Blogger Iyov asks Why are Christians satisfied with English-only Bibles? He contrasts Christians with Jews, whose liturgical books almost always include the Hebrew original text as well as a translation, and with non-Arab Muslims, for whom the Qur’an usually includes the Arabic text as well as a translation.
There are various answers I could give to Iyov. For example, I could berate him for his intellectualism in assuming that ordinary Christians have the leisure time and interest to learn the original languages. Certainly most non-Arab Muslims don’t understand the Arabic text in their Qur’ans; if most American Jewish children actually learn Hebrew, that is an indication of the social situation of the American Jewish community. But I will concentrate here instead on another angle.
From its very start at the Day of Pentecost, Christianity has taken a different line from Judaism and Islam, to become a faith which crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries. From that first day the gospel was preached not just in Hebrew or Aramaic, nor even just in Greek, the international language of the day, but to each person in their own native language (Acts 2:8).
What took place then as a miraculous sign was soon repeated and extended by more natural means as early Christians preached and translated the gospel into the languages of the people they went to, such as Coptic, Syriac and Latin, and no doubt others for which ancient translations have not survived. The new faith soon broke its links with its roots in a particular language and culture. While the extent of this break was unfortunate, this broadening of the basis of Christianity was an essential and inevitable part of its development into a world religion.
As Christianity became a faith for the whole world, rather than one for a particular culture, it necessarily abandoned its reliance on texts in any one particular language. While the original language texts remain theoretically authoritative, in practice preaching and teaching is based almost everywhere on translations. And this is a good and necessary thing for a world faith. Past attempts to bring Christianity to the world through foreign language texts (I think of the Nestorians, with their Syriac Bible, in China, and the Roman Catholics among indigenous peoples in Latin America) have failed to convert hearts and minds and so eventually proved unsuccessful. Modern Protestant and Catholic missions, accompanied by Bible translation where necessary, seem to lead to broader and deeper Christian commitment.
By contrast, Judaism has never seriously attempted to expand beyond its original ethnic, cultural and linguistic base. Where Islam has done so, its methodology has been to attempt to impose its original culture and language on converts.
Now I cannot help regretting, with Iyov, that the original biblical languages are not better known among Christians, and that there are not better resources available for those who do want to learn them. But, realistically, this study should be for enthusiasts, intellectuals, and for those in training to be teachers or leaders in the church. It can never, and should never, be seen as a requirement for ordinary Christian believers. For it is vital for the spread of the gospel that Christians remain in the world, are not isolated from it by being expected to acquire alien cultures and alien languages.
At the centre of Christianity is the cross. And that should be understood not only as the piece of wood on which Jesus died, but also as a symbol of how the Christian faith breaks down and crosses human-made boundaries to reach every corner of the world, every culture and language. This is the Christian vision of the heavenly kingdom:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
Revelation 7:9-10 (TNIV), emphasis added