The feeding of the 5000 appears in all four Gospels (Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13). In Mark, the feeding of the 5000 also follows the death of John the Baptist; Luke does not have the walking on the water immediately after the feeding of the 5000. As usual, Matthew has seriously abbreviated Mark’s narrative, but John’s version is expanded. In John we learn that the miracle happens around the time of Passover
After an unspecified time of teaching and healing, the disciples want to dismiss the crowd so they can get something to eat (14:15). The crowd is very large and there is no village nearby to get something to eat. It simply makes good sense to send them away to get food. Why does the crowd not have sufficient food for themselves? If they were planning on going to follow Jesus for a long time, they ought to have brought some supplies. Maybe they dropped everything and followed Jesus as the disciples had. They have traveled light as the disciples did on their mission, relying on God to supply their needs.
“You Give Them Something To Eat”
Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat, but they have very little food, five loaves and two fish (14:16-17). Matthew alone has “they do not need to go away,” followed by Mark’s “you give them something to eat.”
“You give them something to eat” echoes Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44. In that story a man has twenty barley loaves but must feed one hundred men. After Elisha tells the man to give them something to eat” they will all eat and there is food left over. This is what happened “according to the word of the Lord.” Nolland calls this a “how much more” comparison with Elisha (Matthew, 593). Jesus’s miracle is better than Elisha’s in every way: he makes more bread from less original good for more people who eat and are satisfied, and more is left over.
One possible explanation offered for who Jesus is in Matthew 16:14 is Jesus is one of the prophets or Elijah. In Mark’s version of the death of John, Herod’s advisors suggest Jesus is one of the prophets (Mark 6:15, omitted in Matthew’s version of the story). The feeding of more than 5000 people from five small loaves and two small, dried fish indicates Jesus is far more than one of the prophets, he is something even greater than the greatest of the prophets.
The disciples have only a little food which is not enough for even a few people, let alone five thousand. In Mark 6 an unknown disciple complains that it would take more than a half year’s wages (200 denarii) to buy enough food, in John 6 Philip is identified as the complainer. John also mentions Andrew brought forward a boy with five loaves and two fish. In Mark and Matthew, the disciples have the food without specifying where they got it.
Is the complaint an allusion to Israel’s murmuring for food in the wilderness (Exod 16:1-3)? They long for the meat-pots of Egypt, so God promises to rain bread from heaven on them (16:4). Here the disciples initially mention the lack of food and then complain that they cannot possibly feed the crowd themselves before Jesus provides bread and fish for everyone (and in John the extended discussion is about the Exodus passage and the meaning of bread from heaven).
The food is insignificant. Five small loaves are not modern loaves of bread. If John is right and this miracle happens at Passover, then it is possible the bread is unleavened (or the child might have been given the last leftover leavened rolls in the house). The fish (ἰχθύς) are likely little dried fish (like dried sardines or a kipper). On the other hand, even of these were five full sized loaves of bread and two of the largest fish freshly caught from the Sea of Galilee, it is still insufficient to feed the large crowd.
Jesus Multiplies the Fish and Bread
Jesus first orders the people to sit in the grass. Although this seems natural enough if he is about to feed them, it is an allusion to the image of God leading his people in the wilderness like sheep. Mark has them seated in hundreds and fifties, which may allude to the way Israel was sorted into hundreds and fifties in the wilderness (Exod 18:21, 25). The verb is ἀνακλίνω, which is used regularly for sitting down at a meal as a guest (BDAG). In Matthew 8:11 Jesus said many will come from the east and west to recline at the table with Abraham, an allusion to the eschatological banquet.
Jesus then blesses the food and gives it to the disciples to distribute. Although some commentators see an allusion to the Last Supper here, looking to heaven and blessing the food are part of normal Jewish meals. Baskets? Who brings baskets with them? These baskets are from the fishing boats Jesus and the disciples arrived in (not picnic baskets!). “The word for “basketfuls” (kophinos) describes a distinctively Jewish basket for carrying kosher food” (Blomberg, Matthew, 233).
Everyone is Satisfied
Everyone eats their fill and is satisfied, and there is plenty of food leftover! The verb translated “satisfied” (χορτάζω) is uses in classical Greek for leading an animal to pasturage but when it is used for humans it refers to eating enough food to be satisfied. In Exodus 16:12 God says he will fill the people with bread, and in 16:18 the people took all the manna they need. This verb appears in Psalm 81:16 (LXX 80:17, “And he fed them from the fat of wheat, and from a rock of honey he satisfied them”).
The crowd does not really know where the food came from, they were handed bread and fish and they ate in large groups. The disciples know the food is a miracle revealing who Jesus is, much like the next miracle when Jesus walks on the water.