By Gordon Franz
All four gospels record the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:11-17; John 6:1-13), but only Matthew (15:29-39) and Mark (8:1-10) record the feeding of the 4,000. Are these feedings actually the same event as some critical scholars suggest, or are they two separate events? When did they take place and why does the Lord Jesus perform the same miracle twice? Who are the recipients of Jesus’ miracles? What actually took place on the hillside of Galilee and elsewhere?
The early pilgrims to the Holy Land commemorated both feedings (they assumed there were two feedings) at the site of Heptapegon (Greek for “seven springs”). A pilgrim, tourist or student of the Bible Lands visiting Israel today would recognize the corrupted Arabic form of the name Tabgha where the Benedictine monastery and church are situated. Is this tradition accurate? The visitor to the site will enjoy the Benedictine hospitality as well as view the lovely mosaic floor from the Byzantine church that depicts a basket containing four loaves marked with crosses and two fish on each side.
Ironically, the artisan who made this mosaic floor did not read his Bible or eat in any of the local fish restaurants while he was employed at the church. First, the Bible says there were five loaves of bread, not four. Second, the fish depicted on the floor has two dorsal fins. These are not indigenous to the Sea of Galilee! The “musht” fish (Arabic for “comb”), better known as the “Saint Peter’s Fish”, has only one dorsal fin. Does this site square with the information given to us in the Bible? If not, how and why did the tradition move there? Is it possible to identify the site where Jesus performed both miracles?
THE FEEDING OF THE 5,000
When did this event that place?
This is probably the easiest question to answer because the Scriptures are quite clear on the matter. John 6:4 says, “Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near.” I will assume an AD 30 crucifixion and resurrection for the Lord Jesus. Thus the event took place in the Spring of AD 29, right before Passover. Another time indicator in the gospel accounts has to do with the grass. Matthew states that Jesus commands the multitudes to “sit down on the grass” (14:19). Mark says the grass is green (6:39) and John informs us there “was much grass in the place” (6:10). There is always lush vegetation in Galilee during the springtime, especially right before Passover. However, soon after Passover, the “hamsin” winds from the Arabian desert blow and kill off all the flowers and grass (cf. Ps. 103:15, 16; Isa. 40:6-8). If the Synoptic gospels are in chronological order at this point, and I believe they are, than the feeding of the 5,000 follows immediately after Jesus is informed of the beheading of John the Baptizer (Matt. 14:22). It also took place after the Twelve who had been sent out two-by-two to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” returned for their “debriefing”. Jesus wanted to spend time along with His disciples.
Where did this event take place?
This is the most difficult question to answer and scholars have had a field day trying to answer it. The gospel records give several clues that need to be reconciled. First, the Synoptic gospel writers say it was a “deserted place” (Matt. 14:13, 15; Mark 6:31, 32, 35; Luke 9:10, 12). Luke adds that this deserted place belonged to the city of Bethsaida (9:10). Second, John informs us that it was up on a mountain (6:3) and after the feeding of the multitudes, the disciples “went down to the sea” (6:16). Third, Jesus and His disciples went out by boat to this place (Matt. 14:13; Mark 6:32) and after feeding of the multitude, Jesus immediately made His disciples get into their boat and head for the “other side” (Matt. 14:22; Mark 6:45; John 6:16, 17).
Mendel Nun, a retired fisherman from Kibbutz Ein Gev, has done an extensive survey of the ancient harbors and anchorages around the Sea of Galilee. Due to abnormally low water levels at times, he went out and located and documented 16 ancient harbors and anchorages. It would make sense that Jesus and His fisherman-disciples would anchor their boat in one of these harbors. Fourth, the multitudes came from the surrounding cities on foot. It would be impossible for such a large number of people to cross the Jordan River in such a short time, especially during the spring flood stage. Thus the multitudes would have to be either from the east side of the Jordan River or the west. Fifth, after the disciples got into the boat to head for Bethsaida and the “other side” (Mark 6:45), a strong east wind that was “contrary”, or “against them” (Matt. 14:24; Mark 6:48), blew them off course to the Land of the Gennessaret and Capernaum (Matt. 14:34; Mark 6:53; John 6:17, 21). This eastern wind storm, called a “Sharkia”, suddenly blew off the Golan Heights. This storm could not have been the westerly winter storm that brought rain because the fisherman-disciples were well aware of how to interpret the appearance of the sky (Matt. 16:1-3). “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening’.” The fisherman-disciples would not have ventured out on the lake if they knew a westerly or northerly (cf. Prov. 25: 23) rain storm was coming. However, the easterly windstorms arise suddenly, unexpectedly, when the sky is clear. This is the storm the fisherman of the lake fear most. These are the Biblical requirements for the location of the feeding of the 5,000.
