Hidden Symbols in the Loaves and Fish

Yeshua fed a multitude of five thousand with five barley loaves and two small fish. What do the fish and the loaves represent? Why do we associate the fish-symbol with Yeshua?

Yeshua fed a multitude of five thousand with five barley loaves and two small fish. (Image: © Bigstock/AnnekaS)

The Master asked the twelve, “How many loaves do you have?” They had none. He told them, “Go look” (Mark 6:38). Andrew located a young boy with a few wafers of bread and two small fish. He said, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?” (John 6:9). The Master said, “Bring them here to Me” (Matthew 14:18).

The five loaves did not resemble large loaves of bread such as one might purchase at a bakery today. Rather the unleavened wafers of barley bread resembled small, flat pitas, each one, perhaps sufficient as one or two servings. The course barley bread, less expensive than wheat flour, made a staple for the poor. The two fish were probably dried sardines such as the fisheries from Magdala produced.

The fish and loaves might intend no symbolism at all. Those living near Lake Galilee relied on bread and fish as the staples of their diet. Or perhaps they imply some cryptic, Messianic meaning. Interpreters have attempted to find symbolic meaning in the five loaves and the two fish and make a wide variety of proposals. Most Christian commentaries are quick to make a connection to sacramental gestures in connection with the Last Seder, but the symbolism is then incomplete. The Master did not serve wine to the five thousand, nor did He serve fish at the Seder.

From a Jewish perspective, five loaves might represent five books of Torah. Rabbinic symbolism often represents Torah with bread. In view of this symbolism, the feeding of the five thousand represents the teaching of the Master—the torah (teaching) of the prophet like Moses—going out to the masses. The fish might represent the Leviathan on which (according to Jewish eschatology) the righteous will dine at the Messianic banquet in the kingdom.

The fish icon became a natural icon of the early believers: the Master’s earliest disciples were fishermen; He made them into “fishers of men”; the gospels contain several fish stories. One scholar suggests that the fish symbol relates to Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua son of Nun). The name Yeshua is the Aramaic version of the Hebrew name Yehoshua. Moreover, in Aramaic, the word nun means “fish.” Rebbe Nachman of Breslov adds that one of the names of Messiah is dag, “fish.” An early Jewish teaching about Joshua says, "And the son of him whose name was as the name of a fish would lead them into the land" (Genesis Rabbah 97:4).

Partly on the strength of the loaves and fish story, early Jewish-Christian iconography adopted the fish as a symbol for Yeshua. The Icthys fish, a geometric design consisting of two intersecting arcs, appears in the Roman catacombs, and according to legend, early Christians used it as a secret symbol during the days of the Roman persecutions.

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