Part Three—How the Bible Came to Us
BURMA, 1824—The king’s officers have just ransacked Adoniram and Ann Judson’s missionary home, taking everything they thought valuable. But they have missed the most precious treasure—a translated Bible manuscript that Ann had secretly buried under the house. Adoniram, the translator, lies chained in a mosquito-infested jail, accused of spying. Now humidity threatens to destroy the manuscript. How can it be saved? Ann sews it inside a hard pillow and delivers it to her husband in prison. The pillow is preserved, and its contents become part of the first Burmese Bible.
The Bible has had many such adventures down through history. In previous issues, we considered the translation and distribution of the Bible from its completion up to the early 1600’s. How has the Bible fared from then to the present? Would it ever be accessible to all people? What role has the Watch Tower Society played?
Missionaries and Bible Societies
In numerous lands, the 1600’s and 1700’s were marked by a strong upsurge in Bible reading. England in particular was deeply affected by the Bible during this period. In fact, Biblical stories and teachings permeated the thoughts of practically everyone in the country, from the king to the plowboy. But the Bible’s influence extended farther. England was then a seafaring commercial and colonial power, and certain Englishmen took the Bible with them on their journeys. This laid the groundwork for an extended Bible campaign.
Toward the end of the 1700’s, the Bible stirred some in England to think about the spiritual needs of native peoples in the far-flung lands of the British Empire. This concern was by no means universal, however. Many churchmen believed in predestination, and they therefore considered it God’s will that some people not be saved. When would-be missionary William Carey gave an impassioned speech to rally support for a mission to India, someone called out in rebuke: “Sit down, young man; when God wishes to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help!” Nevertheless, Carey sailed for India in 1793. Astonishingly, he eventually translated the entire Bible or parts of it into 35 Indian languages.
The missionaries realized that their most basic tool was the Bible in the local language. Yet, who would provide Bibles? Interestingly, a movement that would spread Bibles around the world was unknowingly sparked by a 16-year-old Welsh girl, Mary Jones. In 1800, Mary walked barefoot for 25 miles [40 km] to buy a Welsh Bible from a clergyman. She had saved her money for six years, and when Mary learned that the Bibles had all been sold, she sobbed, crestfallen. Deeply moved, the clergyman gave Mary one of his own Bibles.
Thereafter, the clergyman reflected on the many others who needed Bibles, and he discussed the problem with friends in London. The result was the formation, in 1804, of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Its premise was simple: To provide people with affordable Bibles in their own language, printed “without note or comment.” By eliminating commentaries in the margins, the Society’s founders hoped to avoid doctrinal controversy. Several times, though, the Bible Society would be divided over the Apocrypha, baptism by immersion, and the Trinity doctrine.
Initial enthusiasm spread quickly, and by 1813 associate societies had been formed in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Russia. In time, Bible societies in other countries were added. When the early Bible societies formulated their goals, they thought that most of the world used only a few major tongues. They never dreamed that there were thousands! Relatively few translators knew Hebrew and Greek so as to translate directly into a vernacular language. Therefore, when the British and Foreign Bible Society sponsored translations, the translators very often based their work on the English-language King James Version.
The Trials of One Translator
Much of the Bible consists of narratives and illustrations based on everyday experiences. This makes it easier to translate than if it were written in the abstract terms of philosophy. Predictably, however, the missionaries’ early efforts sometimes produced confusing or humorous renderings. One translation, for example, gave people in a certain part of India the idea that God is a bluish-colored being. The word used for “heavenly” in the expression “heavenly Father” meant “having the color of the sky”—the literal heavens!
Regarding a translator’s obstacles, Adoniram Judson wrote in 1819: ‘When we take up a language spoken by a people on the other side of the earth, whose codes of expression are consequently all new, and the letters and words all totally destitute of the least resemblance to any language we have ever met with; when we have no dictionary or interpreter and must get something of the language before we can avail ourselves of a native teacher—that means work!’ And the work of translators like Judson greatly increased the Bible’s availability.—See chart on page 12.
Ann Judson helped her husband with the difficult task of translating. But the Judsons faced more than just academic trials. When the king’s officers dragged Adoniram off to jail, Ann was expecting a baby. Courageously, for 21 months she petitioned hostile officials on her husband’s behalf. That ordeal along with illness exacted a toll from her. Not long after Adoniram was released, his brave Ann and their little daughter died of fever. Adoniram was heartbroken. Still, he looked to God for strength and went on translating, completing the Burmese Bible in 1835. Meanwhile, other insidious challenges to the Bible were developing.
Controversy Surrounds the Bible
The 1800’s saw great social and political controversy, with the Bible sometimes playing a central role. For instance, although the Russian Bible Society began with the patronage of the czar and the Russian Orthodox Church, in time they dissolved and banned the Society. (Thousands of Bibles had already been burned about a year earlier by opposers of that Society.) The Orthodox clergy now zealously sought to end what the early Christians had so enthusiastically begun—universal circulation of the Bible. Orthodox leaders in the 19th century insisted that the Bible threatened the authority of both Church and State. Ironically, the emerging political revolutionary movement came to regard the Bible, not as a threat to the authorities, but, rather, as a weapon of Church and State for keeping the masses in submission. The Bible was under assault from both sides!
