Previous posts reviewing NV’s Writing With Scripture:
- How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1
- Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2
- To What Shall We Compare the Gospels? — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 3
- Creating Pseudo-History (and Comedy) from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 4
- Creating the Gospel of Mark — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 5
With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.
Nathanael Vette (NV) establishes in detail how the miraculous feeding stories of Jesus borrow from the miracle of Elisha’s feeding of 100 men with twenty loaves. Many readers would no doubt assume that Mark’s source in 2 Kings 4 was obvious but NV takes the reader through each detail to leave nothing to assumption. Even though a reader of Mark’s gospel who is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would inevitably recognize the relationship between the miracles of Elisha and Jesus, NV suggests that it was not Mark’s intention to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over Elisha because Mark does not mention Elisha’s name. Interestingly, NV notes that,
More generally, scripturalized narratives tend to inflate the numbers of their scriptural source: whilst only a few guards are burnt in Dan. 3:22, Pseudo-Philo has 83,500 (LAB 6:17) and one thousand (LAB 38:4) burnt bystanders; whilst only Achan is uncovered in the lot of sin (Josh. 7:16-26), Kenaz uncovers 6,110 sinners (LAB 25:4). (NV, 141)
NV uses the two different occasions of Jesus’ miracle of feeding large numbers, each distinguished by differences in geographical setting, numbers of persons, loaves and baskets of leftover remains, to make a point that few readers would disagree with:
. . . the narrative setting of Mk 6:35-44 and 8:1-9 takes precedence over the scriptural model. In this way, the distinctive elements of the episodes – the circumstances leading to the miracles (6:35-37; 8:1-3), the geographical setting (6:35; 8:4). the inclusion of fish (6:38, 41; 8:7) and even the number of baskets (6:43; 8:8) – each reflect their respective Markan contexts. (NV, 142)
NV’s main focus is on the particular ways Mark makes use of Scripture so when he refers to the common interpretation that the twin miracles events represent ministries to the Jews (5000 and twelve baskets leftover) and to the gentiles (4000 and seven baskets) he does so to make points about Mark adapting his use of Scripture to fit his narrative aims.
Secondary Scriptures are mingled with details from the primary source of 2 Kings so we find traces of Israel in the wilderness as well (e.g. “sheep without a shepherd”, “groups of hundreds and fifties”, the wilderness setting and the miracle of food being sent at evening time) and subsequent evangelists demonstrate their awareness of Mark’s primary and secondary sources.
One cannot make a consistent point-by-point comparison between Jesus and other figures from a single Scripture narrative, NV clarifies, simply because Jesus is modeled on multiple persons: not only Elisha but also Elijah, for example.
But once again NV speculates a “historical source” behind the scripturalized narrative:
The multiplication of food was a common feature of miracle-working traditions in antiquity and, at least in Jewish tradition, none was better known than the multiplication of loaves by Elisha.”’ In this sense, the author may have been led to the well-known miracle in 2 Kgs 4:42-44 by the reputation of Jesus as a miracle-worker. (NV, 146f)
I would rather think that it is more economical to speculate that the author was led to the Elisha miracle by the theological interest he had in demonstrating a particular role Jesus has in the gospel. NV includes another interesting set of citations and I’ll quote extracts from there that come to similar theological rationales for the presence of these feeding miracles. Again, as in an earlier post, I will go beyond what NV himself discusses and make a detour with a closer look at two of the works he cites and another work cited in one of those two. (And again, I am responsible for the bolded highlighting in all quotations.)
