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14 Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat. 15 Then he charged them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." 16 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "It is because we have no bread." Mark 8:14-16 (NKVJ)

The equivalent account is in Matthew 16:5-7.

5 Now when His disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. 6 Then Jesus said to them, "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees." 7 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "It is because we have taken no bread."

The context is that they’ve set out across the Sea of Galilee without any (or at least not much) bread.

Firstly, why would having no bread be a big deal, or even worth mentioning? The lake isn’t that big; they couldn’t get more than an hour or two away from shore so it’s not like they’ll starve.

Secondly, why would the disciples have linked the warning about the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ with the fact that they hadn’t brought bread? I get that leaven (yeast) is an ingredient of bread, but the link seems tenuous – a bit like being on a walk with someone who says, “Beware of rubber”, and concluding “He said that because we didn’t bring the car with its rubber tyres.” Nor is this something that just one of them came up with. They all agreed that this connection was the best explanation for what Jesus said.

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The disciples were of little faith (at the time of the incident) and their hearts were hardened as a result. This causes distance from the Lord, so instead of asking Jesus what he meant, they went into a communal huddle and had a discussion.

Church history is full of such huddles which make matters worse, not better.

They come up with the brilliant conclusion that, having forgotten bread and there being none brought over in the boat, Jesus is somehow agreeing with their situation, that leaven is a bad thing per se.

Presumably, this conclusion would have resulted in them never having bread in the future, either - a prospect which must have caused even more heart-hardening.

Thankfully, Jesus is aware of their reasonings and remonstrates with them.

First, he reminds them that he, himself, provided bread - a huge supply of it, so the idea that leavened bread, in and of itself, was wrong was an illogical conclusion.

Then he proceeds to make the point - again, since they don't seem to have heard it the first time (because their minds were revolving around non-bread) - that it is the leaven of the people who are not bakers but Pharisees, that he is talking about.

Then they catch on.

He is not talking about bread leaven - and is not interested in whether they have, or have not, got any edibles on board - Jesus is trying to warn them of doctrine which behaves like leaven.

It puffs up. It makes more of a loaf than is really there. It is all just hot air. There is no substance to it.

But it is oh, so palatable - especially to the common populace.

Oh ... I see !

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  • 1
    "How is it that we so often mistake his meaning, disregard his warnings, and distrust his providence?" Henry, M., & Scott, T. (1997). Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary (Mk 8:11-21). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems. – Perry Webb Jun 27 '18 at 13:25
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I wonder if the bread they had forgotten to take was specifically the seven baskets of bread left over from the feeding of the 4000. The preceding verses in Mark 8 are:

6 So he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude. 7 They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, he said to set them also before them. 8 So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments. 9 Now those who had eaten were about four thousand. And he sent them away, 10 immediately got into the boat with his disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.

11 Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, testing him. 12 But he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation."

13 And he left them, and getting into the boat again, departed to the other side. 14 Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread...

After the feeding of the 4000 there were seven large baskets of leftovers. What happened to them? The fragments weren’t just picked up so they could put them in the rubbish bin without littering. Presumably they took them along as their lunch for the next few days.

After Jesus sent the crowds away, Jesus and the disciples ‘immediately’ went in a boat to Dalmanutha (v10). The Pharisees came out and asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. Jesus said there would be no sign and left them, and they hopped in the boat again.

I’m getting a little speculative, but I assume they took the baskets of bread with them to Dalmanutha and unloaded them there. The baskets would have been with them as the Pharisees spoke to them. When they suddenly left, the baskets got left behind, and it wasn’t until they were on the water that they realised they had forgotten to take the bread. Now when Jesus talks about the “leaven of the Pharisees”, they think he’s talking about the Pharisees that they’ve just left, and reminding them about the baskets of bread they left with them! Is Jesus telling them to be more careful next time?

