The feeding of the 5000 in John 6

The lectionary takes us from famine to feast—metaphorically and literally!—as we move from the sparse verses about Jesus’ ministry in Mark 6 to the lavish feast of both the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on the water in John 6. Whilst we might have struggled to find a sermon on last week’s readings, there must be material for several in this week’s!

The challenge in reading this passage relates to the meaning of the text in its context, and the devotional and theological use of it by later readers. The chief theological question is whether this text is ‘eucharistic’, that is, providing a back story (as it were) to early church practice of celebrating Communion. But there is also the devotional question raised by popular readings: is this story primarily about the boy who offered his meagre lunch, or is the focus more on what Jesus does with it?

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus that is related in all four gospels, and the Fourth Gospel’s is the longest account, followed by Mark, with Luke’s and Matthew’s both being about two-thirds of the length of Mark’s. The account in John 6 has a different setting from the Synoptics, since it has focussed on the activity of Jesus in Jerusalem in John 5, where the Synoptics have related the sending out of the Twelve and their return, which is not mentioned in the Fourth Gospel though the account fits with it. We can see hints of the dovetailing of the accounts, for example in the language of John 6.1 ‘Jesus went to the other side of the Sea…’; this reference makes no sense on its own (since Jesus has been in Jerusalem) and so must be read in parallel with the events in the Synoptics, and in particular with Mark.

The synoptic gospels consistently refer to the lake as the ‘Sea of Galilee’, but our passage adds to this appellation the name that became popular in the later first century, ‘Sea of Tiberias’ (here and in John 21.1). This shifts our attention from the region as the place of fulfilment of OT expectation (Is 9.1–2 as cited by Matt 4.15), and towards this as a region occupied by a foreign power and the place of power struggles between kings. We will therefore not be surprised when the theme of kingship arises prominently at several points in the passage.

The ‘great crowd’ (ὄχλος πολύς) reminds us of this theme in Mark, and Jesus ‘healing the sick’ which they have seen and heard again relies on our familiarity with Mark and the other synoptics, which all relate these healings immediately prior to the feeding event. Rather than describing these as expressions of Jesus’ compassion, or demonstrations of the coming of the kingdom, the Fourth Gospel characteristically labels them as ‘signs’, things which are not an end in themselves, but point to something greater. (The text doesn’t even actually mention ‘healing’; literally, they ‘saw the signs he was doing on the sick.’)

The description of Jesus going ‘up on the mountain’ and sitting down with his disciples offers a powerful echo of Moses going up on Mt Sinai, just as it does at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5.1, and the mention of the Passover, the festival commemorating the Exodus, reinforces this. The language of ‘the feast/festival of the Jews’ does not suggest an anti-semitic perspective, since the Jewish festivals and observances are so central to this gospel. Rather, it suggests that the gospel is written to allow non-Jews to read and understand it.

Jesus lifted up his eyes and saw…’ is a redundancy which again reminds us of OT precedents. Despite the traditional site of Tabgha, just west of Capernaum, marked by the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, the location is more likely to be east of the Jordan river near Bethsaida as Luke 9.10 informs us. There is a nice ‘undesigned coincidence‘ here, pointing to historical reliability: the account of the Fourth Gospel does not mention the location, but does mention that Jesus asked Greek-speaking Philip for information (John 6.5); and earlier in the gospel we learned that Philip was from the Greek-speaking region of Bethsaida (John 1.44). (There is a question of how the crowd, on foot, crossed the Jordan river; but we do not have enough archaeological detail to know whether there was a bridge or ford at the time. Note also that this is one point where geographical location is difficult to harmonise with Mark’s account.)

Jesus asks Philip how all these people might be fed, to ‘test’ (πειράζων) him. The term for ‘testing’ is often highly negative, but can be used neutrally or, as here, positively. Jesus wants to see whether Philip has the eyes of faith, but at the moment he just sees the practical challenge. A denarius was the usual day’s pay for a manual worker, so 200 denarii would a little more than half a year’s wages. The narrative effect of this exchange is to emphasise the magnitude of Jesus’ miracle; what he achieves is not merely difficult for an ordinary person, it is impossible. And, as is characteristic of his portrayal in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus knows what he is doing and what will happen in contrast to the baffled disciples.

