Language and the early manuscripts (K. Barker)

A Series on How We Got Our Bible: Part 2

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Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative | Inclination: dispensational | Seminary: Dallas Theological

Hebrew was the language of the ancient people of Israel. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.

Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, was the second biblical language. It was not used extensively in the Bible. Only about ten chapters in the Old Testament were written in Aramaic. Yet the language influenced the writing of the New Testament and sheds light on our understanding of the Old Testament Hebrew. When the people of Israel returned to Palestine after their exile in Babylon around 500 years before Christ, they brought the Aramaic language with them. Hebrew remained the official language of temple and synagogue worship, and the choice of the educated upper class. However, within three centuries Aramaic was the language of the common people of Palestine. Jesus and his disciples, no doubt, spoke Aramaic in their normal, daily conversations. Several times in his Gospel, Mark quotes the words of Jesus in Aramaic and then translates the meaning for his original readers, most of whom were not from Palestine and did not understand Aramaic.

This mixture of languages presented a particular challenge, first to the Jews and later to the expanding Christian church. As we have seen, by the time of Jesus, many Jews spoke little Hebrew, especially those Jews who had migrated to other parts of the empire. Aramaic was the common language of Jews who lived in Palestine. Jews who lived in other regions of the Mediterranean basically spoke the native languages of those regions.

But virtually everyone in the empire spoke the third biblical language, a form of Greek known as Koine Greek. It was the language of commerce and politics. Throughout the Roman Empire merchants, seamen and travelers communicated in this Greek dialect. Anyone who did business on any level throughout the Mediterranean world spoke Koine Greek. An educated Roman might speak Latin at home or with friends, but he spoke Koine Greek in the marketplace. A Palestinian Jew might use Aramaic in private conversation, but in public he spoke Koine Greek. This is similar to the practice in some parts of the United States in our own time. Many families speak English in public but return to a more familiar, native language like Spanish when at home. So Greek provided a linguistic common denominator.

For this reason around 280 BC work began in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria on a new translation of the Scriptures. The result was the Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament into Koine Greek. Though Jews continued to revere the Scriptures in their original Hebrew, by the time of Jesus and his disciples the Greek Septuagint was the Bible of popular choice. It became the Bible of Jews all around the empire.

Since most of the first Christians were Jews, the Septuagint became their Bible of choice too. Many of the Old Testament quotations that appear in the New Testament are actually quotations from the Septuagint. And because the Gospels and letters, which make up the New Testament, were circulated among the churches around the Roman Empire, they were also written in Koine Greek.

Due to the spread of Christianity during the four centuries after Christ, the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments were translated into such ethnic languages as Syriac, Old Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Gothic, Georgian and Armenian. Some of these translations were made by people who had more missionary zeal than linguistic skill. As a result, some were of poor quality.

Another language, Latin, was yet to play an important role in the spread of the Christian message. No part of the Bible was written in Latin. However, Latin was the language of educated Romans. As Christianity spread from the working and merchant classes to the upper levels of Roman society, the church saw the need for a translation of the Bible in Latin. Between the years 390 and 450 AD, a priest named Jerome, also known as Eusebius Hieronymus, produced a translation of the entire Scriptures in Latin. A dedicated and careful scholar, Jerome set out to revise and correct previous inferior translations. And, to a very large degree, he succeeded. He seems to have had a good Hebrew manuscript from which he translated all of the Old Testament except the Psalms. His translation of the Psalms is actually a revision of an earlier, Old Latin translation of the Septuagint. In other words, it was a revision of one translation made from another translation. For the Gospels, Jerome again revised the Old Latin, but this time he based his revision on the original Greek. The remainder of his New Testament was a somewhat hasty revision of the Old Latin.

Jerome’s translation was not perfect. No translation is. Still, his work set a high standard of quality and preserved the integrity of the Scriptures from well meaning but careless or poorly qualified translators. Later known as the Latin Vulgate, it was the standard for all Christians in Western Europe until the Protestant Reformation.

Kenneth Barker's personal note: The story of how I became interested in translating the Bible goes all the way back to a Youth for Christ rally on October 2, 1948, in the auditorium of the Hazard, Kentucky, high school. There I made a decision that changed the course of my life forever. At age 17 I received the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and committed my life fully to Him. That decision started me on a path that would eventually lead to my being one of the translators of the NIV.

After completing my education and teaching a few years at other schools, I became a professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1968. I remained there until 1981. In 1971 I received a phone call from Dr. Edwin Palmer. He told me about a project under way to translate the Bible accurately from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) into clear, contemporary English.

Palmer invited me to join the other scholars chosen from around world to participate in this historic event. I listened courteously and patiently to his explanation, thanked him for inviting me - and turned him down. I told him I was extremely busy with teaching, speaking engagements, and writing and editing commitments.

But Palmer persisted, and called me again almost one year later. He explained that a translation committee working on the book of Hosea was to meet for two weeks in St. Louis, and he asked me to help them. If I was not satisfied with the work, he promised never to bother me again about the NIV. But if I wanted to continue with them, they would be glad to have me. I agreed, and in those two weeks I was totally sold on the project. After that, I devoted all the time, labor, and money I could spare to the NIV.

God has blessed our efforts beyond all expectations. For one thing, there are now over 150 million NIV Bibles and New Testaments in print, and thus in worldwide circulation and use. In the near future, 200 million copies will be in use around the world. I know of no other English translation of God’s Word that has ever surpassed that record in the same period of time since its release. It is an exciting thought that long after I am dead and gone, the NIV will still be here to bring the spiritual blessings of salvation and Christian living to hundreds of millions of people.

It is a great joy to hear that people everywhere have been "born again" (John 3:3, 7) through reading the NIV. This, of course, is one of the reasons God’s Word was given in the first place (John 20:31). Others have understood the Bible for the first time as the result of using the NIV. I received an encouraging letter from a new Christian in England. He told me that so much of the old English in the King James Version went over his head that he lost interest. Then his wife gave him the NIV, and he couldn’t put it down. He read it for hours at a time. This is what makes all our efforts really worthwhile.

One of my many favorite passages in the NIV is 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."

Dr. Kenneth Barker is an author and speaker living in Lewisville, Texas. Until his retirement from International Bible Society in 1996, he was Executive Director of their NIV Translation Center. He is one of the original translators of the New International Version of the Bible and a regular spokesperson for its Committee on Bible Translation - the governing body that produced the NIV.

Ken Barker has given talks about the translation process of the NIV all over the U.S. and abroad, and much of his time is spent writing, editing, preaching, and teaching. He also worked on the New International Reader’s Version (a simplification of the NIV for those who read at a lower reading level), three books about the NIV, and the tenth - anniversary edition of the NIV Study Bible as its General Editor.

Dr. Barker and his wife, Isabelle, have four children - Ken, Patricia, Ruth, and David - and 14 grandchildren. When at home, the Barkers worship and serve at First Baptist Church of Carrolton, Texas. In his spare time Ken enjoys music, reading, table tennis (ping-pong), swimming, and walking.

He holds the B.A. degree from Northwestern College, the Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and the Ph.D. from the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning. In the past, he has served as Academic Dean of Capital Bible Seminary, Professor of Old Testament at three theological seminaries, and Visiting Professor at two others. He is also author of commentaries on the books of Micah and Zechariah.

Series: How We Got Our Bible (K. Barker)
Part 1: Copying the Old and New Testament manuscripts

Series: How We Got Our Bible (K. Barker)
Part 3: Translating the Bible into English

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Topical Index: Bible>Transmission / Translation

By author:

Author Index: Barker, K

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