Scriptures in Question: Matthew 14:13-21, Matthew 15:32-16:10 and parallel accounts.
Those who try to find errors in the Bible sometimes claim that similar sounding stories – such as the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand and that of the feeding of four thousand by Jesus – are examples of varying oral traditions regarding events of which no one knew exactly what had happened or if they had ever happened at all. The story of the miracles of the feeding of the crowds provides a good example of the fallacy in such thinking and how it completely misses the underlying message of the two stories.
The “Feeding of the 5,000” is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15). The story tells us that Jesus fed the hungry crowd that followed him by dividing five loaves of bread and two fish. After the miraculous feeding was completed, it is recorded that the disciples collected twelve baskets full of broken pieces that were left over. The “Feeding of the 4,000” is recounted in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (Matthew 15:32-16:10 and Mark 8:1-9) and that story tells us that seven loaves and several fish were divided among the crowd. After this miracle the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
Those who claim these are garbled varying accounts of the same event or story miss an essential piece of information. Mark and John tell us that the first miracle occurred on the western – Jewish – side of the sea of Galilee. They explain that Jesus and the disciples then crossed over to the eastern – Gentile – side of Galilee where the second miracle was performed.
The eastern side of Galilee where Jesus went after feeding the five thousand was the region of the Syrian Decapolis – a separate Roman-controlled area inhabited almost exclusively by Gentiles. The people on that side of the Sea were notorious to the Jews for their pagan beliefs and practices (Mark 5:11, etc.), and both the Jewish Talmud and some of the Christian church fathers record the tradition that the inhabitants of the area of the Decapolis were the descendants of the seven ancient Canaanite nations driven out of the Promised Land in the time of Joshua (Joshua 3:10; Acts 13:19). It is clear, for example, that these people kept swine (Mark 7:31) and doubtless both ate and sacrificed them – both abominations in biblical Jewish culture (see Isaiah 65:3-4, 66:3). For most Jews of Jesus’ day, the inhabitants of the Decapolis personified pagan uncleanness, and their descent from the pagan Canaanites seems to have been commonly believed.
Nevertheless, Matthew and Mark both make it clear that Jesus went to these people, preached to them and compassionately healed their sick. His miracles on Galilee’s far side also spoke to God’s desire to include the people of that region in His outreaching mercy. Just as we are told twelve baskets of leftover food were picked up on the western side of Galilee – doubtless suggesting the spiritual food available for all the twelve tribes of Israel; so seven baskets of food were picked up on the eastern side of Galillee – doubtless symbolizing all those of the seven peoples of the Gentile Decapolis. A careful reading of the Gospel narratives shows that the details of the two similar miracles were not garbled, but completely meaningful in what they symbolized.