All four accounts agree that there are ‘five loaves and two fish’, but only John 6 tells us the detail of where they have come from, a boy in the crowd—which, once more, appears to have no more significance that the fact that it happened this way. Andrew is involved since, as we learnt in John 1.44, he too like Philip was from the region of Bethsaida. The Fourth Gospel alone adds the detail that these were barley loaves, peasants’ fare which was cheaper than wheat bread but harder to eat. The ‘fish’ here is opsarion rather than ichthus as in the synoptics; it would refer to pieces of fish, perhaps preserved, which would be a tidbit eaten as an appetiser, rather than whole fishes (thus the picture at the top, and all other images of this event, are incorrect).

The narrative passes over the detail of how the people sit down, though it is given in Mark 6.39–40 as well as in Luke 9.14; Mark 6.39 also tells us that the ‘grass’ was ‘green’, which confirms the Fourth Gospel’s timing of the event at Passover in the Spring, though Mark omits mention of this timing. It was common to number a crowd by counting ‘the men’, in contrast to the previous mention of ‘people’; Matthew 14.21 reminds us that women and children were present, though we knew that already from the mention of the boy who provided the lunch.

In the synoptic gospels, we read of Jesus doing the four-fold acting of ‘taking…blessing…breaking…and giving’ (Matt 14.19, Mark 6.41, Luke 9.16), which has been read as echoing early church practice in the Lord’s supper, but here he simply ‘took, and when he had given thanks, distributed.’ If there is any correlation with later rituals, the Fourth Gospel appears rather uninterested in it, which fits with its general lack of interest in what later became ‘sacraments’. This episode doesn’t point to the ritual actions of communion; rather, this miracle, and the ritual meal of Communion, both point to Jesus the true bread.

Jesus ‘giving thanks’, eucharisteo, is parallel to Mark’s ‘he blessed’, eulogeo, confirming what we find elsewhere that these two terms are used interchangeably, and that the ‘blessing’ that happened was a blessing of God, the Jewish prayer of berakhah, not of the things he had in his hands. In all four gospels, the primary allusions here are not to later, ritualised church practice, but to previous episodes in Scripture. Crossing the water, arriving in a wilderness, organising the people into companies, sharing bread, having more than enough, gathering what is left—all these remind us of the provision of manna in the desert under the leadership of Moses. There are also strong parallels with the prophetic actions of Elisha in 2 Kings 4.42–44, when a large group are fed with a few barley loaves. Both here and in the Last Supper we see Jesus, in Jewish context and using Jewish customs, anticipating the heavenly banquet in parallel with his teaching about the kingdom of heaven, feeding the people with both words and bread.

The synoptics all note the twelve baskets of leftovers that were collected (presumably one basket per disciple) as well as noting that ‘all were satisfied’. The Fourth Gospel accentuates this by the repetition, ‘as much as they wanted…they had eaten their fill…left by those who had eaten’. It is the provision of and by Jesus that truly satisfies the people.

The concern of Jesus, ‘that nothing may be lost’, could be understood in merely practical terms; the food can continue to sustain the crowd in the days that follow. But it also appears to have a symbolic significance, since Jesus later talks (in prayer) of not having lost any of the ones that the Father had given him (John 17.12, compare John 18.9).

The motifs related to Moses now come back with full force; the people recognise Jesus as the ‘prophet that was to come into the world’, echoing the promise of Moses in Deut 18.15. In addition, the Fourth Gospel makes explicit the themes of kingship that were implicit in the synoptic accounts, and particularly Matthew. Early in this gospel, Nathanael has declared ‘Rabbi, you are the son of God, you are the king of Israel!’ (John 1.49). At Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the crowds will proclaim ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’ (John 12.13, 12.15). At his trial, the exchange with Pilate will centre around Jesus’ identity as king (John 18.33, 37). And Pilate affixes the charge against Jesus that he is ‘Kings of the Jews’ (John 19.19–22).

But Jesus is clear that his kingdom is not ‘from’ this world (John 18.36, not, as in some translations ‘not of this world’). His kingdom is this-worldly enough—after all, he has just fed a crowd! But his authority does not derive either from the will of the people (the consensus omnium so important to Roman emperors), or from political power plays, so he refuses to be the kind of king that the people want.

The Fourth Gospel agrees with Matthew and Mark in including the miracle of Jesus walking on the water immediately following the feeding event, but the account here is briefer than either of the others, not least because Matthew includes the detail of Peter stepping out of the boat to meet Jesus on the water (and so it becomes a full lectionary reading). It is usually considered to be the fifth of the ‘seven signs’ in the first half of this gospel, but because of the brevity (and because the word ‘sign’ is omitted, as is often the case) some don’t include it in the list of seven, seeing six signs here with Jesus’ resurrection as the seventh.

