Did the feeding of the 5000 happen?
By Kevin Rogers,
Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide
(Investigator 175, 2017 July)
One of the features of the four gospels is that each writer provides
independent details that interlock with the other gospel writers. This
is the type of evidence that detectives and lawyers look for to
identify genuine eye-witness accounts. This type of evidence is called
"Un-designed Coincidences". It was first identified by Paley (1803),
then Blunt (1854) and now is being developed by McGrew (2017). There
are many examples but I will illustrate it with just one event.
2 Gospel accounts of the feeding of
The feeding of the 5000 is one of the few miracles or events that are
reported in all 4 gospels, where Jesus feeds over 5000 people from 5
loaves of bread and 2 fish. This would immediately prompt those who
hold to naturalism to dismiss this report as a complete fable, but
there are elements to these reports that are very intriguing. There are
many strong similarities, but each also contains subtle independent
differences. I have highlighted those differences that are relevant to
my argument. The texts are as follows:
The earliest description is from the gospel of Mark:
The apostles returned
to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said
to them, "Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a
while." For many were coming
and going, and they had no leisure even to
eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by
themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they
ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on
them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to
teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to
him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36
Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and
buy themselves something to eat." 37 But he answered them, "You give
them something to eat." And they said to him, "Shall we go and buy two
hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?" 38 And he
said to them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they
had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." 39 Then he commanded
them all to sit down in
groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down
in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five
and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke
the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And
he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were
satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and
of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
Now when Jesus heard
this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.
But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on
them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples
came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the day is now
over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for
themselves." 16 But Jesus said, "They need not go away; you give them
something to eat." 17 They said to him, "We have only five loaves here
and two fish." 18 And he said, "Bring them here to me." 19 Then he
ordered the crowds to sit
down on the grass, and taking the five loaves
and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he
broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave
them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they
took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And
those who ate were about five
thousand men, besides women and children.
10 On their return the
apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew
apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it,
followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of
God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to
wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, "Send the crowd away to
go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and
get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place." 13 But he said to
them, "You give them something to eat." They said, "We have no more
than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all
these people." 14 For there
were about five thousand men. And he said
to his disciples, "Have them
sit down in groups of about fifty each."
15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five
loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing
over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to
set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what
was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
After this Jesus went
away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of
Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the
signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain,
and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast
of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and
a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are
we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" 6 He said this
him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, "Two
hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to
get a little." 8 One 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 for so many?" 10 Jesus said, "Have the people
sit down." Now there was
much grass in the place. So the men sat down,
about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves,
he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So
also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their
fill, he told his disciples, "Gather up the leftover fragments, that
nothing may be lost." 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve
baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who
had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said,
"This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!"
3 The argument
The highlighted differences indicate corroboration without
3.1 When did the feeding occur?
Matthew, Mark and John all state that the people sat on the grass. Mark
says that the grass was green and John says that there was much grass.
John states that the event occurred at the time of the Passover
(April). Mark says that many were coming and going, which is
characteristic of the Passover when there were many visitors to
Jerusalem. Indeed Josephus (2014, Book VI, Chapter 9, Paragraph 3)
claims there were nearly 3 million Jews in Jerusalem for the Passover
in 65 AD. It was probably an exaggeration, but there were a lot of
people travelling to Jerusalem at that time. The main travelling routes
were on the western side of Lake Galilee in the region of Capernaum.
Galilee has a Mediterranean climate, like South Australia, only worse.
It mainly rains in winter and the summers are hot and dry, when there
is little grass. The grass is rarely green in Galilee but it is usually
greenest in spring after the summer rains at the time of the Passover.
By contrast, for the later feeding of the 4000 the people sat on the
ground (Mark 8:6 & Matthew 15:35), rather than on the grass.
So all 4 accounts independently confirm that the feeding of the 5000
occurred in spring at the time of the Passover when the grass is green.
3.2 Who sat down?
All gospels state that there were about 5000 men. Only Matthew adds the
seemingly patriarchal disclaimer "besides women and children". All
gospels record that Jesus commanded the people to sit down. Mark says
in groups of 100s and 50s and Luke says that the groups were about 50
each. However, John says that only the men actually sat down. So the
men probably sat down to distribute the food and so they were easily
counted while the children were up and playing. So all 4 gospels
corroborate each other:
• Luke and Mark state that the crowd sat down in
groups of 50 (or 100).
