Missiological Foundations: Historical Perspectives on Bible Translation

Synopsis:

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have viewed the translation of the Bible into the languages of the world as an indispensable foundation for the fulfilment of God’s mission. Monumental efforts over the past 200 years have resulted in nearly 3000 language communities having access to at least one book of the Bible.

Beginning with the ancient translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Koine Greek, the translated Bible was copied over and over by scribes, and distributed widely around the Mediterranean area. In the early church the Bible was considered essential for every Christian, and an emphasis on Bible reading encouraged literacy. For those who were not literate the Bible was read publicly, deepening the spiritual lives of individual Christians and the Church.

Over time, in the church of the West (Rome), Bible use was restricted to the clergy and in monasteries. Church leaders believed translated Scriptures threatened the church’s authority. Concerned about corruption of the church and its leadership, and seeking to call people back to a biblical Christianity, Oxford academic John Wycliffe oversaw the translation of the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. When Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type and the printing press in the 1450s in Germany, it revolutionized the availability and affordability of the Bible.

Through the 17th to the 19th centuries, missionaries to Asia and farther reaches focused on Bible translation and literacy. Many of these early missionaries demonstrated a holistic approach that included evangelism, Christian education, medical work and theological education, showing how Bible translation was complementary to each of these areas.

By the 20th and 21st centuries, Bible translation efforts focused on local languages, allowing more effective communication of God’s word on personal and deep spiritual matters to the majority of people in a given ethno-linguistic group.

Credited with professionalizing the discipline of Bible translation, Eugene Nida (1914-2011) worked with other scholars and Bible translators to improve the theory and practice of Bible translation, which would enable readers and listeners to understand the Bible in a more natural way. Borrowing from the fields of linguistics, cultural studies, communication sciences and psychology, he developed what he called a ‘dynamic’ or ‘functional equivalence’ translation.

As Nida’s approach resulted in people gaining deeper spiritual understanding from the vernacular Scriptures, a concurrent increase in harmony within emerging Christian communities has also been noted.

Full Article: Article 10 – Missiological Foundations: Historical Perspectives on Bible Translation

The translatability of the gospel is the key to appreciate why the translation of the Bible into the languages of the world is important in the missio Dei. It illustrates the act of the incarnation because “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity” (Walls 1996:26). As the Word became flesh (Jn 1:14), “the translatability of the Bible rests on [this] prior act of translation” (Walls 1996:26). This concept of translatability is “the ability of the gospel to be articulated, received, appropriated, and reproduced into a potentially infinite number of cultural contexts” (Tennent 2010:325).

The essential foundation for God’s mission

It is a fact that throughout the history of the church, Christians have viewed the translation of the Bible into the languages of the world as an indispensable foundation for the sustainable mission of God. However, Andrew Walls warns that “translation is the art of the impossible” due to the risky complexity of transmitting meaning from “one linguistic medium to another” (1996:26).

Tennent (2010:326-7) provides three possibilities regarding the communication of the gospel across linguistic and cultural boundaries:

  1. The understanding of the “significance” of who Jesus Christ was is limited to just to the Jews since Jesus “was the perfect fulfilment of their messianic expectations”;
  2. the gospel is only able to be understood through the monocultural “doorway of Judaism” (through Jewish language, culture and history); and
  3. communicators of the gospel need to “enter into the cultural, linguistic and social framework of the target group and explain the gospel through whatever terms and concepts were already present in, and understood by, the target group.” In other words it is “mission by translation.”

Applying these three possibilities to the missio Dei means that if the gospel had only been passed along from the first century Christians to us today through the grids that were unique to them, the Christian faith would have been robbed of the insights of various Christians since then, such as Europeans, Asians, Africans or Latin Americans. As Tennent states, “we have gained more and more insights into the beauty and reality of Jesus Christ” (2010:336) for the very reason that Christians by and large have followed the ‘mission by translation’ option with all of the pitfalls and dangers of mistranslations in mind.