Mark’s account brings out the OT allusions to God as the one who walks on the waters, particularly by including the phrase ‘he meant to pass them by’ (Mark 6.48) as an apparent allusion to Job 9.11. But in its position here in John 6, there are clear echoes of kings claiming divinity by walking on water.

Persian King Xerxes builds a bridge of boats across the Bosphorus so that he can imitate Poseidon in c 480 BC. Caligula imitates Xerxes by crossing the Bay of Naples. Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians is represented on his victory column by depicting his troops crossing the Danube on a flotilla of boats. (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia, p 118).

Jesus is not king because of the acclaim of the people, but because of the presence and authority of God that characterise his actions. The disciples react with fear at the sight of him, as they do in Matthew and Mark, but his response to them here does not offer the reassurance we read in the other accounts, but directly offers Jesus’ claim ‘It is I!’ This translates the Greek phrase elsewhere interpreted as ‘I am’, echoing the name of God revealed to Moses in Ex 3.14 and deployed in Is 43.25 to denote the uniqueness of the God of Israel.

Jesus is the true king, who provides for the needs of his people, both physical and spiritual. Nothing and no-one is lost from those who receive his grace. It is his presence—the presence of God himself—who quietens the storm and brings us to our final destination.

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38 thoughts on “The feeding of the 5000 in John 6”

  1. Hi Ian
    Was it Tom Wright who pointed out that this was a sign thus making the ressurection the 8th which is then appropriately the 1st day of a new era ?

    • Wright definitely put this forward as an idea (first in Jesus and the Victory of God (I think)*), but he was not the first to do so, and the idea is far from undisputed. I happen to like it as an explanation.


      *I did try and look for the reference but couldn’t find it. I know it’s an idea that occurs in some of his other more popular titles as well.

  2. The suggestion that Mark’s geography cannot easily be harmonised with Luke’s (citing France NIGTC) seems a little gratuitous. Mark’s gospel is informed by the testimony of Peter, who knew the area well, so is it really necessary to conclude that Mark 6:45 is irreconcilable with Luke? The question is amply discussed here.

    There may have been two Bethsaidas. Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter (Jn 1:44). To avoid confusion, John elsewhere adds ‘of Galilee’ (Jn 12:21). We know from e.g. Mark 1:21, 1:29 that Andrew and Peter lived in or very near to Capernaum. That implies that Bethsaida was very near Capernaum, on the other side of the lake from et-Tell or el-Araj, the possible locations of the Bethsaida where Luke locates the feeding of the 5000. It seems preferable, therefore, to understand Mark 6:45 as referring to the Bethsaida near Capernaum in the district of Galilee, and the Bethsaida of Luke 9:10 as located in the district of Gaulonitis.

    This means that Jesus asks his question of Philip without any implication that Philip lived on the east side of the lake, contrary to the evidence of Mark. I think I prefer a reading which does not involve Mark’s being misinformed twice, both at 1:29 and 6:45.

  3. The description of Jesus going ‘up on the mountain’ and sitting down with his disciples offers a powerful echo of Moses going up on Mt Sinai, just as it does at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5.1, and the mention of the Passover, the festival commemorating the Exodus, reinforces this.
    One can see the parallel in Matt 5:1 with the giving of the Law, but the feeding of the 5000 is not about the giving of the Law; if anything, the parallel is with the giving of manna in the wilderness, eremos, the word in Mark 6:35. There is no whisper of Ex 19, let alone a ‘powerful echo’. The original Passover took place in Raamses, where there was no mountain, not at Mt Sinai. Around the lake there is no ‘mountain’, indeed the area is below sea level! Since the Greek word oros does not distinguish between ‘mountain’ and ‘hill’ (translated ‘hill’ at Matt 5:14), ‘hill’ seems preferable.

    I’m also unable to see any allusions to kingship in the passage. There are clear echoes of kings claiming divinity by walking on water. ‘Clear echoes’? Building a bridge of boats across the Bosphorus is very far from walking on water, and we can safely say Jesus is not trying to imitate Poseidon. Caligula did not come to the throne until AD 37, and Trajan was not even born in AD 28. John 6:15 seems implicitly to reject the notion that Jesus, or the writer, was intending to invoke ideas of kingship.

  4. Can I just check: is the official Church of England position that multiple thousands of people were fed by Jesus using five loaves and two fishes?

