Prophets of the new Exodus: Loaves and fishes as military provocation

The historian Josephus records that various 1st century messianic leaders promised to perform public Exodus-style signs so as to inaugurate God’s powerful reign over Israel and the world. Many Jews were persuaded to follow such figures “into the wilderness,” hoping to participate anew in the liberation and founding of the nation.1 For such Jews the time had come for Jacob to shake off his pagan yoke and strike fear into the hearts of the Gentiles once more (cf. Deuteronomy 2:24-25, Exodus 15:13-18). Dissatisfied with Roman rule and aflame with apocalytpic fervor, these Israelites were willing to risk disaster for the cause of some “prophet like Moses” or “prince like Joshua.” And disaster, so it seems, is all that came of attempts to launch this new Exodus and new Conquest.

Reconquest rebuffed

Josephus refers to a certain “prophet” named Theudas, for instance, who, in the spirit of Joshua, mustered a reconquista force on the banks of the Jordan: “Theudas persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the Jordan river; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it” (Antiquities 20.5.1, 97-98).2 The Romans dispatched Theudas and his followers before any such treason could be fully realized.

Josephus notes another “prophet” known as “the Egyptian.” Like Theudas, he endeavored to recapitulate Israel’s conquest myth, this time claiming that “at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down,” thus allowing for easy capture of the city (Antiquities 20.8.5 169-172). These new walls of Jericho, as it were, stood firm and the Egyptian’s soldiers were either cut down or arrested. 

Those who had hoped one of these men was “the one who would redeem Israel” were, in the end, humiliated (cf. Luke 24:21, Matthew 24:26). God had withheld his help and in so doing rejected their pretensions.

A naïve Messiah?

Jesus, for his part, also procured politically-charged crowds bent on reclaiming their nation from the pagans. By acclaiming Jesus as “the prophet,” David’s son,” and “Israel’s king,” these Jews invested this mysterious harbinger of God’s imminent reign with nationalistic significance.

And like those stunning miracles promised by Theudas and the Egyptian—signs of God’s impending military victory over the heathen—Jesus’ kingdom-signs, as well as his kingdom-teachings, sometimes threatened to awaken the ire of the Roman authorities. Members of the Sanhedrin wonder, for instance: “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:47-48).3 From under Roman occupation, and in the crucible of Jewish apocalypticism, it was difficult to disassociate signs of God’s impending kingdom from the prospect of overthrowing the pagan order. Since the political deliverance of Israel was an intrinsic characteristic of the messianic age, signs pertaining to that age were bound to destabilized the political landscape of Roman Palestine.

Whether or not Jesus intended to threaten the empire in this way though, is, in a sense, irrelevant. Jesus understood that his words and deeds would necessarily excite patriotic discontent and perhaps even open insurrection. He was not naïve to the dangers of popular messianic speculation (cf. Luke 13:1-5, 19:41-42). 

A provocative prophet

It was not his healings and exorcisms, however, that would have cemented Jesus’ incendiary image in the minds of his kinfolk—at least not those therapeutic works on their own (cf. Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 11:5). The Romans were usually quite tolerant of magicians, conjurers, and tricksters of various stripes. Healers, even highly popular healers, were of no great threat to Roman hegemony.

One of Jesus’ sign-act stands out as a source of political inflammation: the miraculous feeding of the Galilean multitude. It is here, in the “wilderness” (Mark 6:35, 8:4), that Jesus and the other sign prophets of his time most fully converge—for it is here that Jesus takes hold of the Exodus myth as his own to commence and conduct. This is Jesus at his most provocative. 

The subversive subtleties encoded in the narrative are evident upon a close reading.

  • The Johannine tradition locates an attempted coronation of Jesus at the feast: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:14-15). As he had proven himself to be the prophet of the new Exodus and the new Conquest, the people instinctively hail him as king.
  • In the Markan tradition the feeding miracle originates in Jesus’ longing to become the “shepherd” of a shepherdless people (Mark 6:34). The archetypal liberator of Israel was, of course, a shepherd (Exodus 3:1, Psalm 77:20), as was the nation’s archetypal king (Ezekiel 34:23, Psalm 78:70-72). But it is with the conqueror Joshua—made commander over Israel so that God’s people would not be as “sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:15-20)—that Jesus is here directly compared.  
  • Jesus commands the crowds to sit in groups of fifties and hundreds as Moses once organized Israel’s tribal armies (Mark 6:40, cf. Exodus 18:22-25). This regimented gathering of the people in the wilderness would have recalled the military census performed before the invasion and inheritance of Canaan (cf. Numbers 1:2-3, 26:2-4).

