Mark 8:14-21 (NRSV): 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.” 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?”

At first I thought Jesus means his caution from v. 15 (which otherwise remains unexplained), but the word still seems to refer to something they should have understood a while ago. While searching online, I found an interpretation that he meant the fact that he can conjure food - but what is here to misunderstand? The disciples saw Jesus do that, so it's obvious he was capable of that. And what does the number of baskets with bread have to do with that?

I also read about the significance of numbers 12 and 7 - e.g. numbers of tribes of Israel and gentile nations of Canaan respectively, but I still I have no idea what they are supposed to explain.

  • Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for this excellent question. Please take the tour below.
    – user25930
    Jul 1 '19 at 23:14
  • The Stack Exchange here is not ready for the real answer on this, but if really wanting the answer, first learn the attribute of existence labeled the "Son of Man", for if your conclusion answers WHO, indeed continue looking. The helper teaching is in Mark 4.
    – Decrypted
    Jul 3 '19 at 1:22
  • This section is meant to be for explanations that work up from the text to answer your question. There is nothing in the Greek that explains it so please re word to avoid seeking opinions, rather seek hermeneutics.
    – Seeker
    Nov 9 '19 at 18:45

It is helpful when reading the incident in Mark 8:14-21 to also read the parallel account in Matt 16:5-12. The salient points of this incident include:

  • Jesus warns about the "leaven" of the Pharisees and Sadducees (and Herod). So the main point here is what does the metaphor of "leaven" mean?
  • The disciples misunderstand and thought they are being chided for not bringing bread. But this was clearly not the case.
  • Jesus then illustrates his point by reminding the disciples that with 5 loaves He had fed 5000 people with 12 baskets of scraps; but with 7 loaves Jesus had fed only 4000 with 7 baskets of scraps.

That is, Jesus is contrasting the work of God with the corruption of Man. The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees is their teaching (Matt 16:5, 12). Both groups were supremely legalistic as opposed to Jesus' teaching of free grace. In the spiritual world, the more we try to accomplish in our own strength (the leaven or teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees) the less we actually achieve. But the more we depend on divine aid, the more God does for us as perfectly illustrated by the two incidents of the loaves feeding the crowds.

Later, Jesus told them the parable of the vine (John 15:1-11) where this idea is further reinforced. The point of this parable is simple, "without me you can do nothing" (v5).

  • Although this is a very nice answer. I suggest reading the question again. I almost glossed over the question also, but the questioner is very specific, and has already taken this information into consideration.
    – Decrypted
    Jul 3 '19 at 1:14
  • @Decrypted, what is the specific question? The Title question is "What is it that the disciples misunderstood?". In the parallel Matthew account, the answer is explicitly given: "Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.". If you are referring to some other question, then the Title should have been that question. Aug 1 '19 at 21:24
  • @RayButterworth The question is good, but God must walk you to the answer himself. And I may tell you, the journey starts with Mark 4. Each time reading it, he will bring you closer to seeing, and when you do see, you'll see why that is God's journey to walk through.
    – Decrypted
    Aug 2 '19 at 5:19
  • Perhaps if you spoke directly rather than elliptically, we might get the point. Otherwise, I have no idea what the question is nor what you are referring to.
    – user25930
    Aug 2 '19 at 5:37

At that point in the earthly ministry of Jesus, His disciples' understanding was deficient in several areas. In this case, they lacked understanding of the sufficiency of Christ and His establishment of the New Covenant which superseded the law of Moses. To understand this we must examine the meaning of Jesus's leaven warning and the meaning behind His feeding miracles.

The leaven of the Pharisees was hypocrisy.

12 Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. (Lk 12:1)

Jesus reserved His most harsh criticisms against the sin of hypocrisy (See Matt Ch 23). The Pharisees were very entrenched in the law of Moses. Although they outwardly appeared close to God, their hearts were far from Him.

Matt 23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others.

The depth of Miracles.

