A Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitude
John 6: 1-15
1 Μετὰ ταῦτα ἀπῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Γαλιλαίας τῆς Τιβεριάδος. 2 ἠκολούθει δὲ αὐτῷ ὄχλος πολύς, ὅτι ἐθεώρουν τὰ σημεῖα ἃ ἐποίει ἐπὶ τῶν ἀσθενούντων. 3 ἀνῆλθεν δὲ εἰς τὸ ὄρος Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἐκάθητο μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ. 4 ἦν δὲ ἐγγὺς τὸ πάσχα, ἡ ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων. 5 ἐπάρας οὖν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος ὅτι πολὺς ὄχλος ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγει πρὸς Φίλιππον, Πόθεν ἀγοράσωμεν ἄρτους ἵνα φάγωσιν οὗτοι; 6 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγεν πειράζων αὐτόν, αὐτὸς γὰρ ᾔδει τί ἔμελλεν ποιεῖν. 7 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ [ὁ] Φίλιππος, Διακοσίων δηναρίων ἄρτοι οὐκ ἀρκοῦσιν αὐτοῖς ἵνα ἕκαστος βραχύ [τι] λάβῃ. 8 λέγει αὐτῷ εἷς ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ, Ἀνδρέας ὁ ἀδελφὸς Σίμωνος Πέτρου, 9 Ἔστιν παιδάριον ὧδε ὃς ἔχει πέντε ἄρτους κριθίνους καὶ δύο ὀψάρια: ἀλλὰ ταῦτα τί ἐστιν εἰς τοσούτους; 10 εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ποιήσατε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἀναπεσεῖν. ἦν δὲ χόρτος πολὺς ἐν τῷ τόπῳ. ἀνέπεσαν οὖν οἱ ἄνδρες τὸν ἀριθμὸν ὡς πεντακισχίλιοι. 11 ἔλαβεν οὖν τοὺς ἄρτους ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εὐχαριστήσας διέδωκεν τοῖς ἀνακειμένοις, ὁμοίως καὶ ἐκ τῶν ὀψαρίων ὅσον ἤθελον. 12 ὡς δὲ ἐνεπλήσθησαν λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, Συναγάγετε τὰ περισσεύσαντα κλάσματα, ἵνα μή τι ἀπόληται. 13 συνήγαγον οὖν, καὶ ἐγέμισαν δώδεκα κοφίνους κλασμάτων ἐκ τῶν πέντε ἄρτων τῶν κριθίνων ἃ ἐπερίσσευσαν τοῖς βεβρωκόσιν. 14 Οἱ οὖν ἄνθρωποι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν σημεῖον ἔλεγον ὅτι Οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ προφήτης ὁ ἐρχόμενος εἰς τὸν κόσμον.
15 Ἰησοῦς οὖν γνοὺς ὅτι μέλλουσιν ἔρχεσθαι καὶ ἁρπάζειν αὐτὸν ἵνα ποιήσωσιν βασιλέα ἀνεχώρησεν πάλιν εἰς τὸ ὄρος αὐτὸς μόνος.
1 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 towards 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.
Loaves and fishes ... from a mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Feeding of the Multitude
The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection – that is recorded in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17). The feeding of 4,000 is told by both Mark (Mark 8: 1-9) and by Matthew (Matthew 15: 32-38), but by neither Luke nor John.
The story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the feeding of the 5,000 is told in a very similar way in all four Gospels, with only minor variations on the place of the miracle or the circumstances surrounding it.
Although Matthew and Mark have two multiplication narratives, and Luke and John have only one, if the sequence of events in this Gospel more closely resemble the accounts in Saint Mark’s Gospel rather than the other two Gospels, if we draw Mark’s accounts together.
We can find the resemblances in this whole chapter by following this sequence:
● John 6: 1-15: the multiplication for 5,000 (Mark 6: 30-44);
● John 6: 16-24: Christ walks on the sea (Mark 6: 45-54);
(We then skip to Mark 8, after his second multiplication):
● John 6: 25-34: the request for a sign (Mark 8: 11-13);
● John 6: 35-58: the discourse on bread (Mark 8: 14-21);
● John 6: 59-69: the faith of Peter (Mark 8: 27-30);
● John 6: 70-71: passion theme and denial (Mark 8: 31-33).
What is missing?
Well, in Saint John’s Gospel there is no teaching before the multiplication of the loaves (see Mark 6: 34).
On the other hand, John alone tells us that the feeding and the teaching took place as the Feast of the Passover was drawing near, so both the action and the discourse are to be understood with those particular perspectives.
Our last study in this Gospel was Christ’s discourse after the healing of the man by the pool in Jerusalem. Some time has passed since then, the better part of a year perhaps, and we are now back in Galilee in the following spring for the second Passover narrative (see verse 4) in Saint John’s Gospel.
Commentators point to the shift from the Festival of the Booths in the previous chapter and to the significance of the second Passover. But sometimes I wonder are we in danger of missing one other point, no matter how insignificant it may seem at first reading?
Recently, my attention was drawn to a story about how the Puritans in New England worked themselves to death in the fields without getting much in return for their back-breaking efforts. So much so that they were in danger of starving to death until the wiser inhabitants of the land taught them a few home truths about living in harmony with the rhythms of the earth. There are times to plant. There are times to rest. There are times to work the soil. And there are times to let the soil rest.
Perhaps the gap between Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 is part of the Hidden Years of Jesus ... when he was an adult, when he was in harmony with the rhythms of the earth and the rhythms of life, and when he was preparing for the harvest that is gathered in in Chapter 6.
