Life of Christ

Mgr. E Le Camus




IN the meantime the Apostles had returned from their mission. The Master had, no doubt, fixed the time it should last and the place where they should rejoin Him. This place of reunion is known to us only in a general way; it was on the shores of the lake that the Apostolic group came together once more. A word in St. John2 would indicate that it was near Tiberias, recently built.

The Apostles rendered an account of what they had done and taught during their journeyings, but the terms used by the Evangelist justify the belief that it was without enthusiasm. The news of the tragic end of the Baptist had doubtless thrown a cloud upon their early missionary joy. They came back downcast. The ebb and flow of the multitudes about Jesus, with all these seekers after miracles who, coming once again to obtain the cure of their sick, left to those who were well not even the time to eat, made a most trying situation. For the soul as well as the body of an Apostle is not seldom in need of acquiring new strength in quiet and in solitude. Jesus said to the Apostles: "Come apart into a desert place and rest a little." He thought that, in the meantime, the crowd would disperse, and that with it would disappear all danger of a sedition. Moreover, a lofty sense of propriety might move the Gospel laborers to honor, by a few days of silence, the memory of him who had just fallen beneath the headsman's axe, after having gloriously completed his career as Precursor and as witness.

They therefore entered the boat and, leaving the multitude on the bank, they went off toward a solitary place in the land of Bethsaida, on the other side of the sea of Galilee.3 Whether it was that the multitudes, through some indiscretion, had learned the place whither they were going, or had followed the boat with their eyes, as it sped along the shore, they soon overtook on foot those who were hastening to escape them. St. John seems to say that Jesus had time to remain awhile alone with His Apostles,4 and that the multitudes only arrived later. They were more numerous than ever, and the group of friends or sightseers who had come from the western shore had grown wonderfully on the way. They were preparing in many places to start for the Paschal festivities, and it was enough to make known, in the towns and villages through which they passed, their project of proclaiming Jesus MessiahKing and their hope of forcing Him to undertake the leadership of a vast national uprising, in order to attract the pilgrims. The Galileans were of patriotic fiber and deeply religious; and it is not surprising that every one was eager to take part in the popular movement, the result of which would be the restoration of Israel.

The sight of this immense and interesting flock, thus seeking its Shepherd in the desert, excited Jesus' compassion. Instead of going to rest, He stood before the people, welcomed them kindly, and began at once to instruct them. He spoke long and particularly of the Kingdom of God as it ought to be understood, and then healed the sick that were brought before Him. The hours went rapidly by under the charm of His consoling and beloved words. It was near the close of day. The Apostles, coming to Our Lord, said: "This is a desert place and the hour is now passed. Send away the multitudes, that going into the towns they may buy themselves victuals." But Jesus replied: "They have no need to go; give you them to eat." Then in a tone of loving irony that revealed their familiar relations with the Master, the Apostles responded: "Let us go and buy bread for two hundred pence,5 and we will give them to eat." This was probably more than their treasury contained. Jesus smiled at their anxiety. He knew a way of feeding this multitude at less expense. In order to make more manifest the great miracle He was about to accomplish, or, perhaps, to test the charity of His disciples who found it difficult to part with their last resources, He again spoke to one of them, Philip, as if appealing to the practical mind and to the experience of an Apostle who, since he was of Bethsaida, ought to know the country: "Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?" Philip repeated the response of his colleagues, and, like a man who understood the matter in hand, he declared that, even though they were to take the two hundred pennyworth of bread proposed, there would not yet be food enough to enable each one to have a moderate share. Finally Jesus says: "How many loaves have you? Go and see." By ascertaining that no one had anything with him, He employed the best means of proving afterward that He alone had provided nourishment for all present.

In their journey around the lake the crowds had but one thought, that of rejoining Jesus. The impatience of the soul makes one forget the needs of the body. Among all these people were found only five loaves of barley and two fishes.6 A boy was carrying them. The ready information that Andrew, the usual companion of Philip, gives to this effect shows that they had already been considering the matter. But what were these for so many? Still, Jesus had them brought to Him. Then He bade them to divide the multitude into groups of fifty or of a hundred persons, and these groups, drawn out in equal lines along the hillside, seated themselves on the carpet of green that spring had provided. The grass, indeed, was already high, as it was near the time of the Paschal feast.

