The Murderous History of Bible Translations
by Harry Freedman
Dr. Freedman has a Ph.D. in Aramaic, but that doesn’t mean that his work is a dry, pedantic tome. In The Murderous History of Bible Translations, Freedman illustrates the history of Bible translations with lively tales of translators, martyrs, wars, and mystics. His loose chronology begins in the second or third century BCE with a mythical description of the Torah being translated from Hebrew to Greek, and ends in 2012 with the publication of a "gender neutral" Bible in English. This is not, by any means, a comprehensive history of Bible translations, but rather an eccentric and sometimes bloody collection of vignettes.
The task of translating the Bible is naturally plagued by a host of difficulties, and tracing precisely the history of the Bible’s first translation is practically impossible. We have no idea who those first translators were, but it is possible that their translation was written in Alexandria “by Greek-speaking Egyptians, not by Hebrew speaking foreigners from Jerusalem.”
The translation of any work is never an easy task, but a host of problems stand between the translator and a perfect "version" of the Bible. Before the printing press every letter of every word was hand written by a scribe. As humans scribes are, of course, prone to mistakes during the completion of a manuscript. “Since every translation requires a judgment on the part on the translator as to the best word to use, when the chosen word is itself then translated it becomes easy for a text to drift further and further from the original.”
Once a manuscript was completed, it might be delivered to a rabbi, prince, or scholar. There was a tendency among the learned to second guess the scribe and erase a word here, a word there, and replace it with a phrase the new owner considered more felicitous. Or the scholar might decide to write notes onto the margin. At some point, this amended text would find its way into the hands of another scribe.
This new copyist might be unable to differentiate between the original work and the first owner’s marginalia. He would, more than likely, mistakenly add the new word or words. In a relatively short time chaos would spread across the page.
Time is a two-edged blade that cruelly cuts any translator who attacks the Bible. New words were born and passed into use via trade from other lands and new cultures. In addition to dealing with new words and new concepts, translators were fencing with the Old Testament; a largely ceremonial language marked with archaic terms. “…when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem and preached to the villagers in Galilee, Aramaic had already become the vernacular in Israel. Hebrew had been elevated to the status of a literary language.”
The New Testament also presented the translator with razor-edged problems. Consider a single phrase from the Lord’s Prayer.
In the Book of Common Prayer…[we have] the words "forgive us our sins" or "forgive us our trespasses." The Greek text of Matthew reads "forgive us our debts" and in Luke it says "forgive us our failings." Presumably the apostles were remembering the Aramaic in which Jesus preached. There is an Aramaic word, with a root sense of "obligation" which can also mean debt, legal liability or even guilt.So, which word is a translator moving from Aramaic to Latin to choose?
Languages living and dead, owners who write in their books, and time all conspire against the Word of God. But the translator’s personality can also sabotage the Good Book. Today we view St. Jerome’s Vulgate, the translation of the Bible into Latin, as a major stepping stone toward availability of the Bible in any language. Jerome was undoubtedly a scholar nonpareil, but he was also a man who easily made enemies. By the time Jerome had finished translating the Bible into Latin, his caustic personality had rendered him persona non grata in Rome. Consequently, his work remained unpopular and buried for 400 years.
The dream of a Bible translation in every European language continued to move forward only in fits and starts. Freedman doesn’t let us forget that the Catholic Church itself was an impediment. At times the church hierarchy was in favor of the faithful reading the Bible, but in a era of spotty literacy church leaders also wondered if the average worshiper had the requisite knowledge to not only read the Bible, but understand its multilayered meanings. Indeed, after the Cathar disaster of the 13th century, the Church temporarily decreed it illegal to translate and read the Bible. (The lone exception being the Book of Psalms).
A variety of scholars, secular leaders and priests vehemently disagreed with such policies. Bibles in spoken languages were not just a cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation; they were also a point of national and cultural pride. Then came the horror of Münster, and priest and pastor alike saw the downside of an easily accessible Bible.
From 1534 to 1535 the town of Münster became home to a series of self-proclaimed prophets who, at first, simply preached a peaceful, albeit, radically different version of Christianity. However, in a short time Bockelson, Hoffman, and John of Leiden used a German Bible to create a doomsday cult that devoured nearly every member of the community. Freedman goes so far as to claim “the Münster revolutionaries and the Third Reich shared many characteristics.” An easy comparison to make; at one point Bockelson promised his followers “the world destroyed by Easter.”
I could go on and on. This is a fascinating book. Although it has only 213 pages, Freedman crams in a surprising number of scenes from the long, complicated history of Bible translations. Some, like Jan Hus and William Tyndale are bloody and tragic. Others are intricate and linguistically fascinating. (If you’ve ever wondered why Michelangelo’s statue of Moses has horns, turn to page 73-74.)