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.

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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.

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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.

Translation in the New Testament

Making Scripture available in a language different from the one in which it was written may have initially been born out of necessity, but its value would soon become clear.

While there are no verses in the New Testament speaking to translation as clearly as Nehemiah 8:8, there are clues to underlying practices, even to how God might view translation and its spoken or signed sibling, interpreting. We need only turn to Acts 2, a chapter often seen as the birth of the church, to see a strikingly similar pattern to the one found in Nehemiah.

Faced with a crowd of confused pilgrims who would have likely spoken Greek, Aramaic, and perhaps Hebrew too, the Holy Spirit uses none of these common trade languages to convey the meaning of this strange day and its significance for those watching. On the contrary, the crowd was bemused precisely because:

When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:6–12, emphasis added)

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In a situation where there were common trade languages and an accepted language of religion, the Holy Spirit enabled everyone to hear the Word of God in their local language. It seems that God’s preferred method of communication is to use a local vernacular, the native language of the person listening.

Of course, the occasions in Nehemiah and Acts both have one key difference to modern Bible translation. As they involve hearing the Word of God, rather than reading it, they are therefore instances of interpreting, not translating. Yet this idea of God speaking a local language is reflected in how Bible translation is used in the rest of the New Testament.

As time passed, the reading of Scripture in Aramaic that began in Nehemiah 8 would become a precursor to the translation of the entire Old Testament into Greek, leading to the translation we now know as the Septuagint. The Septuagint shows some rather interesting patterns, the most obvious of which can be traced by any Bible reader looking through footnotes in any modern English Bible translation. While the Pentateuch is often translated very literally in the Septuagint, the books of the Prophets show many traces of adaptations, explanations, and even wholesale reformulations.

New Testament Gospel and letter writers were more than happy to reuse the common translation of the Jews of their day, rather than looking to go back to the Hebrew and Aramaic texts they would have heard in the synagogue and retranslate them.

These translated Old Testament Scriptures form a vital part of the Bible translations that continue to be made, not just into English but into the languages of the 1.5 billion people who Bible organizations say currently lack the entire Scriptures in their native tongue. A brief look around the website of any Bible translation organization will reveal stories of Bible translation leading to daily church growth or a nation’s president celebrating the launch of a Bible translation with 20,000 people attending.

Perhaps it would pay to remember the power of translation as we choose between hundreds of translations in English. Have the wealth of translations and the range of scholarly resources at our fingertips caused us to stop appreciating the miracle of reading and hearing God’s Word in our own language? Bible translation is a miracle that men and women of God have lived and died for and one that sparked fierce theological debate when the first printed translations emerged.

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How the Bible Translation Process Ensures You Can Trust Your Translation

That translations still spark debate today simply testifies to the importance of having a translation that is not just in a language people can read but in the language they most easily understand. For this to be possible, every single translation—from “one translator” translations such as Eugene Peterson’s The Message to translations created by large teams, such as the New International Version—requires teamwork and stands on hundreds of years of close research.

The majority of English Bible translations, for example, are based on the fruits of text criticism—the discipline dedicated to sifting through all available biblical manuscripts to ensure that translators work from the most authoritative, reliable information possible. This practice, carried on by scholars from a variety of backgrounds, has contributed the footnotes in many modern English Bible translations pointing out details or discrepancies in the manuscript evidence.

For committee translations, such as the New International Version or New Living Translation, the translation process itself acts as a safeguard. The latter, for example, was created by a team of scholars across the theological spectrum who split into groups of two or three to translate individual books. These translations were then verified by senior translators, with the help of professional language stylists.

After the translation first appeared, a second edition was prepared by assembling another team of expert scholars, who again verified the accuracy of each verse in every book. Once again, senior translators and language stylists reviewed the translations with the translators. The whole process is explained in the introduction to most printed Bibles.

This process aims to create the most accurate version while avoiding any denominational bias. It also means that those translating a particular book of the Bible tend to be people who have spent their scholarly careers studying it. Of course, no translation is perfect, but any modern Bible translation represents the very best of Spirit-led scholarship that God can use to touch lives and change hearts.

Incarnation and Translation

The God who moved Ezra and Nehemiah to arrange for the Bible to be heard in Aramaic is the same God who arranged for the Pentecost pilgrims to hear in their local languages what he was doing. He is the same God who inspired John Wycliffe and later, William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English and Martin Luther to translate the Bible into German.

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This God, the God of the Incarnation, is still a God who chooses to be made known through the imperfect but still impactful translations of the Bible. We should be aware that no translation is perfect and should read the Bible in multiple translations while appreciating the power of Bible translation to change lives. It is one of God’s chosen means to do so.

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

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