Why Bible translation has been important to the church

The Old Testament

The activity of translating the Bible, or at least portions of it, started with the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Koine Greek. The work is thought to have commenced prior to 285 BCE. Eventually it was the Jews of the Diaspora living in Alexandria who “had abandoned the language of their fathers [and thought] that the only way to preserve the religious legacy of their ancestors was to translate it into the foreign language that they use” (Marcos 2000:19). These Jews were bilingual and their translation was to address the liturgical and educational needs of the Jews living in “the Greek world with a high proportion of Greek-speaking Jews who did not know the original language of the scriptures” (Marcos 2000:20).

Once the Bible was translated, it was copied over and over by scribes, and distributed widely around the Mediterranean area. It should be pointed out that the LXX was actually “a collection of translations depending on the book [resulting in] a whole gamut of translation techniques which run from literal translation (including transliteration) to paraphrase” (Marcos 2000:23). It was from the Septuagint that Jesus himself quoted in the gospel accounts.

Those following traditional Judaism eventually abandoned the Septuagint and stated that the Torah could not be adapted into Greek.

Those following traditional Judaism eventually abandoned the Septuagint and stated that the Torah could not be adapted into Greek. However, by then the LXX was largely in the hands of Hellenistic Gentile believers and these Scriptures enjoyed a new function “as they became an authoritative sourcebook for Greek Christians seeking to build a coherent world view” (Walls 1996:33).

In the midst of the modern missionary movement of the past 200 years, a monumental effort has been made in translation so that currently there are nearly 3000 languages that have at least one book of the Bible.

The New Testament

The accounts about the life and teachings of Jesus were circulated orally from person to person. During 50-60 CE the Apostle Paul’s letters were either written in Koine Greek or dictated to scribes who transcribed them (Wegner 1999:207). These letters were read in the meetings of the early church. Scribes recopied them by hand, making them more readily available.

The church fathers emphasized Bible reading which in turn encouraged people to become literate.

In the early church the Bible was considered to be the book for every Christian. The church fathers emphasized Bible reading which in turn encouraged people to become literate. For those who were not literate the Bible was read publicly because it was considered to be central for deepening of the spiritual life of the individual Christian and the church.

Early translations

Jerome translated the Bible into Latin during 366-384 CE. His translation was “based on the Hebrew text rather than the more acceptable Greek Septuagint [making it] controversial and divisive at the time” (Sanneh 2008:47). This was because the Septuagint was seen to be “inspired and thus authoritative” (Wegner 1999:254). Many Old Latin texts of the Old Testament were in circulation prior to this. However, it was Jerome’s scholarly work in the Vulgate (meaning ‘common’) that elevated this translation as the official one of the Western church. The Vulgate went through various revisions and became the official version of the Roman Catholic Church.

A Coptic translation was produced for Egyptians in the middle of the third century CE. Other translations in the region were done in the Sahidic and Bohairic languages also in Egypt. Ulifas, the ‘Apostle to the Goths’ used the Septuagint to produce the Gothic translation in the late fourth century. Mesrop Mashtotz assembled various manuscripts translated by scholars in the Armenian language and is credited with translating the Bible into Armenian in the early fifth century. Methodius and Cyril worked on a translation in the Slavonic language in the late ninth century.

Early English language translations

As the centuries went by in the church of the West (Rome), the Bible was restricted in its use to the clergy and in the monasteries. Church leaders were reluctant to allow it to be translated into English because such an act threatened the church and they thought they “would lose power over and revenue from the common people; and that commoners would misunderstand and corrupt the teachings of the Bible” (Wegner 1999:273).

John Wycliffe was motivated by his concern about the corruption of the church and its leadership.

The Oxford academic John Wycliffe (or Wyclif/Wickliffe) inspired, instigated and supervised the translation of the Bible into English from the Vulgate. He was motivated by his concern about the corruption of the church and its leadership. He realized the leadership had an interest in denying the laity access to the Bible for fear of the discovery of “a massive discrepancy between the lifestyles of the bishops and clergy and those commended – and practiced – by Christ and the apostles” (McGrath 2001:19).

