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“They Have Eyes and Do Not See”

In the history of man there is no piece of writing on which more commentaries have been compiled than the gospels. Many of these commentaries are intended to explain or analyze the gospels not only verse by verse, but sentence by sentence. One could say more than this, namely, that there is not a single word in the gospels that has not been elucidated, interpreted, defined, translated, collated, compared, and construed, both in terms of literal and of figurative meaning. Nevertheless, there is a specific group of statements in the gospels that through the centuries have been passed over in silence. We shall see that these statements do not deal with a minor issue, but relate to the very core of the message that the gospels are intended to convey.

This astonishing fact came to my attention by incident, if not by accident. Since the study of the history of measures has been a steady concern of mine through all my adult life, there came a day when in the gradual unfolding of my investigation I undertook to canvass the evidence provided by the New Testament. I began by using a concordance in order to make a list of all verses that contain technical terms relating to measurement. So I came to the word kophinos, which in the Greek of the New Testament refers to a special kind of basket. In all cultures of the ancient world the amount of grain (which was the essential element of nutrition) consumed in a day was a fixed unit of measure (called choinix in Greece), as there was a fixed unit for the monthly unit (basically the talent). The contents of this unit varied somewhat according to the system of measures used in the particular area and in the particular period of time and was adjusted by fixed rules according to the kind of grain used as bread stuff. Among the Jews the matter of the container for the daily ration of grain food presented specific aspects because, at least in the period around the beginning of our era, in order to conform with the rules for ritual cleanliness, they carried around their daily supply of bread in a special wicker-work container called kophinos in the Greek of the New Testament.

The term kophinos is given prominence in two famous episodes of Jesus' life, the so-called Feeding of the Five Thousand and the so-called Feeding of the Four Thousand. According to the narrative of the gospels, an essential point in these two miracles of multiplication of breads is that, at the end of the first multiplication and consequent feeding of the crowd, there were left seven kophinoi of crumbs, whereas at the end of the similar second multiplication and feeding the remaining kophinoi were twelve. Therefore I asked myself the question why such figures should occur and what was their meaning according to the mathematics of measurement. I consulted all the standard authoritative commentaries without finding a single explanation, comment, or even mention of the figures. This alerted my attention by suggesting that some problem existed; hence, my search through the commentaries became more systematic. No human being could claim that he has consulted all of the existing commentaries on these two episodes of the gospels, since a life would not afford adequate time; but I have scoured the libraries of some of the best endowed divinity schools, and I can also add that I have almost half a century of experience in making rapid and effective use of the resources of information provided by libraries: but the result has been zero. I have not found one work which dealt in any way with the figures of these miracles. Commentaries which are intended to explain the Gospels line by line suddenly skip over entire verses when they come to the miracles of the multiplication of bread and fish.

A clear example of what may be termed resistance to understanding is provided by the first rate commentary by Father Raymond E. Brown to the gospel of John in the Anchor Bible. He includes a presentation in table form of all details of the two miracles of multiplication, lining up in parallel columns against each other the two miracles according to each of the four gospels. Every single item in the accounts is compared, but the figures in the miracles are left out. The same blind spot is to be found in similar comparisons by other scholars.

I wish my readers better luck than I have had in finding a commentator who does not forget to expound this episode of Jesus' teaching. In order to convey how unfruitful has been my search, I may point out that the one statement I have found as coming nearest to an answer to my query is contained in The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield, a book that I consider historically unsound, but which has received a good deal of sympathetic attention. The main thesis of Schonfield is that Jesus pretended to die on the cross in order to stage the miracle of the resurrection. In a future study I will show that this preposterous thesis in a vague way contains an inkling of the truth, in that the burying of Jesus in an underground hollow was originally a separate episode, Schonfield at least has the merit of having tried to approach the life of Jesus with a completely fresh outlook not hampered by established traditions. Hence, Schonfield realized that the figures in the multiplication of breads are in need of an explanation. At the end of his book he suggests:

The five loaves may represent the fivefold Testimony Books, the two fish, Baptism and Eucharist, all signifying the Gospel of which those who partook would be abundantly satisfied. The twelve baskets of surplus fragments will perhaps represent the further distribution of the Gospel to all nations, the mandate given to the twelve apostles. The alternative version with seven loaves and seven baskets could bring in the seven deacons (Acts VII) and the subsequent evangelical activities.

