The The Miracle of the Loaves & Fishes: Background & Historical Context

For Christians in the Holy Land, one of the great highlights is visting the the places where Jesus spent much of His time, preaching, teaching and performing miracles.

Located on the northwest shores of the Sea of Galilee is a small Byzantine styled church constructed over the spot where Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand from the five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:33-44, & John 6:1-14).

On rare occasions, all archaeologists have to go in on is eyewitness testimony and local geographical knowledge to identify a particular historical site. Such is the case with the Church of the Seven Springs [Heptapegon], which commemorates Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, as well as his miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.

The term Heptapegon (Greek) refers to several natural springs located along the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Kinneret). Located just 2.4 kilometers away is also the ancient town of Capernaum, a small fishing village in the first century, and the traditional location of the house of Jesus’ disciple, Simon Peter. Near the the springs the entire area is a broad plain covered with wild grasses. It was near that location that Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.

A modern fishpond with papyrus reeds is fed by one of the seven springs – located in the courtyard of the rebuilt Byzantine church

The miracle of the loaves and fishes, as it is sometimes called, was one of Jesus’ miracles that is most remembered by Christians today, not only because it was recorded in the New Testament, but also because ancient believers kept a vivid memory of the place where Jesus performed this remarkable sign. Its memory echoes to us, back from where it first happened through the hearts and minds of His very first followers. Memory may seem like an unreliable source for historical knowledge and geography, but the location is also supported by archaeology as well as other historical sources (Josephus, etc…).

Israel is not a large nation by most standards. It was true in the first-century, and it is still holds true today. The nation is best understood as a division of a few key geographical regions. The Galilee is, of course, marked by the large body of water called the Sea of Galilee, or Tiberius as it was called in Jesus’ day. In the two-thousand years since He walked its shores, very little has changed except for modern roads and buildings. For the most part Galilee remains sparsely populated and there is very little development.

In Matthew’s account the disciples came to Christ and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food” (Matt. 14:15). Jesus replied to His disciples that the people did not need to go away, rather He commanded them to give the people something to eat (v. 16).

It was at that point that Jesus asked to have the five loaves and fishes the disciples recieved from the boy. Jesus took them, prayed, gave thanks, and broke the loaves and gave it to the people, where all ate and were satisfied, with plenty left over (vv. 17-21).

Food, and bread in particular has often played an important role in Biblical symbolism and meaning.

The Sacrifice of Christ and Early Christian Worship

In Christian history, liturgy and practice, the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) was and is a central element of Christian worship. The interplay between Christ, Judaism, Christian architecture, and sacred space is an interesting one and is actually connected to this element. It centers on the meaning and the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity, of course, arose out of Judaism in the Roman world where there was a great persecution of the first believers. The earliest Christians first worshipped privately in houses, then later in Roman basilicas after Constantine enacted the Edict of Milan in AD 312.

The sacrifice of Jesus eliminated the need for an earthly tabernacle as the writer of Hebrews goes in great length to explain (see Hebrews 8-10). He writes:

“But when Christ appeared as a high preist of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation: and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place [i.e. the Holy of holies], once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-12).

Consequently, this theological understanding of Christ reverberated in the early Church and how they viewed places of worship. The holy elements of the Body of Christ represented in the bread and wine were the central focus, and not necessarily a sacred place or structure. As historian, Béatrice Caseau states:

“Christianity sacralized people, not objects; the true dwelling place of God was the heart of the baptized Christian, not his or her church, and holiness resided in the whole community of Christians rather than in stones permeated with their prayers (Augustine, Sermon 337). Yet the belief that God had sent his son to walk on this earth and the theological debates about the nature of Christ made physical traces of his incarnation and humanity all the more imporant. The sacrilization of the Holy Land transformed the sacred geography of Christianity from one of relative uniformity where God could be worshipped anywhere and the sacrifice of the Eucharist could be shared by Christians all over the world, to one incorporating the notion of privileged and holy space to local sanctity [1].”

This belief is also confirmed by Robert Wilkin in his excellent book, The Land Called Holy. He states that:

“Earlier Christian sources have much to say about time, but what they say about space appears to dethrone place as the locus of the divine presence. The most famous passage is, of course, the word of Jesus in John 4: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… God is spirit and those who worship him, must worship in spirit and truth” (21-24). This sentiment is echoed in popular as well as philosophical writings from the earliest centuries. Origen critcized pagan piety because it associated the divine with particular places. We have no need to go to a shrine to “seek God” he wrote (Cels. 7.35); the gods do not dwell in “a particular place” (Cels 3:34) [2].”

