Time to revisit this miracle story:
Matthew 14.13-21: 13 Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself; and when the multitudes heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. 14 And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick. 15 And when it was evening, the disciples came to Him, saying, “The place is desolate, and the time is already past; so send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!” 17 And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” 18 And He said, “Bring them here to Me.” 19 And ordering the multitudes to recline on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes, 20 and they all ate, and were satisfied. And they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. 21 And there were about five thousand men who ate, aside from women and children.
Mark 6.30-44: 30 The apostles gather together with Jesus; and they reported to Him all that they had done and taught. 31 And He says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desert place and rest a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) 32 They went away in the boat to a desert place by themselves. 33 They saw them going, and many recognized them and ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things. 35 When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, “This place is deserted and it is already quite late; 36 send them away so that they may 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 say to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?” 38 And He says to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they say, “Five, and two fish.” 39 And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food and broke the loaves and He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and they picked up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces, and also of the fish. 44 There were five thousand men who ate the loaves. / 30 Καὶ συνάγονται οἱ ἀπόστολοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ ἀπήγγειλαν αὐτῷ πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησαν καὶ ὅσα ἐδίδαξαν. 31 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· δεῦτε ὑμεῖς αὐτοὶ κατ᾽ ἰδίαν εἰς ἔρημον τόπον καὶ ἀναπαύσασθε ὀλίγον. ἦσαν γὰρ οἱ ἐρχόμενοι καὶ οἱ ὑπάγοντες πολλοί, καὶ οὐδὲ φαγεῖν εὐκαίρουν. 32 Καὶ ἀπῆλθον ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ εἰς ἔρημον τόπον κατ᾽ ἰδίαν. 33 καὶ εἶδον αὐτοὺς ὑπάγοντας καὶ ἐπέγνωσαν πολλοὶ καὶ πεζῇ ἀπὸ πασῶν τῶν πόλεων συνέδραμον ἐκεῖ καὶ προῆλθον αὐτούς. 34 Καὶ ἐξελθὼν εἶδεν πολὺν ὄχλον καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ᾽ αὐτούς, ὅτι ἦσαν ὡς πρόβατα μὴ ἔχοντα ποιμένα, καὶ ἤρξατο διδάσκειν αὐτοὺς πολλά. 35 Καὶ ἤδη ὥρας πολλῆς γενομένης προσελθόντες αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἔλεγον ὅτι ἔρημός ἐστιν ὁ τόπος καὶ ἤδη ὥρα πολλή· 36 ἀπόλυσον αὐτούς, ἵνα ἀπελθόντες εἰς τοὺς κύκλῳ ἀγροὺς καὶ κώμας ἀγοράσωσιν ἑαυτοῖς τί φάγωσιν. 37 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· δότε αὐτοῖς ὑμεῖς φαγεῖν. καὶ λέγουσιν αὐτῷ· ἀπελθόντες ἀγοράσωμεν δηναρίων διακοσίων ἄρτους καὶ δώσομεν αὐτοῖς φαγεῖν; 38 ὁ δὲ λέγει αὐτοῖς· πόσους ἄρτους ἔχετε; ὑπάγετε ἴδετε. καὶ γνόντες λέγουσιν· πέντε, καὶ δύο ἰχθύας. 39 καὶ ἐπέταξεν αὐτοῖς ἀνακλῖναι πάντας συμπόσια συμπόσια ἐπὶ τῷ χλωρῷ χόρτῳ. 40 καὶ ἀνέπεσαν πρασιαὶ πρασιαὶ κατὰ ἑκατὸν καὶ κατὰ πεντήκοντα. 41 καὶ λαβὼν τοὺς πέντε ἄρτους καὶ τοὺς δύο ἰχθύας ἀναβλέψας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εὐλόγησεν καὶ κατέκλασεν τοὺς ἄρτους καὶ ἐδίδου τοῖς μαθηταῖς [αὐτοῦ] ἵνα παρατιθῶσιν αὐτοῖς, καὶ τοὺς δύο ἰχθύας ἐμέρισεν πᾶσιν. 42 καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν, 43 καὶ ἦραν κλάσματα δώδεκα κοφίνων πληρώματα καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἰχθύων. 44 καὶ ἦσαν οἱ φαγόντες [τοὺς ἄρτους] πεντακισχίλιοι ἄνδρες.
Luke 9.10-17: 10 When the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. Taking them with Him, He withdrew by Himself to a city called Bethsaida. 11 But the crowds were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” 13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we 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 to eat in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so, and had them all sit down. 16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.
John 6.1-13: 1 After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, of Tiberias. 2 And a great multitude was following Him, because they were seeing the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. 3 And Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Jesus therefore lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him, said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” 6 And this He was saying to test him; for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. 7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” 8 One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, 9 “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11 Jesus therefore took the loaves; and having given thanks, He distributed to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish as much as they wanted. 12 And when they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments that nothing may be lost.” 13 And so they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten. / 1 Μετὰ ταῦτα ἀπῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Γαλιλαίας τῆς Τιβεριάδος. 2 ἠκολούθει δὲ αὐτῷ ὄχλος πολύς, ὅτι ἐθεώρουν τὰ σημεῖα ἃ ἐποίει ἐπὶ τῶν ἀσθενούντων. 3 ἀνῆλθεν δὲ εἰς τὸ ὄρος Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἐκεῖ ἐκάθητο μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ. 4 ἦν δὲ ἐγγὺς τὸ πάσχα, ἡ ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων. 5 Ἐπάρας οὖν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος ὅτι πολὺς ὄχλος ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγει πρὸς Φίλιππον· πόθεν ἀγοράσωμεν ἄρτους ἵνα φάγωσιν οὗτοι; 6 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγεν πειράζων αὐτόν· αὐτὸς γὰρ ᾔδει τί ἔμελλεν ποιεῖν. 7 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ [ὁ] Φίλιππος· διακοσίων δηναρίων ἄρτοι οὐκ ἀρκοῦσιν αὐτοῖς ἵνα ἕκαστος βραχύ [τι] λάβῃ. 8 λέγει αὐτῷ εἷς ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ, Ἀνδρέας ὁ ἀδελφὸς Σίμωνος Πέτρου· 9 ἔστιν παιδάριον ὧδε ὃς ἔχει πέντε ἄρτους κριθίνους καὶ δύο ὀψάρια· ἀλλὰ ταῦτα τί ἐστιν εἰς τοσούτους; 10 εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς· ποιήσατε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἀναπεσεῖν. ἦν δὲ χόρτος πολὺς ἐν τῷ τόπῳ. ἀνέπεσαν οὖν οἱ ἄνδρες τὸν ἀριθμὸν ὡς πεντακισχίλιοι. 11 ἔλαβεν οὖν τοὺς ἄρτους ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εὐχαριστήσας διέδωκεν τοῖς ἀνακειμένοις ὁμοίως καὶ ἐκ τῶν ὀψαρίων ὅσον ἤθελον. 12 ὡς δὲ ἐνεπλήσθησαν, λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ· συναγάγετε τὰ περισσεύσαντα κλάσματα, ἵνα μή τι ἀπόληται. 13 συνήγαγον οὖν καὶ ἐγέμισαν δώδεκα κοφίνους κλασμάτων ἐκ τῶν πέντε ἄρτων τῶν κριθίνων ἃ ἐπερίσσευσαν τοῖς βεβρωκόσιν.
Matthew 15.32-39: 32 And Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, “I feel compassion for the multitude, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not wish to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” 33 And the disciples said to Him, “Where would we get so many loaves in a desolate place to satisfy such a great multitude?” 34 And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 And He directed the multitude to sit down on the ground; 36 and He took the seven loaves and the fish; and giving thanks, He broke them and started giving them to the disciples, and the disciples in turn, to the multitudes. 37 And they all ate, and were satisfied, and they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, seven large baskets full. 38 And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 And sending away the multitudes, He got into the boat, and came to the region of Magadan.
Mark 8.1-10: 1 In those days again, when there was a great multitude and they had nothing to eat, He called His disciples and said to them, 2 “I feel compassion for the multitude because they have remained with Me now three days, and have nothing to eat; 3 and if I send them away hungry to their home, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a distance.” 4 And His disciples answered Him, “Where will anyone be able to find enough to satisfy these men with bread here in a desolate place?” 5 And He was asking them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven.” 6 And He directed the multitude to sit down on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, He gave thanks and broke them, and started giving them to His disciples to serve to them, and they served them to the multitude. 7 They also had a few small fish; and after He had blessed them, He ordered these to be served as well. 8 And they ate and were satisfied; and they picked up seven large baskets full of what was left over of the broken pieces. 9 And about four thousand were there; and He sent them away. 10 And immediately He entered the boat with His disciples, and came to the district of Dalmanutha.
I focus on the feeding of the 5000, rather than on that of the 4000, because it appears to me that the latter may just be a doublet of the former. The feeding of the 5000 appears in all four gospels, whereas that of the 4000 appears only in Matthew and in Mark; more importantly, the feeding of the 4000 appears in the Bethsaida section
, which seems like it may be detachable, in one way or another, from the rest of the text.
Matthew is famously derivative of Mark at this point of the gospel narrative, since both Matthew 14.1-3a and Mark 6.16-17a have introduced the death of John the Baptist as a nonchronological flashback, it being clear in both accounts that Herod had already killed John by this point, yet only Mark is consistent in treating it as a flashback, returning at 6.29-30 to his theme of the apostolic mission as the apostles report their adventures to Jesus, whereas at Matthew 14.12-13a what is being reported to Jesus is the very death of John. Keeping in mind that the actions of the disciples of John in burying his corpse and announcing his death to Jesus are part of the flashback, it is plain that Mark has come back gracefully to the present time frame, as it were, while Matthew has not come back at all; he has gone back in time and then just continued that storyline:
G. M. Styler, “Excursus 4: The Priority of Mark,” in C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, page 229: 229 .... Further, both Mk and Matt. relate this story as a ‘retrospect’ or ‘flashback’, to explain Herod’s remark that Jesus was John risen from the dead. Mk quite properly finishes the story, and then resumes his main narrative with a jump; Matt., failing to remember that it was a ‘retrospect’, makes a smooth transition to the narrative which follows: John’s disciples inform Jesus; and ‘when Jesus heard... etc.’ (Matt. xiv. 12-13). ....
Luke, too, is famously derivative of Mark at this point of the gospel narrative:
Mark Goodacre, “Fatigue in the Synoptics,” in New Testament Studies, volume 44, issue 01 (January 1998), page 51: 51 .... Mark says that the disciples go away with Jesus into a desert place (εἰς ἔρημον τόπον, Mark 6.31). Luke, however, resets the scene in ‘a city (πόλις) called Bethsaida’. This then causes all sorts of problems when Luke goes on to agree with Mark.... The adjective used by both Mark and Luke is ἐρημός, lonely, desolate, abandoned. Clearly it is nonsense to say ‘we are here in a desolate place’ when in the Lucan setting they are not. After all, if the crowd were in a city, they would not need to go to the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging. Further, since in Bethsaida food and lodging ought to be close to hand, Luke’s comment that the day was drawing to a close lacks any relevance and, consequently, the feeding lacks the immediate motive that it has in Mark. In short, by relocating the Feeding of the Five Thousand, without being able to sustain the new setting with its fresh implications throughout, Luke has spoilt the story. ....
Therefore, of the three synoptics at this point in the narrative, it is Mark who seems the more original overall, with Matthew and Luke having followed him. It is often less simple to make such determinations in the case of the Johannine versions of such pericopes. For my own part, I have made the following weird observation
before: in Mark, on the one hand, Peter and Andrew live in Capernaum (1.21, 29) but travel with Jesus toward Bethsaida (6.45) immediately after the feeding of the 5000; in John, on the other hand, Peter and Andrew live in Bethsaida (1.44) but travel with Jesus toward Capernaum (6.17) immediately after the feeding of the 5000. I have, furthermore, tentatively suggested
that, since the very meaning of the place name Bethsaida is "house of hunting" or "house of fishing" (in Hebrew), it may have been John or one of his tradents who moved the hometown from Capernaum to the more fitting Bethsaida, under the assumption that fishermen would hail from a village with the word "fishing" in its name. I also feel like there are other indications in the gospel of John which indicate that the author or editor is reacting to the synoptics, so I will be dealing mainly with the Marcan version of the feeding in this thread, but keeping an eye on the Johannine version at various junctures, as well.
The inspiration for the miracle story itself, a multiplication of loaves of bread, has been obvious for a long time:
2 Kings 4.42-44: 42 Now a man came from Baal-Shalishah, and brought the man of God bread [לֶחֶם] of firstfruits [בִּכּוּרִים], twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And he said, “Give them to the people that they may eat.” 43 His attendant said, “What, will I set this before a hundred men?” But he said, “Give them to the people that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left over.’” 44 So he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord. / 42 וְאִ֙ישׁ בָּ֜א מִבַּ֣עַל שָׁלִ֗שָׁה וַיָּבֵא֩ לְאִ֙ישׁ הֱֲלֹהִ֜ים לֶ֤חֶם בִּכּוּרִים֙ עֶשְׂרִֽים־לֶ֣חֶם שְׂעֹרִ֔ים וְכַרְמֶ֖ל בְּצִקְלֹנ֑וֹ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר תֵּ֥ן לָעָ֖ם וְיֹאכֵֽלוּ׃ 43 וַ֙יֹּאמֶר֙ מְשָׁ֣רְת֔וֹ מָ֚ה אֶתֵּ֣ן זֶ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י מֵ֣אָה אִ֑ישׁ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר תֵּ֤ן לָעָם֙ וְיֹאכֵ֔לוּ כִּ֣י כֹ֥ה אָמַ֛ר יְהוָ֖ה אָכֹ֥ל וְהוֹתֵֽר׃ 44 וַיִּתֵּ֧ן לִפְנֵיהֶ֛ם וַיֹּאכְל֥וּ וַיּוֹתִ֖רוּ כִּדְבַ֥ר יְהוָֽה׃ / 42 καὶ ἀνὴρ διῆλθεν ἐκ Βαιθσαρισα καὶ ἤνεγκεν πρὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον τοῦ θεοῦ πρωτογενημάτων εἴκοσι ἄρτους κριθίνους καὶ παλάθας, καὶ εἶπεν· δότε τῷ λαῷ καὶ ἐσθιέτωσαν. 43 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ λειτουργὸς αὐτοῦ· τί δῶ τοῦτο ἐνώπιον ἑκατὸν ἀνδρῶν; καὶ εἶπεν· δὸς τῷ λαῷ καὶ ἐσθιέτωσαν, ὅτι τάδε λέγει κύριος· φάγονται καὶ καταλείψουσιν. 44 καὶ ἔφαγον καὶ κατέλιπον κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμα κυρίου.
It is probably this background which has informed John, who thus informs us in 6.9, that the bread brought to Jesus consists of barley loaves. It is the Elijah-Elisha cycle
overall which supplies us with another detail in the story:
Mark 6.34: 34 When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.
1 Kings 22.15-17: 15 When he came to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-Gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and succeed, and the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” 16 Then the king said to him, “How many times must I adjure you to speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” 17 So he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep which have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master. Let each of them return to his house in peace.’”
But, by far most importantly, it is the nature of the bread which the man from Baal-Shalishah brought to Elisha that serves as the main key for interpreting the entire pericope:
Leviticus 2.14: 14 “‘Also if you bring a grain offering of firstfruits [בִּכּוּרִים] to Yahweh, you shall bring fresh heads of grain roasted in the fire, grits of new growth, for the grain offering of your firstfruits [בִּכּוּרֶיךָ].’”
Talmud, Sanhedrin 11b-12a: .... 11b Our Rabbis taught, “A year is not to be intercalated 12a in years of famine.” It has been taught, “Rabbi says, ‘“A man came from Baal Shalisha and brought to the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley” (= 2 Kings 4.42). Now, there was no other place in Palestine where the fruit ripened earlier than in Baal Shalisha; yet, according to this account, 12a only one species had ripened there. If you suggest that it was wheat, the text reads “barley.” If again you suggest that it was ripened before the bringing of the sheaf [עומר], the text reads further, “Give unto the people that they may eat” (= 2 Kings 4.42), which must have been after the bringing of the sheaf [עומר]. We may conclude therefore that the year should have been intercalated. But why did Elisha not do so? For the reason that it was a year of famine and all hastened to the threshing floor.’” ....
Roger David Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand, page 8: 8 .... Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, periodically an additional month had to be intercalated in order for it to catch up with the solar year. Yet there was a rule that no intercalation should be done in a time of famine. The Tannaitic t. Sanh. 2:9 deals with this topic by first having R. Meir, a third generation Tanna, quote 2 Kgs 4:42, noting that grain ripens earliest in the Land of Israel in Baal-shalishah, from which the donor came to Elisha. R. Meir asks: “Is it possible that he brought it before the ‘omer had been offered [on the 16th of Nisan, so allowing the consumption of the produce of the new year for the first time]? Scripture says, ‘And he said, “Give it to the people so that they may eat”’ (v. 43). [This] teaches that he brought it [to Elisha] only [i.e., just] after the offering of the ‘omer. So it follows that the year was suitable for intercalation. Now why did Elisha not intercalate it? Because it was a year of famine, and the whole people were running to the threshing floors [to get the first grain allowed after the 16th of Nisan in order to grind it and bake bread with it].” ....