This chronological observation, which St. John inserts in his narrative quite casually, as it were, throws a special light upon the great miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. At the very time when the Pharisees and the hierarchical party were making a display in Jerusalem of their vain and hypocritical piety in His Father's house, He was in hiding in the desert place, not daring to enter the Holy City, through fear of arousing prematurely the implacable hatred of His enemies. The crowd that has followed Him suffers from hunger, while all Israel is eating of the Paschal Lamb under the eyes of the Levitical priesthood. His heart is moved at the thought, and His sovereign power determines to inaugurate the feasts of the new religion, preluding thus the institution of the great Passover, which is to be the joy of the future. The order He provides for in this vast and picturesque banquet discloses to us His intention of inviting this multitude to a kind of religious repast.

Standing over the assembly, like a father in the midst of his family during the Paschal festival, He took the loaves, blessed them, and raised His eyes to heaven, giving thanks to God.7 This was the solemn moment in which the miracle was being accomplished. Suddenly the blessing effected in His hands what it effects by slow and successive development in the bosom of the earth, when the harvest grows, with this difference that now it brings forth not the wheat, but the bread itself which is but a later transformation of the wheat. The one was no more difficult than the other to the Master of nature. He Who creates matter in all its various forms can, when He desires, create it directly in its final form. Jesus began to break the loaves and to apportion the fishes. His generous hand, unwearied, gave out the shares which, indefinitely renewed, passed from the Apostles to the multitude, until all had eaten and were satisfied. Now they numbered five thousand men, not counting the women or the children who, following the Oriental custom, had to remain apart to take their repast.

When they had finished, Our Lord bade them gather up what was left. It was becoming that what God had just given them by a miracle should not be left to perish Twelve baskets full of bread8 and many fragments of fish proved that the multitude had found there in the desert a superabundant meal, without having recourse to Philip's two hundred pence. There could be no doubt that He Who had thus royally entertained them was more than man, and they cried out: "This is, of a truth, the prophet that is to come into the world." Who, then, was more worthy than He to govern the people for whom He was so well able to provide subsistence? They were seized with the thought of proclaiming Him king by main force9 even, and to proceed, perhaps, to have Him crowned in Jerusalem. It is certain that He Who by opening His hand could so easily let fall rations for His troops, was well able to raise a numerous army and to march on to the surest triumph. Why delay longer the realization of the national hopes? With singular selfconceit, these good people, forgetting the true character of the Messiah-King and the thoroughly spiritual conditions of His Kingdom, were desirous of a culmination. Jesus knew their thoughts, and, unable to dispel their illusions, He fled to the mountain for recollection and for prayer.

The night was passed, as well as a portion of the next day, in this semipolitical deliberation.10 The popular excitement was not calmed. There was even a danger of gaining over the Apostles. For they were only too ready to look for the inauguration of an earthly kingdom, and for a long time to come we shall see them dreaming of a warlike Messiah, enforcing His rule with violence, and, on the day following His victory, distributing to His favorites the first dignities of His empire. This was the first time they had beheld a multitude of five thousand enthusiastic and excited men around the Master. They had only to procure His assent, and He was proclaimed King of Israel. Their ambitious aspirations could desire no better opportunity for success. Hence they readily shared, if they did not also foment,11 the illusions and the extravagant boldness of the multitude. Delaying not another day, Jesus determined to remove them and to remain alone with the multitudes. He intended to dismiss them also, but only after He had made them listen to reason.

Employing His authority,12 therefore, He obliged the Apostles to enter their boat and to push out upon the deep, as if they were departing for good. In reality, they had received instructions to take their stand near by and to await Him in sight of Bethsaida.13 Obedience on this occasion must have been painful to them. Once alone, Jesus sought no doubt to persuade the people that they must seek shelter for the night. They, yielding to His paternal advice and thinking to find Him again the next day, consented to withdraw. The sun had disappeared below the horizon, and the weather was unfavorable.