Here, as in other passages of the same book, a serious problem is brought to light, but given a trivial and superficial solution.

In the gospels there are mentioned two "miracles" of multiplication of breads. I have put the word "miracle" in quotation marks, because the question of what is meant by a miracle in the New Testament is the object of intense and important controversies; but at least there is a general agreement on which events in the narrative belong to the class of "miracles."

In conducting the present inquiry, which is concerned with quantitative data, I would like to eschew contentious general topics that are not directly related to my major theme. But for the sake of clarity of presentation I may quote the theory on "miracles" in the gospels advanced by Martin Dibelius, the founder of the most influential school of gospel interpretation in modern times. On the subject of "miracles" Dibelius agrees substantially with the view of Rudolf Bultmann, the most famous, although controversial, contemporary interpreter of the gospels. What Dibelius and Bultmann say substantially about "miracles" is that they must be divided into two classes. The most numerous class is that of "wonder tales"; the authors of the three synoptic gospels gleaned from Jewish and Gentile accounts of heroes and gods what seemed wondrous exploits and adjusted them into the story of Jesus in order to enhance his general public respectability Next to this class of "miracles" there are those that can be classified as "paradigms" in which the supernatural account is used to put across a fundamental doctrine of Jesus. We shall see now that the multiplications of breads belong to this second category. In my view there is a much more substantial relationship between the two types of "miracles" than that assumed by Dibelius and Bultmann.

One of Jesus' more notable miracles seems to have led to the brink of rebellion. The "Feeding of the Five Thousand," assembled significantly in the desert, resulted in an attempt to make him king. The true nature of the incident has been discreetly concealed in the Gospel records; but enough is revealed to make intelligible the titulus of his condemnation placed on the cross on which he was crucified, "The King of the Jews."

J. G. F. Brandon from whose recent investigation The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth I have just quoted, realizes how central are the episodes of multiplication of breads to an understanding of Jesus' mission.

In particular it [the gospel of John] reveals a significant awareness of the political factors involved in Jesus' career, and it gives the impression of knowing about incidents not mentioned in the other gospels. Most notably, it appears to be aware that the kingly aspect of Jesus' Messianship had been a decisive, perhaps the most decisive, factor, and ultimately resulted in his execution by the Romans.

Having stated that John gives a presentation of the issues involved in Jesus' trial more historically correct than that of the three synoptic gospels, Brandon supports this statement thus:

Thus John mentions that, after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness of Galilee, the people were so impressed by the power of Jesus that 'they were about to come and take him by force to make him king.

But the essential meaning of this episode continues to elude Brandon:

John naturally presents Jesus as withdrawing himself, to avoid being put in so compromising a position. However, rather illogically, he depicts Jesus on the next day as again teaching the crowd, with no reference made to the momentous happening of the previous day. Yet the long discourse that follows concerning the mystical 'bread of life,' a parallel is significantly cited between Jesus' miracle of providing bread in the wilderness and the provision of manna when the ancestors of Israel wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus.

A great number of interpreters agree that a major preoccupation of the writers of the gospels, because of the political circumstances of their period, was that of removing from the figure of Jesus, and hence from the Christian community, the stigma of political radicalism. My view is that for this reason the gospel writers watered down the impact of the second type of "miracles" by submerging them in a mass of wonder tales; thereby Jesus was made to appear, at least at first reading, a wonderworker, a character perfectly acceptable in Roman and Greek circles, instead of the herald or the artificer of a new world order. This explains why interpreters have inherited the bias of the Gospel writers and developed a specific resistance to the full interpretation of the miracles of multiplication of breads, which are crucial in conveying the essence of the new dispensation.

Not only the gospels, but Paul's letters, make clear that the multiplication of bread is fundamental to the Christian faith: it is the foundation of the Eucharist. The gospels make clear also that the multiplication of breads was a turning point in Jesus' career: it is at that moment that crowds begin to address him as king and from that moment that the march on Jerusalem and the passion become inevitable. I may quote the commentary of W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann in the Anchor Bible to the first multiplication of breads according to Matthew:

John vi 15 records that after the feeding, the crowds wished to take Jesus by force and make him king. In the ministry of Jesus there is always in the background the issue of Messiahship, and this is the best sense which can be attributed to John vi 15. It is then necessary to ask what there was about this particular occurrence which brought the issue so decidedly to the front.

