Mark 6:30-44 – The Feeding of the 5000

In the previous post I pointed out that Jesus’ miracles function as some kind of self-revelation. He says something about himself and his mission when he heals or casts out demons. Perhaps one of the best example of this is the miraculous feeding of a large crowd, a miracle so important that it is found in all four gospels.

Fish and bread mosaic from Tagbha

The feeding of the 5000 is a symbolic miracle in which Jesus departs to a lonely place and provides a crowd with miraculous food in the wilderness. Everyone eats until they are satisfied and there is a great quantity which remains. As early as Albert Schweitzer, this event has been seen as an anticipation of the eschatological feast. Schweitzer thought that the “messianic feast therefore played a dominant part in the conception of blessedness from Enoch to the Apocalypse of John” (Quest, [London: A & C Black, 1931], 377).

Many commentators also see this miracle is an anticipation of the messianic banquet. France, for example, says that “for those with eyes to see it, this will be a foretaste of the messianic banquet” (Mark, 260.) Similarly, James Dunn says that a shared meal in a desolate place “would probably carry strong messianic overtones to those with even half an ear” (Jesus Remembered, 646). There are a number of elements of banquet in this miraculous feeding that make it likely that Mark (and Matthew) intended this event to be seen as an anticipation of the messianic banquet. In fact, the miracle is an example of an intertextual blending of Wilderness tradition and eschatological banquet texts.

First, the miracle enacts the expectations of Isa 40-55, specifically that Israel would re-gather in the wilderness and re-experience the wilderness events. This includes the provision of food at the hand of their God. The event occurs in the wilderness or a “lonely place. The people are being fed in the wilderness, calling to mind the Wilderness tradition. Wright, for example, correctly points out that not only is the location of this even significant, but also the fact that the people are fed in the wilderness and immediately after the feeding the Lord works a great miracle at the Red Sea, just as Jesus will do a great miracle on the sea (Jesus and the Victory of God, 193).

There are other allusions to Wilderness tradition here. When Jesus sees the great crowd he is move with compassion and observes that they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” This is an allusion to Num 27:15-23. Just prior to Moses death, he asks the Lord to appoint a leader over the people, so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd. They are seated in συμπόσιον, or “eating parties.” The groupings are in of fifty and a hundred evokes the wilderness tradition as well. In Exod 18:21, 25 Moses divides the people up into groups of “a thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Num 31:14).

Second, after the crowd eats the food, they are described as satisfied (Mark 6:42). Eating bread in the wilderness naturally recalls, manna, although only the gospel of John makes this allusion explicit. The verb χορτάζω (to “be satisfied”), however, appears in the Psalms several times in clear wilderness tradition. In LXX Ps 80:17 [ET 16] the word is used to describe the food provided in the wilderness. In Ps 106:9, the psalmist describes the satisfaction of the people when the Lord fed them in the wilderness at the end of the exile. This Psalm begins with a gathering of the people after the exile from every direction. Some have passed through the wilderness yet the Lord led them on a straight path back to the Land where he “satisfies their soul.” In Ps 131:15 χορτάζω appears in the context of the restoration of Zion. Zion is personified as a woman who will have abundant provisions, her poor “will be satisfied with bread.” There are a number of places in the LXX where this word describes the abundance of the eschatological age (Isaiah 33:5).

This  miraculous feeding in the wilderness is therefore an allusion to the tradition of an eschatological banquet at the beginning of the new age. In all four Gospels Jesus reveals his messianic intentions by hosting a meal in wilderness for a “new Israel.” Jesus is not doing the miracle simply to meet the physical need of his audience, but rather to evoke whole streams of tradition from the Hebrew Bible, proclaiming that the messianic age has begun.