Many riddles deal with location.

Do you think religion is boring?

Only to the uninitiated.

Are there errors in the loaves and fishes stories?

Some might avert their gaze and say politely under their breath that there are “textual problems.”

As I examine the loaves and fishes stories, I find there are many discrepancies.

Among the four books of the Gospel, there are actually six such stories in which huge crowds are fed with loaves of bread and fishes.  See the complete Bible stories and compare Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-45; Luke 9:10-17; John 6: 1-17; compare Matthew 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10; and compare Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21; Luke 12:1; see also a similar story in 2 Kings 4:42-44 – one click (NIV).  In this post I make use of the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

I have come to believe that the discrepancies were put there on purpose by the biblical authors in order to jolt the reader into a state of uncertainty and from there into greater awareness.  The discrepancies are there for the careful reader who takes enough time to find them.  This would be similar to the purpose of Zen Buddhist koans, catchy little sayings designed to propel one closer to enlightenment.

I think the discrepancies are deliberate because of:  (1) their nature – they are like riddles, (2) their frequency – they are sometimes repetitive, and (3) their proliferation – they are numerous.  If these were simply “errors” they would have been eliminated before publication or if transcription errors, in later editing.  Most likely.  The best explanation for the existence of these discrepancies would seem to be that they are intentional.

Riddle 1:  Jesus is in a city and in a deserted place.

What if there are “textual problems” within the confines of a single book?  Is the reader getting tweaked?  Here we have Luke saying that Jesus “withdrew apart to a city called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10 (RSV)); and then a few lines later, “we are here in a lonely place.” A city is a lonely place?  Did you notice that?  Did you notice that?!!!  The NIV has, “we are in a remote place here.”  Remote.  Lonely.  Deserted.  Solitary.  These are words used in translations.  “City” or “town” is a contradiction.  Perhaps an intentional contradiction.

KJV translators went wild trying to “fix” that problem and the NKJV likewise.  Compare:

NKJV:  “Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida.”  NIV:  “They withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida.”  By comparing translations, I get the impression that the NKJV, like the KJV before it, has provided not a translation, but an invention.

Can’t we be satisfied just looking at the text as if it is supposed to be puzzling?  Yes, they were in a city.  Yes, they were in a lonely place.  And if you read Luke thinking it is the same as the other three books and you are not paying attention, you will miss it.  You will not gain awareness from it.

Could reality be more fluid than we realize?

Riddle 2:  Jesus is on a mountain and returns to it.

In John, Jesus has retired to a mountain and a multitude is coming to him (John 6:5 (RSV)).  Ten verses later Jesus withdraws again to the mountain by himself.  But he hadn’t left it!  He hadn’t left it!!!  Did you notice that?  But maybe he goes to a different mountain?  NIV has “a mountain” for the second mountain, implying it is a different mountain than the first.  But the NKJV has “the mountain” implying it is the same mountain.  Since that choice of “the” differs from its predecessor, the KJV, I’ll assume it is a well-thought out change.  The RSV also has “the” – “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  I don’t know Greek, and the Google translator does modern Greek, but look what it gave me for the SBL Greek NT:  “departed again into the mountain himself alone.  THE.  I am going to assume that the NIV tried to “fix” that riddle, or unthinkingly copied the KJV??  How can we ever understand our own sacred texts if the translators don’t make it possible?

It seems to me more than just a coincidence that both Luke and John have location riddles (city/deserted and mountain/again).  I believe these discrepancies are deliberate, intended to be riddles.

Here are some differences between books, differences that could happen through carelessness, but twice?  More deliberate games?

Riddle 3:  Jesus goes to Dalmanutha or Magadan.

After the crowd of 4,000, Jesus went to the region of Magadan in Matthew but Jesus went to the district of Dalmanutha in Mark – a contradiction?  Some manuscripts try to harmonize?? by substituting Magadan or Magdala here.

Riddle 4:  Imaginary places? 

Dalmanutha – location uncertain; Magadan – location uncertain (according to my NT Greek dictionary).  Magadan and Magdala are words similar to the Greek for Magi, meaning wise person, magician, sorcerer.  I am not going to research right now if Magdala was actually on any first-century map.  But the Magdalene has a good name – “she of magical wisdom??”  “Magic” would not necessarily be derogatory in the first century, but rather denoting special knowledge or wisdom?  Maybe if I knew Greek, I could take these two possibly imaginary locations, Dalmanutha (dalmanoutha) and Magadan, and maybe break up the words to get smaller words that might mean something having to do with magic??

Riddle 5:  Disciples go toward Capernaum or Bethsaida.

After the crowd of 5,000 the disciples go toward Capernaum in John ahead of Jesus, but Jesus tells them to go before him to Bethsaida in Mark – a contradiction?  My map shows these two places are only a few miles apart so maybe Jesus could have been going in that general direction?  See next riddle.

