THE FEEDING OF THE FOUR AND FIVE THOUSAND
No Gospel story can more illustrate the problems associated with the traditional interpretation than the miraculous feeding of the four and five thousand. The feeding of the five thousand can be found in Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21 and Luke 9:10-17. The accounts of this miracle are quite similar in that Jesus fed 5,000 men, as well as women and children, from five loaves of bread and two small fish. When the crowd had finished their meal, the disciples gathered scraps totaling twelve basketfuls of broken pieces. This, indeed, was a miracle from God. Jesus had created matter out of thin air, or rather, he had multiplied the existing loaves and fish into a much greater number. This was not a trick seen every day.
The feeding of the four thousand was recorded by just Mark 8:1-21 and Matthew 15:29 – 16:12. The scenario for the four thousand was much similar to that of the five thousand: this time Jesus took seven loaves and some fish and fed the men, women and children. Afterwards, the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces. Thus, the miracle had been reproduced, only on a slightly smaller scale.
If Jesus did feed the crowd, how did he do it? Certainly, he did not produce matter out of thin air. That is impossible! What then did he do? A closer investigation of the passages concerning the four thousand may shed some illuminating light. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for their physical needs. He ordered his disciples to gather their limited resources (seven loaves and a few fish) and to share them with one another and with the crowd. Now, we should ask: If Jesus and his disciples had seven loaves of bread and some fish, would it not be logical that some of the other people had some supplies as well? The example of sharing spurred the crowd to share with one another. Surely, no one went home with a full stomach, but each took what was necessary to sustain himself. Thus, the miracle had nothing to do with hocus-pocus or the magical production of food. The miracle, however, was just as amazing. Jesus convinced a large crowd to share their possessions with others, possibly complete strangers.
This interpretation is bolstered by further commentary by Jesus on the event. The accounts in Matthew and Mark will be reproduced because they do differ slightly.
“You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it that you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matt. 16:8-12) (Emphasis mine)
The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (Mark 8:14-15) (Emphasis mine)
Before making his comments about the yeast of the other religious groups, Jesus referred back to the feeding of the five and four thousand. These events should have taught the disciples a very important lesson: material things should be used to help others, not to simply hoard. The yeast of the power structure (the Romans, the Sadducees and the Herodians) was greed. To share was not in their lexicon. The act of sharing was proof of the Kingdom of God, for the kingdoms of this earth had never practiced it.
The Gospels confused the meaning of this message by including the Pharisees in the elite power structure. Surely, a few Pharisees peddled God for a profit, but that should not define the entire lot. According to Josephus, Judas the Galilean and the Sadduc were Pharisees, following the Pharisaic practices with one exception: they also preached nationalism, a cry for liberty from Rome. Josephus did not hide the fact that the movement of Judas pitted the poor against the wealthy. Judas was a champion of the poor. He did not become a champion by upholding the status quo. This, too, could be applied to Jesus in the feeding of the five and four thousand. So, the very thought that Jesus considered the Pharisees equal with the Sadducees and Herodians in their greed is ridiculous.
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Daniel T. Unterbrink
Author of Judas of Nazareth, available from these booksellers: