Scholars dissect details of loaves and fishes

by Fr. Mike Stubbs

I can vividly remember the day that John F. Kennedy was shot — Nov. 22, 1963. Certain distinct details stand out: the nun making the announcement to our 6th grade class; the students starting to cry; our prayers that the president might live; the gray, overcast sky.

Whenever some significant event takes place, we often remember exactly where we were and what we were doing. We remember details that otherwise might appear unimportant.

That may help to explain some bits of Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 14:13- 21. It recounts a significant miracle: the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds a vast crowd of more than five thousand.

Why does the story specify that there were five loaves and two fish? Why does it report the information about the number of loaves and fish? If the story had been content to merely state that there were several loaves of bread and a few fish, would not it have made much the same impact?

It is possible that the story mentions these apparently unimportant details because they were part of the total package. Those present at the miracle remembered it vividly. After all, it was an impressive event. Their memory of the event included those details, which had no special significance in themselves.

Or did they? Some commentators claim that the details of the number of loaves and fish hold symbolic meaning. After all, that often appears to be the case in Scripture. The number seven means fullness or completion. The number forty means a period of transition.

In this particular instance, the five loaves of bread would stand for the five books of the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch. Similarly, the two fish would stand for the two tablets on which were written the ten commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. In mentioning the number five and two, the story would have been making a connection between Jesus’ miracle and Moses, or at least the commentators so claim.

But why? There does not appear to be any relationship between the two, other than the number. So, it may be a coincidence. By supposing a symbolic meaning to the numbers, we may be reading too much into the story.

There is a third possibility to explain why the story includes the detail about the number of loaves and fish. Perhaps that detail was inserted to make the story more concrete, to add to its realism. By mentioning the number of loaves and fish, the story enables us to visualize them more readily, than if it had described them by an indeterminate number. It makes the story more interesting.

You might ask: Why pay this much attention to the details? Some do not mean that much. On the other hand, some details do matter a lot. It is important to know the difference between the two. Only then can we properly judge which details to focus on. After all, the devil is in the details.

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