The Hebrew words בִּכּוּרִים [bikkurim
] and, in the proper context, רֵאשִׁית [reshith
] both mean "firstfruits," while the Hebrew term עֹמֶר ['omer
] means "sheaf," the offering of which is described in Leviticus 23.9-14. If Baal Shalishah was known as the place at which crops matured first in the land of Israel, then its significance for the sheaf would be as first signal that the time is approaching to make the offering.
The Mishnah contains instructions and traditions regarding the sheaf:
Mishnah, Menachot 10.1, 3:
1 .... Rabbi Hanina, the lieutenant High Priest, says, “On the Sabbath, it was reaped by one man with one sickle into one basket [קֻפָּה], and on a weekday it was reaped by three men into three baskets [קֻפּוֹת] and with three sickles.” But the Sages say, “Whether on the Sabbath or on a weekday it was reaped by three men into three baskets [קֻפּוֹת] and with three sickles.”
3 What was the procedure? The messengers of the court used to go out on the eve [מֵעֶרֶב] of the Festival and tie the unreaped stalks in bunches to make it easier to reap. And all the towns nearby gathered there [וְכָל הָעֲיָרוֹת הַסְּמוּכוֹת לְשָׁם מִתְכַּנְּסוֹת לְשָׁם], so that it might be reaped with much display. As soon as it became dark, he called out, “Has the sun set?” And they answered, “Yes.” “Has the sun set?” And they answered, “Yes.” “With this sickle?” And they answered, “Yes,” “With this sickle?” And they answered, “Yes,” “Into this basket [קֻפָּה]?” And they answered, “Yes.” “Into this basket [קֻפָּה]?” And they answered, “Yes.” On the Sabbath he called out further, “On this Sabbath?” And they answered, “Yes.” “On this Sabbath?” And they answered, “Yes.” “Shall I cut?” And they answered, “Cut.” “Shall I cut?” And they answered, “Cut.” He repeated every matter three times, and they answered, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” And why was all this? Because of the Boethusians, who maintained that the reaping of the sheaf [עֹמֶר] was not to take place at the conclusion of the Festival.
Roger David Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand, page 13: 13 .... In m. Menaḥ. 10:3 the reaper of the barley sheaves to be used for the ‘omer offering twice asks those accompanying him on the evening of the 16th of Nisan, “[With] this ‘basket’?” They answer, “Yes.” In 10:4 it is then stated, “They reaped it and put it into ‘baskets’.” The Hebrew of “basket” here is קֻפָה, pl. קֻפוֹת, which is a “basket, large vessel.” ....
The preparation for this custom took place at evening, just before dark, which is probably why Mark 6.35 suggests that "the hour had already become late" (ἤδη ὥρας πολλῆς γενομένης); and it involved the gathering of all the townsfolk from nearby, which is probably why in Mark 6.33-34 Jesus is met by people "from all the cities" (ἀπὸ πασῶν τῶν πόλεων) and why in Mark 6.36 the disciples mention going "into the surrounding countryside and villages" (εἰς τοὺς κύκλῳ ἀγροὺς καὶ κώμας) for foodstuffs.
The Tosefta, Menachot
10.6, even says that "near darkness" (סמוך לחשיכה) "a large crowd" (אוכלוס גדול) would go out, which is probably why in Mark 6.34 Jesus "saw a large crowd" (εἶδεν πολὺν ὄχλον), the Hebrew אוֹכְלוֹס being a Greek loanword from ὄχλος.
Conversely with respect to the direction of linguistic borrowing, there are rather many Greek words (θῖβις, κάρταλλος, κάλαθος, κάναστρον, κάννα, κανοῦν, κόφινος, σαργάνη, σπυρίς, sometimes ἄγγος) and Latin words (calathus
) for a basket, yet a word has been chosen in Mark 6.43, κόφινος/cofinus
, which mimics the sound of — and may
etymologically derive from — the Semitic קוּפָה/kôphah
, the very word used of the baskets being employed in the firstfruits custom in the Mishnah, Menachot
10.1, 3. This particular connection may have been possible through Greek or Latin sources, just as a good basket to ascribe to Jewry:
Judges 6.19: 19 Then Gideon went in and prepared a kid and unleavened bread from an ephah of flour; he put the meat in a basket [κοφίνῳ] and the broth in a pot, and brought them out to him under the oak, and presented them.
Psalm 81.6: 6 “I relieved his shoulder of the burden; his hands were freed from the basket [κοφίνῳ].”
Juvenal, Satires 3.12-16 (translation from A. S. Kline):
Here, where Numa established his night-time girlfriend,
The grove and shrine of the sacred fount are rented out
To the Jews, who’re equipped with straw-lined baskets [cophinus];
Since the grove has been ordered to pay the nation rent,
The Muses have been ejected, and the trees go begging.
But the connection with the firstfruits custom, flanked by other linguistic and conceptual connections of a similar character, is much more specific.
Now, I quoted Aus above to the effect that the firstfruits offering was to take place in the month of Nisan, during Passover week. Passover, occurring in the first month of the Jewish religious calendar, was the paradigmatic feast day of the spring season, thus explaining both the green grass in the Marcan story and the forthright mention of Passover season in the Johannine story:
Mark 6.39: 39 And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass [ἐπὶ τῷ χλωρῷ χόρτῳ].
John 6.1-4: 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. / 4 ἦν δὲ ἐγγὺς τὸ πάσχα, ἡ ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων.
