The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
THE ASCENT: FROM THE RIVER JORDAN TO THE MOUNT OF
THE MIRACULOUS FEEDING OF THE FIVE
(St. Matthew 14:13-21; St. Mark 6:30-44; St.
Luke 9:10-17; St. John 6:1-14).
In the circumstances described in the previous chapter, Jesus
resolved at once to leave Capernaum; and this probably alike for the sake of
His disciples, who needed rest; for that of the people, who might have
attempted a rising after the murder of the Baptist; and temporarily to withdraw
Himself and His followers from the power of Herod. For this purpose He chose
the place outside the dominions of Antipas, nearest to Capernaum. This was
Beth-Saida ('the house of fishing,' 'Fisher-town,'1
as we might call it), on the eastern border of Galilee,2
just within the territory of the Tetrarch Philip. Originally a small village,
Philip had converted it into a town, and named it Julias, after C�sar's
daughter. It lay on the eastern bank of Jordan, just before that stream enters
the Lake of Galilee.3
It must, however, not be confounded with the other 'Fisher-town,' or Bethsaida,
on the western shore of the Lake,4
which the Fourth Gospel, evidencing by this local knowledge its Jud�an, or
rather Galilean, authorship, distinguishes from the eastern as 'Bethsaida of
1. The common reading, 'House of fishes,' is certainly inaccurate. Its Aramaic equivalent would be probably )dafy(' tyb@'. Tseida means literally hunting as well as fishing, having special reference to catching in a snare or net. Possibly, but not so likely, it may have been )dafyy@af(a `b (Tsayyada), house
of a snareer-huntsman, here fisher. It will be noticed, that we retain the textus receptus of St. Luke ix. 10.
2. Jos. War iii. 3. 5.
3. Jos. Ant. xviii. 2. 1.
4. I do not quite understand the reasoning of Captain Conder on this point (Handb. of the Bible, pp. 321, &c.), but I cannot agree with his conclusions.
5. St. John xii. 21; comp. i. 44; St. Mark vi. 45.
6. On the whole question comp. the Encyclop�dias, Caspari u. s. pp. 81, 83; Baedeker
(Socin), p. 267; Tristram, Land of Israel, p. 443 &c.
Other minute points of deep interest in the same direction will
present themselves in the course of this narrative. Meantime we note, that this
is the only history, previous to Christ's last visit to Jerusalem, which is
recorded by all the four Evangelists; the only series of events also in the
whole course of that Galilean Ministry, which commenced after His return from
the 'Unknown Feast,'7
which is referred to in the Fourth Gospel;8
and that it contains to distinct notices as to time, which enable us to fit it
exactly into the frame-work of this history. For, the statement of the Fourth
Gospel,9 that the
'Passover was nigh,'10
is confirmed by the independent notice of St. Mark,11
that those whom the Lord miraculously led were ranged 'on the green grass.' In
that climate there would have been no 'green grass' soon after the Passover. We
must look upon the coincidence of these two notices as one of the undesigned
confirmations of their narrative.
7. St. John v.
8. Professor Westcott notes, that the account of St. John could neither have been derived from those of the Synoptists, nor from any common original, from which
their narratives are by some supposed to have been derived.
9. St. John vi. 4.
10. There is no valid reason for doubting the genuineness of these words, or giving them another meaning than in the text. Comp. Westcott, ad. loc.
11. St. Mark vi. 39.
For, miraculous it certainly is, and the attempts
rationalistically to explain it, to sublimate it into a parable, to give it the
spiritualistic meaning of spiritual feeding, or to account for its mythical
origin by the precedent of the descent of the manna, or of the miracle of
Elisha,12 are even
more palpable failures than those made to account for the miracle at Cana. The
only alternative is to accept - or entirely to reject it. In view of the
exceptional record of this history in all the four Gospels, no unbiased
historical student would treat it as a simple invention, for which there was no
ground in reality. Nor can its origin be accounted for by previous Jewish
expectancy, or Old Testament precedent. The only rational mode of explaining it
is on the supposition of its truth. This miracle, and what follows, mark the
climax in our Lord's doing, as the healing of the Syro-Phoenician maiden the
utmost sweep of His activity, and the Transfiguration the highest point in
regard to the miraculous about His Person. The only reason which can be
assigned for the miracle of His feeding the five thousand was that of all His
working: Man's need, and, in view of it, the stirring of the Pity and Power
that were King Herod, and the banquet that ended with the murder of the
Baptist, and King Jesus, and the banquet that ended with His lonely prayer on the
mountain-side, the calming of the storm on the lake, and the deliverance from
death of His disciples.
