The book of Islam – the Quran (or Koran) – can never be considered a Quran if translated out of Arabic into another language. A translated Quran is not the Quran! Arabic is seen as a sacred language, and any translation a mere interpretation. “…any translation of God’s Book is a human effort. It is not, and will never be a Scripture.”[i] Christians, on the other hand, have no problem calling a translation Scripture or The Bible.
Inspiration gave the word of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17). We validly speak of having the inspired word of God today – but, as a process, inspiration is past tense. Preservation keeps the word of God (Isaiah 30:8). Translation multiplies the word of God – makes it available to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.
By what authority do Christians translate the Bible out of its original languages? Most of us assume, presuppose – maybe never think about whether or not there is heavenly authorization to translate the inspired scriptures out of the original tongues into other languages. Does any command, precept, or example in the Bible itself support it?
Christians have often neglected a careful exposition of why we gladly translate the Bible into other languages. Often it is not taught. Nevertheless, most Bible-believers intuit that they can and should use Bibles translated into their own languages. A few arrogant academics adamantly assert that those who don’t know the Bible in the original languages do not know the Bible. Thankfully, these are few and far between – and folks who are poor readers in their first language are some of the best living-out-the-Bible-Christians that I know! On one hand, Christians are able to recognize and appreciate scholarship. On the other hand, true Christians do not create castes of greater and lesser degrees based on the languages in which they read their Bibles!
Christians translate the Bible for historical, practical, and theological reasons. I will address the first and last of these three. Practically, Christians do not demand converts to read and speak any of the Biblical languages. In fact, they encourage them to find and learn of him in a language they understand.
Creeds and Confessions
Most of our Baptist confessions of faith have not addressed the translation of the Bible. I know of only a few – the London Confession of 1677/1689, the Orthodox Creed of 1679, Philadelphia Confession of 1742 (a revision of the 1689 London Confession). This is unfortunate, in that we have not kept it before us confessionally. Books of Systematic Theology sometimes address the topic.
An Orthodox Creed: Or, a Protestant Confession of Faith of 1679 (General Baptist)
Article XXXVII. Of the Sacred Scripture. The Authority of the holy Scripture, dependeth not upon the Authority of any Man, but only upon the Authority of God,(331) who hath delivered and revealed his mind therein unto us, and containeth all things necessary for Salvation;(332) so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any Man, that it should be believed as an Article of the Christian Faith, or be thought requisite to Salvation.(333) Neither ought we (since we have the Scriptures delivered to us now) to depend upon, hearken to, or regard the pretended immediate Inspirations, Dreams, or Prophetical Predictions, by or from any Person whatsoever, lest we be deluded by them.(334) Nor yet do we believe that the Works of Creation, nor the Law written in the Heart, (viz.) Natural Religion (as some call it), or the Light within Man, as such, is sufficient to inform Man of Christ the Mediator, or of the way to Salvation, or Eternal Life by him;(335) but the holy Scriptures are necessary to instruct all Men into the way of Salvation, and eternal Life. And we do believe, that all People ought to have them in their Mother Tongue,(336) and diligently, and constantly to read them in their particular Places and Families, for their Edification, and Comfort. And endeavour to frame their Lives, according to the direction of God’s Word, both in Faith and Practice, the holy Scriptures being of no private Interpretation, but ought to be interpreted according to the Analogie of Faith, and is the best Interpreter of it self;(337) and is sole Judge in Controversie.(338) And no Decrees of Popes, or Councils, or Writings of any Person whatsoever, are of equal Authority with the sacred Scriptures. And by the holy Scriptures we understand, the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, as they are now translated into our English Mother-Tongue, of which there hath never been any doubt of their Verity, and Authority, in the Protestant Churches of Christ to this Day.
(331: 2 Pet. 1.19, 20, 21. 2 Tim. 3.15, 16, 17.; 332: Joh. 20.30, 31. & 21.25.; 333: Mat. 22.29. John 5.39, 46, 47. & 10.35. & 17.23. Prov. 30.5, 6. Josh. 1.7. Rev. 22.18. Deut. 12.32.; 334: Isa. 8.20. 2 Pet. 1.19. 2 John 7, 8, 9, 10. Mat. 24.23, 24, 25, 26. 2 Thess. 2.7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15.; 335: I Cor. 1.20, 21, 22, 23, 24. & 2.6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14. Rom. 15.4, 5. & 16.25, 26. & 1.16, 17, 18. Gal. 5.22. Rom. 11.31, 32. & 10.13. to the 21.; 336: I Cor. 14.4, 9, 10, 11, 19. Col. 3.16.; 337: 2 Pet. 1.20, 21. Acts 15.15, 16.; 338: Mat. 22.29, 30. Acts 17.10, 11, 12, 13. & 18.28.)
London Baptist Confession of 1689 (Particular Baptist)
1.8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.