Byzantine Memory & Holy Land Pilgrimage

Although the above statements are true, they also don’t give us the complete story. The idea of a Christian sacred place or a “Holy” land [terra sancta ] almost certainly entered into the stream of Christian thought through the Christian scholar, Eusebius of Caesarea in the late fourth century. The Jewish identity with, and connection to the land echoed from the ancient scrolls of the prophets in the Old Testament. The Jewish prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel stand out in particular, with their emphasis on Jerusalem which would one day be restored to its former glory, as well as the entire nation to the land itself. Early on, Christians did not share the Jewish connection with the land, but after the discovery of the tomb of Christ, Eusebius had a change of mind and began to see Judea (or Palestine) as a specifically Christian “Holy Land.”

As Robert Wilken points out:

“More than any other early Christian thinker Eusebius was able to adapt this thinking to the new things that happened in his day. With the discovery of the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, he began almost at once to integrate the new facts about Jerusalem into his religious and theological outlook. Like Ezekiel centuries earlier Eusebius was the first to discern the profound shift that was taking place in his day and to lay the foundations for a Christian idea of the holy land. This other Eusebius, this Ezekiel revenant, was devoted to the “new Jerusalem set over against the old,” whose center was the tomb of Christ, located not in the heavens but in Judea [3].”

Interestingly, the related ideas of a Christian “holy-land” and Christian pilgrimage were intricately interwined, and interconnected. After Eusebius and Constantine, Christians in the fourth century and later, began to see Jerusalem as the place of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and therefore “sacred (holy);” and they also began to see other places like Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and others as worthy of preservation, memory and pilgrimage. After Constantine’s mother Helena visited the Holy Land in the fourth century, Christian pilgrimage to sacred places began in earnest.

The end of the Byzantine empire (or the Late Roman Empire) is marked by the fall of Constantinople by the 21 year old Ottomon Sultan, Mehmet II on 29th of May 1453. The Holy Land, and Jerusalem fell under Muslim control much earlier, in 1187 under Saladin. Saladin allowed the three Abrahamic faith’s to freely practice worship in Jerusalem in a spirit of religious toleration. Afterwards, control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land went back and forth between Christian crusaders, Ayyubids, Persian Sunnis, and finally to Egyptian Mamluks in the 13th Century. In 1217 Franciscan monks began a permanent presence in the Holy Land with the arrival of Brother Elias at the Crusader fortress of Acre.

The oldest surviving depiction of Saint Francis is a fresco near the entrance of the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco, painted between March 1228 and March 1229 (Wikipedia)

The year 1333 also marks another important date for Christians [i.e. Franciscans] in the Holy Land. This was the year that Franciscan monks were allowed to establish a convent at Mt. Zion, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They were given direct permission by the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt an-Nasir. Two Franciscans, Roger Guérin and John together with Margaret of Sicily, the director of a pilgrim’s hospice in Jerusalem were allowed to purchase four properties on Mt. Zion including what was believed to be Cenacle  (the “Upper Room” where the Last Supper took place). The Franciscans were also given full authority and custodianship over many sacred Christian sites in the Holy Land by the Pope in Rome. “The legal basis for the Franciscan authority to represent the Catholic Church at the holy places is outlined in two bulls of Pope Clermont VI from 1342” [4].

To this very day, the Custodia Terrae Sanctae (or the Custody of the Holy Land) oversees and maintains The Church of the Holy Sepuchre in Jerusalem, as well as the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and 74 other shrines and sanctuaries throughout the Holy Land.

One of the sanctuaries the Franciscans oversee today happens to be Heptapegon: The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (or Church of the Seven Springs).


AD 28-350

Because of it’s close proximity to Capernaum (2.4 KM away), early Christians venerated an outcropping of rock upon which Jesus is said to have laid the five loaves and two fishes before He gave thanks and performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.

AD 350

An ancient trade road that moderns call the Via Maris (or “Road by the Sea”), made its way from Egypt to Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The road has also been called the Way of the Philistines, as well as other names. The road ran right by the sacred outcropping of rock near the seven springs, which was also near Capernaum. In circa AD 350 the first small sanctuary was built over the site, with the rock outcropping serving as an altar. The sanctuary commemorated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as well as His the feeding of the Five Thousand. Tradition holds that the sanctuary was built by a Jewish Nobleman from Tiberius, whom some called Saint Josipos.

A detailed drawing located in the church today shows the original 4th Century church built alongside the via Maris and the later 5th Century Byzantine structure on top

AD 480

Around the year AD 480 a Byzantine church with elaborate mosaic floors was erected over the site of the previous church. The historic rock was removed from its original location and placed beneath the altar. The site served as a place of pilgrimage, remembrance and worship for Christians visiting the Holy Land.

