In my latest reading of John's Gospel: The Way It Happened, Lee Harmon makes an interesting point about the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes in John 6. According to Lee, Jesus and the people were eating loaves that were illegal for them to eat!
what basis does Lee argue this? In Leviticus 23:10-22, we see the law
of the firstfruits. On the day after some Sabbath that was soon after
the Passover (Second Temple Jews debated which Sabbath it was),
Israelites were to bring a sheaf of their harvest-firstfruits to the
central sanctuary, and the priest would then wave that sheaf before the
LORD. Leviticus 23:14 states (in the King James Version): "And ye shall
eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame
day that ye have brought an offering unto your God: it shall be a
statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings." The
wavesheaf ritual was associated with the barley harvest. Before the
wavesheaf ritual that took place soon after the Passover, the Israelites
could eat neither corn nor bread from the barley that they had just
In John 6, there is the Johannine story of
Jesus multiplying the loaves. There are two things in John 6 that are
noteworthy, in light of the law in Leviticus 23:10-22. First, John 6:13
says that the loaves were barley loaves. And second, John 6:4
says that the Passover was near, which means that John 6 is set soon
before the Passover, not soon after it. Jesus and the Jews in John 6
are arguably eating bread that's made of barley from the recent harvest,
before the possessor of that barley has presented the firstfruits to
God. That, according to Leviticus 23:14, is a no-no.
to Lee, how could Jesus justify doing something that was against the
Torah? Lee offers two answers, as far as I can see. First, on page
117, Lee says that Jesus was teaching about a new age. The idea here is
probably that the old law does not entirely apply now that Jesus has
come and inaugurated something new.
Second, on page 118, Lee
presents Jesus appealing to the story in II Kings 4:42-44, in which the
prophet Elisha multiplies loaves for a hundred people. II Kings 4:42
states (again, in the KJV): "And there came a man from Baalshalisha, and
brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of
barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof." Lee's idea
appears to be this: Rather than taking the firstfruits to God, as he was
supposed to do, the man was using them as food for himself, Elisha, and
a multitude. And Elisha did not condemn the man for failing to present
his firstfruits before God, but rather he proceeded to multiply the
I heard a similar idea in an adult ed class that I
took on the Book of Esther. In Esther 3:12, we read that the King of
Persia's scribes on the thirteenth day of the first month (which is
identified as Nisan in v 7) write the decree about the extermination of
the Jews. In Esther 4, Esther proclaims a fast for three days for the
Jews in Shushan. Remember that the Passover is on the fourteenth day of
the first month, Nisan (Exodus 12). On the Passover, the
Israelites are to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Was Esther
telling Jews to fast on a day on which the Torah commanded them to eat?
Was she disregarding the Torah?
I suppose that one can ask a lot of questions about these scenarios.
How do we know that the barley loaves in John 6 were from freshly
harvested barley, rather than from barley from the previous year? Was
the man in I Kings 4:42-44 required to offer all of his firstfruits to God, when Exodus 23:19 commands the Israelites to bring the first
of their firstfruits? Can we really say for sure that the Jews in
Shoshan fasted during the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread,
since perhaps it took quite some time for the decree to be promulgated
after it was written down on the thirteenth of Nisan? But, come to
think of it, Esther would probably hear about the decree pretty fast,
since, as queen, she lived in the capitol city.
Was Jesus consciously disobeying the Torah when he multiplied the barley loaves? I vaguely recall reading in John Meier's The Marginal Jew
that Jesus was not violating laws out of a conscious need to proclaim
their nullification, but rather certain laws did not enter into his
mind. (I'm open to correction on this, as it has been a while since I
read Meier.) At the same time, there were occasions when Jesus
put well being above ritual, even in John's Gospel. Could that be going
on in John 6? After all, perhaps there is some reason that John 6 specifies that the Passover was near, which means that the firstfruits had not been offered yet.