By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Let’s begin with a quiz question. How many people did Jesus feed with the bread and fishes in the famous miracle recounted in the New Testament?
a) 5,000 people
b) 4,000 men
c) more than 5,000 people
The answer is, depending on which part of the New Testament you consult, either b) or c), but not a). Why ‘5,000 people’ cannot be an acceptable answer is, at least in part, the subject of the following analysis. We’ll also explore what all of this has to do with a little-known place named Bethsaida.
In everyday speech we refer to ‘Jesus and the feeding of the five thousand’, so let’s take a closer look at what the Bible actually says.
First, some background to this famous story. Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been killed, and feared that Herod Antipas, who had had John killed, would be after him next. So he took a ship into a ‘desert place’ (i.e., a deserted place) near the city of Bethsaida, on the Sea of Galilee.
Herod Antipas was ruler of Galilee and Perea, and bore the title of tetrarch (literally, ‘ruler of a quarter’). He is often referred to by the gospel writers as both ‘Herod the Tetrarch’ and ‘King Herod’, although he actually never held the title of ‘king’. The more famous ‘King Herod’ was Herod the Great, the one who put the newborn babies of Bethlehem to death (the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’); this Herod was the son of Herod the Great.
Luke 9:10-11 tells us:
And the apostles, when they were returned, told him all that they had done. And he took them, and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida.
And the people, when they knew it, followed him: and he received them, and spake unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing.
Bethsaida literally means ‘house of the fishers’ (the ‘Beth’ of ‘Bethlehem’ means the same thing: Bethlehem literally means ‘house of meat’ or ‘house of bread’, depending on how it’s translated; it’s the same root, ultimately, as the Greek letter beta, from which we get alphabet). Fish, of course, will be significant for this story, so it is worth bearing in mind the name of Bethsaida and its (fishy) origins.
In his fascinating Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament, the novelist and all-round polymath Isaac Asimov points out that Jesus’ choice of location has another significance: Bethsaida was in Iturea rather than Galilee, and so was outside of the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas.
However, although Herod couldn’t reach Jesus in this new fishy place, Jesus’ own followers could. And Matthew (14:13-14) in particular tells of how Jesus’ disciplines and many thousands of others flocked to be around Jesus, as word spread of his teachings:
When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.
And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.
But Jesus was about to prove his divinity to the crowds. He had compassion for the people who followed him and healed the sick and infirm among them. But as evening approached, Jesus’ leading disciples told him that they were in a remote place and that Jesus should send the crowds away, so they could go to the nearby villages and buy food:
And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.
But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.
But Jesus said they didn’t need to go away, because he and the disciples could feed everyone themselves. But they said they had only five loaves of bread and two fish. (This miracle is also known as ‘the miracle of the five loaves and two fish’ for this reason.) Matthew (14:17-18) tells us:
And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.
He said, Bring them hither to me.
Jesus asked the bread and fish to be brought to him, before telling the crowds of gathered people to sit down upon the grass:
And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.
And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.
And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
Jesus took the five loaves and two fish and looked up to heaven, blessing them, before breaking the food. Then he gave the food to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the crowds of people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve baskets full of leftovers.
Note the wording here: the feeding of the five thousand was specifically feeding of five thousand men – or ‘about’ that number. Luke 9:14 states:
For they were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, Make them sit down by fifties in a company.
Luke, in other words, only estimates the actual number as being ‘about five thousand’. About five thousand men. This number didn’t include the women and children present, so in fact those five loaves and two fish went even further than feeding five thousand hungry mouths.
The ‘feeding of the five thousand’ is the only miracle performed by Jesus which is recorded in all four gospels: Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:1-14. And although there are minor differences in the telling from gospel to gospel, they are all broadly similar on the detail.
In John’s Gospel, word has already spread among the people that Jesus is a prophet with healing powers. John the Baptist has been executed, but there is a sense that the prophecy will be fulfilled and that a descendant of David (of ‘the stem of Jesse’) will arise, who will be the Messiah or anointed one.
And sure enough, John (6:14) tells us: ‘Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.’
In other words, the feeding of the (approximately) five thousand (men) happens at just the right point to confirm Jesus’ divine powers, and the fact that a crowd of thousands witnesses it first-hand lends credence to the idea that he is the Messiah. We might compare this miracle with the earlier miracle of turning the water into wine.
That miracle features only in the gospel of John, in John 2:1-11. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples attend a wedding in the village of Cana. When the wine runs out at the feast, Jesus turns water into wine, thus demonstrating his divinity to his disciples.
Both miracles involve Jesus providing sustenance for a group of people and using his miraculous powers to do so. But the earlier act at Cana is, we should note, performed only with the utmost reluctance, and the true origins of the wine are kept secret from the majority of guests at the wedding.
Jesus’ disciples know the truth, as do the servants, but it is clearly stated by John that the groom publicly gets the credit for the wine, and the governor or steward in charge of the feast doesn’t suspect that Jesus is behind it. This is in contrast to the very public display of miraculous works which we find in the feeding of the five thousand with the loaves and the fishes.
Of course, the story is also symbolic on another level, in that it enacts Jesus’ teachings about the importance of feeding and caring for the poor. Rather than sending the crowd off to disperse and fend for themselves, he takes on the job of feeding them all himself, demonstrating not only his own divinity but God’s power through making the five loaves and two fish feed everyone – with plenty of spare food left afterwards.
However, this isn’t the only time that Jesus performed such a feat. For there is another similar miracle, the ‘feeding of the four thousand’, which is performed with seven loaves of bread and a ‘few’ fish.
This one appears only in Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-9, which is perhaps why it’s less well-known. And, well, feeding four thousand people is nowhere near as impressive as five thousand, right? This miracle also mentions four thousand men, with women and children not included in the total.