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 ...

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