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 Bethsaida (‘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 Cæsar’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 Judæan, or rather Galilean, authorship, distinguishes from the eastern as ‘Bethsaida of Galilee.’ 5 6
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.
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.
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 Peræa, 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.
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 thoroughly accords with the requirements of the Gospel-narrative.
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.’ 18 19 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.
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.
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 things,’ 22 and ‘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.’
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 lodgement. 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.
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.
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 (tyr+). 36 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.
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.
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 ‘much grass;’ 40 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’ 43 44 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
We can scarcely be mistaken as to the words which Jesus spake when ‘He gave thanks.’ The Jewish Law 49 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 ‘savoury’ being merely an addition. There can be little doubt, therefore, that the words which Jesus spake, whether in Aramæan, 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 fullness, 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 or willows 52 (tyric:mi hpafypik@:) were in common use, but considered of the poorest kind. 53 There is a sublimity of contrast that passes description between this feast to the five thousand, besides women and children and the poors 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 Coming One?’ 54 was fully and publicly answered, and that by the Jews themselves.