What’s the difference between the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000?

The difference is obviously 1,000! However, there’s another importance difference and I’d like to take a look at that today…

Blessing_of_the_Five_Loaves

In the Gospel last week, we heard Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. The feeding of the multitudes was clearly important to the Gospel writers since, aside from the Resurrection, it is the only miracle recorded by all four Evangelists.

However, it is important to note that both Matthew and Mark record two different feedings of the multitude. The first feeding is of 5,000 people and the subsequent one is of 4,000:

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”… taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds… And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. – Matthew 14:13-21

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; and I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.”… And commanding the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds… Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children… – Matthew 15:32-39

Why did Matthew and Mark include two miracles of the same kind? After all, if Jesus has already fed 5,000 people, what is really added to the Gospel story by including a second feeding of a smaller number? It seems odd. Wouldn’t it have been better to use that precious ink and parchment to record some different miracle?

Location, location, location…

The feeding of the 4,000 is important because of where it took place. The feeding of the 5,000 took place near Bethsaida, close to the Sea of Galilee. In contrast, the feeding of the 4,000 took place in the region of the Gerasenes, in the region around the Decapolis.

Okay, so the two miracles took place in different regions, so what? It’s important because the first region was Jewish (5,000) and the second region was Gentile (4,000). There are some numerical clues in the text which also point to this distinction (numbers in the Bible are rarely accidental)…

1. Feeding of the 5,000
In this miracle, Jesus takes five loves and feeds five thousand, which is reminiscent of the five books of the Jewish Law (Genesis, Exodus, …). Not only that, but when everyone had finished eating, twelve baskets of left-overs were collected, which was probably alluding to the twelve tribes of Israel.

2. Feeding of the 4,000
In this second miracle, seven loaves are used and seven baskets are collected. The number seven is symbolic of completeness (i.e. not just Jews but Gentiles too) and the number seven is evocative of the seven days of creation when God created all humanity.

So, what is the significance of two feedings of the multitudes? Both miracles show the provision of the Lord, His love for all His people, both Jew and Gentile. In these miracles He feeds them with miraculous bread, in preparation for the day when they would be fed sacramentally by His very own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread
– 1 Corinthians 10:17

15 comments

  • so is it 4,000 or 5,000

    • Hey hermione, welcome to Restless Pilgrim!

      There were two different feedings on two different occasions to two different groups of people, one Jewish, the other Gentile.

  • Thank you for your great explanation!

  • Where does it say that the feeding of the 4000 took place in the region of the Gerasenes, in the region around the Decapolis

    • It’s not explicit, but you can see that Jesus goes to that region at the end of Chapter 14 of Matthew. Then, in Matthew 15 we are told that they “passed along the Sea of Galilee”, which is what you’d do to get to the Decapolis. After witnessing Jesus’ miracles they “glorified the God of Israel”, a phrase would make sense if he’s in Gentile territory. Mark’s account of the Feeding of the Four Thousand also indicates a predominantly Gentile audience.

  • The reason I ask is because in Mark, It starts off by saying ‘In those days’. Yes, in the event leading up to this at the end of Ch7, He was in the Decapolis region when dealing with the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, but I couldn’t be sure. I am taking an inductive study of Mark and one of the questions was “Where did this take place?” the closest I could come was “beside the Sea of Galilee and he went up on the mountain (Mt 15:29). Thanks for your response.

  • Pingback: Day 232-233 (Matt15-18) – Bible in a year – 2017

  • So what do the 2 fish for the 5000 mean? & the 3 fish for the 4000?

    • There are a number of different opinions I’ve found among the Early Church Fathers.

      Regarding the two fishes…

      St. Hilary wrote:

      Hilary: But the Lord answered, “They have no need to go,” shewing that those whom He heals have no need of the food of mercenary doctrine, and have no necessity to return to Judaea to buy food; and He commands the Apostles that they give them food. Did He not know then that there was nothing to give them? But there was a complete series of types to be set forth; for as yet it was not given the Apostles to make and minister the heavenly bread, the flood of eternal life; and their answer thus belongs to the chain of spiritual interpretation; they were as yet confined to the five loaves, that is, the five books of the Law, and the two fishes, that is, the preaching of the Prophets and of John

      Raban wrote:

      Or, by the two fishes we may understand the Prophets, and the Psalms, for the whole of the Old Testament was comprehended in these three, the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

      Regarding the three fishes…

      In a gloss we find the following:

      The seven loaves are the Scripture of the New Testament, in which the grace of the Holy Spirit is revealed and given. And these are not as those former loaves, barley, because it is not with these, as in the Law, where the nutritious substance is wrapped in types, as in a very adhesive husk; here are not two fishes, as under the Law two only were anointed, the King, and the Priest, but a fewer, that is, the saints of the New Testament, who, snatched from the waves of the world, sustain this tossing sea, and by their example refresh us lest we faint by the way.

  • There are also twelve loaves of showbread in the holy place of the tabernacle/temple. Seven loaves for the 4,000 and five loaves for the 5,000 = twelve loaves. Jesus is the Bread of Heaven.

Leave a Reply to pilgrim Cancel reply