An interesting and curious biblical thingie

Published March 9, 2021

So I’ve been reading the Bible for a long time–like 42 years or so. I’ve read the gospels more times than I can count. I’ve written books on scripture, scripture studies, quoted scripture, memorized scripture, absorbed scripture through my pores, marinated in scripture and thought a lot about scripture.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve read a lot of scripture.

So it was a really weird experience to sit down and read Mark the other day and run across a passage I had literally never seen or heard before.

The passage was in the New American Bible. This is the translation approved for use in American Catholic parishes. When you go to Mass pretty much anywhere in these here United States, that’s the Bible they are using (not sure about EF parishes). It’s not a particular favorite of mine (I’m partial to the Revised Standard Version–Catholic Edition). The NAB is… serviceable. Think of it as the Mike Pence of translations. It takes passages that better translations render as “I have fought the good fight” and blands them down to “I have competed well”.

But it happened to be handy, so I was reading it and got to the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes in Mark 6. When I got to verse 40 I read, “The people took their places in hundreds and fifties, neatly arranged like flower beds.”

Neatly arranged like flower beds?”

What?!

Where did that come from? Could I really have missed that for forty years?

So I went to the RSVCE on my peachy keen Verbum software, which has a gazillion translations as well as a ton of commentaries, biblical dictionaries, concordances, and texts in original languages. It read, “So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties.”

Nothing about flower beds.

Then, I checked out the New American Version text there. Weirdly, it was not the same. It read: “The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties.”

This, I noted. was the 2011 New American Bible. The one I held in my hand was published in 1971. So sometime in that span of 40 years, somebody decided to get rid of the flower beds rendering.

But that just made me wonder why the original 1971 translation had it and where they got that image from.

So I went on-line to see if there was anything to explain this rendering.

Turns out there is.

The word that gets translated as “rows/groups/ranks” is indeed, as one commenter after another notes, a Greek word that describes a bed of flowers or herbs. The original NAB made an effort to preserve that connotation. Later editions of the NAB dropped that visual for a more prosaic rendering that emphasized the orderliness of the crowd over the more picturesque scene conjured by Mark.

Some of the commenters speculate that the visual Mark conjures with the word owes to either Peter’s or his actual memory of the event. (Mark is strongly associated with Peter, according to Papias and acted as his interpreter, suggesting perhaps that Mark knew Latin while Peter either only knew Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek. Mark hints at his own presence as a witness of at least some of the gospel events, particularly at the Last Supper and at the arrest in Gethsemane). So it is possible that the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is right when it remarks:

40in ranks] Literally, they reclined in parterres (areolatim). “As they sat in these orderly groups upon the grass, the gay red and blue and yellow colours of the clothing, which the poorest Orientals wear, called up in the imagination of St Peter a multitude of flowerbeds in some well-cultivated garden.” Farrar’s Life of Christ, p. 402. “Our English ‘in ranks’ does not reproduce the picture to the eye, giving rather the notion of continuous lines. Wyclif was better, ‘by parties;’ perhaps in groups would be as near as we could get to it in English.” Trench, Miracles, p. 265. St Mark here, as elsewhere, doubtless reproduces the description of the scene by St Peter.

Mark periodically does offer odd little asides like that, the way people relating eyewitness materials do. For instance, he also notes (with what C.S. Lewis calls “charming naivete” that at the Transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes “became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mk 9:3 RSV). I don’t care who you are, that’s just adorable, and exactly the sort of simple thing Peter the fisherman would say.

At the same time, it is important to also understand that while Mark (or maybe Peter) may have chosen the image of a flower bed because that is what the sight suggested to their imaginations when they saw the crowds thus arranged, it is just as possible that the image serves a theological purpose as well. The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is the only one of Christ’s miracles that is mentioned in all four gospels and is cram-packed with theological significance. It not only recalls similar miracles from the Tanakh (showing that Jesus is in continuity with Jewish tradition), but it also is a huge foreshadow of the coming establishment of the Eucharist. John will make that explicit by noting the miracle took place at Passover and by following it up with the Bread of Life Discourse in which Jesus plainly connects the sign both to the Manna of the past and to eating his body and blood in the Eucharist of the future.

The image of the crowds as flower beds then become tied both to the image of Israel as the vineyard or planting of the Lord and to the conception of the grain of wheat that goes into the earth, only to be raised to transformed life, as well as to the image of “fields white for harvest”.

My suspicion is that both the visual memory of the event and the sacramental and historical connections are all part of mental soup in which that word choice swam as Mark wrote. If he really had wanted to simply indicate orderliness, there are lots of other choices he might have made, recalling the military formations in which Israel marched and so forth. But instead he pulled an image from gardening. It’s a pity the translators opted for words like “ranks” and even more colorless “groups” or “rows” to render it. And it’s a mystery to me why the editors of the NAB got rid of their original rendering and made the verse even more Mike Pencian. But there it is.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share this nifty little discovery.

9 Responses

  1. Great post! Fascinating stuff. I remember in Frank Sheed’s To Know Christ Jesus he says something about how the Greek captures Peter’s original vivid memory of the dazzling colors he saw, but that this is lost in translation.

