An accessible Bible is a treasure not to be taken for granted, Scripture historian says
Yale University scholar says that, unlike Islam, Christianity wants its holy book translated
There is a long, cherished — and misguided — tradition among Christians
concerning the Holy Bible. It wants to say, “Our version is the best and only
legitimate one.” German and Scandinavian Lutherans who migrated to North
America sometimes asserted that their native tongue was the only one God
could really understand.
This sentiment, says Lamen Saneh, dates back at least to Jerome, who
translated the Christian Scriptures from Greek into Latin between A.D. 386-
420. “His translation was resisted in the Christian West until the Council of
Trent, hundreds of years later.” Ironically, Roman Catholic traditionalists
today think Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (“the common person’s Bible”) is the only
really authentic version.
Jerome’s experience is a cautionary tale, said the Yale University Scripture
historian. While presenting the annual Hein-Fry Lectures at Luther Seminary,
St. Paul, Minnesota, Saneh declared that church leaders have sometimes tried
to make Scripture inaccessible by resisting translation into understandable
language. “Martin Luther and the other reformers argued that Scripture’s
authority is not established by its incomprehen- sibility,” he said.
At one point in early church history, one of the Christian popes tried to
suppress a Bible translation in the Slavic tongue. When confronted with the
fact that Christianity began as a tri-lingual movement (the “King of the Jews”
inscription fastened to the top of Jesus’ cross appeared in three languages),
he reversed himself.
Bible translation has profoundly affected global mission, he said. “The
modern missionary movement actually began with Martin Luther’s translation
of an inaccessible Latin Bible into vernacular German. Translators like Tyndale
did the same thing in the English language, sometimes with the result that
they were burned at the stake. So, clearly, Bible translation has not always
been a risk-free enterprise.”
Saneh encountered Christianity as an African Muslim, a member of a royal
family who gave up privilege and religious tradition when converting. He was
impressed with the fact that, while Islam believes the Quran can only be
properly understood in Arabic — all translations are considered mere
“interpretations” — Christianity can speak any language in the world and has
no fear of allowing its Scripture to speak in those same languages.
Missionaries who brought the Christian message to indigenous peoples, he
said, had to come to terms with the fact that “these people knew about God
before they arrived.” This, he said, surprised and sometimes shocked and
disappointed some missionaries, who wanted to have been the first to
introduce God to their listeners. And, he said, the missionaries usually
discovered European categories and thought forms didn’t work well when
translating Scripture into native tongues.
In Maasai culture (in East Africa), Christian missionaries found that native
thought forms were not those they themselves might have wanted to use.
“The Maasai Christians have a creed that declares, among other things, ‘Jesus
was always on safari’ until his crucifixion and that ‘in the grave, the hyenas
did not touch him.” It concludes with hopeful words: “We are waiting for him.
This we believe. Amen.”
And, there was the problem of translating Christian concepts into indigenous
languages without losing the real meaning, while not making things
incomprehensible. Saneh said, “Sometimes the results were humorous — or
just downright wrongheaded.”
He cited the case of the missionary who created a famously clumsy
translation: “He was trying to communicate the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer,
but ‘Lead us not into temptation’ came out ‘O Lord, do not catch us when we
sin.’” Talk about losing something in translation!
There was also a problem when trying faithfully to communicate a key
concept in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. “You cannot say, ‘The Word
became flesh’ in an African context. Africans think of ‘flesh’ as ‘dead meat.’
So the translator, wisely, rendered the verse, ‘The Word became somebody’.”
Christianity, Saneh reminded his listeners, is a translated religion. “It believes
that God’s mind is not closed.” He said Christians championed translation of
the Bible from early times, first into Latin, Coptic Syriac, and Gothic “because
they believed the value of Scripture did not lie in its inaccessibility.” Diversity,
he said, is a hallmark of the Christian movement. Diverse translations
embrace this reality.