Bible falls far short of being available worldwide

Last week a study released by the Barna Group and the American Bible Society, “Is the Bible Available to All People?,” revealed a huge misperception among Americans about the availability of the Bible in the world’s 6,900-plus languages. Almost three-fourths of Americans believe the Bible is available in all languages, but in fact, the report said, less than half of worldwide languages have complete translations of the Bible, or even a completed portion. Some other numbers worth noting: Barely 21 percent of Americans think all languages are not covered by Bible translations; 98 percent of Americans believe people should have access to the Bible in their own language; 31 percent of world languages have no Scripture translation started; and 26 percent have Scripture translations in process. In the U.S., 60 percent of Americans express wanting to study the Bible more, despite the average household having more than four Bibles.

This latest study, released as part of the American Bible Society’s 2015 State of the Bible report, shows just how much more needs doing to make the Bible more accessible worldwide. Last year I commented on the 2014 State of the Bible report. The focus of that report was biblical illiteracy among Christians. People do not have the advantage of reading the Bible if it’s not available in their native tongue.

The role of Bible translation in Christianity’s history

Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity, professor of history and professor of international and area studies at Yale University, writes in his book “Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West”: ”Being the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are a translated version of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. … Since Jesus did not write or dictate the gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. The missionary environment of the early church made translation and the accompanying interpretation natural and necessary. … Christianity seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder.”

I heard Dr. Sanneh, in a Maryland conference I attended about eight years ago, posit that the spread of Christianity in Africa was successful so quickly because Scripture was translated into vernacular languages — in contrast with Islam, which was rooted in its original Arabic text. He further recounted the story of a church organization in the British Isles sending many English Bibles to Ethiopia to “help” them. Humorously, he noted that the Ethiopian churchmen sent the Bibles back to Britain saying, “No, thank you,” but that they’d already translated the Bible into their own language.

Scripture in Alaska Native languages

In Alaska, some portions of the Bible are available in Yupik, Haida and Inupiaq. The only complete Bible portion I’m aware of is a New Testament translation into North Slope Iñupiaq. Culturally, English is dominant in much of Alaska, though recent court rulings that voter materials be made available in Alaska Native languages reinforced those languages’ cultural importance

Could Bible translation replace costly short-term missions?

Many Alaska church members of all ages take short-term missionary trips to various areas of the world for one to three weeks to help locals with projects, support and money. These trips cost millions of dollars for uncertain returns. Often missiologists note these trips could be more productive if one or two highly skilled people in specialized areas go on these trips to do technology transfer, training the locals to acquire specialized skills to help themselves. Most often, local natives in these countries are amazed the trippers make no attempt to speak or even learn their language, are focused on giving things, and do work that natives would love to do if only they could be financially rewarded for doing so. A common example used is where short-term missionaries will paint or rehabilitate a church, providing materials or labor to make it happen. This translates into a lost opportunity for locals and a truly productive venture in helping out needy people.

As we approach summer, we find the same things happen in Alaska. Churches across the U.S. send teams of people to Alaska to repaint, repair and rehabilitate churches or church buildings. Where this happens, local members do not have the necessary buy-in to appreciate what they are receiving.

I suggest that Bible translation is a worthy goal that could pay bigger dividends in the long run than short-term missionary ventures. Paul, in his missionary journey to Athens, took advantage of language and culture to inject new meaning using their own terms; “… as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you …” (Acts 17:23).

Of course there is much more to translation than I convey here. But certainly a worthy goal could be the translation of key scriptural passages into the languages of regions where no Scripture exists. This study offers new insights and challenges for Christians believing the Bible has gone out to most of the world.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

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