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Islam considers the Qur'an to be authoritative only it it's original language. Many teachings even claim it is a sin to read in any language but it's original, and while not all adhere to this belief, learning Arabic specifically to read or recite the Qur'an is common even in countries where it is of no other use.

On the other hand Christians openly encourage translations into other languages.

What does Christianity believe about the Bible that makes this possible? Are translations generally considered authoritative in their target languages in the same way that the original text was?

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7 Answers 7

The different between the Quran and the Christian Bible is that the Islam teaches that the Quran was dictated in Arabic and written down - in only one language and thus saying and reading it in this language is deemed more valuable.

The Christian bible was written by men, inspired by God, having their own style, grammar and vocabularly. i.e. the greek of Luke (who was an educated man) is quite different to the greek of Mark (who wasn't educated).

Furthermore, the bible was written in 3 languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

The new Testament writers quoted from a translation of the bible. The Septuagint is a greek translation of the old testament which the N.T writers used as their old testament scriptures, so they were already using a translation.

So it is more the message of what is being said rather than the words themselves that are important.

Yes, some details and nuances of the original are lost in translation, the general gist and message can still be conveyed accurately and authoritatively.

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Sometimes in fact, a new word must be invented to express the meaning of a theological term. For we English-speakers, there is 'atonement'. –  RiverC Aug 31 '11 at 17:10
What do people who are Bible literalists make of this - doesn't this make it harder to be a literalist? –  Kevin Sep 2 '11 at 20:59
In addition our Bible teachers generally study the original languages so they can guide us on finer points which it would be impossible or difficult for the translators to convey clearly and accurately. –  Bingo Mar 7 '12 at 2:35
@Kevin: Let's not forget that "literalists" is an epithet of sorts used by their critics to shame them for believing the Bible is literally the word of God. Well-schooled "literalists" like me know that a great deal of the Bible has figurative, metaphorical, symbolic (and all words, for that matter, are symbolic), and rhetorical content. "Literal" is obviously a misnomer. To ill-informed literalists the word probably means the Bible is REALLY God's word and that inspiration (a la 2 Timothy 3:15) extends to the meaning (both literal and figurative) of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Don –  rhetorician Sep 21 '14 at 11:38

Part of the instruction of Jesus is to take the gospel to all the world and to make disciples of every nation.

Followed by this, when the disciples gathered in the upper room, 3k people were able to experience them speaking in their own languages.

Later on we see the apostle Paul in his writings using Roman concepts to reach the Romans (such as running the race).

In essence, I believe that it is part of the universal reach of our faith for God's Word to be translated into what ever language needs to hear It.

It does help to understand what the original text was trying to convey, but that is a job for translators and teachers. Also, it is notable that some concepts that are native to one language for cultural reasons are not easy to convey to another culture/language. For example, where the Bible refers to heaping coals on your enemy's head, it was referring to the act of heaping coals on the heads of those who need to keep warm (into a container of course) during cold months. (Sorry I do not have a direct reference for that, I heard it during a teaching).

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The real answer to "How do I judge" is to learn Greek or Hebrew yourself and look at the translation. Or, I suppose you could move to Turkey and pick up some Greek in the places where the Bible was actually written, but you'd have to be crazy to do that :)

For the non-language learner, a Greek or Hebrew Interlinear will give the root word for each translated (English) word in the scripture. Ideally, one would understand the part of speech, tense, mood, position, etc... and compare it with a corpus of literature from the same time period like Persues to see how a given word was used in context at the time. Tools such as BibleWorks or Logos (http://www.logos.com/) will aid tremendously in this regards. (A seminary degree doesn't hurt here either!)

For the rest of us, we need to rely on the work of scholars. There is a great deal of scholarship that goes into a good bible translation, and like any academic pursuit, it should be judged on how well it follows the rules of good scholarship.

First off, one should consider the manuscript evidence on which a given translation was based. Many older translations, such as the KJV, were limited to the Textus Receptus, and based on fewer available manuscripts. Since the 1533 printing of this version, for example, Codex Sinaiticus and the Dead Sea Scrolls have simply added more source material that help scholars detect variations between various handwritten copies. (That said, no major doctrine has ever been built on one of these variations)

Secondly, one should consider the purpose of the translation. Some manuscripts, such as the New Living Translation will purposely diverge from a word-for-word translation, because that is the aim of the producers. In contrast, the Amplified Bible is all about giving as many synonyms for a given word as possible, intentionally undermining its "readability."

