Another approach views the numbers as holding a particular significance to the stories. Whatever the origin of these stories may have been, it seems clear that the numbers held some special significance to Mark in his Gospel. See, for example, verses 8:19-21:
When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’
This passage would make little sense if we were to presume that the numbers held no significance for Mark or Mark's Jesus. Given that, a more interesting question can be posed: what, exactly, are the numbers supposed to represent?
We'll begin with the first incident, the one found in Mark 6:30-6:44. It runs as follows:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
Traditionally, scholars have attempted to trace the significance of these numbers back to their significance in Judaism. The twelve baskets, on such a reading, signify the twelve tribes of Israel, where the 5,000 and / or the five loaves denote the five books of the Pentateuch. Such a view is plausible, but I will shortly argue against it in favour of a different interpretation. For now, though, note merely here that the symbolism is a little contorted: as the Oxford Bible Commentary puts it, "surely 'twelve' would be better as parallel to the number of people, and 'five' to what they are fed with, if the above symbolism were in mind".
Next in Mark's Gospel - that is, in chapter 7 - we have Jesus arguing with some Pharisees about dietary laws and purity (7:1-23) before a curious episode involving Jesus and a Phoenician woman:
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I'll return to the significance of this episode shortly.
Next, we come to the second feeding of the multitude:
In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
The first observation to make here is that this episode appears to take place in or near the Decapolis (cf. Mk. 7:31) a particularly Gentile part of the region. Although the story doesn't specifically identify the crowd as being Gentile, I believe that's the most reasonable inference for reasons I shall attempt to explain now. The numbers involved certainly hint at the fact that we are to treat this crowd as Gentile, though perhaps not for the reasons that many scholars suspect. For many scholars, the number 4,000 here represents the "four corners of the Earth" (a Hebrew idiom referring to the entire globe) and the number seven refers to "the seven nations of Canaan" - i.e. the Pagan nations that once bordered Israel (e.g. cf. Acts 13:19). Such an approach is plausible enough, but I believe there is an alternative explanation.
First of all, I agree that these two "feeding" events as presented in Mark represent a deliberate juxtaposition of Jesus' ministry to the Jews and his (purported) ministry to the Gentiles. The numbers are one clue (which I shall elaborate more fully on below), but so is the kind of narrative framing Mark uses here and elsewhere in his Gospel. It has been long noted by scholars that Mark frequently interrupts his narrative in places to introduce a story that appears - prima facie - to be unrelated to the surrounding material. This A-B-A narrative format has been named by scholars as the "Markan Sandwich" technique. Although the two feeding events do not otherwise constitute a continuous narrative, and although the material placed between them is rather too expansive and diverse to be considered mere filling in a sandwich, I still believe that we can look to the structure of Mark's narrative as deliberate and meaningful, and therefore use this material as a clue on how to interpret the two "feeding" stories that surround it.
As mentioned above, the bulk of the material in Mark 7 pertains to Jesus debating with the Pharisees over the interpretation of - and continuing applicability of - dietary and purity laws within the Torah. This may or may not have been a topic of debate during Jesus' ministry itself, but we do know that it was a burning question in the years following Jesus' death, up until the time that Mark's Gospel was written in around 70 AD. Essentially, the early Christians couldn't agree on exactly how relevant the old Jewish laws should be within their community, particularly when it came to Gentiles. It seems that it eventually became settled that Gentiles who converted to the faith would not be required to keep kosher or to circumcise themselves, but such a conclusion was only arrived at after much acrimonious debate. Paul, for example, suggests that those who advocate circumcision for Gentile converts should castrate themselves (Gal 5:12)! This episode in Mark touches on the same themes, and perhaps offers us the clue that the surrounding "feeding" episodes should similarly be interpreted in the context of the relationship between Gentile converts and Jewish converts and how Jesus might have mediated them.
The next episode in Mark 7 is that of the Phoenician woman posted above. This has been a troubling passage for many Biblical scholars, for it appears to have Jesus comparing the Jews to children and the Gentiles to dogs! That is, salvation - in the form of the coming Kingdom of God - would be apportioned first to the Jews and then later the "scraps" of this salvation would be apportioned to the Gentiles. It seems like a fairly harsh soteriology, but it does seem to have been the common understanding. Paul too suggests that the gospel of salvation is given "to the Jew first, and [then] also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16). This story might offer the clue for the given order that the "feeding" episodes are given in the Bible, and also for the curious emphasis placed on the collecting of "broken pieces" (i.e. scraps) after the meals were finished.
If that is the case, then we can perhaps suggest that the episode in Mark 6:30-44 represents Jesus' mission to the Jews and that the second episode in Mark 8:1-10 represents his mission to the Gentiles: "to the Jews first, and [then] also to the Greek". When the other evidence is included (for instance, the situation of the second episode near the Decapolis, and the fact that a more Jewish word for basket is used in the first account and a more Greek word is used for the same object in the second account), I would say that the scholars have it got it mostly right on that point: the first audience we are to take as being Jewish and the second audience we are to take as Gentile. The numbers offer further evidence on this point, but perhaps not in the sense that many scholars have imagined. Here I'll offer a different take on the numbers to the ones given by scholars above.
