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§ 176. Return of the Apostles.—Miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand. (Matt., xiv.; Mark, vi.; Luke, ix.)—Object and Significance of the Miracle.—Its Effect upon the Multitude.

Christ had now spent a whole year in Galilee. The time of the Passover approached, and the Apostles returned from their missionary journey. Multitudes still thronged about him, seeking aid for soul and body; the caravans, gathering to the Passover, increased the press. The Saviour did not wish at once to expose himself to the dangers that threatened him at Jerusalem; moreover, he desired, for a time, to prolong both his ministry in Galilee, and his intercourse with the Apostles, whose training for the work was now his first object. He sought a season of undisturbed society with them; to receive the report of their first independent labours, and to give them advice and instruction for the future (Mark, vi., 30, 31). For this purpose, he departed, with the disciples, from the neighbourhood of Capernaum, on the western shore of Genesareth, to a mountain on the eastern shore, at the head of the lake, near Bethsaida Julias.468468   Luke, ix., 10. The tetrarch Philip, who raised the village of Bethsaida (on the east side) to the dignity of a city, distinguished it from the village of the same name on the west side, by adding the name Julias, from the emperor’s daughter (Joseph., Archaeol., xviii., 2, § 1). It is not strange that the name בֵּית־צֵידָה (meaning a place of fish, a fishing-town), should be applied to two places on different sides of a lake abounding in fish.—Robinson’s Palestine, vol. iii., p. 566. But the multitude took care to see whither he accompanied his disciples, and immediately hastened after him.469469   It appears possible, from John, vi., 5, that Christ only withdrew to the east shore after spending a great part of the day with the multitude on the west side. In this case it would be natural for Christ to express, first, a care for their corporeal wants, when he saw them, after spending nearly the whole day without food, follow him at a late hour. What was done upon the two shores, therefore, may perhaps have been blended together in the synoptical accounts.

And here followed the feeding of the five thousand. This miracle formed the very acme of Christ’s miraculous power;470470   Cf. p 152. in it creative 262agency was most strikingly prominent, although it was not purely creation out of nothing, but a multiplication of an existing substance, or a strengthening of its properties. For this very reason, there is more excuse in regard to this than some other of the miracles for inquiring whether the subjective element of the account can be so separated from the objective as to offer a different view of the nature of the act.

A theory has accordingly been constructed to do away with the miraculous character of the act, and explain it as a result of Christ’s spiritual agency, brought about in a natural way. It amounts to this: the feeding of the vast multitude with five loaves and two fishes was accomplished by the example and moral influence of Christ, which induced the better-provided to share their food with the rest, Christ’s spirit of love bringing rich and poor to an equality, as it has often done in later Christian times. So, then, the result was rightly judged to have been brought about by the Spirit of Christ; but the spiritual influence was translated into a material one; Christ’s power over men’s hearts into a power exerted by him over nature; and the intermediate link in the chain was thus omitted.

Now, although it is possible that an account of the miracle might have originated in some such way as this—examples of the like are not wanting in the Middle Ages—the details of the narrative, in all the different versions of it, are irreconcilable with the hypothesis. Had part of the people been supplied with provisions, the disciples must have known it; on the contrary, according to the narrative, they had no such thought; nothing remained for them but to “send the multitude away into the villages to buy victuals.” Had they supposed that the caravans were partly supplied with food for their journey to Jerusalem, it would have been most natural for them to say to Christ, “Thou who canst so control the hearts of men, speak the word, that they may share with the needy.” But there is no plausibility in the hypothesis that there were provisions on the ground; the multitudes had not come from a great distance; and there were villages at hand where food could be bought; so that there was no inducement to carry it with them. Moreover, had Christ seen such a misunderstanding of his act arise, he would, instead of turning the self-deception of the people to his own advantage, have taken occasion, by setting the case truly before them, to illustrate, by so striking an illustration, what the spirit of love could do. Finally, the narrative, as given by John (vi., 15), puts this theory wholly out of the question. So powerfully were the multitude impressed by what Christ had done, that they wished to take Jesus as Messiah, and make him king. The act must have been extraordinary indeed that could produce such an effect as this upon a people under the dominion of the senses, and not at all susceptible of any immediately spiritual agency which Christ might have employed.


