Bible translation and the cross-cultural DNA of the church

One of my starting points was the sobering fact that there were only 67-70 languages which had ever had any Scripture translations by the time William Carey reached India in 1793. Over the following 40 years he and his team at Serampore added 35 to that number – an amazing record in the light of the relative failure of the previous 17 centuries. I then sought to find out how this deficiency came about. It was astonishing to find out how few mission movements before the modern missions era were successful in cross-cultural outreach. The widespread failure to translate and enculturate the Scriptures was a failure to effectively take the Gospel across cultural boundaries. The result was spasmodic expansion and even massive losses from Christianity to other religions and ideologies.

The failure of the Church of the Roman Empire

I could only find two significantly successful missions movements to multiple cultures in the first 1500 years of the Church. These were the Celtic Church from Ireland and the Eastern Church [wrongly called Nestorian in the West] based in present-day Iraq and Persia. Both these movements were from areas which were not part of the Roman Empire. There was no successful multi-cultural movement from the Roman Empire itself and its European and Byzantine successors until the European age of discovery dawned around 1500. There were significant successful one-culture forays – Cyril to the Slavonic peoples, Augustine to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in England, the conversion of the Armenians and Georgians in the 4th Century and the advances of Catholics to the Scandinavian and Baltic peoples a millennium ago, but a genuine multi-cultural vision did not emerge. These one-culture outreaches beyond the Roman world often became introspective one-culture nationalist bodies such as the Armenians, Georgians and Ethiopians, or, in the case of the Syrian Christians of South India, a respected Christian “caste”.

The Roman Empire was a remarkable, though cruel, phenomenon. It provided relative peace and security for travel and also a linguistic medium of Latin for governing and Greek for trade which helped the spread of the Gospel to every part of the Empire in a relatively short period of time. These two languages conferred immense advantages for education and communication and for use in Christian worship and preaching.

Scripture translations 1200 – 2000

Despite the Hebrew-Aramaic medium Jesus used, the New Testament Scriptures were written in Greek and soon available in Latin. Other local languages were ignored or despised. Augustine was a North African of indigenous Amazight descent through his mother, but he spoke and wrote in Latin. The Roman name for the Amazight was “Berber” derived from “barbarian” – hardly a name to instill ethnic pride! The general thought was that to become a Christian you had to be first civilized and speak Latin or Greek. The advantage of having common languages led to the Roman Empire eventually becoming Christian, but then it became a barrier to further evangelizing the peoples invading and pillaging the Empire such as the Goths, Lombards, Vandals, Huns or reaching out to peoples beyond its boundaries.

The cross-cultural DNA of the Church

What, then, was the cross-cultural DNA of the Church? God demonstrated this in various ways:

1. “The name of our Saviour is Jesus Christ” is a remarkable synthesis of the Hebrew Jeshua and the Greek Christos, or Anointed One. He is Saviour and Lord for every people – Jew and Gentile!

2. The final command of the Lord Jesus Christ to His disciples was to all peoples, to every nation in the whole world. This imperative has been ignored in the great doctrinal statements of the Church down the ages, stifled by our theological education cultures and disobeyed by generations of Christians.

3. At Pentecost the disciples spoke in many known languages. The Holy Spirit showed that this wonderful Gospel must be transmitted in every language from the very beginning. Sadly the lesson was not learnt but is used by many to support the use of tongues in church services rather than the need to communicate the Gospel in other known languages.

4. The Scriptures are unique. The New Testament was written in Greek yet Jesus used Aramaic (related to Hebrew). Christianity is the only religion in which the original documents are written in a language other than that of its founder. This means that our original Scriptures contain a translation of the words of our Founder. What a confirmation of the imperative for further translations of His Word into every language!

The gift of apostleship cannot be separated from the imperative of cross-cultural evangelism, but through church history we have separated the two to our detriment. Even the early Apostles whom Jesus chose took a long time to realize this, but ultimately nearly all of them died or were martyred in another land. The lack of documentation for these traditions frustrate us to this day, but increasingly historians give more credence to oral traditions as having a stronger core of fact than has often been accredited. For example, did Thomas reach South India? The onus of proof now rests more on the doubters that he did not reach India and plant the Church that claims direct descent from his first-century ministry. (The map shown below does not show the well-known missionary journeys of Paul.)

The Two Success Stories

The cross-cultural DNA God originally gave to the Church was lost. Any further expansion had to move to those parts of the wider Church that did not lose this DNA—the Celts and the Eastern Church. Sadly church history has majored on the events of Rome and Byzantium-Constantinople and minored on the fringes of the Church where the real advances were taking place.

The Celtic Church—

Few today realize how dynamic and effective the Celtic Church was in its heyday. Their early success as a mission enterprise was subsumed and subverted by the Roman Catholic Church and then claimed as its own. What a debt we owe to the Celtic Church for commitment to radical discipleship, love of nature, desire for learning, poetry, music, hymnody and vision for missions that was not entirely lost over the centuries. It is interesting to note the fascination in the English speaking world today for anything Celtic! Patrick, the great Apostle of Ireland had this understanding. He learned the hard way as a captured Celtic-British slave of an Irish chieftain. He learned the language and culture from the bottom up. After escaping from slavery he later returned to evangelize the Irish in Gaelic, not in Latin. A spiritual, culturally sensitive form of Christianity arose, and in several generations Ireland became largely Christian and initiated an extraordinary missions movement to the Gaels and Picts of Scotland, then the pagan Angles and Saxons of Britain and then on into today’s France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, North Italy and even Poland and possibly Ukraine. One missionary even reached Iceland – then largely uninhabited. Much of northern and Central Europe was first evangelized by the Celts and their spiritual descendants. What were the secrets of their success?

1. They learned local languages and indigenized the Gospel. It is estimated that these Celtic missionaries used a total of about 16 languages. No other European mission movement attained this until the 20th Century.

2. They modelled Christian community in their monasteries. These monasteries were not what they later became when the Roman Catholics enforced their stern monastic regimes – they were mobile Christian communities to which non-Christians were invited to explore the claims of Christ. They had guest houses, scriptoriums (where Bibles and books of learning were copied), farms, Christian families, schools, etc. This worked well in rural, illiterate societies with little or no urbanization.

3. They developed effective ways of discipling – they had their form of cell groups and every person has one “soul-mate” to whom they were spiritually accountable.

4. They were passionate about learning, and even became the repository of learning of the Greek and Latin worlds which were then succumbing to massive invasions of pagan peoples ushering in what we call the Dark Ages. So they helped many Christians to then become literate in Latin and even Greek. The telling title of the book, How the Irish Saved Western Civilization gives good account of this.

Sadly the political power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church led to the eclipse of the autonomous Celtic Church after the decisive Council of Whitby in North England in 663. It was interesting that the main bones of contention were seemingly banal, but they were actually fundamental. These were:

1. the cutting of the hair of monks. The Irish followed Celtic culture, but Rome insisted on their way and disallowed cultural flexibility.

2. the date of Easter. This was derived from a complex system of calculation, but the deeper implication was that autonomous decision-making was denied and the dictates of Rome were to be obeyed.

This gradually dimmed the glow of Celtic missions vision. The Roman domination and manipulation of the Irish Church had devastating consequences on the health of the Church and the political life of the whole island in subsequent centuries. Few realize that the “Troubles” in Ireland in recent centuries began when the Pope gave Ireland as a wedding gift to Henry II of England in 1172. He gladly took it and it led to 800 years of tragic animosity that still impacts us today.

The Church of the East—

The Churches of the East were sadly ostracized by the Western (Chalcedonian) Church. They labelled the Eastern Monophysite (Jacobean and Coptic) and Dyophysite (Nestorian or Eastern) Churches as “heretics” after the intensely political and carnal power struggle that was the Council of Ephesus in 449. This led to schism in the Church. The Western Church, with its increasingly European base, virtually ignored their subsequent advances, glories and tragedies. The Eastern Church with a strong emphasis on the study of the Scriptures became one of the most successful missionary movements of history.

This Church is unique. It spread further and evangelized more peoples than any movement before the mid-20th Century. It never quite gained a majority of any dominant people and rarely impacted the whole worldview of nations. It had no imperial Constantine, nor a great historian like Luke, but it had great theologians who trained missionaries that in two great waves of advance—the first between 350 and 850 spread from the Mediterranean to China, and the second between 920-1354.

Alopen, the first great missionary to China, reached that country in 635 and then translated the Bible into Chinese for the sympathetic Emperor Kao-tsu who was very attracted to the message of Christianity and proclaimed an edict of religious freedom in 638 to allow the establishment of the Christian Church in China. There followed 200 years of freedom for the Christians and the Buddhists, who arrived in China at about the same time. One of the great “what-ifs” of history – what if the Chinese had moved to Christianity rather than Buddhism? Six centuries later another powerful emperor sent out a fleet of 800 massive wooden ships (the largest wooden ships ever made) and 30,000 people to map the whole world and to open up trading links with every part of the world (see 1421, the year China discovered America). At that time they had the resources and know-how to do it (how to measure longitude, how to circumvent deaths of sailors through scurvy, how to use guns and gunpowder). The extraordinary thing is that this costly effort crippled China’s economy and caused the suppression of all evidence of these explorations soon after the return of the remainder of the fleets. The West only caught up with this technology in the 18th century, and this enabled Captain Cook to map the Pacific. What of [sic] it had been a Christian China that had undertaken such a venture? How different the world would have been!

They were always a minority under the rule of Zoroastrian Persians, Shamanist Mongols, Taoist Chinese and, above all, the Islam of the Arabs and later the terrible Timur the Muslim Mongol. No body of Christians has suffered so long and frequently from persecution and periods of terrible massacres. At its greatest spread in 1349 the Church of the East has [sic] 25 metropolitans and 250 bishops and possibly 15 million Christians in over 27 ethnic groups in West, central and east Asia. The Christian population of Asia may then have been around 7% – a figure only now being surpassed in modern times with the massive growth of the Church in India, China, etc. In two generations after 1350 ferocious massacres of Christians reduced this Church to a shadow of its former size and into a decline which continues with the persecution even today of these Christians in Iraq.

Their strengths were in their learning, knowledge of Scriptures, willingness to adapt to other cultures, their courage under persecution and fortitude in willingness to travel such huge distances for the sake of the Gospel. Their weaknesses were possibly in some syncretism, in latter years a carnality, power-seeking and greed among leaders, an over-dependence on occasional non-Christian rulers who showed sympathy or support for the Christians and a failure to translate the Bible into more than a handful of languages. In the main they took with them their Syriac Scriptures and liturgy. For centuries and even millennia, in the case of the Thomas Christians of India, have used the Syriac language, but they have survived.

The price of not providing Scripture

One of the most sobering aspect [sic] of the latter weakness is to realize that over the centuries the major peoples that have most persecuted Christians have been those who were evangelized, but never had the Scriptures in their own language. The Huns, Arabs, Berbers, Kurds, Persians, Turks, Mongols all had heard something of the Gospel and some responded, but these peoples later became a scourge to the Church. Some of them have become fearsome household names to Christians, such as the Uighur who became part of the Mongol Golden Horde and from whom we derive our English word “ogre”. Consider:

1. The Arabs. There were Christians among the Arabs for five or more centuries before the coming of Islam, but it was usually seen as a religion of the dominant Greeks in northwest Arabia, Persians in the northeast and eastern Arabia, and Ethiopians in south Arabia. The Scriptures and liturgies (note the implications for orality—Ed.) used were not in Arabic. Mohammed died in 632, but the Bible was only translated into Arabic over the period 680-750. How different could our world have been if Mohammed had been able to know the contents of the Bible in Arabic?

2. The Persians. The Church of the East gradually made an impact on Zoroastrian (Parsee) Persia, and at the time of the Muslim invasion in 636 were just on the point of becoming the majority religion—but though essentially a Persian Church, it still used the Syriac liturgy and Scriptures. The Pahlavi Persian Scriptures were translated around 1350 a millennium later, and around the time when Timur (Tamarlane) the Tatar Muslim ruler of Persia began his rampage through Central and West Asia to destroy all Christians. Even to this day the Islamic government of Iran seeks to prevent the use of Persian in Christian worship services—because it is not the Christian language.

3. The Berber of North Africa. The Church in North Africa was one of the strongest in the early centuries, but it functioned in Latin, not in the Berber languages. The Scriptures were not translated until the 20th Century. The Arabs say they needed 10 wars against them to eventually make them Muslim. Because Christianity was not enculturalized and without written documents in the indigenous languages, the Berber lost all recollection of their Christian heritage. The Tuareg branch of the Berbers still practice ceremonies and use the cross that were Christian in origin, but they did not know the meaning or origin of these. The Berbers or Moors became a major component of the Islamic armies that conquered most of Spain and ruled it for 800 years. After the translation of the Scriptures into Kabyle (a Berber language of Algeria) and a re-discovery of the rape of their culture by Arabs and Islam there has been a remarkable turning to God among them in the past 20 years, and their numbers may have reached up to 50,000 believers.

