Old Testament parallels to Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand


Christ feeding the multitude

Many stories about Jesus in the gospel accounts are notable for their Old Testament parallels. Jesus feeding the five thousand is a good example of such a story.  In this blog post, I’ll focus on Mark’s version of the story (Mark 6:30-44) and discuss what we might learn about early Christian beliefs about Jesus by recognising the story’s parallels in the Old Testament.

There are several examples in the Old Testament of the miraculous provision of food for those in need:

  1. God gives bread to the Israelites in the desert when they faced starvation.  Exodus 16:4 – “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”
  2. Elijah miraculously creates a never ending supply of flour and oil in order to survive a famine.  Kings 17:15-16 – “She went away and did as Elijah had told her.  So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family.  For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.”
  3. Elisha feeds one hundred men with an insufficient supply of bread, and there is some left over.  2 Kings 4:43-44 – “’How can I set this before a hundred men?’ his servant asked.  But Elisha answered, ‘Give it to the people to eat.  For this is what the Lord says: ‘They will eat and have some left over’’.  Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.”

The third example is a particularly strong parallel with the story in Mark 6:30-44.  In both cases, the miracle is not merely the provision of sufficient food; it is the provision of more food than necessary.  In addition to the similar content, both narratives share a common basic structure.  In both cases the account begins with the servant/disciples, then there is an order by Elisha/Jesus to give the people something to eat, an immediate incredulous response, then action taken by Elisha/Jesus to distribute the food, the consumption of the food, and then finally a declaration that there was food left over:

2 Kings 4:42 – A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread Mark 6:36 – ‘Send the people away so that they can go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’
2 Kings 4:42 – ‘Give it to the people to eat’, Elisha said Mark 6:37 – But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat
2 Kings 4:43 – ‘How can I set this before a hundred men?’ his servant asked Mark 6:37 – They said to him, ‘That would take more than half a year’s wages!’
2 Kings 4:44 – Then he set it before them Mark 6:41 – He gave them to his disciples to distribute to all the people
2 Kings 4:44 – They ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord Mark 6:42-43 – They all ate and were satisfied and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish

The only significant difference between the two stories is that Elisha obtains the initial quantity of bread from his servant, whereas Jesus receives the food from the crowd.

A parallel need not be in a narrative’s content or structure, but can rather be made through the use of certain images or key words.  Dale C Allison argues that the mention of green grass in Mark’s narrative, far from being a recollection of an eye witness, is part of an allusion to Psalm 23. [1]  Indeed, there are several allusions to the first verses of the Psalm throughout the story of the feeding of the five thousand:

Ps 23:1 – The Lord is my shepherd Mark 6:34 – They were like sheep without a shepherd
Ps 23:1 – I lack nothing Mark 6:42 – They all ate and were satisfied
Ps 23:2 – He makes me lie down in green pastures Mark 6:39 – Jesus told them to make all the people sit down in groups on the green grass
Ps 23:2 – He leads me beside quiet waters Mark 6:34 – Jesus landed [on the shore] and saw a large crowd
Ps 23:3 – He guides me along the right paths Mark 6:34 – He began teaching them many things

What interests me is not that these parallels suggest that the story about Jesus is non-historical (non-historicity does not necessarily follow such parallels, though I believe it can be a reasonable conclusion to draw from them).  Far more interesting is what these parallels tell us about the earliest Christian beliefs about the identity of Jesus.  That the earliest Christians would make a comparison between Jesus and an Old Testament prophet is not particularly contentious but the idea that they would depict Jesus as the Shepherd of the Psalms is far more controversial and has truly important implications.  One frequently hears the theory that first century beliefs about Jesus evolved from a low to a high Christology and that it is even possible to trace these changes from gospel to gospel.   The identification of Jesus as the Shepherd in our earliest Gospel raises serious questions about the accuracy of that interpretation.

1.  Dale C Allison (1982), The Pauline Epistles and the Synoptic Gospels: The Pattern of the Parallels.  New Testament Studies, 28, pp 1-32


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