Historical Cultural Context
The geographical world of our Mediterranean ancestors in the Faith was divided by gender into male space (e.g., the fields) and female space (e.g., the common oven, the kitchen).
Both genders could be in common spaces (e.g., village square) but never together at the same time. This makes Luke’s report that 5,000 men ate very plausible.
In the home men ate alone, and women and children ate separately and usually earlier. Only after boys passed the age of puberty and entered the male world did they join the men for meals.
Matthew’s comment about the women and children correlates well with the Mediterranean understanding of space. The groups of fifty into which Jesus directed they gather were very likely clustered by gender: men and boys past the age of puberty were in some groups; women and children (boys and girls) were in other groups.
Grain, oil, and wine were the three staples of this culture, with grain and its products—especially bread—being the most important. Bread provided about one-half the caloric intake of much of the ancient Mediterranean world, with wheat being considered superior to barley and sorghum, the food of the poor (see Jn 6:9).
Fish in Palestine did not become popular as a food until the first century, though it was difficult to obtain except near the Mediterranean coast and the Sea of Galilee.
This is not a lakeside family picnic but rather a story about a mind-boggling gathering of people who live in chaos and whose daily fare was hardly more than a subsistence serving of food.
Jesus ministers to all their needs with a warm welcome, uplifting teaching, compassionate healing, and sufficient physical nourishment for everyone with food to spare (twelve full baskets).
The traditional eucharistic interpretation of this passage well accords with this cultural base.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University