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Wycliffe wades into wild waters

reading the BibleWycliffe Bible Translators has been coming in for criticism of its translation for Muslim contexts where, in Arabic and Turkish translations of the Bible, the word “Father” is replaced with “Allah” (meaning God in Arabic), while “Son” becomes “Messiah”.

One example of this change in the text is in Matthew 28:19, where instead of “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” Wycliffe has “Cleanse them by water in the name of Allah, his Messiah and his Holy Spirit.”

Frontiers produced a Turkish translation of Matthew, distributed by SIL, that uses “guardian” for “Father” and “representative” or “proxy” for “Son”. SIL consulted on the Bengali Injil Sharif, which translated “Son” as “Messiah” and “Son of God” as “God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One”.

This is part of the “insider movement”, a spectrum of ways of evangelising in a Muslim context with, at one end, abandonment of Western externals (and having them sit on the floor, for example, rather than mandating pews – I would be highly in favour of such inculturation) to “Insider movement adherents urge Muslim converts to retain their Muslim “culture,” even continuing to call themselves Muslim, retain some Muslim practices, and remain in a mosque while acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord personally, and most likely privately. At its extreme, individuals within the movement have published translations of the Bible that remove phrases supposedly offensive to Muslims, like “Son of God,” which some Muslims claim is offensive because it insinuates that God had sex with Mary to create Jesus.” The end of the Christian spectrum that has people “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour” without making any change in their lives concerns me.

Wycliffe and its affiliate SIL International first reacted (31.1.12) to the accusations of translation tampering with splutterings that information was erroneous, that they were not omitting or removing the familial terms, translated in English as “Son of God” or “Father,” from any Scripture translation. SIL called the accusations “falsehood”, “campaigns of misinformation”, and “erroneous”. However, as churches, theologians, and organisations pressed further, including with an online petition, Wycliffe has paused to examine the accusations and (7.2.12) writes:

Wycliffe USA is grateful to all those who have expressed their questions and concerns regarding reports that we have been removing “Father” and “Son” from certain Bible translations, particularly in Muslim cultures… While we have never intentionally sponsored a translation that neglects to properly communicate the divine familial terms, some observers have raised concerns about whether our methodology has consistently met our goal. … We are engaged in meaningful conversations with partner organizations, constituents, and church leaders to evaluate our standards, and expect to be prepared to issue a more complete statement soon.

So denial has been changed to the spin words of gratitude, intentionally, and meaningful conversations. SIL has similarly changed its tune, with its own set of spin words:

we recognize it is important to have a fuller dialogue with our many partners globally and benefit from their input to our approach in Scripture translation related to this issue. Since questions about our commitment to these translation principles have been raised, we will proactively engage to understand the concerns, clarify misunderstandings, and where indicated, adjust practice.

Therefore, SIL announces that as of today, February 6, 2012, in situations where we are involved and partnering with others in translation, and have the responsibility to do so, we will put on hold our approval of publication of translated Scripture around which this criticism is focused.

Two issues are highlighted for me. Inculturation – I think we have a long way to go on the journey of inculturation. Biblical translation – I am a strong advocate for multilingualism, for contact with the original biblical languages for all Christians, and for agility with them for the ordained. A translation of the Bible should be as accurate as possible – this includes being gender inclusive in the translation when the original is clearly intended to be gender inclusive (unlike, for example, the ESV). Translations should not alter the text to accord with a particular prejudice. Where there is ambiguity or uncertainty in the text, that needs to be presented (eg in clear footnotes). Cultural differences may need to be explained (again, possibly, in clear footnotes). How we respond and live with the Biblical texts is another issue – but let’s not be dishonest about the texts we have inherited.

What do you think?
[Update: a second post has been written on this theme: translating Father & Son; a third post has been written on this theme: Leave the Bible alone]

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26 Responses to Wycliffe wades into wild waters

  1. If true, some of those translations might come close to being heretical by undermining the Trinitarian relationships inherent in the wording.

