Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Rabboni! (John 20:16)

What did Mary Magdalene say to Jesus when she recognized Him after His resurrection? “Rabboni”

John’s gospel records that Mary Magdalene is the first to see the risen Christ (John 20:1-18). Mary stands outside of the empty tomb weeping before two angels question her regarding the reason for her tears (John 20:11-13). After responding to the angelic inquiry, Mary turns and sees Jesus, though she does not recognize him; instead she presumes him to be the gardener (John 20:14-15). When Jesus calls her by her name, she perceives his identity and returns the gesture, exclaiming, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). (John 20:16 NASB)
When uttering the caritative “Rabboni”, Mary is most likely excited (John 20:16). Many translations add an explanation point (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though some do not (ASV, CEV, KJV).

Of the four canonical gospels, John alone records that Mary calls Jesus by this name. Jack W. Stallings (b. 1944) remarks:

This is apparently the term by which she has habitually addressed Jesus and, for some reason, John thinks it important that his readers know the very word she uses. (Stallings, The Gospel of John (The Randall House Bible Commentary), 279)
The text notes that Mary turns to Jesus at the sound of her name, a posture she seemingly already has assumed (John 20:14, 16). Shelly Rambo (b. 1968) observes:
There is a slight confusion in the text about Mary’s positioning. It says that Jesus speaks her name and that she turns around and responds to him [John 20:16]. But isn’t Mary already facing Jesus? At first she was looking into the tomb, speaking to the angels [John 20:11]. Then she turns and speaks to him (without recognizing him) [John 20:14]. When he speaks her name, we assume that she is facing him. But the next verse calls that into question [John 20:16]. It says that she turns and responds by speaking his name. Somewhere between speaking to him as the gardener and speaking his name, did she turn away?...Many explain it by saying that the saying that the second turn is not literal; it merely emphasizes Mary’s comprehension of Jesus’ identity. The turning highlights her moment of recognition. (Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, 86)
Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) informs:
The use of Mary’s name draws her attention because obviously the gardener knows her personally. Yet Mary had already turned towards the man (same verb) in John 20:14. Those who try to deal with the duplication without resorting to literary criticism (i.e., the joining of once independent accounts) usually suppose that Mary had turned away in the meantime. (Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI (The Anchor Bible), 991)
James L. Resseguie (b. 1945) posits:
The second turning is redundant, since Mary has already turned once to Jesus. Thus the second turning must represent a spiritual turning, an awakening. (Resseguie, The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John, 149)
Nicolas Farelly (b. 1978) evaluates:
This new “turn” is best explained by Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976], John, 686...for whom it “signifies the sudden and lively movement towards him as μή μου ἂρτου John 20:17 shows.” Additionally, as is explained by Dorothy A. Lee [b. 1953], “Turning from Death to Life: A Biblical Reflection on Mary Magdalene,” 114, these successive “turns” may indicate that “at each point,” Mary moves closer and closer to what she seeks. Misunderstanding in the end, leads her to understanding.” A similar interpretation to Lee’s is given by Jean Zumstein [b. 1944], L’évangile Selon Saint Jean (13-21), 279...“Marie Madelein se détourne du tombeau qui signifie, pour elle, la réalité de la mort, pour se diriger vers le vivant.” (Farelly, The Disciples in the Fourth Gospel: A Narrative Analysis of Their Faith and Understanding, 159)
Mary’s body language corresponds with her exclamation: She is experiencing a moment of recognition. Jo-Ann A. Brant (b. 1956) analyzes:
The narrator marks her reaction first by noting her movement—being turned—suggesting that she has looked away after making her demand and Jesus’s words cause her to turn about suddenly [John 20:16]. The double turn puzzles exegetes, but Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975]’s observation—“for reasons of rhythm, one hesitates to dispense with it” (1984, 2:209)—may point to the importance of the phrase for the operation of the story. John marks the moment of recognition with a word, “Rabbouni,”...With dramatic economy and without the interjections by an omniscient narrator, the Gospel represents the private experience of recognition through public displays of emotion. Her choice of address is not the language of faith but of reunion (Kasper Bro Larsen [b. 1972] 2008, 190). The personal address “Mariam” calls for a more personal response. She has not been prepared to see Jesus by any prior witness. The response is a pure outpouring of joy. (Brant, John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 270)
John uncharacteristically leaves the word “Rabboni” in its original language though the gospel does gloss the term for the book’s Hellenistic audience. Like a movie where only a few words need be subtitled, John’s use of “Rabboni” stands out (John 20:16).

R. Alan Culpepper (b. 1946) deduces:

The reader knows Greek and only Greek. Such common terms as “Rabbi” (John 1:38), “Messiah” (John 1:41), and “Rabboni” (John 20:16) must be translated. Names are also translated to convey their meaning (Cephas, John 1:42; Siloam, John 9:7). Where Hebrew or Aramaic terms are introduced (Bethesda, Gabbatha, and Golgotha), they are referred to as foreign words (“in Hebrew,” John 5:2, 19:13, 17) rather than as the names by which the reader would know these locations. Their presence adds credibility to the account. (Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 218-19)
John refers to “Rabboni” as “Hebrew” (ASV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though it is actually “Aramaic” (CEV, ESV, NIV). Some translations simply omit this clause presumably to avoid the imprecision (KJV, NKJV).

Robert Kysar (b. 1934) acknowledges:

Rabboni is a more personal address to a teacher, one which reflects warmth and affection. John’s translation (Teacher) is consistent with John 1:38, although “my master” might be a more exact rendering of the Aramaic. (John calls it Hebrew, as he is prone to do with Aramaic words, e.g. John 19:13.) (Kysar, John (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 300)
Though something might be lost in translation, for John’s purposes the word means “teacher” (John 20:16). John’s definition provides the text’s own internal meaning of the term.

Holly E. Hearon (b. 1956) connects:

The identification is underlined...when Mary, in the moment that she recognizes Jesus, calls him “Rabboni.” Throughout the gospel Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” by his followers (John 1:38, 49, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25,9:2, 11:18). However, both the first (John 1:38) and last time (John 20:16) this title is used it is accompanied by the parenthetical statement: “which means teacher.” This suggests that the storyteller wants the audience to hear these two verses together. (Hearon, The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities, 160)
Like the Greek text, English versions leave the word in its original language. The term rhabboní is transliterated “Rabboni” (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT), “Rabbouni” (HCSB, NRSV) or “Rab-bo’ni” (RSV).

D.A. Carson (b. 1946) explains:

Rabbouni or rabboni (the spelling varies in the manuscripts) appears to be an extended form of the more familiar rabbi (literally, ‘my teacher’). The term appears elsewhere in the New Testament only at Mark 10:51...In rabbinical Hebrew the term is regularly applied to God (in the expression ribbônô šel ‘ôlām, ‘rabbi of the world’), and this prompts Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns [1884-1937] (p. 543) to argue that although it may be used in reference to a human rabbi, it is never used in addressing a human rabbi. Mary’s address therefore becomes a form of address to God, not unlike John 20:28. But it has often been pointed out that rabboni is used in addressing men in the Palestinian and Jerusalem Targums (Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures). As far as John is concerned, he offers Didaskale (‘Teacher’) as his translation for both ‘Rabbi’ (John 1:38) and ‘Rabboni’ (John 20:16). (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 646)
“Rabboni” is a title for honored teachers intensified to convey the highest affection. In the New Testament, the title is spoken only twice, both times of Jesus, by Bartimaeus (Mark 10:51) and Mary Magdalene (John 20:16).

Herman Ridderbos (1909-2007) defines:

“Rabbouni” literally means “my teacher” or “my master,” but it is used elsewhere simply as an equivalent to the common word “Rabbi.” Nevertheless, in this description of Jesus’ appearance to Mary there is undeniably something very personal. Unlike his other resurrection appearances, here Jesus simply calls her by name and she recognizes him as she hears him. So the way in which she turns to him and answers him with “Rabbouni” does have a strong personal and affective component (see also “my Lord” in John 20:13). All this is easy to link with her prehistory as a woman saved by Jesus from great distress (Mark 16:9), but the Evangelist does not mention this. (Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, 637)
In later years, the Jews recognized three levels of teachers: rab (lowest), rabbi, rabboni (highest). This hierarchy does not seem to be in place in John’s gospel given that the gospel’s internal translation makes it interchangeable with “rabbi”.

Leon Morris (1914-2006) compares:

It is often said that the word means much the same as “Rabbi”. Etymologically this may be so, though we should not overlook the point made by W.F. Albright [1891-1971] that the term is a caritative with a meaning like “my (dear (or) little) master” (The Background of the New Testament and its Eschatology, p.158). But the usage is decisive. “Rabbi” is frequently used as a form of address, but “Rabboni” is not cited in this way (other than in prayer, of address to God). Matthew Black [1908-1994], however, points to its use in the old Palestinian Pentateuch Targum (see p. 119, n. 136; he regards it as a much more reliable guide to first-century Aramaic than the Onkelos Targum which is the basis of much of Gustaf Dalman [1855-1941]’s argument), which “shows that it cannot have been uncommon in earlier Palestinian Aramaic for a human lord” (An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, p. 21). He does not, however, cite any example of the term as a form of address to a human lord. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 839)
Beauford H. Bryant (1923-1997) and Mark S. Krause (b. 1955) add:
The precise distinction between “Rabbouni’ and the more common “Rabbi” is difficult to see, although some have suggested that “Rabbouni” shows greater respect and is therefore more suitable for use by a woman. This may be the case, but these subtle distinctions would be as lost on John’s original readers as they are on us today. More likely is that John is concerned to preserve the actual word used by Mary. (Bryant and Krause,John (The College Press NIV Commentary), 394)
The vocative appellation does seem to indicate intimacy. Francis J. Moloney (b.1940) discusses:
The name Jesus calls Mary and her response are Greek transliterations of Aramaic, although the narrator explains that it is Hebrew. There is a level of intimacy implied by the recourse to an original language in both the naming and the response (cf. Robert Gordon Maccini [b. 1951], Her Testimony is True 212-213). Some (e.g., B.F. Westcott [1825-1901], Gospel 292; John Marsh (1904-1994), Saint John 637) mistakenly argue that Rabbouni is quasi-divine. A number of scholars (e.g., Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns [1884-1937], Gospel 542; Marsh, Saint John 633, 636-637; Béda Rigaux [1899-1982], Dio l’ha risuscitato 324-325; Sandra M. Schneiders [b.1936], “John 20:11-18" 162-164) regard Mary’s addressing Jesus as Rabbouni as an authentic confession of faith. Others (André Feuillet [1909-1998], “Le recherche du Christ” 93-112; Mark W.G. Stibbe [b. 1960], John 205; Teresa Okure [b. 1941], “Jesus’ Commission” 181) trace in this encounter the experience of the bride seeking the spouse in the early hours of the dawn in Song of Solomon 3:1-3. (Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina), 528)
Mary’s use of “rabboni” parallels Jesus’ personal direct address earlier in the verse (John 20:16). Adeline Fehribach (b. 1950) recognizes:
When Mary Magdalene does recognize Jesus through his calling her by name, she responds by calling out “Rabbouni,” not “Rabbi” (cf. John 1:38). Although English texts usually render this title “Teacher,” some scholars maintain that “Rabbouni” is the equivalent of “My Master” or “My Teacher,” rather than just “Master” or “Teacher.” This personalization of the title makes it a term of endearment. On one level of the text, the use of this particular title by Mary Magdalene may indicate that she does not yet understand the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. On another level of the text, however, the personalization makes up for the fact that the christology of the implied author would not allow Mary Magdalene to call Jesus by his given name. No one in the Fourth Gospel calls Jesus by his given name. As one who has been sent above by the Father, Jesus’s aloofness from the world would not have allowed for it. Nevertheless, combined with Jesus’ calling Mary Magdalene by name, Mary Magdalene’s use of a personalized title for Jesus makes the Johannine text reminiscent of Chaereas and Callirhoe who call out each other’s name. (Fehribach, The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel, 159-60)
What is undeniable is that in calling Jesus “Rabboni” Mary Magdalene is now aware of his identity. (John 20:16). There are parallel recognition scenes in other cultures. Raymond E. Brown (1929-1998) catalogs:
Some have found here an adaptation of the recognition scene that appears in stories of the Greco-Roman gods as they walk among men (Martin Dibelius [1883-1947], Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 33 [1918], 137). However, C.H. Dodd [1884-1973] is correct in insisting that a prolonged recognition is common the Circumstantial Narratives of Jesus’ appearances (p. 973)...The two disciples on the road to Emmaus walked and talked with Jesus for a while before they recognized him in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:31, 35). In John 21 we shall find Jesus standing on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and talking with the disciples about fishing, before finally the Beloved Disciple recognizes him [John 21:1-7]. Such difficult recognitions may have had an apologetic purpose: they show that the disciples were not credulously expecting to see the risen Jesus. But they also have a theological dimension. (Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI (The Anchor Bible), 1008-1009)
In this moment of revelation, Mary’s perception of Jesus transitions from a corpse, an object, to a living subject. Kathryn Madden sees this as being conveyed in Mary’s turning to Jesus:
The scriptural narrative does not indicate that Mary has ever turned away from Jesus in the first place. The pivotal point is that when the angels first ask Mary why she is weeping, she cannot recognize Jesus as the risen Christ but only through her projections as a gardener [John 20:15]. Then, in contrast to a bodily act, when we turn the second time, we come to know that we are separate but related to the divine source who meets us in the dark night of the imageless space. There is no one other than God who is capable of being such a reliable and eternal mother-mirror. If we are fully given to this source, we are transformed into the same image. In psychological terms, this moment of self reflection would be an instant when perception gives way to apperception, when “object” turns into a “subject.”...We can look into the psyche and think we “see him,” but he is hidden from us, for whatever reasons of human defense structures. When Christ does reveal himself, we may not “see him” because we are caught in our own projections. The second turning, then, is a profound transfigurative moment for Mary as well as the Risen Christ. We see all essences in their restored, eternal form. It is the eternal essence of the Risen Christ who Mary greets as “Rabbouni.” (David A. Leeming [b. 1937], Madden and Stanton Marlan [b. 1943], Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Volume Two: L-Z, 550)
In this exchange, both Jesus and Mary Magdalene utter only a single word. Yet these words speak volumes. Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) quips, “This is Jesus’ shortest sermon.” (Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1151)

