This past weekend the lectionary provided St. John’s version of the story of Jesus’ multiplication of the fish and loaves, the famous feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1–15)—the first of five Sunday Gospel readings from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Many faithful Catholics were fearing beforehand and lamenting afterward a certain, rationalistic interpretation in which the feeding of the five thousand is stripped of any miraculous element and presented as an object lesson in sharing. Supposedly, this line of interpretation goes, the people were hiding food under their tunics, and the force of Jesus’ personality and example got them to share.
Thankfully, unscientific surveys in my Twitter and Facebook feeds revealed that most Catholics avoided that rationalist, reductionist reading. Nevertheless, this line of interpretation abides. I first encountered it in college while working at a Lutheran camp in the north woods of Minnesota; the Bible study materials provided by the denomination (the ELCA) instructed us to talk about the people sharing their hidden food if campers asked about the miracle, and too many Catholic homilists present it today.
Rationalizing the Bible
Denominational bureaucrats didn’t invent in the 1990s, however. The idea goes back at least to H. E. G. Paulus (1761–1851), the great German rationalizer of the Bible. Living in the heyday of historicism, which asserted that history was a closed system of cause and effect and thus that miracles that contravened the laws of nature were simply impossible, Paulus and other rationalizers hypothesized non-miraculous core events that gave rise to the accounts of miraculous happenings in the Bible. And so instead of Moses through God’s power parting the Red Sea, what must have happened is that the Hebrews traversed the Sea of Reeds at a low point, perhaps a sand bar. Or similarly, the Resurrection could not have happened; most likely, Paulus thought, was that Jesus hadn’t died but fainted from the rigors of the crucifixion, and then revived in the cool of the tomb, and so appeared alive to his disciples after the crucifixion, which then got worked up into a miraculous Resurrection. (This has become known as the “Swoon Theory.”) So too, then, with the feeding of the five thousand: since fish and loaves cannot miraculously reproduce, there must have been an abundance somewhere, likely under the tunics worn by members of the crowd, and Jesus’ example shamed all into sharing.
Modernist Christianity, rooted in the Enlightenment, seeks to adapt its understanding of Christian faith to the latest knowledge in secular domains—the sciences hard and soft, as well as philosophy and ethics. It therefore was, and is, embarrassed by the miraculous and the sacrificial, both of which belonged to an unscientific premodern age. And so modernist Christians have sought to save the faith for modernity by purifying it of all that modernity rejects. What is left over is ethics; Jesus is preserved as a great moral teacher of enduring relevance through demythologization, that is, stripping away the miraculous and sacrificial myths that grew up around his legend and going behind the Gospels to find a historical Jesus.
Even in the realm of ethics, however, one finds Enlightenment categories determinative for understanding Jesus. His teaching is stripped of any apocalyptic overtones and understood in a supposedly general, universal way that comports with modern ethics anyway. Enlightenment thinking becomes a total straitjacket to which even Jesus must conform if he is to remain relevant. (The old joke is that Enlightenment scholars believed that Jesus taught “the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.” That is, they were guilty of universalizing their particular liberal perspective by foisting it upon Jesus.) But the result is that even in the field of ethics Jesus becomes ultimately irrelevant, as one encounters a reconstruction of Jesus that looks like he happily anticipated either Kant (if one is German) or Mill (if one is Anglo-American) by about eighteen centuries. If Jesus is made to look like Kant or Mill, then we don’t need him.
Modernity vs. the fourfold sense
One way of understanding modernity is to see it as a simplifying maneuver involving the reduction of categories in a given domain. So modernity, in fleeing traditional metaphysics, drops two of Aristotle’s famous causes, the formal and final, by which things are what they are and for which purpose they exist, and keeps the other two, the material and efficient, reducing them to an understanding in which raw material (the matter), atoms at root, are shaped into some constellation by some outside force, personal or impersonal, and then we apply names to whatever things that happened to result look alike. That’s nominalism, the position that nothing really exists but we slap names (Latin nomen) on particular things that resemble each other as a practical matter. It’s one explanation for how you get the ongoing revolutions concerning the human person. There’s no such metaphysical Thing as Man, or Woman, or Marriage, and so post/moderns see people as constellations of atoms generated by chance and then feel free to define marriage according to will and whim of the most powerful identity groups.
A similar thing happened, I think, with biblical interpretation. Traditionally, Christians had interpreted Scripture according to its fourfold sense. There was the literal and spiritual level, and then the spiritual level was divided into three, the allegorical (which concerned typological relationships between the Testaments), the tropological (the moral sense), and the anagogical (which concerned the soul’s progress to God in glory). The senses functioned together to the point that “level” is perhaps the wrong word; the letter presented the basic content, and consisted in itself of links between the Testaments, which then had necessary moral import for the living of Christian life, which in turn bore on the soul’s progress to heaven. And so St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both affirmed that all spiritual senses were rooted in the letter and were bound to each other in an organic whole.
One way of understanding the fourfold sense is simply to see it as a delineation of the major ways in which the religious community of the Church used the Bible as Scripture—it’s not some Platonic imposition on the story of the Bible, but rather is demanded by the Bible itself and the Church that treasures it as Scripture. The New Testament requires the Old as the matrix for its understanding, and quotes and alludes to it everywhere; the Old is the ocean in which the New swims. The Bible is full of moral import and imperatives, and contains all sorts of instruction about the means of achieving heaven. And so Christians would find Jesus fulfilling passages of the Old Testament, see in that fulfillment moral import (and Jesus himself as moral exemplar), and in reading and praying the passages have their very souls fitted ever more for heaven forevermore.
The greatest example: The exodus in the Old Testament is the ground of the annual Passover celebration, and Jesus is then crucified as the Passover “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29, 36). Jesus himself interpreted his sacrificial death using and adapting the sacrificial Passover meal and gave us the Eucharist as his very own body and blood. And so we Catholics observe that pattern every Holy Mass and even ingest it whenever we receive Holy Communion. It’s not simply a matter of content, but a matter of experience, of entering into the very mysteries of salvation history, which in fact culminated in our present in each and every Mass. And so in the Mass, Old Testament and New Testament are united as Passover shades into the Last Supper and Crucifixion of Our Lord, and then we share in Christ and have our souls fitted for heaven by participation in the Mass. And of course there’s moral relevance: we present ourselves in a state of grace for Holy Communion, and grow in grace and righteousness by our participation in Mass and in Holy Communion. That’s how the fourfold sense works: all four senses functioning together, synergistically, organically, and we both know and experience it.
But Enlightenment readings of Scripture miss the very glories of Scripture because the Enlightenment eliminated two of the four senses and dramatically reduced and corrupted the two it kept. The literal sense became historical criticism, which sought events behind the letter and judged the letter by the hypothetical reconstruction of those events. The moral sense lost its grounding in the letter and came to treat Jesus as a mascot for Enlightenment moralities already sketched out by giants like Kant and Mill on rationalist grounds. And so the feeding of the five thousand can be nothing more than a boring object lesson in bourgeois morality fit for a kindergarten people: sharing.
Triple typology and the Eucharist
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sharing’s great, as the earliest Church bears witness in Acts 2:44–45. But it has little, if anything, to do with the feeding of the five thousand. Now it is legitimate, I think, to find a model for sharing in the boy’s surrendering of his fish and loaves. The moral sense of the passage regarding his gifts involves the conviction that God can take what we offer and by his divine power turn it into so much more, doing much with our little, but one cannot take a short cut to that point by short-circuiting the allegorical and anagogical dimensions of the passage. Indeed, John 6, which begins with the feeding of the five thousand, provides a decisive model for how the Church reads Scripture spiritually according to the fourfold sense, as it presents the Old Testament—Jesus—Eucharist sequence clearly in a sort of triple typology.
John is a sacramental Gospel, every word pointing above to spiritual realities, itself being a sacramental item that brings its readers and hearers deeper into God. It’s no surprise, then, that it would present the most profound reflection on the Eucharist, along the lines of what a later Johannine thinker, St. Ignatius of Antioch, had in mind when he called the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” (Eph. 20:2).
In the beginning of John 6, we encounter the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle which both looks backward to the feeding of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness and also forward to the Eucharist in the age of the Church—hence it presents not a double but a triple typology. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ interlocutors have the temerity to challenge Jesus for a sign, and they remind him that Moses gave their fathers “bread from heaven” to eat, namely, the manna in the wilderness (John 6:31). Jesus replies that it is his Father who gives the true bread from heaven, Jesus himself, the bread of life (6:32–35). After some grumbling, Jesus reiterates his words:
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (6:48–51)
After his interlocutors put forth a complainant question concerning just how one might eat Jesus’ flesh, Jesus doubles down:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever. (6:53–58)
What, then, are the parallels in this threefold movement, this triple typology? (1) In the Old Testament, God gives miraculous manna to the people through Moses, and the people eventually die. (2) In the feeding of the five thousand, the Father gives miraculous bread and fish to the people through Jesus (who gave thanks in 6:11, thus involving his Father by invoking him), but the people will eventually die. They were provided with natural food by a supernatural miracle. And so in each case the food provided sustains the people in their biological life, bios, but it is powerless to provide eternal life, zoē; in each case the people ultimately die. But (3) in the case of the Eucharist, the Father has sent the Son, Jesus, in the Incarnation, and then in the Eucharist, a token of the Incarnation, gives the people the true bread of life, and the people who consume it will live forever. It’s supernatural food for supernatural life, presented by the Church’s priestly ministers till kingdom come.
The feeding of the five thousand, then, alludes back to the story of the manna in the wilderness while looking forward to the age of the Church, affirming that God is present in the body and blood of his Son who gives his Eucharistic flesh for the life of that world. The story itself is both miraculous and sacrificial, two things modernity rejects but to which the Church holds fast. And so following Scripture itself, the Church teaches, “The miracles of the multiplication of the loaves, when the Lord says the blessing, breaks and distributes the loaves through his disciples to feed the multitude, prefigure the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1335).
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