Philo, The Special Laws 2.28.150-152: 150 And there is another festival combined with the feast of the Passover [τοῖς διαβατηρίοις], having a use of food different from the usual one — and not customary — the use, namely, of unleavened bread [ἄζυμα], from which it derives its name. And there are two accounts given of this festival, the one peculiar to the nation on account of the migration already described, the other a common one, in accordance with conformity to nature and with the harmony of the whole world. And we must consider how accurate the hypothesis is. This month, being the seventh both in number and order, according to the revolutions of the sun, is the first in power, 151 on which account it is also called the first in the sacred scriptures. And the reason, as I imagine, is as follows. The vernal equinox is an imitation and representation of that beginning in accordance with which this world was created. Every year, accordingly, God reminds men of the creation of the world, and with this view puts forward the spring, in which season all plants flourish and become green [ἐχλοηφόρει], 152 for which reason this is very correctly set down in the law as the first month, since, in a manner, it may be said to be an impression of the first beginning of all, being stamped by it as by an archetypal seal.
As it turns out, it is this Paschal connection that explains what was still something of a mystery to me the last time
I addressed this topic:
Ben C. Smith wrote: ↑
Tue Mar 22, 2016 4:13 pm
The word συμπόσια, it should be noted, is neither agricultural nor military: it betokens drinking parties, the coming together to imbibe alcoholic beverages, a fixture of classical Greek culture. I will readily admit that this is an element of this story that will not fit in very well with the rest of what I have to say.
But now it makes perfect sense:
Mark 6.39: 39 And He commanded them all to recline by groups [συμπόσια συμπόσια] on the green grass. 40 And they reclined in companies [πρασιαὶ πρασιαί] of hundreds and of fifties.
The doubled nouns are a Semitism. Solid Greek would have κατὰ συμπόσια and κατὰ πρασιάς. (Koine Greek very occasionally evinces this sort of double construction, but it is as common as the grass in Hebrew.) But that much I already knew, and there is more to come on this particular Semitism later in the post. The newer information (newer to me
, anyway) comes from Aus:
Roger David Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand, pages 96-97: 96-97 .... At least since C. Schöttgen in the early 18th century, it has been correctly surmised that behind συμπόσια συμπόσια in Mark 6:39 stands the repeated plural of the Hebrew חֻבוּרָה, for which the Aramaic is almost identical: חֻבוּרָא. The noun means “company, association, party; esp. those united for eating the Passover lamb in company (Ex. XII,4)” [citing Jastrow]. Mek. R. Ish. Pisha 3 comments on the latter verse, “If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one”: “Scripture aims to teach you that until it is slaughtered, people may enroll for partnership in the paschal lamb or withdraw from it, so long as they leave the paschal lamb intact. R. Judah, [bar Ilai, a third generation Tanna,] says, ‘Provided there be one of the original company left so that the original group should not be entirely replaced by subsequent additions.’” Here “company” is חֻבוּרָה. .... The Mishnah tractate “Pesaḥim” refers repeatedly to the ḥaburah. Its members are labeled בְּנֵי חֻבוּרָה, lit. “sons” of the ḥaburah. In 9:10, “five companies, each with five or ten members,” are spoken of, yet they were certainly a minority, as Josephus notes above. In 8:7 “a company of a hundred” is mentioned, which was most probably also an exception, yet occurred. ....
Basically, this Hebrew noun ḥaburah
, indicating a group of people sharing Passover together, had no standard or universally accepted Greek translation. So, for example, Josephus uses φρατρία:
Josephus, Wars 6.9.3 §420-426: 420 Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those that perished during the whole siege eleven hundred thousand, 421 the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army, which, at the very first, occasioned so great a straitness among them, that there came a pestilential destruction upon them, and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly. 422 And that this city could contain so many people in it, is manifest by that number of them which was taken under Cestius, who being desirous of informing Nero of the power of the city, who otherwise was disposed to contemn that nation, entreated the high priests, if the thing were possible, to take the number of their whole multitude. 423 So these high priests, upon the coming of that feast which is called the Pascha [πάσχα καλεῖται], when they slay their sacrifices, from the ninth hour till the eleventh, but so that a fraternity [φατρία = φρατρία/φράτρα] not less than ten belong to every sacrifice, (for it is not lawful for them to feast singly by themselves,) and many of us are divided into twenties, 424 found the number of sacrifices was two hundred and fifty-six thousand five hundred; 425 which, upon the allowance of no more than ten that feast together, amounts to two millions seven hundred thousand and two hundred persons that were pure and holy; 426 for as to those that have the leprosy, or the gonorrhea, or women that have their monthly courses, or such as are otherwise polluted, it is not lawful for them to be partakers of this sacrifice; nor indeed for any foreigners neither, who come hither to worship.
And Philo, interestingly enough, uses συμπόσιον:
Philo, The Special Laws 2.27.145-149: 145 And after the feast of the new moon comes the fourth festival, that of the Passover [διαβατήρια], which the Hebrews call Pascha in their native tongue [ἣν Ἑβραῖοι πάσχα πατρίῳ γλώττῃ καλοῦσιν], on which the whole people offer sacrifice, beginning at noonday and continuing till evening. 146 And this festival is instituted in remembrance of, and as giving thanks for, their great migration which they made from Egypt, with many myriads of people, in accordance with the commands of God given to them; leaving then, as it seems, a country full of all inhumanity and practising every kind of inhospitality, and (what was worst of all) giving the honor due to God to brute beasts; and, therefore, they sacrificed at that time themselves out of their exceeding joy, without waiting for priests. And what was then done the law enjoined to be repeated once every year, as a memorial of the gratitude due for their deliverance. These things are thus related in accordance with the ancient historic accounts. 147 But those who are in the habit of turning plain stories into allegory, argue that the passover figuratively represents the purification of the soul; for they say that the lover of wisdom is never practising anything else except a passing over from the body and the passions. 148 And each house is at that time invested with the character and dignity of a temple, the victim being sacrificed so as to make a suitable feast for the man who has provided it and of those who are collected to share in the feast, being all duly purified with holy ablutions. And those who are to share in the feast come together not as they do to other entertainments [οὐχ ὡς εἰς τὰ ἄλλα συμπόσια], to gratify their bellies with wine and meat, but to fulfil their hereditary custom with prayer and songs of praise. 149 And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month, which consists of two periods of seven, in order that nothing which is accounted worthy of honour may be separated from the number seven. But this number is the beginning of brilliancy and dignity to everything.