12. Even those who hold such views assert them in this instance hesitatingly. It seems
almost impossible to conceive, that a narrative recorded in all the four
Gospels should not have an historical basis, and the appeal to the precedent of Elisha is the more inapt, that in common Jewish thinking he was not regarded as specially the type of the Messiah.
Only a few hours' sail from Capernaum, and even a shorter
distance by land (round the head of the Lake) lay the district of the
Bethsaida-Julias. It was natural that Christ, wishing to avoid public
attention, should have gone 'by ship,' and equally so that the many 'seeing
them departing, and knowing' - viz., what direction the boat was taking, should
have followed on foot, and been joined by others from the neighbouring
villages,13 as those
from Capernaum passed through them, perhaps, also, as they recognised on the
Lake the now well-known sail,14
speeding towards the other shore. It is an incidental but interesting
confirmation of the narrative, that the same notice about this journey occurs,
evidently undesignedly, in St. John vi. 22. Yet another we find in the fact,
that some of those who 'ran there on foot' had reached the place before Jesus
and His Apostles.15
Only some, as we judge. The largest proportion arrived later, and soon swelled
to the immense number of 'about 5,000 men,' 'besides women and children.' The
circumstances that the Passover was nigh at hand, so that many must have been
starting on their journey to Jerusalem, round the Lake and through Per�a,
partly accounts for the concourse of such multitudes. And this, perhaps in
conjunction with the effect on the people of John's murder, may also explain
their ready and eager gathering to Christ, thus affording yet another
confirmation of the narrative.
13. This seems the fair meaning of St. Mark vi. 31-33, comp. with St. Matt. xiv. 13.
14. St. Mark vi. 32 has it 'by (or rather in) the ship,' with the definite article. Probably it was the same boat that was always at His disposal, perhaps belonging
to the sons of Jonas or to the sons of Zebedee.
15. St. Mark vi. 33.
It was a well-known spot where Jesus and His Apostles touched
the shore. Not many miles south of it was the Gerasa or Gergesa, where the
great miracle of healing the demonished had been wrought.16
Just beyond Gerasa the mountains and hills recede, and the plain along the
shore enlarges, till it attains wide proportions on the northern bank of the
Lake. The few ruins which mark the site of Bethsaida-Julias - most of the
basalt-stones having been removed for building purposes - lie on the edge of a hill,
three or four miles north of the Lake. The ford, by which those who came from
Capernaum crossed the Jordan, was, no doubt, that still used, about two miles
from where the river enters the Lake. About a mile further, on that wide
expanse of grass, would be the scene of the great miracle. In short, the
locality throughly accords with the requirements of the Gospel-narrative.
16. St. Mark v. 1-16.
As we picture it to ourselves, our Lord with His disciples, and
perhaps followed by those who had outrun the rest, first retired to the top of
a height, and there rested in teaching converse with them.17
Presently, as He saw the great multitudes gathering, He was 'moved with
compassion towards them.'1819
There could be no question of retirement or rest in view of this. Surely, it
was the opportunity which God had given - a call which came to Him from His
Father. Every such opportunity was unspeakably precious to Him, Who longed to
gather the lost under His wings. It might be, that even now they would learn
what belonged to their peace. Oh, that they would learn it! At least, He must
work while it was called to-day, ere the night of judgment came; work with that
unending patience and intense compassion which made Him weep, when He could no
longer work. It was this depth of longing and intenseness of pity which now
ended the Saviour's rest, and brought Him down from the hill to meet the
gathering multitude in the 'desert' plain beneath.
17. St. John vi. 3.
18. St. Matt. xiv. 14.
19. Canon Westcott supposes that 'a day of teaching and healing must be intercalated before the miracle of feeding,' but I cannot see any reason for this. All the events fit well into one day.
