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 groupings...gives 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”...so 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