INTRODUCTION

 

Throughout the history of the Christian Church Bible translation has played a critical role in the transmition of the Gospel message.  Whether it be the Jews in the intertestamental period to today, the scriptures, when translated to the vernacular, have been an invaluable tool with eternal significance.

Jesus gives a command to his Apostles at the end of Matthew, Mark, and at the beginning of Acts.  This command became known as the Great Commission, and it is Christ’s command to go to all nations to teach the Gospel.  Throughout the history of the early church the scriptures played a pivotal role in missionary activity and evangelization.  In this paper I will show how translation into the vernacular was a pivotal moment in Christian missions.  When it come s to Bible translation from AD 100-500 it is wise to look at the effects that the Septuagint had on this process.    Then a look at the significance of the translations into Syriac, Coptic, and Latin had in missions and how they are still significant today.    As scholar Bruce Meltzer writes, “Whatever the precise number of languages there may be, it is certainly surprising that by A.D. 600, the four Gospels had been translated into only a few languages.  These were Latin and Gothic in the West, and Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Sogdian in the East[1].”

 

LEGACY OF THE SEPTUAGINT

In a paper that is about the history of Bible translation from A.D. 100-500 in may seem strange to discuss the Septuagint.  It is important because it serves as a prelude to what comes later in history.  The Septuagint laid the groundwork for Bible translation to the vernacular.  In regards to the Septuagint Larry Stone writes, “The most important and influential translation of scripture ever made was the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek[2].”

The Septuagint came about because the Jewish people were dispersed, and as a result some were Hellenized and no longer spoke or read Hebrew.  Koine Greek was the language at the time so legend has it that seventy two Jewish scholars met at the court Ptolemy for a period of seventy two days[3].  It not only allowed Jews outside of Palestine to read the Jewish Scriptures in a language in which they were familiar, but it had an incredible influence on the writers of the New Testament.  This influence is one that cannot be understated according to Bruce Metzger, “Whether one considers its fidelity to the original, its influence over the Jews for whom it was prepared, or its place in the Christian Church, the Septuagint stands preeminent in the light it casts on the study of the scriptures[4].”

 

TRANSLATION TO SYRIAC

The New Testament was remarkable in that it was written in Koine Greek which was the dialect understood by commoners in the Roman Empire.  This, along with people evangelizing, led to Christianity spreading far and wide.  It would reach so far that by the second century there was a need for a translation in the Syriac.  This occurred when Christianity began to spread east from Antioch[5].

Though most of the population in Antioch spoke Greek there were other parts of Syria where they did not.  This was seen as problematic from an evangelism standpoint.  Though the church was perfectly able to speak orally, having it in a local language allowed for easier transmission and copying.  In regards to the ancient Syriac language historian William Harris states, “It is an offshoot of Aramaic and emerged around Edessa in the first century[6].”  This is significant as Edessa is also known as the “only center of Christian life where the language of the community was other than Greek[7].”

 

Syriac became he preferred language for Christians in eastern Syria, Persia, Mesopotamia, and later India, China, and Mongolia[8].  This is an incredible range which covers great mileage of the Middle East and Asia.  This is no coincidence as the two mission driven churches thrived in the area.  According to Dr. Edward Smither, “This was the language of the Jacobite and Nestorian churches, the most active missional movements in the East throughout the early church period[9].”

The Syriac version also became an innovator with how the Gospels were presented.  Like our translations today, the Greek had the four Gospels as separate books.  In the second century the Syrian theologian Tatian combined the Gospels into one harmonious volume.  This became known as the Diatessaron which is a musical term for “harmony.”  It was an influential work as we see from the early church historian Eusebius, “Their former leader, however, Tatian, arranged a kind of joining together and compilation of the Gospels, I know not how, to which he gave the title the Diatessaron; and it is still to this day to be found in the hands of some[10].”

Whether it was written in Greek and Translated, or written in Syriac from the start is up for debate.  What we do know is that the Syriac Christian were reading the scripture in their own language, and that led to a boom in Christianity in the region.  Tatian and his harmony of the Gospels had its naysayers, but the results were great and the Diatessaron was read widely until it was abolished in 423[11].  The Syriac translation also has a legacy of being the earliest translation of the New Testament.  Its influence would be felt for centuries to come as other versions were highly influenced by this dynamic translation.

 

TRANSLATION TO LATIN

If the Septuagint was the most influential translation of scripture ever produced, then the Latin translation may very well be second.  There were many Latin translations around, but the most popular became known as the “Vulgate”, which means “the language of the people”[12].  Its influence was so immense that as was named the official translation of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent.  In regards to the Vulgate Pope Sixtus V wrote in the Papal Bull Æternus Ille that the Vulgate was to be received as “true, lawful, authentic and unquestioned[13].”

