Matthew Chapter 14:13-22

Now comes the feeding of the 5,000, which is closely followed by Jesus walking on water. This was the text of the gospel in my church on 7/26/15, and according to the sermon, these two are meant as a unity. Apparently, they are put together in all gospels; however, that only necessarily means that Mark arranged them this way, and others followed suit. In any case, rather than one too-long section, I’m going to break them into two too-short sections. Since my “short” sections tend to extend much further than seems possible, perhaps the result will be two sections of a reasonable length.

13 Ἀκούσας δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνεχώρησεν ἐκεῖθεν ἐν πλοίῳ εἰς ἔρημον τόπον κατ’ ἰδίαν: καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ ὄχλοι ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ πεζῇ ἀπὸ τῶν πόλεων.

Hearing this (of the death of John) Jesus left that territory in a boat to a deserted place by himself. And hearing the crowd followed hum on foot from the town, 

I’m a bit perplexed by this. He left by boat by himself? Are we to take this that he sailed it alone? Or, are we to assume that some of the disciples–the fishermen, for example, sailed it for him? You know, it occurs to me that if Jesus actually sailed the boat by himself, I think this is further indication that maybe he had grown up in Caphernaum. on the sea/lake of Galilee. I suppose the most rational reading of this is that others sailed the boat and dropped him in a deserted place. The word for “deserted” is “eremon”, which is the root of “eremitic”, from which we get “hermit”. So this is a place devoid of people.

And yet, since it was on another point in the lake/sea (I believe “lake” is more appropriate, because the “Sea” of Galilee is fresh water; however, “sea” is too deeply ingrained”), people could follow the progress of the boat visually, and then just go there around the perimeter of the lake. This is actually an interesting bit of narrative. Of course it’s complete fiction; this detail was not in Mark, and I doubt it persisted the additional 10-15 years in a separate tradition. It’s obviously concocted to explain how all those people got to a place that was so isolated from any settlement. Of course, we’re justified to ask if there were actually any empty stretches of shore on the lake at this time. This is fresh water. Water is not exactly abundant in this part of the world. I would have to imagine that this was a significant source of water. As such, there would, seemingly, be a significant impetus to settle on the shore.

We also then have to ask if Matthew’s audience would have known this. Would they simply take Matthew’s word for it because they had no clue? This then brings up the question of who Matthew’s audience was, and where they lived. The traditional view is that this was written in Syria, perhaps Antioch. Since I have no idea on what this is based, it’s difficult to assess the probability of this. As time has gone on, however, I have become increasingly skeptical of anything that is attributed to “tradition”; especially “later tradition”, such as anything dating after Matthew wrote. By that point, by 100, if not 90 CE–or whenever Luke wrote–I suspect that the story has become completely detached from whatever tenuous historical moorings to the life of Jesus it had possessed. Which each passing year, the chance of anything even vaguely historically accurate being added diminishes sharply, and the difference of a decade probably decreases the historicity by an order of magnitude.

Matthew completely invented the entire story of the Slaughter of the Innocents. This was pure fabrication, with absolutely no historical basis whatsoever. That is how he starts. Or, rather, he begins with a genealogy that is most likely also completely made up, and then moves on to the fictions of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents. This does not do much to inspire trust in his historical credibility. As such, the idea that this aspect of the story bypassed Mark and came down to Matthew intact is, well, unlikely to say the least. 

This is very significant. It is extremely important to understand this and to bear it firmly in mind. Again, we are seeing the story grow. It becomes embellished. Details are added; they do not get subtracted, lost in the retelling. Mark was the most circumspect in matters of the narrative setting. He included very little. Matthew, OTOH, adds to the narrative. Why? Because he had access to details that Mark didn’t? Of course it’s possible, sure, but historically very unlikely. That’s not how it works. No, Matthew added to the narrative to make the story more lively, more life-like, to make it more interesting. These sorts of fictitious details actually make the story more believable, because they impart that sense of having been there. The details bring the story to life. 

That was a very long discussion of an extremely minor point. But from the foot, Hercules. This is a saying attributed to Pythagoras, who said he could work out the proportions of the statue from just using its foot. But more figuratively it has the sense that small details that can provide insights into something much larger. Why did Matthew write a gospel when Mark had already done so? Because Matthew felt he had more to add to the story. Were these additions factually accurate? Just asking that question is to miss the point. Some of the additions may have been, but most probably weren’t. Matthew had to add the element of Jesus’ divinity from birth, of his royal lineage, and he added lots about what Jesus taught. It would be ever-so-lovely to think that there was a little book of Jesus’ teachings that got handed down to Matthew (somehow bypassing Mark completely), that accurately recorded stuff Jesus said; but it would be ever-so-lovely to believe in unicorns, too. Oh, there were sources available to Matthew that hadn’t been available to Mark; the problem comes with the “accurately” part. 

