After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so theysat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles,* they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
Translation: After these things, Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee of Tiberias. A large crowd was following him because they were seeing the signs that he was doing upon the weak ones. But Jesus went up into the mountain and there he was sitting down with his disciples. But the passover, a feast of the Judeans, was near. Then Jesus lifted up the eyes and saw that a great crowd was coming to him. He said to Philip, "Where might we buy bread so that we might feed these people?" But he said this, testing him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, "Two hundred denarii is not enough to buy bread for them so that everyone might receive a little." One out of his disciples, Andrew the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, "There is a child here who has five barley loaves and two little fish, but what are they to so many?"
Jesus said, "Have the people to sit down." But there was much grass in the place. Then the men sat down, the number like five thousand. Then Jesus took the bread, and he gave thanks, and gave to the ones seated, and likewise the little fish, as much as they wanted. And as they were being made full, he said to his disciples, "Gather up together the fragments that remain so that nothing might be lost." Therefore, they gathered together, and they filled twelve baskets of fragments out of the five loaves of barley which were left by those who had eaten. When the people saw what sign he did, they said, "This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world." Then Jesus knew that they were about to be coming and seize him so that they might make him king. He fled again into the mountain by himself.
As evening came to be, his disciples came down by the sea and got into a boat. They were going to the other side of the sea into Capernaum, but the darkness overtook them, and Jesus had not yet come to them. And the sea was awakened, blowing a great wind. And when they had been rowing twenty-five or thirty stadia, they gaze upon Jesus walking upon the sea and coming to be near the boat, and they were afraid. But he said to them, "I am. Do not fear." Then they were willing to receive him into the boat, and immediately the boat came to be upon the ground where they were going.
Background and situation: John 6:1 contains the first mention of the Sea of Galilee in the fourth gospel. Technically, the designation here is "sea of Galilee of Tiberias." The word "Tiberias" generally referred to the city of the region that was named after Tiberius, the emperor who followed Caesar Augustus, and who ruled from AD 14 to AD 37. In the fourth gospel, the Sea of Galilee is also referred to as "the sea of Tiberias" (21:1). (The fourth gospel is the only one of the gospels to make reference to "Tiberias.")
The city of Tiberias was founded c. AD 18 by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, in order to replace Sepphoris as the administrative center of the Galilean region. (Sepphoris had been destroyed by the Roman army because it rebelled against Roman rule following the death of Herod the Great.) Tiberias was founded as a polis, a Greek term for "city," which means that it had a certain degree of prestige and even sovereignty. Tiberias was able to mint its own coins, for example, and elect its own leader.
That Tiberias was founded as a polis is yet another sign of the process of Hellenization, the spread of Greek culture and thought, throughout the region. Hellenization had been in process for over 300 years, ever since Alexander the Great conquered Mesopotamia. From that time until the time of Jesus, and beyond, the region had been in the process of a "culture war" between Hellenism and Judaism--the ways of Greece opposed to the ways of Israel, Greek philosophy and thought versus Hebrew philosophy and thought.
Yes, Rome was the current occupier, but Rome was thoroughly educated in the ways of Greece. Potential Roman scholars and artists were sent to Athens to study. Rome was the center of political and financial power in the first century, but Athens continued to be the center of learning. (The Romans were practical people. They knew what they were good at, which was engineering and war, and they knew what the Greeks did well, which was philosophy and art.)
Tiberias was apparently built on a "necropolis," a "city of the dead"--in other words, a cemetary. As such, orthodox Jews could not live there because it was ritually "unclean." The reference to "sea of Galilee of Tiberias" may indicate that all the people in the "large crowd" coming to Jesus were "ritually unclean" simply because they were "of Tiberias." (In the second century, Tiberias was declared "ritually pure" and even hosted a significant Jewish theological school.)
Moreover, the fourth gospel notes that "passover...was near." Is this a way of saying that those in the "large crowd" should have been in Jerusalem celebrating passover? This would indicate that a large number of people in the Galilean region were at odds with the Judean establishment centered in the Jerusalem Temple. Instead of going to the Temple, they are following Jesus.
The Great Feeding: In chapter 4, Jesus had urged the disciples to "look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting" (4:35). Jesus had been in Samaritan territory and the Samaritans were now coming to Jesus. If the disciples would only "look," they would see these Samaritans who are coming over to the Jesus movement. Similarly, here in chapter 6, Jesus "looked"--or "lifted up the eyes"--"and saw that a great crowd was coming to him."
Jesus asks Philip where they might buy bread to feed such a crowd. (Philip figures much more prominently in the fourth gospel than in the synoptics, and is usually associated with Andrew, as he is here.)
This, we are assured, was only a "test" of Philip since Jesus already had a plan in mind. Wes Howard-Brook cites this "test" as one of several Exodus themes in this text. Jesus went up a mountain, as did Moses in Exodus 19. Then Jesus tested Philip, as God tested the Hebrews (Ex 20:20, Dt 8: 2).
What, exactly, was the test? Note that Jesus referred to buying bread, and Philip replied in terms of cost, stating that they simply did not have enough money to buy bread for such a large crowd. Philip is responding by thinking in terms of the marketplace, i.e. what goods cost, and how they are procured. In the story of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, the disciples had gone to buy food (4:8)--that is, they had gone to participate in the established market system--and had therefore missed Jesus' mission in Samaria. The "test," then, was to challenge Philip to think outside the economic status quo. There is a different way.
