Having now discussed the miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic Gospels (see last week’s study), 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…” (metá taúta).
- 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 below.
- 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; see Mk 6:32)
- Reference to Jesus’ healing the sick (v. 2) [see Matt 14:14; Luke 9:11]
- Jesus looks (up) and sees the “great crowd” [polýs óchlos] (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 [kophinos] 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) [see Matt 15:29]
- Jesus going up onto a mountain (v. 3) [see 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) [see 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” [anapíptœ] is used (v. 10) instead of “lay back/down” [anaklínœ / kataklínœ]; also, there is no mention of the crowd sitting down in groups of fifty, etc.
- Jesus “gives thanks” [eucharistéœ] (v. 11) as in Matt 15:36 and manuscripts of Mk 8:7, instead of “bless” [eulogéœ]
- Jesus specifically directs the disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12; see 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 (see 1:40-46).
- The boy with the loaves and fish (v. 9)
- The loaves specified as “barley” [krithinos] and the fish as “dried-fish” [opsarion, instead of ichthys / ichthydion]
- Jesus’ command to his disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12), along with the use of sunágœ (“bring together”) instead of aírœ (“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” (semeía) (v. 2, 14)
- The reference to Jesus going up the mountain, using the verb anérchomai (v. 3)
- The Passover connection (v. 4)
- The people coming to(ward) Jesus, with the verb érchomai (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.
The Walking on Water (Mk 6:45-52; Matt 14:22-33; Jn 6:16-21)
The episode of Jesus walking on the water follows directly after the Feeding miracle, both in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark/Matthew) and in John. Being thus preserved in two separate lines of tradition, it would seem that the Feeding miracle and the Walking on Water were connected at a very early point. Mark and Matthew follow the same basic narrative, the main difference being the Matthean addition in vv. 28-31 (involving Peter’s walking on the water out to Jesus). Mark certainly has the earlier form of the tradition, confirmed by the parallel in John. The common elements of the tradition are:
- Jesus goes up the mountain (to be) alone—Mk 6:46 / Jn 6:15b; however, there are two (very) different explanations for Jesus’ departure:
—Synoptic: Mk 6:45-46a
- The disciples go out by boat across the lake, though with a different geographical location indicated:
—to Bethsaida (Mk 6:45)
—to Capernaum (Jn 6:16-17)
- At evening, the boat is in the middle of the lake—the wind is rough and the disciples are (having difficulty) rowing—Mk 6:47-48a / Jn 6:16-19a
- The separation between Jesus and the disciples is indicated
- After a time/distance, they see Jesus coming to them, walking on the water—Mk 6:48b-49a / Jn 6:19a
- The disciples are frightened by the sight of him—Mk 6:49b-50 / Jn 6:19b
- Jesus tells them not to be afraid (Greek: egœ¡ eimi m¢ phobeísthe)—Mk 6:50b / Jn 6:20
- Jesus comes into the boat and a miracle occurs—Mk 6:51 / Jn 6:21
- Jesus goes up the mountain (to be) alone—Mk 6:46 / Jn 6:15b; however, there are two (very) different explanations for Jesus’ departure:
Mark’s ending probably reflects the original tradition. John’s account has been adapted to fit the verses following (22-23ff) which join the Bread of Life discourse to this episode. Mk 6:52 is an addition, most likely by the author, which points back to the feeding miracle.
The inclusion of the Walking-on-the-Water episode in John causes some difficulty for the author, in terms of joining the Bread of Life discourse to the Feeding miracle. The awkwardness of verses 22-23 is largely the result of his inclusion of the Walking-on-Water episode (vv. 16-21). He clearly felt compelled to include it, which indicates again the strength of the (early) Gospel tradition. Even so, there are several (subtle) details which demonstrate Johannine adaptation of this traditional episode:
- When the disciples are out on the water, John specifically states that there was darkness [skotía] (v. 17). There is definite theological significance to this word in the Gospel of John, where darkness is contrasted with Christ as the light (1:5; 8:12; 12:35, 46; cf. also 20:1, and note 1 Jn 1:5; 2:8-11). The reason for the darkness is clearly stated: “Jesus had not yet come toward them”.
- In the Synoptic version, the storm/wind is decidedly negative—it is something against which the disciples struggle (Mk 6:48), and which Jesus’ presence immediately calms (v. 51). These details are absent from John’s version; there the storm/wind seems to function as a kind of theophany, marking the presence and appearance of Jesus, prior to his coming near the boat (vv. 18-19).
- The presence of Jesus is signified by his words to the disciples—egœ eimi m¢ fobeísthe (“It is I! do not be afraid!”). The words are identical in the Synoptics and John, being part of the original tradition. However, in John, they take on deeper significance. The expression egœ eimi could also be rendered “I am (he)”, “I am (Jesus)”, or, literally, “I am”. As such, the expression appears numerous times in John, in the famous “I Am” sayings of Jesus, which begin with the Bread of Life discourse (v. 35). This is the second occurrence of egœ eimi, spoken by Jesus, in the Gospel (cf. 4:26, and compare 1:20-21; 3:28).
The Eucharistic Allusions
“And taking [labœ¡n] the five bread-loaves and the two fish (and) looking up into the heaven, he gave good account to [i.e. blessed eulóg¢sen] (God) and broke down [katéklasen] the bread-loaves and gave [edídou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside them [i.e. the people], and the fish he divided (among) them all”
Matthew’s account (Matt 14:13-21, v. 19) is simpler, but shows only minor differences, most notably perhaps the use of kláœ (“break”) instead of the compound verb katakláœ (“break down”). Luke’s version (Lk 9:10-17) of this verse (v. 16) is almost identical with Mark.
