We have all heard of Jesus’s miracle of
feeding the multitude with bread and fishes.
The only difficulty is remembering the precise details.
Was it five loaves? or seven loaves?
Was it two fish? or some fish?
Were seven baskets of leftovers collected?
or were twelve baskets?
And was it 4000 or 5000 who ate until they were full?
The answer, it seems, is all of these because in fact,
the Gospels contain six variant versions of feeding the multitude.
And to reconcile them with each other would indeed take a miracle.
Now, some Christian apologists will tell you that there was not one,
but two rather similar feedings,
one for 5,000 and one for 4,000.
But if that were true, it raises some difficulties.
For one thing, Luke and John report only one feeding miracle,
and don’t so much as hint that there was a second performance.
In Mark’s first version of this wondrous tale,
Jesus breaks five loaves, and divides two fish,
and the disciples set this before 5,000 men,
who eat until they are “satisfied.”
And the disciples then gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers.
Now we are supposed to be impressed merely reading of this miracle.
So presumably the disciples themselves were majorly impressed
as actual witnesses and participants.
Yet if Jesus performed this conjuror’s trick a second time,
not long after the first, and in identical circumstances,
how could it be that in Mark’s version 2 of the fishy tale,
he has the disciples ask Jesus
“How can we feed these people, here in this desolate place?”
Had they already forgotten the matinee performance??
Was the collective memory of these guys,
who are chosen to spread the good news to the world, so bad?
The reality, of course, is that we have simply two versions of the same yarn,
told in almost identical wording,
and Mark has thrown them both into the pot as a form of emphasis.
Now Matthew, who derives most of his material from Mark,
slavishly repeats both of Mark’s versions, although in each,
he adds to the numbers fed with additional women and children,
thus making the miracle even more impressive.
And this exaggeration of Mark’s material
is, in fact, a characteristic trait of Matthew.
When Luke sets to work on improving Mark’s story,
he adds that Jesus welcomed the crowd,
spoke of the kingdom of God,
and even healed the sick while he was at it.
But it is Gospel of John who embellishes the story most.
He has Jesus go up a mountain—always a good setting for a miracle—
and John also decides this is all happening at Passover.
Well he would, wouldn’t he?
He even introduces dialogue quite unknown to the other evangelists.
Jesus asks Philip “Where can we buy bread to feed the people?”
He has a role for Andrew, who introduces a boy,
who just happens to have about him five loaves and two fish!
Are we to presume that the other five thousand men who had gone up the mountain
did so without a morsel?
As a final flourish, John has the crowd chant
“This is the prophet, come into the world!”
It is, of course, all very theatrical, and all very bogus.
Now this ridiculous fast-food episode is actually no great mystery.
That use of the word “prophet” at the end of John’s version is a clue.
The tale is found in a simpler form in the story
of a notable Jewish prophet called Elisha.
Like Jesus, Elisha raised the dead, made the blind see,
could control the weather, had God speak to him on a mountaintop,
and at the end, was taken up to heaven.
In 2 Kings 4, we can read of this early-day holy man,
performing a more modest food miracle,
and feeding merely 100 men, with just 20 loaves.
Jesus, of course, has to surpass all earlier prophets,
and so the numbers are made even more impressive.
But it isn’t true. It isn’t history.
It’s more astounding rubbish from the New Testament!