But while they supposed that the Master was at prayer, and were respecting His solitude, He was hastening toward Bethsaida14 to rejoin His disciples, as He had promised. The latter, though they had long since reached the point fixed as the place of reunion, were making vain efforts to land. The gale of the tempest that was violently raging drove them back again and again to the middle of the lake. A part of the night was passed in this useless labor. They were retreating instead of advancing. Already the third watch had passed.15 Jesus, if He had continued on His way, must have arrived at Capharnaum.16 This thought, as well as the danger there was in struggling against the northeast winds, made the Apostles decide to set sail at once for the final destination of their journey. Any halt on the way seemed as impossible as it was unnecessary. In the midst of the terrible squall, they were particularly eager to land at any point. At three o'clock in the morning they had covered a distance of only twentyfive or thirty furlongs from the shore.

Jesus knew their distress and had pity on them. As all things were easy to the Lord of the elements, He advanced straight to them who, notwithstanding their goodwill, had been unable to come to Him. What Job had said of God, He fulfilled, and, stepping from the solid ground upon the liquid plain, He walked upon the waves as upon a floor.17 Reaching the boat, He went ahead of it in the attitude of one who would mark out its way to Capharnaum.18 When, in the middle of the night, between the waves as they hurled themselves upon one another, the Apostles perceived a human outline upright upon the water, they uttered cries of terror, believing they were in the presence of a phantom. Jesus came nearer, that He might be known. Their fright only increased the more. Then, in order completely to reassure them, He said: "It is I; be not afraid." At the sound of the wellknown voice, the Apostles took courage at once, and multiplied their efforts to reach Him as He seemed to flee before them.19 They were eager to take Him into the boat. But He kept on ahead. Surprised at this strange sight, they were in doubt what to think of it.

Then, Peter expressing the thought of all, cried out: "Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come to Thee upon the waters." He doubted not Jesus' sovereign power, but the reality of His presence. "Come," said the Master to him. And Peter, flattered by being associated in the miracle that sustained Jesus upon the water, leaps from the boat and walks upon the waves. The wind was violent. The Apostle, overcome, thinks he has lost his balance. He begins to be afraid, he hesitates, and gradually sinks in the water. When faith is shaken, the miracle is checked. Peter can walk no farther; he sets out to swim. In the meantime, ahead of him, Our Lord stands straight and firm in the midst of the tempest, as if to prove that faith can withstand the elements. Peter calls to Him with gesture and voice: "Lord, save me!" Then Jesus, stretching forth His hand, grasps him and lifts him up, saying: "O, thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?" And together they went into the boat, which had now come up to them. Then the waves were calmed, the winds were stilled, and it was found they had reached the shore where they were to land. Assuredly greater than that of any earthly king was the power of Him Who thus commanded nature herself.

On the disciples' souls this miracle made even a livelier impression than that of the multiplying of the loaves. All who were in the boat fell on their knees before the Master. Their faces pressed to the ground, they exclaimed: "Indeed Thou art the Son of God!"

They had disembarked, not at Capharnaum, but in its neighborhood. This is what the Evangelists mean by naming the land of Genesareth. There again the inhabitants asked for and obtained many miracles. The Savior, with inexhaustible kindness, healed all their sick and gave consolation to the afflicted.


1 For the first time the Synoptics and St. John give the same account. The latter brings Jesus hurriedly from Jerusalem, where He was assisting at some feast, to the shores of Lake Tiberias that we may witness the crisis of belief in Galilee, as we have heretofore seen it in Judea. It is by refusing to be the political Messiah dreamed of by the Jews, that Jesus alienated this people. The Synoptics agree with St. John on this important point. No doubt the independence of each account is evident if we consider the many apparent divergences to be found in them; but, in reality, the final result and the salient points are maintained by all four narrators, thus: the crowds that follow Jesus into the desert, the five thousand men, the five loaves and two fishes, the twelve baskets of fragments, the thanksgiving. Mark and John speak of the turf on which the people were seated and of the two hundred pennyworth of bread. John mentions by name several whom the others do not specify. He tells us what part Philip and Andrew take, and of the little boy who had the barleyloaves. We recognize an eyewitness.

