How Many Loaves?


In all four gospels, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with 5 loaves, and then 4,000 people with 7 loaves, and then asks his disciples (Matt 16:9-10, Mark 8:19-21) “How many loaves? How many baskets of leftovers?” (Answer: 12 & 7) Finally He asks, “Do you not yet understand?”  He seems to insist that the numbers of loaves and baskets are significant, and to demand they should realise the implications.

I find this fascinating for two reasons: first that after all this time, my own answer is, “No, actually we do not understand the meaning of these numbers!” and second, I am drawn to the idea that the story of these two miracles might be itself an enacted parable with a hidden, “real” meaning. In fact I think there is a good reason why we have four gospels and not one; the same story is told in four different ways deliberately. The story telling – the sequence, the language, the asides – give each a distinctive quality and message.

Feeding thousands of people might be just Jesus’ friendly magic: showing a bit of compassion; implicitly reminding them of Israel getting magic bread in the desert – from their God.  But there are often multiple threads or narratives running intricately and independently through these stories. And when people say the books of the bible come in many literary forms (sayings, short stories, letters, theology lectures, poetry, political histories, mythological histories) I always think they miss out “meta-fiction”, or “story within story”. The clues by which such stories are indicated to us as “types”, “parables”, or “prophecy” include the use of significant names and numbers.

Names And Numbers

People and places were associated with or named after significant events that symbolised defeat or victory, grace or punishment, mourning or rejoicing. Subsequently the use of those names might recall those associations. As a popular example and story, of a good Samaritan rescues an unnamed man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The name Jericho is associated with “Moon”, itself a symbol of mortality, as it waxes and wanes in pallid colour. The man refers us to Adam in fallen state, an “Everyman” or “type” of you and me, having left the city of God, now heading for the city of mortality, of symbolic death. The Samaritan is therefore a “type” of Jesus, the rescuer who pays to keep Adam in a safe place, and promises to return for him after completing the journey on his own, perhaps on behalf of the victim.

Numbers, like names, can also indicate how a story might refer to a deeper narrative. Here’s a few significant numbers you might recognise: there are twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve disciples. twelve seems to be the number that indicates a people chosen to represent God as emissaries of blessing. Forty is a period of waiting, and applies to Israel wandering in the desert, Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the desert, 400 years of silence between the old and new covenant, and I would suggest 40 hours waiting for Jesus’ resurrection. Three is a number of the Triune God, and seven is a number of Christ, His church (Rev 2), and of perfection. Four is the number of the world with its four corners, four beasts, and four winds. Five is a number of grace or abundance. All these numbers and more pop up all over the bible with no explanation, but with unmistakable consistency.

Sometimes numbers are even combined with meaningful purpose, I would suggest that when Jesus appoints a further 72 disciples, he now has 7 x 12 disciples, symbolising a synthesis of the old number (12) called to follow smoke and fire (and now the Messiah), with the new number (7) called to a deeper, more reflexive transaction. Again, the “number of the saved” in John’s Revelation is 144,000 which is also 12, but x1000 for “completeness” and squared for “perfection”. So the number of the saved is not a restrictive limit on how many get saved, but a symbolic descriptive number that explains the nature of their salvation.

So What’s The Answer?

Of course, I don’t really know! Who can be sure? Perhaps the feeding of the 4 and 5 thousands is about Jesus extending the offer of God’s friendship to the whole world, instead of just Israel. In numeric symbolism, Jesus comes first to the 5,000 (the people of the law) and only then to the 4,000 (the people of the whole earth).

But there are other clues to this mystery, and another is the sequence of events.  John’s gospel omits the second miracle (the 4,000) because he is telling (or “hiding”?) a different story, and he is paring down the miracles in his account, without telling us, to exactly seven miraculous signs that Jesus is The Christ. However, John does move on from the feeding of the 5,000 to reveal Jesus as the Bread of Life, and having the Words of Life. Maybe John has replaced the feeding of the 4,000 with the feeding of the seven (you can count these disciples in John 21:2) but in that story the numbers of loaves are replaced by the number of fish, 153. The significance of 153 has proven elusive if it is significant at all. (17!, 1³+5³+3³,  3x3x17,…) that will have to wait for another blog!

Let’s contrast this with Matthew and Mark’s synoptic account of the feeding of the 5,000 with a debunking of food laws, and a Canaanite woman asking to eat the bread crumbs off the table. Definitely a continuation of the bread (and breadcrumbs) theme here, so maybe all part of a bigger meta-story. But wait. Canaan? Isn’t that the place where Israel was headed with intent to rule, sustained by bread from God in the desert? And then we move on to the 4,000 where perhaps the early readers of the gospels would see the numbers and say, “Aha! the Canaanite (the outsider) gets her wish – He’s going to provide bread (not a few crumbs) to the whole world”.

How Many Loaves?

Why 5 loaves for the 5,000? Why 7 loaves for the 4,000? The first miracle could represent the old covenant, then we have blessing (provision, abundance, 5 loaves) being offered to the (5,000) people of The Law (delivered in Moses’ Pentateuch of 5 books.) and then the second miracle would indicate a new dispensation and covenant, and we have Christ (7) being offered to everyone (4,000, the world). The 5,000 are on the west (Jewish) side of the lake; the 4,000 are on the east, Decapolis, Gentile side. This could be the only time Jesus leaves Israel during His ministry.

Then we still have the bread baskets to deal with. Why 12 baskets left over, and then 7? In the first case, 12 baskets remain – the 12 tribes of Israel – to be God’s representative emissary of blessing. In the second case, Christ (7) remains through his spirit  and in His church. For the 5,000 the 12 “baskets” use the word for a personal lunch box, reminding us of the quotidian element of manna from heaven. For the 4,000 the 7 “baskets” use the the word for the kind of basket Paul sat in to be lowered over a city wall. Maybe getting the “crumbs under the table” is a better deal than it first sounds?

And your point is?

Jesus’ actions, or the way in which they are related, or both, can be interpreted to convey an absolutely fundamental message. He is not just any god; He is not just any king. The twofold message is precisely that He is the very same god and king of creation, of history, of the Jews, and that He is rebuilding the old covenant, incorporating everything that went before. while offering much more, and to a henceforth unlimited congregation.

This is my best guess, after much reading and re-thinking of this text. I suspect that there are meaningful connections between all the events from Jesus’ baptism to His transfiguration. John structures his gospel around exactly 7 miracles. I’d like to investigate that along the lines above, to expand this, and find out why the Greek Orthodox Church considers that sequence of events such a compelling theme in its iconography.

Where Can I Read This?

The feeding of the four and five thousand is part of a series of events related in the same sequence through Matt 14-17, Mark 6-9, and also in the same sequence but with less elements, in Luke 9, and John 6-9. 

A Musical Footnote

My favourite composer, J.S.Bach, would also weave musical clues to spiritual meaning into his story telling. On one level, in his musical accompaniment to the ecclesiastical cyclical liturgy he cleverly imported the latest musical devices of emotional expression that would later become opera. People now heard the characters of the gospel come to life, the text and sub-text portrayed in musical phrases and cadences that provided deeper exegesis of the text than the poor preacher could hope to improve on with mere words.

The only great composer to never write an opera, he eclipsed the genre with his two Passions that defy complete analysis to this day. He had a great library of theological and music theory books that he used to search out the meaning of the gospels in the context of Martin Luther’s reformation theology. Bach would weave theological expression into both the macro-structure and the micro-details of his composition; perhaps emulating the technique of the “evangelists” (gospel authors). I can imagine the five of them having a very long conversation in heaven!

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