• John states that only the men sat down, and that is
why only the men were counted.
• Matthew states that there were 5000 men not
counting women and children.
3.3 The mountain
Only John mentions that the feeding of the 5000 occurred on a mountain:
"Jesus went up on the mountain" (John 6:3). None of the other gospels
mentions that it was on a mountain in their direct descriptions of the
event. However, Mark and Matthew mention it incidentally immediately
afterwards, "Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go
before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after
he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to
pray." (Matt 15:22.23). Matthew and Mark do not explicitly say
that the event occurred on the mountain, but they do confirm that the
mountain was at least nearby.
3.4 Why did Jesus ask Philip?
Matthew, Mark & Luke all record Jesus as saying "You give them
something to eat", but only in John does Jesus address this
specifically to Philip. Why Philip? He is a minor disciple.
Independently of the feeding of the 5000, John states (twice) that
Philip was from Bethsaida:
• Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew
and Peter (John 1:44)
• Now among those who went up to worship at the feast
were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in
Galilee, and asked him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." (John 12:20, 21)
John says that Philip (like Peter and Andrew) was from Bethsaida, but
only Luke records that the feeding of the 5000 occurred at Bethsaida.
So Luke makes sense of John. Jesus picked on Philip because it was
Philip's hometown region. Jesus was in effect asking him "Where is the
local fish and chip shop?"
There is a problem about Bethsaida though. After the event Mark states,
"Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him
to the other side, to Bethsaida,
while he dismissed the crowd." (Mark
6:45). So Mark appears to be contradicting Luke. In Mark the event that
follows is the walking on water incident. However, when Jesus and the
disciples arrive on the shore, it is not at Bethsaida (which is on the
North eastern shore just east of where the Jordon enters Lake Galilee),
but at Gennesaret, which is on the western side of Lake Galilee near
Capernaum. So the arrival location tallies more with the other accounts.
There are also some interesting statements about Bethsaida. Only
Matthew and Luke report Jesus pronouncing woes on Bethsaida for not
responding properly to the mighty works performed in that city
Matthew 11:21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the
mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would
have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."
Luke 10:13 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For
mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would
have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes."
As well as the feeding of the 5000, Mark reports the healing of a blind
man in Bethsaida:
And they came to
Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged
touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the
village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he
asked him, "Do you see anything?" And he looked up and said, "I see
people, but they look like trees, walking." Then Jesus laid his hands
on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and
he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, "Do not
even enter the village." (Mark 6:22-26)
Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus as declaring woes on Bethsaida and
Chorazin for not repenting in response to the mighty works performed in
those towns, but Matthew makes no other mention of Bethsaida in his
whole gospel, so there is nothing in Matthew that indicates why
Bethsaida and Chorazin were singled out. However, Luke says that the
feeding of the 5000 occurred in Bethsaida and Mark records that Jesus
healed a blind man in Bethsaida. So Mark and Luke incidentally support
Matthew's statement. Chorazin is otherwise not mentioned, so there is
no sinister plot to bolster Jesus' woe. This strongly confirms that
Jesus did declare the woe and that he performed mighty works in
The 4 gospels mention incidental independent details that explain each
other in a non-contrived way (without collaboration). It doesn't happen
for all incidental information, as these cross-couplings are
accidental. Sometimes they are there and sometimes they are not. All of
this is characteristic of reports of historical events that were based
on eye-witness accounts. This does not happen in the forged gospels but
is only a property of the 4 canonical gospels.
I am not claiming that this proves that Jesus performed a miracle, but
the independent interlocking details seem to strongly confirm that the
feeding of the 5000 was based on at least some historical event.
This is only one example, which you could put down to chance, if you
are that way inclined, but there are many others. They are not
immediately obvious and can be hard to find, but they are there for
those who are willing to look.
Blunt, J. J. (1854). Undesigned
coincidences: in the writings both of the Old and New Testaments, an
argument of their veracity, with an appendix containing undesigned
coincidences between the Gospels, and Acts, and Josephus (Robert
Carter & Brothers).
Josephus, F. (2014). The War of the
Jews (Simon and Schuster).
McGrew, L. (2017). Hidden in plain
View - Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (DeWard
Publishing Company, Ltd.).
Paley, W. (1803). Horae Paulinae:
or, The Truth of the Scripture History of St. Paul Evinced by a
Comparison of the Epistles Which Bear His Name with the Acts of the
Apostles and with One Another. 3rd edition. London: Faulder.