This article is an exposition of Mark 6:30-44.

Source: Marcus - Het evangelie volgens Petrus (Kok Kampen). 5 pages. Translated by Freda Oosterhoff.

Mark 6:30-44 Commentary - Rest by Israel’s Shepherd

The Bible passage that follows the account of Herod’s attitude toward Jesus begins with the twelve apostles who are coming back from their travels, and concludes with five thousand men who are fed in the desert. Are these two events separate issues: the end of the twelve disciples’ mission (6:30-32) and the first time when Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd (6:33-44)? Many commentaries and translations suggest that. Yet most of the time people continue to deal with the two events in one passage. Why? Because Mark lets the two flow into each other. The explanation for this fact would be that Jesus first intended to give the returned Twelve a short time (oligon, 6:31) of rest in a desolate environment without others being present (kat’ idian, 6:31), but he had to change the plan because the crowds had followed them. Gould1 even sees here a sign of Jesus’ humanity: he had not foreseen that his plan to give rest was not realizable. The Twelve disappear with their need for rest behind the crowds with their need for food!

On further consideration, however, there are reasons to challenge this idea. Jesus could also have sent the crowds away for the sake of the Twelve. He does, after all, send them away at the end of the day (6:45)! And after the people have eaten, Jesus does not as yet seek the moment of rest: in fact, the Twelve are even sent away on their travel ahead of him (6:45). It is also not true that the disciples disappear behind the crowds: they are used in preparing the food (6:35-38) and in handing it out (6:41). The miracle that happens seems a bit superfluous: after the meal the crowds are sent away so that a few hours later they could also eat in the surrounding villages and hamlets (6:45-46; 6:36). Moreover, the miracle is closely connected with the reason why Jesus wanted to take the Twelve along to a quiet environment. Many people were coming and going, so that “they had no leisure even to eat” (6:31). What the Twelve missed at their return they find unexpectedly in the desert in the midst of the crowds: a wonderfully proper moment to eat (6:42-43)! This miracle certainly had to say something to the crowds, but Mark shows first of all that it meant something to the returned Twelve: Mark later comes back to their (delayed) reaction (6:52) and Jesus later reminds them of the meaning that this miraculous meal should have had for them (8:17-21). There is every reason to see Mark 6:30-44 not as a story with an unforeseen disappointment in the course of happenings but as one that shows how Jesus gives a short time of rest to the Twelve when they have come back from their travels.

The return forms the beginning of the story (6:30). The Twelve are now called “apostles” (only here in Mark): the use of this “professional” name is a reminder of the fact that the Twelve had officially been sent out to preach and to cast out demons (6:7-13). Having fulfilled their charge they now report officially to Jesus. They told him everything, both what they had done and what they had learned (6:30). The two sides of their commission (6:12-13) are reflected in their report (with the majority of the manuscripts we should read “both…and”: kai…kai). They have been allowed to do much to make Jesus’ name known (6:14). Their attention was focused on their Master, not on themselves.

After their return the Master does give personal attention to his servants. He said to them (6:31): “Come away by yourselves [with emphasis, and in distinction from the people about whom they reported] to a desolate place and rest a while.” This rest was indeed needed because one did not even have time to eat in the enormous busyness of the people’s coming and going around Jesus. This explanatory addition (6:31b) makes clear that the withdrawal is not made because it would be a burden to look after the people, but in order to ensure that they can continue their work among them. This rest is not a goal, but a means for work. Therefore, it is also “for a while” only: after that the Twelve may continue their work in Israel with Jesus.

The desolate place where they are going (6:32) is near the lake, in the area of the town of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). This town (also called Julias) was at the north side of the lake, just east of the Jordan, which enters the lake there. The lonely area was on the east shore of the lake (opposite Tiberias and Capernaum; John 6:23-24). We will have to seek it on the northeast side of the lake. In Mark 6:45 we read that at night the disciples sail from this lonely terrain “to the other side,” to Bethsaida. This can hardly have been a trip from south to north. We must not think here of a trip right across the lake; it is a matter here2 of a crossing from one part of the shore to another (one or two bays farther). This point is of importance for the question how it is possible that the crowds, who walk, nevertheless arrive at approximately the same time in the lonely area. Jesus does not choose the boat because the trip is long and the other coast far away, but because he wants to travel alone. He leaves the crowd and sails to the desert area of Bethsaida. The people, however, can also reach that same area by land quite quickly, when the starting point for boat and crowds was Bethsaida. This must have been the case because the next day these same crowds see no chance to reach without boats the more distant places on the west shore (Tiberias and Capernaum: John 6:23-24). We therefore explain Mark 6:32 in such a way that Jesus left by boat from Bethsaida where he was at the time and where the disciples returned to him, in order to free himself from the crowds and to sail to a lonely area (at the other side of the bending coastal strip). In this area was “the mountain” (John 6:3; Matt. 24:23; Mark 6:46). It is the area of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:7).

The people see Jesus with his disciples leave (6:33). And many “recognized him” (as it says in the majority of the manuscripts): this puzzling statement must mean in this connection that many knew so much about Jesus that they could guess that he would now go to his well-known place of retreat. That’s where they quickly went from all the towns and they arrived even before the apostles, and “got there with him” (Majority Text). They could be there so rapidly (6:33) and they wished to be there so rapidly (from whatever town they came) because they wanted to be with Jesus, even in this desolate area where a person has nothing else to seek.

In 6:34 some translations and some explainers create the impression that the people are waiting for Jesus along the shore, at his arrival. That is not correct. It says that “after he went ashore” he saw a great crowd (exelthon, not exerchomenos). He came with the Twelve across the lake, leaves the boat and then sees when he enters the desolate area that people are already coming together at the mountain (John 6:3-5). Against this background the rest of 6:34 also becomes clearer. While Jesus has not even arrived yet at the lonely place, the people stand there already. A flock of sheep that waits: as sheep without a shepherd! Jesus is filled with compassion when he sees the waiting crowd and notices the others who are still coming to him. What the sheep need he gives them: a shepherd’s guidance by his instruction.

The apostles, however, see their period of rest disappearing; again there is no time for eating. The day moves on (6:35) and it is already getting late (mealtime in the East). They point this out to Jesus and suggest that he send the crowds away so that they themselves can look after their meal in the surrounding area (6:36). But the idea of rest seems to disappear altogether when Jesus tells them that they themselves (as apostles) have to give food to the crowds (6:37). If they had the money, this would mean that twelve people would have to buy food in the area for an amount of money that someone earns within 200 working days! What a disturbance! But now Jesus modifies it: they must find out how much food there is. Since no one, for the sake of symbolism, will have brought five loaves of bread and two fish (6:38), we too must not look for a symbolic meaning here (as happened often in the early church) when among the public there is a boy (John 6:9) with five loaves of bread and two fish (taken along to sell?). Only it is far too little for so many!

But now the moment arises when it appears that rest for the disciples can be combined with the care for so many. Jesus now takes control (6:39): he orders the crowds to sit down in groups on the green grass. The presence of green grass is mentioned as a fact, not as a sudden miracle that would point to the messianic time.3 Green grass in this area indicates springtime (Passover is at hand: John 6:4). Mark, however, does not mention this to point to the time, but as a picture of an important happening. Green grass is not a common “carpet” to sit down for a meal. Yet people are now told to sit down as for a festive meal. This is implied in the double description sumposia sumposia, a word that originally means “drinking-bout, festive dinner,” and later it is also used to indicate a group of people who have a festive meal together. The word is not commonly used for the normal daily meal. Jesus organizes a festive dinner where the guests form a community. In a desolate area without food, this must have been for those present almost as strange as (at the time) building an ark on land.

But people accepted the invitation to invisible tables (6:40). They sat down in an organized way, in small circles. Mark alone uses the typical description prasiai prasiai, a term that is borrowed from gardening and literally means that vegetables are sown or planted “bed by bed.” Does Mark choose this term because Peter, his source, saw in lively memory the colourful groups on the grass-like flourishing garden beds or bulb fields on the steppe? The groups were ordered by hundreds and by fifties. Luke (9:14) mentions only the groups of fifty and leaves out the fact that there were also double-groups (larger units from one town?). It will have been a coincidence that the total number of men was exactly 50 x 100 (6:44). The suggestion4 that we must interpret verse 40 as indicating that people were lined up in square formation (one hundred rows of fifty people each) does not only go against the context, which speaks of smaller groups (sumposia, prasiai), but also with the normal meaning of the words that are being used (ana in the majority of texts means, with numbers, “per,” and this applies also to the reading kata; moreover, it says “by hundreds and by fifties”). The smaller groups of 50 and 100 dinner partners must not be connected with the fact that in Israel’s time in the desert people knew of leaders over 1000, 100, 50, and 10 (Ex. 18:25), as if Jesus established a sign of the time of redemption for Israel5 or possibly was even considering military revolts.6 The context is that of a large number of guests at a festive dinner. The organization into groups creates table community. People were together in a festive hall without walls and yet did not disappear in the masses!

