The Meanings of the
Feeding of the Five Thousand
and the Four Thousand

It is not surprising that food features so prominently in the gospels, given the Jewish combination of food and faith in remembrance. The Seder meal is perhaps the best example.

So an important miracle is the feeding of the five thousand (men - plus women and children) and then the feeding of the four thousand (men - plus women and children). This is one passage of the most quoted event, involving five loaves and two fishes for the 5000:

Mark 6: 32-44
32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
33 Now many saw them going and recognised them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.
34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;
36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat."
37 But he answered them, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?´
38 And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." When they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish."
39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.
40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.
41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.
42 And all ate and were filled;
43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.
44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Here is the second one, with 4000 (men plus others) served with seven loaves and a few fishes:

Mark 8: 1-9
1 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them,
2 "I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.
3 If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way - and some of them have come from a great distance."
4 His disciples replied, "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?"
5 He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?" They said, "Seven."
6 Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd.
7 They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed.
8 They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.
9 Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.

The key elements of the feeding of the five thousand are, arguably:

The key elements of the feeding of the four thousand are, arguably:

These points will form the basis of analysis. To give Jesus full messianic legitimacy, he must follow on from the Hebrew scriptures, and does.

2 Kings 4: 42-44
42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat."
43 But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left.'"
44 He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.

The key points are:

Elisha, showed the ability to represent the Lord by pronouncing on signs and wonders. Signs and wonders identify Jesus as the eschatological figure among the people in the New Testament. When a question is asked of him about this that he answers by reference to signs and wonders.

Matthew 11: 4-5
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples
3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
4 Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:
5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Those in the thrust of the post-resurrection experience, writing about Jesus, would remember something of how he did his ministry and the crowds sat down perhaps to the day's end or longer. So as this is clearly something Elisha apparently did so therefore Jesus would do it as well, but would do it bigger and better, and therefore as many as 5000.

Consistent with Jewish faith, there is a continuation of the significance of eating. The crucial words in Mark from the 5000 are:

Emphasising eating again, the crucial words in Mark from the 4000 men plus are:

In other words, both are of a ritual: it has the exchange (give and take) of the items: taking them, the religious intersection and the act, giving, and the people receiving more than they gave. This is what religion as exchange means: it is further what we do when we speak into a conversation, trade, join in with a group activity and have loving sex. More comes from it than went into it. Marginal Utility and Indifference curves are possible. We give in faith to be renewed all the greater.

Not only is it a ritual but the 5000/ 4000 is the eucharist by other means. The eucharist is the most significant of meals. Later Paul, followed by Luke, would see the eucharist as a Paschal meal, thus the suffering servant crucified. John in particular saw it as the eucharist to be done again with the Kingdom of God: thus, at its source, eschatology. This source (not the Seder meal!) is a final meal of this personal flavour before the great happening and only then - what will it be like then? - they will all gather to have it in new circumstances. Jesus is of course understood by his body and blood words to be identifying himself with the coming Kingdom, and Paul making it a passover meal at least connects the very body and blood of Christ with Christ's suffering. John goes on to say that this meal becomes a necessary ritual act for anyone in the community:

John 6: 53 - 57
53 So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;
55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

The Kingdom of God is certainly like sharing a meal: community, giving and receiving. You do not buy, but you share. More comes out than goes in: so there is plenty.

Eating, as Jews knew and know, is a special act, where the foodstuffs are given meaning. Fish is the Christian community, bread is the central togetherness-ritual of that community. Bread has multiple meanings, and is part of a prayer to receive with at least economic meaning. Food and drink, the essentials, are part of other miracles, and is even exchanged for healing.

So the ritual act with food is essential, as is its identification with Christ's saving work, but into that goes interim authority. To take up the important points here:

The disciples or apostles clearly have an important role, but by the change of strategy in feeding the five thousand Jesus is in charge. In the five and four thousand it is the apostles who give the food to the congregation. They also take back the leftovers.

As the loaves come first and then the fish in both, here is how the feeding of the 4000 is principally different:

The twelve is the significance of the number of tribes of the new Israel: the lost tribes have been found and gathered in. The twelve in a sense stand in for them, and these twelve are the leaders of the Church in the interim, before the Kingdom comes, now that the Christ is no longer with them except as guide through the Spirit. Twelve is a structural number, standing for institutions. Relevant in the feeding of the 4000 may be the 7 days of eating unleavened bread (Exodus 23: 15), possibly relevant is the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23: 34-36), and less possibly seven months in the still Jewish formed ecclesiastical year (Nisan to Tishri), but certainly relevant is seven being God's day in creation, and suggests divine perfection in this eucharistic pointing miracle and the ongoing ministry. Twelve and seven together suggest a powerful association.

This matter of numbers is important. For there is a review of both events and numbers. Here is one example (the other is in Matthew).

Mark 8: 17-21
17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" They said to him, "Twelve."
20 ĎAnd the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" And they said to him, "Seven."
21 Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"

This "Do you not yet understand?" is as if the narrator is talking to the reader. It parallels the question of having no faith in the walking on water nature miracle. Imagine the early church members hearing the stories or, later, reading these aloud and the text "Do you not yet understand?" is heard. It reflects on every reader. It hardly needs the subject of gematria (theomatics or Bible Code) but the numbers are reminders of Godly patterns. More important is the reference from bread meaning Jesus and the food he brings: "Why are you talking about having no bread?"

These are meanings in the act of writing, whatever may be a core event/s, for thought has gone into both to give an account that carries these rounded meanings of legitimacy (Hebrew scriptures), authority (the place of Christ giving the apostles authority of the Church) and the centrality of the God-involved central Christian ritual. The congregation is now involved (5000 and 4000 - these are numbers of men as women and children are extras, an important matter in itself), and the mainly men receive their meal from the apostles. The proper ministers minister, and there is good order among the receiving congregation. Like the resurrection itself, it comes down an orderly chain of authority and will remain until the Kingdom comes.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful

Biblical references are for the 5000, Mark 6: 31-45; Matthew 14: 13-20; Luke 9: 10-17; and for the 4000, Mark 8: 1-9 and Matthew 15: 32-38, and then both are reviewed, Mark 8: 17-21; and Matthew 16: 8-10. All from the New Revised Standard Version.

Shorto, R. (1997), Gospel Truth: The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History and Why It Matters, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 119-121, 135-139.

Vermes, G. (2003), The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, London: Allen Lane, 12-13, 15-16.