Jesus questioned his disciples understanding of His feeding miracle in vs 17-21 of Mk 8. Notices His questions in regards to their ability to see and hear. These questions target an essential point in regards to the ministry of Jesus: His miracles were not an end to themselves.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Those miracles were done to show deeper spiritual meaning; that is, having a perception of understanding the Kingdom of God. Typically the meaning of a particular miracle is usually within the immediate context of the narrative. For instance, the raising of Lazarus happened during His teaching of the power of the Spirit to call both the spiritually and physically dead to life. In the text you sighted, Jesus had just feed a multitude of followers with plenty of food remaining. I do not believe there's any significance in the number of remaining full baskets. The real significance is in what the feeding miracle signified.

Mark 5b-9 They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.

The feeding of the four thousand signified the giving of His own body to be beaten and broken during His Humiliation and Crucifixion. The theme of partaking of the body and blood of Christ (the Eucharist), is found throughout the gospels. Jesus Himself breaks the bread and prays. He gives the broken pieces to His disciples to feed the hungry crowd, a perfect picture of the Cross and New Testament.

See also (Mt. 26:17–30, Mk. 14:12–26, Lk. 22:7–39 and Jn. 13:1–17:26).


What the disciples did not understand was the aim of the miracles of Christ. The miracles always pointed towards a greater reality. It was the intent of Jesus to sway his followers from the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The Pharisees taught that the Law of Moses brought one in union with God. Jesus taught that forgiveness from God involved eating His flesh and drinking His blood (Jn 6:53). At the heart of the feeding of the four thousand is a wonderful lesson. That the outward appearance of the few loaves and fishes proved to be more than sufficient to the hungry when in the hands of the Master. Thus, a man of seemingly low stature and means did indeed hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, it was through the giving of Himself.

Although I don't think the number of remaining baskets signifies anything, I am open given Christ's work was for the world.


The numbers in the two feeding miracles are very important to notice (See Bargil Pixner, With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel). Pixner calls "the Land" the fifth gospel because where events took place speak loudly in the story.

Mark keeps repeating the numbers in both feeding stories. To the point where you begin to think, "now why does he keep telling us this?" Any time a biblical author (OT and NT) is repeating something we need to pay attention to that.

Feeding of 5000 - takes place on the Jewish side of the lake. The northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum (Kafar-Nahum).

Feeding of 4000 - takes place in the Decapolis (Mk 7:31). The pagan side of the lake (East and Southeast corner). There is a pagan city - one of the Decapolis cities - called Hippos or Susita on that side of the lake. The religious Jews would avoid the pagan cities.

Feeding of 5000 - has numbers that are important to Judaism: 2, 5, 'hundreds' and 'fifties' (Ex. 18:25), and 12. Mark notes "2 fish" and "twelve basketfuls."

Feeding of 4000 - has only two numbers - 4 and 7 - which are associated with the Pagan nations. 4 = four corners of the world. 7 = the seven nations which were driven out (Deut 7:1) and (Acts 13:19). Mark only notes "a few small fish" but then "seven basketfuls."

The message here is that Jesus has come to feed the world - both Jews and Gentiles. He did not come only for the Jews.

A second thing to note is when Jesus says:

"Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear? (Mk 8:18).

The miracle just prior to the feeding of four thousand, Jesus heals a man who is deaf (Mak 7:31-37). The miracle just after the feeding of the four thousand Jesus heals a blind man (Mk 8:22-26) but does it ONLY for the disciples to see.

There is an ongoing process for the disciples that is unveiling who Jesus is. At first, they don't understand. They can't "see" or "hear" - their sensory organs are not perceptive. Even the process that Jesus heals this blind man is a progression. His sight is not fully restored immediately but then sees clearly.

But by chapter 9 though, we have the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-13) where they "see" Jesus transfigured and "hear" the voice from Heaven.

We may even be able to take this discussion in the boat about bread (Mk 8:16) back to chapter 7 (Mk 7:1-23).

Religious Jews considered the Decapolis an unclean place. The disciples just saw Jesus feed the 4000 and they didn't get any of the bread. Why? Is it possible that they would not eat bread that was "defiled" by being in the Decapolis or was eaten by pagans?

Peter says later in Acts 10:28

He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.