Adele Reinhartz (b. 1953) interprets:

In identifying her by name, Jesus is acting out the role of the good shepherd who calls his own sheep (John 10:26). Mary’ recognition of Jesus as ‘Rabbouni’ indicates that she is a member of his flock (John 10:27) and demonstrates that she is a true disciple who recognizes the resurrected Jesus as teacher. (Amy-Jill Levine [b. 1956] with Marianne Blickenstaff (b. 1959), “Women in the Johannine Community: An Exercise in Historical Imagination”, A Feminist Companion to John: Volume II, 25)
Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) concurs:
The present scene validates Jesus’ words in John 10:3, “My sheep know my voice” (Rudolf Schnackenburg [1914-2002] 1990: 3.317; Teresa Okure [b. 1941] 1992: 181). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 568)
Craig R. Koester (b. 1953) generalizes:
Being called by name is what moves Mary from the conviction that Jesus is dead to the realization that he is alive. This encounter is unique in many respects, yet her experience anticipates the way people of future generations will come to faith. The Gospel speaks to those who have not seen the risen Jesus (John 20:29), and Mary’s story shows that seeing the tomb, seeing the angels, and even seeing Jesus himself do not guarantee faith. Like Mary, others will be called to faith by the risen Jesus. This is reflected in Jesus’ comments about the good shepherd, who “calls his own sheep by name” and leads them out, and they recognize his voice (John 10:3-4, 16, 27). Jesus calls Mary by name outside the empty tomb, but he will also call others to recognize him, sending them as he sent Mary to tell others what has happened. (Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel, 125-26)
Bruce Chilton (b. 1949) agrees:
It is her experience that ultimately teaches the other disciples how to see Jesus as well. (Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography, 130)
Mary Magdalene is emerging from her grief and awakening to a new reality. In this moment of recognition both Jesus and Mary Magdalene identify each other. Though their relationship will not be the same (John 20:17), Mary has found the Jesus for whom she is looking.

What about being called by name triggers Mary Madalene’s positive identification of Jesus? Why does John preserve Mary’s address in its original language? Is calling Jesus “Rabboni” equivalent to his calling her by her name? What is the most you have ever heard conveyed by a single word? When have you suddenly been able to perceive that God had been present in a situation long before you sensed it? In that instance, what prevented you from seeing God previously? In what ways is Mary Magdalene’s revelation a template for all who believe in the resurrected Jesus? Would you recognize Jesus if you saw him?

Mary is caught off guard and as such her response is completely unprompted. As in many impromptu utterances, her one word response is telling.

Rodney A. Whitacre (b. 1949) surmises:

Jesus calls her by the name he used for her before, and she responds with the title she used before [John 20:16]. She would naturally assume that their relationship could pick up where it left off and continue on as before. Jesus’ response, however, lets her know there has been a radical change in him and consequently in his relationship with his followers [John 20:17]. (Whitacre, John (IVP New Testament Commentary), 476)
Some have seen Mary’s use of “Rabboni” as a failure, or at best an incomplete understanding of the situation. Of the title “rabboni”, Karen L. King (b. 1954) regrets that it indicates “a relatively low standing on the hierarchical scale of Johannine Christological titles.” (King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, 131)

Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) traces:

Even when Jesus calls Mary by name, her pilgrimage is not over. In her initial reply she calls Jesus Rabbouni (my master), which suggests that she still thinks of Jesus in terms of her past friendship with him, as her teacher. This is verified by the translation the evangelist gives to the term—Teacher (John 20:16). At this juncture it becomes clear that it is no longer adequate to relate to Jesus as a great sage. He must now be seen as more that just a conveyor of Wisdom. Her reaction is of course natural and also involves her clinging to Jesus. (Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, 331)
Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) critiques:
The present reference is the only instance of the term “rabbi” in the second half of John’s Gospel. Since John 13-21 is told from the vantage point of the exalted Jesus, Mary’s address of Jesus as “rabbi” indicates that she has not yet comes to terms with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. (Ben Witherington III [b. 1951] 1995: 331). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 568-69)
Jane Schaberg (1938-2012) examines:
Mary Magdalene’s use of the title Rabbouni is often thought of as another sign of her ignorance. It is a “modest” title, says Raymond E. Brown [1928-1998], “characteristic of the beginning of faith rather than of its culmination,” certainly falling far short of Thomas’ ‘My Lord and my God; in John 20:28. He is tempted to theorize that by using this “old” title the Johannine Magdalene is showing her misunderstanding of the resurrection: she thinks she can now follow Jesus in the same way she did during the ministry. Such thinking may indicate she has an inferior faith, and does not possess the Spirit: “[O]ne may wonder if her use of an inadequate title does not imply that only when the Spirit is given (John 20:22) is full faith in the risen Jesus possible.” Her use of the title “Lord” in John 20:18 makes this reasoning less plausible, but it is nevertheless common, in spite of her use of “Lord” in John 20:2 also. (Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, 328)
Morna D. Hooker (b.1931) determines:
In case we do not see the significance of her words, the evangelist explains that they mean “my Teacher.” [John 20:16] She still doesn’t really understand. She knows only that Jesus has come back, the old Jesus, the Jesus she knew and loved. She supposes that in spite of everything that has happened, life will now go on just as before...When she calls him “Rabbouni,” Mary is clearly thinking in terms of her old relationship with the earthly Jesus. When she holds on to him, she is wanting to perpetuate that relationship. The time for that is past. A new era has begun. From now on, she must learn to “hold on” to him in a new, spiritual way. (Dave Fleer [b. 1953] and Dave Bland [b. 1953], Preaching John’s Gospel: The World It Imagines, “Seeing and Believing”, 141-42)
Though Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus, her identification is incomplete. Anthony J. Kelly (b. 1938) and Francis J. Moloney (b. 1940) assess:
A moment of recognition follows; yet her way of addressing Jesus is still according to her previous experience of him: “Rabbouni” (John 20:16b)—pointedly translated once again as “Teacher” (cf. John 1:38, 20:16). She is yet to acknowledge him as “the Lord” (John 20:18), in whom the glory of the Father is revealed. Jesus summons her into the luminous darkness of a new relationship to him: Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17a). She is to relate to him, not in terms of past experience, but as the one who has come from the Father and is not returning to him. (Kelly and Moloney, Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, 377)
Jesus is not merely an ethical teacher. Henry Gariepy (1930-2010) corrects:
It is not enough that we ascribe to Christ those titles of respect and tradition. We, too, must know Him as our risen Lord. We, too, have a mandate and mission to proclaim the Good News from a personal experience, ‘I have seen the Lord.’ Only a vibrant encounter with the resurrected Christ and a recognition of His mighty power leads us to know Him as He truly is and to share His message with others. In that discovery is our destiny. (Gariepy, 100 Portraits of Christ, 103-04)
Though no one enduring so much emotional turmoil ought be criticized, Mary Magdalene wrongly assumes that life will return to normal. This is seen as she tries to cling to Jesus and the Lord’s subsequent rebuffing of these efforts (John 20:17). Mary attempts to pick up where they left off, to recapture the past. But life can nonot revert to business as usual. As is often the case with death, Mary Magdalene must adjust to the rhythm of a new normal.

Her relationship with Jesus will take on new meaning. Though Mary Magdalene is ahead of the curve as the first to identify the risen savior, her revelation is incomplete. She is still Mary. Jesus, however, is no longer merely “Rabboni”.

When have you encountered someone whose personal transformation resulted in a changed relationship? What does Mary Magdalene’s identification of Jesus reveal of her relationship to him? Is she wrong to call him “Rabboni”? What should she have called Jesus? What do you call Jesus? How would you identify Jesus: lord, liar, lunatic, etc.?

“Recognizing isn’t at all like seeing; the two often don’t even agree, and it’s sometimes a less effective way of determining what is.” - Sten Nadolny (b. 1942), The Discovery of Slowness

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Clothes Make the Man? (Exodus 28:4)

Who wore an ephod? The high priest (Exodus 28:4)

In defining Aaron’s role as the high priest for the new nation of Israel, God establishes a very strict dress code (Exodus 28:4-43). God commands Moses:

“These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece and an ephod and a robe and a tunic of checkered work, a turban and a sash, and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that he may minister as priest to Me.” (Exodus 28:4 NASB)
Maxie Dunnam (b. 1934) comments:
The garments were very ornate, of fine linen, intricately embroidered, not to draw attention to the priest, but to the office, the function. Seven pieces of apparel are described. (Dunnam, Exodus (Mastering the Old Testament), 338)
Of the cataloged items, the ephod is unquestionably one of the most important. It is meticulously described with explicit instructions as to its construction (Exodus 28:6-14, 39:1-17) .

Ronald E. Clements (b. 1929) prioritizes:

The ephod was the most important item of the clothing of a priest, and was apparently at one time the only substantial item worn (I Samuel 2:28, 14:3, 22:18). It consisted of a loin-cloth fastened by a strap or belt around the hips. It was probably, at a very distant time, the normal item of dress for everybody. (Clements, Exodus (Cambridge Bible Commentary), 181)
Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) counters:
The ephod is the second most important item of clothing the priest wears after the breastpiece. The reason for describing the ephod before the breastpiece may be because it provides the support for the breastpiece (Umberto Cassuto [1883-1951] 1967: 373). (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 485)
Whether ranking first or second in importance, the ephod is highly significant.

The term ephod is a transliteration of the Hebrew ‘êphôd. Though this term is not in popular use most translations leave it untranslated (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though some Bibles using contemporary language render the garment “priestly vest” (CEV).

