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The gospel narratives straightforwardly present the stories of the feeding the multitude miracles as something that really happened and witnessed by thousands of people (i.e. not symbolic, not mythical, etc.) despite the narratives having several teaching points (beyond simple reporting) to show how:

  • Jesus came from heaven
  • Jesus is the bread of life
  • the miracle is greater than Moses and Manna from heaven

For commonsensical people, who are the audience of the gospels, the core of the miracle itself (the multiplication) either happened, or it did not. The genre and the framing of the narrative itself assumes this type of audience (as opposed to Plato's dialogues where the inferred audience can be used to argue that Socrates's speeches were literary, not historical).

I'm interested in the arguments used by scholars who dispute the historicity of the 2 miracles really happening. One possible argument is from the angle of fabricated documentation, such as attributing it to forced fulfillment of a prophecy, painting Jesus as a certain type, exaggerating the numbers of people, adding miracles to bolster the teaching that Jesus is divine, etc.

Because I'm focusing on the core aspect (i.e. the multiplication) of the miracles I want to make the following assumptions that should not be central to the argument:

  • God can work miracles, so arguments from laws of nature is out of scope
  • It maybe that only the apostles knew that the feeding was a miraculous multiplication of bread and fish (let's say the distribution was by the 12 apostles, as portrayed in the Gospel of John movie, for example). If that's the case, the thousands of people involved in the day's event should have at least still bolstered the historicity of the event itself.
  • arguments from trying to explain the miracles away (such as people eating their own food) is out of scope
  • minor discrepancies of the reporting in the 4 gospels should not be used against the historicity
  • that Luke and John record only one feeding instead of two feeding in Mark and Matthew should not be used against the historicity of at least one really happened
  • the existence of some teaching points beyond simple reporting should not count against it, although fabrication for the sake of teaching points only is a valid argument

The full question: Excluding the assumptions listed above, what arguments do scholars use to dispute the historicity of the core aspect of the two feeding miracles (i.e. the multiplication by Jesus)?

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    To downvoter: please show why this Q doesn't fit apologetics question, preferably with a link to a meta answer Jun 18 at 16:19
  • I'm not the downvoter, but it did take me longer than usual to understand what the question is. In particular, there are no question marks anywhere in the Body. ¶ The basic part of the question is "I'm interested in the arguments used by scholars who dispute the historicity of the 2 miracles really happening.", but that statement is buried in the middle. ¶ Adding something like "What arguments do scholars use to dispute the historicity of the two feeding miracles?" at the very end would help. Jun 18 at 16:41
  • @RayButterworth Thanks a lot for the input. I added it. Jun 18 at 18:50
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    Are there scholars who believe God can work miracles, but that he just didn't in this instance? Who are they? Won't most people who dispute that the miracle happened be those who think God can't or doesn't work any miracles?
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 19 at 3:18
  • @curiousdannii Conservative Jews today and the Pharisees of Jesus's day would have believed God work miracles, but they either believe Jesus's power came from the devil or that the historical Jesus didn't really do them. Same with non Christian believers I think. I hope this Q can be a proxy for harder apologetics arguments to refute, since it has to do with the reliability of the Gospels. This 2021 offline debate between Bart Ehrman and Michael Licona looks promising for an answer. Jun 19 at 3:40
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The feedings of the multitude in Matthew is one of the few parts where the gospel refers to itself symbolically, which naturally is a big hint, that it did not actually take place.

When Jesus sees that the Apostles do not understand His warning of the teaching of the pharisees, He tries to make clear to them that bread means teaching - first by reminding them of the leftovers of the feeding of the multitude (Mk 8:17-21 / Mt 16:8-10). When they still do not understand it, he adds another symbol, the leaven (Mt 16:11) - only then they understand, that bread is not bread but teaching (Mt 16:12). This part is so important, because here Jesus Himself, and in the canonical scripture, directly connects the symbol of the bread as teaching with the feeding of the multitude.

Then, if there, too, bread is teaching, what is the feeding of the multitude? To understand it we need to, alongside the bread, use six other symbols as an aid:

Bread = Teaching | man-made food, in tradition with the dietary and sacrificial symbols in Judaism

Fish = new/worldly (Greek) Teaching | food from life (fresh water)

4 = worldly/Greek | 4 directions/seasons/elements/tetramorph

5 = Jewish | 5 books in the Torah

7 = complete/all | 7 as the largest digit prime

12 = all Jews | 12 tribes

1000 = many

Feeding the 5000 - Teaching the Jews

Many Jews (5000 people) from the Jewish villages came to Jesus, and wanted to be taught (were hungry). Realizing that he couldnt teach everyone (doesn't have enough bread and fish), he taught to his followers, who taught to all those who came in groups. He added to the Jewish teaching Greek ideas (to the five bread two fishes), to make for a complete (seven) understanding. The Apostles learned meanwhile how to teach any Jew (twelve baskets of bread left over).

