Loaves, Fishes, and symbolic numbers

Mark 8

14 Now the disciples* had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”[c] 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”**

Ok, so I am a dolt of a disciple, I don’t get it. Any help? Thanks in advance.*

Five loaves for five thousand represents the first five books of Scripture, the Torah, which was the Jewish law. The Jews take their places to be fed in companies of hundreds and of fifties, just like they were organized by Moses in the exodus from Egypt. Twelve baskets were collected representing the twelve tribes of Israel - Jesus feeds the children of Israel first.

Later Jesus feed four thousand with four loaves. Four represents the four corners of the earth - the Gentiles, and these Jesus feeds only after he feeds the Israelites. Jesus says that his heart is moved with pity for these particular people and that they have “come a long way”, symbolic of their living in distant lands or being far from God and his law. Seven baskets were collected. Seven represents perfection or completion which the Gentiles too were to achieve through Christ.

Do you not yet unerstand? :smiley:


Thank you. This also explains why the miracle happened twice, which was another question I had.

At any rate, I have been pondering the loaves and fishes this week. It is the only miracle found in all four Gospels, loaves and fishes were used as an symbol for the Eucharist by early Christians, and the miracle seems to be a sort of precursor to the Lord’s Supper (the Bread of Life is indivisible and fills all of our spiritual hunger much like Jesus was able to take real bread and feed the physical hunger of all that came to hear him.)

I am still growing in my understanding. This was a great help. :slight_smile:

And a precursor of Mass as well.

You’d notice that the accounts resonate with Eucharistic language as well. From Mark:

And having taken (labōn) the five loaves (artous) and the two fish, having looked up to heaven, he said a blessing (eulogēsen) and broke the loaves (kateklasen tous artous) and gave (edidou) to the disciples to set before them. (6:41)

And having taken (labōn) the seven loaves (artous), having given thanks (eucharistēsas), he broke (eklasen) and gave (edidou) to his disciples to set before them; and they set them before the crowd. (8:6)

And as they were eating, having taken (labōn) bread (arton), having blessed (eulogēsas) he broke (eklasen) and gave (edōken) to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (14:22)

BTW, only Mark and Matthew have the feeding of the four thousand, which itself so closely duplicates the earlier feeding story (the only main differences being the location and the size of the crowd). Luke and John only record the feeding of the five thousand.

In Mark at least the passage is fills out Jesus’ earlier discussion with the Syrophoenician woman about allowing “the dogs” a share in the children’s bread, and in this incident the ‘bread’ is quite literally shared. As the discussion accepted that the gentiles’ share might be only “scraps,” Mark perhaps for this reason so carefully records a different set of statistics for this feeding compared with the earlier one: fewer people (4,000 compared to 5,000 men) fed with more loaves (seven rather than five) and “a few small fish” but with less leftovers (seven baskets instead of twelve).

The latter feeding also serves to hammer home the point just how idiotic Mark’s disciples are. Three times in the first story, the place where the crowd gathers is described as deserted or desolate:

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. …] And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

In the second story, Jesus subtly attempts to provide His disciples a cue for recalling the previous feeding:

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.”

One would have expected the disciples to say here, “Why not feed them the same way you did that other crowd.” Instead, however, we get this gem of a question: “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” Mark’s disciples seems to suffer from collective amnesia: weren’t they right there in the previous feeding in the other “desolate place”?

What about Jesus raising the dead, giving sight to the blind and cleansing the lepers? And there’s more, like literally casting out demons.


No, what he means is that the feeding of the five thousand is the only specific miracle found in all four gospels. Feeding the four thousand? Specific to Matthew and Mark. Healing the Decapolitan deaf-mute and blind man at Bethsaida? Only in Mark. Walking on water? Not found in Luke. The paralytic at Bethesda? Unique to John. The coin in the fish’s mouth? That’s Matthew. The leper, Peter’s mother-in-law, the man with the withered hand, the paralytic at Capernaum, the woman with the issue of blood, Jairus’ daughter, the demoniac of Gerasa/Gergesa/Gadara? Only in the synoptics. Ten lepers? Just Luke. Restoring the servant’s ear at Gethsemane? Only Luke records that. And so on and so forth.

Yes, that is correct, the only one. This miracle is part of the core teachings of Jesus that all 4 authors knew about and chose to present. Why? I think because the miracle is tied to the Eucharist. While John doesn’t record the actual breaking of bread and passing of the cup in his Gospel, he ties the miracle of the loaves and fishes to the Bread of Life discourse.

So I guess two quick thoughts.