Detail of the elaborate mosaic floor which adorned the 5th Century Byzantine church which was excavated in the early part of the 20th Century

Detail of the Byzantine mosaic floor shows scenes of animals and nature

Restored 5th Century Byzantine floor located in the (restored) Church of the Seven Springs (Heptapegon)

AD 614

The Byzantine Church [Heptapegon] was completely destroyed during the Persian invasion in AD 614, and in AD 636 after the Muslim conquests, the Christian presence surrounding Galilee came to a complete halt.

AD 1932

The fifth century Byzantine Church was discovered and excavated by Father Mader. The beautiful and elaborate mosaics were largly intact and were preserved by the Franciscan custodians.

AD 1980-1982

The ancient Byzantine basilica was reconstructed exactly on its original foundations by the German architects, Goergen and Baumann. The architects were careful with historical and archaeological research, and the structure that now stands on the site is very close to the one which stood over the spot in the 5th Century.

External facade of the rebuilt Byzantine church (1980-82)


The outcropping of rock underneath the altar is the spot where it is believed Jesus placed the loaves and fishes before He performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.


Modern pilgrims inside the rebuilt Byzantine church. Based on extensive archaeological and architectural research the architects have provided a very close resemblance to the original 5th Century structure

Christian memory, as it turns out is very accurate after all.

As Stanislao Loffreda states:

“The realiability of these traditions cannot be quickly dismissed, especially after the recent excavations of Capernaum have indicated both the uniterrupted presence there of a strong community of Jewish Christians in the first centuries of the Christian era, and their pronounced interest for the preservation of traditions. Furthermore, archaeological research, and especially that of 1968, not only has uncovered in the limited area of the springs certain elements consonant with the geographical data in the gospel accounts, but it has helped further to re-create the physical environment [5].”

In his excellent article on the practice of Christian pilgrimage, Christian George reminds us that,

“Pilgrimage is rooted in the soil of the human soul. It is practiced by Christians who seek to stretch their faith radically by discovering the God who invites us into sacred and risky intimacy. …The Apostle Peter, in his letter to the churches in Asia Minor, appealed to the believers as pariokoi kai parepidemoi, resident aliens and pilgrims (1 Peter 2:11). These new christianoi inherited a thoroughly ingrained tradition of pilgrimage. Theirs was a traveling history, an Abrahamic faith that sought a city whose architect and builder was God [6].”

In our increasingly secular, and social media obsessed culture which seeks to escape from reality, the idea of a religious pilgrimage might seem like a strange notion. Yet, as Ernest Cline, the author of the novel, Ready Player One [now a movie] writes:

As terrifying and painful as reality can be, its also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real [7]

Oddly enough, going on pilgrimage is a real journey, and oftentimes dangerous – but it is not to an imaginary world of fantasy,  a world connected to a real place imbued with deep spiritual significance . This is true not only when one visits the Church of the Seven Springs, but to any place where Christ has walked.

The truth of Psalm 46:10 still holds true for the adventurous, and intellectually curious pilgrim visiting the Holy Land  – in “being still, and knowing God” illumination is gained. Illumination of who we are, and most importantly knowledge of the truth that Christ is indeed the true bread of life.


[1]. Béatrice Caseau, “Sacred Landscapes,” in G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar, Eds. Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 21-59 (emphasis mine). Likewise, she states: “Until the 6th century, the celebration of the Eucharist was the only thing required to dedicate a church. The Christian ceremony of the Eucharist was surrounded by solemnity and splendor, as the long list of objects donated to adorn the altars of Roman churches founded by Constantine attests. Nothing was spared to beautify the area of the church where Christ made himself available in the bread and wine: magnificent candelalbra holding a myriad of oil lamps, standing censers perfuming the sanctuary, colored marbles, and shimmering mosaics all contributed to attract attention toward the altar. The organization of space inside the basilicas also revealed that there was a gradual increase in sacredness from the door to the sanctuary. The sacred rites of the Eucharist were open only to fully baptized Christians (pg 41) [emphasis mine].

[2]. Robert Wilken, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), pg. 91 [emphasis mine].

[3]. Ibid., pg. 81.

[4]. For a more extensive history of Franciscan presence and history in the Holy Land see, Andrew Jotiscky, “The Franciscan Return to the Holy Land (1333) and Mt Sion: Pilgrimage and the Apostolic Mission” in The Crusader World (New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016) pp. 241-258.

[5]. Stanislao Loffreda, “Heptapegon,” in David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3 H-J (New York: ABD Doubleday, 1992), pp.141-3.

[6]. Christian George, “The Discipline of Christian Pilgrimage,” in Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University (2016), pg. 20.

[7]. Ernest Cline, Ready Player One: A Novel (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011)