Scholars recognize that John did not copy his account of the feeding of the crowds from the Synoptics but rather worked from an independent tradition. His account contains some very ancient elements as well as creative elaborations of details found in his sources.
One example of an ancient or perhaps “original” element is Jesus’ question to Philip: “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” (Jn 6:5). That Jesus’ apparent ignorance about this was embarrassing to the early Christians is evident in the editorial comment that follows: “he said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.”
An example of creative elaboration is in John 6:11-12 which carry clear Eucharistic overtones and quite likely depended on the Synoptic account of the institution of the Eucharist, a tradition not included in John’s passion story.
To appreciate John’s creative elaboration of tradition, it is helpful to reflect upon a hypothesis proposed years ago by Aileen Guilding. She attempted to reconstruct a three-year cycle of Scripture readings in the synagogue. The first reading was from the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). An accompanying reading, the haphtarah, was taken from the Prophets. (Others think a third reading may have been later drawn from the Psalms. Three years of readings amounted to 150 selections and there are 150 psalms.)
In the Gospel traditions about Jesus feeding the people, only John mentions the calendrical time of the event. “Now the Passover, the feast of the Judeans, was at hand” (Jn 6:4). The story of Jesus feeding the people seems to echo the story of God feeding his people in the Exodus with manna and quail (Ex 16).
Bread and Fish
The people are fed with bread and fish. John specifies barley loaves. Barley was the most common grain after wheat. It manages to survive extreme heat, as well as water shortages, much better than wheat. Moreover, it ripens in less time. Since the feast of Passover coincides with the barley harvest, the presence of barley loaves in this story makes plausible sense.
The Greek word for “fish” here derives from another word that means “food that is cooked and eaten with bread.” The idea is that the fish is not fresh but already prepared, or, more correctly, processed. Rabbinic sources indicate that fish were processed for preservation and transportation in a variety of forms: cured, pickled, salted, or dried. And wine would sometimes be mixed in with fish-brine. In John’s story, the fish are most likely dried or preserved.
Scholars wonder why Jesus should single out Philip to ask, “where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Philip indicates that he is not unaware of the challenge because in his experienced judgment, two hundred days’ wages couldn’t buy enough loaves to feed the crowd.
Philip was from Bethsaida, which was the capital of Gaulanitis. Located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the village’s name means “fishing village” (Mk 6:45). Therefore, if this scene takes place in Bethsaida (as Luke suggests), then Philip is exactly the one to ask. He would be most familiar with local conditions.
Background information about synagogue lectionaries, local geography, and food and fish help contemporary believers to appreciate how much they need to know about ancient culture in order to begin to interpret the Scripture respectfully.