Feeding the 4000 - Teaching the Greek/Pagans

After having been convinced by the Syrophoenician to do so, he went to also teach Greeks. Many Greeks (4000 people) from the Greek Dekapolis around came to him, and wanted to be taught (were hungry). He added some new ideas to the Greek ones (to the seven bread few little fishes), making it an even more complete understanding. Realizing again that he couldnt teach everyone (doesn't have enough bread and fish), he taught to his followers, who taught to all those who came in groups. The Apostles learned meanwhile how to teach anyone (seven baskets of bread left over).

In a last defence - Jesus himself explains His use of parables in Mt 13:10-17

Sources:

Myers, Ched - Binding the strong man : a political reading of Mark's story of Jesus

Hartjes, Jack - Gentiles in the Kingdom of God. Jesus Feeds the Multitude Twice

Myers, Ched - All ate and were satisfied: Fasting, Feasting and Food Politics in the Practice of Jesus

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  • Welcome to Christianity SE and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Jul 19 at 18:29
  • I like this symbolic explanation in this answer but a symbolic understanding of the feedings does not negate a literal, actual event. Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years is rife with symbolic import, and was recorded for our warning, and yet it actually happened. Jul 23 at 12:25
  • This answer falls into the trap which was set. The very fact that we can ask a question about these miracles demonstrates that a reliable report has been made. Either one believes that report, or one does not. 'Who hath believed our report ?' asks Isaiah. Only those who receive the report will believe it. This answer does not prove the realiability of the reports : the reports themselves do that. 'The only winning move, is not to the play the game.'
    – Nigel J
    Jul 25 at 23:50
  • This argument qualifies as an answer! If you could add the scholarly source of the argument, that would be great. Aug 19 at 2:02
  • @GratefulDisciple Hey, just now I sat down and searched really for long but couldn’t find anything proper, but Ched Myers’ ‘Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.’, which somewhat gets it, so I added that one. I love science and sources, and it is not about it being my interpretation, just I find every other explanation lacking clarity, and that’s why Input mine w/o sources. If you like I’mma write a book real quick n put the source haha. Take care, God bless, keep that compass for truth
    – Ira Paten
    Aug 20 at 5:15
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The common arguments from textual discrepancy don't work well here. Some might use them to deny the feeding of the 4,000, but as noted in the OP, this would hold no force against the feeding of the 5,000.

In fact, the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle - prior to the passion narrative - that is found in all 4 Gospels. The attestation is exceptional.

The most common argument against the feeding miracles is the one advanced by Bart Ehrman (applied not simply to this event but to miracles in general): that a miracle is always the least likely explanation.

So as long as a creative, naturalistic explanation--no matter how ad-hoc--is available, the possibility of a miracle will always be precluded.

Ehrman explains his argument in the debate with William Lane Craig here. The back and forth on this point during the debate is fascinating.


I should acknowledge that I don't find this argument compelling; it is based on an untestable philosophical a priori assumption, not evidence. No amount of evidence will be persuasive if we've already decided to accept anything--literally anything--other than Divine intervention.

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    Thanks for the pointer to Bart Ehrman. It would be good if you could summarize his argument. If his argument is of the type having to do with the writing of the gospel as myth / justification for Christianity, I'd be most interested in the details: motivation, who wrote them, the process from historical kernel to the final gospel. Jun 18 at 19:16
  • John Loftus's 2019 book The Case Against Miracles may answer my question. It was mentioned by Bart Ehrman in his blog article as countering Mike Licona's 2010 book Evidence for God. Jun 18 at 20:03
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I remember hearing the argument once that it's fictional because the first century Romans would have expressed an interest in the events, especially in light of food famines in North Africa.

Back in the 1980s, I asked that question to the Christian apologist, John W. Montgomery. He replied, "secular people think with secular thoughts." In other words, the secular Romans would not have considered it a likely occurrence.

Of course, it's also possible that the miracle was not a transmutation of elements, but the sharing of food. Although, I think this might be considered as not in the scope of what was requested. The little boy who shared his small amount of bread & fish started a movement that broke the spirit of stinginess. I recall hearing that Barclay in his commentary expressed that point of view. I think it is a strained interpretation of the text, but I thought I'd mention it.

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  • Thank you for the answer. Would you be able to provide the source for your first paragraph? Aug 19 at 1:58

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