Bible Translation - At The Heart Of The Mission

It is probably true that most people do not readily associate the work of Bible translation with mission. Many think of it as a purely scholarly pursuit, while for others the mention of Bible versions arouses only visions of controversy and debate. The earliest versions, however, had their origin in mission, and through the centuries the work of translation has most often been related to efforts in evangelism and spiritual renewal. From at least as early as the second century it has been on the front lines of missionary expansion that the need for new translations has been made apparent.

In any church-planting effort the need for a good translation of the Bible becomes clear in two major areas: evangelism and edification. The use of the Scriptures in evangelism is not limited to those books, like the Gospel of Mark, that had outreach in their original purpose. The Old Testament is important for evangelistic outreach especially in certain cultures, e.g. Islam. Evangelists in the New Testament certainly made effective use of the Old Testament in their proclamation of the Good News. How the Bible can be used in evangelism will depend on a number of factors specific to any given culture.

Of equal importance is the place of the Scriptures in building up the faith of new believers to produce strong, self-reliant churches. For this purpose it is even more critical that the people have a Bible they can understand by themselves. George M. Cowan of Wycliffe Bible Translators observes:

A practicing Christian community with the Word of God in its own vernacular can feed itself, discipline itself, and multiply itself. No church is ever truly indigenous that does not have its ultimate source of authority for doctrine and conduct directly accessible to the people in their own language.

Early Translation Efforts

In the early years of the church's growth, when missionaries reached 
into territories where Greek was not known, they saw the necessity of making the Word available in the language of the people there. Those early translations were not characterized by careful scholarship, but they filled an urgent need and were effective in making the Word of God known to people in darkness and providing the Scriptures to new converts for their edification and enlightenment. Following the precedent of the New Testament writers themselves, the translators were not as interested in literary style as they were in getting the message across. So they produced translations in the common, spoken language of the people. Such versions were in keeping with the style of the original New Testament writings, which, for the most part, were in Koine, or common, Greek. By the third century there were a number of different Latin versions being circulated in Europe. There eventually arose some opposition from educated Christians against the proliferation of these translations. Augustine talks about “the infinite variety of Latin translations,” and Jerome comments that there were almost as many versions as copies of the Old Latin. There was particular concern over the fact that these versions were often in the uncouth dialect of the common people rather than the polished, literary language of the time. Augustine complained, “Every man who happened to gain possession of a Greek manuscript and who imagined that he had any facility in both languages (however slight that may be) dared to make a translation.”

The First “Authorized” Version

Finally, in 382 Pope Damasus requested that Jerome begin work on a revision of the entire Bible in order to “standardize” the Latin text. This work done by Jerome and others became known as the Vulgate. The word means “common” or “public” and reflects not only the fact that it was intended to be a generally accepted translation, but also that this version, like the New Testament itself, was written in the common language of the people.

The Vulgate was an excellent translation that communicated well to the people of that time. The idea of a “standard” text, however, had a far reaching effect. The following centuries saw a tragic shift in attitude toward vernacular translations of the Bible. The Vulgate became the “official” version of the Scriptures in the West, and there developed a strong opposition to any further revision or translation. Even after Latin was no longer in use, and in places where it was never known to the common people, the Vulgate was the only version of the Bible permitted. (Eventually, even many clerics thought that the Latin Vulgate was the original form of the Scriptures written by the prophets and apostles!) This attitude, of course, eventually put an end to any broad knowledge of the Scriptures. For most people a Bible in Latin was the same as no Bible at all. So, during the Middle Ages, God's Word was beyond the reach of the people.

Darkness Hates the Light

In that age of spiritual darkness, the church became the official curator of the Scriptures, and church leaders took a very protective attitude toward them. This attitude is most evident in the strong opposition to any who dared suggest the need for translating the Scriptures into the language of the common man. When John Wycliffe (or his associates) in 1382 produced the first translation of the whole Bible into English (based on the Latin Vulgate), the effort met with bitter denunciation from 
church officials. Years later Archbishop Arundel, in a letter to the Pope, still referred to Wycliffe as "that wretched and pestilent fellow of damnable memory ... the very herald and child of anti-Christ, who crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue." It was Arundel who called together a synod of clergy at Oxford in 1408, which forbade anyone to translate, or even to read, a vernacular version of the Bible. This prohibition effectively curtailed further translation efforts in the fifteenth century, but it was unable to diminish the wide popularity of the Wycliffite version. Hand-written copies of a later edition were circulated throughout England.

Revival Follows Understanding

Historically, whenever the Word of God has been made available to people in language they understand, great spiritual revival has been the result. A classic example of this truth is the Reformation. Wycliffe, to a large extent because of his interest and effort in making the Scriptures available to the masses, is called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Others who followed in this same tradition were men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale. Luther provided a New Testament for German­speaking people in 1522 and Tyndale followed his lead by completing a translation in English in 1526. These efforts were perhaps the most significant events of the Reformation.

Both Luther and Tyndale based their translations on then recent editions of the Greek New Testament published by Erasmus, whose work, far from being purely academic, was specifically aimed at making the Scriptures available to the common man. The preface to his Greek New Testament of 1516 contains the following words:

I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures, translated into the common tongue, should be read by the unlearned. .... I would that they were translated into all the languages of all Christian people, that they might be read and known not merely by the Scots and the Irish but even by the Turks and the Saracens.

 These sentiments were echoed by Tyndale when he stated his conviction that it was “impossible to stablysh the lay people in any truth excepte the Scripture were plainly layde before their eyes in their mother tongue.” He added that it was this consideration alone that moved him to translate the New Testament.

The Word for All - No Price Too High

We see in these men a spirit of mission, absolute trust in the all­ sufficiency of the Scriptures and a recognition of the critical importance of common-language translations for building strong faith and establishing God's people in the truth.

In Tyndale's day, however, such views were unpopular with church officials, and extreme persecution followed. Tyndale was eventually imprisoned and executed for his efforts. He died with this prayer on his lips: "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."

It is perhaps easy to fault those in past times who were blind to the need of making the Scriptures available to the masses. But similar needs exist allover the world today. Besides the thousands of language groups that have never had the Scriptures, there are countless millions who have only antiquated versions that they cannot readily understand. May God open our eyes to these needs. And may our gratitude for those who 
have sacrificed so much to provide us the Word move us to pass on their legacy to others.