The Feeding of the Five Thousand: Did It Really Happen?

It’s a story which we’ve all grown up with. We are all familiar with the famous story of Jesus miraculously feeding the five thousand from five loaves and two fish, with no fewer than twelve basketfuls of leftovers. The story is recounted by all four gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But just how historical is this story? In this article, I attempt to highlight several lines of evidence which, when taken as a cumulative whole, are at least suggestive that this event is rooted in actual history. I attempt to show this by virtue of appeal to four so-called “undesigned coincidences”. Remember, as I explained in a previous article, an undesigned coincidence occurs when one account of an event leaves out a bit of information which is filled in, often quite incidentally, by a different account, which helps to answer some natural questions raised by the first. Interestingly, no fewer than four of those “undesigned coincidences” can be associated with the narratives concerning the feeding of the five thousand. So, without further ado, let’s turn our attention to these incidences.

In John 6:1-7, we are told:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Now, Philip is a fairly minor character in the New Testament. And one might, naturally, be inclined to wonder why Jesus hasn’t turned to someone a little higher in the pecking order (such as Peter or John). A partial clue is provided in John 1:44: “Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.” Likewise, John 12:21 refers to “Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee”

And what is so significant about Philip being from the town of Bethsaida? We don’t learn this until we read the parallel account in Luke’s gospel (9:10-17). At the opening of the account (verses 10-11) we are told, “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.”

And so, we are informed by Luke that the event was actually taking place in Bethsaida — the town from which Philip was from! Jesus thus turns to Philip, whom, he believed, would be familiar with the area. Notice too that Luke does not tell us that Jesus turned to Philip.

But it gets even more interesting still. In Matthew 11, Jesus denounces the unrepentant cities, saying, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” The reader is left wondering what miracles were performed in these cities. We are not told in Matthew’s gospel. It is only in light of Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (chapter 9), in which we are told of the event’s occurrence in Bethsaida, that this statement begins to make sense!

Curiously, Mark’s narrative describes the people as sitting down in groups on “the green grass” (verse 39). This is significant, not because Mark mentions people sitting on the grass (Matthew 14:19 also records people sitting “down on the grass”, and Luke 9:15 reports that “everyone sat down”, and John 6:10 notes that “There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down.”). It is significant because Mark reports that the grass was “green”. This is particularly intriguing when one considers that, in Israel (particularly in Galilee) the grass is brown!
What makes this even more intriguing is that Mark’s gospel (6:30-42) also states, in verses 30-31 that,

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Why were there many coming and going? Mark doesn’t tell us. In John’s account however (6:4), we are told that“The Jewish Passover Festival was near.” This explains why many people were “coming and going.” Moreover, during the season of the Passover, there is a small window where the grass is indeed green in that area. So, Mark provides the detail about the grass being green and people coming and going, which makes little sense on its own — until we couple it with the detail given to us by John; that is, the Passover festival was near.

Much like a puzzle, it fits like a hand into a glove. This isn’t the type of pattern that one would expect to see in the event of some kind of conspiratorial manufacturing of the story. When taken as a cumulative argument — this case in conjunction with many others — one has a powerful argument for the overall general reliability and integrity of the gospel narratives.


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