I have six translations of the New Testament on my bookshelf, and on my computer I have another five. Quite a luxury, having so many translations at my fingertips, especially since there are still millions around the world who haven’t a single translation in their mother-tongue.
As was made crystal clear in The Passion of the Christ, the language of the New Testament is not our language. I’m finishing Lamin Sanneh’s excellent book Whose Religion is Christianity?, and I thought some of his ideas on translation were worth sharing.
…the New Testament Gospels are a translated version of the message of Jesus, and that means that Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their Scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians.
the more Christians press for a return to the origins of their religion, the more they stumble unreassuringly in the gap between the infinitely varied languages adopted for Scripture and worship and the language in which Jesus preached. Since Jesus did not write or dictate the Gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message…
Christianity seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder. —Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?
Sanneh goes on to remind us of Jesus’ attempts to simplify the mysteries of God. He taught in parables using everyday figures of speech, common moral scenarios and using the concrete to illustrate the invisible. He did not obfuscate. He said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this…,” and if his followers did not understand, it was perhaps that the paradigm shifts Jesus introduced were too great to take in all at once.
By contrast, many Eastern religions are founded on the principle that the spiritual can only be understood by certain highly trained elders of the priestly class. By contrast, Islam’s holy book, the Quran, is only considered authoritative when read in the original Arabic.
Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled the prophecy that said, I will speak to you in parables, I will explain mysteries hidden since the creation of the world. —Matthew 13:34,35, NLT
I think it’s fair to say that Jesus Christ himself was a translation of the living God. The apostle John refers to Jesus as “the Word,” and says in verse 14 of the first chapter of his own gospel narrative:
So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.
God translated himself into the person of Jesus Christ. His life, his words, his deeds, his desires, his plans were all expressions of the living God.
Christians sometimes disagree about the need for new translations. Some even believe that only the King James has any ultimate authority. But Jesus himself was a translation, Christianity was of necessity spread by means of translation, and it is in translation that we are able to make the words of Christ come alive for a new generation of seekers and followers. It is in translation that God has made himself known—he is not a mystery, he is the God who revealed himself to his people by speaking their language.