The Gospel of Mark's Sources

The feeding of the 5000

Is this story a unique historical event that was related by eyewitnesses or do we have evidence that the author was basing this narrative on a similar story or stories well known to him?

Richard Bauckham argues that eyewitnesses would have found this event strikingly memorable, and its associated numbers of 5000 men, 5 loaves and 2 fish would also have been readily remembered and passed on as reliable “tradition”.

But if we can find a similar story or stories in other literature that we know 'Mark' knew very well then the more rational conclusion would be to assume that the author adapted his story from that literary source.

2 Kings 4:38-44

Mark 6:30-44

Elisha went to a place where there was a famine in the land.

Jesus went with his disciples to a deserted place where there was no food.

The followers ('sons') of the prophets were sitting before Elisha.

All who recognized Jesus went out to him, and in the course of the story he had them all sit down.

Elisha wishes to feed them.

Jesus commands that his servants feed them.

They have small quantities of 2 types of food: 20 barley loaves and newly ripened grain.

They have small quantities of 2 types of food: 5 loaves and 2 fish.

His servants protest that they have too little.

His disciples protest that they must send them away to find food for themselves.

Elisha overrides their objections and orders his servants to feed the crowd with the little they have.

Jesus overrides their objections and has his disciples feed the crowd with the little they have.

Elisha said God had promised there would be more than enough.

Jesus prayed to God to bless the food.

They all ate.

They all ate.

And there was some left over.

And there was much left over.

100 men were fed.

5000 men were fed.

Inclusio of the 2 Feeding Miracles

The author of Mark's gospel had just completed the story of King Herod's feast that ended in the death of John the Baptist. Some commentators see 'Mark' (we don't know the author's name but 'Mark' can be used for convenience) as wanting to contrast that feast with the simple fare yet life-giving feast of Jesus (Donohue and Harrington, 2002). If so, may we go one further and see the second miraculous feeding miracle (the feeding of 4000 in Mark 8:1-10 – to be discussed separately) being related similarly to a warning of another potentially deadly feast, that of the leaven offered by both Herod and the Pharisees? Mark 8:13-15. This feature does not relate to "sources" directly, but it may be of significance in suggesting that there was more on the author's mind than simply taking journalistic notes from "eyewitnesses".

Similar food miracles

There is a story in 1 Kings 17:10-16 where Elijah performed a similar miracle of causing a very small food supply (enough for only one day) to to feed a woman and her son for “many days” until a famine had ended. In this case Elijah ordered the woman to feed him first, and then the miracle would happen to allow the little flour and oil to sustain her and her son as long as necessary.

Again in 2 Kings 4:1-7 we find Elisha miraculously causing a single jug of oil to fill many vessels and then still contain enough to feed a woman and her sons.

Sheep without a Shepherd

Mark's story is more than just a feeding miracle, however. Did other details also come to the author's mind from the same literature?

And Jesus . . . was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. . . . Then he commanded them to make them all sit down . . . on the green grass. (6:34, 39)


The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. . . (Psalm 23:1-2)


They wend their way like sheep; they are in trouble because there is no shepherd (Zech.10:2)

So they were scattered because there was no shepherd (Ezek.24:5)

Then Moses spoke to the LORD, saying: “Let the LORD, the God . . . set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.” And the LORD said to Moses: “Take Joshua (=Jesus) . . . a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him . . .” (Num 27:15-18)


There seems little room to doubt that Mark was drawing on images of:

> old Israel being in need of a shepherd,
> wandering in the wilderness,
> miraculously relying on God for food (cf. Exodus 16; Deut 8:3-16; Psalm 78:24-25; Psalm 105:40; Wisdom 16:20-21),
> and having another Jesus (Joshua) appointed as their shepherd.

The miracles of Elijah and Elisha also supplied useful material for crafting a story to illustrate how a greater than either Moses or Elijah could miraculously feed his people in wilderness places. He seems even to have picked up on the shepherd Psalm's reference to the comfort of “green grass”.

Orderly crowds

What of the sitting down in companies of 100's and 50's?

Any of us who have had experience with crowds may suspect that a far greater miracle than the feeding was the way 5000 people promptly sat themselves down in neat companies of hundreds and fifties!

Then he commanded them to make them all sit down groups on green grass. So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and fifties. (6:39-40)

Such a division reminds one of how Moses, on Jethro's advice, organized Israel in the wilderness:

And Moses chose . . . rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens (Exoc.18:25)

Eucharist allusions

Moving away from past literary sources, was the author of Mark also suggesting that this scene of miraculous feeding was intended to suggest the eucharist:

    Mark 6:41 “and taking the ... loaves ... blessed and broke ... and gave
    Mark 14:22 “and taking bread, blessed it and broke it and gave

If so, just as he may well have chosen to craft his story as a contrast to Herod's feast, he may also have chosen to depict it as a foreshadowing of the eucharist.

In this context it may well be significant that this miracle of the feeding of the 5000 follows directly on from the death of John the Baptist, the one seen by many as a Christ-figure, and whose death is seen by many commentators as a prefiguring of the martyrdom of Jesus. Again, this may not relate directly to the source question, but surely is relevant to deciding if the author's mind was turned to eyewitnesses or towards theological craft.

& the 5 loaves?

Now David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. . . . So David said to Ahimelech the priest, . . . Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found. And the priest answered David and said, There is no common bread on hand; but there is the holy bread . . . (1 Sam. 21:1-6)

There were twelve loaves of this “holy bread” (Lev 24:5-6). Five from twelve leaves seven. “Coincidentally” there were seven loaves at the centre of Mark's similar second mass feeding miracle – see Mark 8:5. Commentator often observe that the feeding of the 5000 was in a Jewish setting and pointed to the feeding of Jews; the second miracle was in gentile territory and represented the (spiritual) feeding of the gentiles.

Don't mention the 12 baskets!

But the most significant and memorable number and “detail” of this miracle was not in the 5 loaves or 5000 men, but in the 12 full baskets of food gathered after all had eaten and been satisfied! It is these twelve baskets of leftovers that give the story its most dramatic punch. Curiously Richard Bauckham omitted this most astounding of all numerical details from his list of 'distinctive features' that would have guaranteed this story its memorable status. Twelve, we all know, is also typical of Israel, pointing to their renowned 'twelve tribe' composition. (Compare the note on the 5 loaves above.)

Sound of silence

One final note, albiet a mute one. Unlike the conclusions of other miracles performed by Jesus in Mark's gospel those who witnessed it leave no recorded reaction. That may be a terribly weak note to end on, but as we add more comparisons of Mark's miracles with others in the Elijah-Elisha cycle, we will begin to see an interesting pattern emerge: the author of Mark generally thinks to record an audience reaction when his literary source prompts him.

Other sources in Moses – and a look at Matthew's variations

This page focusses on the Elisha source. A more detailed look at the influence of the Pentateuch, along with a study of how and why Matthew changed Mark's account, can be found here.

Greek influence too?

Dennis MacDonald in Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark has more controversially argued that since the author of Mark was additionally steeped in the basic texts of all who learned to write Greek, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, we can also see the influence of those texts as much as the Jewish scriptures on his stories. See Summaries from MacDonald's observations Mark 1-10.

Posted 2nd March 2007 from the Vridar blog by Neil Godfrey.
Updated 3rd March 2007.