Having now discussed the miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic Gospels (cf. the previous two notes), it is time to examine the tradition as it appears in the Gospel of John. The corresponding passage in the fourth Gospel is found in Jn 6:1-15. The narrative setting of this episode in John is, of course, quite different:
- Jesus has previously been in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1ff), and is now in Galilee (6:1); this abrupt shift would seem to indicate that we are dealing with the inclusion of traditional material, and no real attempt has been made by the author to smooth over the seam. Note the generic opening words, “After these things…” (meta\ tau=ta).
- The occasion of Passover is mentioned (v. 4), which is almost certainly an insertion by the author to connect the miracle explicitly with the setting of the “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in 6:22-59.
- Consider how the author includes the episode of Jesus’ walking on the water (6:16-20) right after the miraculous feeding, just as in the Synoptic tradition (Mark/Matthew), even though it doesn’t seem entirely to fit the narrative context in John (note the rather awkward transitional description in vv. 22-23). I take this as an indication that the two episodes were already coupled together at a very early point in the Gospel tradition. The connection with the walking-on-water episode will be discussed further in the next note.
- There is, certainly, nothing at all like the Bread of Life discourse following the feeding miracle in the Synoptic Gospels—it appears to be a tradition unique to John.
As I mentioned previously, the account of the Miraculous Feeding in John is interesting in that it appears to contain details or elements from both miracle episodes in the Synoptics. Special details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic feeding of the 5000:
- Crossing the Sea of Galilee (by boat) (v. 1; cf. Mk 6:32)
- Reference to Jesus’ healing the sick (v. 2) [cf. Matt 14:14; Luke 9:11]
- Jesus looks (up) and sees the “great crowd” [polu\$ o&xlo$] (v. 5; Mk 6:34)
- Specific mention by the disciples of the cost of (at least) 200 denarii to feed so many people (v. 7; Mk 6:37)
- The number of loaves (5) (v. 9)
- The specific (round) number of men in the crowd (5000) (v. 10)
- The mention of grass (v. 10; Mark 6:39, par Matt)
- There are twelve baskets [kofino$] of fragments left over (v. 13)
Details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic (Matthew-Mark) feeding of the 4000:
- The specific location along/across the Sea of Galilee (v. 1) [cf. Matt 15:29]
- Jesus going up onto a mountain (v. 3) [cf. in Matt 15:29, but note also the mountain theme in Mk 6:46 par. Matt).
- Jesus takes the initiative regarding the crowd (v. 5) [cf. Mark 8:2-3 par]—however this is more of an original/distinctive element of John’s narrative.
- Jesus’ question (v. 5b) is quite similar to the question by the disciples in Matt 15:33 (par Mk 8:4). The author’s comment in verse 6 suggests that he was uncomfortable with such a question coming from Jesus.
- The verb “sit/fall back” [a)napi/ptw] is used (v. 10) instead of “lay back/down” [a)nakli/nw/katakli/nw]; also, there is no mention of the crowd sitting down in groups of fifty, etc.
- Jesus “gives thanks” [eu)xariste/w] (v. 11) as in Matt 15:36 and MSS of Mk 8:7, instead of “bless” [eu)loge/w]
- Jesus specifically directs the disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12; cf. Mk 8:6, 8, but also note Matt 14:20)
The number of details in common with the feeding of the 4000 is striking—another indication, perhaps, that the two narrative episodes (of the 5000 & 4000) stem from a single historical tradition. It is also worth pointing out some details which are unique to John’s account:
- The Passover setting (v. 4), though the mention of “green grass” (Mk 6:39) might generally indicate springtime.
- Jesus’ specific question about buying food for the crowd (v. 5), described as intended to test the disciples (Philip) (v. 6)
- The mention of specific disciples Philip (v. 5-7) and Andrew (v. 8), which may indicate a distinct Johannine tradition (cf. 1:40-46).
- The boy with the loaves and fish (v. 9)
- The loaves specified as “barley” [kriqino$] and the fish as “dried-fish” [o)yarion, instead of i)xqu$/i)xqudion]
- Jesus’ command to his disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12), along with the use of suna/gw (“bring together”) instead of ai&rw (“lift [up/away]”)
- The reaction of the people to the miracle in vv. 14-15.
The significant number of details unique to John would seem to be incontrovertible evidence that John has not derived his account from any of the Synoptics, but has inherited an early Gospel tradition, some version of which is shared by the Synoptics as well. For a convenient chart comparing all of the miraculous feeding narratives in detail, see R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible vol. 29: 1966), pp. 240-243.
Several of the details have a theological significance in the context of John’s Gospel. These include:
- Reference to Jesus’ miracles as “signs” (semei=a) (v. 2, 14)
- The reference to Jesus going up the mountain, using the verb a)ne/rxomai (v. 3)
- The Passover connection (v. 4)
- The people coming to(ward) Jesus, with the verb e&rxomai (v. 5)
- The eucharistic allusions (v. 11), which are scarcely unique to John’s account, but which have special importance in connection with the Bread of Life discourse that follows.
- The salvific context of Jesus’ words to his disciples in v. 12
- Jesus’ identity in relation to popular Messianic conceptions—i.e. as Prophet (v. 14) and Davidic ruler (King, v. 15)
Some of these are especially important in terms of the discourse which follows in vv. 22-58. But before proceeding to that discussion, it is necessary first to address two topics related to the Miraculous Feeding tradition: (1) its connection with the walking-on-water episode, and (2) the eucharistic emphasis. These will be covered in the next note.