THE GOSPELS DESCRIBE TWO OCCASIONS on which Jesus of Nazareth, while teaching a large crowd in a remote area, used just a few fish and loaves of bread to provide a full meal for thousands of people. In one instance five loaves and two fish were available, and "five thousand men, besides women and children" were fed, with twelve baskets of broken pieces of bread left over (Matt 14:15-21). Another time seven loaves and a few fish fed "four thousand men, besides women and children," and seven baskets full of bread fragments were collected (Matt 15:32-38).
The Gospel accounts of these feeding miracles include specific details that raise questions for today's readers. For one thing, why were only the adult males in the crowds counted? It would be even more impressive to know the total number of people fed. Also, why was so much bread left uneaten, and why did someone bother to collect the leftovers?
Background information about Jewish dining customs from the time of Jesus provides insight into these questions. One relevant custom is the "grace after meals," a prayer of thanksgiving spoken at the end of a meal. This practice is grounded in Deut 8:10, where Moses admonished the Israelites never to forget the source of their abundance enjoyed in the Promised Land. "And you shall eat and be full," Moses said, "and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you."
As a concrete way of heeding Moses' words, a formal practice of blessing God at the end of a meal developed. By the time of Jesus, a number of guidelines for this blessing were in place. When a group of people ate together, a man from the group would lead, and the words with which the prayer began depended on the number of men in the group. According to later rabbinic tradition, if there were ten men in the group the leader would begin, "Let us bless our God." If there were a hundred, he would begin, "Let us bless the Lord our God." For a thousand the opening words were, "Let us bless the Lord our God, God of Israel."(1)
Since the number of men in attendance determined the opening words of the prayer, it would have been natural for the crowds that Jesus fed to split up into groups with specific numbers of men. Mark's account of the feeding of 5000 suggests such an arrangement. "So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties" (Mark 6:40). Organizing everyone in this manner made it reasonably easy to obtain the estimates of 5000 and 4000 men recorded in the Gospels.
What about the remaining bread fragments? In Matthew 14:21 and 15:37, the Greek word for these broken pieces of bread is klasmaton, a word that connotes pieces broken off deliberately rather than crumbs that fell accidentally.(2) As it turns out, it was common practice in those days for diners to break off a small piece of bread from a loaf and set it aside for the priests. This practice stems from two passages from the book of Numbers.
One of them is Num 15:17-21, which instructs Israelite bakers to give an offering of a loaf of bread from the first fruits of a batch of dough. The dough offering was another way for people to acknowledge and give thanks for God's provision. The other is Num 18:25-32, which directs the tribe of Levi to set aside a tenth of Israel's tithes for the priests. Verse 32 underlines the importance of handling these tithes correctly, indicating that a failure to do so could even lead to death.
Based on these verses, a particular portion of Israel's bread (about 4% for the dough offering and 1% from a tithe of the tithe) was donated to the priesthood in the time of Jesus. Moreover, because of the stern warning in Num 18:32, people wanted to be sure not to eat this portion, even by mistake. If one were not confident that a batch of bread had been properly tithed, one would break off a small piece from a loaf and set it aside to be sure.
In a small gathering of people, these pieces would be offered to any priests who were present. However, in the crowds of thousands that Jesus fed, there were so many pieces they were gathered in baskets. The baskets of bread would then be delivered afterward to a local representative of the Temple, who presumably was very surprised to receive such a large donation!
One detail of the feeding miracles requires no explanation, the fact that Jesus said a blessing before these meals (Matt 14:19; 15:36). Giving thanks before a meal is a Jewish tradition that Christianity inherited, and the New Testament is our earliest historical witness to the practice.(3)
Several centuries after Jesus, there is a discussion in the Talmud about the proper procedure for this custom.(4) Should a blessing be recited, and then bread broken, or should a blessing be completed over a piece of broken bread? The New Testament apparently weighs in on this debate, since the bread is broken after the blessing in every New Testament example.
Our study of how the Gospel writers describe the feeding miracles illustrates the fact that a knowledge of Second Temple Judaism provides valuable background for understanding the New Testament. Also, how the New Testament itself is a Jewish text and a vital source of data about Jewish culture and traditions, as illustrated by the example of prayer before a meal. Other details in the Gospels also agree with information from later sources.(5) The Testaments, both old and new, continue to be a trustworthy source of historical accuracy, inspiring faith in a Creator not content to sit in heaven but whose love compels him to seek and save the lost.
(1) Mishnah, Berakhot 7:3.
(2) For this and other details covered in this article, see David Instone-Brewer, "Rabbinic etiquette at the feeding of 4000 & 5000 and the move from Sabbath to Sunday," preprint, 2004.
(3) This fact was mentioned by Dr. R. Steven Notley in a Haverim Lecture Series in Dayton, Ohio, on April 14, 2012.
(4) b. Berakhot 39b.
(5) For instance, the statement that it would cost 200 denarii to buy bread for the crowd (Mark 6:47) is consistent with data given in the Mishnah for the cost of providing half a day's rations for a group of that size. Mishnah, Peah 8:7, cited by Instone-Brewer.
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