  • The deep imagery and theology that is attached to the miracle of the fishes and loaves is completely lost if the action is reduced to a modern explanation, like the miracle “really” being that everyone suddenly took out their own food to share, and that is why there was enough to eat. Trying to offer up non-miraculous explanations like this rob the Gospel of its full message.

  • So, normally the miracle is described in terms of multiplication; Jesus’ blessing made more bread and fish to eat. Is there a basis to describe the miracles instead as one of indivisibility? That no matter how little bread was present, no matter how many times a loaf had to be divided, every person received a share large enough to fill their hunger?

I pondered this and thought the end result was the same, and the miracle itself could be thought of logically in either way. When I read all 6 accounts (including the Mark and Matthew’s feeding of the 4,000) I couldn’t find any language from the authors that specifically pointed to the understanding of an indivisible loaf. In fact, the loaves that were left over and collected would seem to indicate multiplication, not indivisibility.

I did find this passage from 1 Corinthians 10:

16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17* Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread***.

I believe it is a clear reference to the Eucharist. But notice how the body of Christ isn’t presented as a sacrifice in the same way the cup is, but instead to represent the indivisible body of Christ, the one Bread who unites all believers who partake.

This understanding of the Eucharist is similar to what is in the Didache.

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.* Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom***; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever…

I think Paul’s later description of the Lord’s Supper is evidence he held the orthodox view that the consecrated Bread represents Christ’s sacrifice too, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between the miracle of the fishes and loaves and that verse.

I suggest reading the following:



Yes, thank you. I had seen some discussion in another thread about the attempts to redefine the miracles of Jesus with modern explanations to satisfy the revisionist urge that the miraculous is impossible, yet preserve something of Christ.

I don’t believe this can be done. The miracles are not just stories, they are complex symbols full of meaning to those who believe. Explain away any part of them and you rob the Gospel of its full power. I don’t discount an understanding of this miracle as a lesson in sharing, as someone did donate the initial loaves and fishes to share, and Jesus can be said to be sharing something with us, but this interpretation is only a part of the complete meaning.

I did notice nearly every commentator describes the event as multiplication, and not indivisibility, so I may be on the wrong path there. :shrug:

I kind of agree. Although at the same time, IMHO we can’t entirely rule out the possibility of some sharing being involved in some way while still acknowledging the supernatural. It reminds me of what a guy named Matt Page wrote in his review of The Bible:

Incidentally, this story has been traditionally been described as a miracle, though various scholars have suggested that what really happened was that by highlighting the selflessness of the boy in offering his food everyone else was inspired to produce theirs. I always used to think this was a cop out, until more recently someone pointed out that it was was statistically improbable that out of 5000 men (and women, girls and boys) that only one of them thought to bring any food. Perhaps it was a bit of both. This film suggests the miraculous was involved, but it did send me back to the texts briefly, none of which explicitly state it was a miracle, though John does call it a “sign”. It’s still the implication of the text, but certainly the suggestion that at least some sharing went on could not be considered contrary to what is actually said.

I think the problem really is that these ‘rationalizations’ try to have the cake and then eat it. Explanations like these were devised by 18th century naturalists really as a way of trying to say that Scripture is still ‘correct’ while at the same time trying to explain away whatever was deemed to be ‘irrational’ and backward. It isn’t just ‘liberal’ (or whatever adjective you want to put here) folks who have been guilty of this, but also some people of a more conservative bent.

I mean, try reading through a ‘Life of Jesus’ written by someone from the 18th or 19th century (or well, just go through Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, where he goes into these ‘reconstructions’ in detail). You’ll find that many of these writers could claim with a straight face that oh, the “angels” are actually secret Essene agents wearing their white robes. Or that the ‘ascension’ was really just Jesus climbing up a mountain which happened to be covered with clouds on that particular moment, while He actually went off to spend the rest of His days in an Essene monastery (kinda makes you wonder why no disciple actually tried to climb up on the mountain as well). Heck, Jesus was actually the son of an Essene, who became an unwitting pawn of the Essenes and who was revived by Essenes (Joseph of Arimathea? He’s an Essene all right :rolleyes:) after He was crucified (of course He didn’t really die but just fell into a swoon or was drugged - I mean, what would happen to the empty tomb and all those ‘resurrection’ appearances? :p) Oh wait, scrap that; Jesus was actually dying from His injuries and was being taken care of by the Essenes, who let Him out at intervals - that last time He says His goodbyes with His disciples before He succumbs to His wounds actually got garbled in the retelling and became the ascension. Did I mention Essenes were involved?

Now even most modern scholars would find rationalizations like these extremely ridiculous today (except for the odd fringe), but the scary part is that at the time they were written, people actually took this seriously. And some still do. Look at all the people who still actually believe the swoon theory nowadays.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.