This past Sunday, the lectionary Gospel text was Matthew’s version of the one miracle that appears in all four gospels: the feeding of the five-thousand. And while I have already reflected on the meaning and import of the lesson in my sermon for the day, I thought it might be fun to explore the different tellings of that story across the four gospels.
The majority of Biblical scholarship concludes that of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Mark was written first and served as a documentary source for Matthew and Luke, each of whom supplemented Mark’s material with a shared source of Jesus’ teachings and sayings called “Q,” as well as providing their own material. John is a separate literary tradition altogether. Which is why it is telling that this story exists not just among the synoptic gospels, but in all four.
Below is a color-coded chart showing the relationships between the four gospel accounts. Black bolded text indicates language shared across the three synoptic gospels. Blue bolded text indicates language that Mark and Matthew have in common, green bolded text language that Mark and Luke have in common. The red bolded text indicates language that all four gospels have in common. The translation is from the New Revised Standard Version.
And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into thesurrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit downin groupson the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciplesto set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve basketsfull of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more thanfive loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit downin groups of about fifty each.” They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve basketsof broken pieces.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but fiveloaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loavesand two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
The details and the emphases of these stories differ, but at their heart is a core that suggests the earliest stage of transmission of this event in Jesus’ ministry and a testament to the miracle handed down:
Five loaves and two fish. Sit down. Twelve baskets. Five thousand.