    Or is the official position that ‘something’ happened, but it probably didn’t involve anything miraculous (eg, everybody really had food, but they didn’t see any harm in trying it on; but when the little boy brought up what he had to share, they all got ashamed and got out the food they’d brought with them, pretending it had been produced miraculously to hide their initial selfishness)?

    Just so I know. Because, you know, it seems a bit pointless to start trying to harmonise the finer point of geography if the general view is that the main event of the story is bunk.

      • Few bother to read deep into the detailed analytical threads (and who, deep down, can blame them?). I am interested in the views of those who just scan the top comments.

        • “Official Church of England position”? I guess it is that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Which does not mean that everything in scripture is necessary for salvation. Which means that individuals are free to try to discern the meaning of this sign.

          • “Official Church of England position”? I guess it is that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Which does not mean that everything in scripture is necessary for salvation. Which means that individuals are free to try to discern the meaning of this sign.

            Slightly off the point: the question I am asking is not what is the official Church of England position on scripture in general, nor on the meaning of signs, but just on the very specific question of whether the miracles recorded in the gospels actually happened and were miraculous.

            I mean I assumed that in general most mainstream Christians believed that Jesus did perform miracles. But conversations here have rather thrown that into question. So I thought I’d check.

          • Thank you Simon. Exactly so. And many CofE members will have read and been influenced by Kant, Bultmann and the whole school of demythologising.

          • And many CofE members will have read and been influenced by Kant, Bultmann and the whole school of demythologising.

            So would they (and presumably you) agree with Bultmann that ‘ We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament’?

    • The official church position is that the 5000 were fed by Jesus from five loaves and two fishes. It was a miracle. Anything else is basically sub-christian surely. In the end, if we are to believe that Christ rose from the dead then other miracles become small fry, surely – why strain at a gnat and swallow a camel? As John Updike wrote:

      Make no mistake: if He rose at all
      it was as His body;
      if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
      reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
      the Church will fall.

      It was not as the flowers,
      each soft Spring recurrent;
      it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
      eyes of the eleven apostles;
      it was as His flesh: ours.

      The same hinged thumbs and toes,
      the same valved heart
      that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then
      regathered out of enduring Might
      new strength to enclose.

      Let us not mock God with metaphor,
      analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
      making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
      faded credulity of earlier ages:
      let us walk through the door.

      The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
      not a stone in a story,
      but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
      grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
      the wide light of day.

      And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
      make it a real angel,
      weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
      opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
      spun on a definite loom.

      Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
      for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
      lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
      embarrassed by the miracle,
      and crushed by remonstrance.

  5. Whatever else it was, is, such as an 8th sign, it furthers, evidences, Mark 1:15, the kingdom of God, the good news of God, of the Messiah, Jesus Son of God, God the Son. It is all in furtherance of the “executive summary” of the book, which (like many executive summaries today) comes at the beginning of Mark 1.
    God is here, in person, as promised. This is what his kingdom, dominion, looks like. It is who he is and what his purposes are, even though it was then and is now hidden in plain sight, without revelation from God
    There are likely to be multiple allusions to the OT and its fulfilment, if we have eyes to see, ears to hear, are awake (that is, woke, yes I know, sorry) to it.
    There are indeed echoes of Jesus as the living word, but not written on tablets of stone; the living word that feeds not only spiritually, by (the bread of) his presence, but with material food.
    At that time, it was a wilderness time, a time in history of a famine of the word of God (Amos 8:11-13). This was being fulfilled now; here there was no famine from food, fed by Jesus, nor, now, from the word of God in the person of the living word, Jesus.

      • Intersectionality between the OT and New could be added to the biblical lexicon.
        Now that truly is peak progressiveness without subscribing to reductive revisionism.
        Or, it is to revert to expansive intersectionalism of scripture interpreting scripture.
        Who would have thought that the author of scripture knew what he was doing!

  6. Perhaps the feeding of the 5k is a bit like David blessing the crowd after bringing home the Ark. See 2 Samuel 6:17-19
    Jesus brought the presence of God home to the people and blesses them. Not such a strong parallel like the manna, or the Elisha incident, but in terms of human kindness – perfect.

  7. Indeed,
    There is there a giving of a burnt offering and sacrifice of peace for the return of the Ark of the presence of the Lord.
    And Jesus as the living Ark of the covenant of the presence of God, secured as a burnt and peace offering delivers
    his attendant blessing of feeding.
    Additionally, and in contrast,
    and in fulfilment by him, of the 10 words, as God and man, to turn to him and touch him is to be given life in all its (eternal) fulness, in his presence.
    (Whereas to disrespect and contemptuously, paganistically – unbelievingly, mishandle the Ark of his holy presence is to bring disaster.)