The miracle was not wrought without reason; the circumstances which demanded it may be thus stated: A multitude of persons, travelling to Jerusalem for the Passover, followed Christ from the western to the eastern shore; he had spoken the words of Life to them, and healed the sick. They were chained the whole day to his presence, and evening came upon them. The sick who had just been healed were without food; they could not go, fasting, to the villages to obtain it.471471   John’s Gospel, however, differs from others in this point (vi., 5), in stating that Christ himself asked the question, “Whence shall we buy bread?” &c., before any thing else was done. We find, therefore, by comparison with the other Gospels, that John has omitted part of the details. Christ would not make this the first question, when a multitude stood before him in want of spiritual as well as bodily relief; nor is it likely that he meant to prepare the way for the miracle from the beginning. From John, vi., 17, also, we gather that the event took place towards evening, leaving room for the inference [apart from the accounts in the other Gospels] that the multitude had been about Christ some time. In this statement, then, John plunges at once into the midst of the account, without the vividness of detail which usually marks his Gospel. On the other hand (cf. Matt., xv., 32), it is not likely that Christ waited for an intimation from the disciples before manifesting his ever-watchful love and compassion; nor was it his custom to work a miracle suddenly, but in a naturally-suggested and prepared way. All difficulties disappear if we adopt the view of note †, p. 261. Here, then, was a call for his assisting love; and, natural sustenance failing, his miracle-working power must supply the lack.

The effect of the miracle illustrates for us the mode of Christ’s working in all ages; both in temporal and spiritual things, the spirit that proceeds from him makes the greatest results possible to the smallest means; that which appears, as to quantity, most trifling, multiplies itself, by his Divine power, so as to supply the wants of thousands. The physical miracle is for us a type of the spiritual one which the power of his words works in the life of mankind in all time.472472   The question arises, whether the miracle recorded in Matt., xv., 32, seq., and Mark, viii.. 1-8, is different from the one of which we have just treated, or whether it is the same, differently stated. The fact that the narratives are substantially alike, and differ in matters comparatively unimportant, may be urged in favour of the latter view; but the relative differences of measure (4000 instead of 5000, with seven loaves instead of five, and the multitude spending three days with Christ) favour the former. The resemblances may be ascribed to the one account’s having been modelled after the other. Matt., xvi., 9, 10, would not prove them different; that passage may have been modified at a later period, when the facts were presupposed to be different, without affecting its veracity. The localities might help to decide the question. The first miracle took place, as we have said, on the eastern side of Genesareth, near a mountain. The locality which we assign to the second will depend upon our answer to a question still debated, viz., where Magdala, to which Christ passed over (Matt., xvi., 39), was situated, According to the Talmudical accounts (Lightfoot, Chorograph., c. 76; Wetstein, in loc.), it was near Gadara, consequently, on the eastern side of the sea. If this be so, the second miracle must have been wrought upon a mountain on the western shore; thus assigning a locality to it different from that of the first. But, on the other hand, there is shown to this day, south of Capernaum, on the road to Tiberias, a village called el-Mejdel (Robinson), a name corresponding to the ancient Magdala (Burckhardt, Germ. trans., ii., 559; cf. Rosenmüller, Handbuch der Biblischen Alterthumskunde, ii., 73). This agrees with the Talmudic accounts that place the site near Tiberias; but not so well with the one quoted above, namely, that it was near Gadara, out cannot the Migdal Gadar, therein mentioned, be otherwise explained? Cf Gesenius’s remark on the passage cited; Burckhardt, ii., 1056; Robinson, iii., 529; Matt., xvi., i. (Pharisees meeting Christ), agrees better with the supposition of the western shore. If, then, Magdala was on the western shore, the second miracle, like the first, must have occurred on the eastern; the direction of their subsequent passage across the lake would agree pretty well. Then the general geographical course (indicated in Matt., xvi., 13) would accord very well with Matt., xv., 21; and all this favours the opinion that we have two reports of one and the same miracle. There is an important difference between Matt., xv., 39, and xiv., 22; the latter stating that Christ sent his disciples away first by ship; the former, that he went immediately himself; but this might have arisen from an omission, in the former passage; just as we fin4 Luke, also, saying nothing of it. The probability of the miracle having been wrought twice is lessened by the view that we have taken of it as constituting the climax of his miraculous works. We recognize in Matt., xv., 29; xvi., 12, a break in the historical and local connexion; and, in fact, we frequently find in this document, although an original and evangelical one, the same expressions and events narrated more than once; sometimes in longer, sometimes in shorter forms.


Up to this time Christ had only impressed the multitude with the belief that he was a mighty Prophet, whose appearance was preparatory to the Messianic era. But this climax of his miracle-working power produced one, also, in their opinions. “He that can do such a miracle can be no other than Messiah; we must do homage to him as Theocratic king, and urge him to establish his kingdom among us.” Plans of this sort Christ had to evade; and he returned alone to the mountain.

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