Jesus’s students feed thousands of people.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 October

God’s kingdom doesn’t suffer from shortages.

Mark 6.35-44 • Matthew 14.15-21 • Luke 9.12-17 • John 6.5-13.

This story is basically Jesus’s riff on a similar situation with Elisha ben Šafat:

2 Kings 4.1-7 KWL
1 A woman, one of the women of “the sons of prophets,” cried out to Elisha
to say, “Your slave, my man, died. You know your slave respected the LORD.
He was a debtor, and a collector is coming to take two of my children as slaves.”
2 Elisha told her, “What can I do for you? Tell me. What do you have in your house?”
She said, “Your slave has nothing in her house but a pot of oil.”
3 Elisha said, “Go ask all your neighbors outside for pots for yourself.
Empty pots. Not just a few!
4 Come in the house and shut the door behind you and your children.
Pour oil into all these pots. Set aside the full pots.”
5 She went with this, and shut the door behind her and her children.
They came to her with pots, and she poured.
6 When the pots were filled, she told her children, “Bring me another!”
They told her, “There are no more pots.” The oil held out.
7 She came to tell the God’s-man of this. He said, “Go sell the oil.
Be freed of your debt. You and your children can live on what’s left over.”

God multiplied oil to bail out this prophet; God can likewise multiply food to feed the big crowd who’d accumulated to listen to Jesus’s teaching.

Usually this story’s titled, “How Jesus fed 5,000 people.” Obviously ’cause people don’t bother to pay close attention to the text. Or they remember it from Jesus movies: Jesus puts the bread and fish in a basket, lifts it to the sky, prays, lowers the basket… and now it’s magically overflowing with food. They think of that instead of reading the bible.

Jesus came up with the idea to feed the crowd from what food his students had on them. Jn 6.6 In part to show his kids Elisha-style miracles are still doable; in part to show them God’s kingdom doesn’t suffer from the limitations of this world; in part to show them they could do this. ’Cause he told his students—read it again!—“You give them something to eat.” Then Jesus made them give the people something to eat. And that’s where the miracle took place.

Seriously. Read the story. Double-check it in other translations.

“No, you feed them.”

In the synoptic gospels, the students came to Jesus to point out it was late, and maybe he oughta send the crowds away to get food.

Mark 6.35-37 KWL
35 Since the hour had already become late, the students came to Jesus
to say this: “This place is wild, and the hour is already late.
36 Turn the people loose, so they go to the fields and towns round about,
and can buy themselves something to eat.”
37A In reply Jesus told them, You give them something to eat.”
Matthew 14.15-16 KWL
15 When it became evening the students came to Jesus,
saying, “This place is wild, and the hour has already passed.
Turn the crowds loose, so they go into the towns to buy food for themselves.”
16 Jesus told them, “They don’t have to go anywhere.
You give them something to eat.”
Luke 9.12-13 KWL
12 The day began to decline; the Twelve, coming to Jesus,
told him, “Turn the crowd loose so they go into the towns and fields round about,
and can rest and find provisions, for it’s a wild place here.”
13A Jesus told them, You give them something to eat.”

Jesus wasn’t unaware of what time it was. Nor unaware the crowd was getting hungry.

Nor unaware of what an impact 5,000 people would make if he turned ’em loose to go get food on their own. Picture a McDonald’s where suddenly 100 buses of tourists show up. That’s what the marketplace of the nearest town, Beit Sayid, was gonna look like as soon as Jesus turned loose this crowd.

Well, more like 20 buses. Because not everybody had money, and if you were poor, the Law made provision for you: You were permitted to pluck fruit or grain off the edge of somebody’s field. You know, like Jesus’s students did on Sabbath.

Leviticus 19.9-10 KWL
9 “When you harvest the harvest of your land, don’t harvest the edge of your field completely.
Don’t take a second pass.
10 Your vineyard: Don’t strip it bare, and take the broken grapes of your vineyard.
Don’t take a second pass.
Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
I’m your LORD God.”

Imagine just 50 people plucking the fruit out of the trees of your orchard. Now imagine 100 times that, stripping your fields bare because they’ve gone all day without food and they’re extra hungry.

Seriously, the students’ idea of turning the people loose to fend for themselves would’ve wrecked the local economy. Not cool. And not Jesus’s idea at all. He already had a plan in mind, as John indicates.

John 6.5-6 KWL
5 So Jesus, lifting his eyes and seeing how a large crowd came to him,
told Philip, “Where can we buy buns so these people can eat?”
6 Jesus said this to test Philip: He knew what he intended to do.

