By Raymond Harris
Note to the Reader – If you have not already, I encourage you to invest in an additional translation (version) of the Holy Scriptures.
The writings that we hold not only as Sacred but also as God Inspired have taken a long journey over several millennia in order to come to us. Along the way, from Moses to the current men and women who bring us translations, many have had the distinguished privilege of being involved in one of the most important works in which any human is permitted to labor – the communication of the Sacred, the Holy, and the Spiritual through written text from one generation to another. Doing such demands the expectation to detail, precision to letters, exactness to words, and accuracy to thought.
A Common Language
The Sacred Writings of the Holy bible began initially with God communicating and inspiring one man, Moses. Moses had personal communion and personal communication with the Almighty. Jehovah told Moses what to say and what to teach the just released captives of Egypt – the children of Israel. While these people had, in many ways, a rough start for their spiritual and national development, they had one major blessing – the vast majority of them spoke Hebrew.
Modern Hebrew, like modern English, has developed through the centuries. The written Hebrew language has an early stage, middle stages, and a later stage. For example, we can relate to the Hebrew develop because we can see the English language go through an early stage, middle stages, and a later stage – that which we use today. What matters to us, is that the Hebrew language, in effect, looks somewhat different, but regardless of appearance communicates the same thing. While individual words over the course of language development adopt new concepts and new associated definitions, this is not the focus of our article today. The primary concept we want to grasp is that Israel did not hear or read their Sacred Writings through translations – they read and heard the original language.
While Aramaic, a child of the Hebrew, develops in the later days of the Old Testament (circa the writings of Daniel) and does have its use among the Israelites, their primary language remained Hebrew. The majority of the entire Old Testament is Hebrew. The nation conducted daily business in Hebrew, civic affairs in Hebrew, and spiritual truths were communicated in Hebrew. The priests, the kings, and blessed households read their Bibles in Hebrew. Transcribers labored arduously for months and years to produce a copy of the Bible in Hebrew. There were no computers, no typewriters, no movable type, no printing press – but they had a common language, Hebrew.
One might think that a common language would produce a unified understanding of the Sacred Writings. But by the time Jesus is walking the streets of Jerusalem, teaching on the roads in Galilee and Judea, and preaching in the synagogues, the Hebrew people had developed into several specific theological groups based on their interpretation of the pre-NT Bible. So it should be no surprise that in a world that reads translations of the original Hebrew thoughts there are not just a few theological groupings. Yet, it seems, even with the development of sects, the Israelites still had a major blessing – they studied and conversed about their theological differences using Hebrew.
A Common Need
However, with the development of the Hellenized Jews we find the first instance of the need for a translation. These Hellenized Jews identified religiously and theologically with the people of Israel. While these people accepted, to a degree, the Greek culture, specifically the Greek language (primarily because Greek was the language of international commerce), their religious and spiritual ties remained rooted in the Hebrew culture of Israel. Because of this common need, a translation committee, at the behest of King Ptolemy II,1 was called together to provide a text for those who read Greek (the Greek reading Hebrews and Greeks in general). That translation is referred to as the Septuagint (or abbreviated LXX). The Septuagint is a very literal Greek translation of the Hebrew, much the same way the New American Standard Bible is a very literal translation.
As the post-resurrection world moved forward, Western Christianity migrated from the southern European area of Rome into the northern European regions. As the decades became centuries and new peoples were hearing the Gospel, evangelists wanted the common people to be able to read the Bible in their native language. Latin, the primary language of Rome and the Roman Catholic Church, was not the primary language of the early English speaking peoples. The common people had a need, like the Greek readers of old, of reading the Bible in their language.
Many men, John Wycliffe and William Tyndale being two, gave themselves to the work of translating the New Testament. John Wycliffe produced the very first New Testament English translation based on the Latin during the 1300s. William Tyndale gave his life to the very first English New Testament translation based on the Greek during the 1500s. Both of these translations were firsts, the difference between the two translations is the source language – Latin verses Greek. These early “heretical” efforts influenced the development of Geneva and the King James Bibles.
These early English translators recognized the need to communicate profound Biblical truth to the general public who had no functional literate familiarity with Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. This is a need that has not disappeared. Because this need exists, many have taken in hand the profound responsibility to communicate Biblical truth in a language that everyone can understand. The blessing of a translation for non-Hebrew and non-Greek readers is the difficulty that there is also information lost during the translation.
While each translator, and each translating team desires to communicate the fullness of the original languages there are unfortunate lingual limitations. Knowing that these limitations exist does not remove God’s ability to reveal to the reader spiritual truth, but a translation does prohibit the reader from seeing profound spiritual nuances through original language word plays. We as English translation readers simply cannot see many of the nuances found in the source language, yet this limitation is accepted due to the fact that the Bible is so profound.
A Universal Blessing
Knowing that there are seekers of spiritual truth, translators have provided the Holy Bible to many peoples in many languages. This is a universal blessing. Since most of us, including this writer, are not literate in Greek or Hebrew multiple translations are not a hindrance to Bible study, but a true aid.
While battles have been waged over English Bible translations and some of the debate has been profitable, the truth of the matter is that the English Bible exists because of efforts of men like Wycliffe and Tyndale. John Wycliffe was declared a heretic2 at the Council of Constance3 and Tyndale became a martyr.4 Without them we might not have the ability to argue our preference of English translations. As such, we should find the abundant availability of English translations not a lamentation but joy. Yes, humanity can translate incorrectly, but the implication of that truth means one of two things. One, have at least two English translations for study. Two, have a personal commitment to learn the original languages.
The Bible is a blessing. It is vast. It is beautiful. The Bible is Sacred. But, as such let us consider the originator of that sacredness, our Father in Heaven, more Holy than the Holy Bible. May we learn from all the writings that we can, and then learn some more. May the LORD bless us as we seek him through his holy writings.
1. King Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) called seventy or seventy-two Jerusalem elders to translate the Hebrew scriptures. NETS, A New English Translation of the Septuagint, To the Reader of NETS, page xiii, ISBN 978-0-19-528975-6.
2. John Wycliffe was declared a heretic at the Council of Constance May 4, 1415. Wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wycliffe, September 9, 2009.
3. Council of Constance was held 1412-1418. Wikipedia.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Constance, September 9, 2009.
4. “Tyndale a martyr.” Tyndale was strangled and burned for giving the Bible to English speaking peoples sourced on Greek instead of Latin. Tyndale, William. The New Testament: A Facsimile of the 1526 Edition, Daniell, David, Introduction, page 9, ISBN 978-1-59856-290-3.