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John 6:1-21

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle story about Jesus found in all four Gospels (Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:31-44; Lk 9:12-16; Jn 6:1-15)–a helpful fact to know when playing your next family game of Bible trivia! (You’re welcome). And in three of the four cases this story is followed immediately by the story of Jesus Walking on the Water. (Luke is the exception). While all of the Evangelists put their own spin on these stories, John’s version is the least like the rest, as is true with nearly all Synoptic parallels in John.

The Fourth Gospel is almost certainly the latest of the canonical Gospels, and was clearly written with the assumption that the audience was familiar with at least one of the Synoptic Gospels, or the oral tradition that underlies them. In other words, they would already know the basic narrative of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Therefore, John told a number of stories that were not already a part of the written Gospel record[1], and often reframed those that were to fit his specific theological purpose. All the Gospels do the latter to some extent, but John is the most blatant about it. In this commentary, I will focus on a few distinct differences in the Johannine telling of these two stories that reveal the Evangelist’s particular purpose and specific message about Jesus.

First of all, Jesus’ physical location at the Feeding of the Five Thousand is different in John, and emphasized. Like the other three versions, John begins this section with the detail that Jesus has crossed to the “far shore” of the Sea of Galilee, and was followed there by the crowds. All the Gospels mention Jesus and his disciples “withdrawing” to a private place, probably in an attempt to get a break from the constantly following crowds (cf. Mk 6:31).

In all four stories the crowds of people follow them there. Unique to John, however, is the detail that Jesus and his disciples went to the mountainside and sat down. This formation was common for ancient teachers when speaking to large crowds: the people could gather around the base of the mountain or hill, with the speaker projecting his voice down toward them and the sound bouncing off the geographical features in the area, creating an ancient form of amplification. It was also common for teachers to sit down to teach while the students stood. So while John doesn’t say that Jesus taught the crowds at this point, we can assume from his physical position that he did, or at least intended to (cf. Mk 6:34).

His position on the mountaintop, however, likely holds greater meaning for John. To the ancient Israelites mountaintops were associated with the Prophets, particularly Moses (who was the first and greatest prophet to the Jews) because of his time on Mt. Sinai (Ex 3; 19), and Elijah for his battle with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel (I Kgs 18:16-40). John appears to be setting up an intentional connection here, especially in light of the final statement from the crowd after they are fed: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14).[2] Elijah was believed to be the ultimate forerunner of the Messiah, who would return in the days before the Messiah’s coming to announce his arrival. Earlier, John the Baptist was thought to possibly be this “one who is to come.” Here, John subtly connects Jesus to this prophetic forerunner instead through common prophetic imagery.

And the narrative hints don’t end with the mountaintop reference. When the disciples bring forth the boy with a lunch of loaves and fishes, John puts a unique spin on things by specifying that the loaves are made of barley (vv. 9, 13). This is not just an incidental detail included to make the story more vivid (although it does). Rather, it is a specific reference, which would not have been lost on the Jews, to one of Elisha’s most important miracles. In II Kgs 4:42-44, Elisha multiplies bread to make 20 loaves feed 100 men. That bread is specifically said to be made of barley (v. 42). Having already connected Jesus in the story to Elijah, John is now clearly linking him to Elisha, Elijah’s prophetic successor. However, while Elisha multiplied 20 loaves for 100 men, Jesus multiplied 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed at least five thousand people,