2 St. John vi, 23.

3 Where and under what conditions are we to seek this spot? First of all, near the lake, since they reached it by boat; then, in an uninhabited locality, for Jesus wished to be far from the noise of the crowds; finally, in a restful place, at the foot of a mountain where the Master went alone to pray, and on whose side the multitudes could be seated on the grass. It is the generally accepted reading of St. Luke ix, 10, upecwrhsen eis polin kaloumen Bhqsaida, which alone creates any difficulty. The Codex Sinaiticus, which suppresses it, and the Syriac versions, are probably the most correct. How, in fact, can we suppose that the Evangelist would direct Jesus to a town when He desired to isolate Himself with His disciples? In reality He conducted them to a desert en erhmw topw v. 12), where there were only hamlets (kwmas) and fields (kai agrous), and where it was impossible to find food. Of an important town like JuliasBethsaida, there can be no question. We must then begin by not translating the ordinary text as it is written, or interpolating and transforming, as some early copyists have done: eis topon erhmon polews kalouhenhs, " toward a desert place near the town called Bethsaida." Is it not better to accept the reading of Sinaiticus and suppress all mention of Bethsaida? To say that St Luke was imperfectly informed since he seemed to be unaware that the journey was made in a ship, which caused him to say nothing of the return, and of Jesus walking on the waters, seems even less reasonable than to change the text. In any case, when we suppress the word "Bethsaida," we may locate the desert spot where the crowd was miraculously fed, where we will, on the shore of the lake, which would not be that of Genesareth because it is in crossing the lake (diaperasantes), that we enter into the environs of Capharnaum. Although the country was not open to Jesus, as we have seen after the healing of the demoniacs of Gergesa, the coast exactly opposite to Genesareth and to those places which belonged to the district of JuliasBethsaida has been suggested. To this hypothesis there is a serious objection. It is that in no way can these parts be likened to a desert; and the plain which extends around the ruins of EtTell. ElMes'adieh, or ElAradj, the three sites on which Bethsaida, is placed, will appear the exact opposite of a desert to those who, like ourselves, have visited it. No doubt the desert, as spoken of in the Bible, does not always mean a place devoid of vegetation, since flocks and herds were made to graze on it, but the vegetation found there is poor and wild and uncultivable by the hand of man. But there are few lands more fertile better watered, and more thickly inhabited than the present Buttaïah. We must, in order to find thereabouts wild and solitary places, either ascend to the northeast of EtTell (and then we are no longer on the shore of the lake), or descend to Ouadi Semak, where, in fact, are some almost barren elevations; but these heights would be too far off to have the name of the desert of Bethsaida.

It would be more natural, perhaps, to seek the solitary spot, mentioned by the Evangelists, near the only Bethsaida they seem to have known, in the truly wild and rocky mountains to the northeast of TellHum. Nothing can be more desolate than this line of hills entirely covered with black stones. Why, in truth, should Jesus, on leaving Genesareth, go far in search of a solitary place, when He could find one fifteen or twenty kilometers away and almost on the shore of the lake? Here we can understand how the multitude could follow Him on foot, although He Himself was in the boat, and how they increased in numbers in passing through the little villages along the shore. One difficulty that has been suggested by the order given to the disciples to go to Bethsaida to await Him, is really, imaginary. On the contrary, nothing is more natural than that the Master this order, if we keep in view His real purpose. He wished the Apostles to pretend to depart without Him, to get into the open lake, to await Him near Bethsaida, that is, at a little distance from where they then stood. This observation seems to us so reasonable, that if one should wish to look for the exact scene of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes on the eastern side of the lake, it would be logically necessary to apply to Julias what is said in St. Mark vi, 45, of Bethsaida. The country of Peter and Andrew would have been too far for a rendezvous. When one has a distance of forty kilometers to traverse, and wishes merely to simulate a separation for the time being, he does not put off to the thirtyfifth the moment of reunion. Besides, if one leaves AbouZeineh or Ouadi Semak to go to Genesareth, he is always supposed to cross the lake, not in the same direction, but at an almost equal distance; and here again the text offers no difficulty. As a matter of fact we cannot argue this matter to any advantage, unless we have actually visited the places in question.

