|image credit: Zach McIntosh|
Biblical illiteracy is rampant among students (lots of them actually think that Jesus brought the 10 Commandments down from the mountain and Moses delivered the Sermon on the Mount). And if what the Bible actually says is mixed up that badly, then you can be sure that the Bible's origins and history of transmission is even more mixed up.
So, far starters, students should know that the Bible was first written primarily in two languages: Hebrew in the Old Testament (with some Aramaic) and Greek in the New Testament. The Greek wasn't the lofty language of the elite; it was the common language known as "Koine" Greek.
Why are Bible translations necessary?
Most of you (readers of this site) speak English as a first language. Some of you are probably fluent in another language, and probably even less of you are able to read biblical Hebrew and Greek. So the need for translation is pragmatic:
Most of us can't read or understand the language that the Scriptures were originally written in, so we need the words and sentences of the Bible to be translated into equivalent English words and sentences.
But translating sacred texts is no small matter.
Just because it can be done doesn't mean it ought to be done. Isn't there a lot that is "lost in translation"?
Is the translated Bible still the "Word of God" in the same way that the original texts are?
Muslims and Christians answer this question differently. John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, notes that:
"All Muslims, regardless of their native language, memorize and recite the Quran in Arabic, the language in which it was revealed, whether they fully understand this language or not. So too, all over the world, regardless of their local language, when Muslims pray they do so in Arabic. Until modern times, the Quran was printed in Arabic only. Even now, in translations, which more correctly are viewed by Muslims as 'interpretations,' the Arabic text is often printed alongside" (What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, 10).
For the Muslim, the translation is no longer the "Word of God;" it's an interpretation of it.
For the Christian (assuming he/she isn't engaged in Bibliolatry), Scripture acts as a conduit that points beyond itself to the God who revealed himself in Jesus. It was originally "breathed out" by God and is therefore both life-giving and useful:
"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NRSV).
Therefore the response is yes, the translated Bible remains the Word of God insofar as it is life-giving and useful for equipping the people of God for every good work.
Translating Scripture into a language that people can understand is not a new idea for Jews and Christians. The first translation was undertaken to make the Hebrew Scriptures accessible to Greek-speaking Jews after the exile. The Greek translation that was produced, possibly as early as three hundred years before Christ, is called the Septuagint (or LXX).
Bible translation, therefore, is necessary and good, and it is based on the conviction that all people should be able to read (or hear) and understand the Scriptures because they point us to God.
In the next post I will explain how Bible translation is done.
And in the post after that I will offer a perspective on which Bible translation is the best.