This term, of course, is the same as that which Mark uses at 6.39 in his Semiticism, συμπόσια συμπόσια. These groups are not (only) drinking parties (though there was drinking to be done at a Passover feast, to be sure, as we shall see in a moment); they are traditional Passover fellowships, which is why the 5000 men in Mark are not sitting in the grass, as at a picnic; they are reclining, as at a banquet:
Mark 6.39-40: 39 And He commanded them all to recline [ἀνακλῖναι] by groups on the green grass. 40 And they reclined [ἀνέπεσαν] in companies of hundreds and of fifties.
Mishnah, Pesahim 10.1: 1 On Pesah eve close to time, a man may not eat until night falls. And even the poorest person in Israel may not eat unless he reclines [יָסֵב]. And they may not provide him with less than four cups of wine, even from the charity plate.
The drinking of (at least!) four cups of wine is perhaps why the term συμπόσιον might be felt appropriate for a Passover fellowship sharing a single sacrificial lamb.
Even the poorest person in Israel is to recline at Passover, because not
reclining is for slaves; men freed by Yahweh himself out of Egypt are to recline at the meal, and slaves being freed from Egypt is exactly what the Passover is supposedly about. One episode in that saga may explain another detail in the Marcan feeding story:
Mark 6.37: 37 But He answered them, “You give them something to eat!” And they say to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?”
Numbers 11.21-23: 21 But Moses said, “The people, among whom I am, are 600,000 on foot; yet You have said, ‘I will give them meat, so that they may eat for a whole month.’ 22 Should flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to be sufficient for them? Or should all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to be sufficient for them?” 23 The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.”
More pointedly, the idea of providing a meal in a desert is, of course, remiscent both of one of Moses' pretenses to Pharaoh and of a relevant psalm of Asaph glossing the divinely given manna and water as a meal in the wilderness:
Mark 6.31-32: 31 And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place [εἰς ἔρημον τόπον] and rest a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place [εἰς ἔρημον τόπον] by themselves.
Mark 6.35-36: 35 And when it was already quite late, His disciples came up to Him and began saying, “The place is deserted [ἔρημός ἐστιν ὁ τόπος] and it is already quite late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
Exodus 5.1: 1 And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the desert [וְיָחֹגּוּ לִי בַּמִּדְבָּר, μοι ἑορτάσωσιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ].’”
Psalm 78.19: 19 Then they spoke against God. They said, “Can God prepare a table in the desert [שֻׁלְחָן בַּמִּדְבָּר, τράπεζαν ἐν ἐρήμῳ]?”
But the parallel between the multiplication of loaves in the desert and the giving of manna in the desert is actually even more focused in rabbinic interpretations of one particular passage:
Exodus 13.17-18: 17 Now when Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “The people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.” 18 Hence God led [יַסֵּב] the people around by the way of the desert [הַמִּדְבָּר, LXX εἰς τὴν ἔρημον] to the Red Sea; and the sons of Israel went up in martial array from the land of Egypt.
The Hebrew verb for “led around” is also one of the verbs used of reclining at a banquet (סָבַב). It means to recline for a meal, for example, in the following verse:
1 Samuel 16.11: 11 And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are these all the children?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him, for we will not recline [כִּי לֹא־נָסֹב, OG ὅτι οὐ μὴ κατακλιθῶμεν, Vulgate nec enim discumbemus] until he comes here.”
So this Hebrew verb bears a double meaning: encompassing and reclining, the former of which is the more original of the two, and the latter of which I take to be an extension of the idea of a group gathering around
a meal. This double meaning happened to lead to some tightly evocative exegesis.
First, recall that reclining is mandatory at Passover:
Mishnah, Pesahim 10.1: 1 On Pesah eve close to time, a man may not eat until night falls. And even the poorest person in Israel may not eat unless he reclines [יָסֵב]. And they may not provide him with less than four cups of wine, even from the charity plate.
Second, note that reclining for the feast is, it turns out, exactly what the children of Israel, according to the exegesis, were doing in the desert:
Exodus Rabbah 20.18 (translation slightly modified from the one available on Sefaria): 18 What does “and led the people around [וַיַּסֵּב, vayyasev]” (= Exodus 13.18) mean? That the Holy One encircled them, just as it says, “But I will be for it,” says the Lord, “a wall of fire around [סָבִיב, saviv]” (= Zechariah 2.9 Masoretic & OG, 2.5 English). Like a shepherd who was shepherding his sheep and saw wolves descending upon them, he turned back the sheep in order that they not be hurt. So to, when Israel came out of Egypt the chiefs of Edom, Moab, Canaan, and Amalek stood around and took counsel on how to come upon Israel. When the Holy One saw this He sent them around in order that they not come upon them, as it says, “And God led the people around [וַיַּסֵּב]” (= Exodus 13.18). Not only was this so in this age, but it will be so in the next as well. From where do we do know this? As David said, “Jerusalem has mountains around [סָבִיב] it, and the Lord is around [סָבִיב] His people” (= Psalm 125.2). Another explanation, “And God led the people around [וַיַּסֵּב]” (= Exodus 13.18). From here our Rabbis said that even the poorest in Israel should not eat until he reclines [יֵּסֵב, yasev] (= Mishnah, Pesahim 10.1), because this is what the Holy One did for them, “And God led around [וַיַּסֵּב]” (= Exodus 13.18).
Numbers Rabbah 1.2 (translation slightly modified from that of Roger David Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand, page 100): 2 .... “In the ordinary course of events, when a mortal king goes forth into the desert [לַמִּדְבָּר], do you think he finds there the same ease he enjoyed in his own palace, the same food or the same drink? You, however, were slaves in Egypt, and I brought you out of there and caused you to recline on lordly couches, as it is said, ‘And God led the people around (וַיַּסֵּב, vayyasev) by the way of the desert [הַמִּדְבָּר]’ (= Exodus 13.18). What is the meaning of ‘and led around’ [וַיַּסֵּב, vayyasev]? He caused them to recline in the manner of kings, reclining upon their couches.” ....
