Is the Bible Translatable? Part 3


Part 1 of this overall topic I suggested options regarding the translatability of the Bilbe. I suggested that the Bible is translatable, meaning that the Bible translated is still the Bible. Part 2 suggests the ramifications of saying that the Bible is translatable. It is a challenging viewpoint. Abd al-Jabbar in 995 AD (reference “Translating the Message” by Lamin Sanneh) wrote considerably on (against) Christians and the “Hellenization” of the teachings of Jesus. Of course I would argue that the primary underlying purpose of the book is to deal with the fairly obvious issue that Mohammed’s interpretation of Jesus is considerably different from the Apostle’s interpretation. Al-Jabbar suggested strenuously that the problem was that Jesus was “Hellenized”— translated into Greco-Roman culture while the Quran portrays a Semitic (although not Jewish) culture. Much of the rest of al-Jabbar’s arguments appear to have strength more in terms of aesthetics than logic. In other words, al-Jabbar liked the idea that God’s revelation is not, or at least should not be, translatable.If one does not share such a preference, the arguments become weaker.

John 1:14-15 in the Ibaloi language

The Bible, in my mind at least, argues strongly for God’s message being translatable.

1. Pentecost. It is sad that many miss the fairly obvious point of Pentecost. Some like to take the “speaking in other languages” and ascribe it to ecstatics (in part a problem of sloppy application of 1611 lingo). How did the church start? The Holy Spirit came and filled the 120 initiating the church age. The defining character of the Pentecost was that the message of God was given to Jesus’ disciples translated into the languages (and cultures) of the different groups who were present.

While Jewish rabbis separated between the Tanakh and Apocrypha, in part, on language, the defining characteristic of the church from the start is that God’s words are God’s Words regardless of language or culture.

2. The Gospels. Jesus spoke mostly, if not completely, in Aramaic. However, all four Gospels were written in Koine Greek– the lingua franca of the common people. Church tradition says that the Gospel of Matthew was originially written in Hebrew and then later translated. There would be nothing wrong if that was true, but it seems doubtful. If one assumes that the traditional authors ascribed for each Gospel is correct, Matthew was a Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek.. Mark was a Hellenistic Jew who took the recollections of Peter, a Galilean Jew, and decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. Luke may have been Greek, but still took the eye witness accounts of Jesus life and words and translated them into common Greek. John was another Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. In other words, it is not the case that Jesus’ message and story was taken over by the Greeks. Rather, the followers of Christ, the ones who were to carry the message of Christ to the world, made a conscious choice to translate the message of Jesus into the common language of most of the known world.

There is more than coincidence here. The OT (Hebrew Bble) referenced in the Gospels was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew text. My Biblical studies are a bit weak at the moment, but I believe that the comments of Jesus suggested that he often was referencing the LXX, rather than the Hebrew version. So it is not simply the activity of the Gospel writers utilizing Greek translation. Jesus did also (hoping someone with more time can correct me if my memory is failing me).

3. Multi-cultural Bible. The Bible was written over many centuries (some suggest 1500 years… some less). During that time three languages were used: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Even more, there were numerous cultures over all of that time (from Pre-exile, to exile, to post-exile, to Roman era Judea, to Roman era Gentile regions). At the very least, this fact rejects the idea of a sacred culture or a sacred language.

4. Jerusalem Council. Acts 15 speaks of the council regarding contextualization, or cultural translation. Can a Christian be culturally Greek and be a Christian, or must he (or she) become culturually Jewish. The council decided that based on the works of the Holy Spirit with the Samaritans, Cornelius and family, and in Antioch and Asia Minor, God accepted Gentiles as followers of Christ without taking on Jewish culture.

It would be hard to make the argument that cultural translation is blessed by God while believing that language translation is not.

I will stop here. The impact of translation on people’s lives around the world could argue in favor of the translatability of the Bible. One could also point out that cultures often appear to open people up to the gospel rather than inhibit it. But I will leave that for others to consider. Ultimately, The Bible is translatable and still be the Bible. That is a good thing for us since the languages and cultures of the Bible are gone.

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