So what of the Latin translations origins?  Contrary to what some may think it did not originate with the early church father Jerome.  It was actually a very early translation in church history and probably started round the second and early third century[14].  The versions prior to the Vulgate are known as the “Old Latin” and helped spread Christianity in parts of the world where Greek was no longer the prominent[15].  Though Latin was a major language in the Roman Empire, the Latin versions did not originate in Rome.  Bruce Metzger writes, “The language used by the Church of Rome was Greek until the mid-third century, the Old Latin versions would not have originated there, but in those early Christian communities that used Latin[16].”  This most likely occurred in North Africa as Greek was not widely used at this time.

The Old Latin was plagued with textual issues.  The differences were immense as these manuscripts varied not only in literary style but in the quality of the translation[17].  They were not translated by one individual or by a committee.  History has shown that Church Fathers in North Africa, such as Tertullian and Cyprian, used different language on the same passages.  In regards to this textual issue Bruce Metzger writes, “since one finds numerous and far-reaching differences between quotations of the same passages, it is obvious that there was no uniform reading; some books were apparently translated a number of times, and no single translator worked on all the books[18].”

Though there were issues the translation came about because of a need for the scriptures in the vernacular.  As previously stated, Greek fell by the wayside and was not widely used in Northern Africa, but Latin was the language of the masses.  Someone took it upon themselves to start translating.  Dr. Edward Smith notes that this may have happened during times of worship.  Dr. Smither writes, “In worship assemblies in the late second century African church the Greek scriptures were read with a simultaneous line-by-line translation into Latin probably followed facilitating understanding in the vernacular[19].”

The variant reading were becoming an issue and the fathers, such as Augustine, were getting concerned.  This concern was shared with the Bishop of Rome who was known as Damasus.  Damasus had a scholar for a secretary named Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus, but he is commonly known as Jerome[20].  Damasus gave Jerome the duty of revising the Old Latin texts.  Jerome was hesitant to engage in the endeavor, but did so out of obedience to his Bishop.  In a letter to Damasus Jerome wrote, “You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous[21].”  Jerome knew that the work he would do would draw the vehement criticism of some.

Jerome completed his work on the Gospels is 385, and the rest of the Bible was completed in the early fifth century.  One interesting thing Jerome did was in regard to the Old Testament.  Instead of translating from the Septuagint he translated from the Hebrew.  This carried with it a couple issues.  One some, such as Augustine, considered the Septuagint inspired and thought the Latin should have been translated from it.  Second the Hebrew editions of the Old Testament did not have the books that would become known as the Apocrypha.  Though Jerome did not think those seen books (i.e. Tobit, 1 &2 Maccabees, etc.) to be canonical they were included at the request of the bishop.  Nevertheless the Vulgate would change the face Christendom, and served to help evangelize multitudes of people.

Though the Latin translation may have originated in Northern Africa Latin, itself was used through a majority of the Roman Empire.  This helped the vulgate gain acceptance as the people were able to understand it, even if they were unable to read.  The vulgate helped to establish Latin as the primary language of worship in the west.  This version of scripture stood the test of time and was in use for over one thousand years.  It deeply affected the theology of the Catholic Church, and both Protestants and Catholics share the words that made popular by Jerome.  These words include regeneration, salvation, sanctification, propitiation, reconciliation, and inspiration[22].”  All of Christendom is indebted to this translation, and for the many souls it helped save.

 

TRANSLATION TO COPTIC

Coptic was the morphing of the ancient Egyptian language.  Bruce Metzger points out that, “Egyptian Christians wrote the native language using twenty-four Greek letters, with the addition of seven signs taken over from a more cursive variety of Egyptian demotic to express sounds that did not exist in spoken Greek[23].”  Coptic is almost entirely religious in nature, and many Greek words that were used to explain doctrine derived from it.  This can be seen with the church father Athanasius contributed to our understanding of the Trinity when he squared off against Arius at the Council of Nicea.

Coptic was developed in an attempt to differentiate Christianity from the pagan views of ancient Egypt[24].  It is unknown who developed it, but it may have been an oral tradition that was later written down[25].  There are six dialects of Coptic:  Sahidic, Bohairc, Achmimic, sub-Achmimic, middle Egyptian, and Fayyumic.  Translation started in Coptic because of a need to have a vernacular translation.  The need of scripture in Coptic was derived from a missions focus.  It was needed to evangelizes and disciple.  In other words the Great Commission was being obeyed, but Coptic was needed to disciple new converts in the Christian faith.

Like other translations it underwent revision as the church in Egypt grew.  Coptic was so entrenched in church life that it remained the language of the church even after Arabic became the official language[26].  The Coptic scriptures were important to the spread of the church in Egypt.  It came about because of a need to teach the people the faith and was in use for several hundred years.

 

BIBLE TRANSLATIONS AND MISSIONS

Translation of the Bible to the vernacular has been a critical component in missions.  History had shown that when the scriptures are presented, and the people have, that there will be conversions and disciples being made.  In this paper an overview of Syriac, Latin, and Coptic translations has been provided.  All three translations have something in common.  They were developed with the need to evangelize and disciple in mind.  They were not translated so someone could have a copy, but for the people.

The translators of these early versions understood the importance of having translation in the vernacular.  It made it easier to proclaim and teach the faith.  In short the scriptures are the foundation of missions[27].  The Bible has been translated into many languages including Latin, German, English, and other places that Christians went.  The importance of Bible translation in missions can be seen from the beginning.

