Islam considers the Qur'an to be authoritative only in its 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?

  • I think there is a misconception in question that there is an authoritative original version of the bible available somewhere. The bible is an amalgamation of many books and texts, written over time that were likely modified themselves and brought together at a significantly later date. The level of trustworthiness of any particular version or part is subjective and a matter of faith.
    – Jodrell
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 16:51

9 Answers 9


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.

  • 1
    Sometimes in fact, a new word must be invented to express the meaning of a theological term. For we English-speakers, there is 'atonement'.
    – user304
    Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 17:10
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    What do people who are Bible literalists make of this - doesn't this make it harder to be a literalist?
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 20:59
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    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
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 2:35
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    @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 Commented Sep 21, 2014 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).


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
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 18, 2012 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. Commented Jan 18, 2012 at 10:54

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


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.


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 canon 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 authoritative, or is the information presented authoritative (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 comparative 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-authoritative 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.


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.


The Bible itself weighs in on the subject of the world's many languages and God's purposes regarding them. In Genesis 11, we have God's judgment concerning the Tower of Babel:

6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Since God was behind the division of the world into many languages, the complexities of creating accurate translations of his laws and commands are not a problem for Him. As a spectacular example, we have the events recorded in Acts 2:

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

What this means is that the Holy Spirit acts through believers to accurately communicate God's message to people regardless of the language they speak. The success of this venture is guaranteed in Revelation 5:

9 And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

So God divided the world into groups, gave them each their own language, and then proceeded to send representatives to each group to communicate His message to them in a language that they can understand. As it says in Matthew 28:

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

God could have decided to smoosh everyone back into one nation with one language, but instead he has chosen to reach them each on His own clock and in His own way.


Great question. Translation is a difficult task and takes time, talent and aptitude. The Church and other religious establishments have been working on their translations for centuries. the King James translation for example had a team of six panels of translators, consisting of forty-seven clergy in all. The translation was commissioned after problems were discovered by the Puritans in earlier translations.

To a certain degree, one goes on authority, unless one can read the languages in question and cross-reference the works in question. But then again, when we go to a doctor, don't we trust that the medical establishment has qualified to practise medicine without us directly questioning their competence. Although, we may have disagreements. But medicine is just as difficult as translation, but differently.

However, given how widely the Bible is understood, and how little the various translations differ, I would suggest that they are now, enter ally authoritative - of course, there are always questions to ask ... for example, the recent rediscovery of texts once thought to be heretical and being understood as showing how the canon was devised through time.

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