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Miraculous feeding or liturgical meal?

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  • Joseph Codsi
    A MIRACULOUS FEEDING OR A LITURGICAL MEAL ? All four canonical gospels agree on the miraculous nature of what happened when Jesus fed four or five thousand
    Message 1 of 2 , Jun 1, 2005

      All four canonical gospels agree on the miraculous nature of what
      happened when Jesus fed four or five thousand people out of a few loaves
      of bread. To suggest, as I will do here, that the historical truth has
      been altered in this case, and that originally what had taken place was
      a liturgical meal devoid of any miraculous dimension is likely to seem
      preposterous at first.

      Here is what I can say in favor of my theory.

      * * *

      Mark says about the disciples, "they did not understand about the
      loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52). John has a
      different story. For him the people who took part in the miraculous meal
      recognized in it a meaningful sign. "When the people saw the sign that
      he had done, they began to say, **THIS IS INDEED THE PROPHET WHO IS TO
      COME INTO THE WORLD**" (John 6:14).

      The question I raise here is this: Why of all the signs that are
      reported in GJohn this is the only one that is said to have had this
      specific meaning? If miracles were the only thing that mattered in order
      to be recognized as "the prophet who is to come into the world", all the
      miracles should have had the same meaning.

      But a prophet, it seems to me, is not just a wonder-working saint.
      He is, above all, someone who comes with a message. When God is really
      with him, He would confirm his mission with miracles or signs. Therefore
      I suspect that Jesus had said something during or right before the meal
      that could have been interpreted as a new prophetic vision of history.

      To be sure, the Markan version associates the miracle of the loaves
      with a session of teaching. Here is how the miracle is introduced:

      **As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion
      for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began
      to teach them many things** (Mark 6:34).

      Mark does not specify the topic of Jesus' teaching. He could have
      spoken about many different things. But what if what he had to say, on
      that specific occasion, was related to the meal? What if what he had
      said was just as significant as the sign itself? Is it not reasonable to
      assume that what he had said helped the people interpret the sign the
      way John says they did? Is it not reasonable to assume that Mark and
      John are following two distinct traditions, and that there can be some
      truth in both of them?

      If we assume that Jesus has spoken, in his teaching session, of
      what was going to follow, namely the meal, then we are to understand
      that the entire scenario had been planned in advance: the speech as well
      as the meal. This opens a new possibility. Jesus could have wanted to
      start a new liturgy consisting of two parts: a liturgy of the word and a
      liturgy of the meal. This corresponds nicely to the two parts of the
      Eucharistic liturgy. I think that no Christian connotation existed in
      the mind of the historical Jesus, when he introduced his new idea. The
      entire liturgy remained, as far as he was concerned, in a Jewish
      context. After his death, however, the story was transformed to become
      properly Christian.

      The new liturgy did away with the notion of sacrificial meal. A
      sacred meal could be organized without any relation to the sacrificial
      offerings, which were the exclusive prerogative of the Temple. This
      meant that the new liturgy could be performed anywhere in the world, and
      that, in order to be genuine, worship did not have to be performed
      "neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem" (John 4:21).

      If the new liturgy had been planned and not improvised, then a
      place and time for the meeting must have been chosen in advance. The
      place was somewhere on the Eastern side of the lake, the non-Jewish
      side. John identifies it as "the other side" (6:1). Mark describes the
      place as "a deserted place" accessible by boat (6:32). Was it on the
      East or West side of the lake? Most likely the disciples came back from
      their mission and met with Jesus on the West side, where Jesus and most
      of his disciples resided. The deserted place could have been on either
      one of the two sides of the lake. After the meal Jesus dismisses the
      disciples sending them to Bethsaida (6:45), on the Northern tip of the
      East side. But the actual landing takes place at Gennesaret (6:53),
      which is on the West side. Because Mark's account is not clear, I would
      rely on John's version. The new sect Jesus was trying to organize felt
      more secure on the non-Jewish side of the lake for the performance of
      its new liturgy. Jesus and the inner circle of his disciples crossed the
      lake by boat. The larger circle of the disciples went on foot to the
      meeting place. They knew exactly where to go and where the boats were
      headed. They did not have to guess as Mark suggests (6:33). Moreover,
      they did not go empty handed. They had ample provisions for the planned

      The liturgy must have been repeated at least twice, perhaps more.
      The feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10) confirms this assumption.
      The liturgy came abruptly to an end, when the larger circle of disciples
      stopped going with Jesus as stated in John 6:66. At that point in time
      Jesus' popularity came to a halt. The march towards the Passion and
      death had started. Jesus was about to go to Jerusalem with a much
      reduced number of disciples. He knew he could not count on them. He had
      to do alone what he had to do.

      How did the liturgy of the meal become a feeding of the crowd in
      the manner of what had happened in the desert at the hand of Moses?

      Here are two possible answers. First, I would say that this kind of
      thinking is typically Christian and must have appeared after the Easter
      event and as part of the Easter faith. Second, if what Jesus had in mind
      and what the Christian movement made of it "after the resurrection" were
      two different things, then the Christian view had to prevail over the
      original plan of Jesus. Let me rephrase that. If what the liturgical
      innovation the historical Jesus wanted to introduce was dangerously
      incompatible with the Christian faith, then it had to be transformed and
      christened. In a first step, the liturgy was transformed from a sacred
      meal into a miraculous feeding. In a second step, the new liturgy was
      transposed into a Christian context. The non-sacrificial character of
      the meal Jesus had in mind, turned into a commemoration of the
      sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, Son of God. This new problematic made
      of his flesh something to eat and of his blood something to drink. So
      this was a going back to the sacrificial dimension of the sacred meal.
      But no new sacrifice had to be performed in the Eucharist. There is only
      one sacrifice, which is commemorated and actualized in the liturgy,
      rendering all sacrifices obsolete.

