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Translations of the Bible: The Issue of Language

Translations of the Bible: The Issue of Language

By Bruce Atkinson PhD
Special to Virtueonline
July 30, 2015

Is there a special "holy language" that God wants us to use when we read the scriptures? Or does God want His Word read and spoken in a living language of the people?

Much of the following information was received originally from a lecture by David Bercot some years ago on this subject (http://www.scrollpublishing.com/store/more-Archaic.html). Although I do not agree with Bercot on a number of issues, on this one topic I found him eminently persuasive. Because we still have ignorance in the churches about language in general and Bible translations in particular, I think that a historical overview of translations is needed today.

Linguists and other scholars who study ancient languages recognize that the Hebrew language is part of a 'family' of languages in the lineage of those who descended from Shem (hence semitic). Hebrew is in the 'group' of northwest semitic languages which includes the widely used language of Aramaic, but also the languages of the Philistines, the Phoenicians, the Canaanites, and other smaller groups. Nothing seems to be special about Hebrew according to the linguists.

However, like Bercot, I was taught in Sunday school to believe that Hebrew was the holy language that God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I was taught that Shem, the faithful descendant of Noah, was not involved in building the Tower of Babel and therefore his language did not change when the other languages were changed. But what I discovered in college was that all languages go through changes. Lots of changes.

Abraham lived about 2000 years after Adam, and Moses wrote some 700 years after that. It is highly unlikely that Adam or even Shem would have been able to understand the words of his descendant Moses.

When God chose for the Hebrews to write His Word, we must understand that He was choosing a particular people more than a particular language. The language was a humble semitic dialect, not a great language of the world like Aramaic nor was it some special holy language. The language used by Moses to write the Pentateuch was just the everyday language spoken by the Hebrews at that time. It was closely related to the language of the Canaanites. It is likely that after a few generations living in Egypt, a lot of the Egyptian words and phrases crept into their usage as well.

When the Jews were later deported to Babylon, they began speaking Aramaic as spoken in Babylon. Thus, some of their Babylonian writings were written in Aramaic (large parts of Daniel and parts of Ezra).

It seems that God uses whatever language is handy and available, knowing that every language will go through changes over time. The intended meanings of the words, however, do not change: "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:8). "Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens" (Psalm 119:89). "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Jesus, in Matthew 24:35)

The scriptures themselves demonstrate changes that can occur in only two generations. Check out Genesis 31:44-47. Laban named the heap of stones that signified their pact by using a word in a form of Aramaic, different from the one used by Jacob, who used a form which is identified as a Hebrew word. Both meant approximately the same thing (stones of witness). Even then, this family was drawing apart culturally, linguistically, and spiritually.

All people choose what vocabulary and phrases they will use. Sometimes they make up new words and some of these words catch on and become used by the larger group, eventually being accepted as a normative part of the language. Other words drop out or are altered enough to become unrecognizable over the generations. For example, basic English words like "cool" or "hot" or "gay" are often used with very different meanings than in their traditional usage. And then add all the new technical words. Our English language is changing swiftly. Incidentally, there are five times as many words in the English language today (540,000) than in Shakespeare's time. As hard as it is for us to understand their speaking and writing, it would have been impossible for them to understand us.

Look at the changes that the English language has gone through in the past 2000 years. English did not even exist 2000 years ago except as a vaguely similar Germanic language type. You can trace old Anglo-Saxon back about 1500 years, but even then it was not a monolithic language but rather a number of different dialects. None of them would be intelligible to any of us today. If you have ever tried to read Wycliff's Bible, which is 700 years old, you would have found it to be virtually unreadable, like reading a foreign language. Shakespeare is hard enough to read today and his works were written about the same time as the King James Bible, only four hundred years ago.

Even in Jesus' time, although a leader would get up in the synagogue and read a part of the Bible in Hebrew, it was no longer in a language which they could understand. Their common language had turned into a pidgin dialect of Aramaic mixed with Hebrew, Greek, and who knows what. So after the reading they would have a teacher explain in their current language what the scripture passage actually said.

And it is inevitable, if we are honest and admit to the facts, that we will perceive the common tendency of religious people to enshrine and freeze a language form once it has been used to record inspired information. For example, the Jewish Chief Priests would not allow the scriptures to be read in Aramaic or Greek but only in Hebrew, now become a "holy" archaic language.

Despite this fact, due to the increasing use of Greek among the nations and the Jews, between 100 and 200 years before Christ, the Hebrew writings were translated into Greek (the Septuagint, or LXX). Of significance is that the LXX is quoted in the New Testament and by the early church fathers. Because very few of the early Christians could read Hebrew, they used this Greek translation almost exclusively until the late 2nd Century. The influence of the LXX cannot be over-estimated. The OT Bible became available to educated people, because if you did not know Greek, you were not considered educated. This set the stage for the spread of the Christian Gospel throughout the Mediterranean world.

Note also that the New Testament was not written in the formal literary Greek of the philosophers and famous storytellers, but rather in koine Greek, the everyday language used in the marketplace and streets. After the Greek New Testament was written, the western Church quickly became part the Roman hegemony. As a result, a Pope eventually had the Bible translated by Jerome into Latin (the Vulgate) which was the common language of the Roman people. However, once again, during the following millennia it became regarded as THE holy translation and Latin became THE holy language. Still today many Roman Catholics hear the Mass in this "dead" language which no one really speaks. A similar process took shape in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Greek NT and liturgies became no longer the Greek that anyone spoke. And yet the church kept using the archaic language because it had come to be regarded as a special "holy" language.

One of the wonderful things about the Reformation was the emphasis on getting the Bible translated into the living languages of the people and making it available to all. Luther translated it into German and others translated it into Italian and French and Spanish. With the advent of the printing press and the resulting increase in public literacy, this process was accelerated.

Following the English translations by Tyndale and others (the Matthew Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible), King James (as head of the state Church of England) authorized and commissioned a new translation. It was an excellent work which translated the Bible into the language of the people. But the English language, like all languages, changed over time. And through the centuries the old temptation to sacramentalize a particular translation and its language (even when archaic) occurred in the English speaking churches as well. The King James Version in its 1769 revision became THE one "holy" English translation. I am not here to dishonor or even critique the King James Version, but I in this essay I am critiquing a particular view which one can take of all archaic language translations, be they the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, or the KJV.

It was never the language itself that was meant to be regarded as holy or sacred but rather the message; that is, the underlying meaning of the words, best expressed in whatever language the people currently used. This is why the scriptures can be reliably translated into every language that exists. God the Holy Spirit inspires many of these translators, even as He inspired those who first heard His words and wrote them down.

So to answer my initial questions: God has already told us His will on this matter because of the languages He has allowed/chosen for His Word to be written in have always been in the living languages of the people. He chose NOT to use the supposed holy Hebrew language for the New Testament. And He has blessed the entire translation process into many languages, including re-translating the scriptures in those languages that have changed over many generations. The English language now plays a very similar role to that of Greek in NT times. That is, it is far and away the most common second language for non-English speaking cultures. So it is not surprising that God has blessed us with so many English translations. He wants to get His gospel truths to as many people as possible.

Unless you choose a translation that is controversial due to possible heretical additions or subtractions, there is no right or wrong here. Just be insightful and honest enough to admit the real reason why you are choosing one translation over the others. Is it because you grew up with that translation and are simply comfortable with it? This reason is OK; you get to have a favorite. Just don't say that this translation is the only one which is holy and inspired, or that the favorites of other Christians do not also have the same divine value.

In conclusion, I praise God that He has provided so many translations of the Holy Bible in the English language and I thank the translators for their work. My comprehension of God's Holy Word is much deeper and broader as a result, and that has to be a very good thing. It is also why I am strongly for an Anglican Book of Common Prayer which keeps the Reformation and early church doctrines intact but uses today's living (and thus changing) English language. Just because as a child I became quite comfortable with the 1928 BCP and its archaic language does not mean it is very helpful for today's converts. They need to understand what our liturgies are all about. It is not our own personal comfort that matters here; as it has been said, the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints. IF the Truth is not conveyed in a way that is clear and understandable, then it cannot set many people free.

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia

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