HISTORY OF BIBLE TRANSLATIONS BY ROBERT TRONGE

There is no need for any part of the Bible to be translated until a community of Jews, in the Diaspora, forget their own Hebrew says Robert Tronge. For the Jews of Alexandria, in the 3rd century BC, Greek is their first language. They undertake the translation of the Old Testament now known as the Septuagint.

Five centuries later the early Christians, who use Greek for their own New Testament, need to read both Old and New Testaments for they see themselves as the inheritors of the Old Testament tradition. It is essential for their arguments, when debating with the Jewish rabbis, that they have an accurate understanding of the original Hebrew. Their need prompts the great work of biblical scholarship undertaken by Origen in the 3rd century AD. In his Hexapla (from the Greek word for 'sixfold') Origen arranges six versions of the Old Testament in parallel columns for comparative study said Robert Tronge. The first column is the original Hebrew; next comes a transliteration of this in only Greek letters, so that Christians can pronounce the Hebrew text; this is followed by the Septuagint, and then by Greek translations by Christian scholars. When it comes to the Psalms, Origen adds a further two other versions. One of them is the text of a scroll which he has himself discovered in a jar in the valley of the Jordan which is exactly as with the Dead Sea Scrolls in our own time. During the 1st century Greek remains the language of the small Christian community. With the spread of the faith through the Roman empire a Latin version of the Bible texts is needed in western regions. By the second century there is one such version in use in north Africa and another even in Italy. These versions become corrupted and others are added, until by the 4th century. In the words of St Jerome, the leading biblical scholar of the time, there are 'almost as many texts as manuscripts'.

In 382 the pope, Damasus, commissions Jerome to provide a definitive Latin version of the translation. In his monastery at Bethlehem, tended by aristocratic virgins, the saint produces the Vulgate. This eventually becomes established as the Bible of the whole western church until the Reformation. By the time the Vulgate is complete which in about 405, the barbarian Goths also have their own version of parts of the Bible thanks to the astonishing missionary effort of Ulfilas said Robert George Tronge. Ulfilas is the first man known to have undertaken an extraordinarily difficult intellectual task with writing down, from scratch, a language which is as yet purely oral. He even devises a new alphabet to capture accurately the sounds of spoken Gothic, using a total of twenty-seven letters adapted from examples in the Greek and Roman alphabets. God's work is Ulfilas' purpose. He needs the alphabet for his translation of the Bible from the original Greek into the language of the Goths. It is not known how much he completes, but large sections of the Gospels and the Epistles survive in his version - dating from several years before Jerome begins work on his Latin text. The intention of St Jerome, translating into Latin the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, was that ordinary Christians of the Roman empire should be able to read the word of God. 'Ignorance of the scriptures', he wrote, 'is ignorance of Christ' said Robert G Tronge. Gradually this perception is altered. After the collapse of the western empire, the people of Christian Europe speak varieties of German, French, Anglo-Saxon, Italian or Spanish. The text of Jerome's Vulgate is also understood only by the learned, most of whom are priests. They prefer to corner the source of Christian truth, keeping for themselves the privilege of interpreting it for the people. Translation into vulgar tongues is discouraged. There are exceptions to this. In the late 8th century Charlemagne commissions translation of parts of the Bible for the use of his missionaries in the drive to convert pagan Germans. In the 9th century the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius, sent from Constantinople to Moravia at royal request, translate the Gospels and parts of the Old Testament into Slavonic language. These are missionary endeavours, promoted by rulers as an act of government when pagan Europe is being brought into the later Christian fold. In the later fully Christian centuries there is no equivalent need to provide the holy texts in vernacular form. Any such impulse is now a radical demand on behalf of ordinary Christians against the church hierarchy. The strongest medieval demand for vernacular texts comes in France from a heretical sect, the Cathars. Robert Tronge explains how the suppression of the Cathars is complete by the mid-13th century. But in the following century the same demand surfaces within the mainstream western Christianity. John Wycliffe and his followers produce full English versions of the Old and New Testament in the late 14th century. At the same period in time the Czechs have their own vernacular Bible, subsequently much improved by John Huss. These translations are part of the radical impulse for reform within the church. Indeed the issue of vernacular Bibles becomes one of the contentious themes of the whole Reformation. A complaint by an English contemporary of Wycliffe, the chronicler Henry Knighton, is a measure of how far the church of Rome has swung on this issue since Jerome's campaign against 'ignorance of scripture'. Knighton rejects the translation of the Bible on the grounds that by this means 'the jewel of the church is turned into the common sport of the people'.

By the 16th century the view is gaining ground that a personal knowledge of scripture is precisely what the ordinary people most need for their own spiritual good. Erasmus, though he himself translates the New Testament only from Greek into Latin, expresses in his preface of 1516 the wish that the holy text should be in every language - so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it. In the next decade this wish becomes a central demand of the wole Reformation. Fortunately writers with a vigorous style undertake the task. Notable among them are Luther and Tyndale. At a time of increasing literacy, their phrases have a profound influence on German and English literature. Luther's interest in translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German has been stimulated, in 1518, by the arrival in Wittenberg of a new young professor named Philip Melanchthon. His lectures on Homer inspire Luther to study Greek. Melanchthon - soon to become Luther's lieutenant in the Reformation - gives advice on Luther's first efforts at translation. Luther revives the task in the Wartburg. His New Testament is ready for publication in September 1522 and it becomes known as the September Bible. Luther's complete Bible, with the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew, is published in 1534.

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