Loaves, Fishes and First-Century Etiquette

by Doug Ward

The Gospels describe two occasions on which Jesus of Nazareth, while teaching a large crowd in a remote area, used just a few fish and loaves of bread to provide a full meal for thousands of people. In one instance five loaves and two fish were available, and "five thousand men, besides women and children" were fed, with twelve baskets of broken pieces of bread left over (Matt 14:15-21). Another time seven loaves and a few fish fed "four thousand men, besides women and children," and seven baskets full of bread fragments were collected (Matt 15:32-38).


The Gospel accounts of these feeding miracles include unusual details that raise questions for today's readers. For one thing, why were only the adult males in the crowds counted? It would be even more impressive to know the total number of people who were fed. In addition, why was so much bread left uneaten, and why did someone bother to collect the leftover bread pieces?


Some background information about Jewish dining customs from the time of Jesus will help us answer these questions. One relevant custom is the "grace after meals," a prayer of thanksgiving spoken at the end of a meal. This practice is based on Deut 8, where Moses admonished the Israelites never to forget the source of the abundance they would enjoy in the Promised Land. "And you shall eat and be full," Moses said, "and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you" (Deut 8:10).


As a concrete way of heeding Moses' words, a formal practice of blessing God at the end of a meal developed. By the time of Jesus a number of guidelines for this blessing were in place. For a group of people eating together, a man from the group would lead, and the words with which the prayer began depended on the number of men in the group. According to later rabbinic tradition, if there were ten men in the group. the leader would begin, "Let us bless our God." If there were a hundred, he would begin, "Let us bless the Lord our God." For a thousand men the opening words were, "Let us bless the Lord our God, God of Israel."1


Since the opening words of the prayer were determined by the number of men present, it would have been natural for the crowds that Jesus fed to split up into groups with specific numbers of men. Mark's account of the feeding of 5000 suggests such an arrangement. "So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties," we read in Mark 6:40. With the people organized in this manner, it would have been fairly easy to obtain the estimates of 5000 and 4000 men recorded in the Gospels.


Breaking Off Bread

What about the leftover bread fragments? In Matthew 14:21 and 15:37, the Greek word for these "broken pieces" of bread is klasmaton, a word that connotes pieces that were broken off deliberately rather than crumbs that fell accidentally.2 So the existence of these pieces of bread is attributable to something other than messy eating habits.


As it turns out, it was common practice in those days for diners to break off a small piece of bread from a loaf and set it aside for the priests. This practice stems from two passages from the book of Numbers. One of them is Num 15:17-21, which instructs Israelite bakers to give an offering of a loaf of bread from the first fruits of a batch of dough. The dough offering was another way for people to acknowledge and give thanks for God's provision. The other is Num 18:25-32, which directs the tribe of Levi to set aside a tenth of Israel's tithes for the priests. Verse 32 underlines the importance of handling these tithes properly, indicating that a failure to do so could even lead to death.


Based on these verses, in the first century a certain portion of Israel's bread (about 4% for the dough offering and 1% from the tithe of the tithe) was donated to the priesthood. And because of the stern warning in Num 18:32, people wanted to be sure not to eat this portion, even by mistake. As a result, if one was not sure that a batch of bread had been properly tithed, one would break off a small piece from a loaf and set it aside, just in case. In a small gathering of people, these pieces would be offered to any priests who were present. But in the crowds of thousands that Jesus fed, there were so many pieces that they were gathered in baskets. The baskets would have been delivered afterward to a local representative of the Temple, who presumably was very surprised to receive such a large donation of small bread pieces.


One detail of the feeding miracle accounts that requires no explanation is the fact that Jesus said a blessing before these meals (Matt 14:19; 15:36). Giving thanks before a meal is a Jewish tradition that Christianity has inherited, and the New Testament is actually our earliest historical witness to the practice.3 Several centuries after Jesus, there is a discussion in the Talmud about the proper procedure for this practice.4 Should a blessing be recited, and then bread broken, or should a blessing be completed over a piece of broken bread? The New Testament weighs in on this debate, since apparently the bread is broken after the blessing in every New Testament example.


Our study of the Gospel descriptions of the feeding miracles illustrates the fact that a knowledge of ancient Jewish traditions is valuable background for understanding the New Testament. It is also the case that the New Testament itself is a Jewish text and a key source of data about Jewish traditions, as illustrated by the examples we have discussed. Other details in the Gospels also agree with information from later sources. For instance, the statement that it would cost 200 denarii to buy bread for the crowd (Mark 6:47) is consistent with data given in the Mishnah for the cost of providing half a day's rations for a group of that size.5 The New Testament is a valid-and valuable-historical resource.


1Mishnah, Berakhot 7:3.


2For this and other details covered in this article, see David Instone-Brewer, "Rabbinic etiquette at the feeding of 4000 & 5000 and the move from Sabbath to Sunday," preprint, 2004.


3This fact was mentioned by Dr. R. Steven Notley in a Haverim lecture in Dayton, Ohio, on April 14, 2012.


4b. Berakhot 39b.


5Mishnah, Peah 8:7, cited by Instone-Brewer.

Issue 33


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 25 May 2018, 12:24.