Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand (Mark 8:1-9)

Analysis and Commentary

Jesus Feeds Four Thousand
Jesus Feeds Four Thousand.
  • 1 In those days the multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples unto him, and saith unto them, 2 I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: 3 And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far. 4 And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness? 5 And he asked them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven.
  • 6 And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people. 7 And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them. 8 So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets. 9 And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away.

Jesus in Decapolis

At the end of chapter 6, we saw Jesus feeding five thousand men (just men, not women and children) with five loaves and the two fishes. Here Jesus feeds four thousand people (women and children get to eat this time) with seven loaves.

Where is Jesus, exactly? When we left him in chapter 6, Jesus was in the “midst of the coasts of Decapolis.” Did that refer to the fact that the ten cities of the Decapolis were located on the eastern coasts of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan river or is Jesus along the border between the Decapolis and Jewish areas? Some translate this as “within the region of Decapolis” (NASB) and in “the midst of the region of Decapolis” (NKJV).

This is important because if Jesus is simply on the borders of the Decapolis but still in a Jewish area, then Jesus is feeding Jews and is continuing to limit his work to the nation of Israel. If Jesus traveled into the Decapolis, then he was ministering to Gentiles who were not on good terms with Jews.

Are such stories to be taken literally? Did Jesus really go around and work miracles so that large numbers of people could be fed on small amounts of food? That’s not likely — if Jesus really had such power, it would be unconscionable for people to be starving to death anywhere in the world today because thousands could be helped with just a couple of loaves of bread.

Even setting that aside, it makes no sense for Jesus’ disciples to ask “From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness” when Jesus’ had just fed 5,000 under similar circumstances. If this story is historical, the disciples were utter morons — and Jesus of questionable intelligence for picking them to accompany him. The disciples’ lack of comprehension is best explained by the idea that for Mark, true understanding of Jesus’ nature could not occur until after his death and resurrection.

The Meaning of Jesus’ Miracle

Most read these stories in an allegorical manner. The “point” of these stories for Christian theologians and apologists has not been the idea that Jesus can stretch food like no one else, but that Jesus is a never-ending source for “bread” — not physical bread, but spiritual “bread.”

Jesus is feeding the hungry physically, but more importantly he is also “feeding” their spiritual “hunger” with his teachings — and although is teachings are simple, just a small amount is more than enough to satisfy multitudes of hungry people. Readers and listeners are supposed to learn that while they may think what they really need is material and while faith in Jesus may help provide for material needs, in reality what they truly need is spiritual — and in the desert of life, the only source of spiritual “bread” is Jesus.

At least, that’s the traditional exegesis for this story. Secular readers observe that this is another instance where Mark uses a doublet to heighten themes and underscore his agenda. The same basic stories occur over and over with only minor variations with the hope that the repetition will help drive home Mark’s message.

Why did Mark use a similar story twice — could it really have happened twice? More likely we have an oral tradition of one event that went through changes over time and acquired different details (notice how the numbers tend to have strong symbolism, like seven and twelve). That is what a doublet is: one story that has been “doubled” and is then repeated more than once as if it were two separate stories.

Mark probably doesn’t simply repeat it twice just for the sake of repeating all of the stories he could find about Jesus. The doubling serves a couple of rhetorical purposes. First, it heightens the nature of what Jesus is doing — feeding two huge crowds is more impressive than doing it once. Second, the two stories frame teachings about cleanliness and traditions — an issue explored later.