On the surface, there might not seem to be much relation to the Eucharist here; after all, there is no mention of a cup, nothing to suggest symbolism of Jesus’ body (or blood), plus the mention of fish—is there actually a connection to the Lord’s supper? The answer is yes, and there are several reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.
1. The Greek verbs used
Look at the Greek verbs indicated in square brackets in Mk 6:41 above, and you will see that, with just one slight variation, they are the same verbs (and in the same sequence) used to describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22 par):
“And in their eating, taking [labœ¡n] bread (and) giving good account [eulog¢¡sas] (to God), he broke [éklasen] (it) and gave [édœken] (it) to them and said, ‘Take (it)—this is my body'”
The only difference is that there, instead of the verb katakláœ (“break down”), the simple verb kláœ (“break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in an earlier note, the same sequence of four verbs also is used in the Emmaus scene, when the disciples finally recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst:
Lk 24:30: “And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labœ¡n] the bread he gave good account [i.e. blessed eulóg¢sen] and, breaking [klásas] (it), he gave [epedídou] (it) to them…”
2. Textual evidence from the Feeding of the Four Thousand
“And taking [labœ¡n] the seven bread-loaves (and) giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks eucharist¢¡sas] (over it), he broke [eklásen] (them) and gave [edídou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside (the people)…”
The parallel version in Matthew (Matt 15:32-39, v. 36) differs little. Interestingly, in Mark 8:7, in Jesus’ handling of the fish, there is a textual variant—some manuscripts read eucharistéœ, others read eulogéœ. The verb eucharistéœ (“give/grant good favor, give thanks, be thankful/grateful”) also appears in Jesus’ acts of institution as recorded by Luke (Lk 22:17, 19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24); it is also used in John’s account of miraculous feeding (Jn 6:11).
3. The Context in the Gospel of John
If we compare the wording in Jn 6:11—
“Therefore Yeshua took [élaben] the bread-loaves and giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks, eucharist¢¡sas] (over it), he gave throughout [diédœken] to the ones (having) lain back [i.e. lain/sat down]…
it is noteworthy that we do not find nearly so close a parallel to Jesus actions at the Last Supper. Noticeably missing is any mention of breaking the bread (though “broken pieces” [klásmata] are mentioned in v. 12). This may well be an indication that John has inherited an early form of the tradition which was not yet shaped to fit the eucharistic imagery to the same extent (as we see it preserved in the Synoptics). However, the Johannine form of the narrative would have a considerable influence on Eucharistic formulae and imagery in the early Church, as we shall see below.
The miraculous feeding episode in John serves as the basic setting for the great “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in Jn 6:22-59, a discourse in which most commentators find at least some reference to the Eucharist (especially in vv. 53-58). This will be discussed in our next study (see below).
4. Early Christian tradition
Here I will limit discussion to several points and one or two references which show that early Christians understood a definite Eucharistic aspect or element to the miraculous feeding episode.
- The Johannine context. As mentioned above, the miraculous feeding is followed by the Bread of Life discourse, which has certain eucharistic elements. While the extent to which the eucharistic aspect applies to the meaning and intent of Jesus’ original words may be debated, there can be no doubt that Christians early on made the association. The Gospel of John is best dated somewhere between 70-90, and may include a late (c. 90-95) redaction.
- As discussed in an earlier note, the “breaking (of) bread” appears to have served as a kind of shorthand reference to the Eucharist. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where the breaking of bread is mentioned, there appears to be some connection to the Lord’s Supper. By way of “catch-word (or catch-image) bonding”, any occurrence of breaking bread in the narrative would likely have been associated with the Eucharist from a very early time on.
- The use of the verb eucharistéœ in John’s account (as in the Synoptic feeding of the four thousand) may have helped to increase the use of the verb in association with the Eucharist (a word which, of course, derives from a transliteration of the related noun eucharistía).
- There are a number of parallels between John’s account of the miraculous feeding and references to the Eucharist in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” [of the Twelve Apostles]).
- The Bread is simply called kla/sma (plur. kla/smata), “broken (piece[s])” in Didache 9:3-4 as in the feeding miracle (cf. Jn 6:12)
- Note especially the prayer in Did 9:4:
“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”
With the following details:
- The bread scattered on the mountains (the mountain setting in Jn 6:3 [cf. also Matt 15:29]).
- The verb translated “brought together” (sunágœ) is the same used in Jn 6:12-13 for the gathering up of the fragments (klásmata). The same verb is also used in a Eucharistic setting in Did 14:1. The image of the (twelve) disciples gathering up the twelve baskets of fragments “so that nothing might be lost” [Jn 6:12b] was a suitable symbol of Church Unity, as the Didache clearly indicates.
- The mention of the Kingdom (of God/Christ); perhaps coincidentally, John’s account is the only one which makes any reference to a king (v. 14f).
- Note the three relevant details in succession in Didache 14:1:
“having been brought together [synachthéntes], break bread [klásate árton] and give good favor [eucharist¢¡sate—i.e. technically ‘celebrate the thanksgiving/eucharist‘]
Despite the name ascribed to the writing, the Didache is almost certainly not a product of the Apostles. It is typically dated sometime between 125-150 A.D., but may possibly preserve earlier tradition. It is a “church manual” of sorts, and provides at least a partial glimpse of what early Christianity may have been like in the first half of the second century (a generation or two after the later writings of the New Testament).
All of this well documents the distinctive way that the Gospel of John has adapted and incorporated the Gospel tradition of the Miraculous Feeding episode. However, in order to understand its place truly with the context of the Johannine Gospel, it is necessary to turn our attention to the great “Bread of Life” Discourse that follows in verses 22-59. This we will do in next week’s study. It will help us to glimpse more clearly, I think, the importance of careful critical study when it comes to examining the rich and complex textures of the Gospel Tradition.