The story of the multiplication of the loaves as told in Chapter 6 of the Fourth Gospel has a number of key details that are intended to remind the reader of the Eucharist, and the Eucharistic narrative resumes in verses 51-58. But the story is also full of Messianic hope and harvesting, and Eucharistic promise, for it recalls the story of King David. When David first fled from King Saul, he fed his small group of followers, those who acknowledged him as the rightful king, with the priest’s bread, asking the priest: “Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (I Samuel 21: 3).
The other side refers to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was named Tiberias after the city founded ca 20-26 AD by Herod Antipas and named after Tiberias Caesar. In this way, John places the last work done among the Galilean disciples in Gentile territory.
Note that here too the Galileans are following him because of signs and miracles, and not because of faith. Once again, we have the Johannine question about the link between seeing and believing.
Christ is seated on the top of the mountain. What does this remind you of? The top of Mount Sinai? The mountain of the Transfiguration? The hill of Calvary outside Jerusalem?
This is the time approaching the second Passover, so there is a build up in the number of Passovers being recounted, bringing us towards an expectation of fulfilment at Passover.
Christ lifts up his eyes. When the disciples rejoined Christ at the well in Sychar while he was talking with the Samaritan woman, he told them to “lift up their eyes” (John 4: 35, translated in the NRSV as “look around you”) and to see the “harvest” of the seed he had been sowing.
The introduction of Philip (verse 5) and Andrew (verse 8) as characters in the scene is typical of John’s style. They represent the disciples. Just as at Jacob’s Well, they have failed to buy or produce enough bread.
Philip’s faith is being tested, and, by implication, the faith of all the disciples.
Where the NRSV says “Six months’ wages,” the original Greek says 200 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage for an unskilled labourer.
John alone mentions the young boy or servant, and the barley loaves. Barley loaves were the food of poor people and for animals, but strikingly, the barley loaves in this story remind us of the time when Elisha who fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread (2 Kings 4: 42-44), saying: “For thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’.” The feeding of the multitude therefore may be seen as a demonstrative prelude to Jesus words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in will never be thirsty” (John 6: 35).
The ΙΧΘΥC symbol carved into marble and highlighted by later visitors in Ephesus
The feeding with the fish is a prelude to, looks forward to another meal by the shores of Lake Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when Jesus feeds them with bread and fish. The fish is an early Christian symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, capitalised as ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words, spelling out Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).
Christ asks the disciples to make the people sit down – well, not so much to sit down as to recline. They are asked to recline on the grass as they would at a banquet or a feast – just as he did with the disciples at the Last Supper.
Notice the Eucharistic actions in verse 11. Dom Gregory Dix identified the four-fold movement in the Eucharist as taking, blessing (giving thanks), breaking and giving.
John alone has Christ commanding the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. Gathering is an act of reverential economy towards the gifts of God. But we return later to the Eucharistic imagery here too. Meanwhile, the gathering also anticipates the gathering that takes place in connection with the work of the Son as he receives from the Father those who are given to him, “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me … “ (John 6: 39; see also John 17: 12).
There are twelve baskets – one for each tribe of Israel and one for each of the twelve disciples. Mark alone mentions fragments of fish being picked up too.
In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Christ forces his disciples to leave immediately (see Mark 6: 45). But only in Saint John’s Gospel are we given the reason for this: the people want to make Christ their earthly king (compare this with the reference to the test in verse 6). When they want to make him their King, they want to make him a political Messiah, opposing Rome. But Jesus would not accept this way of being king or of being Messiah (see John 18: 36).
In the Fourth Gospel, the account of the Feeding of the Multitude is followed with the conversation Jesus has with the crowds who follow him to Capernaum. The main motif in the passage (verses 26-59) centres on Jesus saying: “I am that bread of life” (verse 48). In this way, Jesus links the Feeding of the Multitude with the feeding of the people in the wilderness with manna and with the heavenly banquet and the coming of the kingdom (see John 6: 25-40).
Some Eucharistic images:
In the Fourth Gospel, the preceding food miracle is at the Wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. Now we have a miracle with bread. The Eucharistic connection of bread and wine is obvious even to the first-time reader.
The story of the multiplication of the loaves as told in the Fourth Gospel has a number of key details that intended to remind the reader of the Eucharist, and the Eucharistic narrative resumes in verses 51-58.
● In verse 10, the crowd is asked to recline on the grass, as if they were at a banquet, a Passover meal or a wedding feast, just as Christ and the 12 ate at the Last Supper.
● Once again, notice the Eucharistic actions in verse 11. Dom Gregory Dix identified the four-fold movement in the Eucharist as taking, blessing (giving thanks), breaking and giving.
● John alone uses εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistisas, verse 11), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteo), “to give thanks,” from which we derive the word Eucharist for the liturgy.
● John alone depicts Christ himself distributing the bread as he will at the Last Supper.
● John alone has Christ commanding the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. The Greek word συνάγω (synago, to gather up) gives us the word συναγωγή (synagogue) for the assembly of faith, and the word σύναξις (synaxis) for the gathering or first part of the Liturgy. The Greek word for “fragments,” κλάσμα (klasma), appears also in early Christian literature as the liturgical word for the host or the bread at the Eucharist.
Jesus puts no questions of belief to either the disciples or the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They did not believe in the Resurrection – it had yet to happen. But Jesus feeds them, and feeds them indiscriminately. The disciples wanted to send them away, but Jesus wants to count them in. Christ invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study with B.Th. and M.Th. students in a tutorial group on 10 February 2010.
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