William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Bread From Something Or Nothing? Or, What’s A Miracle?


We interrupt our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles for this brief message.

You’ve heard of the miracle of loaves and fishes? What’s a miracle? How do miracles happen? Read these for a refresher:

A man came from Baal-shalishah bringing the man of God twenty barley loaves made from the first fruits, and fresh grain in the ear. Elisha said, “Give it to the people to eat.”

But his servant objected, “How can I set this before a hundred?” Elisha again said, “Give it to the people to eat, for thus says the LORD: You will eat and have some left over.”

He set it before them, and when they had eaten, they had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.

After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”

He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.”

So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.

When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

So I’m visiting a church and the deacon (I think) mounted the high ambo to give the homily. “Today’s reading is all about food,” he said. He mentioned “foodies” and food television and celebrity chefs. “Imagine you were one of the characters in the story,” he offered. “Imagine you were one of the loaves and fishes waiting to be handed out.”

It was at that point that I stopped listening and started thinking about what the passages—for these are the readings today—really meant.

Let’s accept the reported events occurred. How could they? God cannot do the impossible. He can’t, for instance, make himself not exist. That means if miracles like this are going to happen, there are only one of two ways that I see.

Now we know that matter and energy are related; E = mc2 and all that. So the first way would be to take existing equivalent masses or energies and convert them to the desired form—and in the require short time. So, rocks or grassy fields or whatever (mass or energy from elsewhere in the universe would have to be transported, and that requires even more work) are rearranged, via some mechanism, into sufficient bread or bread and fish to feed a multitude. Given what we know about nuclear physics, that would require a magnificent amount of energy. Think of the apparatus required to manipulate just one atom. Here were talking many.

How many? A good spherical cow problem. Should be able to get within an order of magnitude or two the mass involved, and thus a rough count of subatomic particles, and thus some idea of how to rearrange what’s on hand and what that would cost in terms on energy. Since I’m writing this right now this morning and in a hurry, I’ll leave this as a homework problem. The answer will be incomprehensibly beyond any human capacity.

The second way would be to create the masses (of bread or fish) ex nihilo. That requires infinite energy. Nothing is no thing, not some thing. Energy is something, and so is existing mass. So creating from nothing obviously requires Omnipotence. Nothing else could do it.

Point is, given that these events happened, if they happened by manipulating existing mass and energy, it would require something very like magic (but not). Like God. And if the masses were created from nothing, only God could do it.

Now there are other instances of creation ex nihilo and no reports of missing mass or flashing lights or anything like that. And there is nothing we know that would allow nuclear reactions to occur this quickly. This is circumstantial evidence, of course, but it does hint toward ex nihilo. And God. Of course, even rearranging mass points toward God.

And that’s what these passages are really about.

Since I wrote this as a replacement post and, as I said, in a hurry, I may update it as the day goes along.


  1. Friday, 23 July

    I’m now regretting this daily update—which I only remember after it’s too late!

    I LOVE IT!!!!

    Can’t you get someone to write a script to at least update the date and put something pithy if you fail to “update”?

  2. Nit: E = mc2 says that mass and energy are effectively the same thing but, while mater may have a property of mass, they not the same thing anymore than the color of a car is the car. Matter can be converted to pure energy in which case it no longer exists but, since mass and energy are effectively equivalent, the mass of the matter still exists even though the matter no longer exists.

  3. … no matter what …

  4. Sander van der Wal

    July 26, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Turning Si into C needs lots of enery, but turning H into C generates energy. Stars, espescially the big or older ones do it all the time. Problem is, C is not fish, nor bread. Turning (certain kinds of) grass into bread is rather easy (compared to turing Si into C), as bread is made from certain kinds of grass seed.

    Turning grass into fish is possible too, by weavings fishing nets from grass fibers.

    Even the rocks have their uses. You can build ovens and hearths for baking the bread, and the rocks themselves for grinding the seeds. And you can throw rocks into the water, scaring the fish into the nets.

    Only problem is, everybody was reclining. That might work nowadays, with the supermarkets bringing the food on order. But 2000 years ago?

  5. Ah, the readings from Today’s Mass. Now, since God sustains the Universe by his laws (or so we believe), then it is no big deal for God to go around his own laws for a miracle or two on the appropriate occasion (or so we believe). Which is to say, it is not the physical laws that are fundamental, but God. God –> physical laws.

  6. In here here, Volker Runde explains the miracle in mathematical terms. Already in the second page, the author seems to imply that none but a “Christian Fundamentalist” believes in such a miracle. And ends up with:

    “Are you disappointed? Instead of elevating the feeding of five thousand from a matter of belief to a consequence of a bullet-proof mathematical theorem, the Banach–Tarski paradox demands that you accept another article of faith — the axiom of choice — before you can take the theorem for granted. After all, the Banach–Tarski paradox is not that much removed from the feeding of the five thousand…”

    The explanation is entertaining however.

    note: I should add that the axiom of choice is way stronger than what is needed, as Pawlikowsky has shown that Banach-Tarski can be proved in ZF + HB, ZF being Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory, with no choice principles, and HB the Hahn-Banach theorem. On the other hand some relatively strong choice is needed, as Cohen had already proved in the 1960s that Banach-Tarski is independent of ZF + DC, where DC is dependent choice.

  7. If we could explain it in mathematical terms, it wouldn’t be a miracle, would it?

  8. Milton Hathaway

    July 26, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    God cannot do the impossible? The impossible as defined by man, I presume.

