Last night we were greeted with the tragic news that the person killed in Jerusalem by a terrorist bomb was not only a British citizen, but a Wycliffe Bible translator. Mary Gardner was there to learn Hebrew in order to improve her skills in translation work. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and colleagues at Wycliffe.
Why would someone risk their life, or at least suffer considerable personal sacrifice, for the sake of translation? The answer is that translation of the Bible is at the heart of Christian faith, for two reasons.
The first relates to the Christian faith’s unique global vision. There is no ‘Wycliffe Qur’an Translators’ or ‘Translation Committee for the Bhagavad Gita.’ This is because, from the very beginning, the followers of Jesus had a centripetal (rather than centrifugal) desire to make the good news relevant to others. The roots of this can be found in Jesus’ restlessness to move on to other villages early in his ministry in Mark 1.38, and in John 10.16 in his declaration that ‘there are sheep who are not of this sheepfold’, a reference not to other religions but to other ethnic groups who will come to believe. In the early Christian community, it finds expression in the ‘Great Commission’ in Matt 28, and specifically Jesus promise in Acts 1, that his disciples will be his witnesses ‘in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’
But it finds its specific expression in the need to translate. In John 1.35-39 John the Baptist has pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples, and they follow:
Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which being translated means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
The second reason why translation is at the heart of Christian faith is because of its vision for (for want of a better word) democratisation. The vision we find in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere is of God at work, not through a religious elite (be that a priestly caste or a scribal profession) but through the whole people of God. There is no doubt that this was a key attraction of this new faith to the whole social strata in the Empire, and it was something rediscovered at the Reformation. Indeed, the movement for the translation of the Bible into English was driven by this concern to give the Bible to the common people. In Tyndale’s famous saying:
I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!
For his pains, he lost his life.
I believe that all ministry has at its heart this costly task of translation. It might not be of quite the same kind as Mary Gardner or William Tyndale, but we are all called to make the message of this first-century Jew Jesus, and what God did in and through him, understandable and accessible to those around us. But like Mary and William, it means we have some challenges ahead.
In the end that is why I believe that, whatever its faults, residential training must form an essential part of the church’s equipping of its future leaders. To be a translator, you must be immersed both in the world you are translating to and in the world you are translating from. This second is going to involve some serious study, which is why people need to take time aside to be equipped.
Here is Tom Wright on what he considers the three essentials in training for ministry—study, prayer and love:
(Thanks to John Byron for highlighting this.)