Analogous stories among other peoples
Outside Biblical and Jewish literature, too, we find many stories of food said to have been acquired or displayed in wonderful fashion. Origen quotes a pronouncement by Celsus in which this great opponent of the Christian faith ranks the miracles of Jesus with the works of the magicians: “and with those which are performed by them that have learned them from the Egyptians, who in the midst of the market places, for a few obols, disclose the venerable teachings, expel demons from men, blow away diseases, summon the souls of heroes, and display choice meals and tables and pastries and desserts which do not exist……..” Gods and saints were credited with the power to produce or increase food. Bultmann points to Indian stories and the food miracles in the Mohammedan Hadith. A Finnish legend tells of a girl who prepared food for a whole army from three barleycorns. A German fairy-tale has for its subject a marvellous bread which filled an army. There is a wide selection of stories about goblets, bottles, baskets and tables that never empty. It is related that King Alexander had a goblet out of which his whole army could drink without the goblet having to be refilled. A Celtic legend tells of the basket of Gwydnen Garanhir, in which nine men three times found the foods which they desired. Ethiopia has a Sun Table which, according to the natives, is always supplied with food by the wish of the gods. In Africa they tell of the wondrous speaking pot, which fills itself with the food desired. Many feeding miracles are attributed to saints: Francis of Assisi provided food for his fellow-passengers; André Corsini saw his bread increase in his bag; the basket full of fine cherries which the venerable Cottolengo, the “Intendant of Providence,” distributed to a large crowd of poor persons in Turin in 1883, did not become empty, and the abbess of Kildare caused cow’s milk to increase copiously. St. Nicholas fed 83 workmen who were building a new church on one loaf, and yet a large number of pieces were left, etc., etc. Saintyves, who collected a large number of stories and relates them with great verve, points to the literary dependence in the legends of the saints. He recalls the horn of plenty, the attribute of many old gods, and sees in it, as in the bottles, tables, etc., which never become empty, the idea of fertility and initiation rites. According to Saintyves we must therefore regard the loaves in the Gospels as “seasonal loaves the Biblical stories must be interpreted in the light of the pagan ones.
With such a wide variety of stories, it may be asked whether the New Testament accounts perhaps form part of this “pattern.” Did nothing happen? Or did something happen, and if so, what? (pp 625-627)
So what does the Markan scholar who wrote the above think is the motivation for the feeding miracles in the Gospel of Mark?
To sum up, we may say that Jesus did not perform a “Schauwunder,” that He did not want to work His way up to social reformer, king or champion of political liberty, see Jn. 6 : 15. In the meal the presence of the Messiah-King, whose Kingdom functions in the provision of food, is manifest; how this food was provided was a mystery to those then present, and it is still a mystery, since it was divine providence. (p 636)
Loos, Hendrik van der. The Miracles of Jesus. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965. http://archive.org/details/miraclesofjesus0000loos.
That is, according to Loos, what inspired Mark was the wish to present Jesus as a messianic king who satisfied the needs of his people.
The second work NV cites is Angela Standhartinger’s chapter ‘”And All Ate and Were Filled'”. Standhartinger’s focus is on the cultural meaning that was attached to a political or civic figure or deity feeding large numbers of people. In her discussion it is noted that the miracle itself is more of a subtext hidden beneath another more distinctive detail in the Markan narrative:
In Hellenistic-Roman antiquity, Jesus is certainly not the only one who feeds four to five thousand people all at the same time. . . . . After his victory over Darius, Alexander the Great is said to have invited his friends, officers and emissaries of the Greek cities to a banquet where he seated them at 100 dining couches in a tent. He was trumped by Ptolemy Philadelphus who put even 130 κλίναι (dining couches) into a tent; by Antiochus Epiphanes, who at times used 1,000 and sometimes 1,500 κλίναι during a banquet; and, finally, by Crassus who, after sacrificing to Hercules, treated 10,000 people to a meal, all at the same time? Caesar accomplished what had never been done before: after his triumph over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus and Africa, he fed the citizens of Rome (τον δήμον), again all at the same time, on 22,000 triklina (dining couches for three people) which corresponds to just under 200,000 guests. Not only Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors manifested their benevolence through such feedings; wealthy citizens in the provinces emulated them and sponsored a multiplicity of feedings in and for their cities. (pp 63f)
. . . .
Public feedings in Hellenistic-Roman Antiquity
Male and female benefactors of Hellenistic and Roman (provincial) cities sponsored public feedings rather frequently.” We know this primarily from inscriptions produced by the cities’ political authorities in gratitude for the benefit received. One example is the inscription honouring Cleanax of Cyme in Asia Minor (c. 2 BCE – 5 CE) . . . .
Because he did so in an exceptionally magnanimous and noteworthy manner, and with the consent of the city council, gratitude was owed him to which this inscription and the public crowning with a laurel wreath attest. (pp 64f)
. . . .
