Working Around Babel

Whilst the different languages of the Earth were deliberately put in place by God [1] it does add a level of complexity to the appropriation of the Word of God. For whilst the Word of God may be perfect; it is of relatively little use to those that are not able to read or comprehend the original language. Thus the need to translate from the original text into different dialects or languages has been present from very early times. Whilst this has generated a lot of work it has had the side effect of producing many accidental verifications of the original scriptural text.

The first question to ask when translating a text is "what does it mean to translate?" Is the purpose to render the words as literally as possible in the target language or is the object to translate the original idioms into ones more resonant with the target culture? The former is called a literal translation; the latter is a translation. Of course many translations are somewhere between the two. Beyond even translations are paraphrases that do not seriously attempt to keep the original text intact and then commentaries which really talk about the text rather than showing the text itself.

The product of a translation from the original text is called a version. A second or subsequent attempt at retranslating to fix the errors is described as a revision. An attempt to fix the errors without retranslation is a recension.

The Old Testament was translated first; partly because it is older and partly because Hebrew was less widespread than the Greek of the New Testament. Even the Jews within Palestine at the time of Christ made use of the Targums which were essentially Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew scriptures. They also had the Talmud and Midrash which were essentially commentaries based upon the Pentateuch and Old Testament respectively.

Jews in the Hellenistic centers such as Alexandria had moved to using Greek and thus between 250-150BC the famous LXX or Septuagint was produced. Ironically, whilst produced to bolster Judaism it actually paved the way for early Christians to have a copy of the Old Testament available in the New Testament language. This lead to the LXX being criticized by the Jews which in turn led to a wave of alternate Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament.

The proliferation of Greek Old Testaments really emphasized the political element that a translation introduces; because the work is partly subjective it can be readily criticized by those the wish to disagree with the translations for non-translational reasons. By 240AD the breadth of Greek texts had grown to the point where Origen did a six way parallel Bible that tried to display and harmonize all of the different readings. Regrettably his hexapla is no longer extant. Notwithstanding the many fragments of these different translations that are available give us a good insight to the pre-Masoretic Hebrew text.

The explosive evangelistic outreach of the early church led to a large and rapid increase in the number of translations required. One obvious need was for a translation to support the outreach from Antioch (the base of Paul's missionary journeys). The language of that area was Syrian and thus a number of Syrian texts were produced including the 'Old Syriac' and the Syro-Hexaplaric version which is a translation of the fifth column (amended LXX) of Origen. Eventually the Syrian Peshitta was produced which was a recension of a Syriac translation of the OT combined with a fifth century recension of the New Testament based upon Byzantine texts.

Other translations were produced towards the south. The Egyptians were using the Coptic script in three dialects Sahidic, Bohairic and the middle dialect each of which received a biblical translation. The Ethiopians, Gothics, Armenians, Georgians, Nestorians, Arabs, Slavs and many others also received translations that attest to the texts available at the time they were produced.

As Greek was the common language at the time the church first started to grow, Latin became the dominant language both of the Roman Empire but also the Roman Church. Initially Latin was seen as a common people's language and Greek was still widely used for literary purposes. However an 'Old Latin' version came into existence that was read alongside the Greek, in much that same way that the targums had been read alongside the Hebrew Scripture in Palestine. These versions were only semi-official and split into different variations.

By the third and fourth centuries the multiplicity of Latin versions had become such an issue that Jerome was commissioned in 382AD to produce an updated and revised Latin Bible. Jerome was a dedicated and capable worker and finished the Latin gospels by 384AD. By 387AD he had produced a version of the Psalter possibly based upon Origen's revised LXX. Jerome then commenced a revision of the entire LXX but eventually translated the Hebrew scriptures into Latin which he completed by 405AD; albeit in the face of much heated opposition.

Once produced the vulgate itself was subject to many copies and revisions and recensions and multiple editions arose. The Council of Trent declared the vulgate to be authoritative but then had to commission a version of it to be produced that could become the standard version. This happened repeatedly throughout the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries with new versions being produced as recently as 1954.

It is interesting to note that whilst God has ensured that His word is preserved He also appears to have ensured that no one language or even tradition has it preserved perfectly. Even the evidence used to reconstruct the Greek texts is often actually translations made from the earlier texts. It is clear that God wants the Bible to be something we have to think about and consider: not simply something we can put in a glass case and admire. We are so fortunate to have reliable, mass produced, unequivocal translations available in our own tongue - let us pray that we use them and not simply stand back and admire how they look upon the shelf.


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