This idea of reclining, as if at a feast, in the desert is what best explains, not only what is stated
, but actually what is emphasized
in the Marcan account of Jesus feeding the five thousand: thrice is the place called deserted, or a desert, and twice, with two different Greek verbs, is the reclining mentioned (first as a command, second as the act of obeying it).
But there is more. In our crucial passage it is affirmed that Israel went forth out of Egypt "in martial array" (Exodus 13.18). The military overtones of the feeding of the 5000 have not gone unnoticed, and I believe that the militarism, both implicit and often explicit, of the Exodus itself is what explains those overtones.
I have opined
before that there is no necessary contradiction between agricultural imagery and military imagery so far as Israel is concerned:
Ben C. Smith wrote: ↑
Tue Mar 22, 2016 4:13 pm
Israel, as I said, is more than just a militia; it is also the land of milk and honey, a country based principally upon agriculture; one ought not to think mainly of professional soldiers in a standing army when one thinks of Israel's ideal military state; one ought rather to think of farmers and shepherds and vinedressers pounding their implements into swords when enemies impinge upon the borders.
And I stand by that assessment. For example, the πρασιαί in Mark 6.40 are definitely agricultural
; they are the rows or plots of a garden, a vineyard, or an orchard:
Song of Solomon 5.13: 13 13 “His cheeks are like a plot [כַּעֲרוּגַת, Symmachus ὡς πρασιαί, Aquila ὡς πρασιαί] of balsam, banks of sweet-scented herbs. His lips are lilies dripping with liquid myrrh.”
Song of Solomon 6.2: “My beloved has gone down to his garden [εἰς κῆπον αὐτοῦ], to the plots [לַעֲרוּגוֹת, Symmachus εἰς πρασιάς, Aquila εἰς πρασιάς] of balsam, to pasture in the gardens and gather lilies.”
Wisdom of Sirach 24.31: 31 I said, “I will water my garden [μου τὸν κῆπον] and drench my plot [μου τὴν πρασιάν],” and lo, my canal became a river, and my river became a sea.
But they are also more
than agricultural; they are military. The connection may not be immediately obvious, but there is a Semitic word for "row" which will wind up being what best explains the Hebraistic twin nouns found in Mark 6.40, πρασιαί πρασιαί. That word is שׁוּרָה, shurah
; the plural is שׁוּרוֹת, shuroth
Song of Songs Rabbah Parasha 6, 2.3: 3 Rabbi Samuel bar Naḥman said [about Song of Solomon 6.2], “Like a king who had an orchard in which he planted rows [שׁוּרוֹת] of nut trees and pomegranates....”
In context, the Rabbi is describing the garden imagery of Song of Solomon 6.2 in terms of rows (שׁוּרוֹת) of agricultural plants. This word is found in the same sense once or twice in the Hebrew scriptures:
Job 24.11: 11 “Within the rows [שׁוּרֹתָם] they produce oil; they tread wine presses but thirst.”
Jeremiah 5.10: 10 “Go up through her rows [בְשָׁרוֹתֶיהָ] and destroy, but do not execute a complete destruction. Strip away her branches, for they are not the Lord’s.”
Brown-Driver-Briggs (שׁוּר): .... שׁוּרָה, noun feminine, probably row of olives or vines (so Du Buhl and others; compare Late Hebrew שׁוּרָה, Jewish-Aramaic שׁוּרְתָא row...) — plural suffix שׁוּרֹתְם, Job 24:11... here also Jeremiah 5:10....
And it is also
how Jewish exegetes described the orderly arrangement into which the Israelites formed themselves in the desert, using exactly the same Semitic doubling idiom as found in Mark 6.40:
Exodus Rabbah 24.4: 4 “Into the desert of Shur [אֶל מִדְבַּר שׁוּר]” (= Exodus 15.22). We cannot find a desert by the name of Shur [שׁוּר]. And what is the desert of Shur [שׁוּר]? .... Rabbi Abin said, “What is the desert of Shur [שׁוּר]? Where Israel yearned to make itself rows upon rows [שׁוּרוֹת שׁוּרוֹת, shuroth shuroth], banners upon banners [דְּגָלִים דְּגָלִים, or ‘divisions upon divisions’].” ....
Leviticus Rabbah 36.2: 2 .... “And you caused it to take root, and it filled the land” (= Psalm 80.10). As this vine is not planted randomly, but rather rows upon rows [שׁוּרוֹת שׁוּרוֹת], so Israel was banners upon banners [דְּגָלִים דְּגָלִים, or ‘divisions upon divisions’], as is shown in the passage, “Everyone of his own banner with the emblems of the house of his father” (= Numbers 2.2). ....
Song of Songs Rabbah Parasha 2, 3.3: 3 .... “And they went out into the desert of Shur [שׁוּר]” (= Exodus 15.22). This teaches that they prophesied of themselves that they were going to be made into camps upon camps [מַחֲנוֹת מַחֲנוֹת], banners upon banners [דְּגָלִים דְּגָלִים, or “divisions upon divisions”], rows upon rows [שׁוּרוֹת שׁוּרוֹת], as the orchard of a vineyard. ....
