Christianity is cross-cultural and cross-linguistic

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

10 thoughts on “Christianity is cross-cultural and cross-linguistic

  1. I think you are commenting on a different point than the one I raised in my post: I did not suggest withdrawing native language translations, but making available bilingual versions. I did not suggest that all readers would learn original languages, but that their presence might encourage a few to learn it — if 1% more of Bible readers learned original languages, that would be a great boon to the religion.

    But I do wish to mention that as I understand it, Islam views itself as a world religion (thus, for example, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Bosnia, large portions of central Asia, many Black American communities, etc. are largely Muslim even though they are far removed from the Arab world and culture).

  2. Thank you, Iyov. I didn’t mean to suggest that you were against native language translations, only that you wanted to anchor Christianity more clearly in the culture of biblical times.

    OK, maybe some people would be encouraged to learn biblical languages by being presented with bilingual editions. But who is going to pay the extra cost? Not the 99% of ordinary churchgoers. Not the publishers. Not the church, probably.

    Yes, I know Islam views itself as a world religion. But Islamic leaders in the countries you mention are constantly attempting to get their people to adopt the culture and legal system of Arabia in the time of Mohammed. They consider this to be of the essence of proper Islam. Their partial success can be seen in the increasing adoption of Islamic (that is, ancient Arabian) head covering by Muslims in many of the countries you mention, and here in the UK. Some Christian and Jewish leaders have equivalent policies, such as “Christian Reconstructionism”. But, in my view, this kind of cultural particularism fundamentally contradicts the essence of Christianity.

  3. Actually, Jews everywhere (not just in the US) have Hebrew original chumashim with translations, and everywhere they have Hebrew prayerbooks. I have never seen a chumash designed for congregational use in conservative or Reform communities in the Galut that didn’t have facing translations into the local vernacular. This generalization includes Jewish groups where Hebrew literacy is relatively low, like Reform Judaism. Also, everywhere (including in most Reform Jewish congregations) the Torah is still read or sung in the original language during services. In some places that means the English is read aloud afterwards or in alternation with the Hebrew, some places the English is not read aloud because it assumed you can read along with the text. At any rate it would be silly not to have the original text available in a setting where that is all that is read aloud, because it makes it hard to follow along.

    In any case both these comments seem to apply a very Christian notion of “understand” to Judaism that simply doesn’t have relevance here. First, in congregations where prayers are said in Hebrew (which is still all traditional, Orthodox, chasidic, and Conservative congregations, and the majority of Reform congregations), most people have enough Hebrew literacy to recognize at least some of the words of Torah by sound. Learning Hebrew well enough to pray is also a sufficient knowledge to be able to follow along with reading (if you don’t know what vayomer means, you still probably know how it looks). And the current attitude about prayer, which has been heavily influenced by chasidic attitudes, is that it improves kavvanah to pray in Hebrew even if you don’t understand every word. So following along with the Torah in the original language during its reading/singing is also a way to meditate on its meaning, even if you don’t understand ever word in the original. The idea that in order to understand scripture you have to literally comprehend every single word comes from sola scriptura. This doesn’t mean that Jews don’t think you should understand the literal meaning of the text (that’s why the translation is included), but it does mean that the literal understanding that Protestant Christianity demands is far from the only thing going when you read the Torah.

  4. Thank you, SB. My comments about American Jews can probably be widened to those in other countries outside Israel, who in most cases tend to be among the intellectual elite of their countries.

    I accept that my understanding of Judaism is very limited. But the fact that (with a very few exceptions) one particular language is at the heart of its worship, as well as its continued link to one particular ethnic group, demonstrates how greatly it differs from Christianity, with its vision of a multi-national and multi-cultural heaven.

  5. I suppose, from an ideal standpoint. However, Judaism has the Galut to contend with, so in a way, the scriptures and the prayers (although there are different minhagim) actually do serve to provide a sort of tenuous connection. If you’ve ever been an American Ashkenazic Jew from a Conservative congregation standing in a traditional Sephardic congregation in North Africa, you’ll find yourself relieved that the Torah is there, since everything else seems radically, radically different: including the physiognomies of the parties. Jews are considered an ethnic group because they consider themselves an ethnic group, not because, despite the propaganda, there is really something there. Too much intermarriage has occurred over the centuries for that to be true. Maybe international Jewry is a cultural group, but I kind of doubt it. I suppose you could say that about different local or national Jewries.

  6. As I argued, the extra cost of including Greek (or Hebrew) in texts is nearly nil — computers make the typesetting costs minimal, there are acceptable (albeit, not the latest) Greek and Hebrew texts in the public domain, and well designed typesetting makes the need for extra pages minimal. If there were a significant demand for such Bibles, the market could satisfy the demand with nearly zero marginal cost.

    But you raise a valid point: there is almost no demand for such Bibles. My question is why? I am a little surprised by your assertion that Christian churches, are not interested in helping to bear the costs of increasing access to original language texts. Given the long support of a broad variety of Christian denominations of religious education and religious-influenced education, I would have thought otherwise. Suppose there are 200 million English-reading Christians worldwide (a likely underestimate). What would be the value to the Christian churches of 2 million more people with access to Biblical Greek? Consider how much stronger this would make a variety of Christian activities, ranging from ministry to teaching to Bible study to Bible translation to deeper appreciation by individual Christians of their faith and Scriptures.

    Regarding the mood of Islam: I’m hardly an expert on Islam. But I did understand that just as there is a spectrum of both liberalizing and traditional forces in Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, there are both conservative and liberal voices in Islam. I’ve seen quite a few liberal Muslim apologetic books recently. However, I do agree that traditional voices have been louder than liberalizing voices in the last decade. Indeed, it is safe to say that the center of mass of all three monotheistic religions have moved to the right in the last decade — there has been a universal rise of fundamentalism.

    Regarding your comments on Judaism: I agree with you that the traditional view of Judaism of itself is that the Jews form a single nation, in contrast to the other nations (in Latin: gentiles). Judaism declares itself to be a non-evangelical religion, and discourages converts to the religion, thus sharply distinguishing itself from Christianity and Islam. However, given the practical diversity of Jews in the diaspora (and in the modern state of Israel), and the fact that Judaism is primarily a religion, calling Jews an “ethnic group” is probably a confusing terminology — we would not call “Hindus” an ethnic group (much less “Brahmins” or “Shudras” etc.), even though Hinduism is also ambivalent about conversion and (within the structure of the religion) religious status (and caste status) passes from parents to children.

  7. Iyov, I cannot agree that the extra cost would be “nearly nil”. Most Bibles are already typeset with very little white space, so the area of paper would need to be nearly doubled to include also a legible original language text. All that paper costs a lot of money. Of course you can make the English text smaller, but people who are happy with small English text tend to buy it already in small pocket Bibles. Also a bilingual Bible will be nearly twice the physical size of a monolingual one with the same size print, and that is a serious issue for many buyers. In fact I can’t see a bilingual whole Bible (Old and New Testaments, not to mention any deuterocanonical books) being feasible in a single reasonably portable volume.

    There are many serious financial demands on churches, not least for evangelism and for the relief of world poverty. I have not seen a single good argument why subsidising bilingual Bibles (except perhaps for leaders in training) would be a more important use of their limited funds. I would be extremely surprised, and disappointed, to hear of any church which abused its church funds in this way.

    Indeed “there are both conservative and liberal voices in Islam”, but the liberal voices are a tiny minority with very little influence, although for obvious reasons they are courted by the West.

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