Language is acknowledged generally as of primary importance for people’s sense of identity as individuals and as groups. Academics have labored to demonstrate this truth and its significance. The average person can deduce this from thoughtful reflection on his or her own upbringing and interactions with people with differing ethnicities, languages and nationalities. What I want to suggest here should be obvious: Bible Translations and identity for Christians have been strongly intermingled in the past as well as today. However, like most things that we take for granted as being obvious this fact of human existence can be very instructive.
Spoken and written language is the most potent vehicle for transmitting and internalizing concepts and critical thinking skills God has gifted to human beings. There is a mysterious quality to human language that defies our attempts to fully understand its origins and use for communication. I think that the phenomena of human language is so extraordinary that I almost want to call it a miracle (but that would be too strong). What a gift from God!
As we tend to take for granted our ability to speak and read and write in languages so also we tend to take for granted the significance of the Bible and the translations of it we use. Until I learned that the Bible was not originally written in English (modern English for me) I took for granted that I had such ready access to the Bible. There was little reason for me to think that it was unique or precious. And I certainly did not know that other people with very different cultural perspectives had read and wrestled to interpret it long before I was born.
The first Bible I received, and that I first read, was the New International Version. I should note here that I did not read it very much (for interest in the study of Scripture was kindled into a roaring flame only later). However, when I was in high school, that was the translation I utilized and intensely studied. I am grateful to God that my father had on the shelf other translations of Scripture (some older and some contemporary) because I learned quickly that there were many English translations of the Bible and they sometimes differed. This was helpful because it helped me to be more open to study the Bible and to learn about how and why people had interpreted it throughout history.
Historically different translations have been valued, cherished and at times practically worshipped. Sometimes a particular translation took on prominence simply because of its long use. In other cases there were certain beliefs attached to a translation which required people to revere them. In other cases it was simply a matter of political power—those who control which language is used control the people and get to dictate the terms of conversation. In some cases the language in which the Scripture is read and taught from has been preferred for this reason. Bible translations and identity can go hand in hand!
To illustrate this point about Bible translations I will highlight three of the most important translations of the Bible used in the history of the Christian Church. First, the Septuagint, then the Latin Vulgate and finally the King James Bible. Perhaps this review can give a helpful corrective to any tendencies we modern Christians have about our popular translations.
The Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (often referred to by the Roman numerals LXX). Questions regarding who did this translation work and how long it took are debated by historians and scholars, but it is clear that at least major portions of the Hebrew Scriptures were available to Greek speaking Jews by the 2nd century BC. The compelling reason for this translation work was most likely the fact that Jewish people were increasingly loosing fluency in Hebrew and thus could not readily understand their own Scriptures. Since Greek was the dominant language spoken throughout the region surrounding Israel it also became necessary to communicate the content and meaning of Scripture to Greek speaking people. It was, for all practical purposes, the only language in which the Bible was available to most Jewish people who lived outside of Palestine (what the Romans called the Land of Israel) in the first century.
The earliest Christian writers, beginning in the 2nd century, adopted it as the standard Bible throughout the churches in the Roman Empire. Along with its established use was a view held by many of the Church leaders that the Septuagint was directly inspired by God and some of them even asserted that it more accurately presented God’s words than the Hebrew text of the Bible. Jewish leaders abandoned the use of the Septuagint and authorized and utilized other Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible (notably the Aquila translation—a rigidly literal translation from Hebrew to Greek done about 140 AD). Bruce Metzger’s comments on the historical importance of the Septuagint:
“The importance of the Septuagint as a translation is obvious. Besides being the first translation ever made of the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the medium through which the religious ideas of the Hebrews were brought to the attention of the world. It was the Bible of the early Christian church, and when the Bible is quoted in the New Testament, it is almost always from the Septuagint version. Furthermore, even when not directly quoted in the New Testament, many of the terms used and partly created by the Septuagint translators became part and parcel of the language of the New Testament.” (Bruce Metzger, The Bible in Translation [Baker:2001], p.18.)
The Latin Vulgate, translated by Jerome (lived 347-420), was a new translation done directly from the text of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. Many attempts had been made prior to translate portions of the Bible into Latin from Greek (Septuagint and Greek New Testament) for use in worship—thus were Latin manuscripts of differing quality and even differing readings of texts! Jerome was a brilliant scholar and had learned Greek and Hebrew as an adult. Pope Damascus in 383 asked him to do a thorough revision of the various Latin translations then in use. He refused but was willing to do a new translation into Latin instead (for which he did consult the older translations).
The translations later done into the vernacular languages of Europe were based on the Vulgate—Wycliffe’s English translation (1382 and 1388 done by Wycliffe’s students), German (1466), Italian (1471), Catalan (1478), Czech (1488) and French (1530). In time legend grew up around the Latin Vulgate much like what occurred with the Septuagint—with the view prevailing that it was semi-inspired text. This was part of the rational given against translating the Bible into the vernacular languages of Europe.
Again, Metzger offers a helpful summary about how important the Latin Vulgate has been in shaping the Christian churches understanding of Scripture.
“It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the influence exerted by the Latin versions of the Bible and particularly by Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Whether one considers the Vulgate from a purely secular point of view, with its pervasive influence on the development of Latin into Romance languages, or whether one has in view only the specifically religious influence, the extent of its penetration into all areas of Western culture is almost beyond calculation. The theology and the devotional language typical of the Roman Catholic Church were either created by or transmitted by the Vulgate. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics are heirs of terminology that Jerome either coined or baptized with fresh significance—words such as salvation, regeneration, justification, sanctification, propitiation, reconciliation, inspiration, Scripture, sacrament, and many others.” (Metzger, The Bible in Translation, p.29-30)
The last major translation of the Bible I want to note is the King James Bible. This version is obviously more familiar to us as English speakers because, like the Latin Vulgate, it has had a pervasive influence upon the history of the English language and literature, as well as on how Christian faith among English speaking peoples has been understood. However, it was the descendent of earlier translations of Scripture into English.
Other major efforts to translate Scripture into English include Coverdale’s translation, which was the first complete Bible in English (1535), Matthew’s Bible (1537) and the Geneva Bible (1560). This was published in Geneva, Switzerland by Protestants who were exiled from England for criticizing leaders of the State and Church. Interestingly, the Geneva Bible had extensive notes added to explain the meaning of the text—the first “Study Bible”! Those religious and secular authorities in England sought to supplant the popularity of the Geneva Bible by publishing the “Bishops Bible” (1568), which was a revision of the text of the “Great Bible” (1539); this was the officially sanctioned Bible text in England until translation work was completed on the King James Bible (1611). Further, Roman Catholic Church authorized an English translation from the Latin Vulgate for English Catholics, called the “Rheims-Douay Bible” (1582-1610).
The Authorized Version, or King James Bible, was a revision of the “Bishops Bible” (1568); for which the scholars worked from the available Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. However, it should be noted that the translation incorporated elements of other English translations (see listing above). And all efforts to translate Scripture into English were based on the pioneering work of Wycliffe’s English translation (from the Vulgate) and that of Tyndale (done directly from Hebrew and Greek and first published in 1526). As a very sad side note, both Wycliff and Tyndale were tried and convicted as heretics. Wycliff died in peace while Tyndale was executed and there was an intense effort made to collect and destroy copies of their English translations of the Bible.
The King James Bible, named because King James had been the chief patron of the translation project, became the dominant text of the Bible in the English speaking world. There were scholars who advocated for and attempted to do further revisions of the text to correct many typographical errors (spelling, missing words, etc.) but their efforts (1629, 1638, 1762, 1769) were never widely supported and thus the text remained virtually the same into the modern period. The text was not revised till 1861, 1932 and 1962 (respectively). The only major direct revision of the text of the King James has been the New King James Version (1979, 1982). Other major Bible translation projects were done but it is noteworthy that the translators tried to model the English style of these on the King James (British Revised Version [1881, 1885]; American Standard Version  and Revised Standard Version ).
I find it intriguing that in the case of all three of these translations of Scripture (the Septuagint, Latin Vulgate and King James version), Christians have attached inordinate value to them. The language employed by the translators became, in and of itself, hallowed and some people in each period of Church history have advocated for elevating the translation to a quasi-inspired status. The net effect of this has been to suppress critical study of the text (that is, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts) of the Bible and hindered or stopped ongoing translation work to get the Scriptures into other languages.
Bible translations and identity (individual and corporate) do go hand in hand. The history of the Church demonstrates this. Honest reflection about our own attitudes toward the Bible (and particularly our preferred translation) also demonstrate this. I have not highlighted this point to make merely a negative example from history which I would wish to be avoided. Rather, I want to highlight a psychological phenomena which can be positive so long as I do not absolutize the value of my preferred translation of the Bible.
For myself, I prefer the New Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible (Updated Edition). These are translations I normally read from and consult first. (I will not here go into all the reasons I think highly of them—this is not important). However, because I have had the privilege of learning to read biblical Hebrew and Koine (“common”) Greek, I am always aware that translations into any language can never convey the full array of nuance which was first communicated in the original languages by the biblical authors. For this reason I have 16 different translations of the Bible and eight different translations of the New Testament—which I have read and/or consult from time to time.