Returning to the Pharisees and their desire for a sign, (and recall that in John 6:30-31 Jesus is again asked for a sign, with “bread from heaven” suggested as a pretty good one.) I think they got their sign after all, and imagine the conversation among them as Jesus and co left went something like this:

“Well, they left pretty quickly.”

“Hey, they’ve left their baskets behind – call them back!”

“Too late, they’ve gone – maybe they’ll come back when they realise.”

“What’s in their baskets anyway?”

“Oh… they’re full of bread… but where would they get so much bread from?”

”Maybe it’s a sign…”

“Nah.”

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Barclay gives some indication about the meaning of the word translated leaven:

We are presented here with a passage of very great difficulty. In fact, we can only guess at its meaning.

Jesus and his disciples had set out for the other side of the lake, and the disciples had forgotten to take any bread with them. For some reason, they were quite disproportionately worried and disturbed by this omission. Jesus said to them: ‘See that you beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Now the word leaven has two meanings. It has its physical and literal meaning, a little piece of fermented dough, without which bread cannot be baked. It was in that sense that the disciples understood Jesus to speak about leaven. With their minds fixed on the forgotten loaves, all that they could think of was that he was warning them against a certain kind of dangerous leaven. They had forgotten to bring bread, which meant that, if they were to obtain any, they must buy it from the Gentiles on the other side of the lake. Now no Jew who was strictly orthodox could eat any bread which had been baked or handled by a Gentile. Therefore the problem of getting bread on the other side of the lake was insoluble. The disciples may well have thought that Jesus was saying: ‘You have forgotten the bread which is clean; take care when you get to the other side of the lake that you do not pollute yourselves by buying bread with defiling leaven in it.’

Barclay later gives the second meaning:

Leaven has a second meaning which is metaphorical and not literal and physical. It was the Jewish metaphorical expression for an evil influence. To the Jewish mind, leaven was always symbolic of evil.

Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 152–153). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

People taking Jesus' figurative speech as literal was very common in the Gospels; for example Nicodemus in John 3 and the woman at the well in John 4. These examples seem to indicate that Jesus intentionally used literal examples around him to illustrate a spiritual meaning figuratively. Jesus made the statement about the yeast of the Pharisees knowing that the disciples would take it that they were short on bread.

The false exegesis of the disciples on the words of the Saviour may be regarded as the prototype of many a later miserable performance of the same kind. At first they probably tried to understand them literally, and therefore as meaning: Beware of partaking of the bread of the Pharisees and Sadducees, or have no further communion with them. But this would have implied that they would have had to make a separate provision for themselves, as the whole country was divided between the parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and hence any provision which they might have got from without would have been impure.—These thoughts were succeeded by the recollection that they had no bread, and by cares which drew down upon them the rebuke of the Lord about the littleness of their faith.

Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (p. 290). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

The fact that the scripture passages mention that they were short on bread before Jesus' statement may even indicate that Jesus' statement was in the middle of the disciples discussion of being short on bread. In other words Jesus was saying this is what you should be worried about, not bread. Both Matthew and Mark use the participle διελογίζοντο for their discussing, but began isn't in the Greek text as in the ESV.

■ 5* Matthew obviously imagined that in 15:39* Jesus had gone to Magadan alone. There he encountered the Pharisees and Sadducees and then left. Now the disciples return to him (without a boat!). They have forgotten to bring provisions. As usual, Matthew has not imagined the geography very precisely.7 Important for him is the distance from the Jewish opponents that is expressed with πέραν.

■ 6* Now a kind of “broken communication” develops. Instead of taking care of the disciples’ problem, Jesus starts to talk about what is on his mind since 16:1–4*. He warns the disciples about the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Sadducees with whom he has just been dealing. The disciples, however, are occupied with their problem about provisions and pay no attention to what he says. There is a breakdown in communication. Jesus and the disciples talk past each other.

Luz, U. (2001). Matthew: a commentary. (H. Koester, Ed.) (p. 350). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.

