They Did Not Understand the Loaves

Do you? I did not until fairly recently.

Mark’s language is simple, but his composition of the story of Jesus betrays a subtlety that it not to be ignored. This was driven home to me very clearly when thinking about Mark 6 for the Sunday school lesson a couple weeks ago.

I covered two stories, the feeding of the five thousand in 6:30-44 and the incident of Jesus walking on water in 6:45-52. Both are famous miracles of his; I remember both being common in stories about Jesus as a kid. You would think that the first is a story about Jesus’ ability to multiply food and the second was a story about Jesus’ miraculous ability to walk on water (and those things are clearly taught), but that is not (in my opinion) the point of the stories, as I will soon explain. The stories in Mark generally have meanings of their own but they are often there for a greater, broader literary purpose than just the point of the story itself. I have posted on the strong man incident and it serves as a good example in this regard. But this one is different, and servers a different purpose. So let us look at the signs so we can set the scene.

Sign 1: The Place of Feeding

The first clue is the place, and it mentioned multiple times in the first pericope. In the words of v. 31, they went εἰς ἔρημον τόπον. This can be rendered in various ways, like “wilderness place”, or “desert place”, or “isolated place”. This gets repeated 32 and 35. In this case the translation is all important. The point is that they were in an area that was not inhabited. It may not have been desert, but it was certainly wilderness and definitely isolated. The translation in this case is important, because for English readers a wrong translation here will definitely smother much of a chance of seeing the allusion that Mark is attempting to make. More on that when we tie it together at the end.

Sign 2: The People

The second is the people. Who were they? Well, they were several thousand Jews. Well, of course they are! After all, who is he ministering to generally? But wait…this needs to be mentioned. More on this in a moment.

Sign 3: The Leader as Shepherd

In verse 34 it is said that Jesus had compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” So what is the problem? They needed someone to lead them. To guide them.

Sign 4: The Mountain

When Jesus goes to pray after sending the disciples away and getting rid of the crowd, he goes to pray. Where did He go? A mountain. Yeah…that is going to be important.

Sign 5: The Nature of the First Miracle

So there are two big miracles. To get the point of the first one we should cast it not in the idea of the multiplication of food, but in the divine provision of food for hungry people. Subtle, but important.

Sign 6: The Nature of the Second Miracle

The nature of the second miracle is also important. Where is it? With what does it have to do? Well, Jesus is crossing a large body of water.

So What Is The Point?

Now that we have stated the obvious, let us put this together. If you read Mark carefully you will note that he is trying to frame Jesus’ ministry as a fulfillment of various things in the Old Testament. It is most obvious when he is quoting, less obvious when he is using themes, as he is here.

So, this is the question. Is there any signicant even in the Old Testament…any at all…that contains the following elements: wilderness, a bunch of Jews, the divine provision of food, a single leader who is the shepherd of those people, a leader who has a bit of time with God on a mountain and a leader who crosses over (or perhaps through) a large body of water? Does anything come to mind?

If it doesn’t, seriously, you need to go back and read Exodus.

They Did Not Understand the Loaves

This was what made me look back at the previous pericope and ask the question “What is there not to get?” Some might say that there was no statement that the disciples were amazed after the feeding, so perhaps they did not really notice. But that strikes me as rather unlikely. As far as miracles go, this is a pretty obvious one. You could say that no one noticed the healing of the woman with an issue of blood because there would be nothing immediately obvious (and there was no astonishment there). But this? This would be obvious. France (the author, not the country) will say “it is not immediately clear why among so many other remarkable acts of power the feeding miracles should be singled out as having such special evidential value” (273). Well, I did not see it immediately myself, but when I did it stuck with me and continues to seem rather obvious to me now on the other side (though France is aware of at least the allusion as can be seen from a footnote referencing Hooker, though I do not own her volume so I cannot check to see exactly what she thinks).

And this really does explain the connection between the two in terms of the logical progression of things. If the miracle of pericope 1 was just the multiplication of food then, well, this statement of their inability to put two and two together makes no sense. Just because somebody can multiply food would not naturally lead one to think that this person could walk on water. At least not to me, anyway. But who could tread on water like this? Who is Mark saying Jesus is? He is saying nothing different than other writers of the New Testament were trying to communicate as well. Jesus is the new Moses. He is the shepherd who would lead God’s people. He is the new lawgiver (something you see more in Matthew than you do in Mark) and the one who would bring a new covenant with the people of Israel (which also fits in very well with numerological significance of twelve disciples). If Moses can pass through the Red Sea, surely he can pass through the Sea of Galilee!

Jesus is the new Moses to Mark. Do you understand the loaves?


The Militant Pacifist 2009-01-27 12:41:57

I think I do now. Really good stuff!

levi 2009-01-29 03:48:34

nice stuff. I like how you pointed out εἰς ἔρημον τόπον in the most simple way possible to your audience, yet still accentuating your point.

Eric 2009-01-29 08:04:43

Glad you both dropped by. And thanks.

Jared Nuzzolillo 2009-02-25 01:08:57

Thank you for sharing this interesting observation.

One thing that struck me almost immediately is that I am surprised that Mythers and their kin don’t use this allusion to discount the historicity of the miracle. "See, after all, 'Mark' is just using this narrative framework to express a deeper truth about his divine-man, Christ." Perhaps they have, but I haven’t stumbled across it yet.

Thanks again for all of your amazing work on this blog. In reading it, I have learned so much.

And please, please, please release more podcast episodes! :-D