The Story of Feeding the Multitudes in Luke 9:12-17

By Ekaterini Tsalampouni
Lecturer in the NT
Faculty of Theology
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, GR
February 2012

Social-scientific criticism should be regarded as a further development of historical criticism. Its exegetical task, as it is well known, is to read and understand the biblical texts within their original socio-historical context by applying theoretical perspectives and models developed by the social sciences. This framework helps the readers of the biblical texts, first, to gather, organize and classify the information that the texts provide them with and, second, to analyze and interpret this information making also use of ancient evidence and focusing on the individual authors and their social community. In this paper, the miracle of feeding the 5,000 as narrated by Luke (Lk 9:12-17) serves as a case study and is interpreted by applying the major principles of this exegetical method.

The first observation, however, regarding this story comes from form-criticism. According to Gerd Theißen’s classification, the feeding of the 5,000 belongs to the so-called “gift miracles” (Geschenkwunder).1 They are narratives of miracles where Jesus unexpectedly and abundantly offers material goods (e.g., food or wine) to the crowds. The water is turned into wine (Jn 2:1-11), the five loaves of bread are divided among the crowds (Mt 14: 15-21; 15:32-39; Mk 6:31-44; 8:1-10; Lk 9:12-17; Jn 6:1-13) and the nets of the disciples are filled with fish (Lk 5:4-11; Jn 21:1-6). According to Theißen’s classification, this type of miracles has some common features: a) these miracles are not initiated by a direct request of the recipients (in the case of the feeding miracle, the disciples’ request and proposal is very realistic and actually materialistic and does not imply any expectation of a miraculous intervention) and b) there is no description of the way the miracle was performed (in our case the emphasis lies on the fact that Jesus miraculously multiplied the five loaves and the two fish and fed a crowd of 5,000 people at least).

Theißen calls gift miracles “material culture miracles” because they refer to the major human problem of getting food to live or wine to feast. Although any central motifs are absent in gift miracles, one of their major themes seems to be the sharing of food. In an agrarian society like that of Palestine, where the material goods were gathered in the hands of a small elite, food is one of the major worries of the lower social strata. Significantly, the two types of food involved in the feeding narrative are of vital importance for human life in Palestine of the 1st c. AD. The importance of bread is implied in many sources of this period: it often appears as an equivalent to food generally.2 Bread also occupies one of the first places in the list of the goods that a husband must provide his divorced wife with (m. Ketubot 5, 8-9). It is sometimes regarded as an omen when appearing in a dream. Artemidorus remarks that dreaming of bread is a good sign, if of course one dreams the kind of bread that is appropriate to one’s social status (Artemidorus, Onirocritica 1,69). Fish also is a favorite kind of food in Palestine and according to some sources it was a Sabbath dish (Baba batra 74b). Hence, two important kinds of food are offered in the feeding miracle and everybody participates to the meal.

Significantly, as Theißen remarks, such miracles are not attested in other religious movements or groups contemporary to that of Jesus within Judaism neither are mentioned in any extra-biblical sources.3 On the other hand, epigraphic and literary texts of the ancient world refer to cases where, although the miraculous dimension is absent, the result is the same; rich men and women in cities of the Graeco-Roman world act as benefactors and respond to the material needs of their co-citizens by offering material goods and especially food.4 A social model that could, therefore, be employed in the interpretation of this particular narrative is that of the benefactor-client as it has been developed by Roninger and Eisenstadt5 and has been adopted by Moxnes, Malina, and Rohrbaugh.6

M. Sahlins who dealt with the ancient reciprocity-system discerned three particular types of gift-offering in the ancient world:7

(1) General reciprocity: A gift is offered as an expression of solidarity without any expectation of a reciprocal gesture of equal value

(2) Balanced reciprocity: In such types of relations an exchange on equal terms is expected

(3) Negative reciprocity: One gets something for nothing through power or violence and without offering something in exchange

The relation between a benefactor and his (or her) clients is usually that of general reciprocity; both parts are in unequal social positions, which actually means that no equal counter-offer is expected. Additionally the benefaction is an expression of solidarity. Although such relations are of a voluntary nature and can, therefore, be terminated by either part, when this is regarded as necessary, they are in fact strong and permanent. The result is a peculiar relation, where asymmetry and inequality regarding the social status, are paired with solidarity and mutual support.8 The benefactor is the one who has access to the material goods that are offered. The recipient of the benefaction accepts this gift in the prospect of paying it back somehow and sometime.9 However, the most important gain for the benefactor is the honor and his or her social recognition (a statue, a crown, or political power).10