What Albright and Mann intend to underscore is that the multiplication of breads was the turning point in Jesus' mission or, even better, the point of no return from which all that followed was consequential; in a Greek tragedy one would have called it the katastrophe. But although these two scholars understand correctly what is to be deduced from the very wording of the texts, they do not want to come to grips with the substance of what happened at this point. They begin by softening the concrete meaning of the occurrence by declaring that the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Feeding of the Four Thousand are two accounts of the same event. All modern commentators I have consulted claim that we are dealing with a case of duplication: since there were among the Christians two slightly different traditions of a single multiplication of breads, Matthew and Mark chose to include them both. This contention is often followed by the remark that the story was so important that Mark and Matthew felt proper to report it twice. The theory of duplication is referred to as a matter of course in all standard commentaries, but it is unacceptable in terms of the text of the gospels. Matthew and Mark not only report two multiplications of breads, but include a third event in which Jesus refers to the two multiplications and compares the figures in each of them.

Matthew 16:8-10

Knowing what was in their minds, Jesus said: "Why do you argue among yourselves about having no bread? Where is your faith? Do you not understand even yet? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand and how many baskets you picked up? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets did you pick up?"

Mark 8:16-21

And they were arguing among themselves about having no bread. Knowing what was in their minds, he said to them, "Why do you argue about having no bread? Have you no inkling yet? Do you still not understand? Have your brains turned into stone? You have eyes and do not see. You have ears and do not hear. Have you forgotten? When I broke the five loaves among the five thousands, how many baskets of crumbs did you pick up?" "Twelve," they said. "And how many when I broke the seven loaves among the four thousand?" They answered, "Seven." He repeated to them "Do you still not understand?"

In spite of the unequivocal language of Mark and Matthew which makes clear that two separate episodes of multiplication of breads are not the repetition of the same events, but two events that have specific meaning if put together and compared, there remains one argument at the disposal of those who claim that the mention of two episodes of multiplication of breads in Mark and Matthew must be taken as two versions of the same event: namely, that Luke and John mention only the first episode of multiplication, the Feeding of the Five Thousand. All the four gospels mention the Feeding of the Five Thousand, but the second "miracle" of the same kind, the Feeding of the Four Thousand, is mentioned by two, which are unquestionably the two oldest gospels, Matthew and Mark. The disagreement about the number of miracles is not surprising, since "miracles" are the topic on which the four gospels differ the most from each other. What is startling is that there is such a wide area of agreement among them. What is significant is that among all the "miracles" the first multiplication of breads is the only one that is mentioned in all the four gospels, if we do not include the resurrection in the count. The gospel of John mentions only seven "miracles," and the Feeding of the Five Thousand is one of them.

The theory of duplication seems to be innocent in itself, but there is a subtle piece of unconscious sophistry imbedded into it. The fact that the two supposed versions of the same story give different figures is used as an argument for assuming that the figures are only an incidental and irrelevant detail -- although the gospels, all four of them, stress the figures. There is a circularity in argument: the two accounts are the same because they differ only in the figures; the figures are not important because they differ in the two accounts. But the words of the two accountts are deliberately similar in order to emphasize the fact that the figures are different. Any person who reads the text can recognize that the figures are the essential point of the accounts. The wording of the gospels could not have been more explicit in conveying that here we have come to the crux of Jesus' message, to the foundations of the New Kingdom. But the readers of the gospels kept their minds closed. They have eyes but do not see; they have ears but do not hear, as Jesus said, quoting Isaiah (6:9-10):

Also I heard the voice of the lord,saying,whom shall i send,and
who will go for us? the said I here am Ii; send me.and he said, go, and tell this people:

Hear ye indeed, but understand not;
and see ye indeed, but perceive not;
Make the heart of this people fat;
and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and convert, and be healed.

Ever since the feedings, the followers of Jesus have reenacted the event daily by partaking of the Eucharist, but they tell us that the Eucharist is a mystery, which is to say that they refuse to answer the question that Jesus posed to his disciples.