4. The Turks. A number of the Turkish tribes of Central Asia became partially or almost completely Nestorian Christian for several centuries. They only had small portions of the Scriptures, and ultimately turned to Islam. There were terrible outworkings for the West—the conquest of the Christian Byzantine-Roman Empire between 1071 and 1253, and invasion of East and central Europe over subsequent centuries. The Ottoman Empire was a superpower for 800 years.

5. The Mongols. A number of the Mongol tribes had Christian minorities before the time of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan himself actually married the daughter of a nominally Christian Khan of the Kerait tribe, but the Mongols became Buddhist in the East and Muslim in the West of their huge empire. There was little evidence of any Mongolian Christian writings.

There is a converse to this that wherever a missions thrust resulted in the early translation of the Scriptures and the absorption of its contents into the culture, the Gospel light has rarely been extinguished even if terrible persecution has come—examples being the Armenians, Georgians, Copts of Egypt, the Ethiopians and the Russians.

Lessons to be drawn from this history

1. The God-created DNA for the Church is cross-cultural outreach. Any body of Christians that ignores this both grieves the Holy Spirit and invites spiritual deadness and ultimately declension to another belief or unbelief system. Commitment to obeying the Great Commission is not an optional extra, but fundamental for the health and growth of the Church.

2. The translation and enculturation of Scripture into every language where there is a response to the Gospel is a fundamental prerequisite for the endurance of Christianity over many generations. Note the accompanying diagram which gives a progressive development of how the Great Commission imperatives work together with enculturation and Scripture use. In modern times it requires giving priority to Bible translation and literacy programmes for any culture without heart-language Scriptures.

3. The use of liturgical languages and Scriptures across many cultures and multiple centuries such as Latin, Greek, Syriac, Slavonic provided continuity and impressive ceremonial church services, but damaged the transmission of the truths they contained and hastened the nominalization and even demise of Christianity where this language was not understood. In our modern times English has become one of the most desired languages for communication, education and the Internet, but this brings its dangers – a cultural imperialism and insensitivity, a belief that learning another language is not so necessary, an expectation that the natives should learn or understand English and a hope that short term visiting church planting teams using English can obviate the need to send long-term missionaries.

4. A dominant Christian culture rarely has the passion to adapt its worship style and culture to that of minority peoples, or those considered inferior. That is why Russian ethnic minorities may be more easily evangelized by non-Russians, migrants into modern Europe by non-Western missionaries, the Muslim Middle East by Asians rather than by Western missionaries.

5. The importance of a people proudly having their own version of the Bible cannot be under-estimated for the preservation and advancement of its culture. This was true for the Armenians, Goths, Georgians, Ethiopians who have long been Christian. It is equally true for the Kurds in the Middle East, the Kabyle of Algeria, the Konkomba of Ghana and the Quechua of Peru and Ecuador. The 21st Century will possibly see the extinction of 2000 languages. The most effective preventive for this is the translation and use of the Scriptures. It gives added weight to the Vision 2025 of Wycliffe Bible Translators and other Bible agencies to see the initiation of translation work into every language now without the Bible and for which the speakers of that language desire it. This is likely to be a further 1,500—2,000 languages. The areas of the world with the biggest challenge with many such languages are the Sahel in Africa, India, the minorities of China and parts of Indonesia.

6. Missionaries are often accused of “destroying cultures”. The 20th Century demonstrated that it was actually the missionaries who preserved and ennobled cultures when the Scriptures were translated. It was rather the insensitivity, greed and ecological degradation of soldiers, traders, loggers, drug cartels that have done the damage. Without the translation of the Bible, many languages and cultures will disappear. Many cultures where the Gospel has been preached but do not have the Scriptures will be anaemic and without a strong Christian core embedded in their corporate life.

As we face the ministry challenges of the 21st Century, the translation of the Bible and assimilation of its saving, sanctifying truths into all the cultures of the world and equipping local churches to proclaim and live these truths that should be our top ministry priority. At the present speed of starting translation teams for languages without the Bible, the task will remain unfinished by the end of the 21st Century. Let us rise up and finish the task!

Republished by permission: Momentum MagazineJanuary/February 2006.

Patrick Johnstone is a researcher, author, and the former editor of the international prayer guide, “Operation World.”

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