Reading Timothy Tennant’s Christianity at the Religious Roundtable I came across a point that most of us probably know, but few of us have probably thought much about. Dr. Tennant observes that, “Christianity is the only world religion whose primary source documents are in a language other than that of the religion’s founder. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek, not in Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus.” He continues, “This is unique among all world religions, and it is a remarkable testimony to the translatability of the Christian message that has been enshrined in our most sacred texts.”
As difficult as it has proven to be to translate the New Testament into other languages, it is been comparatively easy by comparison to the Qur’an, for example. There are lots of reasons for this, involving the natures of Koine Greek and classical Arabic. But undeniably Christian evangelism has benefitted from the relative ease in translation, while Muslim evangelism has suffered. Of course Muslims would argue that we corrupt our texts by translation, and in some cases they may be right. But still, the spread of the gospel has benefitted from its linguistic and cultural “translatability.”
It is especially fascinating that the gospels record the words of Jesus in a language other than the one he spoke. We can be reasonably sure that he never said anything exactly as recorded in the Bible (other than those few instances where the original Aramaic is preserved). And because the writers of the Gospels were not writing in their first language, it seems unlikely that the translations (written many decades after the fact) are precisely accurate in any event.
But one of the beauties of the Gospels is that (unlike the Qur’an for example) they don’t purport to be dictated by God and they don’t purport to be mere transcripts of Jesus’ words. They are recollections.
And these recollections, written in a second language many years after the events they describe, have changed the world. And the best, of course, is yet to come.