In the case of the first episode, perhaps "the twelve" here is not supposed to signify the twelve tribes of Israel, but rather the 12 disciples: a group of men who were apparently Jews selected by Jesus in Galilee and its surrounding regions, and who apparently never ventured far from Jerusalem after Jesus' death. Once the nascent movement was scattered from Jerusalem and became more of a Gentile faith, the role of the twelve shrinks accordingly. That is, we must presume that they were a Jewish collective who ministered only to a Jewish in and around Jerusalem. This may be why they are alluded to in the "Jewish" feeding episode.
As for the "5,000" we must note that this number - or a very similar number - is well attested in the NT in connection with converts to the new movement immediately after the death of Jesus. Paul, for example, mentions Jesus' appearance to "the 500" in 1 Cor 15:6, which - compellingly - is included in what appears to be part of a pre-existing formula that Paul inherited which links "the twelve" (v.5) and "the 500" together in a single kerygmatic pericope. In the Book of Acts, Luke suggests that the amount of people "who believed... numbered about five thousand" (4:3). Again compellingly, this number must pertain only to the number of believers in Jerusalem (i.e. predominantly Jewish), since the action here is situated at the Jerusalem Temple, Peter has been addressing himself so far only to the "men of Judea" (2:14) and his "fellow Israelites" (vv. 22, 29) and the mission to the Gentiles is not taken up in Luke's account until chapter 6. In other words, there seems to be a tradition that existed - quite independently of Mark - numbering the early believers in Jerusalem at 500(0), who were overseen and ministered to by "the twelve".
As for the second "feeding" episode, the numbers are rather more difficult to source, but again we might be best served by looking to the situation in the early Christian movement rather than the OT. In Acts 6, we learn that after a dispute between Gentile and Jewish believers over food (!), the twelve assent to the election of a council of seven whose responsibility would be closely linked to the needs of the growing number of Gentile believers (vv. 1-6). Could the seven baskets in the "Gentile" feeding episode represent this council of seven, just as the twelve baskets represent the twelve disciples in the "Jewish" feeding account? I think that would be a distinct possibility. The number 4,000 is rather more problematic, since it doesn't appear anywhere in the NT, but it could well have the same meaning as the 5,000 in the first episode: that is a tradition surrounding the number of (in this case, Gentile) believers that the new movement could boast. This can only be speculation, but it seems to me as well-supported a speculation as any other.
The fact that Luke fails to mention these "4,000" may not necessarily count against this theory. In his Gospel, for example, Luke excises the bulk of the Markan material examined in this post. He includes the first "feeding of the multitudes" but everything else - all the material from Mark 6:45-8:13 - has simply been left out of Luke's account. His reasoning for this is uncertain, but it seems that he didn't want to indicate that any signs of debate or controversy existed concerning dietary laws until he presents Peter's "revelation" on the issue in Acts 11. This is part of a general desire on Luke's behalf to downplay or smooth over early divisions within the church, particularly those concerning divisions between Jews and Gentiles. As such, there seems to be a pretty compelling reason for Luke to have left out any mention of the second feeding account (as it appears to indicate a division between Jesus' ministry to the Jews and the Gentiles, with the first apparently given preferential treatment) as well as any reference to the "4,000" Gentile believers to which this episode may have been referring. Again I must confess that this is mostly speculative, but the idea that the numbers are referencing fixed contemporary situations that would have been recognisable to the first century reader seems more likely to me than the idea that they are referencing - in a particularly abstruse way - some aspects of earlier Judaism.
So perhaps the 5,000 represents the traditionally given number of Jewish believers, the 4,000 represents the traditionally given number of Gentile believers, the twelve represents Jesus' immediate apostles and the seven represents the later established Gentile council of Acts 6: what about the fish and the loaves, though? The number of fish and loaves involved here may not be especially significant (Jesus gives them no weight in his later questioning in Mark 8:17-21, for example) but the substances themselves almost certainly do. Fish and bread were apparently used from very early on in the communal dinners that the early Christians held, and where the eucharist was performed. In this respect, they held a special spiritual significance within these Christian communities. The connection between the eucharist and this episode is made even more explicit in the version given in the Gospel of John, where the verb "eucharisteo" is actually used (John 6:11). In other words, the fish and the bread seem to either be directly representing the eucharist or - more abstractly - the soteriological elements that the eucharist itself entails.
But what about the meaning of the passage as a whole? Even if my analysis is correct, it doesn't seem to make much sense: why are the Apostles, for example, receiving the scraps of the 5,000? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Not necessarily. The first thing to note is the pervasive sense of irony in Mark's Gospel, and even in the very teachings of Jesus himself. Both delight in turning the expected and the established order on its head: remember Jesus' claim that "the last will be first and the first will be last" (Mt. 20:16)? Mark also takes a rather dim view of Jesus' disciples in his Gospel, a feature that has been long noted by scholars. The disciples of Jesus are regularly depicted as dim and prone to missing the true meaning of Jesus' teachings, including at the conclusion of these two episodes (i.e. Mk. 8:21). Could it not be, then, that Mark - in his two episodes of the "feeding of the multitudes" - is here downplaying the privileged status of "the twelve" and the "council of seven" using subversive irony? That rather than occupying a privileged position in the context of Jesus' soteriology, they should rather view themselves as receiving the scraps of the spiritual nourishment that were apportioned first and foremost to the wider community?
This is undoubtedly an ironic and counter-intuitive position to draw, but then doesn't "ironic" and "counter-intuitive" describe quite beautifully the nature of Jesus' ministry and Mark's Gospel?