Miraculous feeding or liturgical meal?
- 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 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
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).
ONE LAST REMARK
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.
P.O. Box 116-2088
Telephone (961) 1 423 145
- 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"?
Erskine College and Seminary