It should also be noted that the pattern of the relations between the benefactor and the recipient of the benefaction (client) does not necessarily consist of two poles. Between these two poles more than one agent (broker) can act as a go-between. They function as a bridge that connects both parts.11 The brokers are those who mediate on behalf of the clients and gain on their behalf the needed gifts.12 If the benefactor himself has access to the primary goods, i.e., to wealth, land or power, the broker can control the secondary goods, like for example the influence on the benefactor or the social connections. It is also possible that between the benefactor and the client more than one broker can intercede; they can also act as benefactors or clients in a complex benefaction network. A schematic depiction of this network can be seen in the following table (see columns 1 and 2):

A schematic depiction of this network can be seen in the following table

When this pattern is applied to the feeding narrative (see column 3) the great benefactor becomes the heavenly father, God himself, a concept that often comes up in Luke’s Gospel.13 God, however, acts benevolently through Jesus who is the broker between God and humans14 and brings the goods of his father in heaven to people. This is also indicated by the use of the word “Ανaßλεψaτ” (“he looked up to heaven”) in v.16. On a second level, the disciples stand between Jesus and the crowd. The disciples approach Jesus and describe the need of the crowd. They also take the multiplied goods and offer them to the hungry crowd. Hence they offer food on behalf of Jesus and at the same time they become brokers and benefactors as well as servants.15 Here an ambivalence regarding the status of the disciples should be detected, which also conforms to various sayings of Jesus in the synoptic tradition about ministry and discipleship (e.g., Mt 20:26; Mt 23:11; Mk 9:35; Mk 10:43), and it is also further developed in the Acts (2:43-47; 4:32-37). Significantly, therefore, at this point the narrative reverses the established social expectations that are related with the various roles within Jesus’ group.

Another interesting point of social change should also be stressed here. One of the fundamental concepts of the ancient Mediterranean societies is the fact that all goods - wealth, beauty, health or even honor - are available in very limited quantities. Therefore, the increase of the wealth of a particular group also means the reduction of the goods that another group can have, a fact that causes jealousy and conflicts. Closely related to this idea is the demand of re-distributing the goods; the goods are expected to be gathered in the hands of a central authority that consequently will distribute them to a larger mass of people. In the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus gathers the existing food, the five loaves, and the two fish; he multiplies them and offers them back to the crowd. In the closing verse of the narrative, which is also the central point of the narrative, it is stated that not only the crowd is satisfied but that there is also an abundant surplus. The older concept that the goods exist in limited quantities and should, therefore, be jealously kept by the group that possesses them (cf. the parable of the Rich Fool, Lk 12:13-21) is thus challenged. Jesus responds to the needs of the crowd and accepts the role of the benefactor and leader; he gathers goods and redistributes them. On the other hand, however, the idea of reciprocity – an important aspect of the benefaction system - seems to be lacking.16

An important detail should also be stressed here. In Luke, the narrative of the miraculous feeding is placed within a context that deals with the Kingdom of God.17 In v. 11, Jesus is shown teaching his disciples and the crowds about the Kingdom of God and this Kingdom is also the subject of v. 27. The feeding miracle – like the other miracles in the synoptic tradition - are also closely connected to the Kingdom and could also be regarded as its manifestations. From the perspective of cultural anthropology, a meal is equivalent to a social contract in the ancient world because food can encourage, preserve, or destroy sociability.18 In this feeding story, the initiative for the meal is taken by Jesus himself and the meal he offers connects the crowd to the disciples, to Jesus, and to the heavenly Father, thus creating a new social reality, where the old social discriminations are cancelled (there is no mention of them in the text), the worries about the reduction of goods are absent (since these are abundantly offered), and the gifts of the great benefactor are brought through Jesus to all people creating thus strong ties of dedication and trust.

At the same time, the miracle gains a symbolic and everlasting importance for Luke’s community.19 The miraculous act of Jesus also indicates his demand for a similar attitude of the wealthier members of the community towards the poorer ones (see Jesus’ demand to his disciples: “you give them something to eat” in v. 13). Applying the model of “euergetism” to the reality of the early Christian communities (cf. also Acts 2: 43-47; 4:32-37), the role of the broker is undertaken by the rich members who are expected to distribute their wealth through the apostles and the leaders of the community to the poorest members of the community.20 God still functions as the great and ultimate benefactor who shows his benevolence through the strong and wealthy Christians and the network of benefaction that is created is a manifestation of his Kingdom.

It is certainly evident that the socio-scientific reading that is proposed in this short contribution does not solve all the exegetical problems related to Luke’s story about the miraculous feeding of the crowds. It rather brings to light some interesting aspects of it and enables the modern reader to take a glimpse into the social world of Jesus and the early Christian communities and attempts to understand how these audiences could have received such stories and which role they might have played in their own reality.


1 Gerd Theißen, Urchristliche Wundergeschichten. ein Beitrag zur formgeschichtlichen Erforschung der synoptischen Evangelien, (StNT 8), Mohr Verlag, Tübingen 51987, pp. 112-114.