He already floated the idea of feeding the crowd to his student Philip before anyone else thought of it. Now, does that create a biblical difficulty? Not really. Jesus could’ve asked Philip this question before the other students thought to come to Jesus to discuss the matter.

Since Jesus had told Philip “Where can we buy…” naturally the students’ minds immediately turned to thoughts of money. How much would it cost to feed so many? Both John and Mark have ’em estimate it’d cost at least 200 denarii.

Mark 6.37 KWL
37B They told him, “Can we go off and buy 200 denarii’s worth of buns,
and give them something to eat?”
John 6.7 KWL
Philip answered him, “200 denarii’s worth of buns isn’t enough for them!
—for each of them would only get a little.”

A denarius is the Roman ten-dollar coin. (The word evolved into “dinar,” then “thaler,” then “dollar.”) It’s a dime-sized silver coin. In the KJV it’s translated “pennyworth” because in 1611, British pennies were dime-sized silver coins with the very same purchasing power. Worth about $3.11 in today’s money. People imagine it was worth more because back then you could actually buy a day’s labor with it, Mt 20.2 but they don’t realize that poor people in ancient times were grossly underpaid. Often still are.

So the students were figuring they might buy $622 worth of buns. Which, Philip admitted, was barely enough to feed 5,000 people. So why didn’t he figure a more realistic 600 or 800 denarii? Probably because the students actually had 200 denarii on them. It wasn’t just speculation on their part; they were literally counting their coins, ’cause they were actually expecting to have to go to Beit Sayid and buy food. Hey, they did it at Sykhár.

I know; people like to imagine Jesus’s students as dirt-poor, so how on earth would they have 200 denarii on them? They forget: These kids used to have good-paying jobs. Fishermen made really good money. Jesus’s student Matthew used to be a taxman, y’know. Following Jesus meant going without their incomes, but they still had some cash on them.

Too often, we Christians mock Jesus’s students for lacking faith. We forget: Jesus just told Philip, “Where can we buy buns?” He didn’t say anything about miraculous means; he talked about shopping. So of course the students began to think about a material answer to the problem. And why wouldn’t they? Most churches, whenever they come across a problem or difficulty, immediately check the budget to see if they can pay for the solution. It’s a very reasonable response. Yet I’ve heard people comment, “Those stupid disciples,” as if a supernatural answer to the problem never occurred to them.

Lemme remind you of the context of this story: In Mark and Luke, the reason Jesus and his kids were in Beit Sayid in the first place, was so they could rest after the Twelve got back from traveling the land, curing the sick, and throwing out evil spirits. These guys had been practicing supernatural answers to problems. They weren’t short on faith! They just hadn’t yet seen Jesus feed thousands of people with one lunch. Nobody’d ever done such a thing before. It’s not in the Old Testament. The Elisha story is the closest thing. So the kids had no clue; how could they? Cut ’em some slack.

Bread hanging (and baking) on the inside of a tannúr/“oven,” like the Hebrews did it. The buns were about fist-size. Biblical Archaeology Society

One person’s lunch.

The reason I translated ártos/“bread” as “bun” is because “breads” isn’t proper English, and “loaves” implies these servings of bread were much larger than they were. They were about the size of a sandwich bun, but flatter, ’cause of the way they were leavened and baked. Smaller than naan or bagels, bigger than dinner rolls. Five was lunch. A child’s lunch.

And the fish. The synoptic gospels call ’em ihthýas/“fishes,” which they were, but John identified them as opsária, cooked and prepared fish. Like lox. Like tuna salad. It’s the sort of stuff you spread on a roll, if you don’t wanna only eat bread. And you’ll notice in John Jesus made it optional, ’cause plenty of people were fine with the bread alone.

Mark 6.38 KWL
Jesus told them, “How many buns have you? Go look.”
Knowing already, they said, “Five. And two fishes.”
Matthew 14.17-18 KWL
17 They told Jesus, “We have nothing here but five buns and two fishes.”
18 Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.”
Luke 9.13 KWL
13B They said, “There isn’t much we have but five buns and two fish—
unless we can go buy food for all these people.”
John 6.8-9 KWL
8 One of Jesus’s students, Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, told him,
9 “There’s a child here who has five barley buns and two lox.
But is this anything for so many?”