Wycliffe sought to call people back to a biblical Christianity because he “believed that the people needed the Bible in their own language for a revival to take place” (Wegner 1999:282). An additional challenge to him was that the Czech wife of Richard II of England had Scripture in her heart language, but the King did not. The work was completed after Wycliffe’s death in 1384. It was in common English because Wycliffe “fervently believed that the Bible needed no special interpretation even for laymen to understand” (Connolly 1996:77). However, it was not readily accessible because the printing press had not yet been invented.

In the 1450s in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type and a printing press. The first book printed on this press was the Vulgate Bible, a colossal achievement consisting of “46,000 wood blocks to set the manuscript” (Wegner 1999:263). Gutenberg, with money lent to him by Johann Fust, printed 150 copies for the first edition (including 30 on parchment). In a short time this revolutionized the availability and affordability of the Bible. Previously, only the wealthy had Bibles, because only they could afford to hire a scribe to hand copy it.

Over 150 years later, William Tyndale wanted the King of England to understand how important it was for the poor and uneducated people to be able to read the Bible in their own language. However, authorities prevented him from doing any translation in England so he found refuge in Germany. Inspired by Martin Luther, who had done the German translation of the New Testament and Pentateuch, Germany seemed a logical place for Tyndale to carry out his work. In fact some scholars suggest that because Tyndale translated the same books in a short period of time, his vocabulary and style were likely influenced by Luther’s German (McGrath 2001:70).

Because of his persistence in printing and shipping English Bibles …, Tyndale was eventually tracked down and burned to death … by orders of the Bishop of London.

Tyndale used the original languages of Greek and Hebrew and printed his work on Gutenberg’s press. Consequently he was called “the father of the English Bible” (Connolly 1996:140). Eventually the printed copies of Tyndale’s Bible had to be smuggled back into England because of the church hierarchy’s prohibition on translation of the Bible into English. Because of his persistence in printing and shipping English Bibles into England, Tyndale was eventually tracked down and burned to death in 1536 by orders of the Bishop of London.

Through Tyndale’s dedicated efforts “floodgates [were opened] that could no longer be closed” (McGrath 2001:88) and it was only a matter of time before English translations were printed and distributed in England without the dangers that Tyndale had suffered. Shortly after Tyndale’s death, Miles Coverdale completed an English Bible translation in 1535. He relied on Tyndale’s work, the Vulgate and Luther’s translation and thus created “an amalgam of existing translations according to his own personal preference” (McGrath 2001:90). In spite of this weakness, his was the first complete and published Bible in English.

Due to the changing political-religious climate in England it became acceptable for a Bible translation to be endorsed by King Henry VIII. At first it looked like Coverdale’s Bible would gain this status, but this was not to be. Richard Grafton and John Rogers then attempted a re-translation of Coverdale and Tyndale’s work. Their translation was called Matthew’s Bible to protect their identities (McGrath 2001:91). Nevertheless, due to their heavy use of margin notes there was some degree of suspicion and Thomas Cromwell commissioned Coverdale to do a revision of Matthew’s Bible and eliminate the margin notes. It was called the Great Bible and included the canonical and apocryphal books (McGrath 2001:94).

The Geneva Bible was the next English version and was attributed primarily to William Whittingham. This was the creation “of private enterprise and religious enthusiasm on the part of a small group of English Protestant exiles in the city of Geneva” (McGrath 2001:98). It set new standards in publishing with its beautiful illustrations, marginal comments and, consequently, the standard of the translation itself.

It was the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible that caught the attention of Scotland’s King James IV (who would later rule Scotland, England and Ireland as James I). While he was still king of Scotland he was made aware that these notes “offered political comments on the text, which could easily be applied to the political situation under [him. He] cordially detested what he found in those notes” (McGrath 2001:141). The king’s view was that the notes challenged “the doctrine of ‘divine right of kings’” (McGrath 2001:141) – meaning that the king was endowed to divinely rule on earth as God’s agent.

European translations after the Protestant Reformation

In 1516 Erasmus a Dutch Renaissance scholar living in France, published in a “single volume the first printed Greek New Testament and a new Latin translation, based directly on the original Greek, which avoided the errors that had crept into the Vulgate” (McGrath 2001:57).