And what a sight to meet His gaze - these thousands of strong
men, besides women and children; and what thoughts of the past, the present,
and the future, would be called up by the scene! 'The Passover was nigh,'20
with its remembrances of the Paschal night, the Paschal Lamb, the Paschal
Supper, the Paschal deliverance - and most of them were Passover-pilgrims on
their way to Jerusalem. These Passover-pilgrims and God's guests, now streaming
out into this desert after Him; with a murdered John just buried, and no
earthly teacher, guide, or help left! Truly they were 'as sheep having no
shepherd.'21 The very
surroundings seemed to give to the thought the vividness of a picture: this
wandering, straying multitude, the desert sweep of country, the very want of
provisions. A Passover, indeed, but of which He would be the Paschal Lamb, the
Bread which He gave, the Supper, and around which He would gather those
scattered, shepherdless sheep into one flock of many 'companies,' to which His
Apostles would bring the bread He had blessed and broken, to their sufficient
and more than sufficient nourishment; from which, indeed, they would carry the
remnant-baskets full, after the flock had been fed, to the poor in the outlying
places of far-off heathendom. And so thoughts of the past, the present, and the
future must have mingled - thoughts of the Passover in the past, of the Last,
the Holy Supper in the future, and of the deeper inward meaning and bearing of
both the one and the other; thoughts also of this flock, and of that other
flock which was yet to gather, and of the far-off places, and of the Apostles
and their service, and of the provision which they were to carry from His Hands
- a provision never exhausted by present need, and which always leaves enough
to carry thence and far away.
20. St. John vi. 4.
21. St. Mark vi. 34.
There is, at least in our view, no doubt that thoughts of the
Passover and of the Holy Supper, of their commingling and mystic meaning, were
present to the Saviour, and that it is in this light the miraculous feeding of
the multitude must be considered, if we are in any measure to understand it.
Meantime the Saviour was moving among them - 'beginning to teach them many
'healing them that had need of healing.'23
Yet, as He so moved and thought of it all, from the first, 'He Himself knew
what He was about to do.'24
And now the sun had passed its meridian, and the shadows fell longer on the
surging crowd. Full of the thoughts of the great Supper, which was symbolically
to link the Passover of the past with that of the future, and its Sacramental
continuation to all time, He turned to Philip with this question: 'Whence are
we to buy bread, that these may eat?' It was to 'try him,' and show how he
would view and meet what, alike spiritually and temporally, has so often been
the great problem. Perhaps there was something in Philip which made it
specially desirable, that the question should be put to him.25
At any rate, the answer of Philip showed that there had been a 'need be' for
it. This - 'two hundred denarii (between six and seven pounds) worth of bread
is not sufficient for them, that every one may take a little,' is the course
realism, not of unbelief, but of an absence of faith which, entirely ignoring
any higher possibility, has not even its hope left in a 'Thou knowest, Lord.'
22. St. Mark vi. 34.
23. St. Luke ix. 11.
24. St. John vi. 6.
25. Comp. St. John xiv. 8, 9.
But there is evidence, also, that the question of Christ worked
deeper thinking and higher good. As we understand it, Philip told it to Andrew,
and they to the others. While Jesus taught and healed, they must have spoken
together of this strange question of the Master. They knew Him sufficiently to
judge, that it implied some purpose on His part. Did He intend to provide for
all that multitude? They counted them roughly - going along the edge and
through the crowd - and reckoned them by thousands, besides women and children.
They thought of all the means for feeding such a multitude. How much had they
of their own? As we judge by combining the various statements, there was a lad
there who carried the scant, humble provisions of the party - perhaps a
fisher-lad brought for the purpose from the boat.26
It would take quite what Philip had reckoned - about two hundred denarii - if
the Master meant them to go and buy victuals for all that multitude. Probably
the common stock - at any rate as computed by Judas, who carried the bag - did
not contain that amount. In any case, the right and the wise thing was to
dismiss the multitude, that they might go into the towns and villages and buy
for themselves victuals, and find lodgment. For already the bright spring-day
was declining, and what was called 'the first evening' had set in.27
For the Jews reckoned two evenings, although it is not easy to determine the
exact hour when each began and ended. But, in general, the first evening may be
said to have begun when the sun declined, and it was probably reckoned as
lasting to about the ninth hour, or three o'clock of the afternoon.28
Then began the period known as 'between the evenings,' which would be longer or
shorter according to the season of the year, and which terminated with 'the
second evening' - the time from when the first star appeared to that when the
third star was visible.29
With the night began the reckoning of the following day.
26. Comp. St. John vi. 9 with St. Matt. xiv. 17; St. Mark vi. 38; St. Luke ix. 13.
27. The expression in St. Mark vi. 35 is literally, 'a late hour,' wra pollh.
It was the 'first evening' when the disciples, whose anxiety
must have been growing with the progress of time, asked the Lord to dismiss the
people. But it was as they had thought. He would have them give the people to
eat! Were they, then, to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of loaves? No -
they were not to buy, but to give of their own store! How many loaves had they!