Thirdly, one should consider the credentials of the translator. The late Bruce Metzger is probably the foremost authority in this regard. His critical apparatus A Textual Commentary on the NT identifies all manuscript discrepancies and grades them on a scale of A to C to distinguish the likilhood of a given reading being an original. It should be noted again, that in most cases, a variant is no more than a letter or a single word.

In the end, judging the "correctness" of a translation is an art, not a science, but the same tools mentioned above will help.

Luckily for us, there is very little in Scripture that is rooted in the language. Unlike the Qu'ran, Christians do not hold Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, or English in any particular high regard. For a religion that spread around the world, mostly amongst the poor, it would have been odd to have gotten hung up on language.

In the final analysis, if a doctrine is rooted in only one language, it is unlikely to widespread or even important. As Mark Twain once said, "It's not the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that concern me - it's the parts that I do understand that terrify me."

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+1. Unfortunately the only language I've picked up living in Turkey is Turkish; Greek is simply not used in these parts any more, good points about what's involved in Bible translation and what folks should do to evaluate their trustworthiness. –  Caleb Jan 16 '12 at 14:46
I would like to add that modern Hebrew is close enough to ancient Hebrew in syntax and vocabulary to make the Bible as easy to read (in the earlier parts) as easy Shakespeare plays, and the harder parts as harder Shakespeare plays. There is no chance of gross misunderstanding, because you read it fluently. It is not a guessing game of word by word translation. –  Ron Maimon Jan 18 '12 at 4:29
The Free Logos comes with the SBL Greek New Testament, when you mouse over the word verbs it gives you the root of the word instantly. Good tool. –  David Laberge Jan 18 '12 at 10:54

Though this is not a direct answer to your question, this may be helpful and is what I use to keep in mind the differences between the Quran, Bible and Jesus.

The Quran is the "ipsissima verba" (the very words) of Allah revealed to Muhammed. Jesus Christ is the the very "Logos" (word) of YHWH incarnate, made flesh.

Thus it would be more correct to say that Jesus is to Christians as the Quran is to Muslims.

The cannon of scripture (Bible) is talked about in terms of "ipsissima verba" (the very words) and "ipsissima vox" (the very voice) and much discussion is had over the differences. For example do we have the exact words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament or do we have the "voice" of Jesus which is faithfully repeated without error by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In terms of translation then, if I was to translate the Bible to any language or even roughly paraphrase in English "Jesus who was righteous suffered once for sinners who are unrighteous so that he might bring us to his Father." (1 Peter 3:18a); is the educational intent and transmission of the message of the author still held even if the words are not exactly that of the autograph (original document) written in Greek? Does the authority still remain?

In terms of authority, for example is the Greek only then authoritive, or is the information presented authoritive (in any language) if it conveys precisely what the inspired author intended to present?

This I think is an important question, and I believe reveals the centrality of the authority of Jesus for Christians, the wide ability for faithful Biblical translation and transmission, and the comparitive rigor of the authority of the Quran being only in its original language, Arabic.

It also presents then a question that is the Bible we hold in our hands non-authoritive if we do not have the exact word for word grammatically perfect sentences Jesus (or other authors) spoke? I do not think there are many who believe we do have every word, sentence, pause and breath recorded. I may be wrong and please do correct me if I am; on the other hand I believe for Muslims you could not say that the Quran in Arabic is not the exact word for word grammatically perfect sentences of Allah, I believe the Quran itself says that it is.

This to me then shows quite a stark contrast in the root of the authority of the Bible in comparison to the Quran.

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Catholics have it easy in this respect.

We trust in the bible because we trust that the Holy Spirit guided the translations.

But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.

From Dei Verbum

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There is a big difference between Christianity and Islam here. Islam treats the text of the Quran as sacred, and it is truly sacred only in the original language. Translations are only an approximation. They also believe that the Quran was literally dictated by God.

Christians view the Bible differently. The message contained in the Bible is sacred, not the specific text. Translation is not a problem, as long as the message is faithfully conveyed. The Bible texts were inspired by God, not literally dictated.

This article gives the Catholic view of Biblical inspiration, and a summary of other Christian views, none of which differ much.

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Early Christians used translations of the Hebrew scriptures and also translated the epistles and the Gospels early on. This suggests that early Christians understood the importance of getting scripture in language that people could understand. As a Christian, I follow this tradition and believe that valid translations accurately convey the message; some translations are more accurate than others, but they do a fine job of conveying the message of the gospel. Insofar as the translations conveys the message accurately, then the translation is authoritative as the text in its original language.

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