The Feeding of the Five Thousand: Did It Really Happen?
By Jonathan McLatchie
It’s a story which we’ve all grown up with. We are all familiar with the famous story of Jesus miraculously feeding the five thousand from five loaves and two fish, with no fewer than twelve basketfuls of leftovers. The story is recounted by all four gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But just how historical is this story? In this article, I attempt to highlight several lines of evidence which, when taken as a cumulative whole, are at least suggestive that this event is rooted in actual history. I attempt to show this by virtue of appeal to four so-called “undesigned coincidences”. Remember, as I explained in a previous article, an undesigned coincidence occurs when one account of an event leaves out a bit of information which is filled in, often quite incidentally, by a different account, which helps to answer some natural questions raised by the first. Interestingly, no fewer than four of those “undesigned coincidences” can be associated with the narratives concerning the feeding of the five thousand. So, without further ado, let’s turn our attention to these incidences.
In John 6:1-7, we are told:
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
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Now, Philip is a fairly minor character in the New Testament. And one might, naturally, be inclined to wonder why Jesus hasn’t turned to someone a little higher in the pecking order (such as Peter or John). A partial clue is provided in John 1:44: “Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.” Likewise, John 12:21 refers to “Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee”
And what is so significant about Philip being from the town of Bethsaida? We don’t learn this until we read the parallel account in Luke’s gospel (9:10-17). At the opening of the account (verses 10-11) we are told, “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.”
And so, we are informed by Luke that the event was actually taking place in Bethsaida — the town from which Philip was from! Jesus thus turns to Philip, whom, he believed, would be familiar with the area. Notice too that Luke does not tell us that Jesus turned to Philip.
But it gets even more interesting still…