The miraculous meal that now follows (6:41) could be compared to the manna-miracle in the desert or with the multiplication of bread at the time of Elisha (2 Kings 4:42-44). Jesus’ work, however, differs from these events not only in its magnitude (more people are fed with fewer means) but especially in its execution. Moses and Elisha speak about what Yahweh would do. Jesus does it himself. He takes the five loaves and the two fish and by his hands they are multiplied: he breaks the loaves (kataklan only here and in Luke 9:16 points to an intensive breaking that continues) and he gives the fish to them all. Jesus performs this divine, creative miracle in unity with his heavenly Father. Before he breaks and shares he looks up to heaven (a sign of prayer). Then he blesses bread and fish. Many exegetes think that it is not a matter here of the blessing of the food but of the normal giving of thanks before the meal.7 Now this giving of thanks undoubtedly took place, as was evident from Jesus lifting his eyes up to heaven. The question, however, is whether thanksgiving is also meant when it is subsequently said that Jesus “blessed” (eulogese). The more common verb for the giving of thanks is eucharistein (Acts 27:35). We find it also in John’s story about the multiplication of the bread (John 6:11): his mention of Jesus’ thanksgiving can be in essence parallel with Mark’s mentioning of Jesus’ looking up to heaven. That is confirmed by Luke’s account: with him it is very clear that the blessing is a separate element, next to the giving of thanks (“And taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves,” Luke 9:16). From Luke’s report it is probable that Matthew (14:19) and Mark (6:41), who are not as explicit, nevertheless also mean that the giving of thanks was involved in the looking up to heaven and that then the blessing of bread and fish followed. When the disciples can hand out the food without end, that is thanks to Jesus’ blessing on the food. His word of blessing is a creative word!

There is now satisfaction for many (6:42-44). It is not an emergency meal in the steppe, but an abundant banquet whereby everyone is satisfied (6:42). This also appears from the fact that there are leftovers: even much more than what they started from (6:43). It is as with an abundant meal of rich people, where so much is always left over so that there is also a portion for the poor. Yet the number of merrymakers is large: five thousand men, without counting the possibly accompanying women and children (6:44).

The disciples can now also rest and eat. Their rest is coloured by the miracle. They rest in Jesus’ divine care for them and also for the people among whom they have a task as apostles. This brief rest is altogether suitable to prepare them for further work on Jesus’ mandate on behalf of Israel, on behalf of people who are like sheep without a shepherd. This oasis of the festive meal on the green grass strengthens them to follow the divine shepherd, on whom the shadow of death of Herod’s attention had already fallen. It is also a sign of the rest that this shepherd has come to prepare for Israel: the wedding-banquet of the Lamb brings rest to the apostles and the people for whom they labour.

The twelve small baskets with the leftovers of the feast were carrying-baskets or bags (the word kofinos is used in the New Testament only in connection with the feeding of the 5000). Jews often had such little baskets with them (Juvenal mocks that): probably to carry clean food along with them outside of Palestine. They were also part, however, of the travelling outfit of a Roman infantry soldier, who could in this way take along at least three daily rations8. When twelve baskets are mentioned we must not look for a symbolic meaning: the twelve apostles who share bread and fish receive at the end of the meal their entire travelling bag filled with bread and fish (enough for at least three days). The detail of their bags full of provisions illustrates again how Jesus did not lose sight of the goal he had in mind with the miracle of the bread (to give the Twelve a short period of rest). There was also care for later!


  1. ^ E.P. Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark. ICC (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1932, c1896).
  2. ^ H.B. Swete, The Gospel According to St. Mark. The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes and Indices (London: Macmillan & Co., 1898).
  3. ^ FRIEDRICH, G., Die beiden Erzählungen von der Speisung in Markus 6,31-44; 8,1-9. (1964) (in: Auf das Wort kommt es an. Ges. Aufsätze. Göttingen 1978, 13-25).
  4. ^ C.F.D. Moule, The Gospel According to Mark. (Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge repr. 1975.
  5. ^ FRIEDRICH, G., Die beiden Erzählungen von der Speisung in Markus 6,31-44; 8,1-9. (1964) (in: Auf das Wort kommt es an. Ges. Aufsätze. Göttingen 1978, 13-25).
  6. ^ MONTEFIORE, H., Revolt in the Desert? (New Testament Studies 8 (1961) 135-141).
  7. ^ BOOBYER, G.H., The Eucharistic Interpretation of the Miracle of the Loaves in St.Mark’s Gospel (Journal of Theological Studies 3 (1952) 161-171).
  8. ^ JOSEPHUS, BJ 3:95.

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