Gustaf Dalman, in his Sacred Sites and Ways (p. 173), places the miraculous feeding at Mika’ ‘Edlo, between Kursi and Ein Gev, on the east side of the lake. The late Father Bargil Pixner, a Biblical geographer who lived at Tabgha, follows the traditional identification of this event and places it at Tabgha.
One of the earliest pilgrim’s accounts for this event is Aetheria (AD 390). He states, “Not far from there (Capernaum) one can see the stone steps on which our Lord stood. Just there, above the Lake, there is a plain rich in vegetation, which has plenty of grass and palm trees. Next to them are seven fountains, each of which pours forth much water. In this field our Lord fed the people with five loaves and two fishes. Moreover, the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has been made into an altar. Visitors take away small pieces of this stone for their welfare, and all find it salutary. The public road where the Apostle Matthew had his seat of custom passed close to the walls of this church. From there towards the mountains which stand nearby, is the raised piece of ground where, after climbing up to it, the Savior delivered the Beatitudes. Not far from here, however, is a synagogue which our lord cursed.” There are three geographical features that are known today. The “stone steps” are clearly visible today on the lake side of the Church of the Primacy. The “seven fountains” is a clear reference to Heptapegon. The “stone” is the altar area of the Church of the Multiplication of the Fish and the Loaves. Aetheria points out that the “seat of custom” was next to the church. However, geographically Matthew would have had his custom house either in Capernaum, or east of Capernaum toward Gaulanitis. The Sermon on the Mount is localized here as well. Even as early as the 4th century, several events from the gospels were localized in one area. More than likely, this was for the convenience of the pilgrims. The site was chosen because it was near the main highway, the seven springs would draw visitors because of its natural beauty and abundance of drinking water, and the area was sanctified by the memory of Christ and the Twelve. But was it the real site? The biggest draw back to this site, as well as Dalman’s, is that it does not belong to the territory of Bethsaida.
A short digression should be made to discuss the identification of Bethsaida. Geographers of the Bible have hotly debated the identification of this site and whether there was one Bethsaida or two. Josephus describes Bethsaida Julias as the southern capital of Gaulanitis under the rule of Philip the Tetrarch (4 BC to AD 34). The Gospel of John states that Bethsaida, the meaning of which is “house of the fisherman”, was the home (apo) of Philip, one of the Twelve, and the birthplace (ek) of Andrew and Peter (1:44). He also states that Philip, the disciple, came from “Bethsaida in Galilee” (12:21). Is Bethsaida Julias the same city as Bethsaida in Galilee?
More than likely, Bethsaida Julias is located at the site of et-Tell, east of the Jordan River and about two and a half kilometers from the lake, or at el-Mesadiyye, just southeast of Tel el-Araj.. According to Josephus, the border between Galilee, to the west, and Gaulanitis to the east, is the Jordan River. Bethsaida in Galilee should be located ay Khirbet el-‘Araj, named after a sacred zizyphus tree, and is also east of the present day Jordan River. Several scholars have suggested that the Jordan River ran east of the Khirbet el-‘Araj during the Second Temple period, thus putting the site in Galilee. If this is the case, it has far reaching implications for the identification of the location for the feeding of the 5,000. Luke places the event in a deserted place belonging to Bethsaida. Assuming Bethsaida in Galilee is being referred to, than the event took place on one of the hills west of the Jordan River, rather than on the Plains of Bethsaida east of the river. I would like to propose that the feeding of the 5,000 took place in the vicinity of present day Moshav Almagor.