However, if the disciples discussion started before Jesus' statement, it only became more intense after his statement. As a result, Jesus brought up how he fed the 5000 and 4000. Time and time again people witnessed Jesus' miracles, but when it came to living their everyday lives didn't recognize their significance.

■ 8–10* Jesus does not yet explain his own saying; first he responds to the disciples’ fear. He recognizes14 what their problem is and, therefore, scolds them as “of little faith.” After the two feedings the disciples could have been confident that Jesus is capable of providing for their needs. If he was able to satisfy five thousand and four thousand, how much more the small circle of disciples! Thus little faith is, here as always, lack of trust in Jesus’ creative power....

Luz, U. (2001). Matthew: a commentary. (H. Koester, Ed.) (p. 350). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.

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  • Why is this getting downvoted? It seems at the very least a well researched answer. It also avoids being too focused on the literal. – Dionysis Apr 21 '19 at 12:03
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I think they don't understand what Jesus is referring to at all (as is often the case with many things Jesus says on this gospel when heard by people). Without the spectator perspective of clearly seeing the character of the Pharisees as mark exposes them clearly in his gospel (by way of contrast) the disciples would maybe be completely confused by the cryptic warning of Jesus and jump to literally the first thing that popped into their head.

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For the meaning in Mark:

Jesus' questions about the numbers of loaves and baskets in Mark 8:19–20, which involve symbolically significant numbers, suggest that we should consider further the meaning of the wilderness feedings. Jesus also speaks of "the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod" (v. 15), so we should consider how this might be involved.

These issues can be illuminated by considering where our passage (8:14–21) is located in Mark's Gospel to understand its literary context. Scholars have come to recognize that Mark has arranged the episodes in his Gospel in order to convey added theological meaning. For example, consider the central section of Mark from 8:22–10:52 (which immediately follows our passage). Many scholars recognize that 8:22–10:52, in which Jesus tries repeatedly, without any apparent success, to get his disciples to understand that he as Messiah must suffer and die (and be raised from the dead after three days) (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34), is framed by the two healings of blind men in 8:22–26 and 10:46–52. The first of these healings is distinctive in that Jesus is at first unsuccessful (8:24). Whatever literal meaning the healing stories have, they are given an additional symbolic meaning by where Mark places them, namely that they convey the seriousness of the disciples' "spiritual blindness" which Jesus struggles to "heal". Our passage (8:14–21), in which Jesus also asks whether the disciples "have eyes and fail to see" (v. 18), leads directly into this central section.

8:14–21 serves as the climax of the entire section of Mark 4:35–8:21. Werner Kelber (Mark's Story of Jesus, 1979) proposed that Mark uses the several boat journeys in this section to help organize the literary structure, such that some episodes take place in "Jewish" territory and others in "Gentile" territory. (There are many potential complications here. See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, pp. 187–89.) In this approach, the feeding of the five thousand (6:32–44) takes place in Jewish territory, and the feeding of the four thousand (8:1–10) takes place in Gentile territory. The numbers of loaves and baskets helps confirm this: In the first, Jewish, feeding, there are five loaves (calling to mind the five books of Torah) and twelve baskets of broken pieces (recalling the twelve tribes of Israel). In the second, Gentile, feeding (which follows immediately after events in the Gentile territories of Tyre in 7:24–30 and the Decapolis in 7:31–37), there are seven loaves and seven baskets of broken pieces. Seven is widely used in the Bible as a number symbolic of completeness or fullness, which in this context may suggest that Jesus' ministry is only truly complete when Gentiles are included in its blessing.