The Syriac translation was the first to translate the Greek New Testament to a vernacular language.  The Assyrian church used the version in its missionary activities and were able to spread the Christian message as far as China.  Human beings have an innate need to verify information they are given.  Having a translation in the native language allows someone to verify what they are being told, it allows them to personalize it, and lets them know that the Gospel is something that is accessible.  As John Stott writes, “The gospel is thus seen to be one, yet diverse.  It is ‘given’ yet culturally adapted to its audience[28].”

The message of the Bible is one that is universal for all people, and is understood in any language.  According to Larry Stone the Bible has one theme, “God made us, He loves us in spite of our rebellious attitude toward him, and He wants to reconcile us to himself[29].”  This is what the role of Bible translation has done.  It has shown a people, in their own language, the message and beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The translations into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic changed the world because they helped expand Christianity all over the known world[30].

 

 

CONCLUSION

The history of Bible translation from A.D. 100-500 is an interesting topic.  To the everyday believer it may not mean much, but it laid the foundation for the translations we enjoy today.  Without the translations into Syriac, Latin, or Coptic we may not be able to read what the scriptures say.  Through this research it has become apparent that we take all of the translations of scripture that we have in English for granted.

The Eastern churches utilized the Syriac texts to take the Gospel from Syria all the way to China.  They encountered great danger, but they wanted to fulfill the great commission.  The Old Latin texts has many textual variants, and some of the variants were great.  Yet Greek was no longer the spoken language in Northern Africa, and someone started translating the scripture to Latin.  All in an effort so the people could her the scripture in their own language.  Scriptures were translated to Coptic for the need of evangelism and discipleship.  There are still many languages that do not have the scriptures in their own language.  No doubt this is a very time consuming ordeal, but history has shown that having scriptures in the vernacular is one of the keys to missions.

Bibliogrpahy

Berry, J.D., ed. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.

Direnger, David. The Cambridge History of the Bible. Edited by P.R. Ackroyd and C.f. Evans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Falbrisch, Erwin, ed. The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Gigot, Francis E. General Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scriptures. New York, NY: Benzinger Brothers, 1900.

Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Irwin, Dale T., and Scott W Sunquist. History of the World Christian Movement. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004.

Kok, J.H. Erdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

Geisler, Norman, and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1986.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Bible in Translation:  Ancient and English Versions. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace, eds. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. New York, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1893.

Smither, Edward L. Mission in the Early Church:  Themes and Reflections. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.

Stevenson, J., ed. A New Eusebius. London: Spck, 1987.

Stone, Larry. The Story of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Stott, John R. W. Perspectives on the Christian Movement. 4th ed. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. Pasadena, CA: William A Carey Library, 2009.

[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation:  Ancient and English Versions, kindle ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), location 147.

[2] Larry Stone, The Story of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 43.

[3] J.H. Kok, Erdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 924.

[4] Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation:  Ancient and English Versions, kindle ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), location 222.

[5] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church:  Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 93.

[6] William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 188.

[7] David Direnger, The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. P.R. Ackroyd and C.f. Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 11-29.

[8] Dale T. Irwin and Scott W Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 57.

[9] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church:  Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 94.

[10] J. Stevenson, ed., A New Eusebius (London: Spck, 1987), 125.

[11] Norman L.Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1986), 513.

[12] Larry Stone, The Story of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 43.

[13] Francis E Gigot, General Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scriptures (New York, NY: Benzinger Brothers, 1900), 337.

[14] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church:  Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 95.

[15] J.D. Berry, ed., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 492.

[16] Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation:  Ancient and English Versions, kindle ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), location 490.

[17] Larry Stone, The Story of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 44.

[18] Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation:  Ancient and English Versions, kindle ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), location 500.

[19] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church:  Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 96.

[20] Norman Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1986), 530.

[21] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (New York, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1893), 487-488.

[22] Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation:  Ancient and English Versions, kindle ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), location 490.

[23] Ibid, location 591.

[24] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church:  Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 156.

[25] Erwin Falbrisch, ed., The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 242.

[26] Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation:  Ancient and English Versions, kindle ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), location 611.

[27] John R. W. Stott, Perspectives on the Christian Movement, 4th ed, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William A Carey Library, 2009), 21.

[28] Ibid, 23.

[29] Larry Stone, The Story of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 14.

[30] Ibid, 15.

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3 thoughts on “A.D. 100-500: A History of Biblical Translation

  1. William, I find your information very resourceful and I greatly appreciate the diversion from the normal pathology of European/Roman supremacy which only follows and flows along a historical path through the Roman Catholic Church which tends to suppress information and archaeological data related to the developments of the Church in the continent of Africa during these time periods. If you have any information regarding the evolution of the Holy Bible in this segment of World History I would greatly appreciate the references or content.
    Don’t be weary in well doing and I appreciate your commitment to Theology. Please check out my blog at: https://drknox08.wixsite.com/fm01
    This is an extension of my ministry involving prayer; especially praying the scriptures.

    Like

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