2 B. Malina – R. L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992, p. 339. It appears with this meaning in the New Testament, too (eg. Mk 7:27; Lk 14:1; 2 Thess 3:12 etc).

3 G. Theißen, Urchristliche Wundergeschichten, p. 113.

4 See for example IEph 926; IStr 17; IScM I 19; SEG 32 (1982), 1097; IEry 28; IEph 1455; IMagn 116, p. 296, etc.

5 S. N. Eisenstadt – L. Roninger, Patrons, Clients and Friends, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1984.

6 Halvor Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts,” in Jerome H. Neyrey, (ed.), The Social World of Luke -Acts. Models for Interpretation, Hendrikson Publishers, Massachusetts 1999, pp. 241-270; Bruce Malina, “Patron and Client: the Analogy Behind the Synoptic Tradition,” in idem (ed.), The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels Routledge, London - New York 1996, pp. 143-178; Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “The Pre-Industrial City in Luke-Acts: Urban Social Relations,” in Jerome H. Neyrey (ed.), op.cit., pp. 125-150.

7 M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics<, New York 1972, pp. 41 ff. See also Halvor Moxnes, “Social Relations and Economic Interaction in Luke’s Gospel. A Research Report,” in Petr Luomanen (ed.), Luke-Acts. Scandinavian Perspectives (Schriften der Finnischen Exegetischen Gesellschaft 54), Vandehoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1991, p. 63.

8 Halvor Moxnes, “Social Relations,” p. 64.

9 For a similar reciprocity situation see Lk 14:1-14, where terminology closely related to the phenomenon of benefaction is preserved («?ντικαλε?ν», «?νταπ?δοµα»). See also H. Moxnes, op.cit., pp. 65-66.

10 The epigraphic evidence of this period attests such examples of social recognition, see for example IG XII,9 236 (Eretria); IIasos 98. 99 (Iasos); IMagn 97, vv. 29-47 (Magnesia); Syll3 656 (Ephesus). For further examples, see Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: epigraphic study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field, Clayton Publ. House, St. Louis Missouri 1982.

11 Halvor Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations,” pp. 248-249.

12 Such examples in Luke’s Gospel should regard the centurion, who pleads on behalf of his sick servant or the Jewish leaders who approach Jesus on behalf of the centurion, the “friends” in Lk 7:2-10 or the cunning steward in Lk 16:1-8.

13 See for example Lk 1:45-55 and 1:68-79.

14 Bruce Malina, “Patron and Client,” pp. 151-157 and esp. pp. 155-157.

15 Halvor Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations,”, σσ. 266-267.

16 Halvor Moxnes, “Social Relations”, p. 71. D. Passakos, «Λουκ. 14, 15-24: πρωτοχριστιανικ? δε?πνα», Deltion Biblikon Meleton 19 (2000):24.

17 This is one of the points where Luke’s narrative departs from those of Mark and Matthew. For the different contexts of the story in the other two synoptics see Albert Fuchs, “Die Agreement-Redaktion von Mk 6,32-44 par Mt 14, 13-21 par Lk 9,10-17: ein vorläufiger Entwurf”, Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt 22 (1997): 182-183.

18 M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, New York 1972, p. 215.

19 Halvor Moxnes, “Social Relations,” p. 66.

20 Halvor Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations,” pp. 255-256.

Comments (2)

In your argument you state that there are no parallels within contemporary Judaism or other religious movements of ancient Near Eastern texts, and use this as somehow justifying your discuss of a "benefactor-client" relationship as basic to the narrative. This is most puzzling as there are many very close Old Testament biblical parallels from the metaphor of Yahweh's table in the wilderness in Psalm 23 to the famous scene of the angels feeding Elijah that is evoked in the opening of Mark's gospel, not to speak of the more systemic parallels of Elisha's feeding miracles (note particularly the more modest 100 disciples feeding story) and above all, in consideration of your 'benefactor-client' trope the reiterated comic theme of Yahweh feeding Israel in the wilderness stories. Please see the discussion in my Messiah Myth of 2005 (chapter 2). Also see p.329 for one example among many)of an extra-biblical parrallel in Ramses IV's song celebrating his divine kingdom: "they who were hungry were filled and happy!"
Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus
University of Copenhagen

#1 - Thomas L. Thompson - 02/04/2012 - 14:44

Thank you for your comments, I'll look into the references you kindly mentioned. At that point I relied on Theissen's opinion and I didn't discuss it further, although I would agree with you that there are also many intertextual connections to OT. I prefered to discuss the historical reality of benefaction as one the possible lenses of reading the story in its early readers' context, but let me also note that under no circumstances do I think that this is the only possible way of reading it.

#2 - Ekaterini Tsalampouni - 02/04/2012 - 17:07

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