Now in 8:14–21, Jesus and his disciples are in the boat in between the Jewish and Gentile sides of the lake, which on a literary level holds symbolic significance. Jesus warns the disciples about "the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod" (v. 15). These were two different groups that took different approaches to the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. The Pharisees emphasized adherence to Jewish dietary practices in such as way that they resulted in an exclusive meal practice; Jews were not to eat with Gentiles (cf. 7:1–23). The Pharisees emphasized such practices in part in order to preserve Jewish cultural identity in the face of pressure to assimilate to the dominant Greco-Roman culture of the Roman empire, but the result was a stance of isolationism and antagonism. Herod, on the other hand -- here referring to Herod Antipas -- was a half-Jewish client ruler who collaborated with the Roman empire. He built the city of Tiberias as a fully Greek city with a Greek constitution, and divorced his wife in violation of Jewish law (David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 66). He can be seen as representing assimilation and integration with the dominant Greco-Roman culture, and the erosion of Jewish cultural identity and religious traditions (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 224). Jesus' movement offered a third way, one which opposed Pharisaic isolationism and antagonism towards their Roman "enemies" (Matt 5:44) and instead called Israel to return to the best of her ancestral traditions and her calling to be the light of the world (Matt 5:14–16), a model of a people living in faithful obedience to God, to be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:3). (Much more is said on this in books such as Marcus Borg's Conflict, Holiness & Politics in the Teachings of Jesus and N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God).

The disciples have one loaf in the boat. Jesus' focus on the number of loaves in Mark 8:19–20 hints that we should ask whether this one loaf has a symbolic significance as well. The Greek word commonly translated "bread" throughout this passage is the same word as for "loaf" (artos), only in the plural, and so could be translated as "loaves". This opens up the possibility that the contrast is between the single loaf they have and loaves plural. Following Kelber, it seems we are meant to understand that one loaf is enough. Not separate table fellowship, where Jews have their loaves and Gentiles have theirs (this was an issue the early church struggled with, as can be seen in Gal 2:11–14). No. One loaf, one table, one Jew-and-Gentile people of God together in unity. That answers your first question: The disciples do not understand the symbolic meaning of the one loaf.

The disciples do not understand, and Jesus asks, "Why are you talking about not having loaves (plural)?" (Mark 8:17). Jesus' questions are not about the disciples forgetting that he has miraculous power to feed a large crowd. If that were the case, one would expect Jesus to emphasize the number of people fed ("When you had only five loaves, how many people were you able to feed?"). Instead the questions place the emphasis on the number of loaves and the number of baskets, numbers that have symbolic significance along the Jewish/Gentile dimension. Jesus' rebuke of the disciples is also especially harsh, characterizing them in 8:17–18 as having "hardened hearts" (recalling Pharaoh in the Exodus story), and eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear -- a quotation from Jeremiah 5:21, where Jeremiah warns the nation of Judah of coming judgment for their sins. The language is used to compare people to idols, which have eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear. The gravity of Jesus' rebuke suggests that the issue in question is incredibly serious and gets to the heart of Jesus' message. One may ask whether trust in Jesus' miraculous abilities is a sufficiently fundamental issue. If it were the issue, then Jesus could satisfy the Pharisees' demand for a sign in 8:11–12 so that they would be able to trust his ability to do miracles. But he doesn't, because it is the orientation of their hearts, and their understanding of the character of God and of what sort of people Israel's God was calling Israel to be that were the more fundamental issues. Both the Pharisees and the disciples needed to understand God's will for his people to be a blessing to all peoples without putting up barriers of separation.

Regarding your second question, we would run into the issue of how much of 8:14–21 is historical and how much is created for literary effect. This could be a whole other topic. None of the above requires denying the historicity of the passage, though I consider it more plausible to see the passage as an entirely literary creation of Mark. Mark's intent would not be to deceive, but rather to faithfully express Jesus' orientation towards Jews and Gentiles and to convey how Jesus' mission and message should be worked out in the meal practice of the early church. It is tricky to explain the psychology that would lead to the disciples' response in Mark 8:16, but I can see it being part of a depiction of the disciples as exaggeratedly dull and stupid created as a literary foil for Jesus' dialogue.

