Power of the Portable Word

(Text of the keynote address to Wycliffe Asia Pacific Partnership Event on June 25, 2022) 

I would like to thank the organizers for trusting me with this keynote address to the Asia Pacific Partnership event. I am not directly involved in Bible translation cross-culturally. But I had the privilege of working with Bible translators occasionally. I am also involved in a small way in updating some translations in my own language. That is all that I have to do with Bible translation. 

I consider addressing this group of experts, and supporters in Bible translation a great privilege. 

There is a skewed version of Christian history that is gaining currency in academic and political circles world-wide and particularly in India. That is to caricature the history of mission as a task achieved by the power of the sword. A variant of this version is to project global Christianity as the product of European colonialism. This leads to debates on Indian Christian legacy as that of forced conversions and Christianity as a religion foreign to the Indian soil. 

Though I would not deny that there is a shameful legacy of political pressure being used in the spread of Christianity in the past by the decadent, Constantine, Christendom that alone does not explain why Christian faith entered and thrives in the most hostile terrains in modern world.  

For example, more people come to Christian faith in the most hostile regions than in regions where Christianity is a household name. It is an attested historical reality that Christian faith thrives in areas where Christ-followers are the victims than villains. 

I maintain that the secret of the Christian mission was never the power of the sword but the power of the written Word of God. This power of the Word, not that of the sword has made sure that the Church of Jesus Christ prevails the gates of hell. The Bible is unique in its power to penetrate cultures, challenge the ungodly worldviews and demand obedience to Christ.  

One aspect of this power is its portability. When applied to the Bible, portability means its inherent ability to move from one context of culture, language, and custom to another without losing the essence.  

It is this quality, namely portability, that makes translation possible. But portability is more than mere translation. I would like to stick with the word portability because the word portability carries more sense than does the word translation. Portability makes translation not only possible, but it makes Bible translation mandatory. The Bible must be translated instead of demanding that the reader learns the language of the Bible. The Bible has the power to incarnate itself into the language of those who want to know God.  

I am indebted to Samuel Terrein, a famous Biblical studies scholar of the bygone decades, for the concept of portability. He claims in his famous book titled THE ELUSIVE PRESENCE that the reason for the survival of Israelite religion is the portability of divine presence. If they believed that the presence of the Lord is localized on the Mount Horeb (Sinai) where they received the covenant, the slaves released from Egypt would not have moved on to inherit the promised land to become a nation.  

So, when Moses prayed “please do not send us if you won’t go with us” God commanded him to build the ark of the covenant and a tabernacle to house it. Once the ark was built, the Lord filled the tabernacle where the ark was kept with his presence.  

The presence of the Lord in the ark led them forward to the promised land and led them in their battles. Their worship was centered around this ark. They did not have to make pilgrimages to Mount Sinai where God appeared to Moses. They did not trace their paths back, but they moved on as the Lord guided them.  

The presence of the Lord was portable. The tabernacle where the ark of the covenant was housed could be dismantled, carried to another place, and re-assembled in the new place. Then the presence of the Lord will be relocated to this new location. The people would gather around the Tabernacle again to worship and hear God speak.  

But later Solomon built a permanent temple to house the ark. A few years later king Josiah insisted that the people should worship only in Jerusalem. Once the portable presence was localized in one place during the monarchy, the decay of Israelite faith began. The Lord responded violently when the temple was idolized by destroying it twice in history once in 587 and again in AD 70. It is still in ruins.  

I suggest that just as the portable Tabernacle was the reason for the survival of the Israelite faith, the portable Word of God empowers the Christian faith to penetrate formidable fortresses that the powers of darkness have erected over the centuries.  

Portability of the Word makes faith possible and sustainable in every context, irrespective of time and space. 

Let me be repeat.  

Portability of the Word of God means its ability to translate its worldview to new cultural and language contexts.  It does not compromise its world view in any way.  

The Bible holds that all that is visible and invisible are created by one God. This creator God is the Redeemer of humanity and of the fallen creation. He is also the orchestrator of human destiny and world history. The portability of the scripture means that these central truth claims can be expressed in diverse mediums, and idioms. 

In the following part of my talk today, I would like to illustrate the portability of the Word of God and its impact attested in world history. 

First, the portability is inherent to the nature of the Bible. That means that the Word is contemporaneous to its audience irrespective of the time and space of their existence. 

The Bible is not written in one day by one author in one place. It is a document written over a period spanning 1500 years, by various people living in diverse locations. But it is coherent and speaks to a wide spectrum of contexts and readers who lived all down through the centuries while it was on its way to the form that we have it now. 

The Bible, despite how much of it was available at any point in time, was scripture to the people who lived in that era. For example, the people who lived in the period of Moses had only the first five books, but they considered them as sacred. Then the books of the prophets were added to the scripture and so on. The corpus of the biblical literature grew but all parts appealed to its audience down through the centuries. 

The secret of its appeal and coherence down through the centuries is that each subsequent section or layer presented the earlier corpus in the language of their audience. 

For a most evident example, compare the Book of Kings and the Book of Chronicles that deal with almost the same content but from two different period of Israel’s history, addressed to two different audiences. The Book of Chronicles dated in the exilic or post-exilic period uses new grammatical forms, even updates orthography (spellings) to appeal to its generation who may not be as comfortable with Hebrew as their ancestors were. For example, the proper name David is written in its shorter form in Kings but the spelling of this name is simplified in Chronicles to make it easy for the later readers. Place names like Damascus also are spelt in their simpler, contemporary forms. 

A student who had done only preliminary Greek in an Indian seminary will come across many grammatical forms that textbooks focused on standard Biblical Hebrew did not teach them if they had to read Ezra, Nehemiah, or Chronicles. These books reflect a language that was contemporaneous with their days. 

Every author made sure that his work communicates with the immediate context. For example, the Book of Job which has a southeastern setting (in areas now in Arabia) has more Arabic loan words than any other books of the Bible. 

The grammar of Old Testament is not uniform. In the early traditions we find Early Biblical Hebrew retained in some places like the poems in the Book of Judges. But in Books written in exilic and post-exilic period we see the Late Biblical Hebrew, sometimes bordering the emerging Hebrew of the Mishnah. 

The Bible has the power to be everybody’s contemporary. That is the unique claim of the Bible. It is sensitive to fine variations in its language over the centuries. 

This dynamic portability of the Bible is evident in the fact that the Bible is written in three different languages. Hebrew, Aramaic and then koine Greek. Not only that the later books of the Bible have more Aramaisms, but in fact 2% of the Old Testament is written in Aramaic of the empire. For examples, sections that originated in exilic or post exilic period in books like Ezra, Daniel, Jeremiah and so on are written in imperial Aramaic. 

So, within the textual corpus of the Bible itself we see the inner dynamics of portability, within layers and sections. 

Portability did not stop with the development of the biblical corpus. But the completed corpus of writings was transported to various cultural and language contexts over the years through translations. 

In the period following the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Greek had become the language of the Greek empire and it continued its hold during the Roman period also for a considerable period. So, sometime during the period between 4th and 3rd century BC, three to four centuries before the birth of Christ the Hebrew Bible was translated into koine Greek in the capital of Greek culture, Alexandria in Northern Egypt. 

Thus, the Septuagint, the Bible of the Greek speaking Jews and later of the early church was born. The apostles reached out to the farthest corners of the Roman empire proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ promised in the Old Testament, equipped with this version of the Old Testament.  

Their preaching and their writings with quotations from the Septuagint gave birth to the New Testament. Thus, with the extended corpus of Septuagint in koine Greek and the New Testament writings in the same language, the Christian Bible was born. 

Septuagint made the mission of the early church possible. Not only the Jews but also the Greek speakers spread all over Roman empire were presented with the truth claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, and the savior of the world.  

The early Christ-followers speaking Greek boosted the mission of the Church. Antioch became the center of Christian mission as the Greek speaking Christ-followers from North Africa migrated to this urban center. Prominent of them is Luke, the physician who accompanied Paul on most of his journey and authored the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. 

Portability of the Bible did not end with the Septuagint translation. There were in the Roman world nooks and corners where Greek was not popular. So as Christian faith reached Syriac speaking regions, the Syriac version (Peshitta) emerged around second century AD. In the Sahidic (or pre-Islamic Arabic) speaking world, the Sahidic translation was made as early as second century AD. Since Vulgate prevailed as the administrative language of the Roman empire and of the aristocrats, the Latin translation of the Christian Bible known as the Vulgate appeared in 4th century AD. The Vulgate remains the official Bible of the Catholic church even now.  The orthodox churches thrive on the translations in Greek, Syriac, Coptic and so on depending on the regions where they are situated. 

The power of the Word, to transport itself into any culture is the secret of Christian mission. It is the Word not the Sword that empowers the Church of Jesus Christ in her mission to all world. The church, empowered by the portability of the Word brings down the gates of hell wherever they stand against “the faith once entrusted to the saints.” 

When the church almost lost its vision and mission to the dominance of the Constantine Christendom it is the back to the Bible movement of the reformers and the radical reformers that released the church of Jesus Christ from the clutches of darkness. To lighten the path of reformation, there was Bible in every major language of the people. 

Ancient religions of the Moabites, Ammonites and so on did not return from the exile in Babylon to build their temples and continue to their worship. But the Jews did because they had their Bible to sustain their faith through exile. Judaism survived the catastrophe of Babylonian invasion and later the Roman conquest because they were scriptural or a biblical religion. 

Christian faith thrives in the most hostile regions because the people have access to scripture in their own languages to understand God’s will and purposes for them.  

This is an ongoing story that Wycliffe and their partners continue to create in our world. 

I conclude my words, saluting those who are involved in making the powerful life of the scripture available to all language groups. May God honor your sacrifice and your devotion. 

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