first feast in Homer, since that feast was a sacrifice by sailors to the sea gods, but he suggests it’s unusual in Mark; one would expect some women to be present among the 5,000 served by Jesus, especially since they’re present at the second feast. MacDonald suggests that Mark may have copied this element from Homer, but I think there are simpler explanations:
Mark may have just told us the number of men who had been given food because he regarded women as less important than men, just as did other Bible writers; man was the head of woman, and women were not allowed to assume leadership roles. 19 Indeed, Mark has Jesus recruit Simon and Andrew to be fishers of men, not fishers of men and women. Mark seems primarily to be interested in talking about men, and less concerned with women, so his use of the word “men” instead of “people” may just have been an unconscious insensitivity. Certainly it would have been no surprise if Mark had told us how many persons were fed, rather than just the number or men, but we can see why the number of men might have been his main concern: They were the only ones who really counted--the only ones who could be part of Jesus’ army for God.
The best explanation for Mark’s having only told us only about the number of men fed is that Mark wanted his readers to see the parallel to the Old Testament story of Elisha’s miraculous feeding of the one hundred men. Only men were fed in that story, so Mark wanted only men to be fed in his story, too, to maintain a very close parallel to the Elisha story.
Now, why weren’t only men mentioned in the second feeding story, too (according to most translations)? I’ve already provided the explanation for this: The second feeding story is a stripped-down version of the first one (although the Marks who wrote or edited the gospel don’t admit this). Virtually all of the data which would point Gentiles to Old Testament tradition, such as sheep without shepherd, lying in green pastures, organization in Moses-like groups of fifties and hundreds, and the use of the Jewish kophinos to gather the food leftovers, has been removed from the first feeding story to create the second. If a Greek pagan Mark had been assigned to write the Gentile version of the feeding story--which seems reasonable, it’s quite possible he was unaware of the details of the Elisha story and so he probably wouldn’t have spoken only of the men fed; he might not have been sure how the story should be told, so he played it safe and kept his description gender-neutral. All of this makes for a vastly simpler explanation than the one MacDonald suggests for these gender elements. If, by this time, Mark had created an impressively long list of obvious parallels to Homer, we could expect that his readers might suspect that there was a parallel to be found also in this gender correspondence. However, given that there are virtually no correspondences other than the most commonplace, Mark cannot have expected his readers would see anything here. We may reasonably conclude, therefore, that Mark did not base this aspect of his feeding stories on Homer. Nor did he attempt any other Homerian parallels in any other part of his feeding stories.
The Presence of Two Stories Instead of One
No matter what the origin of the feeding stories, the presence of both in the Gospel is strategic and intentional…If Mark knew only one miraculous feeding story, he had sufficient literary reasons for doubling it…[H]e created both of them from biblical and epic antecedents.20
MacDonald is referring to a variety of suggested reasons21 why Mark tells two almost identical feeding stories, but nevertheless seems to imply that even if none of the explanations for two stories conjectured by others is correct, Mark still had good reason to double the story: He wanted his audience to see the connection between Jesus’ double feedings of loaves and fishes and the twin feasts in Homer so that his readers would compare Jesus’ hospitality toward the multitudes with Nestor’s and Menelaus’s hospitality toward their guests. While I completely agree that the presence of the second story is “strategic and intentional,” I don’t agree that it’s for the reason MacDonald suggests. I’ve already given the reason why I think there are two stories: Mark needed to reach out to the Jews and the Gentiles.
Furthermore, Mark’s readers couldn’t have failed to see the obvious and extremely strong connections to the Elisha story, and the plain-as-day allusions to Moses and the people of his exodus, and the Lord’s having his people lie down in green pastures, and the other flags signaling connections to the Old Testament. How could Mark ever have dreamed that through this extremely dense layer of Old Testament correlations they would be able to see Homeric dependencies?
Finally, I believe the extremely important premise MacDonald uses to advance this argument is false: It’s not true, as he claims, that Jesus was especially hospitable toward the multitude, nor was he generous, but I’ll wait to explain why until I get to the section below on hospitality. For now it’s sufficient to note that there is a perfectly good “strategic” reason for Mark having a second feeding story: He needed a Gentile fishes and loaves story to parallel the Jewish one; Homer need not have ever entered his mind here.
The Numbers of the People Fed
MacDonald’s states that “The correlations of…the forty-five hundred or five thousand men [is] not accidental,” and calls it a “Marcan flag.” 22 Referring to the Elisha story, he further notes “…that story of itself does not explain… the outrageous number of people fed.” 23 I certainly agree that the correlations of the “men” in the Homeric and Marcan stories are not accidental, but not for the reason MacDonald gives; I believe that Mark wanted his first loaves and fishes story to be as tightly bound to the Hebrew tradition as possible, so he had only men at that feast, just as Elisha had only men at his feast. However, MacDonald suggests that Mark had about the same number at the first feeding at the sea shore, five thousand, to signal his readers that they should read his this gospel story in the light of the Homeric epic, where one finds at the feast at the sea shore an almost equal number in attendance, forty-five hundred.
