Monday, 20 March 2017

The basket of inedibles

Only a medieval theologian. I have read and heard the various versions of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (or four thousand) innumerable times, but this point had literally never occurred to me. I learn today* that Nicholas of Lyra’s difficult question about this story was not, how were the hungry fed? (obvs, it was a miracle) – but, where did the baskets come from? Did the people borrow them from a local farm? Did someone happen to have a dozen industrial-sized baskets with them just in case? Were there, in fact, no baskets, but simply enough waste to have filled a dozen baskets if anyone had had any?

It mattered to Nicholas because the credibility of the entire narrative seemed to turn on such details. (As such, he was content not to answer the question, simply to raise some plausible explanations.) And when you put it that way, it makes sense to worry about it. You can imagine, for example, that kind of question being produced triumphantly in court during a dramatic cross-examination. (There would be a certain Al Capone-ish drama in discrediting a miracle narrative with reference, not to the loaves and fishes, but to the humble old baskets.)

Why, though, does the question strike us (all right: me) as so distinctively medieval, and indeed as faintly ridiculous? Is it the ability to swallow the elephant while carefully calculating the parameters of the gnat? Is it that we’re more accustomed to the notion that narratives need to be taken in their own terms rather than as courtroom testimony? Or is it because, on some deep level, Nicholas of Lyra believed that this event really happened in the cold light of day; and, on some deep level, whatever we may profess, we don’t?

*From Lesley Smith’s essay ‘Uncertainty in the Study of the Bible’ in Uncertain Knowledge. Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages, ed. by Dallas G. Denery II et al. (Turnhout: Brepols 2014), 135-159.

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