Jonathan Downie on Why Having the Bible in Our Own Language is a Gift We Shouldn’t Take for Granted

Jonathan Downie is a researcher and consultant on multilingual churches, as well as a professional interpreter.


It was a puzzle that today’s church leaders might find frustratingly familiar: cities full of people claiming to follow God but lacking knowledge of his Word, individuals wanting to serve God but running into roadblocks of everyday life, politics, and hostility to their faith.

While this could be a picture of a modern-day nation-state, it is actually a description of the situation Ezra and Nehemiah were confronted with in Nehemiah 8. The chapter has much to say about how we should view our unprecedented ability to instantly consult a multitude of Bible translations. It also challenges our tendency to forget just how important Bible translation is.

After rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, the people had lost their initial excitement surrounding the project. Though physically safer, they were now in spiritual danger. According to Jewish interpreting scholar Francine Kaufmann, the majority of Jews living in Judea at the time would have spoken Aramaic, the language of the ruling Persian empire, and not Hebrew, the language of the Scriptures of that era.

Ezra’s response to the people’s spiritual endangerment represents the first clear reference to a biblical view of how we deal with linguistic differences. Before we look at Ezra’s solution and trace a few of its descendants through parts of the New Testament, it’s worth pausing to examine the views on Bible translation that we commonly accept or even preach.

Unhealthy Criticism

Despite admitting that we need Bible translation, there is still a tendency among some leaders to wish it away. It is not uncommon to hear preachers discuss how, in their view, a word should have been translated this way rather than that way. We easily take sides, defending one translation as more orthodox or acceptable than another, labeling some translations as “paraphrases” and others as “literal.” Some might criticize “modern” translations for not including certain verses found in the Authorized Version or jokingly call the NIV the “Non-Inspired Version” or the “Nearly Inspired Version.”

There is, of course, a need to closely examine any new translation—and the text criticism and stylistic choices underlying any single Bible translation are complex. What is more important about these arguments is not the specific points made or the specific views held but the underlying feeling in some quarters that there is or should be a single, best-for-all-time translation for any specific language.

Criticisms of individual translations are indeed necessary. But there is a danger that, in our desire for a perfect translation, we might find ourselves questioning the underlying activity of Bible translation itself. If we decide to adopt one single translation as the eternal standard for a given language, we risk ignoring the fact that languages change, alienating people from the gospel. If our words from the pulpit are used to criticize the very translations we read, we risk undercutting any faith our hearers have in the trustworthiness of the Bibles they read every day.

Professional theologians and ancient language experts can fall into the same traps. Peruse Amazon and you will find books with titles like Not Everything in Our Bibles is Inspired, or subtitles like “What we lose in translation when we read the Bible.” For those used to studying the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Scriptures, it is tempting to argue that reading the Bible in these languages is the best or even only way to access what they really mean.

In this line of thinking, an admirable love for the Bible can quickly become a repetition of the view that Christians require trained experts to stand between them and God’s Word if they are to understand it correctly—an ironic inversion of the Reformation doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and the perspicuity of Scripture.

Translating Like Ezra

Faced with Ezra’s situation, many contemporary critics of English-language Bible translation would argue that if the people don’t understand the Hebrew of the Bible, they must be taught Hebrew. Only learning the original language would help the hearers avoid any potential ambiguity and translation errors.

It may stun us to realize that, instead of teaching the people to speak Hebrew, the story of the reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8 actually has the priests speaking Aramaic. Nehemiah 8:8 puts it this way: “They [Ezra and the Levites] read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”

The translators of the NIV have helpfully inserted a footnote to this verse, explaining that another meaning of the verb translated “making it clear” is “to translate.” In fact, Kaufman defines it as “made clear, explained, interpreted.” She points out that the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic writings that forms the basis for Jewish law and biblical interpretation, would further argue that it was a “reading accompanied by a translation in Aramaic with some level of explanation.” This would go on to become common practice in synagogues for a millennium and is still practiced by some Yemenite Jews to this day.

At the first moment when there was a difference between the language of the written Scripture and the language spoken by the people, godly leaders chose to ensure that the Scriptures were made clear, translated, explained, and interpreted so that everyone present could understand. The response from Judah was emotional and exuberant. The Bible was always meant to be understood clearly so it could be applied directly. In the days when scrolls were expensive and time-consuming to make, the only way of doing this was to have regular Scripture reading accompanied with a form of translation that not only brought across what the Scriptures said but what they meant.

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Source: Christianity Today