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25 August 2017

The word on the street

The word on the street

Thanks to the Reformation we now have the Bible in our own language. But around the world, an estimated 1.5 billion people don’t have that luxury. Claire Smith and Hazel Southam find out how two Evangelical Alliance member organisations are working to change that.

High up in the mountains of southern China, in a village church with peeling, sun-faded walls and plastic flowers on the altar, a community of people are celebrating. They’re giving thanks for something they thought they’d never have: the Bible in their language.

“It’s a miracle,” said 75-year-old Zhang Xiuzhu, who has been a Christian for nearly 40 years. “I was fearful that I would never have a Bible in my own language but I hoped that, before I died, I would have the chance to see it.”

Xiuzhu is a member of the Black Yi community, one of China’s 55 recognised ethnic minorities. Christianity has been in her community since 1904, and the New Testament was translated into their language in 1948. But they had to wait until the end of 2016 – through the Cultural Revolution and then a long process of approval – for their first ever full Bible.

This was one of 61 communities to receive scripture in their language in 2016, thanks to Bible Societies’ work. Of these, 17 communities received their first full Bible and six had their first New Testament.

It means that, according to figures released by United Bible Societies recently, 648 languages spoken by over 5.1 billion people now have a complete Bible. A further 1,432 languages spoken by 657 million people have a New Testament. There remains a need – around 253 million people have not a single word of the Bible in their language and 1.5 billion don’t have the whole Bible– but today there’s more translation work happening than ever before.

Neil Rees, a translation expert working with Bible Society, said, “There’s a high demand for the Bible; the Church is growing all over the world, and education is improving so more people can read. Advancements in technology also mean it’s easier to translate the Bible. And there’s a big effort from mission agencies to put the Bible into the world’s languages.”

This motivation to translate the Bible can be traced, in part, back to the Reformation. A couple of key translations pre-date the Reformation, but as Christians in western Europe demanded services in their own language rather than Latin – and with the Great Bible authorised in England by Henry VIII in 1539 – Bible translation was accelerated across Europe.

“The Reformation was a stepping stone which led to new translations in English, German, Spanish Portuguese and Italian,” said Neil. “Then, Europeans started to colonize countries towards the end of the 1500s and took Bibles with them. Later, the Evangelical Revival led to the foundation of organisations like Bible Society – and missionaries began to go to communities to translate Scripture.”

These days, Bible translators are setting their sights on new targets. There’s not a single completed sign language Bible in the world, for example, but around 500 sign languages exist. Bible Society is currently involved in 16 sign language translations, which could reach more than 12 million deaf people.

Meanwhile, back in China’s Yunnan province, Xiuzhu and others in her village are exploring God’s word. One Black Yi pastor is overseeing the building of a bigger church, in anticipation of all the people who will come to faith through reading the Black Yi Bible. “Each time I hold this Bible in my hands I thank God,” added Xiuzhu, “and everyone to helped to get us to this stage.”

Translating and printing the Bible is just part of the story of how organisations are helping to open the scriptures to people today..

But what happens if you can’t read? Or, if you come from a culture with an oral tradition, rather than a written one?

Mali is one of more than 1,000 languages in which there are now audio Bibles. Wycliffe Bible Translators, Bible Society and Faith Comes By Hearing are working together to bring the Bible to life for people who don’t read.

Ndeere, a woman living in Mali, has been listening to an audio Bible. She said, “Romans 12:20 says if you do good to your enemy it is as though you are placing burning coals on their head.

“I heard this passage and then I applied it to the case of a woman who lives in the same courtyard as me who doesn’t like me at all. She used to say to her friends that she didn’t even want to see me.

“It is our custom that if women are heading out to work in the fields, the younger women carry the baskets of the older ones. But this woman, such a nasty person as she is, nobody would carry her basket for her.

“When I heard the part in Romans on the audio player I started to carry her basket each time we went to the fields. Some of my friends told me not to do that. But I carried on. At last the nasty lady said to me that she was afraid of me because I respect her so much. And in the end she stopped hating me.

“What is more,” Ndeere added, “I have to say that listening to the Bible has made me more patient. There was a time when, if someone would criticise me I wouldn’t feel at ease unless I attacked them back. Now, everyone is surprised at the change in my behaviour.

Richard Margetts works for Wycliffe in Mali, promoting scripture engagement. Here solar-powered audio players and phone apps are being used to pass the Bible on orally.

He said, “As well as giving access to non- readers, audio scriptures have other advantages over the printed page.

“It can be a lot easier to listen to large portions of scriptures, rather than read them, especially for hesitant readers.

“Most of the world’s population rely on, or prefer, oral communication. So it makes sense to find ways of communicating the scriptures orally.”

Five hundred years on from the Reformation more people can access the Bible than ever before. But the work begun all those years ago is far from over. 

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