03 May 2014 
#88 Analysis of the miraculous feedings in Mark's gospel

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After the "exorcism" in the synagogue & the mother-in-law back on her feet and the "leper" being cured, the crowds went "ballistic". But let's observe the crowd's reaction after the alleged miraculous feeding of the five thousand:
"Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away. And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray." (Mk 6:45-46)
It does not seem the crowd noticed anything special, nor his disciples, who the night after:
Mk 6:52 "... they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened."

This "non-understanding" is confirmed later, when Jesus allegedly announced his intention to feed the four thousand:
[the disciples] answered, "But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?"" (Mk 8:4)
And after:
"[Jesus] told the disciples to distribute them [seven loaves and a few fish]. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that was left over." 
(Mk 8:7b-8)
The disciples could only remember the basketfuls of fragments of fish and bread they picked up:
"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." They discussed this with one another and said, "It is because we have no 
['not enough', according to the context: they have one loaf!] bread."
Aware of their discussion they had, 
[which indicated the disciples still do not know Jesus can multiply bread!] Jesus asked them: "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
["minds closed (or blinded)". That would explain why the disciples did not report on the two miraculous feedings!] 
Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember
[the two past miraculous feedings]?
When I broke 
[let's notice "broke" (easy to do for anyone) and not "multiplied" (a miraculous and extraordinary/divine action)] 
the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick
" "Twelve," they replied. "And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?" They answered, "Seven." He said to them,
"Do you still not understand? 
[that the miraculous multiplications of food did happen!]"
[notice the present tense. And of course, what is not seen, understood and remembered is very unlikely to be told later!] (Mk 8:14-21)

a) Let's say that one basket could contain about ten meals. Then, a grand total of nineteen (12 + 7) basketfuls would represent less than two hundred meals. Therefore, why stress these few basketfuls if allegedly as many as nine thousand (5000 + 4000) men were miraculously fed? 
b) In gMark, and unequivocally, what the disciples do not "understand" are the miraculous feedings. But "Matthew" did his best to correct the situation: 
Mt 16:11-12 "How is it 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 Sadducees. 
Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

Let's go back to the alleged miraculous feeding of the five thousand:
Mk 6:41-43 "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 [5000 of them!]. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish."

Any suggestion of "multiplication" is non-existent:
a) The broken loaves and the two fish are just set by the disciples before the people: no distribution is mentioned.
b) The provenance of the food that the people ate is not specified.

The only allusion to miraculous feeding is from the preceding and highly unrealistic dialogue:
Mk 6:35-37 "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 wagesAre we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?""

a) How could Jesus be so disconnected with the realities of life, which include the price of food? 
b) Even if enough grain, caught fish and paid help could be found nearby, the preparation of large quantity of bread would take many hours (from grinding the grain). And going to villages, making the arrangements and bringing back the food to the gathering would take more time! 
c) Could the disciples have enough money on them in order to contemplate making such a large purchase? Could they even afford it? Very unlikely on both points.

Overall, the proposition in Mk 6:35-37 is totally absurd and made up to give the impression a miracle occurs later.

So what happened?
A plausible and logical explanation is as follows:
Villagers would meet outside their dirty and cramped villages. 
But why? 
b) The occasion was probably a festival, like the eight days autumnal one of the tabernacles & its associated feasts. But few Galilean peasants could afford to go to Jerusalem (3-4 days walk away) to celebrate it. Instead, they would go to a near ground outside their village/town.
These folks would bring with them more food than they could eat (as for any feast!). However it seems the occasion of the gatherings and the provenance of the food (naturally from the people there!) were never mentioned by the teller(s)!
Jesus' disciples picked up the scraps not eaten by the feasters, filling up baskets. And they were telling about it later, probably presenting these collections as a gift from God.

According to the NIV Study Bible footnote on Mk 6:43:
"... Bread was regarded by Jews as a gift of God, and it was required that scraps that fell on the ground during a meal be picked up. The fragments were collected in small wicker baskets that were carried as a part of daily attire."

a) No confirmation can be found about this practice (i.e. collective villagers' feast in the outdoors). But very little has been written about Judean and Galilean peasants
(and more generally about lower class people, in the whole ancient literature). However, Philo of Alexandria wrote that during the festival of the tabernacles:
"the people are commanded to pass the whole period of the feast 
[festival] under tents 
[outside their home!] ... They honor God in songs and words ... [the eighth day] a kind of crowning feastnot only as it would seem to this festival, but also to all the feasts of the year ..." (The special laws, II, ch.XXXIII)
b) The five/four thousand men are mentioned at the end of each one of the two "miraculous feeding" stories, consequently appearing to be just addendum from "Mark", not an integral part of the main account. The number of gathered people was probably not estimated by the eyewitness(es).
c) The disciples picking up scraps from the meals of others would suggest they were (hungry) poor. And Jesus or disciples helping themselves on available food is not unique:
- The fig tree (Mk 11:12-13)
- Heads of grain (Mk 2:23)
Furthermore, the gathering of this left over food is very much in line with:
Lk 11:9a "So I [Jesus] say to you: ask and it will be given to youseek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you..."
Lk 11:3 "[God] Give us each day our daily bread"

"Mark" had evidently read: 
2 Ki 4:42-44 "A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. "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[no mention the left over were picked up by anyone. They are just proof the men had enough to eat] according to the word of the LORD."

However, let's consider the following points: 
a) "Mark" put a lot of importance on the fragments (bread, NOT specified from barley, and fish) that were picked up by the basketful (Mk 6:43, 8:8,19-20). This is emphatically acknowledged by the disciples (Mk 6:19-20).
In contrast, "Mark" conceded the disciples never "understood" or "saw" the "miraculous feedings" (Mk 6:52, 8:4,17-18). And the reaction by the crowds is non-existent!
The gatherings of left over food fit well within the pattern of anecdotal material included (for credibility purpose) by "Mark" in the narration of alleged supernatural events (see for confirmation my next post #89 here and other Markan Jesus' extraordinary miracles here).
"Mark" related two different gatherings of left over. Only one would have been enough to "prove" Jesus' food multiplication ability.

Therefore, it is highly likely that collections by the basketful of "broken pieces" did occur indeed during two peasants' outdoor feasts. And "Mark" used 2 Ki 4:42-44 "set it before them", as also the custom of Jesus about breaking the bread (as practiced later by "Nazarenes" --Ac 2:42-- and early Christians --1 Cor 10:16, Ac 20:7).

For the miraculous feeding of the four thousand, "Mark" will become more daring and add up (from the feeding of the five thousand) that the crowd had no food (for three days!) (Mk 8:1-2). It's only implied in the earlier miraculous feeding. And still, there is no mention of distribution.

Later, "John" will "correct" the reaction of the five thousand strong crowd: 
Jn 6:14-15a "After the people saw the miraculous sign [the feeding of the five thousand, finally "seen"!] that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force ..."

Cordially, Bernard

Tags: {extraordinary miracles} {historical Jesus} {Mark's gospel} {miraculous feedings}
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