I’ve been reading–skimming, really–The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor. He’s professor of something at UNC Chapel Hill, and he does a lot of archaeology, but he believes that Luke’s embellishments are all–and that should be taken fairly literally–are historically accurate. He wants us to believe that we have found the Jesus family tomb, that we have found the grave stone of Jesus real father, the Roman soldier Pantera in Germany, and that Jesus rode a unicorn into Jerusalem. OK, I made up the last one. But he does believe that Q existed; moreover, he believes that it spoke a lot about John the Dunker, “as one might expect” Q would do. Not sure about you, but I would think a book recording Jesus’ teachings would record, well, Jesus’ teachings, not a lot of stuff about the Dunker. Anyway, my point is this: by throwing in these sorts of “historical” details, of Jesus going off to a solitary place, Matthew is tipping his hand. He is all-but telling us that whatever it is that we’re reading, it’s not history, and it should not be treated as such.

13 Quod cum audisset Iesus, secessit inde in navicula in locum desertum seorsum; et cum audissent, turbae secutae sunt eum pedestres de civitatibus.

14 καὶ ἐξελθὼν εἶδεν πολὺν ὄχλον, καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς καὶ ἐθεράπευσεν τοὺς ἀρρώστους αὐτῶν.

15 ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης προσῆλθον αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγοντες, Ἔρημός ἐστιν ὁ τόπος καὶ ἡ ὥρα ἤδη παρῆλθεν: ἀπόλυσον τοὺς ὄχλους, ἵνα ἀπελθόντες εἰς τὰς κώμας ἀγοράσωσιν ἑαυτοῖς βρώματα.

And coming he saw a great crowd, and he was moved with compassion upon them and he healed their illnesses. (15) Having become evening, came to him his disciples saying, “This place is solitary, and the hour already has come. Send away the crowd, so that having gone away to the village they will buy for themselves food.” 

A couple of points about the Greek. First, the “great” crowd. The adjective is actually more one of quantity than size. So it’s a reference to the number of people, rather than the physical space that it occupied. Second, the word I rendered as “moved with compassion” is strictly an NT word. As such, we can have it mean anything we want it to. An unknown word is infinite; or it has infinite meanings. Words that we know have been limited, whittled down into a particular meaning. That meaning can be vague and general, like the word “great”; or it can be very specific, like “defenestration”. This is the act of throwing someone or something out a window, and it means nothing else. Very, very specific. So for this word, Bible scholars have decided it means “moved with/to compassion.” The Classical root actually refers to the inward meats that are consumed at a sacrifice; another branch from this root means “womb”. I can see the progression from eating the innards of an animal to feeling compassion. Sort of. I don’t actually have a better meaning for the word, a more plausible meaning based on the root. But I do want to point out that this is very much a consensus meaning. It could mean something like, “and Jesus wanted to eat their internal organs”. However, the word does occur in a number of different contexts, so “moved with compassion” is at least reasonable.

Note once again the reference to the solitary nature of the surroundings. How credible is this, considering that they are on the shore of the Sea of Galilee? I’m skeptical, but I’m always skeptical. Except of my own theories, of course.

14 Et exiens vidit turbam multam et misertus est eorum et curavit languidos eorum.

15 Vespere autem facto, accesserunt ad eum discipuli dicentes: “ Desertus est locus, et hora iam praeteriit; dimitte turbas, ut euntes in castella emant sibi escas ”.

16 ὁ δὲ [Ἰησοῦς] εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐ χρείαν ἔχουσιν ἀπελθεῖν: δότε αὐτοῖς ὑμεῖς φαγεῖν.

17 οἱ δὲ λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Οὐκ ἔχομεν ὧδε εἰ μὴ πέντε ἄρτους καὶ δύο ἰχθύας.

18 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν,Φέρετέ μοι ὧδε αὐτούς.

But [ he/Jesus ] said to them, “It is not necessary to go away. You give them (something) to eat”. (17) But they said to him, “We have nothing except five loaves and two fish”. (18) And he said, “Bring them here for me”.

I’m sure that this has been adequately commented, but what strikes me here is the way that Matthew doubly emphasizes how this was a solitary place. There are no people around, no towns, just empty space. This is how Matthew takes care to inform us, to make assurance double-sure as Macbeth put it, that there was nothing else around, that there was no other possible source for the food. They have the five loaves and two fish, and nothing else, and no recourse to anything else. This is why he added the double emphasis by telling us how Jesus went into the boat and sailed to a deserted place. Mark had told us, through the disciples and Jesus, that there was nothing around, but that was insufficient for Matthew. I point this out because it gives a really clear example of how the story grew. And it gives us a really clear reason for why the story, and stories in general, grow, and how such stories grow into legends that are repeated. Finally, this is proof positive of how Matthew added things that simply would not have been included in Q–had anything vaguely resembling the supposed reconstruction of Q actually existed in a single, unitary, written form.

