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The Gospel According to Mark, in contrast to the other three gospels, provides two separate feeding miracles wherein Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes to feed five thousand and four thousand respectively. Both accounts are very similar, though they differ on subtle details (for instance, the number of baskets remaining). Why then include both miracles?

Mark 8:18-21:

18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not 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 take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

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    Just a minor correction. Matthew also records two feedings. – Matthew Miller May 9 '13 at 16:55
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In these two feeding accounts, Mark signals to his primarily listening audience a portion of his books structure and point.

(This is probably the most overlooked aspect of our study of the bible's stories and should be considered carefully. Please see this video for a visual and more detailed discussion of how and why stories in the ancient world used aural signals to indicate structure.)

While visual signals such as chapter numbers and verses, section titles, paragraph indentations, highlighted words etc. help modern readers orient themselves to a stories structure and point, ancient books had no graphic signals, not even spaces between words. Literacy was relatively rare and thus visual cues on the page were deemed far less important than giving meaning to the work through aural signals.

Private reading, which we of course enjoy today, does not require repetition since we have the ability to go back and check what we've just read. But an aural culture, one that learns and memorizes through hearing, demands it. A point is highlighted and emphasized in repetition. Think of Martin Luther King's "I Have Dream" speech. For Mark, these type of parallels proved crucial for indicating his structure and by extension his message.

David A. Dorsey in his book the Literary Structure of the Old Testament offers a list of the ways matching conveys meaning. Among them are

  1. Emphasis: matching can emphasize a point by reiterating it...
  2. Comparison: two or more units may be matched in order to draw out the similarity of two things not readily seen as similar...
  3. Contrast: conversely, matching may highlight the contrast between two things that are in some respects alike...
  4. Reversal: matching may highlight the reversal or undoing of something...
  5. Resolution (or fulfillment): an author may highlight the close connection between story's opening tension, suspense, or prediction and its closing resolution or fulfillment, by placing the two in matching positions at the beginning and end of the story...
  6. Totality: matching units may convey the idea of the totality of a phenomenon by featuring both halves of a merism (day and night, man and woman, etc.)...

Depending on the precise arrangement of these matching sections there may be other ways as well.

Mark's accounts of the two feeding form part of a literary unit between 6:7 and 8:22. The repeated emphasis in this section revolves around the topics of eating, bread, purity codes, gentiles and miracles related to hearing and seeing.

Taken together, as Mark's structure demands, Mark appears to be making a point through these stories about the disciples total insufficiency but Christ's all-sufficiency to feed/save the world. And that includes gentiles, hinted at in the Syrophoenician (gentile) woman's request for bread crumbs. The subtle difference between the two feedings, such as the number of baskets of bread left over and even the different greek words used for baskets indicates that Jews are in mind in the first feeding while Gentiles are in view in the second.

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    Hey Matthew, thanks for the answer and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! Hope you'll stay around and continue to provide answers like this one. – Soldarnal May 4 '13 at 1:03
  • "...Jews are in mind in the first feeding while Gentiles are in view in the second..." I think the geography of the narrative also supports this theory - Jesus has been criss-crossing the lake of Galilee and at the point of feeding the 4,000 he seems to be on the Gentile side. – Jack Douglas May 27 '15 at 19:37
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I agree with many of the responses already given. A few more things to note about these encounters.

  • In Mark 6, the feeding of the 5000 is in direct contrast to the setting and banquet previously mentioned (John the Baptist's beheading). The 4000, as mentioned above, is carrying over the same eschatological banquet observed in the feeding of the 5000, but on a more global scale (offered to Gentiles).

  • Another feature is the three couplets with bread and boat/water. Mark 6 (feeding of 5000 and walking on water); Mark 8:1-10 (feeding of 4000 and boat crossing); and Mark 8:14-21 (disciples in boat with 1 loaf). This last passage invites the Markan audience to consider the two feedings along with the disciple and ask themselves, "Do you not yet understand?" Momentarily in Mark 8:27-29, does Peter understand.