Six years later Martin Luther completed the translation of the New Testament into German. He believed the work was too important to be left to someone else because the majority of the laity could not read the language of learning – Latin. Luther had resolved to put the Bible into a form of German so natural and so forceful that it would speak to the hearts of all Germans. He wanted the scriptures to be translated accurately into the language they used in their everyday lives. Consequently, the layperson’s access to the Bible was as much about power as it was developing personal spirituality (McGrath 2001:53). Ten years later the Old Testament was completed.

Luther had resolved to put the Bible into a form of German so natural and so forceful that it would speak to the hearts of all Germans.

Luther’s work advanced the Protestant Reformation and can be summarized with a two-fold focus: 1) how the established church lost its understanding of the New Testament concept of salvation as a gift of grace from God; and 2) the means of bringing reform and renewal to the church was to place the Bible in the hands of the laity (McGrath 2001:55).

Early Bible translators beyond Europe

In the 1600’s Bartholomew Ziegenbalg went to South East India to work among the Tamil people. Ziegenbalg believed the vernacular Scriptures needed to be available at the earliest possible stage of mission. His was a broad strategy because he believed Bible translation had to go hand-in-hand with Christian education. The new Christians and their children should be able to read the Bible for themselves. He also believed that the diligent study of the philosophy and culture of the people group was foundational to evangelism and church growth. Accordingly, he carried out medical work and pursued the formation of an indigenous church. He insisted on the use of Tamil lyrics in worship and was totally committed to the personal conversion of the Tamil people. Ziegenbalg was considered ahead of his time in his holistic approach (Neill 1986:196).

In Serampore, India in the early 1800’s, William Carey (also known as the ‘father of modern missions’) focused on Bible translation and other ministries that spanned 34 years. He translated the Bible into Bengali and Sanskrit, along with the New Testament into Marathi, Punjabi and other lesser known languages and dialects (Tucker 2004:127). However, accuracy was not Carey’s strength so his work required much revision and reworking. He followed a five-fold strategy: 1) understanding the language, culture, and thought processes of the non-Christian peoples; 2) preaching of the Gospel by every means possible; 3) translating the Bible into the languages where it was needed; 4) planting a church at the earliest possible point; and 5) training local Christians to be leaders in ministry (Neill 1986:224-5).

In Serampore, India in the early 1800’s, William Carey focused on Bible translation and other ministries that spanned 34 years.

Other notable missionaries involved in Bible translation were Hans Egede (‘the apostle to Greenland’, 1686-1758), Adoniram Judson (Burmese, 1788-1850), Henry Martyn (several languages in India, 1781-1812) and Robert Morrison (Chinese, 1782-1834). Morrison was also known for his dictionary of Chinese which gave the language wider recognition (Neill 1986:238). Many of these early missionaries demonstrated a holistic approach and were also involved in evangelism, Christian education, medical work and theological education. They showed how Bible translation was complimentary to each of these areas.

Rolland Allen, missionary to China in the early 20th century, was asked what needed to be done if the gospel was to be truly communicated. His response included an assumption of Bible translation: “There must be a congregation furnished with the Bible, the sacraments, and the apostolic ministry. When these conditions are fulfilled, the missionary has done [their] job; the young church is free to learn… how to embody the gospel in its own culture” (Newbigin 1989:147).

Bible translation in the 20th and 21st centuries

A primary issue of Bible translation concerns the language of the heart. This is the language that most effectively communicates on personal and deep spiritual matters to the majority of people in a given ethno-linguistic group. Kwame Bediako states, “whenever Western missionaries… made the Scriptures available to an African people in that people’s own language, they weakened any Western bias in their presentation of the Gospel.” The consequence being that African Christians “could truly claim they were hearing God speak to them in their own language. It amounts to the awareness that God speaks our language too” (2004:58).

A primary issue of Bible translation concerns the language of the heart … the language that most effectively communicates on personal and deep spiritual matters.

The late Eugene Nida (1914-2011) worked with other scholars and Bible translators to improve the theory and practice of Bible translation. Nida is given credit for professionalizing the discipline of Bible translation and became known as the “intellectual leader” and consultant to the United Bible Societies (Stine 2012:38).