    As for pews it is a great regret of mine that this western innovation has made inroads into some of our Churches where they get in the way of Worship and interfere with the mingling of the faithful as they worship constraining as they are.

    • I have seen no indication, Andrei, that this information is incorrect. Anyone?

      Pews, as you rightly point out, are a very new innovation. They have been, and can be, useful in some contexts; but there is nothing sacrosanct about them IMO – yet they can be regarded by many as an essential feature of Christian worship. Blessings.

  2. It is my understanding that footnotes are being used to explain the changes made…I believe there misunderstanding has resulted because many have chosen debate instead of prayer which leads to reconciliation/one Spirit. Sadly battlegrounds have been established instead of a Spirit of reconciliation. I continue to meet w/both camps and I clearly hear valu/truthe from both sides…still praying – using this as an opportunity to know God deeper.

    • Thank you for your comment, Tom. Please can you provide some links to articles that show there are the explanatory footnotes that you understand exist – I have not seen any reference to such footnotes, including from those defending the translations.

      I do not think that prayer, in a situation like this, is a substitute for open discussion. The individuals and communities who have expressed their concern appear to me to be prayerful – I think there can be both prayer and debate, and that this is an example where it is not either/or. I would not agree that those who discovered this just keep quiet and pray about it.

      Please keep us informed about the results of your meetings with both sides.

      Blessings.

  3. I am no scholar, but how does the “Muslim translation” compare to the original primary documents (i.e. the original Greek & Hebrew)? I’m guessing the word “allah” doesn’t – but some of the descriptions for Jesus may be the closest approximation? Any experts wish to comment?

    However I have seen Arabic bibles used by local Anglican Sudanese refugees. I am guessing these are fairly accurate – why are not these been used?

    It can be dangerous changing the message just to fit in – something a few churches have discovered.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dave. There has been criticism from local Christians and recent and longer converts from Islam about these translations. I would add, you will know the importance of the integrity of the Qur’an has to Muslims and their critique of how Christians do not revere scriptures as they do. Providing inaccurate translations reinforces that understanding. Blessings.

  4. Your comments are irresponsible, particularly your conclusion that “This is part of the “insider movement”, a spectrum of ways of evangelising in a Muslim context with, at one end, abandonment of Western externals”. Missionaries from Wycliffe are risking their lives at this very moment to work on Bible translations, and if mistakes have been made it is because of their fear of putting unorthodox translations in the hand of Moslems, not because of some movement. You should consider that Satan is quite happy to use people like you to hurt the work of Bible Translation around the world.

    • Thank you John for visiting this site and for providing a comment.

      You say my conclusion is irresponsible. This point is taken from an online Christian magazine, and I provided the link in my post. This magazine “stands for factual accuracy and biblical objectivity, trying to see the world as best we can the way the Bible depicts it.”

      I am not sure if you are actually reading the post. I have not written about mistakes having been made “because of their fear of putting unorthodox translations in the hand of Moslems”. I am writing about mistranslating “Father” and “Son”.

      I am very surprised that concern for accuracy in Bible translation is considered by you to be the work of Satan. I strongly disagree that this is the case.

      Blessings.

  5. If one reads the texts in the original Greek, it is not difficult to translate it as it should be translated. Let us keep it as close to the original meaning as possible. When we start to impose our on wills unto the Word of G-d, we are in danger of mistranslations. Is our G-d so small that He needs us to ease His Word on what we view as other cultures? No, certainly not. His Word is powerful to cut to the very bone of the matter, and to pierce the hearts of men to bring them to submission to Him. He does not need us to distort His Word, His Living Word. He only ask of us to share it.