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First of all, the two feeding accounts form part of an integrated set of passages with ten references or allusions to food, including a summary by Jesus of the two feasts in 8:19-21, maintaining a consistent theme of food, plus a minor theme of not understanding:

  • Jesus and the disciples had no leisure so much as to eat , so they went into a desert place (6:31-32)
  • Feeding the 5000 (6:33-44)
  • When Jesus walked on water the disciples were amazed, for they considered not the miracle of the loaves (6:45-54)
  • Pharisees complain about the disciples eating with unwashed hands (7:1-8)
  • Discourse - what goes into a man goes into his belly and does not defile (7:9-23)
  • Greek woman metaphorically begs for crumbs from the table (7:24-30)
  • Feeding the 4000 (8:1-9)
  • Disciples are hungry and have only one loaf of bread (8:13-14)
  • Jesus warns the disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and they reason, "It is because we have no bread," showing they do not understand (8:15-17)
  • Summary by Jesus of the two feasts (8:18-21)

Clearly the two feeding accounts are given because repetition provides emphasis. Not only are the contexts so very similar, but the narratives follow much the same pattern: Jesus asks the disciples how many loaves they have, Jesus commands the 5000/4000 to sit, Jesus blesses and breaks the loaves, after they had finished eating there were twelve/five baskets of leftovers, then the disciples got into the boat and departed for Bethsaida/Dalmanutha. But why emphasise these two miracles in particular?

A number of scholars have noticed a three-way parallel between the feeding of the 5000, the feeding of 4000 and the Last Supper. Among these, Paul J. Achtemeier (Jesus and the Miracle Tradition, pages 72-74) says that the feeding story appears to have been accommodated to the celebration of the eucharist, including by the use of the four words: taking, blessing, breaking and giving, all of which are in the same order in the two feeding accounts and in the Last Supper.

In a proposed parallel structure that frames the entire Gospel, the ten references to food that we see here in Mark 6:31-8:21 form a pair (pair R) with the Last Supper. I believe the Last Supper was one of the most important events in Mark's Gospel, so justified a good deal of emphasis. Mark achieves this with the sequence of ten events and discourses, and uses repetition to add emphasis to the allusion to the eucharist. Linking these earlier references to the Last Supper through Mark's parallel structure emphasises the importance of the Last Supper, proportionate to the emphasis within the earlier set of events. We may fail to see this emphasis when we only read short extracts from the Gospel, but Mark was intended to be read aloud to an audience in its entirety.

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There seems to be a fulfillment of Ezekiel 34 in the multiple feedings:

NIV Ezekiel 34: 7“ ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11“ ‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

Mark highlights that Jesus acts unlike the hirelings before him who were charged with feeding the flock but instead cared only for themselves. He is instead motivated by compassion and sets aside his own needs for their good:

NIV Mark 8: 1 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, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 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.”

These feedings work in conjunction with John 10 to show that Jesus is the "good shepherd" that had been promised in Ezekiel 34.

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I love the difference in these two accounts...feeding of Jews and Gentiles. All are fed by Christ. I also love that in the feeding of the 4000 Jesus asks his disciples “what do you have?” And they had exactly 7 loaves (seven days a week he provides) and they are t give all they have to Christ. In doing this they feed many...and have their own multipled back to them. How beautiful that Christ could create bread....and is the bread....and allows us to participate in feeding the hungry....

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  • So your answer is that in one account Jesus feeds Jews, and in the other he feeds Gentiles? Can please flesh that out for us and show us the evidence for that interpretation? – curiousdannii Feb 22 at 3:26
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There are two feeding accounts that represent Jesus as the bread for the entire world - both Jews and gentiles.

Feeding of 5000 - happens in the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee primarily inhabited by religious Jews. There is a barren hillside just west of Capernaum where scholars place this event.

Feeding of 4000 - happens in the Decapolis (gentiles/pagans) - see Mark 7:31.

Pay attention to the numbers and how often Mark repeats the numbers. Why does he have to keep repeating the numbers? Any time we see unnecessary repetition we need to pay attention:

Feeding of the 5000 - all of the numbers in this account related to Jews - 2, 5, 12, 50, 100,

  • Five loaves - the number Five relates to the five books of Moses
  • Two fish - the number two relates to the Two Tablets
  • sitting in hundreds and fifties - similar to Exodus 18:25
  • twelve baskets full - the number 12 for the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jesus is the bread for the Jews.

Feeding of the 4000 - There are two numbers - 4 and 7 - and they are both related to the Gentile nations. Notice Mark doesn't mention the number of fish. He simply says "a few small fish" (Mark 8:7). Why was this detail left out?

  • 4 represents the "four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12) a term used for the Gentile nations.

  • 7 represents the pagan nations that were driven out of the Promised Land

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

Paul confirms this in Acts 13:19 -

and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance.

Feeding of 4000: Seven loaves, Seven baskets of leftover, 4000 people.

Jesus is the bread for the Gentiles.

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