Matthew has intentionally contrasted two “banquets”: one hosted by Herod which resulted in the death of John the Baptist (Mt 14:1-12) and this feeding of a large crowd by Jesus near the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mt 14:13-21).
Herod’s banquet takes place in an environment of scheming and arrogance and concludes with a murder. Prior to feeding the crowd that was following him, Jesus felt compassion for their needs and healed their sick.
Herod’s banquet was held at a royal court. Jesus’ meal with this crowd took place in a “deserted” place by the Sea of Galilee, yet close enough to villages for the crowd to purchase food.
This phrase, “deserted place,” reminds the reader of the wilderness where God fed Israel with the manna. Matthew takes every opportunity to link Jesus with Moses.
Contemporary, scientifically minded, rationalist American believers are skeptical about a multiplication of loaves. Some interpreters propose that the “miracle” was Jesus’ success in getting this group of people to share their personal provisions.
Such sharing would be truly extraordinary for an American crowd of individualists but quite commonplace in the group-oriented Mediterranean world.
There is no way for us to reconstruct this historical event, but there is sufficient evidence to confirm that it really happened. Cultural insights help complete Matthew’s scenario.
Jesus commands the crowd to sit down on the grass (Mt 13:19), but Matthew does not mention the clusters or their size as do Mark and Luke. Since it is a public place, it is culturally inappropriate for men and women to be present together.
They are separated: men and young boys in their place, and women, girls, and boys under the age of puberty in a separate place. (A photo in the October 1987 issue of National Geographic shows a Saudi family separated into gender groups relaxing by the Red Sea.)
Matthew mentions five loaves of bread and two fish. John 6:9 specifies barley loaves, and this is plausible for Matthew’s situation as well. Barley could be raised on soils of poorer quality and was less expensive (see Apoc 6:6).
Barley bread was the ordinary food of the peasant classes. Even so, peasants often mixed barley with other grains like millet, spelt, or pea meal in making bread (Ezek 4:9).
Since the crowd is gathered near the Sea of Galilee, the presence of fish is not surprising. During that biblical period when Israelite access to the Mediterranean was limited, fish had to be purchased (Neh 13:16).
In the Hellenistic period (after 300 BCE), fishing at the Sea of Galilee became a government-regulated activity which involved catching the fish, preparing, and distributing them. Fish became more common in the first-century diet.
Jerusalem had a “fish gate” (Neh 3:3). Bethsaida on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee means “fishing village” (Mk 6:45). The Greek name for the town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee was Taricheae, which means “processed fish.”
All ate their fill, and there were leftovers as well. Matthew’s final comment (which occurs only in his account) helps us to realize that this crowd was much larger than five thousand because this number did not include the women and children who ate apart from the men.
The Eucharistic coloring of this story is clear in Jesus’ blessing, breaking, and giving the loaves. What do Mediterranean cultural insights contribute to the story? How has American culture influenced contemporary celebrations of the Eucharist?