Let them go and see.30
And when Andrew went to see what store the fisher-lad carried for them, he
brought back the tidings, 'He hath five barley loaves and two small fishes,' to
which he added, half in disbelief, half in faith's rising expectancy of
impossible possibility: 'But what are they among so many?'31
It is to the fourth Evangelist alone that we owe the record of this remark,
which we instinctively feel gives to the whole the touch of truth and life. It
is to him also that we owe other two minute traits of deepest interest, and of
far greater importance than at first sight appears.
30. St. Mark vi. 38.
31. St. John vi. 9.
When we read that these five were barley-loaves, we
learn that, no doubt from voluntary choice, the fare of the Lord and of His
followers was the poorest. Indeed, barley-bread was, almost proverbially, the
meanest. Hence, as the Mishnah puts it, while all other meat-offerings were of
wheat, that brought by the woman accused of adultery was to be of barley,
because (so R. Gamaliel puts it), 'as her deed is that of animals, so her
offering is also of the food of animals.'32
The other minute trait in St. John's Gospel consists in the use of a peculiar
word for 'fish' (oyarion),
'opsarion,' which properly means what was eaten along with the bread, and
specially refers to the small, and generally dried or pickled fish eaten with
bread, like our 'sardines,' or the 'caviar' of Russia, the pickled herrings of
Holland and Germany, or a peculiar kind of small dried fish, eaten with the
bones, in the North of Scotland. Now just as any one who would name that fish
as eaten with bread, would display such minute knowledge of the habits of the
North-east of Scotland as only personal residence could give, so in regard to
the use of this term, which, be it marked, is peculiar to the Fourth Gospel,
Dr. Westcott suggests, that 'it may have been a familiar Galilean word,'
and his conjecture is correct, for Ophsonin (Nyniwsp:)af) derived from the
same Greek word (oyon), of which
that used by St. John is the diminutive, means a 'savoury dish,' while Aphyan
(N)yp)) or Aphits (Cyp(), is the term for a kind of small fish,
such as sardines. The importance of tracing accurate local knowledge in the
Fourth Gospel warrants our pursuing the subject further. The Talmud, declares
that of all kinds of meat, fish only becomes more savoury by salting,33
and names certain kinds, specially designated as 'small fishes,'34
which might be eaten without being cooked. Small fishes were recommended for
health;35 and a
kind of pickle or savoury was also made of them. Now the Lake of Galilee was
particularly rich in these fishes, and we know that both the salting and
pickling of them was a special industry among its fishermen. For this purpose a
small kind of them were specially selected, which bear the name Terith
Now the diminutive used by St. John (oyarion)
of which our Authorized Version no doubt gives the meaning fairly by rendering
it 'small fishes,' refers, no doubt, to those small fishes (probably a kind of
sardine) of which millions were caught in the Lake, and which, dried and
salted, would form the most common 'savoury' with bread for the
fisher-population along the shores.
32. Sotah. ii. 1.
33. Babha. B. 740 b.
34. Myn+q Mygd Beza 16 a.
35. Ber. 40 a, near the middle.
36. Comp. Herzfeld, Handelsgesch. pp. 305, 306. In my view he has established the meaning of this name as against Lewysohn, Zool. d. Talm. pp. 255, 256,
and Levy, Neuhebr. W�rterb. ii. 192 a.
If the Fourth Gospel in the use of this diminutive displays
such special Lake-knowledge as evidences its Galilean origin, another touching
trait connected with its use may here be mentioned. It has already been said
that the term is used only by St. John, as if to mark the Lake of Galilee
origin of the Fourth Gospel. But only once again does the expression occur in
the Fourth Gospel. On that morning, when the Risen One manifested Himself by
the Lake of Galilee to them who had all the night toiled in vain, He had
Provided for them miraculously the meal, when on the 'fire of charcoal' they
saw the well-remembered 'little fish' (the opsarion), and, as He bade
them bring of the 'little fish' (the Opsaria) which they had
miraculously caught, Peter drew to shore the net full, not of opsaria,
but 'of great fishes' (icquwn megalwn).
And yet it was not of those 'great fishes' that He gave them, but 'He took the
bread and gave them, and the opsarion likewise.'37
Thus, in infinite humility, the meal at which the Risen Saviour sat down with
His disciples was still of 'bread and small fishes' - even though He gave them,
the draught of large fishes; and so at that last meal He recalled that first
miraculous feeding by the Lake of Galilee. And this also is one of those
undesigned, too often unobserved traits in the narrative, which yet carry
almost irresistible evidence.