In the minds of those five thousand “men” (ἄνδρες) who experienced the multiplication of loaves and fishes in the wilderness then, Israel was nearing its climactic and promised theo-political revival—its re-entrance into the Promised Land. This heavenly gift of fish and loaves, therefore, like the manna and quail received in the Sinai, was not for the satiation of hunger per se, but rather represented the provisions necessary for the coming campaign (Nehemiah 9:14-15, Psalm 105:40-45).4 Jesus came to be regarded as Israel’s king and shepherd here not because he satisfied bodily hunger in and of itself, but because he satisfied Israel’s communal hunger in a politically-symbolic way.

With Jesus now at the helm of Israel’s redemption—a status confirmed by a powerful Exodus-style sign—the troops would want for nothing. Whereas God had snubbed Theudas and the Egyptian, God was with Jesus.

Embarrassed evangelists

This reading of the feeding miracle depends, of course, on its historicity. Did Jesus actually attempt a dramatic Exodus-style sign? Did his contemporaries believe he had? Or are the Gospel accounts pure concoction, originating primarily in the Elisha loaves-multiplication story (2 Kings 4:42-44) and the Last Supper traditions?

It is difficult to say. Meier believes a primitive barebones narrative is triply independently attested in Mark 6, Mark 8, and John 6. He states: “The criteria of multiple attestation and of coherence5 make it more likely than not that behind our Gospel stories of Jesus feeding the multitude lies some especially memorable communal meal of bread and fish, a meal with eschatological overtones celebrated by Jesus and his disciples with a large crowd by the Sea of Galilee” (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 2, 966-967).

Two more arguments for historicity could be raised.

  • Despite having its own historical problems, the Johannine wine miracle at Cana supports the notion that Jesus was known as a food-gift wonderworker at some early stage.
  • The evangelists appear embarrassed by the political implications associated with the miracle. Unable to excise the story altogether, the evangelists tried to redirect its interpretation. In one case, John appends a long discourse to the miracle story which interprets the sign in relation to Jesus’ death and the ritual meal it spawned. In another case, Mark alludes to certain hidden meanings lying behind the bread and leftovers (8:14-21). It is possible that these redactions constitute attempts to distance Jesus from the likes of Theudas and the Egyptian. While they were politically-motivated actors, Jesus intended the miracle as a sign-parable of the spiritual salvation effected by his death.

Soon but not yet

As Meier suggests then, it is conceivable that Jesus hosted a particularly large kingdom-feast and as a result kindled the messianic aspirations of his Galilean countrymen. Some came to believe that Jesus had produced heavenly bread and meat as Moses had done long ago. And yet as eager crowds came near to install him as prophet-king of the new Exodus and new Conquest, Jesus unexpectedly fled. While his retreat from the logical consequences of his theatrics is puzzling, it may still be explainable: it may be a matter of eschatological timing.

The signs promised by Theudas (crossing the Jordan) and the Egyptian (toppling the walls of Jericho) were portends of immediate divine military aid. The sign delivered by Jesus, on the other hand, launched the Exodus myth not in bello, but in the wilderness outside the Promised Land. While such a sign certainly anticipated imminent divine action against the pagan empire, Jesus may have believed Israel was destined first for a period of moral testing.

1—Josephus finds these rebellious movements distasteful to say the least: “Conjurers and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness, and pretended that they would show them manifest wonders and signs that would be performed by the providence of God” (Antiquities 20.8.5, 169-170).

2—Joshua tells his army: “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites… When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap” (Joshua 3:10-13).

3—Outsiders classify or confuse Jesus’ movement with those of Theudas and the Egyptian (Acts 5:33-39, 21:37-38).

4—Many expect continual resupply (John 6:34, Mark 8:11-13, cf. Exodus 16:21).

5—Our sources indicate that Jesus held regular “kingdom meals” which foreshadowed the eschatological banquet.

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