In Mark 7, Jesus is upset with the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law about purity issues. In Mark 7:18-19 the disciples are still "dull" to this notion:

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

May we all be able to "see" and "hear" Jesus clearly!!! Unfortunately, it is usually a process.


The question cannot be answered by working up from the text, exegesis, or what the site wrongly calls hermeneutics, borne out by the definitions that all modern scholars give to those words. Exegesis is an interpretational method using grammar to determine how different words in a sentence relate to each other. For example, according to the rules of Greek grammar, what does the word "this" refer to in Ephesians 2:8? Grace or faith?

Hermeneutics is the study of different interpretational methods, including exegesis. Different situations call for different hermeneutical methods. For example, a standard approach is to use allegory to interpret poetical passages. A very useful study is the examination of how Jewish scholars interpret Biblical passages using different hermeneutical methods called PARDES. We find Paul used this method in finding the explanation for why Israel found herself having two covenants in her midst by comparing it with the situation of Abraham having both a slave and a son in his family.

The answer to the question will come from interpreting the passage by using the method of studying what the writer was teaching his students and what the lesson means today. For example Paul tells women to cover their hair. Today it means that women believers should not dress like loose women. To confirm that this is the PRINCIPLE that was taught, we need to find other passages that teach the same lesson.

Jesus told His followers not to behave like the Pharisees. Today the teaching can be shown to mean not to behave like people who live to serve self.

Are there other teachings that mean we should not live to serve self?

Sure, many, like this (bolded text mine, added for expansion, amplification or substituition for a wrong translation choice):

Matthew 6:24“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (material things). 25“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

So what was Jesus alluding to when He asked, "Do you not yet understand"?

He was hinting that they should realise they were in the same situation as Israel in the Exodus:

Exodus 4:8“If they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign. 9“But if they will not believe even these two signs or heed what you say, then you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”

In other words, He was hinting that the signs were not the means by which God people were to live, working for bread that perishes, but they were given to build up the faith of Israel, courage to destroy Canaanites, worldy living, another version of Egypt. Similarly, after seeing that God would take care of the essentials ( Matthew 6:32) the disciples should by now not be worrying about those things, not be materialistic, like the Pharisees, because God had taught them like He had taught Israel, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God ( the words being to come out of Egypt, mammon, serving self interest, worldly ways, fight it, destroy it, because only then will we really live). Which, by the way, is also the lesson, the principle, taught for today.

All Scripture from the NASB.


I think the significance of the number of baskets of leftover food represents Jesus expanding His opening the kingdom of God to the Gentiles as well as to to the Jews. The number 12 obviously is used many times to represent the Jews (number of tribes, number of disciples, number of loaves in the tabernacle etc). The number seven probably represents the number of pagan nations which the Jews encountered in the promised land. This is mentioned in Deuteronomy 7:1 {"When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you.") which Paul also refers to in Acts 13:19 "...he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance." So the 12 baskets represents God blessings available to the Jews and the 7 baskets represent His blessings available to the Gentiles.


Jesus talks about yeast as a reference to potential - this is not the only time he talks about yeast in this way. But the disciples are focused on a lack of actual food, just as they were before these two occasions when Jesus fed thousands with only a handful of loaves.

What the disciples fail to understand is that Jesus has repeatedly demonstrated the overwhelming potential of the kingdom beyond what they would expect from material appearances. That they are still so concerned with the material existence of bread in the boat shows they haven’t gotten the message yet.


Mark 8:19 5 loaves for the 5 thousand, 12 basketfuls of pieces leftover
Mark 8:20 7 loaves for the 4 thousand, 7 basketfuls of pieces leftover

God can start with less loaves to feed more people. Because, more people were feed, more were leftover despite starting with less loaves.

Mark 8:14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.

The disciples witnessed these signs. Yet, they failed to understand what John the Baptist knew:

Matthew 3:9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.

God can use whatever initial material to make great things.

"Do you still not understand?"

Jesus could easily multiply the one loaf of bread on the boat. Whatever the disciples were thinking, they should not be thinking about the lack of enough bread in conjunction with the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. It should have been obvious to them that bread was not the issue.

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