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The Economics of Five Loaves and Two Fishes

December 19, 2009

Here’s a final selection of Cyril’s exegesis from his commentary on the gospel of John. Please weigh in with your thoughts or criticisms. I will probably post a brief summary of my own reflections in the next couple of weeks.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand A final passage that illustrates well Cyril’s exegetical method is his treatment of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6. In his opening comments on this passage, he makes several remarks that illustrate again his understanding of the nature of Scripture and the manner in which they signify meaning. He says there is no insignificant feature of a passage, but instead “there is an economy on almost every occasion, and on the nature of things, as on a tablet, He [i.e., God] inscribes mysteries.”1 The term “economy” seems to be a technical term for Cyril, as he uses it several times in his exegesis of John 6. The economy refers to God’s actions to redeem mankind through from the curse of the Fall through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus, for example, Jesus gave thanks over the bread as would a man because he was “concealing yet His God-befitting Dignity” by an “economy.”2 Later, in his comment on Jesus’ command that the disciples gather the remaining fragments, Cyril says that Jesus was not simply concerned about saving the leftovers for dinner, but instead “the verse has a great economy, and makes the miracle evident to the hearers.”3 Therefore, according to Cyril the details of John’s text serve to illustrate the economy of God. It is this principle that allows him to see spiritual significance of John’s text.

A recurrent motif in Cyril’s exegesis of the feeding of the five thousand is the Jews’ rejection of Christ. Their rejection Cyril certainly believed was a part of the economy, for it was their rejection of Christ that led to his death and that opened the door for the Gentiles to come in. For example, the very fact that Jesus withdrew across the sea of Tiberias during the Passover when Jews were supposed to be going to Jerusalem signifies that Jesus was “shunning the Jews who desire to kill Him.”4 Furthermore, by placing a sea between himself and the Jews, Jesus was signifying that the way whereby the Jews might be converted to him was “impassible.” Cyril adduces Old Testament texts to support this interpretation. Through the prophet Hosea the Lord had said that he would hedge up the way of Israel with thorns so that she would not find her path (2:6). The deliverance of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea also receives an ironic twist through Cyril’s understanding of the economy. Now Israel, rather than being redeemed, stands in the place of Pharaoh and will thus be destroyed for their refusal to submit themselves to Christ.5

In his exegesis of the wedding at Cana, Cyril employed some numerology. This same method is also evident in his treatment of John 6 to an even greater degree. Cyril asks why John would bother to record the number of fishes and loaves brought by the boy. Could he not have said “more simply and absolutely” that the multitude was fed by very little food? The fact that John recorded the numbers must mean that they possess significance. Therefore, Cyril says that the five barley loaves signify the five books of the law which are coarser (as is barley) than the New Testament. Similarly, the fact that the boy had two fishes points to the writings of the apostles some of whom were fishermen. The number two is a type of the “Apostolic and Evangelic preaching” of these fishermen.6 The twelve basketfuls of fragments left over signify the twelve apostles. Just as the bread and fish was distributed through their hands, so the apostles went on to distribute “spiritual food” through their ministries. Cyril brings his point into his own day, arguing that as Christ passed his authority and ministry on to the disciples, so they have done to their successors, the leaders of the church even up to the current today.7

A final component of Cyril’s exegesis is again his interest in moral exhortation. The reason, he says, that Christ ordered the disciples to gather the leftover pieces was in order to make “us most zealous in our desire to exercise hospitality most gladly.”8 However, the larger moral point that Cyril makes in his exegesis is that Christians ought not to respond to Jesus as did the Jews, but should instead submit themselves to the teaching of Christ. Jesus himself was the one who has ascended the mountain of the Lord (cf. Ps 24) as the firstfruits from the dead. Therefore, Cyril exhorts his readers to “go up into a mountain and there sit with [Christ],” just as the disciples in the text go up on the mountain with Jesus. When Christ returns with his “more manifest kingdom” then those who follow Christ will also “go up into the spiritual mountain” in heaven.9 Ever the pastor and theologian, Cyril’s exegesis always has a tropological slant.

1Cyril, Commentary on John, vol. 1, 312. Reno and O’Keefe define “economy” as “a structure of plot that allows to discern the flow of the narrative” (Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005], 37).

2Cyril, Commentary on John, vol. 1, 327.

3Ibid., 330.

4Ibid., 314.

5Ibid., 316-17. When he is introducing the example of Pharaoh, Cyril says that the “type seems as though it were pregnant to us with yet another hidden mystery” (316). It seems that by “type” he means the crossing of the sea of Tiberias, and by “mystery” he means the destruction of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

6Ibid., 329. I am not sure what difference Cyril sees between the “Apostolic” and “Evangelic” preaching. It is clear that in his mind they refer to two distinct things.

7Ibid., 330-31.

8Ibid., 330.

9Ibid., 335, 319. Cyril’s exhortations have a paradoxical nature. He calls on his readers to ascend the mountain, but says that they will not really ascend the mountain until the return of Christ. This tension along with Cyril’s description of the second coming as Christ’s “more manifest kingdom” seems to imply something similar to what today is known as inaugurated eschatology.

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