    • Translation is very difficult if the desire is accuracy to translate it into another language. One can not just use a search and replace. Their are a whole host of issues. The debate is just about accuracy but about reading. The debate is critical, not to discount prayer, but God wants us to discuss the way forward. Their should and must not be the “educated class” deciding for everyone, which SIL and frontiers are prone to. Their must be an open discussion.
      I believe building in a note system would be better, maybe like the Jewish New Testament.
      What most people who argue against it, not all, issue is that they no Muslims who are taught from birth that Christians believe in three Gods and that Mary had relationships with The father.
      I have lived with and known many muslims and I still can’t grasp how far this strikes to the core of their being. God can and will do the changing and must be left to do that, but we need to make sure we are not the barrier to him working. I have seen many times when the missionary or their work was repulsive to the Gospel and they claimed it was to the Gospel.
      I suspect on both sides of this argument we can find many people who love their position, and their theology even the Word more than God, yes that is possible. That’s called idolatry though. Very few involved in this debate love God more than anything else. Very few Love the people as much as they talk about, we love the positions we take and not the Christ if we are truly honest with ourselves.

      • Thanks. Please “Me” on this site we normally use the ordinary name we are known by. It is part of maintaining our positive culture here – so that even when we disagree, we are conscious we are doing so with a real person on the other side of their screen. Christ is risen! Blessings.

  6. Changing words in Scripture to make them less offensive to another religious group is dangerous. Which Jesus are the translators hoping muslims will accept? They call Jesus “the Christ” already, but acknowledge Him only as a prophet and inferior to Mohammad. To place their faith in the real Jesus, they have to believe He really is God the Son.

  7. Our understanding of Holy Scripture is guided by the Holy Spirit. To be certain, we also understand mentally that deeply flawed humans wrote that Scripture – granted, however, with Divine inspiration. And yet, it is the story of Perfection reaching out to us the imperfect. So the perplexing quandary is how to communicate through an even more crippled venue – writing. The Gospel story occurred within a particular cultural context. The entire story – from Genesis to Revelation – occurs within a cultural context (one that undoubtedly changed) and demonstrates the Hebrew cultural context commingled with other regional cultures.

    A partriarchal culture understands fatherhood and manhood, while a matriarchal culture understand motherhood and womanhood. The Hebrew culture has been largely – almost wholly, in fact – a patriarchal culture, which is the same type culture as Islam… perhaps even stronger. Thus, we have greater understanding when we read the Savior’s words when He spoke of “the Father,” and taught using predominately patriarchal analogy and allegory.

    Historically, we know also that Ishmael was given a promise, and was blessed too: “Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” cf. Genesis 17:20 And therefore, we can further understand the significance of communications within a cultural context. Again, our understanding is that the LORD Christ used terms with which the culture of that era was familiar. While many proclaimed so, were He to have used idioms phrases and syntax of the 21st Century, He would have certainly been thought a madman or lunatic, and therefore would have been ignored.

    Idioms, phrases and jargon vary from one generation to the next, even within one culture and nation. Why should we expect that the phrases that baffle us in one culture to be understood by one exceedingly different from ours, particularly when we acknowledge difficulty with comprehension?

    In part, for us to “be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves,” requires us to use great understanding, and significant mental acumen with the guidance of the Holy Spirit when we communicate cross culturally.

  8. I wish to point out that the concept of Isa as Masih is not in the same conceptual universe as the Christian belief that Jesus is the Messiah.

    I quote from Australian Anglican priest and scholar, Dr Mark Durie, in this book “Revelation – Jesus, Holy Spirit, God in Christianity and Islam – Do we worship the same God – Guidance for the Perplexed”:

    “Jesus’ title of Messiah [Masih], which the Quran uses, finds no explanation in the Quran, and Muslim scholars have never been able to reach a consensus on what it means. Yet in the Bible, from which it is so obviously taken, the concept of the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’, is plain, easy to understand, and is well integrated into a whole theological system, having a long prophetic history.” (pg 38)

    Christians need to be very careful that they do not project their own wishful thinking on to another religion’s text. While similarities exist between Biblical and Quranic characters, the Quranic Isa is not the Jesus of the Gospels nor of the faith of the Church.

