What do we mean when we say that the Bible is “holy”? I hope that we mean that it is God’s word and that we therefore take it seriously. But some people mean something else – that the language itself is holy. In an essay on translating the Bible, C. S. Lewis reminds us that:
Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street
But we do not need to go back five centuries to find this opinion. Today it is flourishing in many places including Jamaica. There, the translation of the Bible into Jamaican is causing quite a stir. Those opposing it are saying pretty much the same things that were said by those pious people in the sixteenth century.
But, in order for the truth to break through, a specific kind of false “holiness” needs to be lost. Lewis goes on to say that losing that kind of holiness is no loss at all.
The only kind of sanctity that Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language…
Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.
Some oppose translation of the Bible into minority languages, or consider it to be a waste of time, for a similar reason – that the languages are too lowly. In other words, they are not holy enough. That point of view misunderstands the nature of the Bible — and the nature of minority languages. In addition, it runs counter an observation of the Apostle Paul – that God likes to work through what the world considers weak and plain and common.
I am in Bible translation to see God work amazing things in people and languages that others consider insignificant and, yes, even unholy. God’s Word is holy in the way God made it holy, not with the artificial “holiness” people sometimes try to add.
What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important (I Cor 1:28 CEV)