Part 1 of this overall topic I suggested options regarding the translatability of the Bible. 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 Al-Jabbar’s 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 argued 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 draw more from his personal 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. Since al-Jabbar had been enculturated into a language and culture quite similar to that of the original writing down of the Quran, his aesthetic preference is quite understanable… but would apply to essentially no one in the 21st century.
The Bible, in my mind at least, argues strongly for God’s message being translatable.
1. Pentecost. It is sad that many miss 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). In Acts 2, languages were languages and it is wonderful that this was true. 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.
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.
The OT (Hebrew Bble) referenced in the Gospels was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The Gospel writers utilized the LXX when they were quoting the Hebrew Bible, and utilized the LXX when Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible. There was no undermining of the LXX by suggesting that it is “a translation of the message of the Hebrew Bible.”
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. And language even changed during that time. 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.
This is not to say that there are not risks of cultural distortion. I would argue that the doctrine of the Impassibilty of God has more to do with Greek ideals (and reimforced by Islamicist ideals) than what the Bible actually describes. Present American Christian culture seems, in my mind at least, to see Jesus as a White upper-middle class Republican. We have to be careful of cultural distortion… but such distortion doesn’t negate the value of translation.
5. Babel Narrative. In Genesis is the story of God confusing the languages. As Evangelicals, we would take this story as historical. Some read the story as a punishment. However, that doesn’t seem to be the big issue. The people were supposed to multiply and spread all over the earth. They refused so God gave them different languages so that they would naturally separate based on different languages, than became the basis, presumably, for language families. But note that language diversity happens naturally when groups are isolated. If they obeyed God and spread out naturally, their languages would have diverged from each other. They refused so God divided their languages and then they spread out. Either way, it was God’s desire for language and cultural diversity.
6. Revelation 7:9 speaks of the ideal setting of worship— around the throne of God. It is a balancing of unity and diversity. United in the act of worship and the object of worship. They were also united in message, clothing, and at least one aspect of action (waving palm branches). Here however, is where the unity stops. In terms of diversity, the crowd is composed of all nations (ethnic groups), tribes (‘phylon’), peoples, and languages. The last one, languages, could simply point to the diversity. But it also could point out that all different languages are included in the worship. I don’t know, but drawing from the Pentecost event, I would like to see it as evidence of language diversity, not simply diversity of people.
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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