Biblical Salvation Depends on Translators

If God had a book, wouldn’t it be readily available to everyone, independent of people who tend to make mistakes?  Wouldn’t it also be logical to believe that this book would be written in a language that all people can understand?  There are currently over 7000 different languages in the world with different dialects and figures of speech used amongst the 228 nations in the world;[1] does it seem logical to believe that salvation from sin and hell was limited to a book that was written originally in the small and localized language of the Hebrews?  Even as popular as the Greek language had become due to the efforts of Alexander the Great in Hellenizing the relatively small chunk of the earth he conquered, most of the world still didn’t speak Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic.  The Bible authors recognized this problem in their evangelistic zeal and claimed that they had the miraculous ability to speak in unknown tongues (languages),[2] but how are we to know this is true?  The supposed miraculous age ended with the apostles, which included the ability to speak in tongues.  So for the next 1900 years or so the world’s salvation depended on man-made translations of the “gospel”?  Good luck to the Asians, islanders, and Native American tribes on getting an accurate translation in the first few centuries of the Christian era!  Looks like its eternal torment in hell for you sorry sinners. (Rev. 14:10, 20:10).  Too bad they were born in the wrong place.

A translator has a difficult job.  Not only must he or she hear and understand correctly what is being said, which would also include facial expressions, tone of voice, and other body language, he or she then must be able to accurately translate the message to others.  Most men have a hard enough time communicating and understanding women, and vice versa, but throw in a language barrier and it becomes much more difficult.  But we are not just considering language barriers in regards to translations, but national barriers, cultural barriers, socio-economic barriers, educational barriers, religious and philosophical barriers, and in our day a barrier of almost 2000 years between the events described in the Bible and our own time.  To make matters even more difficult, the primary languages of the Bible are considered to be dead languages, which are languages that have evolved so much over time that they’re not even used by any living people today as a primary language.  Is salvation from eternal hell really dependant on translators telling us what dead men who spoke a dead language from 2000 years ago said and wrote?  If it sounds unreasonable, it’s because it is unreasonable.

Another problem with salvation in the translations of the Bible comes from the problem created when certain institutions and people who try to prevent the Bible from being translated into modern languages.  Several people have been excommunicated and even executed for translating the Bible into the English language.  John Wycliffe (1320 – 1384) was a theologian at the University of Oxford in England.  He was one of the precursors to the Reformation Movement that began after him.  Frustrated by the Church’s control of Scripture, in the year 1382 he began translating the Bible into English for the common person to be able to read.  Most Western Christians in the Middle Ages only had access to the Bible as it was read in homilies and oral versions in worship services.  It was Wycliffe’s goal to make the Bible available to the common person.  Today this translation is known as the Wycliffe Bible.[3]  The Church, however, was against Wycliffe’s effort to translate the Bible for all to read.  After attempting to ban Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible, on May 4, 1415 at the Council of Constance, John Wycliffe was declared a heretic by the church.  It was decreed that his books and translations be burned and his body exhumed.  In 1428, at the command of Pope Martin V, Wycliffe’s bones were dug up and burned, and his ashes were scattered into the River Swift.  What terrible sin did he commit?  Other than questioning papal authority, his chief crime was leading an effort to translate the Bible into the English language without license from the Catholic Church.  English speaking people throughout Europe did not have access to the Bible for centuries.  Most of them couldn’t read.  They didn’t have the money to buy a Bible.  And free access to a readable translation was denied to them.  Are we really to believe their salvation was bound in a book that they couldn’t even get a copy of in their own language?  Over a century after John Wycliffe, an attempt would be made to silence Martin Luther and his German translation of the Bible.  William Tyndale (1494-1536), who also translated the Bible into the common English, would be mocked by Church officials in a trial before being handed over to civil authorities to be strangled to death, and then burned at the stake.  Is it fair to believe that illiterate Christians in Europe, who didn’t even have a Bible they could read, were all judged according to the things written in the Bible?[4]

The problem of translations is not just limited to times and places where the Bible was strictly controlled by the Church.  It’s still a problem for us today.  The Bible was written long ago in a language that no one speaks today.  It was written in koine Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.  All we have today is a translation of the Bible as it was written in those dead languages.  Something is always lost in translation.  In his book, Misquoting Jesus, Bart Erhman addresses the problem of translations and knowing God’s will.  “If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know? And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisure to learn the languages and study the texts by reading them in the original.”[5]  I can understand much of the English translations, but I’ll always fall short of understanding compared to people who understood the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic.  Wouldn’t God’s word be written in a language that would never die?  Wouldn’t God’s word be written in a language that all people could read?  I think so.  But even with an accurate translation, we still run into the problem of interpretation.

 

[1] http://www.ethnologue.com

[2] Acts 2:5-11 mentions the plethora of languages and dialects present in Jerusalem alone on the day of Pentecost.  Hence, language barriers were a problem within one large city, even more so in the world at large.

[3] Several of the books in the Wycliffe Bible are not accepted in the Protestant version of the N.T. today, which is more evidence of canonical and translation confusion.

[4] “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.” (Revelation 20:12).  See also John 12:47-48.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), p. 7.

 

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