37. St. John xxi. 9, 10, 13.
There is one proof at least of the implicit faith or rather
trust of the disciples in their Master. They had given Him account of their own
scanty provision, and yet, as He bade them make the people sit down to the
meal, they hesitated not to obey. We can picture it to ourselves, what is so
exquisitely sketched: the expanse of 'grass.'38
'green,' and fresh,39
then the people in their 'companies'41
of fifties and hundreds, reclining,42
and looking in their regular divisions, and with their bright many-coloured
dresses, like 'garden-beds'4344
on the turf. But One Figure must every eye have been bent. Around Him stood His
Apostles. They had laid before Him the scant provision made for their own
wants, and which was now to feed their great multitude. As was wont at meals,
on the part of the head of the household, Jesus took the bread, 'blessed'45
or, as St. John puts it, 'gave thanks,'46
and 'brake' it. The expression recalls that connected with the Holy Eucharist,
and leaves little doubt on the mind that, in the Discourse delivered in the
Synagogue of Capernaum,47
there is also reference to the Lord's Supper. As of comparatively secondary
importance, yet helping us better to realise the scene, we recall the Jewish
ordinance, that the Head of the meal, yet if they who sat down to it were not
merely guests, but his children, or his household, then might he speak it, even
if he himself did not partake of the bread which he had broken.48
38. St. Matt. xiv. 19.
39. St. Mark vi. 39.
40. St. John vi. 10 .
41. sumposia St. Mark vi. 39.
42. klisiaV, St. Luke ix. 14.
43. St. Mark vi. 40.
44. The literal rendering of prasia is
'garden-bed.' In Mark vi. 40, prasiai
prasiai, 'garden-beds, garden-beds.' In the A. V. 'in ranks.'
45. Ber.46 a.
46. The expression is different from that used by the Synoptists; but in St. Matt. xv. 36, and in St. Mark viii. 6, the term is also that of thanksgiving, not blessing
(eucaristew, not eulogew).
47. St. John vi. 48-58.
48. Rosh haSh 29 b.
We can scarcely be mistaken as to the words which Jesus spake
when 'He gave thanks.' The Jewish Law49
allows the grace at meat to be said, not only in Hebrew, but in any language,
the Jerusalem Talmud aptly remarking, that it was proper a person should
understand to Whom he was giving thanks (Krbm yml).50
Similarly, we have very distinct information as regards a case like the
present. We gather, that the use of 'savoury' with bread was specially common
around the Lake of Galilee, and the Mishnah lays down the principle, that if
bread and 'savory' were eaten, it would depend which of the two was the main
article of diet, to determine whether 'thanksgiving' should be said for one or
the other. In any case only one benediction was to be used.51
In this case, of course, it would be spoken over the bread, the 'savory' being
merely an addition. There can be little doubt, therefore, that the words which
Jesus spake, whether in Aram�an, Greek, or Hebrew, were those so well known:
'Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, King of the world, Who causes to come forth
()yciwm@ha) bread from the earth.' Assuredly it was this threefold thought: the
upward thought (sursum corda), the recognition of the creative act as
regards every piece of bread we eat, and the thanksgiving, which was realised
anew in all its fulness, when, as He distributed to the disciples, the
provision miraculously multiplied in His Hands. And still they bore it from His
Hands from company to company, laying before each a store. When they were all
filled, He that had provided the meal bade them gather up the fragments before
each company. So doing, each of the twelve had his basket filled. Here also we
have another life-touch. Those 'baskets' (kofinoi),
known in Jewish writings by a similar name (Kephiphah), made of wicker
(tyric:mi hpafypik@:) were in common use, but considered of the poorest kind.53
There is a sublimeness of contrast that passes description between this feast
to the five thousand, besides women and children and the poor's provision of
barley bread and the two small fishes; and, again, between the quantity left
and the coarse wicker baskets in which it was stored. Nor do we forget to draw
mentally the parallel between this Messianic feast and that banquet of 'the
latter days' which Rabbinism pictured so realistically. But as the wondering
multitude watched, as the disciples gathered from company to company the
fragments into their baskets, the murmur ran through the ranks: 'This is truly
the Prophet, 'This is truly the Prophet, "the coming One" (habba,
)bh) into the world.' And so the Baptist's last inquiry, 'Art Thou the
was fully and publicly answered, and that by the Jews themselves.
49. Sot. vii. 1.
50. Jer. Sot. p. 21 b.
51. Ber. 44 a.
52. Not an Egyptian basket, as even Jost translates in his edition of the Mishnah. The word is derived from rceim' (Metser), wicker or willow.
53. Comp. Sotah. ii. 1.
54. See the meaning of that expression in the previous chapter.