Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand: Loaves and Fishes (Mark 6:30-44)

Analysis and Commentary

Loaves And Fishes
Hulton Archive / Handout/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass. 40 And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties. 41 And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all. 42 And they did all eat, and were filled. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes. 44 And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.

Loaves and Fishes

The story of how Jesus fed five thousand men (were there no women or children there, or did they just not get anything to eat?) with just five loaves of bread and two fishes has always been one of the most popular gospel tales. It is certainly an engaging and visual tale—and the traditional interpretation of people seeking “spiritual” food also receiving sufficient material food is naturally appealing to ministers and preachers.

The story begins with a gathering of Jesus and his apostles who returned from the travels he sent them on at verse 6:13. Unfortunately, we don’t learn anything about what they did, and there are no extant records of any alleged followers of Jesus preaching or healing in the region.

The events in this story take place sometime after they had engaged in their work, yet how much time has passed? This isn’t stated and people usually treat the gospels as if they all occurred during a rather compressed time frame, but to be fair we should assume that they were apart some months—travel alone was time-consuming.

Now they wanted a chance to chat and tell each other what was going on—only natural after an extended absence—but wherever they were, it was too busy and crowded, so they sought someplace quieter. The crowds continued to follow them, however. Jesus is said to have perceived them as “sheep without a shepherd”—an interesting description, suggesting that he thought they needed a leader and were unable to lead themselves.

There is more symbolism here that goes beyond the food itself. First, the story references the feeding of others in the wilderness: God’s feeding of the Hebrews after they were freed from bondage in Egypt. Here, Jesus is trying to free people from the bondage of sin.

Second, the story relies heavily on 2 Kings 4:42-44 where Elisha miraculously feeds one hundred men with just twenty loaves of bread. Here, however, Jesus surpasses Elisha by feeding far more people with even less. There are many examples in the gospels of Jesus repeating a miracle from the Old Testament, but doing so in a larger and grander style that is supposed to point to Christianity’s surpassing Judaism.

Third, the story references the Last Supper when Jesus breaks bread with this disciples just before he is to be crucified. Anyone and everyone is welcomed to break bread alongside Jesus because there will always be enough. Mark, though, doesn’t make this explicit and it’s possible that he didn’t intend for this connection to be made, despite how popular it would become in ​the Christian tradition.