[T]he ideal of equality in common meals was not forgotten in Rome . . . . Belonging and being equal are, therefore, important aspects that the court-poet Statius emphasizes in his poem about one of Emperor Domitian’s mass-feedings. The luxuriance of the golden age displayed in this December Saturnalia is made visible at the beginning of the poem in the variety of exotic fruit that Domitian has rained down on the Coliseum in Rome where the feast is taking place (Silvae 1.6.9-27). This is followed by baskets of bread, side dishes and wine (28-34). Finally, the poet praises the giver and the gift:
(30-35) At one and the same time you satisfy the Circle where it is reformed and sobered together with the peoples of the gown: and since you feed so many folk, wealthy lord, haughty Annona knows not this day. Antiquity, compare if you will the ages of the ancient Jove and the golden time: not so freely did wine flow then, not thus would harvest forestall the tardy year. Every order eats at one table: children, women, populace, Knights, Senate. Freedom has relaxed reverence. Nay, you yourself (which the gods could thus invite, which accept invitation?) entered the feast along with us. Now everyone, be he rich or poor, boasts of dining with the leader. . . .
Statius wants to present the feast as the golden age not only returned but surpassed, in that equality and abundance for all had been achieved. That is why Domitian is acclaimed as God. Not only that, the figure portrayed at the end of the poem is quite comparable to Jupiter.
Should we, therefore, expect to find in the feasts for the gods equity in how food was distributed such that the ideals of equality have shaped the community at its meals? Dennis Smith believes that we may do so. He refers to a letter of invitation from a priest of Zeus Panamaros in Caria to the Rhodians:
Since the deity calls all human beings to the feast, allowing them to share a common table where all have equal rights (και κοινήν και ισότιμον παρέχι τράπεζαν), wherever they come from, and since I similarly believe that the city is worthy of this exceeding honour also on account of your reputation, oh Rhodians, and since our cities share a relationship and mutuality in things sacred, I call you to the deity and pray that the inhabitants of the city attend this joyous feast in his [the deity’s] presence because great honour is bestowed by the deity on the Rhodians in neighboring Caria if they receive my letter joyfully and make it known to the deity.
Here a god is said to invite people to come to a common table where all have equal rights. (pp 70f)
. . . .
But we can observe a tendency to invite broader levels of the population to religious feasts. If anywhere, those who had come to the temple or the sacred domain of the gods could expect to be given food in abundance without respect to their status.
It is not surprising then that with the gods and godesses [sic], food never runs out. Dionysos, the god of banquets par excellence, is most famous for this feat. The Bacchae describe a feast of the gods:
One of them took a θύρσος and struck it against a rock, from which a dewy stream of water leaped out. Another lowered her fennel-rod to the surface of the earth, and for her the god set up a stream of wine. Those who had a longing for the white drink scraped at the earth with their finger-tips and had streams of milk; and from the ivory θύρσοι dripped sweet flows of honey.
Other sources tell of a table that magically puts food on itself being prepared in the temple. . . .
Other posts discussing this miracle of Zeus:
What the Bible says about the jug of wine when Elijah visited the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17.16) may also be said about Zeus’ visit to Philemon and Baucis. The jug never runs out; it refills itself on its own. (pp 72f)
Note the application of the above to the Markan narratives:
54. Celsus asserts that, according to Origen, there were professional magicians who ‘could conjure up costly meals and tables full of baked goods and condiments that in truth were never there and that what looked alive was not really alive but only seemed so to the imagination*. Origen, Contra Celsum. 1.68. Origen does not dispute the existence of such people but argues that Jesus cannot be compared with these ‘magicians’ because he wanted to move his onlookers by his miraculous deeds to moral betterment and the fear of God. Apolonius [sic] is supposed to have watched Indian savants ‘conjure up a delicious meal out of nothing and by a word alone’ (Philostratus. Vita Apollonius. 3.27). We are told in the Vita Prophetarum that Ezekiel provided his exiled compatriots with ‘an exceedingly rich fish meal miraculously by his prayer’. Vita Ezechiel 11. Cf. also Iamblich, Pythagoras 36
The feeding of the 4,000-5,000 (Mark 6.32-44 par.)
[M]ost of the New Testament’s miracle stories’ characteristics are missing in the feeding narratives, namely
- the plea that hardship suffered be alleviated,
- an account of the acts performed in the miracle itself,
- and the awe-struck response of the people present at the miracle.
