06 May, 2010

Essay - A commentary on John 6:1-11 – The Feeding of the Five Thousand

This passage of John's Gospel finds a parallel in the Synoptic texts. However, this interpretation of this story is strongly influenced by John's "theological agenda" concerning particular aspects such as 'signs', Christology and Eucharistic meals. In order to set this Gospel episode in its right context it is worth examining very closely the first few verses (John 6:1-4) and perhaps compare them with the synoptical accounts.

1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

John 6 opens with a change of scenery compared to chapter 5. Jesus and his disciples are once again in Galilee, whilst for the previous chapter Jesus' ministry had Jerusalem as a backdrop. They are 'on the other side' of the Sea of Tiberias but the narrator does not specify on which side. It is important to note the expression used by John: πέραν – literally beyond, across or over, further. Francis Moloney tentatively suggests 'a place at the North end of the lake, close to Tiberias' [Francis J. Moloney, (1998) 195]; however, his suggestion would differ dramatically from Luke's text – the only other Gospel to explicitly mention a particularl place – who sets the feeding of the five thousand near Bethsaida on the almost opposite, North end side from the city of Tiberias [cf. A.M. Hunter (1965) 67]. A.M. Hunter, in his commentary to John suggests that the scene might have taken place in this area as well. However, his speculations are thus arranged only in order to demythologise the account of the walking on the waters which immediately follows this passage. Bethsaida was a new and important city at the time of Jesus with a considerable Gentile population [cf. ibid. 65]. Herod Antipa founded it around AD 20 in honour of Emperor Tiberius. The area was also famous for hot springs which were believed to be therapeutic.
Jesus is pictured as sat down (eκάθητο) on a mountain with his disciples, but the author does not reveal the name of such a place. However, a clue about the interpretation of v.3 might be in the Greek version of this text. Jesus aνhλθεν [δέ] τό oρος. In this case the use of the definitive article might point beyond a merely geographical notion pointing the reader to relate Jesus to other events/prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures [cf. Francis J. Moloney, (1998) 195-196]. However, the main suggestions reported by Moloney do not seem totally convincing. The relationship between Jesus – the new law giver – with Moses is not as strong in John as it is in Matthew. Perhaps, this is an echo of Moses who stood on the mountain as the mediator of the covenant and whose intervention brought 'bread from heaven' (Ex 16:4). Moreover, because of the messianic overtones of John 6:1-15, the mountain could echo the words of Isaiah: 'They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture' (Isa 49:9) or of Jeremiah: 'I will restore Israel to its pasture, and it shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead its hunger shall be satisfied' (Jer 50:19).
John's most striking geographical difference to the synoptic texts seems also to remind the reader to the verses just mentioned. According to John this miraculous feeding does not happen in the desert but in a place where 'there was a great deal of grass' (v.10). The Greek text 'χόρτος πολύς' can be also translated as a great quantity of fodder or a large feeding place and pasture. This could again be a reference to the Messianic ideas of the prophets mentioned above or – like Moloney suggests – 'He makes me lie down in green pastures' from Ps 23:2. In opposition to this, Matthew and Luke depicts the crowd to be 'eν eρήμw', a lonely, perhaps barren, place (cf. Lk 9:12).