      In the end, both visions reached the conclusion that the
      sacrificial liturgy of the Temple was obsolete. But a huge difference
      existed between them. In the original case, we remain in a pre-Christian
      problematic; in the second case, we are in a 100% Christian problematic.
      In the first case, the death of Jesus is not taken into account and
      remains out of the liturgical picture. Only in the second case, the
      death of Jesus is at the center of the liturgical picture.

      If we now turn to the Jewish problematic, we can see how the new
      idea of Jesus remained in it to a great extent, and went beyond it to
      some extent. GJohn mentions that "the Passover, the festival of the
      Jews, was near" (6:4). The parallelism between the Jewish Passover and
      the Christian Easter is a typically Christian view. In the Jewish and
      the Christian context, the sacrificial lamb was in relation to the
      sacred meal. But the new liturgy Jesus meant to introduce did away with
      the sacrificial lamb and changed the nature of the sacred meal. The meal
      did not have any commemorative dimension. Sharing the same meal is a way
      of sharing the same spirit. It is a form of spiritual communion. The
      liturgical dimension associated the liturgy of the word and the liturgy
      of the meal with the prayer of thanksgiving and praise.

      Even the transformed version of the event speaks of bread and fish,
      not of bread and wine. In this case, there is no parallelism between the
      Eucharist and the original event. When GJohn makes the parallelism, he
      does violence to the tradition he is following. This confirms the fact
      that what had taken place during the life of Jesus had no relation to
      the Christian dimension of the Eucharist. This relation was made later,
      and was not a happy one. It was, I would say, contrived.

      I will now complete the reconstruction of what is likely to have

      In the first part of the liturgy, Jesus explained his new idea. The
      Temple and its sacrificial specialty have become obsolete. With Abraham,
      human sacrifices were declared obsolete. They were replaced with animal
      sacrifices. With Jesus, the animal sacrifices are declared obsolete.
      They are to be replaced with a non-sacrificial liturgy.

      For the larger circle of disciples who had participated in the
      liturgy, this was a fantastic revelation. It opened a totally new form
      of Judaism. The idea of starting a new sect for the Galilean followers
      of Jesus became mature with time. But Jesus refused to take the lead of
      a new sect, and the entire popular movement died out. Jesus wanted to
      change the entire religion, not just create a new sect. The movement he
      wanted to start in Galilee was supposed to help conquer Judea and

      Thus the Kingdom of God was not just a slogan without tangible
      content. The new religious order Jesus was announcing had to
      revolutionize the entire Jewish religion.

      This new way of reading between the lines of GJohn and GMark means
      that the real reason why Jesus lost his popularity among his followers
      was not related, as GJohn says, to the speech about the bread of life
      (6:22-59), but to his refusal to accept the leadership of a new Galilean

      GJohn seems to have replaced the speech that had taken place before
      the meal (Mark 6:34) with the famous speech that is located at the
      synagogue of Capernaum (6:25-59). This time, however, instead of being
      understood and well received, the speech is found hard and unacceptable
      (cf. verse 60). Instead of making the people enthused and wanting to
      make Jesus king, the speech on the bread of life causes them to abandon
      Jesus (cf. verse 66).


      When Mark says that the disciples "did not understand about the
      loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52), this can be
      understood as going back to the testimony of the disciples themselves.
      How are we to interpret this statement?

      We know from GJohn that the entire audience understood very well
      what Jesus was talking about and that they recognized in him the prophet
      who was to come into the world.

      But someone felt the obligation of changing the facts "after the
      resurrection", transforming the new liturgy into a miraculous feeding.
      Most likely the disciples themselves were responsible for that. When
      they say that they had not understood the miracle of the loaves, this
      can be a way of negating the miracle of the loaves. The apparent meaning
      is that they could not understand the miracle because some mysterious
      force kept them from understanding it. The hidden meaning can be an
      indirect admission that the said miracle never took place.

      * * *

      This is the view I would like to submit to your criticism.

      You are likely to find many things unclear or left unexplained.
      Your questions will force me to clarify my views.

      Thank you in advance for taking the time to interact.

      Joseph Codsi
      P.O. Box 116-2088
      Beirut, Lebanon
      Telephone (961) 1 423 145
    • Fred Guyette
      I am writing an essay on sacraments in John that I hope to publish later this year. I rehearse the anti-sacraments argument of Bultmann and the
      Message 2 of 2 , Oct 19, 2005
        I am writing an essay on sacraments in John that I hope to publish later
        this year. I rehearse the "anti-sacraments" argument of Bultmann and the
        "pro-sacraments" argument of Cullmann. Other highlights: I try to indicate what Luther and
        Zwingli might have disagreed about in John 6. I think perhaps Sir Edwyn
        Hoskyns has the best approach to John 6, when he says that it is a
        sacramental chapter and that it assumes the eucharistic practices of the
        early church as "understood."

        I have come to a particular question, however, that I can't quite get a
        handle on, and I would appreciate comments from list members:

        Suppose you accept what I will call "the sacramental principle" of the
        Prologue: "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" -- does this lead
        you to a Gerard Manley Hopkins type of affirmation that "Christ plays in
        10,000 places"? What is there in John's gospel that keeps us from saying
        anything like this in our worship? Why do we say that there are just 2 or just 7 sacraments
        and not an "infinite number" of sacraments?

        I know there are creeds and catechisms that teach 2 or 7, but what do we
        find in John itself that "puts the brakes on"?

        Thank You,
        Fred Guyette
        Erskine College and Seminary

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