The Feeding of the Four Thousand

July 7, 2014 | 10 comments

In the Gospels, the most famous miracle associated with Jesus—other than the Resurrection—is the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It’s recorded in all four Gospels.

But Matthew and Mark record an additional, similar miracle, known as the Feeding of the Four Thousand. The numbers connected with this miracle are a little different (four thousand people are fed, they use seven loaves and “a few small fish,” and they pick up seven baskets of leftovers), but it’s the same basic type of miracle.

That may be why Luke and John chose not to record it: Given the space limitations on ancient books, which needed to fit comfortably within a scroll, they may have concluded that they would only record one miracle of this type, and they picked the more impressive one.

But even if a miraculous multiplication of food has been done before, and on a somewhat larger scale, it’s still impressive! That may be why Matthew and Mark chose to record it.

There may also be another reason, but it requires a little detective work.

 

Jesus’ Travels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke record most of Jesus’ ministry as taking place in Galilee, which is an area north of Judea. In these three Gospels, Jesus is in Judea at the very beginning of his ministry, when he is baptized by John, and again at the end of his ministry, when he is crucified in Jerusalem. Between those points, however, he spends most of his time in Galilee.

But not all of it.

He also makes excursions into Gentile territory, such as when he exorcizes the Gerasene/Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). That’s why there was a herd of two thousand pigs in that story—because the Gerasenes were Gentiles and ate pork.

It’s interesting that, at the end of the story, Jesus tells the formerly possessed man to spread the word about what God had done for him. This is the opposite of what Jesus frequently did in Galilee, where he often told people to keep what he did for them quiet.

The apparent reason for this was to try to keep from being mobbed or unwillingly declared king as people came to regard him as a political Messiah (John 6:15).

But since he spent most of his time in Galilee, there was less danger of that, and having the demoniac reveal what Jesus had done for him wouldn’t interfere with his ministry. Indeed, it would help Gentiles learn about the God of Israel!

If you read carefully, though, you see that—as Jesus continues to make excursions into Gentile territory—his reputation starts growing among them.

That brings us to the two feeding miracles.

 

Feeding the Five Thousand

Matthew and Mark say that this miracle occurred in “a lonely place” by the Sea of Galilee, but they don’t say where (Matt. 14:13, Mark 6:32). John is also vague about where it happened (John 6:1), but Luke tells us that it took place near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10).

Bethsaida was the original home of Peter and Andrew (John 1:44). It was a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. In fact, the name Beth-Tsaida means “House of Fishing.”

It was, in any event, in Jewish territory, and so the Feeding of the Five Thousand involved a predominantly Jewish audience.

What about the other feeding miracle?

 

"Just Who Is Really Unclean, Here?"

In Mark 7, Jesus is criticized by some scribes and Pharisees because his disciples eat without washing their hands, according to Jewish custom. Jesus defends the disciples by saying that it is what comes out of a man’s heart, not what goes into his mouth, that makes him unclean (7:1-23).

Mark then adds an editorial comment to flesh out the implications of this: “Thus he declared all foods clean” (7:19). This was an important thing, since there was a question in the early Church about whether Gentiles had to keep the Jewish food laws (Rom. 14, Gal. 2:11-14, Col. 2:16).

This sets us up for a series of stories involving Gentiles.

First, Mark records Jesus going on an excursion to Tyre and Sidon, which are in modern-day Lebanon, to the north of Galilee. There he encounters the Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile—and exorcizes her daughter (7:24-30).

Mark then states: “Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis” (7:31).

The Decapolis was a group of ten cities that lay primarily on the east side of the Jordan River, in what is now the country of Jordan.

At the time, they were Greco-Roman cities, so they were Gentile rather than Jewish. In fact, Gerasa and Gadara were two of the ten cities, and so Jesus is going back into the same territory where he exorcized the demoniac.

But his reputation as a miracle-worker has grown, perhaps as a result of that man’s spreading the word, and he is brought a deaf mute, who he also heals (7:32-37).

Then something really interesting happens.

 

Feeding the Four Thousand

Mark reports:

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; and if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come a long way” [Mark 7:1-3].

So the Feeding of the Four Thousand, which occurs in this same sequence of stories involving Gentiles, after Jesus has journeyed into the Decapolis, appears to involve a Gentile audience.

In other words: It’s the Gentile sequel to the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

Jesus may have encountered trouble at home—such as the conflict with the Pharisees over hand washing—but his reputation in the Decapolis has grown to the point that he can now attract an audience of four thousand Gentiles and hold them for three days until they run out of food, leading to the second feeding miracle.

Matthew’s account is similar. In his version there is the conflict with the Pharisees about hand washing (Matt. 15:1-20), then Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon and exorcizes the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Matthew specifically notes that the woman is “a Canaanite,” Matt 15:22). Afterward, as in Mark, Jesus journeys back and “passed along the Sea of Galilee” (Matt. 15:29), which is what you’d likely do to get to the Decapolis.

Matthew doesn’t make it explicit that Jesus was in the Decapolis when he performed the next set of miracles, which included healing “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others” (Matt. 15:30), but he does say that, “the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel” (Matt. 15:31).

This would be a strange thing to say if the audience were Jewish. Jews already glorified the God of Israel. They did it all the time. They worshipped him daily.

What would be more remarkable—worthy of Matthew making a remark on it—is for Gentiles to glorify the God of Israel.

We’ve already seen from Mark’s account that the Feeding of the Four Thousand likely involved a predominantly Gentile audience, and the crowd that glorifies the God of Israel in Matthew turns out to be the same crowd of four thousand that he immediately proceeds to feed (Matt. 15:32-38).

