Bible Translation Controversy (!)

I first heard it like this: “Pastor Ryan, did you hear that Wycliffe Bible Translators is doing a translation that changes “son of God” to something else so it won’t offend Muslims?”


Wycliffe has gone liberal!  Wycliffe denies the gospel!  Wycliffe is probably a terrorist sleeper cell just waiting to strike!


Let’s all just pause for a moment.  Before writing off the folks at Wycliffe we should at least consider what we do know about the situation.  In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that as part of my seminary degree in Biblical exegesis and linguistics I was required to take classes at the “Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics” which is an academic institution that serves Bible translators.  I took classes like “Theory of Translation” and “Semantics and Pragmatics” alongside present and future Bible translators, many from Wycliffe.


What Happened?

In 2005 the Bengal Injil Sharif translation team translated the phrase “son of God” with the word for messiah.  They consulted with an expert from SIL (a sister organization to Wycliffe) and decided to change the word to a phrase which reads “God’s Intimately-Unique Love One.”  This translation team is not officially associated with Wycliffe Bible Translators, but rather is part of Global Partners.  Yes, this was 7 years ago.


What’s the Issue?

Translation is hard.  Nailing down word meanings is hard enough- but finding the right word in a different language is flat out exhausting.  Not all words share the same “range of meaning.”  A great example of this is the German word schadenfreude which takes an entire paragraph in English to explain.  The issue at hand revolves around the word “son.”  The English word “son” seems very simple, but some cultures have two or three different words for son which indicate biological sonship versus social or legal sonship.  In some cultures the only or most common word for “son” only means biological son. 


Enter the phrase “son of God.”  What does this phrase mean when it refers to Jesus?  It at least refers to the intimate relationship between God the Father and Jesus.  It certainly does not mean that the Father literally sired Jesus with a human mother (think Greek mythology).  The Bengal translation team was trying to ensure that their translation did not give the impression that Jesus was physically the son of God the Father.  After consulting with an expert, they were able to find a better alternative to their initial choice “Messiah.”  They tested their translation and changed it to make sure that the understood meaning matched the original Greek thought.


What about Wycliffe?

Although Wycliffe was not officially involved in the Injil Sharif translation, they have been deemed by many as guilty by association.  Wycliffe is not liberal.  They are not changing their translations to be less offensive.  In fact, they are continuing to labor intensively at the work of Bible translation.  They and other Bible translator groups need and deserve your prayer, your support, and your money.    


Don’t Be a Statistic

One word of caution.  The statement “Wycliffe is going liberal” smells like conspiracy theory alarmism more than thoughtful, gracious, academically honest consideration of the issues.  Before we get caught up in a controversy and worst case gossip or slander our brothers and sisters let us first go the source.  As people we can do better than get swept away by a tidal wave of controversy.  As Christians, we must.


For more information on the difficulty of translating divine familial terms see here.  For the official word from Wycliffe Bible Translators see here.

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