(Romans 3:2; Isaiah 8:20; Acts 15:15; John 5:39; 1 Corinthians 14:6, 9, 11, 12, 24, 28; Colossians 3:16)
The translators of the King James Bible gave the following defense of the work of translation (in “The Translators to the Reader,” King James Bible, 1611):
But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? as it is written, Except I know the power of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh, a Barbarian, and he that speaketh, shall be a Barbarian to me. [1 Cor 14] The Apostle excepteth no tongue; not Hebrew the ancientest, not Greek the most copious, not Latin the finest. Nature taught a natural man to confess, that all of us in those tongues which we do not understand, are plainly deaf; we may turn the deaf ear unto them...Therefore as one complaineth, that always in the Senate of Rome, there was one or other that called for an interpreter: so lest the Church be driven to the like exigent, it is necessary to have translations in a readiness. Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered [Gen 29:10]. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) [John 4:11] without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, Read this, I pray thee, he was fain to make this answer, I cannot, for it is sealed. [Isa 29:11]
William Tyndale, as quoted in the Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, touching Matters of the Church by John Foxe, 1563 Edition, Book 3, p.570
“I defie the Pope and all his laws (and said), If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he doest.”
History and Tradition
History and tradition are not authoritative, but support the principles we find in Scripture. Jews were translators of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Targums, some possibly dated to 400 BC, are Aramaic translations or paraphrases of the Old Testament.[ii] The OT was translated into Greek in the 2nd and 3rd centuries before the time of Christ (called the Septuagint or LXX). The apostles may have used the Targums (quoted in Greek) or quoted from the LXX in their writings. Christians were translators of both the Old and New Testaments, from early post-apostolic times.
Origen’s Hexapla, compiled sometime before AD 240, organized the Old Testament into six columns – the Hebrew text, a transliteration of the Hebrew into Greek characters, and four Greek translations. Jerome’s translation into Latin was commissioned AD 382 and was done sometime afterward – but there were also Latin translations prior to that of Jerome. These considered together are called Vetus Latina, Old Latin or Old Italic, and are perhaps the earliest Christian translation of the Bible. According to The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915), it was in North Africa (or possibly Antioch in the East) rather than Rome that the earliest translation of the scriptures into Latin was made – possibly as early as the middle of the 2nd century AD. Also in the 2nd century (circa AD 150) a Syrian named Tatian created a “harmony” of all four Gospels translated from Greek into Syriac. There is some evidence that Ulfilas, or Wulfila created an alphabet for the Goths, and translated the Bible into Visigothic using that alphabet by about 389. The alphabet and Bible translation served the purpose of Ulfilas propagating his Christian views among the Goths.
The research of William Stephen Gilly (1789–1855) indicates the Waldenses translated the New Testament into Lingua Romana or Roumant (a common language in southern Europe at the time), by the 12th century AD, and apparently later financed of the French Bible d’Olivétan (or La Bible qui est toute la Sainte Ecriture) in AD 1535 by Pierre Robert Olivétan. The first complete Bible in English was translated by John Wycliffe and others by 1382. The Reformation burst forth with Bible translations into multiple languages, in contrast to and defiance of the Roman Catholic standard for reading, studying, and worshipping in Latin.[iii] The spread of translations of the Old and New Testaments match the spread of Christian outreach into the world (e.g., Armenian (410), Syriac (508), Arabic (680), Hungarian (1410), Spanish (1478), German (1534), and so on). The Catholic insistence on one translation, the Vulgate – combined with insistence on the priority of their church and the Pope – was destructive to the Christian faith.
Ultimately, Christians translate for theological reasons. Translators, Creeds, Confessions of Faith, all make some general or specific appeal to the Bible as its own authority for translating it into other languages. I offer the following considerations.
The Tri-lingual Word
Christians revere the original writings of the biblical authors as inspired – but they do not revere any one language as sacred. God inspired the Bible in not one but three languages! The Old Testament is given in Hebrew, with some portions in Aramaic. Even though Jesus came to the world as a Jew, a son of Abraham, a son of David – to the Jews in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Judea – God did not give the New Testament in Hebrew, but in Greek. Further, he even included some Aramaic words in the New Testament![iv] To read the Bible in the original, one could not learn one language, but 3 languages.[v] This suggests God did not intend believers of all different languages to the uttermost parts of the earth devote a lifetime of study to three foreign languages in order to hear a word from God. Interestingly, when the king of Persia had an important message for his kingdom, he put it in the letters/alphabet and language of all the peoples of the kingdom. (e.g. Esther 1:22; Esther 3:12; Esther 8:9). Surely God of the Bible exhibits no less concern for his subjects than the pagan king of Persia!
The Great Commission
The Great Commission implies translation. Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. Acts 1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. The command is not “go and teach Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to all nations” but “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). To teach everything Christ commanded we must either give individuals and churches advanced lessons in three languages or else a translation in their mother tongue.” The apostles, early churches, and anti-pædobaptist churches throughout history have understood it as the latter. How can we teach them to observe what they cannot understand?
The nature of gospel salvation
Romans 10:13-17 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. The nature of gospel salvation and the testimony of the apostles testifies that preaching and hearing precede believing. One cannot call on God apart from belief. Belief is producing by hearing, and the hearing comes from the preaching of the word of the sent preacher. The going church does not expect and enforce years of language lessons in order give out the word of God. The preaching is first, heard in one’s own language. The believing is second, in one’s heart.
The Pentecostal sign
Acts 1:5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. On the Pentecost following Jesus’s resurrection the apostles spoke in tongues and hearers heard, each in his own language. The example of the Pentecost sign presupposes and illustrates taking the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth, and to all sorts of languages.[vi] The inspired word of God must not be heard in only one language, but it available in many. The word is translatable! Lamin Sanneh, a professor at Yale, put it this way: “Pentecost signaled the expansion of Christianity beyond the boundaries of one language, race and culture.”
A distinction of sounds
In 1 Corinthians 14:3-28 Paul makes a point of edifying instruction. All together edify, edified, edifieth, and edification are found seven times in verses 3, 4, 5, 12, 17 and 26.[vii] Notice also, “except they give a distinction in the sounds…words easy to be understood…if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian…in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” Paul implies the need of translation when he promotes edification in a language one can understand above demonstration in a language that could not be understood. The why? Edification and comprehension are more desirable. More importantly, the word should be understandable rather than foreign.
Search the scriptures
Commands to read, search, and rightly divide the scriptures presuppose the ability of those under that command to obey it. John 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. 2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life...”[viii] The scriptures make us wise to salvation (2 Timothy 3:15; John 20:30-31), are written for our instruction and to induce comfort and hope (Romans 15:4), and furnish us completely for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Searching the scriptures exhibits a nobility of character not found in those who do not. Acts 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
Hide the word in your heart
Psalm 119:11 and Colossians 3:16 offer some implications about the language of the heart – each one’s first language or mother tongue. The rich indwelling of the word is impossible in a language that is unknown, and difficult in a language that is not well-known. In Psalm 119 the exaltation of the forever-settled word (v. 89) that is a lamp and a light (v. 105) includes meditation (v. 15), longing (v. 20), remembrance (v. 52), rejoicing (v. 162), speaking (v. 172), and delight (vs. 16, 174). How can one mediate, remember, and delight in a sealed book? (Cf. Isaiah 29:11-12).
The Gospel for every tongue
There are redeemed and clothed in white robes out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation (Revelation 5:9; Revelation 7:9). John ate of the “little book”[ix] and was to prophesy before many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings (Revelation 10:11). The angel who had the everlasting gospel[x] preached to all them that dwell on the earth – to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, to every language (Revelation 14:6; cf. Galatians 1:8-9). The gospel for all nations, preached to all nations, signifies the need for the gospel in the tongues or languages of all nations.
The Translated Word
Jesus is the Word. He is the alpha and omega – the first and last of the alphabet and all letters in between (Revelation 1:8). The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In the supernatural and sublime act of incarnation, the divine Spirit was translated into human flesh, whereby he might reveal himself. God the Spirit as God the Flesh Man met men where they are and inerrantly revealed himself, as the Word and by his words. He spoke to man in ways they could understand, in their own language, so to speak. God’s miracle of incarnation well illustrates how the written word may be “incarnated” into the various languages of the peoples of the world.
Authority for the translation of the inspired words of God will not be found in an explicit command, “Thou shalt translate all these words into other languages.” Rather it is implicit, found in the nature of the God who gave the word – the God of all the earth (Cf. Isaiah 54:5) – and the nature of the word itself – a word for all people, tongues and nations (Cf. Isaiah 45:22). Scripture itself, our rule of faith and practice, contains all the elements of which Bible translation is a necessary consequence.
The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.
[ii] After the return from exile, Aramaic rather than Hebrew was the usual language of communication among the Jews.
[iii] For example, the Council of Trent (4th session, 1546) “ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition…be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic [i.e., authoritative]; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.” – Decree Concerning the Edition and Use of the Sacred Books, 1546
[iv] For examples, see Matthew 5:22; 27:46; Mark 5:41; 7:34; 11:9; 14:36; John 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:22.
[v] In addition to the New Testament in Greek and the Old Testament primarily in Hebrew, some portions of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic – Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Daniel 2:46-7:28; one verse in Jeremiah – 10:11; and two words in Genesis 31:47 (Jegar-sahadutha).
[vi] This is not a direct apples-to-apples comparison. Speaking in tongues was superficially a speaking gift because it was a language, something spoken – but primarily tongues was a sign gift. The tongues in Acts 2 were for a sign and fulfillment of prophecy. They were not necessary for simply communicating the gospel. Many people miss the fact that the people present were able to communicate with one another in a common language. See Acts 2:7, 12, where they were “saying one to another.” They could have understood in whatever common language they spoke, without the gift of tongues.
[vii] As translated in the King James Bible.
[viii] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 116
[Note: this essay was incited and improved by discussions with Mark Ward and members of the Baptist Board.]