The Cost of Holy Languages

welshI typed in Google about “speaking holy language” and got a lot of websites discussing or arguing or maybe pontificating about the following:

  • Is speaking in tongues (ecstatic speach) a holy language?  <No. ecstatic speach doesn’t have the structural qualities of a language so it is not a language– holy or otherwise.>
  • What is the language of heaven? <The Bible says that heaven is populated with people of every language. Based on that, Pentecost, and how God created us a language innovators, it seems safest to say that Heaven is joyously multi-lingual.>
  • What does Paul mean in his (rhetorical?) use of the expression “tongues of angels”?  <Since angels are messengers— communicators— of God to people, clearly they speak the languages of the people they talk to. One might argue that their God-given task requires that they be very multi-lingual. Since that would make a lot of sense to the context of the passage in I Corinthians 13, I feel that answer would suffice.>

What I really wanted to look at was what is the cost of having Holy Languages. A sacred language, “holy language” (in religious context) or liturgical language is any language that is cultivated and used primarily in religious service or for other religious reasons by people who speak another, primary language in their daily life.”  <A wikipedia answer>

Many religions have holy languages. These would include 7th century Arabic for Islam, and Sanskrit in Hinduism. Many Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Tewahedo among others) utilize a langauge that in many cases is no longer spoken by the population outside of religious settings. In many religions part of the entry to being a religious scholar is to be trained in the sacred language of the religion. The religious services are held in and sacred Scriptures are written in a language that is barely known by the adherents to that religion. On a practical level, doing so has some advantages. For one, it leaves the interpretation of doctrines in the hands of the few professionals,  keeping ecclesiastical power in the hands of a few (and this is certainly an advantage for those few). It strengthens uniformity and historical connections by having a universal liturgy. Further, it seems cheaper and safer since  translation is expensive and some leaders worry that translation may lead to false teachings proliferating. Probably most importantly, people often see the language as mystically associated with that which is transcendent or otherworldly. In effect, some feel that the mystery that is associated with religious ritual is cheapened by the use of vernacular language.

But is there a cost to holy languages as well.

  1.  False teaching. This seems to contradict what I wrote above, but that is intentional. I disagree that translation leads to false teaching. For doctrine to reach the common people who do not understand the “holy language,” either they must learn the language and then translate it (poorly most likely) internally into their own heart language, or rely on a trained person to translate it and interpret it. Translation is going to happen no matter what. The translation can either be done by a group of experts in creating vernacular texts, or it can be done poorly by the people or by individual ministers to the people. Additionally, making the people too dependent on the words of individual clerics gives them an awful lot of power and leads to the temptation to abuse or misinform. (Go to Youtube and see what individual “experts” can do to twist and misinform people who are dependent on them for their understanding of Scripture.)
  2. The Faith fails to cross cultural or religious boundaries. One of the best examples of this is the case of Christianity in North Africa. With the Muslim invasion in the 7th century, the Latin church slowly faded away. In fact there are relatively few places in the world where established Christianity completely disappeared. Why would it? While there certainly was religious bigotry and taxation and the typical ways religious majorities use their power to abuse minorities, the biggest issue seemed to be an error of the Christians themselves. They never sought to reach out to the Berber peoples in North Africa and never made the Christian faith (in terms of text, liturgy, and music) available in Berber or Punic languages. As such, Christianity was the religion of the favored Latin peoples in North Africa. But with the Muslim invasion, the favored minority became an unfavored minority.
  3. Culture becomes canon.  If one doesn’t really have the authority of Scripture available for the people, a syncretized culture commonly develops, and that culture becomes the guide for faith behavior rather than Scripture. Here in the Philippines is a great example of a syncretized folk Christianity that developed out of a Christianity that was presented in a thoroughly foreign language– Latin. The Bible was completely unavailable in local languages until the very end of the 19th century. Vernacular liturgy was unavailable until around the 1970s or so. Of course, many of us know the conflict William Carey had with the Indian practice of widow burning. This practice was perpetuated in part because it was seen as a religiously supported practice, not just a cultural practice. Carey promoted translation of Hindu Scriptures in to Bengla partly to show that the practice was not supported by their canon.

Of course, vernacular faith does not guarantee that there are no problems. Americanism (a term coined to describe a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity with capitalism, nationalism, and militarism, and power politics) still exists despite a plethora of vernacular translations of the Bible. Within Islam, while it is certain that Jihadist madrassas have been helped to promote violence through sloppy exegesis of their faith, that does not mean that first language Arabic speakers are immune from such propoganda.

What Makes the Holy Bible Holy?

