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?”
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:
40. in 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.