It cannot be denied that this correspondence of numbers, 4,500 versus 5,000, is interesting, and if there were several other meaningful correspondences between the stories of the Homeric and Marcan feasts, one would have the right to suspect that Mark chose this number with Homer in mind. We will perhaps never know whether he consciously, or subconsciously, based his choice on Homer, or whether there is some historical basis for a feeding of this size. We may note, however, that this number is just about what one would expect Mark to use: He locked himself into groups “hundreds and fifties” with the Moses connection, so he would have had to have had several groups of hundreds at least, so it would have to be more than, say, about a thousand people, but certainly less than the more than six hundred thousand of Moses’ people who were fed “bread” (manna) in the desert.24 So, Mark picked a number in between, one that was not so small as to make Jesus power seem insignificant, but not too large to make the story unbelievable.
Finally, why would Mark think that his readers would connect the 5,000 at Mark’s first feast to the 4,500 at Homer’s, yet ignore the fact that 4,000 at the second feast doesn’t compare at all to the much smaller number at Menelaus’s wedding party? Menelaus’s party was at his house, and only his relatives and neighbors are in attendance. The party is so small that one bard and two tumblers were sufficient to entertain the entire group. Homer is describing a very small party by comparison to Jesus’ second feeding; there are probably only about a hundred guests.
Homer describes the feasts as lavish affairs at which
the hosts treat the guests with hospitality.
MacDonald suggests that Mark wanted readers to think of those feasts
when they read about Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes and compare him favorably
to the hosts in Homer. However, I think
MacDonald misinterprets the authors and exaggerates Jesus’ sacrifice. I’ll first show what MacDonald says, and
then tell why I disagree with his interpretation.
“Mark portrays Jesus as an exemplary host.” “Both Menelaus and Jesus pitied their guests because they had gone so long without food.” … “Jesus refused to send them away hungry, even though feeding them would have cost him dearly. Taking the few supplies available, he spread a humble but copious feast and ordered the disciples around like waiters. He told them [to have the crowd sit] on the ‘green grass,’ apparently because verdant grass offered greater comfort than the rocky shore or prickly dry grass. Jesus gave a proper blessing and sent his disciples to serve the guests. Everyone ate to satiety. The disciples dutifully gathered the remaining fragments, one basket each.” (p. 84).25
I don’t see the hospitality MacDonald speaks of. Mark didn’t have hospitality in his mind, or Homer in the back of his mind, when he described the treatment of the multitude. MacDonald says that Mark’s use of the word “recline” (Greek: anaklino), suggests “the meal was less a picnic than a banquet,” like the ones in Homer, but, as I noted earlier, Mark puts the people on “green grass” to evoke the picture of the Lord in the Old Testament having his people lie down in green pastures, not because it was softer than nearby land. Mark had them eat to their satisfaction to have his readers recall the Lord in Jeremiah allowing the poor to “eat and be satisfied.”
As for this spread costing Jesus “dearly,” that’s simply cannot be true: All it “cost” Jesus was one sweep of his arm, or a glance skyward, to miraculously multiply the loaves and fishes; where’s the sacrifice in that? Does Mark convey to his readers a sense that the people at the sea shore were administered to by attentive “waiters” circulating among the groups, as MacDonald implies? I don’t think so: All the disciples did was “set it before the people”; that’s all there is to the description, and it hardly suggests that Jesus was an unusually thoughtful host. Finally, if Jesus was all that thoughtful and gracious, why couldn’t the people decide for themselves when they would leave, instead of being abruptly “dismissed” by Jesus?26
MacDonald states that “Both Menelaus and Jesus pitied their guests because they had gone so long without food.” However, there’s nothing in Homer which suggests either that Menelaus pitied Telemachus and his companion, or that the two guests had gone without food, let alone gone “so long” without food. Furthermore, Homer shows that pity was not what was on Menelaus’s mind when he welcomed his guests. His words make it clear that he welcomed the two men in the hope that the gods would be pleased with his treatment of strangers. Speaking to his servant, Menelaus says, “[S]how the strangers in that they may have supper. You and I have stayed often enough at other people’s houses before we got back here, where heaven grant that we may rest in peace henceforward.” There will be no resting in peace if these strangers are gods and we mistreat them, Menelaus is thinking.