The exact meaning of the term has not been determined. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) traces:

We remain uncertain of the origin of the word ’ēpōd. John A. Tvedtnes [b. 1941] (1982) connects the Hebrew word with the Egyptian ifd/y/yfd (“cloth”). Others suggest that the Hebrew word is cognate with Akkadian epattu (“a costly garment’). (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 485)
Robert Alter (b. 1935) speculates:
The ephod (the Hebrew root suggests “binding” or “wrapping around”) evidently was a kind of apron, though opinions differ on this. It has a secondary meaning as an oracular device. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 474)
The ephod is a distinct item. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) differentiates:
In the divine instructions given to Moses in this chapter, the ephod is distinguished from the breastpiece that was attached to it for the purpose of diving God’s will through Urim and Thummim. The term ephod, however, came to include automatically the notion of “ephod with breastpiece attached” since the two pieces were not used separately, and after the book of Exodus one encounters the term “ephod” rather consistently for the ephod-breastpiece assembly. (Stuart, Exodus (New American Commentary), 606)
In spite of the relatively large space devoted to the ephod, it cannot be replicated with any certainty; its exact form and function remain indeterminate. H.L Ellison (1903-1983) acknowledges:
We have no means of giving a definitive meaning to “ephod”, the English being simply a transliteration of the Hebrew. As R. Alan Cole [1923-2003] says, “The extent of our puzzlement is shown by the fact that we do not know whether the ephod was a waistcoat or a kilt, to use modern terms.” (Ellison, Exodus (Daily Study Bible), 152)
Cornelis Van Dam (b. 1946) elaborates:
Opinion is divided about where the ephod was worn. One view holds that it was like an apron and worn below the waist (Menahem Haran [b. 1924], 106). The rendering of the Septuagint...and the testimony of Josephus [37-100] (Antiquities of the Jews 3.7.5. §162), however, favor the interpretation that it was worn on the upper part of the body. Such ephodlike garments have been attested in New Kingdom Egypt, indicating some cultural affinity with the Old Testament ephod. (T. Desmond Alexander [b. 1955] and David W. Baker [b. 1950], “Priestly Clothing”, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, 643)
Carol Meyers (b. 1942) concedes:
Neither of these priestly vestments can be reconstructed with confidence, but several aspects of each, apart from the other, can be discerned. Although not the first item in the introductory list, the ephod (Exodus 28:6-14) is the first for which directions are given. Perhaps this piece comes at the beginning because of its apparent antiquity in the array of Israelite priestly apparel. In addition to the priestly texts of the Pentateuch, it appears in a handful of deuteronomic texts relating to the premonarchic and early monarchic periods; and an equivalent term appears in other ancient Semitic texts. These sources contain such disparate information, however, that it is very difficult to understand what an ephod looked like or how it was used. Scholars have struggled with the ephod problem since antiquity. The appearance and use of the ephod clearly varied over the millennium or more represented by all these sources. What is constant is that the ephod always related to ritual matters – sometimes as a ritual garment, sometimes as a divinatory device, and sometimes as both. In Exodus and other priestly texts, its detail and its association with the breastpiece make it likely that it was worn by the priest and used for oracular purposes. (Meyers, Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 242)
The term’s inconsistent use within the Bible further muddies the waters. Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) reports:
It remains a question whether the description of the ephod is consistent throughout the entire Old Testament. In the earlier period, especially in the Micah stories (Judges 17:1-13), the ephod is associated with ‘house gods’ in a manner which is no longer fully clear (cf. also I Samuel 2:18; II Samuel 6:14, 20). However, in Exodus the ephod is part of the priestly clothing, being a type of apron of different colors on which the breastpiece was attached. Cf. the depiction by Kurt Galling [1900-1987], Exodus, p. 141. The other critical literature is cited by Julian Morgenstern [1881-1976]...pp. 114ff., the more recent by Rudolf Smend [1851-1913], Biblisch-historisches Handwörterbuch, col. 420 and Roland De Vaux [1903-1971], Ancient Israel: Its Life and Instructions, p. 544. (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Old Testament Library), 527)
Randall C. Bailey (b. 1951) conjectures:
The term “ephod” seems to imply two different kinds of cultic objects. Often in connection with the teraphim as well as images, the ephod at times was regarded as idolatrous (Judges 17:3-5, 18:14, 17-20; for the teraphim see I Samuel15:23; II Kings 23:24). Gideon created an ephod by which Israel “prostituted themselves by worshiping it there and it became a snare to Gideon and his family” (Judges 8:24). Goliath’s sword was kept “wrapped in cloth behind the ephod” (I Samuel 21:9). The ephod could be worn or carried (I Samuel 2:18, 28, 14:3, 22:18...II Samuel 6:14; I Chronicles 15:27). Its use to ascertain the divine will (I Samuel 23:9-11) seems to have produced the phrase “breastpiece of decision” (משפט חשו, hōšen mišpat, Exodus 28:15, 29). Such varied uses are difficult to reconcile. (Bailey, Exodus (The College Press NIV Commentary), 305)
Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) suggests:
Subsequent references to this ephod may or may not be referring to the high priest’s golden ephod (see Philip R. Davies [b. 1945] 1975: especially 84-85). For example, the ephod Gideon “set up” (Judges 8:27) seems to be a statue or an upright object rather than a garment (also see Judges 18:18), “the statue/carved image of the ephod [pesel hā’‘ēpôd]”. And how do young Samuel (I Samuel 2:18) and dancing David (II Samuel 6:14) get away with wearing something that only the high priest is to wear? Maybe there is more than one kind of ephod. Or maybe all ephod references are to the same phenomenon, but a phenomenon that has different manifestations throughout Israel’s history. (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 486)
Despite the uncertainty, at the very least a rough sketch of the garment can be reconstructed. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) characterizes:
The ephod is shaped liked an apron encircling the body and covers the loins (maybe from waist to thigh). It is kept in position on the body by means of two shoulder pieces (Exodus 28:7) and a fastening band (Exodus 28:8). Gold is its most dominant material and color. This is indicated by Exodus 28:6, which lists gold before it lists any fabrics. (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 485)
Terry W. Eddinger (b. 1964) envisions:
An ornate, sleeveless outer garment worn by the Israelite high priest. Exodus 28:6-10 describes the ephod as a garment made of fine, twisted linen decorated with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet material. Two shoulder pieces and a woven belt made of the same material complete the outfit. Affixed to the shoulder pieces were two onyx stones inscribed with the names of the sons of Israel. A breastplate made of the same materials and decorated with 12 precious stones, symbolizing the 12 tribes, was attached by golden rings to the front of the ephod (Exodus 28:15-28). A pocket in the breastplate stored the Urim and Thummim, the lots of divination. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], “Ephod”, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 415)
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (b. 1933) delineates:
The ephod probably was a high priestly waistcoat woven of blue, purple, scarlet, and white linen thread—all entwined with gold thread. Instead of having sleeves or being joined at the sides, it was hung from the shoulders by straps on each of which one onyx stone was mounted on top of a golden clasp, with the names of the six younger sons of Israel engraved on one stone and the six elder sons engraved on the other stone (Exodus 28:9-10). The Septuagint makes the onyx “emeralds,” while Josephus [37-100] (Antiquities of the Jews 3.165 [7.5]) makes them “sardonyx,” the best variety of onyx...A “waistband” (Exodus 28:8) made of the same material and style as the ephod held the front and back of the ephod to the priest’s body. It had no significance of its own. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Genesis ~Leviticus (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 527)
There are parallels to the ephod in other cultures of the period. Bruce Wells (b. 1968) addresses:
This description [Exodus 28:6] portrays the ephod as a rather expensive piece of clothing. A similar garment appears to be mentioned in Old Assyrian texts (the term is epattu) and in a few documents from Ugarit (ipd in Ugaritic). There is some hint that these garments were also costly though the evidence is inconclusive. Based on the biblical account, the ephod was like an apron that wrapped around the body from the waist down. Depictions of similar garments on figures that appear to be royal and/or divine have been preserved in artistic representations from New Kingdom Egypt. These garments include shoulder straps, fastened to the main piece by gems in similar fashion to the priestly ephod. Their purpose is unclear, as is any connection to their Israelite counterpart. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 253)
Due to these similarities some critical scholars have speculated that the ephod’s origins lay outside of Israel. William T. Miller (b. 1941) informs:
The ephod was apparently a vestlike garment that had in the past been used to decorate idols; in various places in the Old Testament, its use was prohibited. William H.C. Propp [b. 1957] suggests that P deliberately uses it in the legitimate cult, rather than avoid mentioning the existence of the garment altogether. (Miller, The Book of Exodus: Question by Question, 311)
Regardless of its origins, the ephod’s design carries considerable meaning within the context of Israel and later Christianity. Maxie Dunnam (b. 1934) observes:
The ephod (Exodus 28:6-14) included all the colors which have come to symbolize the characteristics of the person of Christ: gold—purity and power; blue—spiritual/divine; purple—sovereign king; scarlet—sacrifice. (Dunnam, Exodus (Mastering the Old Testament), 338)
The attire directly correlates to the high priest’s role. Peter Enns (b. 1961) connects:
We are not told here what its purpose is, but other biblical texts indicate that it is a means of finding God’s will (I Samuel 23:9-11, 30:7-8). The high priest functions not only in a sacrificial role but also as a conduit for God’s revelation to the people. (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 530)
Of special significance is the inclusion of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel into the garment (Exodus 28:9-10). Carol Meyers (b. 1942) recognizes:
Two of the items, the ephod and breatspiece, are highly specialized, appearing almost exclusively in priestly contexts and probably having a specific role in ritual practice. Although very different in their construction, these two items share certain features. For one thing, their importance is signaled by the fact that directions for making them are far more extensive than for other pieces of priestly garb. Another feature is that they are linked structurally with rings and cords. Perhaps most striking is that they are both to be adorned with gemstones engraved for “remembrance” (Exodus 28:12, 19) with the names of the Israelite tribes. This feature has commemorative symbolic value, bringing all Israel into the tabernacle with Aaron as he carries out the rituals thought to help secure the well-being of the people or adjudicate their conflicts. (Meyers, Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 241)
J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) interprets:
The fact that God instructs these tribal names to be placed on the ephod shows that God intends to remember. But the fact that God instructs the priests to bear these names on their shoulders shows that God calls the priests (and through them the whole people of God) to participate with God in the act of intercessory remembrance. Thus already, in the symbolism of the ephod, we see the two-sided character of intercession as something we do and something God does in and through us (Romans 8:26-27). (Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Companion), 207–08)
The high priest is adorned in ornate attire intended to convey dignity, not of the man but of his position and task. As is often the case with fashion choices, the high priest’s clothing makes a statement before he ever opens his mouth.

What items of clothing are you familiar with which maintain their name from their language of origin? How is the high priest’s wardrobe befitting of his function? What items of clothing are unique to a particular profession? Whose work attire is most identifiable? Does clothing always make a statement? What, if anything, do your clothes say about you?

The high priest obviously stands out. His attire sets him apart, even from other clergy. This pays dividends for all involved. Philip Graham Ryken (b. 1966) appraises:

The grandeur of these garments was important not only for the high priest but also for the nation of Israel. Whenever the priest performed his sacred duties, he represented God’s people. He did not act for himself alone, but for all the people before God. What he wore, therefore, was as important to them as it was to him. (Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God's Glory (Preaching the Word), 871)
The high priest is especially set apart. Thomas B. Dozeman (b. 1952) discusses:
About ritual clothing, John E. Vollmer [b. 1945] states: “Special clothes are used to transform the priest into a ritual celebrant,” who is “capable of bridging the gap between the physical world and the world of the spirits.” Moreover, ritual clothing is shaped by theology, a view of ordination, and liturgical practice. The more the clergy is seen as a priesthood, according to Deborah H. Kraak, the greater will be the visual distinction in clothing between the religious leaders and the laity. This is certainly the case with the priestly vestments in Exodus 28:4-43. The clothing of Aaron as the high priest is the most distinctive, because it signifies his holy status. Most of the sacred vestments focus on the high priest, including the ephod, the breastplate, the Urim and Thummim, the robe, and the turban (Exodus 28:6-38). The vestments of the general priesthood also separate them from the laity, but in a less distinctive way. (Dozeman, Exodus (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 642)
The high priest’s garb serves as a constant reminder to himself and everyone else that he has been consecrated by God for a special task. Every time he dons the ephod he renews his role as an intercessor between the sacred and the profane.

Why would a priest dress differently from parishioners? How is the pope, for instance, benefitted by his unique ensemble? Should clergy and laity dress differently? Since Jesus had to be identified by a traitorous kiss (Matthew 26:48-49; Mark 14:44-45; Luke 22:47-48), he obviously did not stand out; is this a model contemporary Christian ministers should follow when dressing? Is there a greater gap between laity and clergy in denominations whose ministers are governed by a specific dress code? At your place of worship, do clergy dress differently from the parishioners? How important is a minister’s wardrobe?

“Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.” - Karl Lagerfeld (b. 1933), renowned fashion designer

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In the Same Boat (Acts 27:37)

How many people were on board Paul’s ship which was shipwrecked? 276 (Acts 27:37)

While recounting the trials he has endured for Christ, Paul informs the Corinthians that he has been shipwrecked three times (II Corinthians 11:25). One of these incidents is documented in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:14-44). Amid Acts’ account, a minute detail emerges: there are 276 passengers aboard the doomed ship (Acts 27:37).

