You may not always think it a privilege but to be able to read the Bible in the language that we best understand it did not happen by chance. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth but the Bible itself did not take shape until millennia later. The people recited the history and the teaching to the next generation and so preserved the story of God until the time when the tradition began to be recorded on tablets and papyrus. The actual writing of the first part of our modern-day Bible was not finished until near to the time of God coming in Christ. Even then it was not ordered in the way in which we most commonly know it. The first written codification was organized by a group called the Masorites who not only added the vowels for pronunciation of the text but gathered the writings in a form that reflected what was most important to the faith of the people: Torah – the 5 books of Moses or the Law, the Prophets – both the major and minor prophets, and the Other Writings including the historical accounts, the Psalms and Proverbs. As for the second part of what we know as the Bible, it was not finished being written until sometime after 100 A.D. and did not receive its final form until some 200 years later when it was decided which gospels would be recognized, what history of the early church was worth noting and which letters of the apostles were considered worthy of inclusion. None of this diminishes the value or the truth of what is contained in the Bible but makes the point that the Bible is a unique book in that it is not the recollections of one or two generations set down in print by a select few individuals but that it is the collected wisdom and history of a significant body of people who have lived their lives according to the revelation of the One we know as the Great I Am – God, the Lord of heaven and earth.
And so we have a book of books fittingly called the Bible. The very word itself reflects both the Latin (Byblos) and the Greek (Biblia) which both mean the books. Of course, we have chosen to reorder the books of the Hebrew people because we are more concerned with maintaining a proper historical perspective. The Psalms, Proverbs, prophets and other books that we couldn’t fit into our historical model are put at the end. We did the same thing with the books written in Koine Greek that we call the New Testament.
But now I want you to pause and think about something else. The Bible was originally written primarily in two languages – neither one of which is a language that any of us can speak or understand. But imagine if you will that the Bible had never been translated. If that were the case, this is what the beginning of the Bible would look like:
Now the first challenge would be to even recognize the letters, the second would be to figure out the words but the third would be to remember that you can’t read from left to right.
Now let’s go to the New Testament. This was written in a language that was in common use throughout the world at that time so more people would be able to read it. How about you?
Recognize it as the Gospel of John? Gee, I’m sorry. I guess they didn’t cover that in school!
After the time of the Emperor Constantine, Latin came to be the language of the church. Jerome decided to translate the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek into Latin to make it possible for more people to understand it.
Is that helpful?
Well, this effort of Jerome was well received as it was the official language of the church and enabled more of the religious leaders who were unable to read Hebrew or Greek to better understand and preach to the people.
Well, along comes the Reformation when leaders in the church started to question many of the long-held beliefs. One of those beliefs that they challenged was the fact that the Bible was not to be translated into the languages of the ordinary people. Never mind Hebrew or Greek, most people only knew the Latin of the Mass and probably didn’t even understand most of it but knew what to do when they heard certain words. And so, people like Martin Luther in Germany, John Wycliffe, Myles Coverdale and William Tyndale in England, and Jacques Lefevre in France, began to translate the Bible into the common languages of the people. But everyone was not pleased. With the Bible in the language of the people, the people could understand the Bible and begin to question the interpretation of the priests. And with the advent of the modern-day printing press, the number of copies of the Bible being produced would lead to more literacy among the people and a whole change in the social structure. John Wycliffe actually went into hiding for fear of death because he dared to translate the Bible into English. After his death, his bones were dug up and burned!
Thank goodness, the movement to translate the Bible into English and other languages never stopped. In 1804, a group of businessmen met and decided that the people of the world needed the Bible in their own language. So began what we now know as the British & Foreign Bible Society. Its goals were to translate the Bible into the languages of the world, to print it and to make it available at a price that anyone could afford. Those principles have continued to guide that society and all other bible societies that have been established throughout the world. In Canada, the Canadian Bible Society has been active since 1906 as an independent society. One of its primary goals has been to produce the Bible – in conjunction with teams from Wycliffe Bible Translators – in as many first nations’ languages as possible – but only at the request of the first nations people themselves. The goal is to have translations that are actively used and not just museum pieces.
So why is it important that the Bible is available to us in the language we speak? Even if we are adept at learning another language and become proficient in speech and writing, the first language we learn as infants will always be for us our primary language – called our mother tongue. I have witnessed first hand the great joy people experience when they first hear the words of the Bible in the language they best understand. The words come alive to them in a way that another language cannot match. A translation into their mother tongue allows the Bible to catch the nuances of their language and to phrase things in a way that helps them to better understand the message that the writer is seeking to impart. There are cultural and linguistic differences among peoples and modern day translations seek to address these differences and bridge them in a way that allows the original text to maintain its integrity and yet effectively convey the message.
Sound like a relatively easy venture? – Far from it. On average, it takes 7-10 years before a New Testament is ready for publication and 25-30 years or more for a full translation of the Bible. A person could spend all their working life to complete one translation for one group of people. Working with a team comprised of trained biblical scholars and local people, the translators start with the original text in Hebrew or Greek and work to ensure that the translation has remained true to the text and has properly communicated the thoughts and intent of the text.
But as much as translators work to create the perfect translation, it always becomes clear that there is no effective way to perfectly translate the meaning, intent and nuance of one language into another. In the end they must trust their training but even more trust God and the Holy Spirit to complete the translation not only in people’s minds but in their hearts and spirits.
We are more blessed in English than any other language group in the world. We have available to us more than 75 full Bible and more than 30 New Testament or Gospel translations. Each one will give us a different look at the Bible and each one can challenge us to a deeper study of the text.
Let us be thankful for the efforts and sacrifices of people who dared to translate the Bible into a language we know and can understand. Let us be thankful that so many in the world today can read the Bible for themselves and let us pray that one day everyone who wants to can have the Bible in their mother tongue.