Theißen gives only two additional examples of this genre: the miracle of the wine at Cana (Jn 2.1-10) and the widow of Zarephath’s inexhaustible jug of oil (1 Kgs 17.7-14). What is not taken into account is Bultmann’s note that the sudden multiplication of food or drink is, as has already been pointed out, a trans-cultural fairy-tale motif found in almost all religious contexts and cultures. In antiquity, people claiming to possess divine powers, theoi andropoi, can make such multiplication happen. 54
Whether the motif of inexhaustible sources of food makes this narrative a miracle story or not, the experience of 4-5,000 people being fed all at one time is not unusual in ancient times. . . . (pp. 73f – my formatting)
. . . .
Common meals, ‘picnics’ in nature, are spoken of especially in a religious context and in connection with military campaigns. . . .
The crowd is compared to a flock of sheep without a shepherd only in Mk 6.34. The citation from Num. 27.19 alludes to the political metaphor of the shepherd used throughout all of antiquity. Hence, right at the outset the expectation is raised that the ruling authorities, the kings and the emperors, cater to their people. (pp. 74f)
. . . .
Mark 6 is the only place that describes the seating order during the feeding. Whereas Mt. 14.19 says simply, ‘he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass’, and Luke has the 12 seat the people in groups of 50 persons each, Mk 6.39-40 says, ‘he ordered them to get all the people to recline symposion by symposion on the green grass. And they reclined garden-plot by garden-plot in groups of hundreds and fifties.’
Symposion (literally, drinking together) refers to a formal meal that is followed by a drinking session celebrated on dining couches (triciina). The social form of the symposium itself as well as ‘reclining-at-table’ (άνακλϊναι) is a status symbol as well as a sign of luxury. Thus, a symposium is a cena recta, a proper banquet, and not merely a distribution of sportulae, small bread baskets.65. On Dionysos, see Dunbabin. Roman Banquet, pp. 50-2. On Anna Perenna. see Ovid. fasti, 3.523-542: ‘On the Ides is held the jovial feast of Anna Perenna not far from the banks. O Tiber, who comest from afar. The common folk come, and scattered here and there over the green grass, they drink …’ This reference is found also in Erich Kostermann. Das Markusevangelium (HNT 3, Tübingen: Mohr. 3rd edn.1936), p. 63, but later exegetes did not discuss it further.
The feeding takes place ‘on the green grass’, a place typical of Dionysos but also of some plebeian feasts in Rome, for example, the ancient Roman New Year’s feast Anna Perenna where the people drank on the grassy banks of the River Tiber. Even if the picnic in the open is nothing unusual, the expression πρασιά πρασιά, taking up the συμπόσια συμπόσια in v. 40, is puzzling. Πρασιά, in the strict sense of the word, means bed in a garden, garden-plot (cf. Eccl. 24.31) and in no hitherto known text does it describe a seating order at a meal. The general conclusion from the context is that it describes the seating order ‘in groups’. The group-sizes of 100 and 50 caused many interpreters to think of the assignment of the heads over the people of God spoken of in Exod. 18.21 and 25, and Deut. 1.15. According to 1 Macc. 3.55, this arrangement describes military units; according to IQSa 2.21-23 it is a group-organization; and according to IQSa 2.11-22, the order of Israel at its eschatological meeting with the Messiah which is followed by a festive meal. Reference to a banquet occurs only in the context of this last text; nowhere does the way people were arranged describe a seating order. Elsewhere groups of 100, 50 and ten arc mentioned, whereas Mk 6.40 speaks only of 100 and 50 and Lk. 9.14 only of 50. But in the context of mass-feedings in antiquity there are instructions specifying group-orders of fixed sizes. Epameinondas of Acraiphia writes, ‘after (a festive procession and offerings for the Emperor and different sponsored feedings), he invited to breakfast the sons of citizens and slaves of corresponding age in groups of twenty or thirty’. . . . The meal-order of groups of 100 and 50 persons given in the Gospel of Mark describes an orderly process. The reference to the desert-traditions is not persuasive here.
In the context of a miracle story, everything told to this point is to be seen as exposition. The miracle does not happen until Mk 6.41 in the sixth chapter of Mark (and par.), but the action proper to the miracle itself is missing in the narrative unless one takes Jesus’ looking up to heaven and his blessing to be magical acts. It might be that belief in the prophets’ power of prayer stands behind this. Otherwise, in the final analysis we have a miracle story without a miracle proper. (pp 76-78)
. . . .
While reclining is aristocratic, the meal itself consists of bread and fish. Bread is a basic nourishment of the elevated classes. Many of the poorer populace ate corn porridge above all. Bread is eaten when possible with side dishes (οψάριον). This could be fish. According to their size and where it was being consumed, fish could be both poor folk’s food and a luxury item depending on the context. It is worth noting that the meal in Mk 8.6-7 par. has fish as the second course on the menu, thus taking up a further characteristic of the aristocratic banquet which has several courses. But what is oddly missing altogether is wine which in most of the sponsored feedings is counted among the special highlights of the meal.
Mark 6.42 par. notes, ‘And all ate and were filled.’ This remark – which I have not found in any inscription – could have been inspired by Ps. 77.29 (LXX) and alludes to the miracle of the manna from heaven (Exod. 16; Ps. 77.23-29 (LXX)). There, in the context of the feeding with quails, we read, ‘And they ate and were very much filled’ (και εφάγοσαν και έσεττλάσθησαν σφοδρά). . . .
In inscriptions honouring sponsors of feedings, the number of people fed is one of the things almost always highlighted in first place. In such a position it demonstrates how magnanimous the benefactor is. . . .
What seems more important [in the Gospel of Mark] is not the great deed of the sponsor but that an initially uncounted crowd of people had enough to eat to be filled. (pp 79f)
. . . .
Feeding Narrative and Public Feeding: A Comparison
If there is any difference between civic banquets and religious ones, then there seems to have been a tendency, particularly in the context of feasts for the gods and temple-cults, to show consideration also to slaves, to ordinary people and to foreigners.
. . . .
It is in the details of the feeding narratives that we find what is unique to them. Ancient authors, especially in Roman times, rarely tell of 4-5,000 people reclining at table in the aristocratic position without any social differentiation, all having a two-course meal of bread and fish. The amount of money and/or food available to the disciples indicates that this is not the usual milieu of benefactors and those receiving their beneficence. On the contrary, the feeding narratives present a milieu that was excluded from most other feedings and corn-distributions elsewhere. When the wine which is elsewhere regularly part of the public banquet is missing here, it becomes clear that those people told this story are more used to food distributions than taking part in a symposium. Also missing is the emphasis on the donor’s generosity and how adequate the distribution was at the appropriate location in honour of a worthy cause. Instead, what is emphasized here is how necessary it was to feed the hungry people who were in danger of starving. Therefore the feeding could only with restriction be called spontaneous. The crowd needs food. And again, other than in the official presentations of mass-feedings at honorary inscriptions, attention is conspicuously directed to the problems of logistics and distribution. Nowhere else do these mention who is doing the distributing. And finally, nowhere else is any outcome of the feeding stated. The statement ‘… and all ate and were filled’ is unique in antiquity to the gospels.
The feeding narratives are, therefore, more than one type of miracle told about someone sent by God; they intend more than to tell how Jesus surpasses the miracles of Elijah and Moses or how in his lifetime an eschatological expectation was already realized. The narratives take up the political-religious praxis and ideals of public and civic banquets and mass-feedings. From here they developed the underlying expectation and hope that the common meal of all turns out to become really the (u)topia where indeed all become truly ‘filled’. (pp. 80-82)
Standhartinger, Angela. “‘And All Ate and Were Filled’ (Mark 6.42 Par.): The Feeding Narratives in the Context of Hellenistic-Roman Banquet Culture.” In Decisive Meals: Table Politics in Biblical Literature, edited by Nathan MacDonald, Luzia Sutter Rehmann, and Kathy Ehrensperger, translated by Martin Rumscheidt, 62–82. Library of New Testament Studies 449. London: T&T Clark, 2012.
Both of these works (each cited by NV) conclude by different routes that the primary impetus for these two feeding miracles is to present Jesus as a messianic king who satisfies the physical needs of all his people as one body. In other words, again recalling Occam’s principle, there is no need to speculate that the events were included on the basis of historical memory of Jesus being a miracle-worker: the message is theological, not Jesus as a wonder-worker.
The above extracts from Loos and Standhartinger deviate from the main point of NV’s discussion. They are an alternative response to what is only an incidental speculative point made by NV. But I have taken up the citations for further discussion here (the additional cited works of Dunbabin and Kostermann add nothing significant to what I have quoted) because I think the question is of interest and potential relevance to understanding a little more about the Gospel of Mark.
I find it much more interesting that Jesus should be portrayed as a messianic king who satisfies all the needs of his people than that he should be remembered as another miracle-worker.
Vette, Nathanael. Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2022.
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