All of us in the ship were two hundred and seventy-six persons. (Acts 27:37 NASB)
This line is often treated as a parenthetical aside. Some translations even supply the parentheses (ESV, NRSV, RSV) though the majority do not (ASV, CEV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT).

The insertion of this fact interrupts the text’s flow. Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) determines:

We can see very clearly from Acts 27:37 that there is a lack of continuity here...for wedged in between eating [Acts 27:36] and being satisfied [Acts 37:38], the number of the ship’s company is given at 276. This is obviously a relic of the old literary account, which has no connection with Paul. (Dibelius, The Book of Acts: Form, Style, and Theology, 13)
The verse does serve to identify the undefined “all” in the previous verse (Acts 27:36). C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) connects:
The numbering of those on board the ship follows upon the πάντες [“all”] of Acts 27:36: Luke will tell his readers what πάντες means. Gerhard Schneider [1926-2004] (2.397) however thinks that the number would link originally with Acts 27:32. The article before πασαι indicates the totality of persons present (M. 3.201—‘We were in all...’; Maximilian Zerwick [1901-1975] § 188; Friedrich Blass [1843-1907], Albert Debrunner [1884-1958] and Friedrich Rehkopf [1843-1907] § 275.3, n. 6). (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210)
The precision also fits Acts’ literary style. Joshua W. Jipp (b. 1979) relates:
The narrator adds that “everyone” was encouraged by the meal (εὔθυμοι δὲ αἱ πασαι ψυχαὶ ἐν τω πλοίω διαχόσιαι ἑβδομήχοντα ἕξ, Acts 27:37). This reference to the exact number of “souls” evokes earlier scenes in Acts where Luke recounts the number of “souls” who were converted (Acts 2:41; cf. Acts 4:4). (Jipp, Divine Visitations and Hospitality to Strangers in Luke-Acts, 35)
The detail may be included here because it is at this point in the story when it was discovered. F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) notes:
Arthur Breusing [1818-1892] thinks the number is mentioned at the point because the food had to be rationed. (Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 526)
Kenneth O. Gangel (1935-2009) imagines:
All of a sudden Luke counted heads; perhaps he was involved in the food distribution, and the number of passengers only became important at this point. At any rate, we discover 276 witnesses to the veracity of Paul’s prophecies. (Gangel, Acts (Holman New Testament Commentary), 452)
The headcount also informs the story which follows. Christoph W. Stenschke (b. 1966) connects:
With 276 people landing on their shores, including soldiers, the rural islanders were likely to be outnumbered and did not have much of a choice but to show hospitality (despite Acts 27:33). Possibly their behavior was not based on humanitarian concerns but derived from their belief in Δίχη: should they fail to perform their duties of hospitality, the ever present goddess might turn against them. (Stenschke, Luke’s Portrait of Gentiles Prior to Their Coming to Faith, 96)
Though often deemed superfluous, Acts’ specificity lends credibility to the account, conforms to its own internal literary style, defines terms, creates a better picture of the magnitude of the episode and adds to the later story.

Despite the number’s exactitude, not all manuscripts read 276. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) informs:

The number 276 is read by manuscripts א, C, ψ, 33, 36, 81, 181, 307, 614, and 1739 of the Alexandrian tradition. The Western Text, MS B, the Sahidic version, and Epiphanius [310-403] read rather: “we were about seventy persons.” This Western Text reading seems to have risen from a dittography of the omega on the dative ploiō, “ship,” after which the cipher for 76 was written so that it was combined with s (= diakosiai, “two hundred”) and taken as the adverb hōs. Other readings: MS A reads “275,” and MS 69, “270.” See A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 442. (Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (Anchor Bible), 779)
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) expounds:
The number is textually uncertain. The majority of witnesses have διαχόσιαι ἑβδομήχοντα ἕξ, 276; but B (pc) sa have ὡς ἑβδομήχοντα ἕξ, about 76. The textual problem is complicated by the fact that 276, if not written in words, would be written ΓΟΣ, and 76 as ΟΣ. Bruce M. Metzger [1914-2007] (499f.) represents a common opinion in the words, The reading of B sa ‘probably arose by taking ΠΛΟΙΩΓΟΣ as ΠΛΟΙΩΟΣ. In any case, ὡς with an exact statement of number is inappropriate (despite Luke’s penchant for qualifying numbers by using ὡς or ὡσεί, cf. Luke 3:23; Acts 2:41, 4:4, 5:7, 36, 10:3, 13:18, 20, 19:7, 34.’ Metzger notes other variants: A has 275; 69 and Ephraim have 270; bo have 176 or 876; 522 and l have 76; Epiphanius [310-403] has about (ὡς) 70. Metzger (similarly James Hardy Ropes [1866-1933], The Beginnings of Christianity 3.247) is probably right but like most commentators does not note the problem of the iota subscript, which in uncials is often though not always written adscript. Thus the two readings discussed might well be not as given above but ΠΛΟΙΩΓΟΣ and ΠΛΟΙΩΙΩΓΟΣ. This makes simple confusion less likely. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210)
Some scholars have been skeptical of a number as large as 276. Gerd Lüdemann (b. 1946) remarks:
The reported number on board, 276, is an utterly incredible figure; it evidently represents a remnant of whatever stirring saga has been pressed into service as a vehicle for Paul’s fateful journey to Rome. (Lüdemann, The Acts Of The Apostles: What Really Happened In The Earliest Days Of The Church, 334)
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) counters:
The number 276 is not impossibly large; Josephus [37-100] (Vita 15) records his own experience of shipwreck (in Adria), as a result of which about 600 were obliged to swim all night. On the size of ships see James Smith [1782-1867] (187-90) and Colin J. Hemer [1930-1987] (149f.) (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210)
Its capacity to transport both the cargo (wheat, Acts 27:38) and 276 passengers and crew indicates a large vessel. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) deduces:
At Acts 27:37 Luke mentions parenthetically that there were 276 persons on board...This means that Paul was on a fairly substantial-sized boat, though not as large as the one in which Josephus [37-100] traveled on a similar route in about A.D. 63. He, too, experienced shipwreck in the Sea of Adria with some 600 persons on board, but only 80 survived (Vita 15). (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary, 773)
H. Leo Boles (1874-1946) estimates the ship’s weight at “ten or eleven tons” (Boles, Commentary on Acts, 415). There were ships of this era which could fill this bill.

Loveday Alexander describes:

Greek seamanship drew on an age-old expertise in sailing coastal waters, but was much less confident in crossing the open sea towards Italy. There was, however, a regular trade supplying the voracious imperial city with its luxuries and its basics—top among which was grain. Enormous grain-ships from Egypt regularly made the hazardous crossing from Alexandria via the ports and islands of the southern Aegean. The emperor Caligula [12-41] described them as ‘crack sailing craft, their skippers the most experienced there are; they drive their vessels like race horses on an unswerving course that goes straight as a die’ (Lionel Casson [1914-2009] 1999, p. 158). This was the type of ship Julius found to transport his little group of prisoners to Italy (Acts 27:6). Such a ship could take up to 1000 passengers (probably camping on deck), as well as a hold stuffed with grain (Acts 27:38), so there would be plenty of room for the 276 passengers that Luke mentions on this sailing (Acts 27:37). (Alexander, Acts (Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer), 187)
Brian M. Rapske (b. 1952) hypothesizes:
Indications of the relative capacity of such ships to carry crew and passengers may be helpful...The Isis had a veritable army of crew members according to Lucian and the carrier in which Josephus [37-100] unsuccessfully attempted to make Rome must have been quite large; besides cargo, there were some 600 individuals on board. Luke’s record indicates that, all told, 276 individuals were aboard the first grain carrier on which Paul travelled (Acts 27:37). Moreover, Luke’s reference at Acts 27:30 to the conspiracy of the sailors (οἱ ναυται) to abandon ship using the lifeboat (σκαφή) would seem to imply a smaller crew. Far from being troublesomely large, the numerical indications may actually show Paul’s ship to have been an Alexandrian carrier of significantly less than Isis class tonnage. The crew (3rd person plural of ποιέω: Acts 27:18) would first have lightened the ship by jettisoning the topmost cargo (possibly located above decks?) earlier during the storm. The urgent labors of all those aboard (3rd person plural of κουφίζω after mention of the 276: Acts 27:38) in the pre-dawn hours of the morning of the shipwreck might reasonably be thought to have significantly lightened such a smaller grain carrier before its run for shore. (David W. J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Acts, Travel and Shipwreck”, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 32-33)
Some have sought significance in the number 276 and its properties. This marks the only occurrence of this highly precise number in the Bible. It is, however, one of four triangular numbers referenced.

F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) catalogs:

No significance need be seen in the fact that 276 is a triangular number (the sum of all whole numbers from 1 through 23), like 120 in Acts 1:15; 153 in John 21:11; 666 in Revelation 13:18. (Bruce, The Book of the Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 493)
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) notices:
A surprising number of commentators repeat the statement that 276 is the sum of the digits from 1 to 24. It is not; it is the sum of the digits from 1 to 23. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210-11)
For example, Gerhard A. Krodel (1926-2005) miscalculates:
The number 276 is a triangular number, the sum of all numbers from 1 to 24, and as such as [sic] mysterious and perfect number. (Krodel, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament, 478)
Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) gleans:
The specific number may have been added to give verisimilitude to the account (although the scribal tendency to give a round number [270, 275] or approximate [about 76 or about 70] number destroys that effect if intended), which claims to be that of an eyewitness (cf. François Bovon [b. 1938] 1985). If any symbolism is to be attached to 276 it is probably to be found in the fact that 276 is a “triangular number,” the sum of the numbers 1 through 23; and here the significance is that 23 is not 24 (a similar phenomenon has been noted about the “seven sayings from the cross”; cf. Jason Whitlark [b. 1975] and Mikeal C. Parsons [b. 1957] 2006). In Luke’s logic, 24, as a multiple of 12, represents the church (a common later view; cf. Tyconius [370-390], Commentarium in Apocalypsim 4.4), and 23 does not. Thus the 276 gathered on the boat with Paul do not represent the church, and the meal Paul shares with them is not the Eucharist, because 23 is not 24 (for more on this possible symbolism, see Parsons 2008). (Parsons, Acts (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament), 358)
Despite the irregularity of the number, the reversion to the first person “us” is more telling (Acts 27:37). Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) instructs:
Notice the shift to the “we” again in this verse—which may also help account for the Western addition in Acts 27:36—the first since Acts 27:27. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 455)
The voice noticeably returns to the third person in the following verse (Acts 27:38). David G. Peterson (b. 1944) tracks:
The first person plural (we) in Acts 27:27 changes to the third person plural they in Acts 27:28-44, with a brief reference to us in Acts 27:37 (ēmetha, ‘we were’, as in most English versions). This gives the impression that Paul’s ministry of encouragement was essentially to the unbelieving soldiers and sailors who were in charge of the situation. Paul inspired them to act decisively and courageously for the benefit of all. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 694)
This usage of the first person is irregular as it is typically reserved for Christians and the majority aboard the ship are unbelievers. Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) observes:
Acts 27:37 indicates, “All the lives in the ship, we were two hundred seventy-six.” The “we” in the voyage to Rome generally refers to a small group of Christians. Here, however, the entire ship’s company becomes a single “we” as the narrator numbers the company so that readers will know what “all” means [Acts 27:36]. Even though the boundary of the church is not completely eliminated, the meal on the ship is an act that benefits all, Christian and non-Christian, and an act in which community is created across religious lines. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles, 335)
Some have speculated that the 276 are not only saved from the temporary wreckage but also recipients of eternal redemption. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) rejects:
Especially unconvincing are the arguments of Petr Pokorný [b. 1933], “Die Romfahrt des Paulus und der antike Roman,” that Luke means us to think that all 276 received eternal salvation. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary, 773)
Here, the “we” previously reserved for Christians takes on a wider scope (Acts 27:37). William S. Kurz (b. 1939) comments:
The inclusive use of the first person indicates Luke’s feeling of solidarity not only with Paul but also with all on the ship, who together were undergoing the same dramatic trials. (Kurz, Acts of the Apostles (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 371-72)
In the face of a life or death situation, the hierarchical ordering of the 276 souls disappears. Reta Halteman Finger (b. 1940) assesses:
The ship’s passengers in Acts 27:1-44, who come from various social strata (including prisoners), have become one group whose lives are saved or lost together. They experience social reversal as one who has been in chains among them takes the lead in hosting a meal and urging commensality. By eating together they ensure that not a single one of them will be lost from the group of 276. (Finger, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, 240)
The camaraderie among the passengers on Paul’s vessel is as improbable as naive Gilligan befriending the erudite professor, Roy Hinkley, or the movie star, Ginger Grant, palling around with the unrefined skipper, Jonas Grant, after the shipwreck of the S.S. Minnow on an unchartered desert isle on “Gilligan’s Island” (1964-1967).

