Somebody was counting. I don’t know who counted or what motivated them to start. However, somewhere along the way, it was important to the gospel writers to remember how many people were following Jesus. Numbers of people weren’t important to Jesus. We do not have accounts of Christ-led staff meetings in which PowerPoint presentations were given on numbers of people healed, fed, and converted. Nor do we see Jesus make any attempt to create statistical projections for the growth of his movement. Crowd size appears irrelevant to Jesus. Yet, at some point, the crowd size begins to appear in the text. Someone wanted to make numbers of people an issue. After all, who wouldn’t be impressed by a man who could easily draw 5,000 people in 1st century Galilee?
It’s the only miracle, apart from the resurrection, found in all four gospels. To a literalist, that’s proof, the event occurred: five thousand people were fed with five loaves of bread and two pieces of fish. You don’t get that kind of scriptural conformity without something having along those lines having happened. Who can deny the testimony of five thousand witnesses that were fed by Jesus? Do large numbers not add credibility to Jesus’ movement and message?
Five thousand is an awfully large number. Why not ten, twenty thousand or a million? If Jesus’ message and ministry is judged on the number of people he miraculously feeds on any single occasion, pick the largest possible number. This is what the gospel writers have done. By placing undue emphasis on the size of the crowds the gospel writers have missed the point of the miracle and turned Jesus into a circus act. Jesus, the charismatic caterer who works miracles with bread crumbs and fish to feed thousands: this is how we normally talk about a passage built on a “numbers are beautiful” premise.
What is the point of this widely attested miracle? I believe it’s a testimony to Jesus’ ability to take the smallest resources, what others consider scraps, and use those to feed individuals who’ve come up short on compassion and love. In Mark’s retelling of the feeding, he writes, “As he (Jesus) went ashore he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” People are not fed in groups of 5000; they are served one at a time. To Jesus, each person matters. Individual lives are precious and cannot be lumped together in manmade categories: saved or unsaved, those to feed and those who remain hungry, or lost and found.
The disciples seemed to care about the headcount. Jesus, he wanted to make sure the last person got fed. There is a huge difference.