The Greek that is translated as “grass” in English is translated as the very specific kind of grass diyau in Samo.

Daniel Shaw (in: Scriptura 96/2007, p. 501ff.) explains (click here to see more):

“When we translated the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand the first question the Samo asked was, ‘What kind of grass did Jesus tell the people to sit on?’ This was not a question I had anticipated and, of course I did not have an answer. We solved the problem by going for a walk and collecting grasses. We brought the grass home and I asked my assistants to sort the grasses into piles on my porch. By doing a semantic analysis of the way the Samo categorized those piles of grass I discovered their classification was based on placement in the environment: In the forest or in open places. After much deliberation, the Samo decided that the hillside in Galilee must have been an open space for that many people to sit down. The grass must have been soft enough not to hurt anyone sitting on it. Therefore, the grass name used in the translation is the same as that found on airstrips – one of the few open spaces the Samo know.

“Of about forty different types of grass in the Samo repertoire, they singled out a type called diyau. It matched their expectations and enabled them to make inferences that avoided images of people sitting in the forest or other inappropriate places. Using the right nomenclature met with audience expectations and allowed them to focus on the miracle rather than on the type of grass. Using the wrong grass name could have derailed the translation because of the wrong conceptual information it suggested to the Samo.

“Illustrating from the Samo conceptualization of ‘grass’ in the translation of Matthew 14, the term, diyau is both the name of a specific type as well as a generic for non-forest grasses. Thus, it serves as a prototype of ‘open space’ grass. By using this term, the Samo receive a considerable amount of information that triggers an elaborate ‘mental space’ or schema (I will return to this shortly) which connects their ‘knowledge’ of grasses in the jungles of Papua New Guinea with the hillside above the Sea of Galilee. While by no means a one-to-one connection, it enables the Samo to envision a large crowd of people sitting on comfortable grass enjoying a meal provided by Jesus. At the very least, the use of this prototypical term does not create dissonance and, therefore, allows the Samo to focus attention on the miracle rather than on what people were sitting on. Had we used a term associated with forest grasses, many of which have thorns, the Samo would have had a very different (and wrong) impression of this important event in the life of Jesus and his disciples.

“Whether it was the same type of grass that actually existed on that hillside above the Sea of Galilee is immaterial, as is what went through the minds of those who actually experienced that moment. What is critical for a translation to communicate, how¬ever, is the need to focus on what happened irrespective of the grass-type. The fact that the Samo immediately asked a question focusing on the type of grass, indicated that it was an important trigger to a broader schema that provided the context for the miracle of Jesus feeding more than five thousand people (5000 was the number of men — women and children were over and above). The Samo instinctively knew it was men because of the junction of the respective schema which created a new conceptual blend.

“When [in the experience of the Samo] there is a large crowd (such as occurs for an initiation or other ceremonial event) meals are eaten in the cleared space in front of a longhouse with a focus on men feeding their allies. Allies are friends who gather to help each other, often ceremonially. Furthermore, men are the ones who prepare and distribute the food in such a context. And the food that people consume is the result of prolonged garden preparation and hunting (two or more years in the case of initiation ceremonies). As the disciples passed out the food in the translation, so Samo men hand out food to those who have gathered at the house; it is not right that people should go home hungry. So when Jesus blesses the five small loaves and two fish and begins to pass them out, the Samo are not surprised that a man would do this. What is a surprise is the instant food — Jesus blesses it and the bread and fish multiply. Jesus’ ‘blessing’ is somewhat comparable to a shaman’s chant over a small loaf of roasted sago or plantains at an initiation. Clearly there is a spiritual aspect to this event; something important is happening here. That was true in the original context as well. When Jesus told the people to sit down, there was an expectation that something was about to happen. And Jesus did not disappoint, he blessed the food and gave it to the disciples who, in turn handed it out. As they did so the food multiplied and there was sufficient for all with plenty left over; everyone was satisfied.”

complete verse (Mark 6:39)

Following are a number of back-translations of Mark 6:39:

  • Uma: “From there Yesus ordered the many people to all sit in groups on the grass, for there was much green/fresh grass at that time.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “So-then Isa told them all to sit down in groups/piles (tumpuk) on the grass.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And then Jesus had the people get into groups and sit down on the grass.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Then he commanded that they have-the many-people -sit-down in-multiple-groups on the grass.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Jesus caused everyone to sit down in groups.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)

Translation commentary on Mark 6:39


epetaxen autois anaklithēnai pantas ‘he commanded them all to recline’ (the verb ‘command’ here takes the infinitive ‘recline’ as direct object, while pantas ‘all’ is the subject of the infinitive; autois ‘them’ is the indirect object).

epitassō (cf. 1.27) ‘command,’ ‘order.’

anaklinō (only here in Mark) in the active is causative ‘cause to lie down’; in the passive it means ‘lie down,’ ‘recline,’ ‘sit’ (here equivalent to anapiptō in the next verse).

sumposia sumposia ‘in groups,’ ‘in parties’: for this distributive use cf. duo duo ‘by twos’ in 6.7 and prasiai prasiai in the next verse.

sumposion (only here in the N.T.) meant originally ‘a drinking party’ and then, by extension, the party itself, the guests (cf. Abbott-Smith).

epi tō chlōrō chortō ‘upon the green grass’: it is generally assumed that this added detail indicates that it was the spring season.

chlōros (only here in Mark) ‘green.’

chortos (cf. 4.28) ‘grass.’


Commanded them must be followed in many languages by direct discourse, e.g. ‘commanded them, You sit down….’

Though Greek has ‘reclined,’ the normal position assumed in eating, one must use whatever is culturally acceptable in the receptor language in question (note the adaptation to English sit).

The size of the companies is explained in the following verse. Here one may use ‘groups’ or as in some languages ‘parts.’ The entire distributive expression may be rendered as ‘he commanded them, You sit down, one group here and another group there on the green grass.’

It is not sufficient to ask for the indigenous word for ‘green’ and then assume that one can say ‘green grass,’ for the color of grass may be designated by another color word, e.g. grass is called ‘yellow’ in Navajo. That is to say, the word which usually designates yellow also includes chartreuse and grass-color. The word for ‘green,’ used for example in speaking of green trees such as pines, is a different term.

Quoted with permission from Bratcher, Robert G. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1961. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .