New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #13


So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.

There are many similarities between the feeding miracles in Mark 6:33-44 and Mark 8:1-9. In Mark 8:19–21, it becomes apparent that Jesus wants the disciples to compare the feeding miracles—and that the numbers in these stories are significant. You will find it helpful to make a chart that compares the two miracles and includes the following information (along with anything else you think might be significant): reason Jesus gave for having compassion on the multitude, number of loaves, number of fishes, amount of “leftovers,” number and gender of eaters, and response of the disciples on the ship. Note in the chart that the first miracle probably takes place in a Jewish area (see 6:1) but the second among Gentiles (see 7:31).

(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

What I take from the conversation in Mark 819-21 is this: the two feeding miracles are to be compared–with special attention given to details of their differences, particularly the numbers in them–and the disciples (and, by extension, the readers) are supposed to learn something from this comparison.

The first thing we notice in comparing the miracles is that the first takes place on Jewish turf and the second in Gentile land. This sets the pattern for the comparison: I think it makes sense to see the first as a thoroughly Jewish event and the second as a miracle for the Gentiles. In the first story, Jesus has compassion on the crowd because they are as sheep without a shepherd, which is an allusion to the well-established Old Testament motif of shepherd as symbols for Israel’s religious leadership. The people are sitting by ranks of 50s and 100s, or according to the pattern for the organization of Israel (cf. Exodus 18:21, Deuteronomy 1:15, and 1 Kings 18:4). The number twelve–which symbolizes Israel in general or its priesthood in particular–is repeated and a very Jewish word for ‘basket’ is used. In the second story, the number seven (a symbol for universality) is repeated, the typical Greek word for ‘basket’ is used, and the people are not organized according to the pattern of Israel.

Note also the the number and gender of the diners is different. There is an important Old Testament background here; it comes from 1 Samuel 21–a story perhaps not exactly at the forefront of thought to a modern reader, but one not only familiar to the ancient audience but referred to specifically by Jesus only a few chapters ago (which, for Mark’s original audience[s] who would almost certainly would have been listening to the gospel read aloud in its entirety, means only a few minutes ago) in Mark 2:25-26. In this passage, David is travelling with a group and has asked the priest for some bread:

Now therefore what is under thine hand? give me five loaves of bread in mine hand, or what there is present. And the priest answered David, and said, There is no common bread under mine hand, but there is hallowed bread; if the young men have kept themselves at least from women. And David answered the priest, and said unto him, Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days, since I came out, and the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in a manner common, yea, though it were sanctified this day in the vessel. So the priest gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there but the shewbread, that was taken from before the LORD, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.(1 Samuel 21:3-6).

(Note the reference to five loaves again.) So the priest maintains that if David and his men have not had intercourse for three days (Lev 15:16 states that intercourse–even for married people–renders the male unclean), they can be considered pure enough to eat the consecrated bread that is normally restricted to the priests. Remember that in our first feeding miracle, the Jewish audience consists only of Jewish males–symbolically pure in that they have not associated with women. Hence they are worthy to partake of the miraculous bread. In the second story, the diners are of both genders. But they, too, are symbolically worthy to partake of the miraculous bread because they have been doing something else purifying for the last three days: fasting. So there is a lovely hidden feminist message in this story: when the kingdom of God spreads throughout the world, it will be gender inclusive and purity will not be measured by the absence of women.

Also note that Jesus has compassion on both groups–but for different reasons. To me, this is a reminder that although our circumstances vary, Jesus responds with compassion to all of us in whatever our need is.

Also note which story occurs in the middle of these two miracles:

For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. Mark 7:25-29

I believe there is a relationship between her crumbs and the multiplied loaves. In this story, the woman expresses her belief that while, yes, the children have first right at the table, the Gentiles can claim the ‘leftovers.’ And as we know from the first feeding story, there are plenty of leftovers! This story serves as a bridge–and a theological justification–from a ministry limited to Jews to one that re-creates that same ministry in the Gentile realm. It would also be useful to consider those stories in Mark that are paired: Jesus has one trial in front of Jews (14:53-64) and one before Gentiles (15:1-14) and there is an exorcism in a synagogue (1:21-29) and one in a heavily Gentile setting (5:2-21).

To me, Mark is a consummate storyteller, shaping the stories of Jesus so that they not only convey historical truths but also, via the very relationship of one story to another, conveys symbolic truth. In this case, the symbolic truths conveyed by the story speak of the good news of Jesus Christ being extended to all people.

(Recycled from this post.)






10 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #13

  1. Julie: I have read the scriptures my entire life, mostly on my own. I am astonished at each week you manage to help me see or understand a story that I thought I was familiar with in an entirely new way. I have included your insights into my own lessons already, and they are a basis for some contemplation during the week. Thank you so much.

  2. Julie thanks for the insights. I was wondering about the common assumption that the people involved in the feeding of the 4,000 were Gentiles. Although many commentaries suggest that idea, it seems to run counter to Jesus’ words to the Syrophencian woman. Because his mortal ministry was primarily for the Jews, Christ was extremely reluctant to heal this Gentile woman’s daughter, and did so only after her display of great humility and faith. Why would he then go and perform such impressive healings and miracles for a Gentile multitude? He himself said he was sent to the Jews. It seems odd that he would then quickly change his tune by preaching and healing among thousands of Gentiles. I find the verse in Mark 7:31 ambiguous in determining if Jesus was in Decapolis at the time of the feeding of the 4,000 or if he simply had traveled through there. Various Bible translations seem to present it differently.

  3. ponderer, I think there is ample evidence that the second was a Gentile feeding. You are right to focus on his incident with the SP woman: that’s a turning point in the narrative, after which his ministry is extended to gentiles as a direct result of their conversation (which is about bread . . . and whether gentiles can eat it . . . and she explains that they can . . . because there’s enough to go around . . . precisely because there are leftovers from the first feeding miracle).

  4. Fabulous post. I love the insight. Given how well Mark is pairing these experiences, is starting to get me to feel that Mark was very willing to fudge the actual chronological order of the events, for the purpose of telling a story and teaching a lesson. Yes, it’s possible for Jesus to have had it all pre-worked all of these pairs out, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he didn’t.

  5. Julie, I’m working on my lesson for tomorrow and I’m curious as to how you arrived at the gender configuration of the two crowds. Is there a scripture or reference that I’m missing? I know if I bring that up in class without anything to back it up, someone will call me on it.

  6. Sariah, 6:44 has a word that only refers to males to describe the diners (Greek: aner) while chapter 8 does not use a gender-specific word to describe the eaters.

  7. I substituted last Sunday teaching the GD lesson when my husband was out of town. I have enjoyed teaching in the past, but Sam is truly an amazing teacher so I was not confident I could meet the bar.

    The first thing I did was have the class fill out the answers in Julie’s suggested chart and compare them. It was so interesting that I actually had people say, “That was so good. Did Sam tell you what to say?” I see the jab in that, but still took it as a compliment and passed on my amazing source.

    Julie, public thanks for using your expertise to bless so many. Sincerely, this is such good stuff.

  8. I echo the previous sentiments – you have terrific insights I have completely missed in previous readings. Do you think there is any significance to the 5000 feeding being mentioned in all of the gospels and being for a Jewish audience? I’m trying to figure out how (and if) it relates.

    (We’re way behind everyone else, hence just reading this now.)

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