    Maybe Jesus made use of a quantum temporal singularity, or some other well-known-in-a-thousand-years-time-but-currently-undiscovered physics principle, to slow down time and accomplish the feat without anyone noticing.

    Is it a coincidence that the event still seems miraculous a couple thousand years later? Or can other Biblical miracles now be reproduced by clever scientists or magicians, making this particular event stand out from the others?

    As usual, this reminds me of a Star Trek episode (Devil’s Due).

  9. C.S. Lewis, if I recall (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_%28book%29), proposed time compression for this an most of the other miracles. Fish produce more fish and wheat produces more wheat given time. No flux capacitor variant needed for the required gigawatts. They come from the sun already in place. Speculation on how multi-generational fish and bread arrived at that specific time and place is left to the reader.

  10. Milton: A lot of things in life are reminiscent of Star Trek episodes, aren’t they?

  11. I always wondered how one could milk a spherical cow.

  12. You guys do understand the point of the story, right? You couldn’t possibly be hung-up solely on whether this myth actually happened. In this time of immigrant-bashing and general xenophobic fear, shameless selfishness and social stratification, you cons could learn a thing or two from that story.


  13. The bread and fish story wasn’t a miracle. It was just Jesus showing us what human are truly able to do when they are in sync with God.

    The idiocy that is the interpretation of the holly trinity as being one in three (father, son and holly ghost), which is misleading everyone that believe way of course.

    Before Catholicism, the trinity was always referred has three different substance (spirit, soul, body) in one person. The spirit is the substance of the invisible world or God where everything is perfection (I.e.: where the fish and breads came from), the soul is the conduit between the invisible and visible world, and the body is the substance in the visible world.

    Once a human is able to find the path to God like Jesus did. We are able to go between the 2 worlds at will. We don’t age and we don’t die. This is what Jesus wanted to show us through his crucifixion. He repeated many times that we are able to do the same as he did and even more.

    Sadly it doesn’t sit well with leaders of any time to say that everyone is equally able to achieve the same thing as long as each individual realise that they are conscious that they are equally able. Ence the need to destroy the confidence anyone as so they will comply with the leaders desire.

  14. Bryant Poythress

    July 27, 2015 at 5:01 am

    This wonderful event from Christ’s earthly life showed many things to those in attendance and teaches us today. I am saddened as you are that this deacon could not be attend closely enough to God’s Word that the local body of believers might grow through its careful teaching. For starters, it is the only one of the miracles performed by Jesus – other than the resurrection – that is detailed in all the ‘synoptics'(Matthew, Mark, Luke) and which John also covers. This seems to indicate that we might want to pay even more attention than usual.

    This miracle using five barley loaves and two fish was meant to stand as a milestone for the disciples: the first part being a test as to how they would react and the second part how or whether they would ‘get the message’ as well. When Jesus asks the disciples in effect ‘Ok guys, what can we do to feed all these people?’, the wheels begin turning but grind to a halt when Philip, the itinerant mathematician, declares that more than a half-year’s salary would not be enough. At least Andrew brought the boy with the basket, although he seemed certain that, too, would not help. Christ then performed the miracle, astonishing the guests and disciples alike. Gratitude for God’s sovereign provision and humility in light of Christ’s teaching seems to have evaded the crowds completely. Instead they were steadfastly mired in the here and now, the material and physical. They busily stuffed their bellies full and advanced political plots to make Him their king. The disciples fared little better. Forgetting in Whose presence they had spent the entire afternoon, they quickly defaulted to fear when He came to them on the water that evening(6:19).

    When the crowds again located Jesus the next day (6:26) He gave them the teaching of the miracle. He pointed out their persistent and stubborn earthly focus and redirected them to the Father, the origin of all, both perishable and eternal things. This was to be the the dividing line. A continued refusal to hear, understand and believe on Him meant only one thing, that they were not His from the Father(6:65).

    “As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” 6:66-69

  15. JMJ: No one learns a thing from your comments because you never say anything clearly, just a bunch of words. I believe you’re saying if Jesus would come back and make a bunch of fish and bread and stretch the resources of the earth for everyone, we wouldn’t have poverty and problems. I believe you’re asking for a miracle to get the utopia you dream of because it can’t exist any other way and you know it. Did I read you right?

    Bryant: Good explanation.

  16. Much wiser to assume these events never happened, but drunken desert scribes reveled in writing prattle that future gullible dolts would squander time on.

  17. Shecky R: Obviously, you are an atheist who believes everyone should be an atheist because you know best. Anyone who disagrees with you is dolt and drooling fool. At least you don’t pretend to be tolerant. That’s something.

  18. swordfishtrombone

    July 27, 2015 at 11:42 am

    It seems to me very dangerous indeed to make loaves and fishes appear “out of thin air”. What would have happened if someone put their hand in the wrong plaice at the wrong time?

  19. Swordfish: It’s not a replicator or a transporter. No reason to fear someone putting their hands in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  20. Or is it to be taken literally or figuratively?

    Or, the bread, or maybe the yeasts in it, could multiply like tribbles; but those yeasts went extinct due to natural selection.

    Or, Q was there.

    Many possibilities.

  21. swordfishtrombone

    July 27, 2015 at 5:37 pm


    I’ll give you a +1 for knowing your Star Trek terminology but a -1 for not spotting my “hand in the wrong plaice” pun (-:

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