In the previous day’s note I introduced some of the critical issues (source- and historical-critical) surrounding the miraculous feeding of the multitude (5000 & 4000) narratives in the Gospels. To demonstrate several points more clearly, today I will present a modest comparative study of the passages. To begin with, it is worth noting just how close are the three Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand. The passages to compare are: Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17. The introductory/transition portion of the narrative (Mk 6:30-34; Matt 14:13-14; Lk 9:10-11) shows much greater variance:
- Occasion/setting: the return of the Twelve from their mission (Mark/Luke) vs. Jesus hearing about the fate of John (Matthew)
- The extended narrative in Mark (vv. 31-34) including additional dialogue and a longer mention of Jesus’ compassion for the crowd
- Matthew and Luke do not have the narrative portion of Mark 6:31-34, presenting a simpler narrative setting—Matthew/Luke agree (against Mark) in mentioning Jesus’ healing the sick in the crowd
There are other minor differences as well, such as Luke specifying the location as Bethsaida (Lk 9:10) and the mention of Jesus speaking about the kingdom of God (v. 11). The common elements are: (a) Jesus withdrawing (to a secluded place) with his disciples, (b) the crowd following him, (c) an expression of Jesus’ care/compassion for the crowd. Here is a comparison of the core narrative which follows (using the NASU translation), with significant differences (additions, modification or reordering of material) italicized (note also the simpler descriptions in Matthew/Luke compared with Mark):
35 When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and it is already quite late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But He answered them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?” 38 And He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food and broke the loaves and He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and they picked up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces, and also of the fish. 44 There were five thousand men who ate the loaves.
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and the hour is already late; so send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!” 17 They said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” 18 And He said, “Bring them here to Me.” 19 Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds, 20 and they all ate and were satisfied. They picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. 21 There were about five thousand men who ate, besides women and children.
12 Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” 13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.” 14 (For there were about five thousand men.) And He said to His disciples, “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so, and had them all sit down. 16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.
Let us now turn to the two accounts of the miraculous feeding of the Four thousand, in Mark 8:1-9 and Matthew 15:32-39. Luke does not record this separate feeding episode, which may not be all that significant since here in the narrative he has nothing corresponding to the entire section of Mark 6:45-8:26. As in the case of the feeding of the Five thousand, Matthew’s version is simpler than Mark’s, but, apart from slight differences in wording and arrangement, is otherwise extremely close. In many ways, the feeding of the 4000 gives the impression (according to the critical view) of being closer to the earliest historical tradition of the feeding miracle—it is a more streamlined narrative, with fewer signs of editing. The historical critical question, of course, is very much in dispute (for traditional-conservative commentators at least); but consider just how close the two narrative episodes actually are—in each we have:
- A large crowd has followed Jesus, and is now in a deserted/distant place with no opportunity to obtain food
- Jesus has compassion on the crowd
- Mention of sending the crowd away
- Question of the disciples about trying to feed such a large number of people
- Jesus asks what food they have—just a small number of bread loaves and fish
- Jesus instructs the crowd to sit down
- Jesus blesses/gives-thanks and gives the food to the disciples to distribute to the crowd
- All in the crowd eat and are satisfied
- Baskets full of fragments remain and are gathered up
- The (round) number of men in the crowd is stated (5000/4000)
There are, of course, notable differences—both substantive and in detail—but the similarities are striking; it is a fairly strong argument in favor of the critical view that we are dealing with two versions of the same underlying historical tradition. That two separate events would have occurred—and been narrated—in such a similar fashion seems rather unlikely. As critical commentators are fond of mentioning, there is also the historical implausibility of the disciples, having recently witnessed the first dramatic feeding miracle, having the same doubts again about being able to feed such a large crowd (but cf. the notice in Mark 6:52). The main differences between the two narrative episodes can be summarized:
Feeding the 5000
Feeding the 4000
To a large extent, these differences are variations in vocabulary and specific detail, of the sort that might naturally occur during the development and transmission of ancient tradition. If the critical view holds, then, at some point early on, two versions of the story (with differing details and vocabulary) crystalized, developing to become distinct enough to be preserved as separate narratives in the Synoptic tradition. In fairness I think it can be said that, without the need to safeguard a particular view of the inspiration (and/or inerrancy) of Scripture—that is, if such a narrative ‘doublet’ occurred in any other ancient writing—there would be little question that a single historical tradition underlay both narratives. However, there is at least one strong argument (on objective grounds) in favor of the traditional-conservative view, and this will be discussed in the next day’s note—along with a comparison of the miraculous feeding narratives in John and the Synoptics.