The ensuing years also witnessed increasing “intellectual” attacks on the Bible. In 1831, Charles Darwin set sail on the expedition that led to his theory of evolution. In 1848, Marx and Engels issued the Communist Manifesto, portraying Christianity as a tool of oppression. Also during this period, higher critics questioned the authenticity of the Scriptures and the historical reality of Bible characters—even of Jesus himself! But some thinking people recognized the fallacy of theories that rejected God and the Bible, and they sought scholarly ways of confirming the Bible’s reliability. One of these was Konstantin von Tischendorf, a gifted German linguist.
Discoveries Help Establish the Bible Text
Tischendorf traveled through the Middle East in search of ancient Bible manuscripts, hoping to establish the original text of the Bible beyond doubt. In 1859, the same year Darwin published The Origin of Species, Tischendorf found what was the oldest known complete copy of the Christian Greek Scriptures in a monastery at the base of Mount Sinai. It is known as the Codex Sinaiticus and was probably produced about 50 years before Jerome completed the Latin Vulgate. Though the propriety of his removing the codex from the monastery is still debated, Tischendorf published it, thus making it accessible to scholars.*
Because Sinaiticus was among the oldest original-language manuscripts, it not only revealed that the Greek Scriptures had remained essentially unchanged but also helped scholars to uncover errors that had crept into later manuscripts. For example, the reference to Jesus at 1 Timothy 3:16 in Sinaiticus reads: “He was made manifest in the flesh.” In place of “he,” the majority of then-known manuscripts showed an abbreviation for “God,” made by a small alteration of the Greek word for “he.” However, Sinaiticus was made many years before any Greek manuscript reading “God.” Thus, it revealed that there had been a later corruption of the text, evidently introduced to support the Trinity doctrine.
Since Tischendorf’s time, more manuscripts have come to light. Today, the total of known manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures is about 6,000, and of the Greek Scriptures, over 13,000. Comparative study of these has resulted in an original-language text that can be trusted confidently. As scholar F. F. Bruce put it: “Variant readings . . . affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.” While Bible translation into many more languages continued, how could this increased knowledge benefit people?
The Watch Tower Society and the Bible
In 1881 a small but earnest band of Bible teachers and students formed what later became the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. At first, they distributed Bibles produced by other Bible societies, including Tischendorf’s Greek Scriptures. By 1890, however, they had entered directly into Bible publishing, sponsoring the first of a number of Bible editions. In 1926 the Society began printing the Bible on its own presses. But the need for an updated translation of the Bible was becoming more evident. Could the knowledge gained through the discoveries and scholarship of the preceding century be incorporated in an understandable, affordable Bible? With this objective, associates of the Society set out in 1946 to produce a fresh translation of the Scriptures.
One Translation, Many Languages
A translation committee of experienced anointed Christians was organized to produce the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in English. It was published in six volumes, released from 1950 to 1960, beginning with the Christian Greek Scriptures. Since 1963 it has been translated into an additional 27 languages, with more in progress. The goals for other languages have been the same as for English. First, the translation should be accurate, as near to the original thoughts as possible. The meaning must not be bent to conform to a particular doctrinal understanding. Second, consistency should be maintained, the translation holding to one rendering for each major word as far as the context reasonably permits. Such an approach helps readers to see how Bible writers used specific words. Third, the translation should be as literal as possible without obscuring the meaning. Literalness gives the reader closer access to the flavor of the original languages and the associated thought processes. And fourth, it should be easy for the common people to read and understand.
The rather literal style of the English New World Translation facilitates translating it into other languages. For this purpose the Society’s translation teams presently use advanced computerized tools to speed up their work and to make it more accurate. This system helps translators to compile lists of vernacular equivalents for each major word. It also enables them to study the English renderings of each Hebrew and Greek word in the Bible.
Translating from the English, rather than working directly from the Hebrew and Greek, offers important advantages. Besides shortening translation time, it makes possible greater unity of expression in all languages. Why? Because it is much easier to translate precisely from one modern language into another than to translate from an ancient language into various modern ones. After all, translators can consult with native speakers of modern languages but not of languages spoken thousands of years ago.
Good News for All Nations
Much more could be written about the determined men and women who have helped to make the Bible by far the most widely accessible book on earth. Over the centuries, at least four billion Bibles and portions of the Bible have been printed in more than two thousand languages, spoken by well over 90 percent of the world’s population!
The Bible foretold a worldwide proclamation of God’s Kingdom in our day. To this end, Jehovah God himself has clearly taken a hand in making the Bible now almost universally available. (Matthew 13:47, 48; 24:14) Fearless Bible translators and publishers of the past risked everything to give us God’s Word—the only source of spiritual light in a morally darkened world. May their example move you to read, live by, and share that Word with the same conviction they displayed. Yes, every day, take full advantage of the reliable Bible in your hands!—Isaiah 40:6-8.
See “Rescuing the Codex Sinaiticus” in The Watchtower of October 15, 1988.
[Chart on page 12]
Growth in Bible Translation
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
1 Jews begin translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek
c. 280 B.C.E.
12 Jerome completes Latin Vulgate c. 400 C.E.
35 Gutenberg completes first printed Bible c. 1455
81 British and Foreign Bible Society founded 1804
Estimated Number of Languages According to Year
Sources: Christianity Today, United Bible Society
[Credit Line on page 9]
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1995 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture on page 8]
Judson was bound and dragged off
From the book Judson the Hero of Burma, by Jesse Page
[Pictures on page 10]
Tischendorf rescued a valuable manuscript at this monastery at the base of Mount Sinai
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.