  2. The EF by and large uses the Douai Rheims or Challoner Bibles for readings, at least in my experience. For a time before the council there seemed to be one approved version used in the United States (and I know priests with old copies of it that still use it), but nowadays there can be some variation between parishes. However, I’ve never been to an EF where modern English was used for the readings.

    I feel the same about the NAB. It flattens the texts and makes them dull. I would go so far as to say it discourages scripture reading because of its dullness. That it included the flower bed reference is actually kind of surprising since it makes an interesting visual.

  3. Wow! I’ve never seen this phrase. And yet I love it. re: modern translations one of my dearest priest when asked about the translation used in the late 20thc. said, “By translate they mean take the poetry out”.

    1. And the irony, and the earthiness.
      I like how the Jerusalem Bible renders “Are you now king of all Israel?” to “Some King of Israel you are!”

  4. I’d never heard that either. It denotes an exuberance in the air, a celebratory appreciation for the beauty of humans. How nice not to just focus on the dusty, dirty, thirsty part which we probably think of when we consider that scene because of movies.

    Last Sunday the priest was preaching on the significance of Jesus driving out the money changers and sacrificial animals. The day before, my son’s girlfriend happened to use this as an example of Jesus standing up for the poor who were being cheated in the name of God. The priest very adamantly told us that the true significance of the passage was that Jesus was passionate to dispense with the animals, because *he* was the true sacrifice and he is the temple, as we are. It’s easy to focus on the corded whip he made and assume he had kind of lost it a bit.

  5. I wish someone would put Ronald Knox’s translation onto Kindle or other e-reader format. I like the translation, both for its flavour, and because it distinguishes 2nd person singular and plural pronouns, which modern English doesn’t. True, it does make 2nd singular ‘thou’ which, of course, reads archaic because it is archaic – but in other translations, whether someone is speaking to one person or several is important – obviously Matthew 16, for example.

    I have two printed copies of his translation, but most of my reading is done when on the move – commuting to work, walking places, etc – and a book isn’t practical.

    1. I also like the Knox translation, fairly easy to read but still poetic. I don’t understand the huge issue some Catholics have with mildly archaic language.

  6. Ok, but you haven’t expounded on any of the “more picturesque” implications of the image. Yeah, ok, the image recapitulates earlier ones from the Old Testament establishing the continuity of Jesus’ ministry. But, it’s the New Testatment, so there should be something new about it, right? For starters, it’s interesting to me that the Cambridge interpretation points out the “gay” colors worn by the poorest of the poor. What more can we make of that?

    How about this (caveat– I’m no expert interpreter of scripture): Sensory details create images which all of us naturally interpret intuitively: We get more than what’s on the page. Mark could never be criticized for wasting words, but there are enough here to spark an image in a reader’s mind. Maybe that was God’s purpose for including them: Maybe He wanted us to imagine the event, and even imagine ourselves at the event or even to challenge us: Where do we imagine ourselves in it? Are we among the colorful multitude, or are we looking out at them, as those closest to Jesus, the apostles? Or are we mere observers, too afraid to imagine ourselves participating at all?

    Or at least, how do we imagine the experience of one of those “flowers?” To me, their colors might symbolize their enthusiasm and joy at the opportunity to absorb the word of God. They’ve gathered to Jesus as plants facing the sun. The colors could also indicate their many different personalities or backgrounds, the diversity of the crowd; and yet each sits orderly beside the next. All are there for the same purpose, eager to hear the word of God, as flowers are eager to absorb the rays of the sun, as food for their souls.

    They probably saw this man, Jesus, as having “the words of eternal life.” Interesting to me is that Mark’s account implies that they arranged themselves in rows like a flowerbed, not that Jesus or his apostles arranged them so. What of that? So, I wonder how significant the connection to the earlier images of the “vineyard” and the “wheat” can be. In this event, God (Jesus) doesn’t seem to be the gardener, as in the earlier images. In those times, He planted the Israelites in the soil of Canaan. He watered them with the commandments and the law so that they might become the “fields white for harvest.” But in this image, Jesus has not decreed a place for the garden. He has not cultivated a particular vine or grain. Instead, he appears as the Sun appears in the sky, in its own time, shedding its light on all without prejudice. The wild flowers reach for him naturally, as plants grow toward the light, no matter from where their seeds begin. Is it significant, then, that they also arranged themselves in rows? In a jungle, it’s every plant for itself. Each grows on top of the other in competition for the light. Not in this image. The flowers arrange themselves in an orderly fashion, as if each knows its place among the others, or that each has respect for the others, recognizing their common nature in their common need for light, while at the same time recognizing the abundance of the light provided. None need fear for sustenance in the presence of Jesus, for with Him there is “life, and life in abundance.”

    In earlier times, men may have needed the specific commands of God to know and understand how to live or a designated place wherein to live them out. With Jesus, we find ourselves naturally attracted to Him, his very being calling to ours, like the Sun calling flowers to bloom, each in its own delightful color. And isn’t that the message of the New Testament, that Jesus came to call all of us to salvation, not just the Jews?

    …or maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

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