When was the last time you bought a new Bible? What informed your choice of translation? Do translations even matter in the first place? In the final installment of the Holy Writ series we are going to explore the issue of translations and answer the big question on most minds; Is the message of the Bible Lost in Translation?
It is commonplace knowledge that the Bible was not originally written in English. The texts that make up the Bible were originally written in three languages; Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Majority of the Old Testament texts are in Hebrew, with a portion of the book of Daniel written in Aramaic. The New Testament text on the other hand is in Greek. These languages represented the lingua franca (common language) of the target audience. As our readers may be well aware by now, at the time of Jesus, there was an official Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Armed with a complete Greek Bible, Christians made numerous disciples in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. As Christianity spread westward in the empire there was a need for another translation. Unlike their brothers in the east, most of the inhabitants of the western part of the Roman Empire spoke Latin.
Most of the educated bishops and leaders of the churches in the western empire took it upon themselves to translate their “Greek bibles” into Latin to help aid worship in their faith communities. The most prominent of these Latin translations was done by Jerome of Stridon popularly known as St. Jerome (AD 342-347). He was a priest, theologian and historian. His work, which initially began as a revision of the existing Latin version of the 4 gospels on the basis of superior Greek manuscripts, later extended to the translation of the Old Testament. This time not based on the Septuagint, but rather the original Hebrew. His translation became known as the Latin Vulgate. The term vulgate is Latin for common or colloquial speech. It was the translation for use by the common people. Jerome’s Latin vulgate gained popularity and soon became officially accepted as the official bible in the Latin speaking part of the empire. Following the fall of the eastern part of the Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire, Western Christianity became the predominant form of Christianity within most of Europe, and led to Rome becoming the hub from which most missionary efforts emerged. These factors meant that the Latin vulgate became the predominant principal bible in these times and for centuries was the only bible people knew.
But as the Roman Empire became more and more fragmented and countries slowly gained political independence from Rome, Latin moved from being the lingua franca of the common folk and became the language of the educated elite. As such for centuries the word of God was trapped in Latin. Only bishops and those who had the means to acquire an education could read or understand what was read by the bishops at Sunday Mass.
In the 16th century, as part of the Protestant reformation there were efforts to translate the Bible from Greek and Latin into the common languages of the people. Martin Luther, the figurehead of the Reformation translated the Bible into his native language German. Others like Erasmus of Rotterdam translated the Greek New Testament into Dutch and William Tyndale worked on a translation into English. John Wycliffe, an English theologian and philosopher in the late 14th Century, had previously attempted an English translation based on the Latin vulgate, a feat that resulted in his persecution and eventual death. Wycliffe’s work was not as popular because in his day, every translation was handwritten and took a considerable amount of time and resources to get ready. With his death and his posthumous declaration as a heretic his work faded into the background, read only among his disciples (The Lollards).
William Tyndale’s translation, unlike Wycliffe’s, was based on the original Greek texts as such was a more superior translation, since Wycliffe’s was just a translation of a translation (the vulgate). When Tyndale began his translation he also faced serious persecution and had to flee to Germany to complete his work. In what can only be described as an act of divine Providence, Johannes Guttinburg the famous German inventor had finished work on his printing press in that same period. As such Tyndale’s translation as well as Luther’s were produced en masse before his persecutors caught on to him. Tyndale’s translation formed the basis of more advanced English translations and also inspired countless others to go back to the original Greek texts to compose “better” translations.
That brings us to the question; if the Bible is based on the Greek texts, why are there so many differences in translation and is the message of the Bible lost in Translation?
In recent times, most translations have adopted the approach of Luther and Tyndale. By this we mean, they go back to the Greek and Hebrew texts to work out a translation. The difference in modern times however lies in the fact that instead of individuals spearheading the translation effort, it is now done by a translation committee composed of scholars in the original languages and ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN ( for the OT) and 1st CENTURY (for the NT) historians.
Also with advances in technology and the field of archeology we have more manuscripts of the scriptures in Greek and Hebrew. For instance in 1946/47 archeologists discovered 11 caves in Qumran in the eastern Judean desert in the West Bank. The caves contained various manuscripts, dating them to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Most of the Hebrew texts found in these caves attest to the information we have in our current Old Testament. These groups of manuscripts are popularly referred to as the Dead Sea scrolls.
These extant (surviving) manuscripts from various centuries – partial and full- are taken through a rigorous textual analysis by experts known as textual critics. These textual critics compare the various manuscripts for variations and differences. Some of these variations are due to scribal errors, insertions or omissions. But on a whole these manuscripts agree on 98% of the content and the variations have no bearing on the overall message of the Bible. The textual critics after their work of comparing and analyzing come out with an overall Greek and Hebrew manuscript known as the CRITICAL TEXT. The current Hebrew critical text is BIBLIA HEBRAICA STUTTGARTENSIA, abbreviated at BHS. It’s Greek counterpart for the New Testament is NOVUM TESTAMENTUM GRAECE. These critical texts form the basis of almost every translation. The translation committees have the enormous task of translating these ancient languages into English or any language for that matter. In the figure below you’ll be able to trace the texts from the divine author right down to our modern reader.
Now that we have the critical text, what accounts for the variations in the various English translations that we have? The answer to this question will be the focus of the second part of this post in the subsequent week.
- Duvall, J. and Hays, J., 2020. Grasping God’s word. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
- GORMAN, M., 2020. ELEMENTS OF BIBLICAL EXEGESIS. Grand Rapids: BAKER Book House.
- Shelley, B. and Shelley, M., 2021. Church History in Plain Language, Fifth Edition. Grand Rapids: HarperCollins Christian Publishing.