by Craig A. Smith, Ph.D.
There are two major variants when it comes to translating Mark 8:16. One variant, represented in the NIV and KJV, translate it something like this:
And they discussed this with one another, saying “it is because we have no bread”
The other variant, represented by the NAU and the ESV, translate it something like this:
And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread.
While the differences are not earth-shattering, they do have some impact on interpretation. The first variant sees a close connection between the disciples’ discussion and Jesus’ warning about the “yeast of the Pharisees”; in other words, this translation sees the disciples’ discussion as a direct result of Jesus’ warning: he mentioned yeast, so they started talking about bread, presumably because it contains yeast. The second variant, on the other hand, sees the disciples’ discussion as a natural continuation of the mention of their lack of bread in 8:14; in this case, the disciples’ discussion doesn’t so much result from Jesus’ warning as it ignores it. The fact that Jesus mentioned yeast and they discussed bread is, in this case, understood as a coincidence.
There are three primary reasons why the these two translation variations exist:
- There is a minor text variant in the verse. The last word of the sentence is “we have” in some early manuscripts and “they had” in some other early manuscripts. The difference in the Greek is only a couple of letters. Some very influential earlier translations like the KJV adopted the “we have” reading. In this case, the latter half of the verse looks like a quotation from the disciples; i.e. “we have no bread”. However, most recent scholars have agreed that the other variant (“they had”) is the more likely to have been original. In this case, the latter half of the verse looks like a statement about the subject of the disciples’ discussion rather than a quote; i.e. “they were discussing…thatthey had no bread.”
- The original Greek is quite terse, requiring several English words to be added in order to make sense of the verse. Literally, the Greek says something like:
And were discussing towards one another, that/because bread not they-had/we-have
Depending on how one deals with the text variant issue above, the words that a translator will supply will vary. If you opt to follow the “we have” reading, you will supply English words that make this a quotation: (added words in italics)
and they were discussing this with one another, saying “it is because we have no bread”.
If you opt to follow the “they had” reading, you will supply English words in keeping with that view: (added words in italics)
and they were discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread.
- The Greek word that begins the second half of the verse can mean either “because” or “that”. It’s a very common conjunction word and we have to determine which of its options were intended by context. But in this context, it’s not entirely clear which meaning was intended. If we take it to mean “because” then this becomes part of the disciples’ quote “it is because we have no bread”. However, if you take it to mean “that”, then this becomes a clarification of their discussion; i.e. they were discussing with one another “the fact that they had no bread”.
In my opinion, the proper solution to these translation difficulties is to render the verse: and they were arguing with one another because they had no bread. Why?
- First, the “they had” textual variant is slightly more difficult grammatically. It works, but it’s a bit rough. Therefore, it is easy to see why a later scribe might have attempted to “fix” Mark’s rough grammar, especially if the scribe assumed the verse to contain a quotation (in which case “they had” would have been the improper ending for the Greek word in question). When there are variants like this in the ancient manuscripts, we have to ask why the variations exist. In this case, it is somewhat easier to see why a scribe changed the ending of the word from “they had” to “we have” than it is to see why a scribe would have changed it from “we have” to “they had”. The “they had” reading seems more likely to have been the original.
- Second, Mark usually has some form of the Greek for “to say” (legō) before quotations. If he was introducing here a quote from the disciples, it is somewhat out of character for him not to have used the expected verb. Therefore it seems more likely that he did not intend this to be understood as a quotation but rather as an elaboration on the subject of their “discussion”.
- Third, seeing v.16 as a continuation of the earlier statement in v.14 makes more sense than seeing it as a response to Jesus’ warning about “the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” While it is certainly true that yeast and bread have something in common, it is not at all clear why Jesus’ mention of yeast – which was used in preparing bread – should have caused the disciples to begin discussing their lack of cooked bread. On the other hand, if Mark had set the stage in v.14 by telling us that they had forgotten bread and is now telling us that they were continuing to fret over this issue – to the extent that they were essentially ignoring Jesus’ warning about the Pharisees – the flow of thought is quite natural. They have not made an abstract leap of logic from Jesus’ warning to their food predicament…they have simply not paid any attention to Jesus at all.
- Fourth, Jesus’ response to their discussion is most sensible if we see their discussion as essentially disconnected from his warning. If their discussion was an attempt to understand his warning, then we should expect Jesus to have said something like “no, no, no…you’re not getting it. You’re being over-literal and missing my point!” Instead, his question to them is “why are you talking about not having bread?” His initial rebuke seems to center on the fact that they were having this debate at all rather than focusing on what he had just said.
- Fifth, is the fact that, while the Greek word dialogidzamai can mean either “discussion” (neutral) or “dispute” (antagonistic), Mark tends to use it in the more antagonistic sense (cf. Mk 2:6, 2:8, 9:33, 11:31). If he is following his otherwise unbroken trend of using dialogidzamai to speak of a “dispute” or an “argumentative discussion” here in 8:16,17, then the divisive nature of their “discussion” argues against seeing the latter part of v.16 as an agreement; i.e. it makes little sense to say that they were disputing with one another when they all agreed that Jesus’ warning was related to the fact that they had no bread. It is far more natural to see their “dispute” as centered on their lack of bread and would, in this case, have really been a matter of trying to decide who was to blame for their predicament.
- Sixth, Jesus reference to the feeding of the two crowds is most sensible if we understand him to have been disappointed at his disciples’ fixation on their lack of bread. Had he been frustrated at their misinterpretation of the relationship of his “yeast” to their lack of bread, we would expect a correction along the lines of “no, the yeast refers to X and such”. Instead, Jesus seems to have temporarily abandoned his warning message and chosen instead to focus on what the disciples’ were focused on: their lack of bread. In response to their fixation on lacking bread, Jesus forcefully reminded them that he had already shown himself more than capable of supplying whatever need they might have.
Taken together, these observations argue strongly in favor of a translation of Mark 8:16 as follows:
and they were arguing with one another because they had no bread.
 The parallel in Mat 16:7, while slightly different in original wording, can be translated in much the same way. There it would appear that the wording is “we brought no bread” and the first person plural is not challenged by any textual variants. However, the sense of the verse is still the same: and they argued among themselves, saying that “we brought no bread”. There is no need to insert (as the KJV and others) “it is because”. Rather the hoti functions as the introduction to the quote rather than the first part of it.
 It is also worth noting that Mark uses a middle imperfect tense for the verb here which suggests an ongoing discussion. The tendency in most translations to render this as “they began” is awkward. It most naturally refers back to the beginning of this discussion in v.14 and highlights the ongoing nature of it; that is, they were so engrossed in this argument that they gave little or no head to Jesus’ warning about the Pharisees.