The Making of Many Bibles

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Martin Luther’s “outlaw” period, as he hid in the Wartburg castle masquerading as the mysterious “Squire George,” provided him a venue to fulfill a long-held desire: the translation of the New Testament into German. He believed (in the words of historian Owen Chadwick) that “the ploughman ought to be able to recite the Scripture while he was ploughing, or the weaver as he hummed to the music of his shuttle.”

When completed in 1534, his translation of the Bible not only offered ploughmen and weavers access to inspired texts, it served as a means of social unity throughout what was a politically and socially diverse Germany. The ideas and convictions of the Word of God written were made more public through Luther’s fresh and vigorous translation. But the words of that translation, though uninspired and imperfect, served as a source of common metaphors, idioms, and rhetorical gestures. The Word became linguistic flesh and dwelt among the German-speaking people in an unprecedented manner.

Sharing a language is a powerful source of unity for people. The distinctive rhythms and percussive qualities of language affect us at a deep level, one reason why it is easier to memorize poetry than prose. Poetry at its best embodies what a language is in its most essential nature.

Almost every civilization has framed its historical or mythic events in poetic form, at the very least in simple rhymes and rhythmic speech. When read aloud, it has a unifying ability. I believe that is one of the reasons God chose to inspire the Psalms in poetic form. The church is most fully the church when it is assembled together. The coming assembly at Mount Zion (the fulfillment of the prototypical assembly at Mount Sinai) models for the church her self-perception right now (see Hebrews 12). In that assembly there is singing, and a shared text (see Rev. 4).

We’re not told what language will be used in heaven. Perhaps there is some angelic Esperanto that we all will acquire. There will, it seems, be some sense of linguistic unity as believers sing together. Until we are glorified, while we still remain in these earthen vessels, we may only anticipate the grand unity of that heavenly assembly using earthly means. My suggestion for attempting that unity and a greater sense of our identity as a community of faith within the church is simple but radical.

Individualism is one of the most insidious forces in modern culture. If the essence of sin is the insistence of the total autonomy of the individual will, then a society which enshrines unlimited freedom of choice as the highest good has made a virtue of the essence of vice. What can we do to resist the culture’s temptations?

I suggest that local churches decide, with appropriate time for consideration and prayer, that they will use only one translation of the Bible in corporate gatherings. In worship services, in Sunday School, in special meetings, whenever a biblical text is read, it should be from an agreed-upon common translation. This tactic’s intent is not to endorse one translation as inspired, or even to say that one is so evidently superior to all others. It is simply to encourage a universal familiarity with phrases and idioms, rhythms, and metaphoric expressions.

What would happen if you went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah and heard the “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” chorus, and the tenors decided to use the New American Standard translation of Isaiah 9, singing, “And the government shall rest upon his shoulders,” rather than “be upon His shoulders”? The NASB may well have a better translation of this passage, but that’s not the point in a public setting. If the tenors sing rest when everyone else sings be, there is no shared language; the public experience of the text is divisive rather than unifying.

Something like this happens every time a pastor reads the text for his sermon from, say, the NIV, and the people in the pews are reading from four or five different translations. The reading of the Word of God becomes (thanks to our thoughtless acceptance of the proliferation of translations) an individualistic act rather than a unified, communal experience.

No translation of Scripture is infallible, and, in a sense, the ideas of the Bible matter more than the exact words. But our affection for the ideas is often encouraged by our engagement with the words. That is why we memorize the words exactly, and not just the ideas they express.

Of course, my suggestion in no way involves a limitation of the use of multiple translations during Bible study, whether privately or in groups. It is merely to suggest that local churches (perhaps even whole denominations!) resist the atomizing spirit of the age.

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