Riddle 6:  Jesus is in Bethsaida and goes to it.

The big problem here is that according to Luke, Jesus is already in Bethsaida!  Did you catch that?  So is this an error?  An error??!!!  Or are we supposed to puzzle how Jesus can be going to Bethsaida (Mark) when he is already in Bethsaida (Luke)?  A riddle?  Are we supposed to read all four books together?  I recommend it.

The way these “errors” proliferate makes me think they are deliberate.  Certainly, the churches could have found these discrepancies in the first drafts and corrected them if that had been their intention.  But they didn’t!  Transcription errors?  I see these as mind games, not errors.  That’s not to say there couldn’t be genuine errors cropping up here and there.

It seems to me more than just a coincidence that we have two sets of destination discrepancies (Magadan/ Dalmanutha and Capernaum/Bethsaida).

Riddle 7:  People can’t reach the food.

Logistically, in Luke, it might be impossible for Jesus to feed the crowd, because the crowd has been instructed to sit down, they are seated, and Jesus’ few loaves of bread are set before the crowd, not distributed.  So there is no way they can get Jesus’ bread unless they get up again, contrary to instruction.  OK, so isn’t it possible that Jesus’ disciples set bits of bread in front of each person?  That way no one would have to get up.  But it doesn’t say people were served individually; rather, the loaves are set before the crowd.  Picture this:  Grosvenor’s Analysis says that in each of the Gospel loaves and fishes stories the Greek can be understood as the people were “reclining.”  This is the first-century position for dining – lying down propped up on an elbow.  So if the people didn’t get up again and if the disciples didn’t do a distribution, then Jesus didn’t feed the crowd.  Is this bit of quirkiness in the text put there intentionally by the author?  Are we supposed to puzzle over this?

There are differences among the stories as to what is done with the loaves:

(1) Disciples gave them to the crowds (Matthew – 5000)

(2) Jesus gave them to the disciples to set before the people (Mark – 5000)

(3) Jesus gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd (Luke)

(4) Jesus distributed the loaves to those seated (John)

(5) Disciples gave them to the crowds (Matthew – 4000)

(6) Jesus gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they set them before the crowd (Mark – 4000)

My doubts that this might be just a translation problem were eased by the passage in Mark – 4000.  Here Jesus intends that the disciples set the loaf pieces before the people and the disciples don’t do it!  Rather they set the bread before the crowd.  Again, there is no distribution to individuals and people would have to get up again to get the bread.  I am going by my instincts here – “people” in English is plural (before them), but “crowd” is singular (before it).  I have no idea how it is in the Greek.

Riddle 8:  How many people were there?

In the feeding of 4000, Mark says there were about 4,000 people; but Matthew says 4,000 men, besides women and children.  So either 4,000 people, or if we assume equal numbers of men and women, and each woman with an average of 1.5 children, somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,000?  Does one of these authors simply not know how to write or is the reader supposed to notice a discrepancy?

Riddle 9:  Money will / will not buy this.

Compare Mark 6:37, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” and John 6:7, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  Is John disagreeing with Mark or just tweaking the reader?  The NIV puts it more agreeably, “It would take more than half a year’s wages [footnote – two hundred denarii] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” making it harder to see the contradiction.

I believe these differences were put into the biblical text deliberately by its authors.  I’m going to describe more discrepancies:

Miscellaneous discrepancies.

The people are instructed to “sit down” (English translation) in all six Gospel stories, and do so in three stories (Mark – 5000, Luke, John).  In the remaining stories it is not confirmed.

The people sit down in groups only in Mark – 5000 and Luke.

The numbers of people in the groups differ (100’s and 50’s or “about 50 each”).

In Matthew – 4000 & 5000 and Mark – 4000 & 5000, Jesus commands/orders the crowd to sit down.  In Luke and John, Jesus tells the disciples to make them sit down.

In Matthew – 5000, Jesus has compassion on the crowd and heals their sick.  In Mark – 5000, Jesus has compassion on the crowd and begins to teach them.  Luke has both healing and teaching, but welcoming rather than compassion.  John has something different.

Luke adds – send the people away so they can find “lodging.”  No other author is concerned about where the people will spend the night.  Out in the open?

In John, the 12 baskets of leftovers seem to contain only bread, not fish.  There is an assortment among the six Gospel stories as to what food was passed out or set out and what sort of pieces were picked up as leftovers.