So it started with a shared media content thing on FB. Some preacher was arguing that we should not simply go to church with a Bible app on our cellphones. We should bring our (paper) Bibles because, “It is called ‘The Holy Bible’ not ‘The Holy Cellphone.'”

I am sure there is a great name for this

Image result for sacred scripture

logical fallacy, but I simply can’t pull it out. To be really parallel, this preacher should have said something like “Is it holy cellphone or holy paper?” With that the argument would have fallen apart, I think. But it does beg the question of what makes the Holy Bible holy.

<I must add that I struggle with the concept of “holy.” I come from an arm of Christianity that tends to downplay “holy.” In recent years I have been part of churches that have used their sanctuary (‘holy gathering place’) on weekdays as transient lodging, school assemblies, a computer shop, and a gymnasium. We also don’t really use symbols (icons and the like) that much in a way that shows high respect as if we consider them holy. Some of this comes from a restorationist thread that seeks to recapture some essence of the primitive church. The early church met in houses, schools, fields, and caves. It also had few symbols that were highly revered. On the other hand, Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and Judaism embraced many things as holy, sacred, set apart. I won’t try to reconcile this here. But I will note it for those who may come from a different tradition who would then struggle to see MY struggle.>

Option #1. The Holy Bible is holy because of its material form. This is the argument of the preacher at the beginning of this post, I think. The Bible in paper form is the Holy Bible. However, in a cellphone it is something less. This doesn’t make sense to me. An alternate version of this might be that the Bible makes its medium holy. Thus, the paper form of the Bible is holy because it is made holy by the message that is on it. I suppose I am okay with this…. but in the case of the preacher mentioned, by the same logic the cellphone with a Bible app on it would indeed now be holy.

Attaching holiness to the material form has a long tradition, and I don’t really want to challenge it all that much. In Rabinical Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism (among others) special behavior is given to their holy books (or scrolls) that is meant to remind the faithful of the holiness of their texts. In some cases that means that some forms are treated as extra special. The scroll torahs are kept in the ark in the synagogue and are given a certain sacred honor that contrasts the same text on a computer screen. (The Decalogue on stone tablets is given greater honor than the same text on electronic tablets.) In this case, the holiness seems to be more symbolic. One symbolically treats a text as especially holy in one form in certain settings as a reminder of the sacredness of the work in a more general setting.

This symbolic treatment may be a mechanism for struggling between ancient faith and modern technology. In the past, ancient holy texts were rare and difficult to obtain. The rarity made it easier to blur the line between the holiness of a Scripture and the holiness of the form in which the Scripture is presented. But with the printing press and, more recently, mass printing, and electronic media, it has become much harder to ignore the fact that the medium and holy texts are not the same thing.

Option #2. The language of Scripture is holy. This seems like a bit of a strawman today, but at one time this was much more highly regarded. Koine Greek was at one time theorized to be a special “holy” form of Greek. The same is true of Biblical Hebrew. Some saw the Bible as only appropriately holy if it is written in Latin or Greek. While Jews created the Septuagint (Greek translation of Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures), they also utilized the original language of writing as one criterion for determining the canonicity of a text. The problem with this from a Christian perspective was that the books in the Bible were written in the vernacular of the people, and the New Testament writers were quite comfortable with using the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. There seems to be no “holy language.”

I suppose calling this a strawman is too strong. KJV-only people see the language as linked to its holiness. To translate it to another language or dialect is somehow to move it away from “the Real Bible.” Many Muslims follow the same logic with al Quran. For these people, they establish a clear line of separation between the Quran and books that contain the message of the Quran translated into other languages. Sanskrit is the language of the early Holy Scriptures of Hinduism, and the dominant liturgical language, but I don’t know to what extent they see their translations of their Scriptures as less holy or not. My ignorance in this area goes to other religions as well.

Holy language can also be related to seeing a Scripture where the individual words of the text is deemed holy. It is hard, after all, to take the exact words as holy if one accepts as holy translation out of original languages. Now of course many groups may believe that the very words of the original text are from God while still not placing unique holy value on them. While those who take a dictation or recitation or “verbal plenary inspiration” view of their holy writs may be more likely to see the individual words as holy, they may not and see the issue more about authority. For example, the exact wording of John 3:16 in the original Greek may be deemed as critical for proper interpretation of the message, while still not seeing the exact word placement as uniquely holy.

Option #3. The message of Scripture is holy. With this view, God’s message is holy not because of the language it is in, or the medium in which it is channeled, but because it is the message of God to us. Since I see no evidence that God is “anti-technology,” and I believe it is equally clear (from Babel and Pentecost) that God does not idealize a mono-lingual mankind, I believe that the meaning of Scripture is what is critical and is what can best be understood as holy. It is the meaning authored by God that makes it holy.