The three major Jewish cities on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee are Capernaum, Chorizin and Bethsaida of Galilee. These are the three cities that the Lord Jesus pronounces woes against. A careful examination of a topographical map reveals some very interesting data to help understand these cities and the territories that is under their control. Between Capernaum and Bethsaida there are three wadis (dry river beds) that drain into the Sea of Galilee. Moving from west to east is Wadi Korazeh that turns into Wadi el-Wabdah as it drains into the lake. The middle wadi is Wadi en-Nashef (Nahal Cah), and finally west of Bethsaida is Wadi Zukluk (Nahal Or). The fishing ground for Capernaum is Tabgha to the west of the city. The fishing grounds for Bethsaida of Galilee would be Kh. ‘Oshsheh (Aish), to the west. Both sites have ancient anchorages. The territory controlled by Capernaum would be everything west of Wadi Korazeh to include Tabgha. Chorazin would probably control the land between Wadi Korazeh and Wadi en-Nashef. Bethsaida would control the land from Wadi en-Nashef to the Jordan River. The elevated location of Moshav Almagor would be within the control of Bethsaida in Galilee.
The Biblical accounts have Jesus going up a mountain and there feeding the multitudes. The site of Moshav Almagor has a commanding view of the entire area and a clear view down to Bethsaida in Galilee. An interesting side light, when Jesus saw the multitudes He turned to Philip and asked him where one could buy bread. Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, would have known where all the bakeries were just in the city just down the hill in which to buy bread. Jesus probably met His disciples in Capernaum in order to take them by boat to this deserted place. Wherever the deserted place was, they would have landed in one of the harbors or anchorages along the shore. The Kh. ‘Oshsheh (Aish) anchorage would fit the topography well. One could visualize the disciples walking down the hill to get to their boat that was left in the anchorage and head across the lake in an eastward direction. Most of the people in the crowd that Jesus preached to, and fed, were Galilean Jews. For them to travel on foot to Almagor would not have been that difficult. If the multitude had to cross the Jordan River at flood stage in order to get to the east side, this would have been more difficult. Dalman did not think this was a difficulty. He recalled, “On Oct. 10, 1921, I saw that it was almost possible to cross over the Jordan dry-shod, just where it enters the lake. An absolutely dry bar lay before the mouth.” It should be pointed out that the river would be low in October because the former rains had not begun, thus causing the river to overflow its banks (cf. Matt. 7:27; Luke 6:48, 49). Finally, Jesus commanded His disciples to get in the boat and head for Bethsaida, possibly el-Mesadiyya, in an eastward direction and the “other side”. The indication seems to be that they are headed in an eastward or southeastward direction toward the Decapolis area. This withdrawal would make good political sense. The crowd wanted to make Jesus king because of the miracle that He did (John 6:15). If word got back to Herod Antipas in Tiberias, he would send out a detachment of soldiers to arrest Jesus and His disciples for insurrection. Only a few weeks before, Herod had John the Baptizer beheaded because he did not like what he heard from him. The Lord Jesus, knowing His time was not yet come, wanted to avoid trouble and withdraw from Galilee. True, He was in Capernaum the next day, but soon after, He takes off for Tyre and Sidon. The disciples headed in an eastward direction but were met with a strong east winds off the Golan Heights. This wind blows them in the direction of the Land of Gennesaret, of which Capernaum is the easternmost part.
THE FEEDING OF THE 4,000
In order to answer the question “why” Jesus fed this multitude, the “when” and “where” of the feeding of the 4,000 should be addressed.
The focus of the ministry of the Lord Jesus toward His disciples changed somewhat after the feeding of the 5,000. He wanted to spend time alone with His disciples and to avoid the crowds. They traveled to Tyre and Sidon to escape the arm of Herod Antipas, but also to spend time together. After ministering to the Syro-Phoenician woman, they departed from the region and “came through the midst of the region of the Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee” (Mark 7:31). There, the Lord Jesus preformed a number of healing miracles for three days, primarily to a Gentile audience, and they “glorified the God of Israel” (Matt. 15:29-31; Mark 7:31-37). Toward the end of the third day the multitudes are fed with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. This event takes place on the east side of the lake, but where?
Father Bargil Pixner places it at Tel Hadar and has even put up a marker to commemorate the site. This site, however, is north of the area of the Decapolis. The border between the Decapolis and Gaulanitis apparently was the Wadi Samak. I would like to propose that the feeding of the 4,000 took place at the Kursi Church and in fact, that is the event that is being commemorated, rather than the casting of the demons into the swine.
There are several reasons for this suggestion. First, I have already suggested elsewhere that the demoniac event took place near the harbor of Gadara in the southeastern corner of the Sea of Galilee. The ancient harbor is located near Tel Samra on the property of Kibbutz Ha’on. Second, there is no indication from the mosaics on the floor of the church that it commemorates the demoniac event. Third, the early church sources and pilgrim accounts just state that the demoniac event took place on the east side of the lake, but are not specific as to where it was. Fourth, the mosaics seem to hint that this is where Jesus fed the 4,000.
