Having discussed John’s version the Miraculous Feeding episode in the previous note, before proceeding to the Bread of Life discourse, it is necessary to examine briefly two aspects of the Feeding Miracle tradition:
- Its connection to the Walking on Water episode, and
- The eucharistic allusions in the tradition
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: e)gw\ ei)mi mh fobei=sqe)—Mk 6:50b / Jn 6:20
- Jesus comes into the boat and a miracle occurs—Mk 6:51 / Jn 6:21
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 [skoti/a] (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—e)gw ei)mi mh fobei=sqe (“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 e)gw ei)mi 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 e)gw ei)mi, spoken by Jesus, in the Gospel (cf. 4:26, and compare 1:20-21; 3:28).
The Eucharistic Allusions
“And taking [labw\n] the five bread-loaves and the two fish (and) looking up into the heaven, he gave good account to [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] (God) and broke down [kate/klasen] the bread-loaves and gave [e)di/dou] (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 kla/w (“break”) instead of the compound verb katakla/w (“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 [labw\n] bread (and) giving good account [eu)logh/sa$] (to God), he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, ‘Take (it)—this is my body'”
The only difference is that there, instead of the verb katakla/w (katakláœ “break down”), the simple verb kla/w (kláœ “break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in an earlier note, the same sequence of four verbs also is used in the Emmaus scene, when the disciples finally recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst:
Lk 24:30: “And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he gave good account [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…”
2. Textual evidence from the Feeding of the Four Thousand
“And taking [labw\n] the seven bread-loaves (and) giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he broke [e)kla/sen] (them) and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside (the people)…”
The parallel version in Matthew (Matt 15:32-39, v. 36) differs little. Interestingly, in Mark 8:7, in Jesus’ handling of the fish, there is a textual variant—some manuscripts read eu)xariste/w, others read eu)loge/w. The verb eu)xariste/w (eucharistéœ, “give/grant good favor, give thanks, be thankful/grateful”) also appears in Jesus’ acts of institution as recorded by Luke (Lk 22:17, 19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24); it is also used in John’s account of miraculous feeding (Jn 6:11).
3. The Context in the Gospel of John
If we compare the wording in Jn 6:11—
“Therefore Yeshua took [e&laben] the bread-loaves and giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks, eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he gave throughout [die/dwken] 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” [kla/smata] 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 the next note.
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 eu)xariste/w 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 eu)xaristi/a [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” (suna/gw) is the same used in Jn 6:12-13 for the gathering up of the fragments (kla/smata). 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 [sunaxqe/nte$], break bread [kla/sate a&rton] and give good favor [eu)xaristh/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).