Five barley loaves and two fish fed around five-thousand men (not counting the women and children). The left-overs were enough to fill twelve baskets. The story is recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 6.
In most English translations, verse 10 describes Jesus instructing the people to ‘sit down.’ The New Revised Standard Version, for example, conveys this as:
Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now, there was a great deal of grass in the place, so they sat down, about five thousand in all.John 6:10 (NRSV)
However, the New American Standard Bible and the Lexham English Bible uniquely use the term ‘recline’ instead of ‘sit.’ The New American Standard Bible renders it as:
Jesus said: “Have the people recline to eat.” Now there was plenty of grass in the place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.John 6:10 (NASB)
Which is a better translation: “sit” or “recline?” If there is a difference, what might be the significance if any? As it is said, “Is there anything lost in translation?”
The phrase “lost in translation” is used to describe a situation where the meaning or intent of a message or expression is not accurately conveyed when it is translated from one language to another. It can also be used more broadly to refer to any situation where the true meaning or nuances of something are not fully understood or appreciated when it is transferred or adapted from one context to another, whether it’s in the realm of language, culture, or any form of communication. The phrase is often used to highlight the challenges and limitations of translation and the potential for misunderstandings or misinterpretations to occur when concepts, idioms, or cultural nuances don’t easily transfer between languages or contexts.
To date, one of two reconstructed New Testament Koine Greek texts held to be the most reliabl is the Nestlé-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (NA28). In this text, the verb in question is ἀναπεσεῖν (infinitive ἀναπίπτω), which means “to recline” in English. New Testament Koine Greek uses the verb “to recline” in the sense of “recline to have a meal or to eat.” It is never used to mean “sit” as in sitting down on a chair or on the ground. (Note: See instances of the word “recline” in New Testament text)
When the Koine Greek New Testament means “to sit” as in sitting on a chair or sitting in judgment, it uses three different other verbs: κάθημαι (to sit, to ride, to reside, to stay)1See definition, καθίζω (to place, to seat someone, to appoint, to sit down, to stay, to rest upon)2See definition, or καθέζομαι (to seat oneself down)3See definition. (Note: Click on the superscript footnotes for details and places used in the New Testament text. Go to a brief grammatical analysis of verse 10 in koine Greek.)
When the majority of our English translations use the verb “to sit” when the Koine Greek text means “to recline,” is there something lost in translation? And if so, what might that be?
First, I must acknowledge a critical supposition: that the crowd understood the difference between the implication of “to recline” versus that of “to sit.” If this was so, the crowd being asked “to recline” might have very well begun thinking that a meal was coming.
Many times in my life, the anticipation of receiving or obtaining a much desired benefit is just as exciting and delicious as finallly getting it. Evidently, I cannot project my own feelings to that ancient crowd, and yet I wonder if there was some cognitive dissonance among them: a great multitude invited to a free meal by an itinerant preacher and his few followers with obvious meagre resources. Certainly, among the crowd there would have been some who would have seen that this itinerant teacher just had five loaves of bread and two fish. I would not have been surprised that intense skepticism might have broken out very quickly. The incongruity was intense. Thus, I could imagine that the actualized miracle made extraordinary meal all the more sweet. The miracle testified without question that Jesus possessed fiat authority. Only God has that power. Therefore, Jesus is indeed God.
My personal takeaway from this translation oversight, where “sit” is used instead of “recline” is a reminder to continually find joy in both the anticipation and the realisation of God’s providential care. To me personally, this outlook adds a celebratory, hopeful and positive dimension to life.
The New Testament uses “recline” 11 times in 10 verses. In all instances, recline is linked to eating a meal. The verses are: Mat 15:35; Mar 6:30; Mar 8;6; Luke 11:37; Luke 14:10; Luke 17:7; Luke 22:14; John 6:10 (2x); John 13:12; John 21:20.
John 6:10 – Grammatical analysis of the Koine Greek sentence: εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς· ποιήσατε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἀναπεσεῖν. ἦν δὲ χόρτος πολὺς ἐν τῷ τόπῳ. ἀνέπεσαν οὖν οἱ ἄνδρες τὸν ἀριθμὸν ὡς πεντακισχίλιοι.
Grammar is far from an inconvenience; in fact, it stands as a fundamental element in language. Among its paramount roles, the most significant is ensuring clarity and precision in communication while also preventing miscommunication, a crucial aspect, especially during the translation process.
|εἶπεν||English: “said”; verb; aorist; active; indicative; 3rd person; singular|
|ὁ||English: “the”; article; nominative; singular; masculine|
|Ἰησοῦς||English: “Jesus”; noun; nominative; singular; masculine|
|ποιήσατε||English: “Make or do”; verb; aorist; active; imperative; 2nd person; plural|
|τοὺς||English: “The”; article; accusative; plural; masculine|
|ἀνθρώπους||English: “men”; noun; accusative; plural; masculine|
|ἀναπεσεῖν||English: “to recline”; verb; aorist; active; infinitive|
|ἦν||English: “was”; verb; imperfect; active; indicative; 3rd person; singular|
|δὲ||English: “but, now, and”; conjunction|
|χόρτος||English: “grass”; noun; nominative; singular; masculine|
|πολὺς||English: “much”; adjective; nominative; singular; masculine|
|ἐν||English: “in”; preposition|
|τῷ||English: “the”; article; dative; singular; masculine|
|τόπῳ||English: “place”; noun; dative; singular; masculine|
|ἀνέπεσαν||English: “recline”; verb; aorist; active; indicative; 3rd person; plural|
|οὖν||English: “therefore”; conjunction|
|οἱ||English: “the”; article; nominative; plural; masculine|
|ἄνδρες||English: “men”; noun; nominative; plural; masculine|
|τὸν||English: “the”; article; accusative; singular; masculine|
|ἀριθμὸν||English: “number”; noun; accusative; singular; masculine|
|ὡς||English: “like”; adverbial comparative|
|πεντακισχίλιοι||English: “five thousand”; adjective; nominative; plural; masculine|