“From countless pulpits every week we hear an implicit message that has wormed its way into our minds: we lack the key to unlocking the secrets of Scripture because we don’t know the original languages.”
This is the first sentence of an article by Jost Zetzsche in the April, 2013 issue of Christianity Today titled “Knowing What the Bible Really Means” subtitled, Why Multiple Translations Might Even Be Better Than Scripture In Its Original Languages.
The author draws a parallel with pre-Reformation times when illiterate churchgoers had to depend on church authorities to tell them what the Bible said and meant.
Yeah Jost! You are my kind of man!
God, Who invented languages and implanted them in people way back at the Tower of Babel, loves languages. All languages. There is no special holy Bible language—not Hebrew, not Greek, not Aramaic, not even Latin or Shakespearian English. God reveals Himself in His Word and He wants it translated into all the world’s languages so everyone may know His great love for people.
Every time the Word of God is translated into a new language, the process brings out further meanings and insights into the depths of God’s Word, bringing deeper understanding by readers all over the world.
I remember how this happened when we were translating Luke 7 into Canela. It’s the story of local Jewish leaders who came to Jesus asking Him to heal the servant of a Roman centurion, saying, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”
For each of the English first person plural pronouns, “we”, “us” and “our” the Canela language has two words, mepa and mei. Mepa is used when the person spoken to is included, and mei when the person spoken to is excluded.
For example, let’s say I am teaching a class and say, “We (mepa) are studying Luke,” meaning “We (including you who are listening to me) are studying Luke.” If someone poked his head in the door and asked what we were studying, I would say, “We (mei) are studying Luke,” meaning, “We (but not you) are studying Luke.”
So it was easy to translate, “He loves our (mepa) nation.” Since Jesus was part of the Jewish nation, the Jewish leaders included Him. But then came the second part, “He has built our synagogue.”
This synagogue was in Capernaum where Jesus lived and where many of His disciples lived. If the Jewish leaders considered Jesus a member of the Capernaum synagogue, they would use the word mepa, including Jesus. If, however, they did not consider Him a member of their synagogue, they would use mei, excluding Jesus.
One day I posed this problem to a group of third year Greek students in a seminary and joked with them, saying, “Look it up in Greek.” Their knowledge of Greek was useless in this case since neither Greek nor English considers the inclusive and exclusive aspects of the person spoken to.
It took some study on the part of the seminarians to come up with a good decision based on the fact that He was known everywhere as “Jesus of Nazareth.” The Canelas, however, don’t need to study the situation. They can simply read the mei, excluding Jesus, in the text and know instantly that the Jewish leaders considered Jesus a member of another synagogue.
Try reading 2nd Corinthians 5 and decide when the pronouns “we,” “us” and “our” refer to the Corinthian Christians (mepa, inclusive) and when they refer only to the writers Paul and Timothy (mei, exclusive). We translated the pronouns in verses 1 to 10 as mepa, including the Corinthians, but in verse 11 we switched to mei, excluding them. The Canela portion of God’s worldwide Church has, in this small area of meaning, a better insight into Scripture than people who read the Bible only in English or Greek.
Thousands of languages all over the world have unique features that force translators to explore deeper meanings and gather further insights, and thereby bringing the readers into a greater understanding of the Word of God.
Long ago God began to reveal Himself to mankind as He, through the Holy Spirit inspired prophets and apostles to write His Word. Ever since then this same Holy Spirit has been helping scholars to translate it into the more than 6,500 living languages of the world, thereby increasingly revealing more of Himself to the world’s peoples.
The Church as a whole is, therefore, enriched by translating the Bible into all God’s languages.