This unity may be evidence of a phenomenon psychologists label “shared coping” in which those enduring crisis experience a bond. Hans-Josef Klauck (b. 1946) discusses:

Paul encourages his companions by telling them about this heavenly assurance. His first words are: ‘An angel of the God to whom I belong...’ (Acts 27:23). The fact that the majority of the two hundred and seventy-six persons on board (Acts 27:37) are Gentiles makes it necessary to specify this; the story is related from the perspective of the Christian ‘we’-group, who accompany Paul, but these were few in number (cf. the mention of Aristarchus in Acts 27:2). When the total number is given in Acts 27:37, however, this ‘we’ becomes what Karl Löning [b. 1938] has called a ‘we of the community in trouble’: ‘We were in all two hundred and seventy-six persons in the ship.’ No one is allowed to break out of this fellowship, neither the crew, who plan to escape by stealth (Acts 27:30-32), nor the soldiers, who are tempted to take desperate action (Acts 27:42). The rescue will succeed only if all stay together. (Klauck, Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles, 112),
There are 276 souls aboard the ship (Acts 27:37). When the vessel sets sail there are various divisions: crew/passengers, free/imprisoned and many other usses and thems. When calamity strikes all 276 become one. They are a single “us”. They are in the same boat.

What shipwrecks are you familiar with? How do you envision the events of Acts 27:1-44? Why does Acts include the precise number of passengers; what does it add to the story? In these trying circumstances, who took the time to complete a headcount? Would the 276 souls on board have helped or hurt in such unfavorable conditions; would they add stabilizing weight? What most bonds you with others? When have you found yourself in the same boat with a surprising co-passenger? Have you ever bonded with another person during a tragedy; a stranger? Do you feel unified with your fellow believers? When has a clearly defined “us and them” become simply an “us”?

The shipwreck in Acts 27:14-44 is first and foremost a miracle story. It is nothing short of miraculous that all 276 passengers are accounted for: there are no casualties.

Richard I. Pervo (b. 1942) classifies:

At that point [Acts 27:37] Luke enumerates the company: 276 in all. Such numbers normally appear as an element of miracle stories, as in the feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9:14). Acts 27 is a miracle story. (Pervo, The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story, 111)
David J. Williams (1933-2008) researches:
Luke may have mentioned the number at this juncture because the distribution of rations had brought it to his attention. But it also underlines the marvel that they were all saved. In Josephus [37-100]’s case only eighty of the six hundred survived. (Williams, Acts (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), 439)
Some have cited the totality of the rescue as evidence of the prisoner Paul’s innocense. Brian M. Rapske (b. 1952) refutes:
Gary B. Miles [b. 1940] and Garry Trompf [b. 1940] argue that the escape of all 276 passengers amounts to a ‘divine confirmation of Paul’s innocense’. Troublesome to their argument, however, is the fact that while there is no loss of life, there is a disaster; the ship on which Paul is a passenger and its cargo are completely destroyed. David Ladoucer [b. 1948] suggests that Paul’s safe passage under the sign of the Dioskouroi (Acts 28:11), the guardians of truth and punishers of perjurers, may well be ‘one more argument in a sequence calculated to persuade the reader of Paul’s innocence’. The relationship of the Dioskouroi to the Imperial cult may, Ladoucer argues, render the need for a narrative of the trial’s outcome superfluous. (David W. J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Acts, Travel and Shipwreck”, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 43-44)
It is clear that the miracle is facilitated by Paul who takes charge of the situation (Acts 27:9-10, 21-26, 33-36). James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) speculates:
I do not think the world has any awareness of how much it owes to the presence of Christians in its midst. Here were soldiers, sailors, prisoners—276 of them. All of them were spared because of Paul. Yet afterward, when it was over, I am sure that most of them went away and never thought of their deliverance again. They did not thank God. (Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary, 414)
Aboard the ship, Paul is just 1 of 276 souls (Acts 27:37). Yet his presence completely changes the situation. 276 became one and because of one 276 are saved. One Christian can make all the difference to the world.

What are some of the largest recorded wrecks with no casualties? What would have happened to the ship had Paul not been aboard? Would all have perished? How much of an effect do you believe that Christian prayer and presence has upon world history? When has one person made a difference to a large group?

“You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world. But you do have to know the few great things that matter, perhaps just one, and then be willing to live for them and die for them. The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by one great thing.” - John Piper (b. 1946), Don’t Waste Your Life, p. 44

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Shepherd’s Shepherd (I Chronicles 27:31)

Who had charge of David’s flocks? Jaziz the Hagerite (I Chronicles 27:31)

First Chronicles archives David’s reign over Israel’s united kingdom in the 10th century BCE. After filling its first nine chapters with genealogies and lists (I Chronicles 1:1-9:44), the narrative devotes a scant fourteen verses to David’s predecessor, Saul, and then only to focus on his death (I Chronicles 10:1-14). The remainder of the book is concerned with documenting David’s monarchy, remembered as a Golden Age (I Chronicles 11:1–28:30). Fittingly, the book concludes with David’s death (I Chronicles 29:28-30).

First Chronicles’ twenty-seventh chapter catalogs David’s administration: army commanders (I Chronicles 27:1-15), chief tribal officers (I Chronicles 27:16-24), various overseers (I Chronicles 27:25-31) and counselors (I Chronicles 27:32-34).

The Chronicler lists eleven overseers (I Chronicles 27:25-31). Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) encapsulates:

The list of David’s administrators of crown property is generally recognized as historically reliable. It is arranged in three groups, according to storage places in the capital (implicitly) and in the country (I Chronicles 27:25), agriculture and agricultural products (I Chronicles 27:26-28), and livestock (I Chronicles 27:29-31a). A descriptive summary in I Chronicles 27:31b concludes the list. The royal property was spread out throughout the united kingdom, as I Chronicles 27:28-29 attests. The list illustrates David’s riches (I Chronicles 29:28), painting a beautiful picture of God’s blessing on the land and a nostalgic ideal that implicitly included economic and political hopes for full restoration. (The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume III: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Tobit, Judith, 457)
The last of the overseers listed is Jaziz the Hagrite (I Chronicles 27:31).
Jaziz the Hagrite had charge of the flocks. All these were overseers of the property which belonged to King David. (I Chronicles 27:31 NASB)
Though the notation regarding Jaziz occupies I Chronicles 27:31 in many translations (HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV,NKJV, NLT) it is also chronicled as verse 30 in others (ASV, CEV, ESV, NRSV, RSV).

Many possibilties have been offered regarding the meaning of Jaziz’s name. “Whom God Moves” (Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm Gesenius [1786-1842]), “Brightness, Departing” (Roswell Dwight Hitchcock [1817-1887]), “Shining or He Me Moves About” (Herbert Lockyer, Sr. [1886-1984]) and “He Will Make Prominent” (David Mandel [b. 1938]) have all been suggested.

Missionary Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) imagines:

Jaziz had a beautiful name —Shining. No dullness, no heavy-heartedness as he tended the flocks. God make us all to be Jazizes—happy shepherds, shining shepherds. (Carmichael, Whispers of His Power: Selections for Daily Readings, 188)
Most contemporary scholars admit that the name’s meaning is uncertain. Sara Japhet (b. 1934) conjectures:
The name of the Ishmaelite [I Chronicles 27:30] is most probably a Hebraized form of the Arabic Wabil (cf. Walter Baumgartner [1887-1970], 20) and the same probably holds true for the unique Jaziz of the Hagrites. (Japhet, I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (Old Testament Library, 478)
Jaziz is identified as a Hagrite (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV RSV) which the King James Version immortalizes with the alternate spelling “Hagerite”. Though hardly definitive, some have seen an etymological connection to Abraham’s concubine, Hagar (Genesis 16:1). As such, Jaziz has been associated with his predecessor in the list of overseers, Obil the Ishmaelite (I Chronicles 27:30).

Roddy Braun (b. 1935) notes:

The presence among the officials named in this of David’s officials of the Ishmaelite Obil, whose name means “camel driver,” and the Hagrite Jaziz, both of whom are associated with the Arabian territories to the south of Judah, has been taken by some (e.g., Wilhelm Rudolph [1891-1987], H.G.M. Williamson [b. 1947]) to point to the early nature of the list. (Braun, 1 Chronicles (Word Biblical Commentary), 263)
Sara Japhet (b. 1934) identifies:
The former inhabitants of the conquered area are designated Hagrites – the descendants of Hagar. The main allusions to this Arabian group are found in Chronicles: in this chapter [I Chronicles 5:1-16]...and in David’s administration: Jaziz the Hagrite is ‘over the flocks’ (I Chronicles 27:31), and Mibhar the son of Hagri is one of David’s warriors (I Chronicles 11:38; in II Samuel 23:36, Bani the Gadite. As a people they are mentioned only once more, in Psalm 83:6 (Masoretic Text 83:7), which appropriately numbers them with Edom, Ishmaelites and Moab. They are absent, however, from the main traditions of the Pentateuch describing Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, and are represented in the traditions of Genesis by Hagar, Sarah’s maid and Abraham’s concubine, who, throughout the narrative, retains eponymic characteristics. (Japhet, I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (Old Testament Library, 135-36)
Edwin C. Hostetter (b. 1957) describes the Hagrites as:
A pastoralist tribe residing in the region East of Gilead. Psalm 83:6...enumerates Hagrites among other Transjordan enemies of Israel from the preexilic era. In the time of King Saul the Hebrew tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half-Manasseh took control of Hagrite territory (I Chronicles 5:18-22). King David seems to have won the loyalty of at least some of them, since he gave oversight of the royal flocks to Jaziz the Hagrite (I Chronicles 27:31). An ethnographic relationship between the Hagrites and the woman Hagar is uncertain (Baruch 3:23, “the children/descendants of Hagar”). (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], “Hagrites”, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 541)
If Hagrites are descendants of Hagar and Ishmael, this would represent the inclusion of Arabs into Israel’s royal court. Tony Maalouf (b. 1955) observes:
During the united monarchy, Israel’s golden age of prosperity under the Lord, there is...evidence of positive relationships between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ishmael...David’s raids on the Negev during the reign of Saul did not involve the Ishmaelites. They were not listed among his victims, even though his raids “encroached upon their habitat, as is clear from I Samuel 27:8 and Genesis 25:18.” David’s sister was married to “Jether the Ishmaelite,” the father of Amasa who was to replace Joab as a later leader of Israel’s army (II Samuel 20:4-13; I Chronicles 2:17). Furthermore, among those who administrated “crown property” under David were “Obil the Ishmaelite” and “Jaziz thr Hagarite” (I Chronicles 27:30). (Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line, 118)
Jaziz is responsible for “the flocks” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV). The CEV relays that he oversees “sheep and goats” and the NLT combines these two phrases with “flocks of sheep and goats”.

This specification fits the Hebrew term, tsô‘n. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament defines:

The basic meaning in all the Semitic dialects is “small livestock,” referring primarily to sheep and goats collectively in flocks or as possessions. Hence sō’n frequently parallels ‘ēder (Genesis 29:2-3; Jeremiah 13:20; Ezekiel 34:12, etc.) or is specified more closely by ‘ēder (Genesis 29:2; Joel 1:18; Micah 5:8) or miqneh (Genesis 26:14, 47:17; II Chronicles 33:29). The meaning “flock,” albeit as a metaphor, is emphatically supported by the construct expression sō’n ‘ādām (Ezekiel 36:38). (G. Johannes Botterweck [1917-1981], Helmer Ringgren [1917-2012] and Heinz-Josef Fabry [b. 1944], Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume XII, 198)
It is fitting that a Hagrite would oversee the flocks (I Chronicles 27:31) as shepherding was synonymous with the region. Merrill F. Unger (1909-1980) identifies Jaziz as:
A Hagrite and overseer of David’s flocks (I Chronicles 27:31), which were probably pastured east of Jordan where the forefathers of Jaziz had lived for ages (cf. vv. 19-22). (Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary).
A modern parallel to selecting Jaziz for this task might be naming a representative from Idaho as secretary of Potatoes.