To some extent, I think it is good for us to dwell on whether we treat the Holy Bible in too flippant of a manner. Some religious groups, Muslims being a good example, see in Christians’ apparent flippant treatment of the physical, paper, form of the Bible evidence of our lack of respect for our holy text. I think that is worth dwelling on. At the very least, a greater reverence on the Bible in physical form may remind us to revere its message. However, this seems to me to be a less important way to demonstrate holiness.

  1. The most important way we revere the Bible, treat it as holy, is to recognize that its message is authoritative in our lives. To recognize the message of the Bible is special, set apart from all other messages, is to obey that message. This is a major way in which all of us fail to treat the Bible as holy— failing to live based on its message.
  2. The second, almost equal way of treating the Bible as holy, is to make a clear demarcation between the message of Holy Bible, and our interpretation of Scripture. When we treat our interpretation of Scripture as equal to the text itself, we certainly demean God’s message. This is a major sin I see with all too many people who preach the word.
  3. The third area that comes to mind is the abusive language many latch onto in terms of translation. I see this in terms of the KJV controversy especially. I was raised up in a KJV-mostly church, but we did not disrespect other translations. Today there are groups that like to define the NIV as standing for “New Infernal Version.” To link the message of God with Satan may express emotionally their distaste for the NIV translation, but it also demeans God’s word— or more specifically God’s Holy Message to us.

On this last point, there is room for disagreement… for argument. There are better translations and there are translations that need improvement. There are issues.

  • Should “The Message” be seen as version of The Holy Bible, or a flexible paraphrase, or even a running commentary?
  • Should translation be word-for word, meaning focused, or some sort of “dynamic equialence.”
  • Is the move to translate the Bible in a more gender-neutral way good or bad? (Many places, English kind of forces a gender that was not in the original. On the other hand, sometimes gender is clearly identified in the original texts.) Is the move towards gender-neutral language giving in to ‘political correctness’ or a good contextualization.
  • At the other end of things, does the ESV translate in a manner that reinforces the sexist views of its translators… or not?

We can go on and on. Good translation is important, but when we demonize (sometimes literally) a certain translation in an attempt to be faithful to God’s message, are we ultimately desecrating it?

Theology and Anthropology, Part 3

I think of this part as a bit more straightforward. Cultural Anthropology is important in contextual theology.

Theologian role AConsider the above image. The Bible comes to us as divine revelation that is embedded in certain source cultures (Ancient Jewish and Hellenstic-Roman particularly). If we accept that the canon of Scripture is closed, and identify that the ancient cultures are dead– no longer existing today, we can say that the Bible from this aspect is STATIC. However, the Bible also exists as translated word within different cultures… particularly the faith communities in these cultures. Since living cultures are DYNAMIC, the Bible in this sense is DYNAMIC, not static. Linking the dynamic community of faith with static divine revelation is a theological or contextual bridge (all of this can be described as “Correlation.”). Since cultures are dynamic that means that theology (at least effective theology) is DYNAMIC… changing..

So how does cultural anthropology impact this very fluid situation?

1.  In Biblical Theology. Understanding the Bible, divine revelation embedded in source cultures, requires deep understanding of the source cultures. This is necessary to interpret the meaning of the Bible. Understanding such dead cultures utilizes archaeology (a subfield of anthropology) and cultural anthropology… among other tools.

2.  In Translation. To translate from one language to another requires linguistics… one of the traditional subfields of anthropology. But solid translation also deals with culture. The Bible must be culturally accessible and relevant to be translated well. It needs to relate to and impact the culture it is embedded in, utilizing recognizable symbols. The tools of cultural anthropology are greatly beneficial here.

3.  In Theological Contextualization. A community of faith in a culture can be indigenized (locally accessible and challenging) or it can be foreign and unfamiliar… irrelevant. The message of God needs not only to be translated well, but must be tied to a community of faith with symbols of the local culture. The community must be self-theologizing… dynamically contextualizing God’s message and character to the culture. While this may be a local activity, it may benefit from both an emic (insider) understanding and an etic (outsider) understanding. Since the key character of cultural anthropology methodology is “Participant-Observer,” bridging the gap between emic and etic, there is much that cultural anthropology can offer in contextualized theology.