It thus looks like both Matthew and Mark subtly portray the Feeding of the Four Thousand as the Gentile sequel to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, foreshadowing the including of Jews and Gentiles within his Church.


Jimmy Akin was born in Texas and grew up nominally Protestant. At age 20 he experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, Jimmy started an intensive study of the Bible, but the more he immersed himself in Scripture, the more he found it to...

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Shane Kapler - Florissant, Missouri

Jimmy, an excellent bit of detective work. Another confirmation of your findings: After the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Mark makes a point of telling us that twelve baskets of scraps were collected (12 of course being a symbolic number for Jews); and after the Feeding of the Four Thousand, seven baskets (symbolic of universality).

July 7, 2014 at 3:25 pm PST
#2  Ric Vesely - Longmont, Colorado

Thanks, Jimmy. I was taught that the "leftovers" were also a key clue. When Jesus feeds the five thousand, 12 baskets were left over ("12" signifying the twelve tribes of Israel). When he feeds the four thousand, 7 baskets were left over (apparently the number "7" was associated with the Gentiles - this is where my memory fails me). As you know, Jesus underlines that there is significance to the amount of leftovers in Mark 8:17-21. My instructor told me that the significance was that not only did Jesus feed 9 thousand in total, but there is enough "left over" for all of Israel and the Gentiles through the Eucharist. Can you comment on this?

July 7, 2014 at 3:32 pm PST
#3  Ric Vesely - Longmont, Colorado

Great minds think alike, Shane :)

July 7, 2014 at 3:32 pm PST
#4  Bill Burns - Boise, Idaho

The number 7 also corresponds to the number of those who were ordained to serve the gentiles in Acts (at least, that is how at least one of my instructors has explained it).

A question I have, then, is why Luke left this out of his account. He had access to Mark for certain and very likely to the early sources for Matthew (if the Sermon on the Mount represents a prior source from which both the canonical Matthew and Luke drew). There's plenty of evidence in Luke that he wrote to convince a gentile audience that this Jewish man was the Christ and God (that is, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy but also the Logos). Why would he not include a story that took place in their own region? I understand that the numerological symbolism may not have been as relevant, but it does seem that that vicinity would be.

Puzzles me, but you might have an inkling, Jimmy.

July 7, 2014 at 8:13 pm PST
#5  Jimmy Akin - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Bill Burns: I think that space is the likely reason. Ancient authors had to be much more conscious than we do of how much space they were consuming. Paper (papyrus or parchment) was much more expensive, and scrolls were difficult to work with once they get beyond a certain size.

The 3rd century B.C. Greek poet Callimachus famously said, "A large scroll is a large evil."

Luke's Gospel is already the longest book of the New Testament, and this forced him to omit material he might otherwise have included.

He had tons of special material not yet recorded in Gospel form that he wanted to put down (e.g., his Infancy Narrative), and he knew that the Feeding of the Four Thousand was already recorded in one of the other Gospels (Matthew or Mark, depending on which you think he used in composing his).

Also, The Feeding of the Four Thousand occurs in a part of Mark that is referred to as "the Great Omission" (from around Mark 6:47 to around Mark 8:27). It's a whole block of text that Luke basically leapt over--if he was using Mark--likely for space-saving reasons.

July 8, 2014 at 9:45 am PST
#6  Donnie Gardner - Chesapeake, Virginia

Another significance to the 7 baskets could be the 7th day of the week, the seventh day being the Sabbath Day or the Holy Day. The day that God rested and the day reserved for glorifying God. If the feeding of the 4 thousand is representative of the eucharist, then perhaps the gentiles being feed and leaving 7 baskets refers to them being made holy through receiving communion.

July 8, 2014 at 11:01 am PST
#7  Donnie Gardner - Chesapeake, Virginia

These omissions may have more to do with the audience they were preaching to and to the division of the early Apostles with evangelizing the gentiles. I can only speak to John's omission by this deduction, In Galatians 2:9-10 James, Cephas (Peter) and John agreed to spread the word to the circumcised (Israel) while Paul was going to the Gentiles.

Paul felt that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised (or in other words, convert to Judaism) in order to receive the word and become Christian. These omissions may be due to the audience that they we evangelizing.

July 8, 2014 at 11:46 am PST
#8  Donnie Gardner - Chesapeake, Virginia

Oh, and I found a possible link to Johns omission through this deduction, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth, in accordance with Mosaic Law. This would imply that his writing was geared towards the Hebrews.

July 8, 2014 at 11:56 am PST
#9  Michael Rogala - Chicago, Illinois

. . . and all of this lead us to what?

August 12, 2014 at 9:41 am PST
#10  Donnie Gardner - Chesapeake, Virginia

What I get from this, Michael, is Christ was preaching to the gentiles as well as the hebrews. The Apostles were divided about spreading the gospels to the gentiles. Reading scripture, Christ spoke the parable of the Dinner feast, the invited guests (gods chosen people) did not show up to the feast so the master sent his servants out to invite those on the street (the gentiles) to come to join him at the table. In the feeding of the four thousand Christ was setting the example ,as always, by teaching to everyone who wants to join him at his holy table.

Also, a revision to my opinion on the meaning of the 7 baskets. It may refer to the 7 hills of Rome where Christ's bride, the Church will be founded. If Peter is the rock upon which Christ built his church, the location of that church was in the middle of the 7 hills of Rome.

August 27, 2014 at 11:38 am PST

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