The name “Hagrite” may actually designate a trade as opposed to an ethnicity. Roger Syrén considers:

‘Ishmaelites’ in the Old Testament, although formally a gentilic adjective, may not refer to any identifiable tribe at all. It is important to note that the Assyrian sources do not mention any ethnic group by the name of Ishmael (cf. Israel Eph‘al [b. 1933], The Ancient Arabs, pp. 166-68). In the Old Testament the term may imply socio-economically distinct, rather than racially related groups. So it seems when it appears in Genesis 37:5 and I Chronicles 27:30 referring to tradesmen and camel-breeders. In the latter usage, the Chronicler states that an ‘Ishmaelite’ and a ‘Hagrite’ were officers at King David’s court. While the other people on the list are identified by the name of their father, or alternatively, by a gentilic name indicating where they came from, the term ‘the Ishmaelite’ for Obil (over the camels) and ‘the Hagrite’ for Jaziz (over small cattle) do not follow any such pattern. It is possible, therefore, that these terms were chosen because of the particular tasks assigned to these persons. Along similar lines see E.A. Knauf [b. 1953], Ismael: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Palästinas und Nordarabiens im I Jahrtausend v. Chr. (Abhandlungen des deutschen Palästinavereins; Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 2nd edition, 1989), pp. 13-14. (Syrén, The Forsaken First Born: A Study of Recurrent Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives, 27)
Assigning Jaziz this task plays to his strengths. He is either from a region known for shepherding or is so adept in this field that he is given the name “Hagrite” to indicate his proficiency. He is the right man for the job.

Is it significant that David crosses ethnic lines in appointing Jaziz the Hagrite (I Chronicles 27:31)? What facets of a person’s background would preclude you from hiring them? What geographic regions are synonymous with a particular profession? What are your strengths? Should you play to your strengths or improve your weaknesses? What do you oversee for your King, Jesus?

For most modern commentators, Jaziz does not merit comment. He is a mere name, nationality and occupation treated little more than a random name, rank and serial number. No stories pertaining to him are relayed in the Bible. In fact, his name appears only in this one isolated verse (I Chronicles 27:31).

Jaziz is remembered because he is part of David’s court, the most revered monarchy in the nation’s history. His legacy is as a member of an extraordinary team. Jaziz is a relic of a Golden Age, an era when the kingdom was united and times were good. The fact that his position exists is a sign of this prosperity.

Clyde T. Francisco (1916-1981) remarks:

The Chronicler presents a list (I Chronicles 27:25-31) of the officers who supervised the king’s crown property. Because David apparently had no direct taxation, he had acquired considerable personal property from which he derived the income that supported the life of his court. This included everything from farming to camel caravans. If crown properties had become so extensive during this one reign, one can imagine how later kings added to their possessions as time went by. This is one reason why Ezekiel recommended that the prince be given an allotted portion which he could not enlarge (Ezekiel 46:16-18). (Francisco, 1 Samuel - Nehemiah (The Broadman Bible Commentary), 356)
Jaziz is responsible for a significant portion of the kingdom’s assets. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament recounts:
The sō’n [“flocks”] played an important role in the economy of the royal sphere...According to I Samuel 8:17, the king could claim a tenth of all flocks, and according to I Kings 4:23, Solomon’s court also required “ten fat oxen, twenty pasture-fed cattle, and one hundred sheep.” It is especially in connection with the temple and cultic celebrations that the Old Testament attests the use of extremely high quantities of both large and small livestock (I Kings 8:63; II Chronicles 7:5, 29:33, 30:24), part of which came from the king’s own possessions (mērekûs, II Chronicles 35:7). Hence in its list of civic officials in charge of the royal Davidic property, I Chronicles 27:31 specifically mentions a certain Hagrite by the name of Jaziz who was in charge of the flocks. (G. Johannes Botterweck [1917-1981], Helmer Ringgren [1917-2012] and Heinz-Josef Fabry [b. 1944], Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume XII, 202)
Though often overlooked by modern interpreters, Jaziz and his position are important. In addition to its economic impact, his task may have had a sentimental place in the king’s heart as David himself had been a shepherd (I Samuel 16:11, 17:15). Jaziz is selected for his position not only by the king but also by a peer. Jaziz is the shepherd’s shepherd.

How important is Jaziz’s job? What period in your life represents your golden age? Do you look upon the people in those times with special fondness? Are your past successes cause for hope or lament? Of the groups you have been involved with, which was the best team? Would you rather be the worst player on the best team or the best player on the worst team? When have you been recognized by your peers? Was this more meaningful than acclaim from others?

“Without a shepherd, sheep are not a flock” - Russian Proverb

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Jesus Assembling an Army? (Mark 6:40)

What size groups did Jesus have the 5,000 sit down in before he fed them? 50’s and 100’s (Mark 6:40)

Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000 using only five fish and two loaves is the only miracle recorded in all four canonical gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:33-44, Luke 9:12-17, John 6:5-14). While Luke notes that Jesus arranged the crowd in factions of “about fifty” (Luke 9:14), Mark specifies that the groups are organized in clusters of fifties and hundreds (Mark 6:40).

And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. (Mark 6:39-40 NASB)
Despite the book’s relative brevity, Mark often includes details not found in the other gospels. For instance, Mark alone informs that the grass is green at feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:39).

William Barclay (1907-1978) educates:

One of the great characteristics of Mark is that over and over again he inserts the little vivid details into the narrative which are the hallmark of an eyewitness...When Mark is telling of the feeding of the 5,000, he alone tells how they sat down in hundreds and in fifties, looking like vegetable beds in a garden (Mark 6:40); and immediately the whole scene rises before us. (Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (New Daily Study Bible), 8)
C. Clifton Black (b. 1955) compares:
Unlike Matthew (Matthew 14:19a) and more so than Luke (Luke 9:14b-15), Mark draws order out of this hungry herd’s chaos. Jesus “orders” (Mark 6:39; see also Mark 1:27, 9:25) his disciples to arrange and seat the huge crowd “in groups [symposia] on the green grass” (Mark 6:39). (Black, Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries))
It is Jesus himself who mandates the structure (Mark 6:39). Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) comments:
The narrative of the actual multiplication starts with another emphasis on Jesus’ authority: ἐπέταξεν αὐτοις means that Jesus ordered the disciples [Mark 6:39]. “To cause all [the people] to recline” indicates that the disciples are to carry out his will on the crowd. “Group by group” implies the large size of the crowd; they have to be divided up. “The green grass” on which the disciples are to make them recline will provide a suitable cushion as is used for reclining at formal meals, like the one about to be served with Jesus acting as host and his disciples as waiters. “All” indicates that despite the large size of the crowd, his coming miracle will fail to feed not a single one of them. Nobody stands outside the sphere of his power no matter how small the supply of food he has to work with. The carrying out of his order reemphasizes the large size of the crowd by repeating the reference to division into groups. The reemphasis plays up in advance the stupendousness of the miracle. (Gundry, Mark, Volume 1 (1-8): A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 325)
Peter W. Smuts (b. 1958) concurs:
The size of these the reader an indication of the large numbers present (cf. Mark 6:37), while the arrangement of the groupings suggests that Jesus has a particular plan and purpose in mind when he multiplies the loaves and fishes (see John 6:6). (Smuts, Mark by the Book: A New Multidirectional Method for Understanding the Synoptic Gospels, 84)
Mark describes the groupings twice (Mark 6:39). First, Mark 6:39 speaks of a sympósion which is translated alternately “groups” (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) or “companies” (ASV, KJV, RSV).

Brendan J. Byrne (b. 1939) details:

The curious Markan phrase symposia symposia places in Semitic idiom the Greek word for a drinking cup or eating party, made famous by Plato [427-347 BCE]’s Symposium. The idiom is repeated in the next verse: “clusters” (prasiai prasiai: literally “garden plots”) of hundreds and fifties [Mark 6:40]. (Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 116)
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) interprets:
The term used for “companies,” συμποσια [Mark 6:39], when combined with the command to recline for a meal, would have suggested to a largely Gentile audience a dinner party involving a special sort of bond among the guests. (Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary, 219)

In the next verse, prasiá is used to identify the same divisions (Mark 6:40). This term is rendered either “groups” (CEV, ESV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “ranks” (ASV, HCSB, KJV, NKJV). This word appears only here in the New Testament, a hapax legomenon.