Andrew interjects by noting a small child--paidarion--who has five "loaves of barley" and "two little fish." The "loaves of barley" were poor peoples' food. Barley bread was cheaper than wheat bread. This is not surprising, of course, since 90% of the people of Galilee were poor. Any "large crowd" of Galileans would have been composed, overwhelmingly, of poor people.
The "loaves of barley" also recalls 2 Kings where the prophet Elisha fed a hundred people on 20 barley loaves (4:42). Jesus will feed many more people with even less. Not only is Jesus like, but even better than Moses, he's also like, and even better than Elisha. (The lectionary recognizes the connection by having 2 Kings 4: 42-44 as the Old Testament reading for the day.)
Jesus tells the disciples--to whom the direction is issued is not stated specifically--to have the people recline--anapipto. Reclining is the posture for dinner. The crowd is to prepare themselves for a meal, not merely for fast-food on the run.
The fourth gospel notes that "there was much grass--xortos--in the place." Xortos refers to an enclosed place which is a feeding ground. Not only is the large crowd becoming a community as they eat a meal together, they are also in a safe place and in safe hands.
It is curious that the fourth gospel says, specifically, "the men sat down," then adds "the number like five thousand." Two points: First, generally speaking, the fourth gospel doesn't indicate gender. Yet here, it clearly does. Second, what, if any, is the significance of five thousand?
There are no obvious Old Testament texts that refer to five thousand. One theory is that five thousand represents one thousand for every book of the Torah, but, frankly, that seems a stretch. Another theory (D.B. Carson) is that five thousand men represents a contingent of guerilla fighters! In light of Jesus' teaching of non-violence, this is even less convincing.
My first reaction to five thousand men, in light of the context of the times, is to think: "That's about the size of a Roman Legion." Constantine pared the size of a Legion down to one thousand, but that would be three hundred years into the future. In the first century, a Roman Legion was five thousand men--or thereabouts; the size varied between 4500-5500.
Yet, this "crowd becoming community" is clearly not a Roman Legion. It is something else: It is the Legion of Jesus--the counter-cultural alternative to the established power. Where the Roman Legion occupies and takes, the Legion of Jesus, trained in his ways, is mobilized to free and give. It is the Beloved Community, the God-blessed alternative to the worldly way of heirarchical power and oppression of the poor.
The New Community--the Legion of Jesus--lives from Jesus, who feeds his people. The eucharistic overtones of the text are strong--he "took," he "gave thanks" (eucharistesas), he "gave." They received "as much as they wanted" and were "satisfied." "As they were being made full," Jesus told the disciples to "gather together the "fragments." Nothing--and no one--is to be lost or left behind.
The disciples then did indeed "gather together" and filled twelve baskets with fragments. The twelve baskets obviously represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The New Community is the New Israel, and it is centered in Jesus, not the Temple in Jerusalem.
Feeding as "sign":
When the people saw what sign he did, they said, "This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world." Then Jesus knew that they were about to be coming and seize him so that they might make him king. He fled again into the mountain by himself.
The feeding is identified as a "sign," one of seven pre-crucifixion "signs" in the fourth gospel. Seven is the number of completion and wholeness. Therefore, the seven signs in the fourth gospel give us a complete picture of Jesus.
The feeding of the 5000 is the fourth of these seven pre-resurrection "signs." In any group of seven, the fourth one is sometimes seen as "the central point." (Count four from either end of a string of seven and you will arrive in the middle.)
In this fourth sign, Jesus has replaced the Temple. His people are gathered around him, and he feeds them the bread of life. They are "satisfied," and they react positively. They identify Jesus as "truly the prophet who is coming into the world." (This is reminiscent of the Samaritans in chapter 4 who identify Jesus as "truly the Savior of the world.")
Jesus reacts much differently here than he had with the Samaritans. He stayed with the Samaritans for two more days, but here he "knew" they were getting ready to "seize" him and make him king.
This is the last thing Jesus would want. He has opposed hierarchical power, and he is not about to change his mind even if he's the one on top. Plus, the people already had kings. Herod Antipas was the local king, and Caesar was the top dog. For Jesus to allow the people to make him king would have been treason under Roman law.
Then, "evening came to be." It was just starting to get dark when the disciples got into a boat. Soon, however, darkness "overtook them"--katalambano--at which time the sea "was awakened" and a strong wind erupted.
The disciples are separated from Jesus for some reason. They are off on their own, and, before long, darkness descends upon them with full force. The strange thing is that they handle this darkness and wind by rowing. They are not said to be afraid at this point. Rather, they step up and do what needs to be done.
Then, however, they see Jesus "walking upon the sea and coming to be near the boat," and that is when they got afraid. Jesus said, "Ego eimi," which is the Greek form of the Hebrew name for God. (The name for God spoken in Exodus 3 is "YHWH," which is called the tetragrammaton. When YHWH is translated into Greek, the phrase is ego eimi.) Jesus is identified as God. He tells them not to fear.
At this, the disciples were "willing to receive him into the boat," at which point they promptly come to shore. Earlier, in chapter 1, the fourth gospel had said that "he came to his own, but his own did not accept him, but to all who received him...he gave power to become children of God" (1:11-12). Here, the disciples "receive" him. The disciples get one right!
One notes the use of egeneto in these few verses. It is a word associated with creation and coming into existence. It may be translated simply as "happened," or perhaps "being born," or "coming to be." Here, evening "came to be." Then, Jesus was "coming to be" near the boat. "Coming to be" indicates flux and change. Jesus, on the other hand, is ego eimi, and is thus identified as the One who is now, always was, and ever shall be.
Image: Loaves and fishes, John August Swanson