The sharing-not-multiplication hypothesis of the Loaves and Fishes

The sharing-not-multiplication hypothesis of the loaves and fishes tends to serve more as a rant or an anecdote than a hypothesis worth considering or refuting. One problem is that no source for the claim is ever given, nor is any argument given for it.

I didn’t find the hypothesis in Strauss or Troltch (can anyone find an older reference among the Germans? Bultmann?) but any explanation of the popularity of the claim in the Anglophone world has to go though William Barclay’s 17 volume Daily Study Bible, which was a best-seller in its day and continues to be so. Barclay gives the same explanation of the miracle though his fullest account is given in his commentary on John 6. (Follow the link to the parallel Commentary in Mk. 6 Lk. 9 and Mt. 14).

Barclay always prefaces the sharing hypothesis by allowing that many want to take the miracle at face value and should be allowed to do so. He is clear that it was meant only to be given to those who struggled with the reality of miracles. This means the usual way of presenting the hypothesis is completely inappropriate: it presumes an audience of persons who are scandalized by miracle and are therefore disposed to understand the text in a non-miraculous way. It’s not at all fit to be mentioned in a sermon to popular audiences or to young kids in a CCD class.

Barclay gives a descent reason to be scandalized by the multiplication: it seems much like the sort of miracle Christ refused to do when tempted in the desert. Even if the reason doesn’t hold up, it makes an interesting point of comparison. After this, he mentions the possibility of a “sacramental” interpretation of the loaves and fishes: each person only got a crumb broken off from the loaf, but saw great spiritual significance in it. Crucial difficulties seem to be overlooked here: it’s no easier to see how there could be enough crumbs to go around than full meals. But, again, it makes for an interesting point of comparison.

The sharing hypothesis is prefaced by the claim that “It is scarcely to be thought that the crowd left on a nine-mile expedition without making any preparations at all. If there were pilgrims with them, they would certainly possess supplies for the way.” This is just the sort of detail that usually gets left off but which plays a crucial part in the plausibility of the account. The account itself is brief, and many of the details are probably familiar anyway (viz. “It may be that this is a miracle in which the presence of Jesus turned a crowd of selfish men and women into a fellowship of sharers”) but there is much to recommend the Barclay account of the hypothesis that gets left off in the account of the sharing hypothesis that is simply in the wind. I don’t think the hypothesis is ultimately plausible, but it raises some interesting issues, and it might have a limited pastoral value in ministering to persons who are scandalized by the miracles in Scripture.

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2 Comments

  1. Not scandalized by miracles said,

    February 24, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I am not scandalized by miracles, but perhaps a better way of interpreting the miracle is to think of it as the evangelist making an allusion to God providing manna for the Israelites in the desert – – in this case using Christ in the place of the God of Israel in providing spiritual bread until all were satisfied. This is in line with a new book by Richard B Hays – – Reading Backwards. This is plausible and has the added testimony to the divinity and reverence for Christ.

  2. February 25, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    The big difference during Jesus’s temptation in the desert is that Jesus was asked to turn the stones into bread for himself, and while he was fasting.

    In the multiplication story, Jesus is bringing bread to other people, none of whom, as far as I know, are reported to be fasting. This is not inconsequential.

    I don’t think I like the idea of minimizing a miracle to make it more palatable. It has been understood as a miracle virtually universally for almost the entire history of the Church; saying that hey, maybe it’s not, because some people might want to hear that doesn’t sit right with me.


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