C. Clifton Black (b. 1955) clarifies:

Row upon row...prasiai prasiai...[is] literally, “by garden plots” [Walter Bauer [1870-1960], F. Wilbur Gingrich [1901-1993], William F. Arndt [1880-1957] and Frederick W. Danker [1920-2012] 860a] “of hundreds and of fifties. (Black, Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries))
A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) identifies:
Mark again uses a repetitive construction, πρασιά πρασιά, in the nominative absolute as in Mark 6:39. The alternative would have been to use ἀνά or κατά with the accusative for the idea of distribution. (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Volume One: The Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Mark, 319)
Camille Focant (b. 1946) defines:
In the primary sense, the word πρασιά means a row of leeks, and more broadly a bed of vegetables or flowers. By extension it designates a group, an ordered section, well aligned in contrast to the crowd that is not ordered (János Bolyki [1931-2011], 22-24). Moreover, the word πρασιά is...a hapax legomenon of the New Testament and it is even absent from the Septuagint. (Focant, The Gospel according to Mark: A Commentary, 260)
Robert G. Bratcher (1920-2010) and Eugene A. Nida (1914-2011) construe:
Prasia...meant originally ‘a garden plot’; when used as here it means ‘in orderly groups’, ‘in rows’, ‘in ranks’ (cf. James Hope Moulton [1863-1917] & George Milligan [1860-1934].) The element of order is stressed in the use of this word: the multitude formed orderly rows which could be easily and quickly served by the disciples (cf. A.E.J. Rawlinson [1884-1960]; E.F.F. Bishop [1891-1976] The Expository Times, 60.192, 1949). (Bratcher, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark, 207)
Marie Noonan Sabin explains:
The strange and unusual word “garden-plots” does not seem to make much sense in Greek but arguably would be suggestive in Hebrew of the garden of Genesis [Genesis 2:8-3:24]. The repetitious phrasing here, in which the second verse offers a slight variation on the first (“garden-plots” for “green grass” and “hundreds and fifties” for “meal-eating groups”), is typical of the couplets of Hebrew verse. (Sabin, Reopening the Word : Reading Mark as Theology in the Context of Early Judaism, 8)
Rabbis of the day often grouped their pupils. C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) connects:
The word πρασιά means ‘garden-bed’. Hermann Leberecht Strack [1848-1922] and Paul Billerbeck [1853-1932], II, p. 13, quote interesting examples from Rabbinic literature of the arrangement of students sitting in rows before their Rabbis being likened to the rows of vines in a vineyard and to beds in a garden. Specially interesting is the interpretation of Song of Solomon 8:13 (‘Thou that dwellest in the gardens’: ‘When students sit arranged like garden-beds [Hebrew ginnóniyyôt ginnóniyyôt = πρασιά πρασιά] and are engaged in studying the Torah, then I come down to them and hearken to their voice and hear them—Song of Solomon 8:13: “Cause me to hear thy voice.”’ So doubtless here in Mark it is the regular arrangement in companies to which this expression refers, not (as has been suggested) the colours of the clothes of the crowd. (Cranfield, The Gospel according to St Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, 218)
Mark’s phrasing enhances the reader’s visual experience of the famous scene. Ezra P. Gould (1841-1900) notes:
This descriptive word πρασιαί, garden beds, gives an admirable picturesque touch. The disposition of the people in orderly groups was for the more convenient distribution of food. (Gould, St. Mark (International Critical Commentary), 119)
Kirsten Marie Hartvigsen (b. 1973) scrutinizes:
The extradiegetic narrator informs audience members that Jesus responds with a directive point, instructing “them to get all to recline in groups on the green grass” (Mark 6:39). Through the subsequent assertive point, the extradiegetic narrator tells audience members that the disciples execute the order successfully (Mark 6:40). Because this assertive point does not contain perceptual verbs, audience members will probably attribute the perception of these actions to the extradiegetic narrator. This speech act enables audience members to visualize the setting and actions that are performed in the Markan world. As invisible witnesses, they watch people sit down, and they observe them sit in groups of hundreds and fifties on the green grass. Because this information does not provide information which may indicate a reference frame, audience members will probably “remain” in their previous position in the immediate vicinity of Jesus. If audience members combine current information provided earlier, they may imagine these characters are sitting down for a meal by the sea, at a desolate place, and that it is quite late. (Hartvigsen, Prepare the Way of the Lord: Towards a Cognitive Poetic Analysis of Audience Involvement with Characters and Events in the Markan World, 266-67)
Some have envisioned the congregation as sitting in a rectangular formation. Robert G. Bratcher (1920-2010) and Eugene A. Nida (1914-2011) research:
Kata hekaton kai kata pentēkonta ‘by the hundreds and by the fifties’: so most translations and commentaries. T.W. Manson [1883-1958], however, has ‘a hundred rows of fifty each’ (cf. also C.F.D. Moule [1908-2007] An Idiom Book of the Greek New Testament, 59f. “a great rectangle, a hundred by fifty...: ‘one side of the rectangle was reckoned at a hundred, the other at fifty’.”): this, however, has not commended itself to many (cf. Marie-Joseph Lagrange [1855-1938] “bien mathématique!”). (Bratcher, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark, 207)
The crowd is arranged in groups of fifties and hundreds (Mark 6:40). Roger David Aus (b. 1940) analyzes:
Mark 6:40 states that (the 5000 men) “reclined garden bed by garden bed/row by row ‘according to hundreds and according to fifties.’” The latter phrase can also be expressed in English with “by hundreds and by fifties,” and is the Greek κατὰ ἑκατὸν καὶ κατὰ πεντήκοντα, the numbers being singular. Joel Marcus [b. 1951] remarks on this: “The declining order of the numbers is unusual (contrast e.g. Mark 4:8, 29 [‘thirty and sixty and a hundredfold’]) and suggests some history-of-religions background...” He and others see this...primarily in Exodus 18:21, 25 and Deuteronomy 1:15. (Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. John 6:1-15, 88)
Morna D. Hooker (b. 1931) evaluates:
They sat in groups of fifty and a hundred – literally, ‘by a hundred and by fifty’; this may mean simply that the groups numbered approximately 50-100 people, but if Mark intended the numbers to be understood strictly – i.e. if he meant that the groups consisted of either 100 or 50 men – he perhaps had in mind the organizing of Israel by Moses in Exodus 18:21. It is appropriate that the new shepherd of Israel should organize people in this way. Another possibility is that by ‘groups’ Mark meant ‘rows’, and that what he had in mind was a rectangle consisting of 100 rows of 50 men. J. Duncan M. Derrett [1922-2012] (Studies in the New Testament, II, pp. 1-3) points out that the word is derived from the word for ‘leek’, and so means properly a bed of leeks: the image suggests plants arranged in straight rows for the purpose of irrigation. It seems unlikely that the unorganized throng listening to Jesus could have been persuaded to sit down in this fashion. (Hooker, Gospel According to St. Mark (Black’s New Testament Commentaries, 166-67)
Roger David Aus (b. 1940) speculates:
The two Greek phrases, κατὰ ἑκατὸν καὶ κατὰ πεντήκοντα, “by hundreds and by fifties,” in Mark 6:40 derive from Judaic interpretation of I Kings 18:4. The latter interpretation was also transferred by Targum Jonathan to II Kings 4:1, part of the haftarah or prophetic reading (II Kings 4:1-44) which included the feeding narrative of II Kings 4:42-44. The Palestinian Jewish Christian author of the feeding of the 5000, whose mother tongue was certainly Aramaic, then borrowed the two numbers from this liturgical context. (Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. John 6:1-15, 137)
There are obvious practical advantages to formally arranging the diners and the practice could have echoes in the early Christian community’s own Eucharist meals.

Steven A. Crane (b. 1964) recognizes:

Purely from a pragmatic standpoint this make several aspects of the story seem more doable. The disciples can easily serve people systematically if they are sitting like this in groups. It would certainly prevent long lines, pushing and shoving, and jumping the queue that might result if five thousand people were all to line up for a buffet. It would facilitate fast service, ensure that everyone got fed, and would certainly make counting easier. It is interesting that all four Gospels record for us the same number of people served [Matthew 14:21; Mark 6:44; Luke 9:14; John 6:10]. (Crane, Marveling with Mark: A Homiletical Commentary on the Second Gospel, 127-28)
Roger David Aus (b. 1940) speculates:
The connotation is that, like the twelve disciples, they too were arranged before their teacher Jesus is the same formation as students before their own teachers, the Sages. In addition, the 5000 could not be fed bread and fish by remaining in a huge, unordered crowd. Rows would have been convenient, even necessary, for the distribution of food. (Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. John 6:1-15, 87)
David L. McKenna (b. 1929) contends:
Nothing can be accomplished with crowds until they are organized. Mark’s language makes that organization colorful and artful. His word picture for the clusters of people sitting in the grass envisions a well-kept flower garden with the varieties arranged according to kind and color. Why does Jesus organize the crowd? Where resources are limited, organization makes the difference. Food can be distributed fairly among the groups and, within the groups, no one will be neglected. (McKenna, Mark (Mastering the New Testament), 142)
Timothy L. Webster (b. 1963) generalizes:
There are biblical examples of organizing a large group into smaller more manageable units. Jesus had the crowd of 5,000 broken into groups of fifties and hundreds (Mark 6:40). Jethro advised Moses to appoint leaders over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens (Exodus 18:13-27). In Numbers 2:1-34, we can see that the leaders organized the Israelites into tribal camps. In I Samuel 8:12, we are told of commanders of thousands and fifties (cp. II Kings 1:9, 2:7). In I Kings 5:15, the 150,000 temple workers had 3,300 foreman [sic] over them, or one for every fifty workers. David had his thirty and his three (II Samuel 23:18-23). Jesus has his twelve, but He also gave special attention to Peter, James, and John [Matthew 17:1, Mark 5:37, 9:2, 14:33; Luke 8:51, 9:28]. One of my favorite examples is King Darius, who appointed administrators and 120 satraps in order that the “king might not suffer loss’ (Daniel 6:1-2). Surely, we must not do any less for our King. (Webster, Christ-Centered Pastors: Four Essentials Pastors Must Do to Focus on Christ, Not Man, 216)
Origen (184-253) posits:
Since there are different classes of those who need the food which Jesus supplies, for all are not equally nourished by the same words, on this account I think that Mark has written, “And he commanded them that they should all sit down by companies upon the green grass; and they sat down in ranks by hundreds and by fifties.” [Mark 6:39-40]...For it was necessary that those who were to find comfort in the food of Jesus should either be in the order of the hundred—the sacred number which is consecrated to God because of its completeness; or in the order of fifty—the number which symbolizes the remission of sins in accordance with the mystery of Jubilee when take place ever fifty years, and of the feast at Pentecost. Commentary on Matthew 11:3. (Thomas C. Oden [b. 1931] and Christopher A. Hall [b. 1950], Mark (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), 85-86)
The feeding of the 5,000 is a miracle story which features an obvious supernatural component. Yet positioned next to Jesus’ exercise of divine power is the mundane arrangement of the crowd into an orderly group. Divine intervention benefits from human interaction. It serves as a reminder that miracles can involve both natural and supernatural contributions. Humans can partner with the God of the universe!

How do you picture the feeding of the 5,000? When have you seen God and humans combine to complete a task? How important is organization to ministry? Why does Jesus arrange the crowds? Does he typically order things? Why does Mark include this detail?

Even today, seating arrangements typically make a statement and Jesus’ positioning here has generated much conjecture. Robert H. Stein (b. 1935) surveys:

“And they reclined in groups of hundreds [κατὰ ἑκατόν] and fifties [κατὰ πεντήκοντα, kata pentēkonta]” along with the reference to sitting down in “companies” (συμποσιαὶ συμποσιαί, symposia symposia) and “groups” (πρασιαὶ πρασιαί, prasiai prasiai), has generated a great deal of discussion. Some have suggested that this is meant to recall the camps formed during the exodus (Exodus 18:21, 25; Deuteronomy 1:15; cf. 1QS 2:21-22; IQSa 1:14-15, 1:29-:21; IQM 4:1-5:16; CD 13:1), but the numbers in the alleged parallels are thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, so that the parallel is far from exact. Even more speculative is the view that Mark wanted his readers to think of one large square consisting of fifty rows of one hundred people each (Robert H. Gundry [b. 1932] 1993: 325). That “companies” and “groups” are found only here in the New Testament makes it unwise to interpret them as technical terms for “eating parties/groups” and “garden beds” (cf. Joel Marcus [b. 1951] 2000:407-08). They are probably another example of Markan duality (Frans Neirynck [1927-2012] 1988:121) and simply mean “groups of between fifty and one hundred.” (Stein, Mark (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 315)
Quentin Quesnell (1927-2012) adds:
The numbers which the five thousand are divided (Mark 6:39ff.) are treated by Von Ethelbert Stauffer [1902-1979] as possible historical recollections of an abortive revolt (“Zum apokalptischen Festmahl in Mark 6:34f,” p. 264). The Qumran sectarians had their “heads of thousands of Israel, commanders of hundreds, commanders of tens” (1QSa 1:14ff.: see Domonique Barthélemy [1921-2002] and Józef Tadeusz Milik [1922-2006], Discoveries in the Judean Desert I [London 1955]). In “Antike Jesustradition und Jesuspolemik im mittelalterlichen Orient’, pp. 28f. he had presented the numbers in Mark 6:39ff as modelled on Exodus 18:25: “heads over the people, commands of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens”. But the evangelist, he immediately added, mentions these numbers more in a spirit of historical fidelity than of theological interest. The same divisions of the sectarians are to be found, he notes, in the Damascus document (Sadokite document) 13:1: see the “code for camp-communities” (Theodor H. Gaster [1906-1992], translator The Dead Sea Scriptures in English [New York, 1956], p. 81...and also in the Manual of Discipline, 1QS 2:21: “all the laity, one after the other, in their thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Gaster, p. 42)...Hugh Montefiore [1920-2005] too in “Revolt in the Desert?”, p. 137, finds that “the phrase carries overtones of the military divisions of the Jews during their wilderness wanderings”...From quite another point of view A.G. Hebert [1886-1963] (“History in the Feeding of the Five Thousand”) has it that the fifties and the hundreds are the sizes of normal Christian congregations of the time, while to Siegfried Mendner [b. 1913] (“Zum Problem ‘Johannes und die Synoptiker’”, New Testament Studies, IV [1957-1958], 288) there is a “Zahlenspielerei” here, a progression from fifty to one hundred to two hundred: two fish × five breads × five (thousand people) gives you the number fifty (which is one of the divisions mentioned in Mark 6:40) and this is exactly half of two hundred, which is the number of denarii mentioned in Mark 6:37. Nothing special seems to follow from this. (Quesnell, The Mind of Mark: Interpretation and Method through he Exegesis of Mark 6:52, 272-73)
Some have sought meaning in the passage’s numbers themselves. Bas M.F. van Iersel (1924-1999) appraises:
The number five may have symbolic value but seems easy enough to explain in connection with the other fives in the story: the five thousand people who are being fed, and the groups of fifties and of hundreds (that is, twice fifty), into which the five thousand are divided. The number five also plays a role in a similar story about Elisha (II Kings 4:42-44), who at a time of famine orders his servant Gehazi to give twenty loaves to a hundred prophets to eat; that is in the proportion of one loaf to five persons. Here it is one loaf to a thousand people. (Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary, 227)
Many interpreters have drawn parallels between Jesus’ positioning of the multitude (Mark 6:39-40) and Moses’ arranging of the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 7:4, 13:18, 18:21, 25).