    While remarkable among the Islamic prophets (and Islam claims all the major Biblical characters as Muslims), Isa is subservient to Muhammad’s mission and message.

    The Hadith or sayings of Muhammand teach that Isa’s return to earth will herald the destruction of crosses and the vanquishing of unbelievers.

    This is not quite what Christians envisage happening at the parousia! But it is entirely consistent with the Quran’s teaching that Isa did not die on the cross and therefore will be removing the symbol of that erroneous belief (crosses) when he gets his eschatalogical chance.

  9. Dear Bosco,

    I appreciate your attempt to bring an important topic up for discussion. But I’m afraid your editing Wycliffe’s most recent statement does not allow the reader to understand fully their position. I believe it is unfair to portray their desire to honestly communicate to the public as “spin words of gratitude, intentionally, and meaningful conversations”. Wow those are harsh words about dear friends who are seeking the Lord as they respond to a very difficult issue. Will you please at least post this part of the response:(which can be seen in its entirety on wycliffe.org)

    “Wycliffe USA remains committed to the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture in the original languages, and therefore is committed to translating the Scriptures in ways that communicate accurately. Wycliffe USA is committed to preserving the eternal deity of Jesus Christ and His relationship with the Father in every translation in such a way that communicates accurately and clearly.

    In recent weeks, the debate over the translation of the divine familial terms (words translated into English as Son of God, Son, and Father) has grown. It is the policy of Wycliffe USA that the literal translation of divine familial terms be given preference. If the accuracy of the meaning would be lost when using a literal translation, Wycliffe USA, along with SIL, has sought to provide clear guidance for the translation teams. It is this allowance, in rare cases, that is the point of debate. While Wycliffe USA believes this approach has allowed for accurate and clear translation of the divine familial terms, the concerns that have been raised in recent weeks deserve prayerful consideration.”

    Thank you,

    Robert Hale

    • Thanks for your visit and comment, Robert. I am happy to have you highlight that quote in this thread – as you see I directed my readers to your text. I further expressed that I am less interested in the doctrinal stance of the translator than the accuracy of the translation.

      I apologise if seeing spin words present is a cultural difference. Here “meaningful conversations” has that kind of tone.

      Blessings.

  10. Dear friends,
    I have that famous Turkish Gospel of Matthew here next to my computer. Surprsingly enough: on the left page is the literal Greek, plus the literal Turkish translation right under each word. And behold: Father and Son ARE THERE! So you are wrong in your discussions and talking far away from reality. So Turkish people can read the literal translation and on the right page is an amplified explanation of what things couuld mean, but the right page is NOT a translation. Sorry, but before you holler, try to get the details right ok!
    With love. Concerned about muslims getting to know Jesus as Lord, Saviour and Firstborn of Creation!

    • Thanks for your visit and helpful comment, Jacob. It is unsurprising to me that a diglot Greek/Turkish Bible is available – I am surprised at your suggestion that this is the particular book that is being discussed. The majority of English-speaking Christians would not have a diglot, so I am interested if you are suggesting that what you have beside your computer is the starting place in Turkey. I hope someone else can respond to your point. Blessings.

  11. Allah is an acceptable Arabic translation for God – but not for the Trinitarian distinctiveness of “Father”. To tranlate Mt 28:19 as Wycliffe has evidently done in this case is not a dynamic equivalent for the sake of a contextualized gospel but the heresy of “modalistic monarchianism” or “Sabellianism” where the persons of the Trinity are collapsed into a unitarian monad. And, as C.S. Lewis has said it is difficult to compete (in the realm of simplicity) with those who have gods who are “made up”.

    • Thanks, Patrice for your visit and comment. I don’t know if you read the whole post (above), that link and a quote from the page it links to are provided in the post. Blessings.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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