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‘In Ranks’
A Reading of the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes from Mark and Mathew

Recently, while checking The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, I did a comparative reading of two Christian gospels considering an event in the life of Jesus.

Mathew confirms Mark in the five loves and two fishes and the persecution of Jesus by Herod [2] being the reason for a retreat into a “desert place” [3] as well as the 5,000 “men” fed. [4] At this point it is worth contrasting Mathew and Mark in search of a metaphoric interpretation, for the image of fish, which were understood to be schooling creatures by the ancients, who were likely to be as much involved in net fishing as a modern person is in grocery shopping, would serve as a potent Christian symbol.

- Mark, by placing more emphasis in 6:39-41 on ordered ranks of followers among the 5,000, over Mathew’s “multitude” in 14:19, alludes to an evangelic organization. Indeed, ranked by hundreds and fifties, Mark’s description of the assembly “in ranks” might recall King David’s 50 bodyguards and the then current Roman military organization under Centurians [officers of one hundreds], suggesting an organized attempt to spread Jesus’ message. [4]

- Does, Mathew, in his more esoteric form, echo a sense of organized, evangelic, theism? Yes, he does, in 13:33-35 in which he describes Jesus as a speaker in parables, parables being a Hellenic (Greek) practice of teaching by analogy in “parallel words,” and then, where Mark describes Jesus as being seen walking on the water after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, from 6:45-52, and from Mathew, in 14:24-33. In both cases Jesus had sought a mountain upon which to pray alone as his apostles were on board their boat. In Mathew Peter attempts to walk on water with Jesus, and eventually sinks for lack of faith, suggesting that the assembly of 5,000 in the “desert place” while Jesus was being prosecuted by Herod, is cited explicitly by Mark and metaphorically by Mathew as a deliberate organization of cadres of believers which needed at once to be practically supplied with food and spiritually provided with the faith to spread Jesus’ message even as he was drawn physically away from them into a showdown with the political-religious [5] authorities.

- In 6:37 Mark has unnamed disciples inquiring as to whether or not they should go to villages to purchase bread for the assembly, citing an actual price!

- It seems, from this comparison, that Mark has recorded a practical measure by Jesus to ignite a self-propagating message among his followers and that the actual record of his disciples afloat on doubtful and mist-shrouded waters as he engaged God’s mysteries alone, may be a very real record of the logistics of his ministry and also their gradual assumption of his earthly duties in the spreading of his word and the self-doubt which seemed to attend this responsibility. [6]


-1. This war was conducted under the Flavian dynasty, was documented by Josephus and reflected Hellenistic-Judaic religious-political tensions that went back as far as the 170s B.C. and the struggle of the Macabees.

-2. Herod, as tetrarch, an old Greek office, was a Hellenistic client king of the Romans, placing the Jewish people under two layers of foreign civic-religious authority, which was a keen source of resentment as civic officials under these cultures held cultic status.

-3. This did not necessarily mean excessively dry in the modern understanding, but “waste” or “wild” or, most probably “uncultivated” land.

-4 5,000 was the standard strength of an active Roman legion, of the Imperial cohort system and such a number of gathered persons, even if peacefully attending religious functions and likely to be predominantly male, would have caused grave concern to a petty king such as Herod. Indeed, in the coming war, during which time Mark seems to have written, a Roman legion would be wiped out by rebels. Mathew states that the 5,000 were men, “beside women and children.”

-5. It is important not to suggest that ancient Judea, or any Roman administrative unit, client state or province had any clear secular and religious divisions of authority, but rather understand that the ancient idea of governance could not be divorced from that of the person or community’s religious life.

-6. Incidental: From roughly 1500 to 1700 musketeers fighting under the catholic kings of France and Spain carried 12 premeasured charges of gunpowder and shot for their weapons, which soldiers affectionately called “the twelve apostles.”

-7. The word parable comes from the Greek παραβολή (parabolē), meaning "comparison, illustration, analogy.: It was the name given by Greek rhetoricians to an illustration in the form of a brief fictional narrative.

It's very interesting that it gave rise to many Latin-derived words for speaking/ talking/ words, since the Greeks used it to convey the telling of a story. My crude sense of ancient Greek usage in Attic, Koine and Dorian, most of which examined martial matters, is that it would read parallel-tale. Greek compound words packed phrases and even sentences of English meaning.

Palabra - Spanish for "word"

Parole - Italian for "word"

Parlare - Italian for "to speak"

Parle - French for "speak"

Parliament - English for the committee of idiots who rule over the king

The Greek meaning is a spoken story with a meaning or comparison attached but the Romans reduced it to mere speech.

Gods of Boxing

The First Boxers

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