People like to dramatize this story, and imagine the child volunteered the lunch. I hope that’s what happened. I have no idea. The word paidárion can mean either “child” or “slave,” and it’s entirely possible they swiped some lunch that would’ve gone to a slave, because it’s all they had. John also notes the loaves were made of barley, which people used when they couldn’t afford wheat. In any case it was a humble lunch. But it’s not like Jesus needed to work with a lot.

Custom was for students to stand when the rabbi was talking; now Jesus had ’em sit.

Mark 6.39-40 KWL
39 Jesus ordered them all to recline on the green grass, group by group.
40 Company by company reclined in groups of hundreds and fifties.
Matthew 14.19 KWL
19A Ordering the crowds to recline on the grass,
Luke 9.14-15 KWL
14 For there were about 5,000 men.
Jesus told his students, “Have them recline to eat in groups of 50.”
15 They did so, and everyone reclined.
John 6.10 KWL
10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit.” There was much grass in the place.
So the men, in number about 5,000, sat.

Next Jesus blessed the food, and divided it. He had to give it to 12 people, y’know. And from there, the students distributed it to everyone else.

Mark 6.41 KWL
Taking the five buns and two fishes, looking into the sky,
Jesus blessed and broke the buns,
gave them to his students so they could set them before the people,
and divided the two fishes for all.
Matthew 14.19 KWL
19B taking the five buns and two fishes,
looking into the sky, Jesus blessed them.
Breaking them, he gave his students the buns,
and the students took them to the crowd.
Luke 9.16 KWL
Taking the five buns and the two fish, looking into the sky,
Jesus blessed them, broke, and gave to the students to set before the crowd.
John 6.11 KWL
So Jesus took the buns and, blessing them, divided them for those reclining.
Likewise for the lox—for as many as wanted them.

Jesus was training his students, as any master teaches apprentices, how to do as he does. He sent ’em out to preach and perform miracles, and now that they were back with him, no doubt they’d be tempted to hang back and let the Master do all the work again. He was teaching them not to do that. They were gonna do some of the work. That’s why he picked the Twelve in the first place.

So Jesus gave ’em the food, and it’s in their hands the food multiplied and fed 5,000.

Baskets of leftovers.

Pharisee custom was to not waste food. Crumbs—“smaller than an olive’s bulk” is how the Mishna and Gemara tend to phrase it—could be abandoned for the dogs to eat off the floor, but bigger pieces had to be kept and used in something, like soup. So once everyone had eaten enough, Jesus had the Twelve go collect the leftovers.

Mark 6.42-44 KWL
42 Everyone ate and was filled,
43 and the students gathered 12 baskets of crumbs and of fishes.
44 Those who ate the buns were 5,000 men.
Matthew 14.20-21 KWL
20 Everyone ate and was filled,
and the students gathered an abundance of crumbs—12 baskets full.
21 Those who ate the buns were about 5,000 men,
not counting women and children.
Luke 9.17 KWL
They ate and everyone was filled,
and an abundance was gathered up: 12 baskets of crumbs.
John 6.12-13 KWL
12 Once they were filled Jesus told his students,
“Gather the abundant crumbs, so nothing is wasted.”
13 So they gathered and filled 12 baskets of crumbs from the five barley buns,
which were more than enough for those who’d eaten.

Each of the Twelve had a basket of leftovers. Not a little basket either; think a laundry basket. All taken from five buns.

All the gospels note 5,000 men, but Matthew mentions women and children. I should point out the word I translated horís/“set apart” as “not counting.” Horís either indicates the 5,000 doesn’t include the women and children who were also there, or it means these men deliberately came without their women and kids. I’m gonna guess women and kids were there, partly because Jesus is egalitarian like that, and had no qualms about teaching women; and partly because they did get the buns from a child, y’know. Jn 6.9 So including women and children, Jesus’s students may very well have fed 10,000 people. And more.

Yep, it’s an even bigger miracle than you thought. Not that the kingdom’s resources are taxed any.

Now for the takeaway: We’re called to do likewise.

We’re not to stand back and let Jesus, or any experienced Christian, do all the miracles, do all the work, while the rest of us stand back and watch on in amazement. We’re to get in there, get our hands dirty, in doing good. When we see a need, we’re not to turn round to our pastors or leaders and say, “You need to do something.” Nor automatically jump to the conclusion every solution has a material solution: Sometimes they do, and sometimes God wants to blow everyone’s minds by stretching a lunch into food for a legion.

Regardless of how the Holy Spirit has us act, we must act. The Spirit will help. Sometimes by multiplying our resources like crazy. Sometimes not; it’s up to him. We just need to do good.