The mosaic floor is partially intact. Still visible are some of the plants and animals. Most of the animals were destroyed during an Islamic iconoclastic craze yet some can still be discerned. The fish that were partially destroyed interested me the most. Mendel Nun identified them as barbell fish, yet the gospel narrative states they were “small fish”, most likely the sardines that Wadi Samak is noted for. The other thing that interested me was the baskets. They contained handles which were mentioned in the gospel narratives of the feeding of the 4,000 (Matt. 15:37; 16:10; Mark 8:8, 20). One basket is similar to the basket on the mosaic floor at Tabgha. Unfortunately this floor was vandalized a few years ago. If this proposal is accepted, than the church would commemorate the feeding of the 4,000 rather than the demoniac event.
To the southeast of the basilica, on the slopes of the Wadi Samak, is an ancient tower. According to the excavator, this is the “chapel of the miracle of the swine.” Some have suggested this was built over the tombs that the demoniacs lived in. Nothing in the chapel indicates to whom or what it was dedicated to. If my suggestion is accepted, it could possibly be dedicated to the healing events that took place just prior to the feeding of the multitudes. The text states that Jesus “went up on the mountain and sat down there.” For the convenience of the pilgrims, this chapel was placed just above on the slopes of the mountain. Kursi, interestingly enough, means “armchair, chair,” a place for sitting down.
THE PURPOSE OF THE FEEDING OF THE 5,000
There are at least three reasons why Jesus performed this miracle. The primary reason was to teach the disciples a lesson in faith. Several months before this event, He had sent out His disciples on their own for the first time to preach the gospel to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel.” He gave them authority over unclean spirits, the power to heal diseases, and to raise the dead. Now they were returning from their preaching tour and Jesus wanted to hear what they did and the response they received to the gospel message. This time was sort of a “debriefing” session. As the Master Teacher, the Lord Jesus wanted to reinforce the lessons taught and learned. He challenged the disciples to continue using the power He gave them. Here was a teaching moment. The multitudes that were gathered needed to be fed. Yet it seems the disciples had a “laid back” attitude, i.e. “Well Lord, we’re with you now, we’ll let You do the miracles!” Jesus wanted them to get involved. After the supper, there were twelve baskets of leftover bread picked up, one basket by each disciple. I suspect that the Lord Jesus did this to “convict” each of the disciples of their lack of faith and to show them His power and provision.
The second reason was to provide a setting for the gospel to be preached the next day in the synagogue in Capernaum. John informs us that he wrote his gospel for the specific purpose of setting forth seven (or eight, depending on how you count them) “signs” (miracles) to demonstrate that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing you might have life through His name” (20:30,31). The crowd wanted to make Jesus king because He provided a “welfare program” that provided for their physical needs. The next day in the Shabbat service at the synagogue in Capernaum He expounded the real meaning of the miracle. He was the “Bread of life.”
The final reason was to enhance the understanding of the disciples (Mark 8:21). Jesus appears to be trying to teach “kosher” disciples, who were always reluctant to have any association with Gentiles that salvation was for all, both Jews and Gentiles. Origen may have had a point when he allegorized the two accounts in this manner. [I must confess, I hate to admit he might be right!]. He suggested that the feeding of the 5,000 was to a Jewish audience, and the twelve baskets taken up represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Origen would be geographically correct if the feeding of the 5,000 took place at Moshav Almagor. The feeding of the 4,000 took place in the Decapolis area (assuming Kursi is the proper location). The seven baskets that were taken up would represent, according to Origen, the seven Gentile nations in the Land when Joshua entered it (Deut. 7:1; Acts 13:19).
If Origen is correct, the lesson is clear, the offer of salvation is for all, both Jews and Gentiles, and the disciples of the Lord Jesus should remove the prejudices they have toward those who are not like themselves and share the gospel with all. The gospel was then, and is now, the good news of salvation for any and all who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, because He was the One who died for all their sins and rose from the dead three days later to show sin had been paid for in full. God offers His righteousness to any and all who trust the Lord Jesus, and Him alone, and not their own works of righteousness (I Cor. 15:1-4; Phil. 3:9).