Before I attempt to provide an answer to the question raised by Jesus, let me say that my daring is not based on a profound knowledge of theology or of New Testament criticism, but on the specific skill that I tried to develop in order to become an honest craftsman who knows his own particular trade. My answer, in which I shall analyze and compare the numerical data in the two episodes will be highly technical, because Jesus raised the issue in highly technical terms.

Commentators not only have neglected the figures, but two other factual details that are essential to the narrative:

(a) that in the case of the first Feeding the bread in question was barley bread;

(b) that in the case of the second Feeding, besides the 4000 men there were women and children.

Point (a) is spelled out in John 6:9. Point (b) is spelled out in Matthew 15:38: "For, those who ate were four thousand men, besides the women and the children."

In the first miracle Jesus begins with five breads, multiplies them, and after distributing 5,000 rations has a leftover of 12 baskets (this is the basket in which the Jews used to carry the daily ration of bread); in the second case Jesus begins with 7 breads, multiplies them, and after distributing 4,000 rations has a leftover of 7 baskets. Possibly in both cases only the number of the men present was recorded with numerical exactitude by those present (cf. Mark 6:40: they were sitting on the grass in groups of 100 and of 50), and the other figures were provided by speculation on the basis of vague recollections. The texts show the greatest uncertainty about the presence of women and children. Apparently only the men sat in organized groups and the women and children were merely hangers-on. Tradition refers to the two miracles as the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Feeding of the Four Thousand; possibly this is the way in which one remembered them from the beginning. The other data may have been supplied by applying the current reckonings about rations.

5,000 male adult rations

barley rations, double rations, and increased by 1/4. Hence, 12,000 kophinoi

5 loaves for 5,000

barley loaves have to be twice as big and 1/4 heavier

crumbs

Second Miracles: 7 loaves to begin with

4 men

4 women 12,000 people

4 children

7 thousand rations

7 baskets

The analysis by Jesus of the metrology of the two miracles of the multiplication of breads has the purpose of pointing out that whether the bread was made of barley or of wheat, he had given the corresponding right measure.

The meaning of the provision of bread in the wilderness is further elucidated by the words of Jesus reported by

Matthew (VI:31)

Do not therefore be overconcerned with questions such as 'What shall we eat?' What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For these are pagan worries, and your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first of all God's kingdom and his rightousness, and all these things will be provided for you. Do not be concerned about tomorrow, for tomorrow will do its own worrying. Today's misfortune is enough for today.

The same idea is expressed even more concretely by a saying of Jesus quoted by Rabbi Eliezer the Great:

Whoever has a morsel of bread in a basket and says 'What shall I eat tomorrow?' is one of those who have little faith.

Under the new dispensation everyone's bread basket will be filled in accordance with the just and full measures.


  1. The term kophinos was a common term also in classical Greek, but, as many words related to measures, it was of foreign origin; almost certainly it was derived from the Semitic root from which there came the name of the Hebrew unit of volume, qab. An ancient purist recommended that this word be substituted with arrhikhos, which was a less current word, but happened to be of native Greek stock. The use of the bread basket called kophinos was becoming obsolete in the second half of the fifth century B.C., and was the object of jest in Athenian comedy. In Roman times the use of the kophinos was considered a Jewish custom: Latin satirical writers indicate that one could recognize a Jew in the streets of Rome by his cophinus.
  2. The Passover Plot (Bernard Beis Associates; distributed by Random House: New York, 1965), p. 273.
  3. related to the unquestionable historical fact that Jesus was executed by
    the Roman authorities.
  4. I may add of my own that most Greek and Roman historians of secularist bent when it comes to decisive turning points in history introduce into the narrative supernatural events, such as
    apparitions, prophetic dreams, and signs from the sky.
  5. John 6:15; J G. F. Brandon, The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth, cf. Winter,
    The Trial of Jesus, p. 139; Goguel, Jesus, pp. 369ff. H. W.
    Montefiore, (New Testament Studies VIII (1961-62), 135ff.) has seen
    in the Feeding of the Five Thousand some indication of a "Revolt in the Desert" (145ff.).
  6. Matthew is the oldest gospel according to the tradition of the early Church, whereas Mark is the oldest according to the opinion prevailing among modern scholars.
  7. The Babylonian Talmud, Sota, Albright, p. 81. Rabbi Eliezer lived in the first century A.D. and was in touch with the Christians. The saying is not otherwise attested.

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