And btw–by having the disciples bring the sum total of all their food to Jesus, Jesus becomes the sole source of provision. What comes, comes from him and nowhere else. Although, I did hear it suggested in a sermon that what this represented was the first-ever church potluck supper. My priest suggested that people would not have traveled out as they are said to have done without bringing some kind of provisions with them. After all, it wasn’t as if they could stop at McDonalds when they got hungry. That struck me as a very interesting suggestion. Maybe Jesus wasn’t the sole source of food. Which brings the legend-making process out into even sharper focus. Matthew had to insist doubly that this common practice of carrying food in your wallet–which Jesus forbade when he sent out the 12–was not followed on this occasion.

16 Iesus autem dixit eis: “ Non habent necesse ire; date illis vos manducare ”.

17 Illi autem dicunt ei: “ Non habemus hic nisi quinque panes et duos pisces ”.

18 Qui ait: “ Afferte illos mihi huc ”.

19 καὶ κελεύσας τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνακλιθῆναι ἐπὶ τοῦ χόρτου, λαβὼν τοὺς πέντε ἄρτους καὶ τοὺς δύο ἰχθύας, ἀναβλέψας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εὐλόγησεν καὶ κλάσας ἔδωκεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς τοὺς ἄρτους οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ τοῖς ὄχλοις.

And ordering the crowd to recline down in the barnyard, taking the five loaves and the two fish, raising them to the sky, blessing and breaking (them) he gave to the disciples the loaves, and the disciples (gave) to the crowd.

I’ll bet “barnyard” gave you a jolt. The word “chortos” in Classical Greek simply means “enclosed area”, such as a “feeding area”, where cattle are kept, with the sort of tacit understanding that this refers to a barnyard. It is only by several extensions, it comes to mean the fodder–the grass–itself. And yet this word is blithely translated as “grass”, without qualification. The KJV even goes along. Here we have a sterling example of how NT Greek gets shaped into a particular mold.

Actually, when this was the gospel passage in church a couple of weeks back, the use of “grass” caught my attention. Now, I have never been to Israel. I do not have first-hand familiarity of what the topography and the vegetation of the area around the Sea of Galilee are like. I have even less idea what the state of such things was in the First Century. My understanding, however, is that “grass” is not exactly abundant. This is an area of light rainfall, and grass requires a lot of water. This is why it’s so abundant in Ireland. So, we are to believe that there was a large, grassy area here?

But wait, there’s more. What do sheep eat? Grass; and other types of vegetation, but grass is a staple. Recall my comment about the likelihood of an empty spot along the shore of a large body of fresh water, in an area where fresh water was scarce. Now we have a patch of grass large enough for 5,000 people to sit, and yet, there were no shepherds in the area, feeding their sheep on this large patch of grass? We are starting to pile up improbabilities, and layers of improbability. What all of this layered improbability does is to demonstrate the quality of the legend-process. This story was already in place when Mark wrote. And btw, Mark did mention the green grass. I just didn’t pick up on it then. Matthew expanded. It now occurs to me that the presence of the grass may itself have been part of the miraculous nature of the story. Here we have a big, open (when a “chortos” is an enclosed area) patch of grass where the crowd can recline for their dinner; recall, in Graeco-Roman, and upper crust Jewish circles, dinner was eaten whilst reclining on a couch. Perhaps the tale of the potluck dinner wasn’t far off, and maybe a few sheep were purchased, slaughtered, and cooked, or maybe some more fish were caught. Maybe, IOW, there was some sort of historical basis for this story, but within a generation–or slightly more–by the time Mark wrote, it had become a miracle. One that Matthew duly amplified.

Note on the Greek: I’ve come to realise that I’ve been very sloppy and lax about how I translate aorist participles. Some of that is, admittedly, laziness. But some is because it’s often difficult to have put across the ideas of both continuing action (-ing ending) with past tense. If it’s continuing, it’s not past. Here I chose the continuing action; I could just as easily have said “having broken”, but that’s the perfect tense in English. Greek has a perfect tense, too. And it loses the process-implication given by the -ing ending.

Second note on the Greek: here, the word I’ve been translating as “heavens” is singular (ouranos). Matthew talks about the “kingdom of the heavens” (ouranoi). As such, I am not sure that “heaven” is entirely appropriate here, and yet that is what we get, even from the KJV. As such, I have rendered it here as “sky”. Matthew deliberately uses the plural in most cases, and here he deliberately uses the singular. This indicates that he wants to get across a different nuance. And I say he did this deliberately since and manuscript corruption, mis-copying the word, should make it more likely that a later scribe would put this into the plural, since that is what Matthew generally uses. And my hard copy NT does not show any manuscript variations showing this as “heavens”. So I will stick by “sky”.