James R. Edwards (b. 1945) remarks:

Despite the pitiful resources, Jesus orders the crowd to sit in groups “of hundreds and fifties.” Groups of such size made the crowd manageable enough to serve, but they may have had more than a utilitarian function. Moses had arranged the Israelites in groups of 1,000, 500, 100, and 10 under their respective leaders (Exodus 18:25; Numbers 31:14), and similar formations were practiced at the Qumran community (1QS 2:21-22; CD 13:1). The arrangement certainly recalls God’s miraculous provision for Israel in the wilderness, and it may hint at the eschatological gathering of God’s people on the last day. Jesus presides over the multitude like a Jewish father over the family meal. (Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 192)
John R. Donahue (b. 1933) and Daniel J. Harrington (b. 1940) consider:
There are mixed images here since the previous verse [Mark 6:39] suggests a small symposium, which would never include a hundred people. In Exodus 18:25 Moses arranges the Israelites in companies of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, but there for the sake of delegation of authority (Exodus 18:10-24). More pertinently, the Qumran community adopted these groupings for enhancing their community identity as the true Israel (1QS 2:21-22; CD 13:1; 1QM4:1-5:17) and specifically for the messianic banquet (1QSa 2:11-22; see Robert A. Guelich [1938-1991], Mark 1-8:26 341). The intermixture of motifs and images may be due to different interpretations of the feeding as the tradition developed. (Donahue and Harrington, Mark (Sacra Pagina), 206)
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) calculates:
The addition “by hundreds and by fifties” may reflect the division of Israel into groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (Exodus 18:21, 25; cf. Numbers 31:14; 1QS 2:21; 1Qsa 1:14-15, 27:2-1; I QM 4:1-5:16; CD 13:1; Herbert Braun [1903-1991], Qumran und das Neue Testament 1.67-68), but minus the groups of thousands and tens, because when multiplied together the remaining numbers, fifty and one hundred, come to five thousand, the very number Jesus is about to feed. Moreover, subtracting the Old Testament groups of thousands and tens makes κατὰ ἑκατὸν καὶ κατὰ πεντήκοντα refer most naturally, not to discrete groups of hundreds and fifties, but to one large rectangle filled with rows of people. Longways, each row has one hundred people; sideways fifty. The abundance of alliteration with π with the gutterals χ and κ and of assonance with the vowels α, ο, and ω puts greatest possible weight on the impressively large size of the crowd and therefore on the impressively large amount of power exhibited in the miracle. (Gundry, Mark, Volume 1 (1-8): A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 325)
Donald H. Juel (1942-2003) contemplates:
If Mark suggests some parallel between Jesus and Moses, it is interesting that the question posed by the disciples (Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat? [Mark 6:37]) is asked by Moses in Numbers: “Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to suffice them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?” (Number 11:22). (Juel, Mark (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 97)
There are also strong parallels to the Qumran literature. Adela Yarbro Collins (b. 1945) investigates:
The mention of groups of hundreds and fifties in Mark 6:40 may be a hint that the crowd around Jesus represents and anticipates the eschatological community...The Rule of the Community also depicts the community as organized in “thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” that each member may know his standing in God’s community in conformity with an eternal plan (1QS 2:21-23). The War Scroll presupposes the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel and links them to the organization of the army of Israel into thousands, hundreds, fifties, ands tens (1QM [1Q33] 3:13-4:4). The Rule of the Congregation describes a gathering of the community with the messiah of Israel in which the seating arrangement seems to follow the same organization (1QSa 2:11-22). (Collins, Mark (Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible), 325)
William L. Lane (1931-1999) deduces:
The arrangement of the crowd into field-groups of hundreds and fifties recalls the order of the Mosaic camp in the wilderness (e.g. Exodus 18:21). The detail is striking because the documents of Qumran use these subdivisions to describe true Israel assembled in the desert in the period of the last days. If this concept is presupposed in Mark 6:40, the multitude who have been instructed concerning the Kingdom is characterized as the people of the new exodus who have been summoned to the wilderness to experience messianic grace. Through these elements of the wilderness complex Mark portrays Jesus as the eschatological Savior, the second Moses who transforms a leaderless flock into the people of God. (Lane,The Gospel According to Mark (New International Commentary on the New Testament, 229-30)
Patrick J. Flanagan counters:
Another apparently useless detail makes it clear that the Jews’ being fed manna in the desert is being evoked here. They sit down in groups of hundreds and fifties. This is how they traveled through the desert after their escape from Egypt. Mark is not saying here that Jesus is a new Moses, here to set God’s people free. Nothing in Mark’s Gospel supports that interpretation. He is saying rather, “God is here, shepherding his people, feeding them, leading them.” (Flanagan, The Gospel of Mark Made Easy, 71)
The figures in the two groupings do not correspond identically. Quentin Quesnell (1927-2012) asks:
None of those who propose it discusses the obvious divergences — notably that there are no thousand’s and no ten’s in Mark’s account. If Mark was following the Old Testament model, why did he not add them? And if on the other hand he was free to include in his story only the actual data he received from tradition (fifty’s and hundred’s), in what sense can he be said to be referring to the Old Testament model? (Quesnell, The Mind of Mark: Interpretation and Method through he Exegesis of Mark 6:52, 22)
Most have seen the groups as further indication of a decidedly Jewish setting. Edwin K. Broadhead (b. 1955) informs:
Mark 6:32-46 draws its geographical setting, which is Jewish, from the earlier stories (Mark 6:1, 6, 30-33). Internally, various images also point to a Jewish world-view: the exodus motif, the division of the crowd, the 12 baskets, the green grass (Psalm 23:2), the sheep/shepherd imagery. Mark 8:1-10 is set in a Gentile world. Jesus and his disciples have left Tyre, travelled through Sidon and entered the region of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31). Some also see the seven loaves (Mark 8:5) and seven baskets (Mark 8:8) as part of this contrast to the previous feeding. (Broadhead, Mark (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 69)
Even so, Dennis R. MacDonald (b. 1946) stretches:
Homer [8th century BCE] says that on the shore of Pylos, “nine seating groups there were, and five hundred sat in each.” Marks says that on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told the disciples to have the five thousand men “recline on the green grass in drinking parties. And they lay down by hundreds and fifties in garden bed arrangements [Mark 6:39-40].” Many interpreters multiply the numbers (50 × 100 = 5000) to depict the crowds sitting in a block, like an army. This would explain why only men ate at the feast: it symbolized an army like the one described in Exodus 18:21, even though the numbers and contexts do not correlate exactly. But this reading makes no sense of the “drinking parties” or “garden bed arrangements,” which suggests that the diners sat in separate groups, as in Luke 9:14, where they sat in “groups of about fifty each.” One might more reasonably argue that the nine groups of five hundred in the epic have become an unspecified number of groups of hundreds and fifties in Mark’s Gospel. (MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 87)
Some interpreters have understood the text as relaying military connotations. The companies Moses arranges in the wilderness will soon wage war. If Jesus follows Moses’ pattern, he is assembling an army. This theme is accentuated by the translations which use “companies” (ASV, KJV, RSV) and “ranks” (ASV, HCSB, KJV, NKJV) to describe the divisions.

William C. Placher (1948-2008) introduces:

Scholars...point out the military and eschatological imagery: only men are fed here (as opposed to the later feeding of “four thousand people at Mark 8:9), and they are arrayed in groups of hundreds and fifties, as an army might be. Several passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls, presumably written about Jesus’ time, describe the eschatological community camped out in groups of hundreds and fifties and tens. So this feast is a foretaste of that one, where the gathered people of God will eat together. (Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary), 98-99)
Douglas R.A. Hare (b. 1929) observes:
A remarkable feature of this story is that it concerns men only (andres in Mark 6:44 designates male human beings). Mark’s report that the men were arranged in groups of hundreds and fifties is reminiscent of military organization...A military interpretation is also encouraged by the fact that in John’s vision the men’s response is an attempt to take Jesus by force to make him king (John 6:15). In Mark, however, this revolutionary theme does not appear. Instead, the men are made to lie down “sit” in Mark 6:39 is an inaccurate translation) on the green grass in symposia, that is, groups gathered for table fellowship. Reclining indicates that this is a festive occasion. (Hare, Mark (Westminster Biblical Companion)), 76)
R.T. France (1938-2012) agrees:
In Mark’s own account we may note the striking specification, as in all four accounts, that the five thousand who were fed were ἄνδρες (reinforced by Matthew with the additional phrase χωρὶς γυναικων καὶ παιδίων [Matthew 13:21]), the Old Testament image ὡς πρόβατα μὴ ἔχοντα ποιμένα (Mark 6:34) which in I Kings 22:17 denotes a leaderless army, the military-style organisation of the crowd into fifties and hundreds (though the terms συμπόσιον and πρασιά do not sound very military), and the strong language of Mark 6:45 about Jesus’ quick and firm action (εὐθὺς ἠνάγκασεν) to remove the disciples from the scene. But is in John’s account that we find the explicit statement that this crowd of men, having identified Jesus as the coming prophet, attempt to ‘take him by force and make him king’, an ambition frustrated only by Jesus’ rapid escape into the hills (John 6:14-15). (France, The Gospel of Mark (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 261)
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) acknowledges:
Although the words for ‘company’ and ‘group’ are not specifically military, there is perhaps just a hint of formal organization about the way things are done; they presumably didn’t need to be arranged in numbered groups. Anyone watching might already be asking: Who does this man think he is? (Wright, Mark for Everyone, 79)
David E. Garland (b. 1947) connects:
The assembly into orderly rows suggests the grouping of an army and recalls Israel’s encampment. Five thousand was also the typical number in a Roman legion and the number of Galileean troops Josephus [37-100] said that he assembled for the battle against the Romans in A.D. 67. Rebel movements were known for gathering in the desert during this era, but Jesus is feeding a spiritual army, not a military company. (Clinton E. Arnold, Matthew, Mark, Luke (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 243)
Kent Brower (b. 1946) determines:
If one reads between the lines and places the events in the cauldron of Zealot-like resentment and violent opposition to Roman rule that marked Palestine in this era, the gathering of five thousand men in the wilderness may have political overtones. Some of the narrative details support this reading. These men are organized with military precision into hundreds and fifties, perhaps in preparation for an insurrection. The parallel account in John 6:1-15 concludes with the clamor of the crowd wishing to make Jesus king, a temptation from which Jesus flees...If this was the historical undercurrent, Mark dispels any sense that this begins a messianic revolt against the Romans. (Brower, Mark: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (New Beacon Bible Commentary), 176)
In contrast, some have seen the good shepherd (John 10:11) operating within a strikingly prosaic pastoral scene. Ronald J. Kernaghan (b. 1947) portrays:
The organizing of the crowd into groups and seated on green grass...describes a peaceful pastoral scene, It looks like a shepherd, or in this case twelve shepherds, settling a flock down. (Kernaghan, Mark (IVP New Testament Commentary), 127)
The warrior and the pastor, however, are not mutually exclusive. Sharyn Dowd (b. 1947) associates:
The prophets criticized Israel’s leaders for being irresponsible shepherds (Isaiah 56:11-12; Jeremiah 23:1-2; Ezekiel 34:1-10), or for leaving the people unprotected, without a shepherd (Ezekiel 34:5 [cf. Numbers 27:17; Isaiah 53:6]). Through the prophets Yahweh promised to replace the unworthy shepherds, either by shepherding the people himself or by raising up a faithful shepherd, usually a Davidic leader (Ezekiel 34:11-16; Jeremiah 23:3-6; Isaiah 40:11, 49:9b-10). Of course, Psalm 23 contains an extended metaphor of Yahweh the shepherd [Psalm 23:1-6]; this is probably the source of Mark’s “green grass” (Mark 6:39; cf. Psalm 23:2 [Robert A. Guelich [1938-1991] 1989, 341]). Because being “without a shepherd” could mean being vulnerable to military defeat (I Kings 22:17; Judges 11:19b), the motif of the divinely empowered warrior is not far in the background of the Israelite concept of the shepherd as leader. The war leader as shepherd is much more explicit in Greek tradition, where the royal military leader is known as “shepherd of the host” (Iliad 2.75-109 and passim; Odyssey 3.156)...Later the shepherd metaphor was applied to the ideal king in peacetime (Dio Chrystostom [40-120], On Kingship 1.13-28, 2.6, 3.41, 4.43). (Dowd, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel, 68)
If Jesus is assembling an army, it is different than any other. It is an army that sits peaceably dining together. Just as Jesus’ army is different, so is his kingdom.

Do more than practical considerations factor into Jesus’ arrangements? What is the catering protocol for such a large crowd; would Emily Post (1872-1960) approve of Jesus’ seating chart? Why is this specific arrangement, groups of fifties and hundreds, selected (Mark 6:40)? What is the largest gathering you have attended? Where have you been where a seating chart was utilized? What were the implications of that seating chart? Is Jesus assembling an army? If so, how would you characterize it?

“The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for.” - Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), Little Town on the Prairie, p. 214