For the meaning in Matthew:

Most scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew used Mark as a literary source, which I assume here. Matt 16:6 replaces "Herod" with "Sadducees". Sadducees were by and large high-priestly elites who collaborated with Roman rule, so a similar point to that made above for "the yeast of Herod" could be made about the "yeast of the Sadducees." Matt 13:53–16:12 for the most part preserves Mark's order from Mark 6:1–8:21 (though Mark 6:6b–13 is moved earlier), while material from Mark 4:35–5:43 is moved earlier to Matt 8:23–34; 9:18–26 with a large amount of intervening material placed in Matt 9:27–13:52. The result is the separation of boat journeys in the narrative. Mention of the Decapolis is removed in Matt 15:29 = Mark 7:31, and the location "along the Sea of Galilee" is ambiguous. So Matthew preserves some features that support the above interpretation of Mark, while losing others, so it is unclear whether Matthew intends to make all of the same points. Matthew adds 16:12, "Then they understood that he had not told them to be on guard against the yeast in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (NRSV), which at least could fit with the above interpretation for Mark.

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Jesus and his disciples were frequently on different wavelengths. He said one thing and they thought another.

The incident which Mark and Matthew recorded in 8:14-16 and 16:5-7, respectively, is remarkable similar to an incident which the apostle John recorded.

Now . . . [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given hi his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired from the journey, sat down by the well. . . . When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink? (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

. . . [After Jesus' encounter with the woman at the well,] his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked,"What do you want" or "Why are you talking with her?" . . . [After the Samaritan woman had left Jesus to tell her fellow townspeople about her encounter with him,] his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” [Remember, they had just returned from a nearby town where there was a kosher deli.] But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about. Then the disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

”My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

Jesus then went on to talk about sowers and reapers. Why? Because he had planted a seed among the Samaritans by making a disciple of one woman of ill repute. She in turn led others to Jesus, and Jesus stayed in town for two extra days, planting seeds in who knows how many people's hearts. A few years later, the apostle and evangelist Philip would be reaping what Jesus had planted (see Acts 8:5 ff.).

Jesus knew well in advance that that would happen, but his disciples at the time of Jesus' Samaritan encounter did not have a clue.

Fast forward to the incident in question. Again, the disciples were clueless when Jesus mentioned yeast/leaven. Jesus and they were on completely different wavelengths.

You asked,

  • Firstly, why would having no bread be a big deal, or even worth mentioning? The lake isn’t that big; they couldn’t get more than an hour or two away from shore so it’s not like they’ll starve.

The text does not seem to indicate that having little or no bread was a “big deal” to the disciples. Because they and Jesus were on different wavelengths, the disciples' almost Pavlov-dog conditioning when they heard the word yeast or leaven was to think food, not the evil influence of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians who to test Jesus aked of him a for a miraculous sign (see Matthew 16:1-4)!

In a sense, then, you are correct: Having no bread was not big deal worth mentioning. When Jesus brought up the subject, however, he and the disciples had a problem: failure to communicate!

You also asked,

  • Secondly, why would the disciples have linked the warning about the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ with the fact that they hadn’t brought bread?

The answer to that question is essentially the same answer I put forward to your first question; namely, because they were thinking in material, physical terms, while Jesus was thinking in spiritual terms.

Just as in John 4 when Jesus told his disciples returning from a bread run that he had food to eat they had no awareness of, they were thinking materially (“Hmm,” they asked themselves, “did this woman Jesus was conversing with order Domino's?”). Jesus, on the other hand, was thinking spiritually about a great harvest of souls which would require a great deal of work by a great number of people, people who would one day consider soul winning to be more important than worrying about where their next meal was coming from!!

So the next time when a Christian brother or sister invites you to their house for a little fellowship and you ask “What food item should I bring?” or “Will there be snacks?” ask instead, “What Scripture passage should I read in advance?” (and forget about the snacks).

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