4.  All Theology. We sometimes act like there is real, unchanging, systematic theology and little locally contextualized theologies. But since the source cultures of the Bible are dead, God’s message is always translated and interpreted culturally. All active theologies are contextual. Some do a good job of this… while some do a bad job. Some do contextualization explicitly… while some do it implicitly (often not knowing they do it… a bad thing). Since all theology (even more so… all GOOD theology) is contextual, cultural anthropology always has something to say in the activity of theology.

Arguably, this is a bit high-end viewing. the exact methodologies from cultural anthropology are not directly brought out here. That must be for another day. However, I would like to think that these three posts demonstrate the intimate link between cultural anthropology and theology. Such a link should not be disregarded.



Is the Bible Translatable? Part I

Is the Bible translatable? Now when I am asking that, I am not asking whether the words of the Bible can be translated into another language. I am asking:

  • Can the Holy Bible be translated into another language and still be the Holy Bible.
  • Can the Bible be translated and still be reliable?

These two questions are related. If the Bible is reliable and it is remains the Bible after translated, then the Bible is reliable in translation. There are two options. Option 1 is NO. Option 2 is YES.  I divide Option 1 into two sub-options. One simply remains NO while the other is Yes…. but NO.

I believe that the Bible is translatable (Option 2), partly because of internal affirmation of this point. But first it is only fair to look at the options. Then in part 2 I  consider the pretty strong consequences of such a view, and finally in Part 3 I look at why (I believe) that such a view is accurate.

OPTION 1. NO. The Bible is not translatable. There are then two sub-options.

Sub-Option 1A (Simply No). The Quran route. In classic Islam, the Quran is untranslable, inerrant, and always has been (uncreated) in 7th century Arabic. The recitations may be translated in the sense that its content can be put into a different language, but it cannot be described as being truly the Quran. It is now “a translation of the message of the Quran.” Of course, one might actually ask the question of whether the Quran meets that criteria itself of not taking other source materials and translating and redacting them into 7th century Arabic. But textual criticism and the Quran is a touchy matter for some and I will leave that for those who are more skilled in it (and more cautious in their media outlets). In classic Islamic sense, any translation of the Quran is not the Quran. Fairly simple.

Sub-Option 1B. Christians generally are more subtle in this one. Few say that the Bible is the Bible only if it is in its autograph languages (Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). What some Christians do is more of a Yes…. but NO.  For them, the Bible can be translated into another language… but that translation is essentailly part of the Holy Spirit’s work to preserve the message. In line with that, certain translations are blessed with an inerrant quality that puts them above criticism. These may include the Septuagint, Vulgate, Textus Receptus (compiled Greek), and KJV. Consider the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX the “official” Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible was, according to Rabbinical tradition, created by 70 rabbis translating for 70 days. After 70 days each of the rabbis brought his translation of the entire Hebrew Bible out to share with the other rabbis. To their amazement, all of the translations were exactly identical. Now, like with the Quran, we are not considering the historicity of such a belief… but the implications of such a belief. For 70 to all translate identically is absolutely improbable… ridiculous… on a human level. What is being said is that the LXX was not actually translated by man, but “RE-REVEALED” by God. The same logic has been applied to the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the Bible, as well as the Textus Receptus (Greek), and the King James Version (“AV 1611”). The argument is that the translation was not actually a human activity so much as a re-revealing of inerrant divine word. I think you can see why this re-revelation option is still pretty similar to the Quran option. Even though there may be Bibles in different translations, strictly speaking, the Bible (as in God’s revealed revelation) only exists in one, two, or three, or so specially inspired versions. Anything diverging from that is a human construct and not to be trusted. This sub-option is more subtle than 1A, but not much.

Option 2. Yes. The Bible is Translatable. To say that the Bible can be translated and still be the Bible does not negate the possibility of special status for the original revelation. One might say, for example, that the Bible is “Reliable” (or some other word suggesting that the Bible exists as a historic revelation given or inspired by God) in its original manuscripts (in their original languages), but it is possible to bring message forward into new languages accurately enough to be considered Reliable… and not something lesser. Again, I am not going to go into issues of inerrancy and reliability… but rather consider the implications that I believe follow from saying that translation of the Bible is possible and it still being the Bible.

In the next post, we will look at the ramifications of the belief that Yes, the Bible is translatable.

Quote from William Tyndale (1494-1536)

“I had perceived by experience, how it was impossible to establish the lay-people in any truth except the scriptures were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text… I wish that even the weakest woman should read the Gospel— should read the Epistles of Paul. And I wish that these were translated into all languages so that they might be read and understood, not only the Scots and Irishmen, but also the Turks and Saracens… I long that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle.”  

(Quoted by Lamin Sanneh in “Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture”, 2009 edition, page 105)