Nida was noted for changing how Bible translations were done. Prior to his influence, “Bible translations were primarily produced by missionaries, whose approach was generally to produce a formally equivalent translation, sometimes based on the original languages, but often based on translations available in European languages” (Stine 2012:38). These translations then were often sent away for checking by consultants resident in their Western countries.

The needed shift was for readers and listeners to understand the Bible in a more natural way. Nida believed translations should be wherever possible produced by native speakers and checked onsite with the translators.

In time, Nida borrowed concepts from the fields of linguistics, cultural studies, communication sciences, and psychology to develop “a practical approach to translation that he called dynamic equivalence or functional equivalence, the goal of which was to make the translation clear and understandable as well as accurate” (Stine 2012:38). Nida’s influence has been seen in most popular Bible translations in major as well as lesser known languages.

Literacy

The “twin” to Bible translation is literacy which is built upon the foundation of linguistics. These related fields have been greatly influenced by missionaries. Sanneh notes that during the centuries of upheaval and expansion of the church, missionaries “became pioneers of linguistic development… [and] the resulting literacy, however limited, produced social and cultural transformation” (2003:99).

Because many societies have oral traditions, by which information is shared by word of mouth, they may not be comfortable with reading and writing. Oral strategies of introducing the themes and stories of the Bible have been important for such societies. When this is the lead strategy, Philip Jenkins notes, “learning to read the text is a later, and not inevitable, phase of Christian development” (2006b:31) that may lead to new ways of learning the stories of the Bible.

One of the challenges for speakers in smaller language populations is how literacy campaigns by governments and other institutions are conducted especially using the national or regional languages. For example, when a campaign is run using the slogan ‘Literacy is Freedom’, David Harrison points out that this implies “non-literacy is a kind of slavery or prison” (2007:148). However, Harrison warns, “many small languages will vanish without ever having literate speakers [because] small languages are seldom included in national literacy campaigns” (2007:148). The consequence is that literacy in larger and/or national languages often results in the abandonment of the smaller languages.

There are, of course, positive aspects to the development of a literate society. An example of how literacy is linked to evangelism is through the witness of Christian literacy teachers to non-Christians. New believers who are literate also benefit because they become stronger spiritually and are less likely return to their former ways than non-literate Christians. Literacy also provides practical assistance because literacy skills lessen the likelihood of getting cheated in business transactions. It can also provide economic advancement because being able to read and write increases one’s ability for personal and economic achievement. Literacy provides self-esteem, where using the vernacular promotes personal and community respect, and achievement (Dye 1985:221).

The mandate of Bible translation continues

Bediako notes that “Christianity among all religions, is the most culturally translatable, hence the most truly universal, being able to be at home in every cultural context without injury to its essential character” (2004:32). This is because the gospel is the basis for what became ‘the Christian movement’. As Sanneh points out, the gospel is in fact “a translated version of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language” (2003:97).

The positive effect of Bible translation in the vernaculars of Africa is attributed to the fact that the Christian message is so readily translatable. This is because of its “refusal of a ‘sacred’ language [and it] developed a ‘vernacular’ faith” (Bediako 2004:32). This is with the exception of the “dominant role of Latin… in some sectors of Roman Catholicism” (Bediako 2004:32). Sanneh observes that “without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it” (2003:97).

The availability of vernacular Scriptures has been the groundwork for effective cross-cultural mission.

The availability of vernacular Scriptures has been the groundwork for effective cross-cultural mission because “the complicated task of translating the Bible… has sometimes been an outgrowth of mission activity [and] sometimes the entering wedge” (Smalley 1991:21). The spiritual understanding gained from the vernacular Scriptures encourages harmony within the emerging Christian communities. Through reading and understanding the translated Scripture, people are made aware of God and his desire to have a relationship with them. They can become equipped to do theology in their context and apply it to daily life.

As a result of the extraordinary efforts of Christian linguists and translators, “more people pray and worship in more languages in Christianity than in any other religion” (Sanneh 2003:69). A related benefit is that Christians have produced more grammars and dictionaries of the world’s languages than the proponents of any other cause (Sanneh 2003:69).

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