    • Interesting observation touching the Ark. Holiness makes well.
      Another fanciful thought . .. the boat Jesus came in; did it have blue sails and 4 oars? Alluding to the Ark ☺

  8. Some will follow Richard Horsley, some will like Richard Horsley’s approach with other approaches, some know him not, and some reject his approach. “Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs” (1985, 1999) looks at the world of Jesus and the various leaders of movements in his time. (Render to Caesar – C Bryant is a sympathetic but critical response to the underlying questions of Jesus and power.)
    John says of the crowd that they think he is the prophet and they want to make him King, and that Jesus withdraws. They think they have found a popular leader of the kind they want. John knows Jesus is the prophet and he will declare Jesus King albeit on the Cross where the title will be written for all to see. There is irony here and a challenge we should not duck.
    Many do not see John as political a gospel as – say – Mark, but maybe the political comment is more nuanced. The response of the crowd to this miracle is one of political hope. Whether they link the 12 baskets to the fulfilling of the 12 tribes of Israel who are scattered, or that is for the gospel readers to note, the crowd definitely feel a “messiah-moment” but 21st century readers may not.
    I’m not convinced that 12 baskets is because there were only 12 disciples each with one basket; the number of baskets are clearly important, almost more important in the writers’ eyes than the other parts of the story.
    If only we could interview John to know what he was thinking, not least about Eucharistic allusions and echos. He might have left us his study-guide!
    Again thank you for the forum, the thoughts and the hospitality so we may be sharpened by Scripture.

    • The 12 baskets in John derive from the 12 in Mark (John likes numbers). The 12 in Mark are (see start of chapter 8) part of a numerical puzzle which the reader is expected to address (because it points to Jesus as Messiah; cf. earlier in what would otherwise seem unrelated context ‘they did not understand about the loaves’ meaning they did not understand that the numbers and actions point to Jesus being Messiah). The 12 baskets gathered in (12 tribes) from 5000 people (5 is Jewish because of Books of Law) and the 7 baskets gathered in (7 is number of completeness, 70 means all nations – see list of 70 nations after Babel story) from 4000 people (4 is international because of 4 corners of the earth and the 4 winds mentioned in Mark 13) show a process of precisely 2 stages (Jew then Gentile) which is the fulfilment of Isa 49.6 (it is too small a thing to gather in the tribes; I have also made you a light to the nations) which is the central message of this first part of Isa 49. The four main sections of Mark, unequal in length, correspond in order to the four Isaianic servant songs, which are also unequal in length. In each case these length inequalities result in the pattern longish – shorter – shorter – longest. A counter-intuitive pattern dependent on the existing inequalities of length in the Isaiah. This is a good way (the most appropriate of all scriptures) for Mark to fashion his whole gospel and its structure to give the message that Jesus is, stage by stage, the Messiah. But then all gospels are doing the same with one specific underlying OT base pointing to one Jesuanic identity (together: four complementary identities in the four gospels). And that is the genre of the gospels, as I have argued for 21 years.

      • Sir, I could not sleep so came on-line. Thanks for this. the ref to nations = 70 is very interesting. I recently noted that Jaazaniah stood amongst the 70 elders in Ezekiel.
        Jesus in Revelation stands amongst the 7 lampstands who are the called out ones. 7 called out from the 70 nations?

      • Splendid, Christopher.
        Biblically woke and intersectionist, expressed succintly as only as someone swimming in scripture can.

  9. Anyone else see the parallels with Ps 23?

    Lying / sitting on green grass, led beside water, fed and provisioned,

    • Yes, and it is preceded in Mark by ‘they were like sheep without a shepherd’. This one I buy.
      Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies: the division into fifties and hundreds has seemed to some rather military (cf.: ‘centurions’). This one I don’t buy to this extent.

          • The division of people could as well be ordering into sheepfolds as into military divisions. Of course, poimaino / poimen the word for shepherd(ing) can be used for military purposes.I think the ordering into sheepfolds is a more economical way of looking at the passage than is the military idea, which seems to jar with the tone of the remainder.

  10. Agreed, Christopher.
    I don’t see Moses division of people for military purposes.
    And the idea of sheep pens, would seem to fit more with the I am sayings in John, where the temple courts and doors/gates, lay-out could be seen as in effect sheep pens, including the sheep of another pasture – in the court of Gentiles.
    It is where Jesus can point to himself as the door/gate and as shepherd.


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