MacDonald finds it extraordinary that the Mark uses the word “symposia” to describe the groups in which Jesus puts the five thousand men. Writers long before Mark referred to Homer’s feasts as “symposia”; 27 Homer never used the word, but Mark did, and is the only writer in the New Testament to do so, not counting Luke, who copied Mark’s feeding stories. MacDonald calls this “Mark’s clearest flag” 28 signaling a parallel to Homer. I disagree. This is only evidence that Mark used the same word to describe eating groups that others used to describe other eating groups. Perhaps Mark was using irony to describe a dried fish and bread meal with a word that was more commonly used to refer to elegant banquets such as the ones Athenaeus spoke of; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Mark used irony in his gospel: It was used wonderfully in his story about the Barabbas-Jesus contest.29
Virtually all of MacDonald’s suggested parallels of Mark’s twin feeding stories to Homer’s twin feasts are nonexistent, in my opinion, and aspects of both stories can be far, far better explained on the basis of Old Testament antecedents than they can by Homeric correspondence. The sailing theme arose not out of Mark’s desire to evoke Odyssean sailing images, but of a literary need to have Jesus and his disciples be fishers of men as spoken of in the Old Testament and to give Jesus an opportunity to walk on water to save his disciples, as per the Old Testament. Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as uncomprehending and heart-hardened wasn’t meant to signal the readers that they should compare the disciples to Odysseus’s companions. It was an invitation to his readers to compare the disciples to Pharaoh who was too dense to recognize and understand the power of God; don’t you be like the Pharaoh, too, was Mark’s message to them. Mark had Jesus lay his people down on green grass beside the waters in fifties and hundreds not because he wanted his readers to think of the nine groups of five hundred at Nestor’s feast and Homer’s Telemachus sitting on soft sheepskins, but because Mark was having Jesus emulate the Lord, who would lay the people down in green pastures beside still waters, and Moses, who organized the people of the old exodus in groups of thousands, hundreds, and fifties. Mark’s message is that Jesus was the Lord and Moses all wrapped up in one. Jesus was neither particularly hospitable nor generous toward the multitudes, as MacDonald claims; indeed, Jesus gave up nothing when he miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes with a wave of his hand, and he treated his guests like cattle, apparently not allowing them to sit wherever they wished, but instead ordering them to be placed in highly organized groups. The “guests” at Jesus’ feedings couldn’t even decide when they could leave; Jesus abruptly dismisses them, sending them on their way. There are two feeding stories not because Mark was influenced by Homer’s twin feasts, but because he wanted first to reach out to the Jews, then to the Gentiles.
 The 1898 translation by Samuel Butler is used in this article; it’s available online: Odyssey
 Exodus 7-12. Ten plagues brought down on Pharaoh. See the article, Ten Plagues.
 Mark 5:1-21. Jesus cures the demoniac. See also the article, The Gerasene Demoniac.
 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)
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
 Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek: kophinos, basket. The information that the kophinos was a reed basket favored for dietary reasons by Hebrews, and the spuris was a larger basket favored by Gentiles, comes from a source whose reliability has not yet been confirmed.
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.”
 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."
Mark 7:24-30. Jesus cures Greek woman’s
daughter as he reached out to the Gentiles.
 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.
 The Worldwide English Translation and the New International Version-IBS also show “men”. However, most translations are gender-neutral, translating it similar to, “They that ate were four thousand.” These latter Bibles include the New American Bible, New English Translation, King James, New American Standard, Royal Standard Version, Darby, and Young’s Literal Translation. The 1550 edition of the Textus Receptus prepared by Robert Estienne (Stephanus), which is the basis for the King James Version of the Bible, is based on various Greek texts as well as the Latin Vulgate. The Textus Receptus shows de phago en hos tetrakishchiloi, which literally is “and eating were about four thousand.” (Source: Blue Letter Bible)
 The following two articles below describe the Bible’s
teaching that women are inferior to men, and Paul’s teaching that women must
not be allowed to teach or lead men: Women May Not Teach , Women Are Not
the Glory of God
 MacDonald, p. 83.
 MacDonald, p. 83: “[t]wo reports of a single event…two performances of a popular legend, or as evidence of a pre-Marcan chain of miracle stories characterized by two cycles of similar tales.”
 Athenaeus, ca 200 AD, was a Greek grammarian
and author of Deipnosophistai ("The Gastronomers”). MacDonald notes, “One of the garrulous
diners among Athenaeus’s ‘supper-sages’ went on at length about Homeric symposia,
including those of Nestor and Menelaus, and used them as examples of how such
parties should be conducted.” (Volume 5
of Deipnosophists 181c-191a)
 MacDonald, p. 90.
 Jesus and Barabbas
Lying Down in Safety Isaiah 14:30 The poorest of the poor will find pasture, and the needy will lie down in safety
Prophecy of the New Exodus
that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations
will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious…In that day the Lord
will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of
his people from Assyria…as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt.
Calloused Hearts in Isaiah
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!" He said, "Go and tell this people: "`Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." (Isaiah 6:8-13)