Six Phases in Bible Translation

Many persons lost their lives for translating, printing, and selling copies of the Bible during the period of the Protestant Reformation. The Martyrologies of Ludwig Rabus (German), Jean Crespin (French), John Foxe (English), and Thielemann van Bracht (Dutch) all spoke of numerous individuals arrested, tried, and killed for owning or selling Bibles. Each language group and denominational inclination had its own stories and its own approved sets of martyrs—of which there were many!

Not long ago, I began considering the translation and publication of Bibles as a type of earthly chess game—perhaps akin to gaming with divinely-revealed truth.

In Deuteronomy 17:18 God commanded the newly crowned King of Israel to make for himself a copy of the scroll “from before the priests, the Levites.” Later in Deuteronomy 31:24-26 we find Moses depositing the original manuscript of Deuteronomy to the care of the Levites to be placed beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord. Certainly, God was aware of the corruption of manuscripts, as was Moses. So He made provision for the books of the Bible to be kept in pure form.

We have two miracles here: (1) the miracle of inspiration—that God would actually “empty Himself” to communicate into any human language; and (2) the miracle of preservation—that through competing churches, numerous manuscripts, and varying language translations, God would sovereignly maintain the purity of His inspired words.

“The words of the LORD are pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times. You shall keep them, O LORD, You shall preserve them from this generation forever” (Psalm 12:6-7)

So, many manuscripts are not a bane, but a blessing. Many languages are not a bane, but a blessing. Many churches are not a bane, but a blessing. Consider the Chaldean church now being displaced and massacred in Iraq. Their Scriptures are in Syriac. They are an ancient church quite unrelated to our Western Church history. The existence of the Bible in their language and in their archives is a great blessing to worldwide Christianity.

But in the powerful Western Church there has a series of phases that have taken place over the last 200 years. In this blog I would like to analyze what these moves appear to have been, and leave the implications of these moves to the mind and thought of the esteemed reader.

(1) Centralization

In the Western Church, the first move was a centralized language and centralized Scripture. The centralized Scripture was given to us by Jerome and the language he used was Latin. The Vulgate was apparently commissioned by Bishop of Rome Damasus in 383, roughly 50 years after Constantine took the capital of the Roman Empire and moved it to the Greek-speaking Byzantium. Constantine’s move initiated 1,000+ of warfare and struggle between the Greek-speaking church and the Latin-speaking church—both of whom had their own language version of the Bible.

Gregory the First (590-604), Bishop and Patriarch of Rome, put into place rulings that gave preeminence to the Latin language in the Western Church. Simultaneously, in 602, Emperor Maurice was assassinated, being the last coregent over both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. No unified political head, no unified language, and no unified church. The Roman Empire split into several factions.

Meanwhile the Western Roman Empire lived on, being ruled politically sometimes from France, sometimes from Germany, and sometimes from Austria or Spain. And wherever the Roman Empire lived on, Latin was the language of both church and academia.

(2) Vernacular Translation

In England, a reforming movement began to spread which included a vernacular translation of the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and the evangelizing of his followers, the Lollards. The Protestant Reformation then brought a renewed interest in both Greek and Hebrew, and led to the translation of the Bible into many vernacular languages. In 1522, the New Testament was translated from the Greek into German by Luther and in 1534 into French by Olivétan.

Vernacular Bible translation and dissemination moved into high gear with the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1803. Instead of the Latin Vulgate being the version of choice, the King James Bible became the prototype for hundreds of vernacular Bible translations all across the world. In that same century, due to colonization and mission work, the sun never set on the British Empire.

(3) Source Text Debate

Two moves shifted the preeminence of the King James Bible. First was the controversy over source texts of the New Testament. Once the Plymouth Brethren Tregelles began to publish Greek critical editions of New Testament books, the floodgates were opened, and critical edition texts flourished.

(4) Translation Theory Debate

Second, in the English language, were the arguments related to the ancient renditions in the King James, along with criticism of its wooden or literalistic translation model.

However, with the removal of the King James as the model Bible, and the Majority text as the Greek basis for translation, the problem shifted to mainstreaming another Greek text as the basis, and shifting the translation model from the wooden literalism of the Protestant Reformers to another more fluid model.

(5) Recentralization

Enter the United Bible Society. In 1946 the United Bible Society was founded upon the ashes of post-WW2 Europe. It combined the wealth and influence of numerous large bible societies. These societies deeded the credibility of their names and personnel to the German Bible Society’s work on Greek New Testament manuscripts, as well as Eugene Nida’s Dynamic Equivalence translation theory. These changes happened during the tumultuous 60s.

The impact of this centralizing process was not ignored by Rome. In 1964 Cardinal Bea met with Eugene Nida of the American Bible Society and Olivier Béguin of the United Bible Society to develop a document by which Protestants and Catholics could cooperate in translating the Bible, a document which did not ignore the use of original source texts. Yes, this document was ratified by both the United Bible Society and the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity on Pentecost Sunday, 1968. The revised 1987 version, now in force, is available online at the Vatican website under the title, “Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible.” The esteemed reader would be wise to familiarize himself with the contents of this sweeping agreement.

(6) Digitization

Now to digitization. We are now in a digital world. Printing is now a digitized process, and blogposts remain in the digital cloud, being read in a digital format. Books, magazines, and newspapers are increasingly digitizing to remain ahead of the curve.

The Bible is being digitized too. And in order to read a digital Bible one needs: electricity, access to the Internet, a device to read it, and a source.

Consider the chart:

Or also the paper: 

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