In which case, we have to ask “why”. Why did he chose singular over plural in this case? This seems to go unremarked by the commentaries I’ve consulted. Does it indicate that, for Matthew, “the sky” and “the heavens” were not synonymous? In Classical Greek, the singular and the plural were not, strictly speaking, synonymous. The sky was singular; the plural indicated “the heavens”, in the sense of the universe: the realm of the sun, moon, stars, & planets. This has all sorts of interesting implications. I checked, and the magoi (Latinized as ‘magi’) saw the star “in the east”. They don’t say whether it was in the sky, or in the heavens. The latter use is especially prevalent in philosophy; but we need to understand that “philosophy” encompasses a lot more than Plato and Aristotle. It also includes what we would call proto-science, and one proto-science is what we would call astronomy. But there was really no distinction between astronomy–the mechanical study of celestial objects (celestial being the Latin for “heaven”)–as opposed to what we would call astrology–the purported influence of these heavenly objects over humans and the events on earth. So does Matthew think that Heaven (our word) is different from the sky? Is the kingdom the heavens a slightly different concept from the kingdom of God? Was the latter meant to appear on earth, while the kingdom of the heavens has taken us into the realm of the afterlife?

This is a fascinating thought. However, I’m going to save it for Chapter 16, when we get additional uses of the singular form, of “the sky”. Based on my sneak preview there, “sky” is the appropriate translation here. That changes the sense of the passage in not a small degree. 

19 Et cum iussisset turbas discumbere supra fenum, acceptis quinque panibus et duobus piscibus, aspiciens in caelum benedixit et fregit et dedit discipulis panes, discipuli autem turbis.

20 καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν, καὶ ἦραν τὸ περισσεῦον τῶν κλασμάτων δώδεκα κοφίνους πλήρεις.

21 οἱ δὲ ἐσθίοντες ἦσαν ἄνδρες ὡσεὶ πεντακισχίλιοι χωρὶς γυναικῶν καὶ παιδίων.

22 Καὶ εὐθέως ἠνάγκασεν τοὺς μαθητὰς ἐμβῆναι εἰς τὸ πλοῖον καὶ προάγειν αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ πέραν, ἕως οὗ ἀπολύσῃ τοὺς ὄχλους.

23  καὶ ἀπολύσας τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος κατ’ ἰδίαν προσεύξασθαι. ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης μόνος ἦν ἐκεῖ.

And all ate they were fed, and they took up the abundance of broken pieces twelve baskets filled. (21) Those having eaten were men so much as five thousand, women and children separate. (22) And immediately he compelled the disciples to embark on the boat and they went ahead of him to the (other) side, until he released the crowd. (23) And the crowd having been released he (Jesus) went away to a mountain by himself, and it having become evening, he was alone.

First, the verb << ἐχορτάσθησαν >>, that I rendered as “they were fed” is derived from << χόρτου >>; this is “chortos” which most simply translate as “grass”. Here you can see pretty clearly that the base meaning of this word concerns eating. Since farm animals generally eat vegetation, including grass–and oats, wheat, barley, and hay are forms of grass–the two meanings coalesced. But they coalesced from the feeding place to the food. Second, the idea of being satiated is not an integral part of this verb. It’s used in that way, but it’s a fifth or sixth meaning.

Second, “it had become evening” when the feeding started. It “had become evening” again, when Jesus went to the mountain.

Anyway, I think the symbolism of this story is either fairly clear, or has been made so by lots of commentary. These are the Israelites in the desert, being fed miraculously. Now, the question is whether Jesus should be taken as Moses, or as God might be a little ambiguous. I suppose Moses is the most likely, but that carries implications. This is an old story, already a set-piece by the time Mark wrote. As such, it falls into the wonder-worker tradition. As such, Jesus = Moses. As such, Jesus  is not equal to God. He is not one of the Three Persons, co-equal, co-eternal. This is the sort of tradition that came down to Mark. Jesus was first a wonder-worker, only second a teacher. This is why we get so many stories of wonders worked, and very little of his teaching. Hence the need to invent Q.

I’m going to have to discuss Q again.

20 Et manducaverunt omnes et saturati sunt; et tulerunt reliquias fragmentorum duodecim cophinos plenos.

21 Manducantium autem fuit numerus fere quinque milia virorum, exceptis mulieribus et parvulis.

22 Et statim iussit discipulos ascendere in naviculam et praecedere eum trans fretum, donec dimitteret turbas.

23 Et dimissis turbis, ascendit in montem solus orare. Vespere autem facto, solus erat ibi.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 8, 2015, in Chapter 14, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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