(1) loaf pieces only; leftover broken pieces (just bread) (Matthew – 5000)

(2) loaf pieces, divided fish; leftover broken pieces and fish (Mark – 5000)

(3) loaf pieces, broken fish; leftover broken pieces (Luke)

(4) loaves (unbroken!), whole fish; leftover fragments (just bread) (John)

(5) loaf pieces, broken fish; leftover broken pieces (Matthew – 4000)

(6) loaf pieces, whole fish; leftover broken pieces (Mark – 4000)

Is there a method to all this?  Are we supposed to notice that fish are mentioned in all six stories, but in Matthew, the fish are not set/passed out, and in John, the leftovers contain only bread.  Also, there is variability as to whether the food is broken or whole.  Errors?  These stories came out of a culture obsessed with “The Law.”  They knew what they were writing!  But do we know how to read their writing?

Only John has barley loaves as does 2 Kings 4:42-44.

Is there a purpose to the way the stories are constructed?  If you re-read them carefully, do you start to get a different sense of them?  I went over them carefully many times in order to examine the math in them (all simple arithmetic – see my earlier post on Loaves and Fishes; Riddle 10 – see how the numbers can total 40); but for many months, more than a year in fact, I missed the logistics problem of reclining people and the broken loaves placed, not before individuals, but before the crowd.  What other subtlety has escaped my notice?

It turns out that in the King James Version and even in the New King James Version, Jesus does not do the distribution of the loaves in John; rather, it is the disciples.  The NKJV alerts me to this in a footnote.  Why does the NKJV use an alternate reading that would seem to have been designed to harmonize the texts?  Of course I don’t know which way is false for sure, but the NIV and the RSV have Jesus doing the distribution in John, so obviously they feel that way is likely to be the original, and I agree.  Wherever there are differences in manuscripts and it appears that someone was trying to harmonize texts, that way is likely to be false.  But the King James prefers harmony evidently.

I have to wonder what is happening where Jesus gives thanks for the loaves that he has –  does he “give thanks,” or does he “bless” the loaves?  Which is it?  Why can’t the translators agree?  The RSV has a mix of thanking and blessing:

(1) blessing loaves only (Matthew – 5000)

(2) blessing loaves only (Mark – 5000)

(3) blessing loaves, blessing fish (Luke)

(4) thanking for loaves, thanking for fish (John)

(5) thanking for loaves, thanking for fish (Matthew – 4000)

(6) thanking for loaves, blessing for fish (Mark – 4000)

Is the day over when it begins to wear away and the hour is late?  Compare:

Matthew – 5000:  “the day is now over” (Was it pitch dark?)

Mark – 5000:  “the hour is now late”  (Sometime between 11:00a, lunch time? And midnight??)

Luke:  “now the day began to wear away” (Sometime between noon and sunset?)

Wouldn’t it be fun to write four versions of the same book and confound people with subtle differences among the four?  What a great idea!

After the stories accomplish their purpose in me, making me more aware, there is a new freedom in my relationship with them.  Because the Gospel contains contradictions and ambiguities, the reader is allowed and encouraged to decide for herself what it means.  Great freedom!

Just think how many people won’t read this post because they think religion is boring.  They’d rather read (or write) a post on “What I Ate for Breakfast” or “Bad Hair Day.”  Incredible.

In the Gospel loaves and fishes stories, do we have numerous “errors and discrepancies” many dealing with location?  Or do we have numerous riddles, many dealing with location?  I vote for riddles.

The riddles help us to rise above the stories, escaping their confines, and thus attain spiritual maturity – and have a little fun at the same time.

The biblical loaves and fishes stories are marvelous in their freedom and the way they resonate.


  1. The canonical gospels are closely packed with riddles throughout. It is through solving these riddles that the ultimate message of the gospels is conveyed to the more attentive reader – ie. to those prepared to make the substantial effort it takes to complete the textual ‘harvest’.

    As a process, this entails finding and extracting the hidden portion of the message, thus exposing who and what what in the narrative are set forth to be good; and who and what are configured to be evil (note that to many these results will come as a great surprise).

    No one will be able to solve the riddles unless they read in Greek (use NA26/27 or UBS 3/4). That’s because a large proportion of the riddles exploit a compositional technique which appears to have found particular favour in Alexandria and which exploits the use of anagram ‘signs’ in the text (note that these ‘signs’ are removed in any translation to another language, rendering the reader ‘blind’ as well as ‘deaf’).

    Moreover the first four chapters of Genesis in the LXX version provide the ‘foundation’ not only for the gospel narrative but for all the riddles found there. So first solve the riddles in LXX Genesis 1 to 4… and now you will be well placed to tackle the extensive riddles in the gospels.

    Actually the core of this work has already been done in recent years – see the book introduced at http://www.whycallmegod.com. In particular, the bread and fish riddles are explained in Appendix 1 of the book, appropriately titled “Mathematics of the Bread An Fish Concealed in the Gospels according to Principles configured in Chapter 1 of LXX Genesis”.

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