To read the texts click on the texts: Acts 5:34-42; Jn6:1-15
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand ,with five loaves and two fish, after which 12 baskets are gathered, is the only miracle of Jesus that is narrated by all the four Gospels (Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:30-44; Lk 9:10-17). Yet, there are significant differences in the narrative in the Gospel of John when compared with the Synoptic Gospels. Only in John are we told that the Passover was near at hand and that it was a boy from whom the barley loaves were acquired for the feeding. In John Jesus “gives thanks” over the bread and distributes it to the people himself. This lends a distinctive Eucharistic touch to the miracle. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus says the “blessing” and gives the bread to the disciples who distribute it among the people.
When Jesus sees the large crowd, it is he who initiates the miracle by asking Philip the question about the possibility of feeding such a large crowd. This question, however, is asked as a test, which Philip fails. His answer sets limits on what God can do, much like Nicodemus had done. He asserts the impossibility of the situation. Andrew seems not as unbelieving as Philip, yet he, too, thinks that it is impossible to feed so many with the meager ration that is at their disposal.
John does not explain how the miracle occurred, but states succinctly that the crowd was ordered to sit down and, after Jesus had given thanks over the bread, there was enough and more for the five thousand. By stating that Jesus gave the bread to the people himself, John asserts that the gift of food comes from Jesus, who alone is the bread of life.
Jesus’ words in 6:12, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”, are unique to the Johannine version of the miracle and make an important connection between this story and the manna story of Exodus 16. In Exod 16:19, Moses asked that the people not leave any extra manna around, but the people disobeyed Moses and the leftover manna “bred worms and became foul” (Exod 16:20). Jesus’ words, in 6:12, seem to caution against a repetition of Exodus 16.
The people who are fed respond to the miracle only at a surface level. They are taken up with the sign and base their faith on it. This sign results in their wanting to make Jesus king. However, Jesus will not trust himself to those who base their faith in him only in the signs that he works.
To ask the question - “How did five loaves and two fish suffice to feed five thousand people? - would be to miss the point. The “how” question cannot be answered, because none of the evangelists narrate “how” it happened. The concentration seems to be on Jesus as the bread of life, able to sate the hunger of all who come to him. The question to Philip, Andrew’s intervention, Jesus ordering that the people sit down, his “giving thanks” and distributing the bread to the people himself, are all indications that John focuses on the preparation for the miracle more than on the miracle itself. The fact that all five thousand people are satisfied and twelve baskets can be gathered after they have eaten their fill, points to the abundance of the miracle and Jesus’ free gift of bread and himself. God, in Jesus, will satisfy every kind of hunger of the people. The hungry and thirsty need not look elsewhere for bread. They have it in abundance in Jesus.