Housed in the Société des Auxiliaires des Missions Collection – Whitworth University
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Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 14:20:
They all refers to the people in the crowd, not to the disciples.
Were satisfied (Good News Translation “had enough”) means “eat one’s fill” and may even be used of birds which gorge themselves on the flesh of slain men and animals (Rev 19.21). Elsewhere in the Gospel the verb is found in 5.6; 15.33. Here it can be rendered as “had enough to eat” or by a phrase such as “each person had as much to eat as he wanted.”
When the text says they took up, it is the disciples who did the gathering up, not the crowds. Two “they”s in the sentence can be confusing to readers. Took up can be “gathered up” or “collected.”
That the disciples took up twelve baskets full of leftovers is a further indication of the sufficiency of the meal. One scholar notes that the word translated baskets is used by an ancient writer of “the little food baskets which Jews carried so that they might eat only food prepared according to the food laws.” However, in the New Testament it probably refers to “a large, heavy basket for carrying things.” Translators in languages that have a number of different words for baskets according to the size or material should choose a basket that the disciples might reasonably have found there that people would have used for carrying produce or food. If baskets are simply unknown, then some generic word for a container can be used.
They took up twelve baskets full may be intended to suggest that each of the disciples took up one basket full.
The broken pieces left over (Good News Translation “what was left over”) is translated “the scraps remaining” by Jerusalem Bible and “the scraps left over” by New English Bible. Barclay has “of pieces of bread that were left over.”
Note that the words left over indicate that the bread the disciples gathered was not just pieces and crumbs on the ground, but bread that the people had left when they had eaten their fill.
As with the distribution, there was probably some fish picked up too, although the text does not mention it explicitly. If translators do mention the fish, however, the focus should still be on the bread.
Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Stine, Philip C. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1988. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .