Feeding the 4,000 and feeding the 5,000—same or different?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Anyone familiar with Scripture is aware of Christ Jesus miraculously feeding the multitudes. The Bible student will understand one passage where He feeds 5,000 and another passage where He feeds 4,000. Are these two historical events, or one historical event “edited” two distinct ways? In other words, was there a single multiplication of loaves—and the other passage to be simply discarded as a “confused duplicate?” Let us search the Scriptures!

Matthew 14:15-21 presents the feeding of the 5,000: “[15] And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. [16] But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. [17] And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. [18] He said, Bring them hither to me. [19] And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. [20] And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. [21] And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.” (Parallel passages are Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:5-15.)

Matthew 15:32-39 features the feeding of the 4,000: “[32] Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way. [33] And his disciples say unto him, Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude? [34] And Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven, and a few little fishes. [35] And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. [36] And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. [37] And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets full. [38] And they that did eat were four thousand men, beside women and children. [39] And he sent away the multitude, and took ship, and came into the coasts of Magdala.” (Parallel passage is Mark 8:1-10.)

It is rather awkward to deduce that this is one miracle presented from two different perspectives. A careful comparison will yield the following seven realizations, ranked according to their weightiness:

  1. THE GOSPEL RECORDS THEMSELVES. If the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and the miraculous feeding of the 4,000 were found in only one Gospel Record (Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John), then it would be easy for critics to dismiss it as the writer being mistaken. However, the feeding of the 5,000 is recorded in all four Books whereas the feeding of the 4,000 is found in two Books (Matthew and Mark). It is quite difficult to conclude these are two views of the same miracle.
  2. DIFFERENT CROWD SIZES. Obviously, one miracle involved approximately 5,000 men (Matthew 14:21; Mark 6:44; Luke 9:14; John 6:10) but the other miracle concerned about 4,000 men (Matthew 15:38; Mark 8:9)— women and children excluded from the numbering.
  3. DIFFERENT LOCATIONS. The 5,000 sits in a Jewish environment (outside Bethsaida; cf. Luke 9:10) while the 4,000 features a Gentile setting (borders of Decapolis; cf. Mark 7:31). Bethsaida is the northernmost tip of the Sea of Galilee whereas Decapolis is at the southern end!
  4. DIFFERENT NUMBERS OF LOAVES. The 5,000 were fed using five loaves and two fishes (Matthew 14:17; Mark 6:38; Luke 9:16; John 6:9) but the 4,000 had “seven loaves and a few little fishes” (Matthew 15:34; Mark 8:5-7).
  5. DIFFERENT QUANTITIES OF LEFTOVERS. Twelve baskets remained after the 5,000 were fed (Matthew 14:20; Mark 6:43; Luke 9:17; John 6:13) but only seven baskets were left after the 4,000 ate (Matthew 15:37; Mark 8:8).
  6. DIFFERENT GREEK WORDS FOR “BASKETS.” The “baskets” concerning the 5,000 are “kophinous” (hand-baskets) while those related to the 4,000 are “spuridas” (large baskets)—see item #7 below for more info. That latter or “spuridi” basket was large enough to hold a person such as the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:25). Such precise words are another indication that the Holy Spirit would have us see them as distinct events.
  7. JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF VIEWED THEM AS DIFFERENT INCIDENTS. Matthew 16:9-10 is the most compelling piece of evidence to prove that the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 were two separate historical events as opposed to one historical event viewed from two angles. “Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets [kophinous] ye took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets [spuridas] ye took up?”

If we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to believe, we will understand there are simply too many differences between these accounts to make them one miraculous event. Additionally, if we understand them dispensationally, they must be distinct occasions. As noted earlier, the 5,000 has a Jewish context (chapter 14) while the 4,000 has a Gentile tone (chapter 15). Both Israel and the nations are to be blessed in the Millennium—God’s salvation passing through the Jews and down to the world. There is enough for Israel to be fed spiritually, and then enough for the nations to be fed spiritually. Reducing the feeding of the multitudes to a single event destroys the antitype (forcing the passages to become discordant with prophecy).

Also see:
» Do Matthew 9:18, Mark 5:23, and Luke 8:42 contradict?
» Do Matthew 17:1, Mark 9:2, and Luke 9:28 contradict?
» Do Matthew 17:15, Mark 9:17-18, and Luke 9:39 contradict?