Precisely at the beginning of v.1 John uses one of his recurring expressions: μετά ταῦτα; this sets the scene for the new chapter; it implies a chronological and – in this case – demographical change.
Many scholars have suggested that John 7:2ss should be moved back the text to replace chapter 6 because the episodes represented there are all set in Jerusalem and Judea. According to this scholarship, Jesus' frequent movements to and from Jerusalem are very unlikely. However, the current layout of the chapters serves a theological purpose rather than a particular geo-historical speculation [cf. Francis J. Moloney, (1998) 193]. Hunter refers to a possible reshuffling of chapters as 'suspect' [A.M. Hunter (1965) 63]. Moreover, John's narrative can help the reader to understand a certain degree of logic shown in the text. V.2 specifies that 'the Passover [...] was near' and this is the second Passover mentioned in this Gospel. First, the Passover is in John 2:13 is the first encountered in this text and Jesus is in Jerusalem; secondly, from 3:22 to 4:42 Jesus moves North in Judea and Samaria; thirdly, from 4:42 to the end of the chapter he is in Galilee; fourthly, he moves southwards to Jerusalem for another festival; and fifthly, he comes back to Galilee for the a second Passover celebration. This roughly amounts to a year's worth of ministry and it may be possible for Jesus to have moved such a long distance in that year. Maybe...
On a close look to the text of v.2 the reader can find another important difference with the synoptic texts. The crowd followed Jesus, because they saw the signs – oτι eθεώρουν τά σημεῖα. In the synoptic gospels the crowds come to Jesus because they have 'learned' that he was in the area (cf. Lk 9:11) or because they 'heard' that he was around (cf. Mt 14:13). What signs have been witnessed by the crowd? When where they performed? and where? Could it be possible that John's mention of Tiberias in v.1 and the consequent departure 'to the other side' – perhaps away from the madding crowd – is a reference to signs Jesus might have made there. All things considered, it is impossible to know, but it would be an interesting thought as seen that the narrator poses this caveat towards the end of the Gospel: 'Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book' (20:30).
The reference to the Passover is very important for the Johannine Christology and the theology of chapter 6. This was the time when the two festivals – Passover and Unleavened Bread – were celebrated; this was the moment when the Jews commemorated the Exodus from Egypt by eating the meat of an unblemished lamb – the same sign which protected their first-born form the last plague in Egypt. This was also the time when unleavened bread where eaten to commemorate the manna in the wilderness, away from the homeland; bread came from heaven to sustain God's people. And in this moment Jesus miraculously provided bread for the crowd who – having seen his signs – followed him; furthermore, he declares that his own flesh is true food (6:55), like the one of the unblemished lamb. Therefore, the Johannine account seems to be structured to reveal a theological truth and prepare the way for the account of Jesus cross and passion.
5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, 'Six months' wages* would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 9'There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?'
Jesus is the first one to notice the crowd's need for food; whilst in the synoptic texts the disciples approach Jesus and urge him to dismiss the crowd. John is making a statement here by representing Jesus not as a preacher/law-giver but as a sensible being who knows peoples' minds, hearths and needs. Previously the narrator declared that Jesus 'knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone' (2:24-25). He also tests Philip but apparently only for the apostle' benefit, to make him think about the miraculous sign he was about to do. Andrew, together with the other apostle, was among the very first of Jesus' disciples; however, he is also unaware of what Jesus is about to do. His interjection in the discussion seems to testify willingness to help mingled with human concern [cf. Francis J. Moloney, (1998) 197]. It is at this point that the disciples almost disappear from the scene, only to come back towards the end of the chapter [cf. ibid. 199]. The mentioning – twice in between vv. 8 and 15 – of barley loaves is worth noting as those loaves were the bread of the poor.
10Jesus said, 'Make the people sit down.' Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.
The order given by Jesus to the crowd is to sit down, but the Greek text points out that they are not to sit like he is sitting (eκάθητο) but rather like people who are about to eat (aναπεσεiν) reclined at a table [cf. ibid. 197]. This is again an echo of Ps 23 and of the Messianic prophecies mentioned above.
11Then Jesus took the loaves and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
This scene reminds the reader of Eucharistic meal as well as the prophecy of Jeremiah. However what is incredibly interesting is the language used by the author. Jesus took the loaves, he gave thanks (εuχαριστήσας) and he passed it from hand to hand (διέδωκεν) like at a table to the-reclining-at-the-table-ones. Jesus is the provider of the food and judging by his depiction in the scene he does not eat. Furthermore, John's narrative is the only one to employ words such as εuχαριστήσας; the synoptic text use the word εuλόγησεν, to bless or honour (e.g. cf. Lk9:16). This language should remind the reader of a Eucharist.

The feeding of the five thousand is an important episode of Jesus' ministry featured in all four gospels. However, it is very unlikely that John could have borrowed the story from the synoptic texts; the community 'of the disciple whom Jesus loved' could have composed this written version based on oral account of the miracle. If a theory about the existence of John's community could be proved, the reader could find an extra dimension in this account. John's followers, like many other early Christian from Jewish background, would recognise themselves in this narration of a Passover celebration. Like outcast they were not able to participate to the liturgical life of the synagogues. Indeed they had been thrown out, expelled, aποσυνάγωγος (cf. 9:22)
In John 6:1:11 Jesus is at the centre of the scene and he is shown to be in control of everything that happens. He is shown as the fulfilment of Messianic promises, as 'the prophet who [was] to come into the world' and – implicitly – as Lord. The miraculous feeding has 'historical' relevance for the people to which the Fourth Gospel was first addressed; it had particular relevance for the Johannine community and it has also an eschatological significance in its prefiguring the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Robert J. Harris (ed.), The Collegeville Bible Commentary (New Testament), Liturgical Press (Collegeville, 1992)
A. M. Hunter, The Gospel According to John, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1965)
Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press (Collegeville, 1998)

Appendix – Prophecies
Isaiah 49:8-11
8Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favour I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
9saying to the prisoners, 'Come out',
to those who are in darkness, 'Show yourselves.'
They shall feed along the ways,
on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
10they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
11And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.

Jeremiah 50:18-21
18Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to punish the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria. 19I will restore Israel to its pasture, and it shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead its hunger shall be satisfied. 20In those days and at that time, says the Lord, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and none shall be found; for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared.

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