According to our view of the matter, Bethsaida Julias has no connection with this account of the Evangelists unless the multiplication of loaves took place near Ouadi Semak, which is improbable because the place is too far from the two Bethsaidas, whereas if this were the case we would have to admit that the neighborhood of Julias was the meetingplace appointed by Jesus. But if, as we think, this multiplication took place to the north-east of TellHum, the ancient and real Bethsaida, the crowd must have been gathered at the foot of the hills which descend toward AbouZeineh, and the Apostles received the order to put out into the deep as though they were departing, whereas in reality they were to await the Master five kilometers away near Bethsaida. This explanation would also fit in with the puzzling text of St. Luke, for Jesus would really have gone toward Bethsaida, in order to avoid the crowds, and would have been overtaken by them on the neighboring mountains.

4 He represents the Master seated on the mountain (ekaqhto) when the crowds arrived. In this case, we must understand the word exelqwn in the Synoptics as indicating not Jesus' leaving the boat, but His coming forth from His retreat and approaching the people.

5 The Roman denarius was worth about seventeen cents. Hence here it was a question of expending thirtyfour dollars; and this was exorbitant considering the resources which the Apostles had at hand.

6 The lower classes for the most part ate barley bread. (II Kings vi, 19, xvi, 1; etc.) The fishes mentioned here were baked or salted. St. John calls them oyaria in the language of the fishermen, who made salt fish their ordinary food.

7 St. John uses the word eucaristhsas as perhaps as if to say that here was a presage of the future eucharistic consecration. Probably St. Luke had the same thought in saying that Jesus blessed the loaves (euloghsen autous). (Comp. I Cor. x, 16.) This attitude of Jesus had profoundly impressed the multitude, and the four Evangelists purposely make note of it.

8These were probably the twelve travellingbaskets of the Apostles. A Jew never journeyed without the basket in which he kept his eatables; hence Juvenal's line: "Quorum cophinus fænumque supellex" (Sat., iii, 15), and the epithet cistiferos applied by Martial to the sons of Israel (Epig., v, 17).

9The verb arpazeln sufficiently indicates this.

10 In St. Matt. xiv, 15 and 23, two evenings are clearly marked out.

11 St. John vi, 70, 71, seems to indicate at least the connivance of Judas. Comp. also v. 66.

12 The Evangelists clearly say so; hnaglasen . . . embhnai.

13 As we have before observed, wherever we locate the scene of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, we must understand that Jesus arranged to meet His Apostles a short distance away. It was not in order that He might Himself make the journey on foot to Capharnaum that He sent them away, but to separate them from the crowds, who, with their ideas of an earthly Messiah, were gaining an influence over them. At the same time He leaves the multitude under the impression that He is not going to depart. Bethsaida is certainly near at hand, and thus Jesus names it as a rendezvous. It is incredible that, wishing to go from the south of Buttaïah to Capharnaum. He should say to them: "Go and wait for me at five kilometers from Capharnaurn. I will walk thirtyfive during the night, and cross the ford over the Jordan, to rejoin you." This is against all reason, and by Bethsaida we must understand the nearest port, whither Jesus betook Himself at nightfall, and where He rejoined His disciples. We may note that John does not mention this meeting appointed by Jesus, but he supposes it, as otherwise we could not explain why the disciples had departed without their Master, much less why they expected Him to rejoin them (verse 7).

14 We must not lose sight of the fact that the various places on the shores of the lake are not at a great distance from each other. It was not therefore to avoid the fatigue of going on foot that Jesus wished to rejoin those in the boat, but to be at peace far from the multitude and to be with His chosen ones.

15 At this epoch, the Jews, like the Romans and the Greeks, divided the night into four watches. The length of each, which should have been three hours, became longer or shorter, according to the season of the year. St. Mark xiii, 35, clearly distinguishes these four parts of the night: oye, mesonuktiou, alektorofwmoas prwi.

16 If our hypothesis as to the place of the miracle be well founded, He had only to descend by the western side of the mountain to reach Bethsaida.

17 Job ix, 8.

18 This is the most natural meaning of the words of St. Mark: hqelen parelqein.

19 Such seems to us to be the sense of St. John's expression: hqelon labein k. t. l., which otherwise would create a serious difficulty for the narration of the Synoptics.

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