Roger David Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand, page 84: 84 .... The above tradition is reflected in Exod. Rab. Beshallah 20/5 on Exod 13:17, “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the [Israelites] go.” The midrash first comments on Cant 4:13 by relating a parable. A man who had a field with a heap of stones in it sold it to another man, who then improved it by planting in it “row upon row” (שׁוּרוֹת שׁוּרוֹת) of vines, and various kinds of spices and pomegranates. When these later teemed with good things, the original owner deeply regretted it and said: “Woe is me, that I should have sold and let out of my hands such a field!” Israel was also such a heap of stones in Egypt, but at the exodus they became a garden of pomegranates, and later they even resembled grapes of the vine, as in Ps 80:9, “You plucked up a vine out of Egypt.” At this point the Israelites “were arranged ‘row by row’: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, and so on.” Finally, “When Pharaoh beheld them, ‘row by row,’ ‘division by division,’ he began to wail: ‘Woe is the man [me] who allowed such to pass out of his hand!’ Thus it says, ‘And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go.’” The expression “row by row” here at the end is the same as above. It is followed by “division by division,” the Hebrew דְּגָלִים דְּגָלִים. Again, two doubled nouns occur side by side here, similar to what is found in Mark 6:39-40. ....
Aus goes on to cite another passage in the Exodus Rabbah
(Beshallah 25.27) which connects the reclining of the Israelites in the desert with the manna from heaven; manna is explicitly called bread (Masoretic לֶחֶם, LXX ἄρτους) in Exodus 16.29-31. Bread, of course, also features centrally in the feeding of the five thousand, and the same Greek word is used of bread in Mark 6.37-38, 41, 44 as is used in Exodus 16.29 LXX to describe the manna.
As Aus also points out, John Lightfoot had already in 1658 guessed
that what lay behind the Marcan πρασιαί πρασιαί was the Hebrew שׁוּרוֹת שׁוּרוֹת. Moreover, the very rhythm of Mark's twin Hebraisms, συμπόσια συμπόσια and πρασιαί πρασιαί, sounds like it may be imitating the rhythm of these exegetical descriptions of the groupings in the desert: מַחֲנוֹת מַחֲנוֹת,
and שׁוּרוֹת שׁוּרוֹת.
The arrangements standing behind these rhythmic descriptions can be unashamedly militaristic (although Aus points out that they are also used in rabbinic literature of students learning or of council members in assembly):
Exodus 18.21, 25: 21 Furthermore, you shall see of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens [χιλιάρχους καὶ ἑκατοντάρχους καὶ πεντηκοντάρχους καὶ δεκαδάρχους]. .... 25: Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens [χιλιάρχους καὶ ἑκατοντάρχους καὶ πεντηκοντάρχους καὶ δεκαδάρχους].
Deuteronomy 1.15: 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and gave them to be heads over you, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens [χιλιάρχους καὶ ἑκατοντάρχους καὶ πεντηκοντάρχους καὶ δεκαδάρχους], and officers for your tribes.
The Qumranites have a version of their own:
1QS 2.19b-23a: 19b The Priests shall enter 20 first, ranked one after another according to the perfection of their spirit; then the Levites; 21 and thirdly, all the people one after another in their thousands, hundreds, 22 fifties, and tens, that every Israelite may know his place in the Community of God 23a according to the everlasting design.
1QM, column 3, lines 13-20 + column 4, lines 1-5: 3.13 Rule of the banners of the whole congregation according to their formations. On the grand banner which is at the head of all the people they shall write, “People of God,” the names “Israel” 14 and “Aaron,” and the names of the twelve tribes of Israel according to their order of birth. On the banners of the heads of the camps of three tribes 15 they shall write, “the Spirit [of God,” and the names of three tribes. O]n the banner of each tribe they shall write, “Standard of God,” and the name of the leader of the t[ribe] 16 of its clans. [.... and] the name of the leader of the ten thousand and the names of the chief[s of ...] 17 [...] his hundreds, and on the banner [....] 18 [...] 19 [...] 20 [...] 4.1 And on the banner of Merari they shall write, “The offering of God,” and the name of the leader of Merari and the names of the chiefs of his thousands. On the banner of the tho[us]and they shall write, “The anger of God is loosed against 2 Belial and all the men of his forces without remnant,” and the name of the chief of the thousand and the names of the chiefs of his hundreds. And on the banner of the hundred they shall write, “Hundred 3 of God, the power of war against a sinful flesh,” and the name of the chief of the hundred and the names of the chiefs of his tens. And on the banner of the fifty they shall write, “Ended 4 is the stand of the wicked [by] the might of God,” and the name of the chief of the fifty and the names of the chiefs of his tens. And on the banner of the ten they shall write, “Songs of joy 5 for God on the ten-stringed harp,” and the name of the chief of the ten and the names of the nine men in his command. ~
And these groups of tens and fifties and hundreds and thousands lead us right back to the Elijah-Elisha cycle:
1 Kings 18.4: 4 For when Jezebel destroyed the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave [ἑκατὸν ἄνδρας προφήτας καὶ ἔκρυψεν αὐτοὺς κατὰ πεντήκοντα ἐν σπηλαίῳ], and provided them with bread and water.
The main themes struck upon in this miracle story: (A) Elisha's multiplication of loaves from Baal-Shalisha, (B) the Passover protocols, and (C) the feast in the desert on the way out of Egypt, all blend together exceptionally easily. Passover is precisely a celebration of the events leading up to the feast in the desert; and the firstfruits offering implied by barley loaves from Baal-Shalisha would take place during Passover week. It really appears to me that Roger David Aus has put his finger on precisely the exegetical artery which produced this story, right down to the Semitic idioms employed in Mark for "rows upon rows" and "companies upon companies" being reflections of the arrangement of the Israelites in the desert.
Aus has a chapter explaining the "lad" (παιδάριον) at John 6.9 and the move to make Jesus king at John 6.15, in the next pericope, by reference to several events in 1 Samuel leading up to the crowning of Saul as king. This chapter is well worth a read, but I have not dealt with the main thrust of its contents in this post because these details seem to me to have been added onto the existing story; they are not constitutive in the way that the miracle by Elisha, the Passover connections, and the feast in the desert are.
Hartmut Stegemann, The Library of Qumran: On the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus, page 213: 213 .... The Hebrew concept midbar, customarily rendered as “desert,” designates a landscape not of dunes and desolation, without flora, but only one ill-suited for farming and therefore regularly used as pastureland. ....