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Do religions try to keep their scriptures inaccessible?
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It's been alleged that religions worldwide have tended to resist translation of their sacred books into languages that ordinary people can read. This is historically misleading at best. - photo by Deseret Connect
The late Christopher Hitchens once ranked, with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, among the four horsemen of the New Atheism. His most comprehensive attack on religious faith came in a best-seller called and dont miss the titles lowercased first word god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, 2009).

Hitchens was a superb and witty writer, but this is an excruciatingly bad book, crammed to bursting with historical and other errors. Still, it continues to exert considerable influence, so well look at one representative page page 125 of his book. Well focus on the Bible, but other illustrations (such as, for example, the Buddhist canon) would have made our case just as well.

All religions, Hitchens claims, have staunchly resisted attempts to translate their sacred texts into languages that ordinary people can understand. Hes wrong.

According to the United Bible Societies, portions of the Bible have been translated into nearly 2,500 languages, with hundreds more in process. And such translations are no merely modern undertaking: The Bible was the most widely translated book in the ancient world. It was rendered into Greek (the Septuagint) in the second century B.C.; Aramaic by the first century B.C.; Old Latin by the second century A.D.; Syriac (the Peshitta) in the third century A.D.; Coptic (Egyptian), fourth century A.D.; Old German (Gothic) in the fourth century A.D.; Latin (Jeromes Vulgate), late fourth century; Armenian, early fifth century; Ethiopic, fifth century; Georgian, fifth century; Old Nubian by the eighth century; Old Slavonic by the ninth; and Arabic by the 10th century.

Hitchens plainly didnt know the history of scripture translations. He seems to have based his claim on the controversies about translating the Bible that accompanied the English Reformation. But even in this limited context, his errors are embarrassing. There would have been no Protestant Reformation, he declared, if it were not for the long struggle to have the Bible rendered into the Vulgate. But the term Vulgate refers to the particular late-fourth-century Latin translation by Jerome already mentioned above. It has nothing to do with the Reformation not in England and not elsewhere.

Bible translation is unmentioned, for example, among Martin Luthers famous Ninety-Five Theses. This is scarcely surprising because, in fact, the Bible had already been translated into German in the 14th century, and a German Bible had been printed by Gutenberg in 1466, 13 years after his publication of the Latin Bible. By the time Luther had nailed his Theses to the door of Wittenberg's Castle Church on Oct. 31, 1517 the act thats generally regarded as the opening salvo of the Protestant Reformation altogether Gutenbergs German Bible was nearly 65 years old. Of course, Luther eventually made his own translation, but, while its tremendously important for German culture and the development of the German language, Bible translation played little role in the battles of the German Reformation.

Various parts of the English Bible had actually been translated into Anglo-Saxon from the seventh century on, with interlinear Latin/Anglo-Saxon versions by the tenth century. The Venerable Bede (d. 735), one of the greatest figures in British ecclesiastical history, is said to have translated the Gospel of John into Anglo-Saxon.

Hitchens laments that devout men like John Wycliffe (d. 1384), William Tyndale (d. 1536), and Myles Coverdale (d. 1569) were burned alive for translating the Bible into vernacular languages. Far from being burned at the stake, though, Wycliffe died while attending Catholic mass in his parish church. Coverdale died, quite unburned, at the age of 81. Of the three translators mentioned by Hitchens, only Tyndale (who, curiously, was also known by the adopted family name of Hitchens) was burned at the stake.

This may surprise some readers, but the problem during most of the medieval period wasnt that the church sought to block translation of the Bible, but rather that most people were illiterate. (Before the invention of printing, there were few books to read, anyway.) All literate persons in the early Western Middle Ages knew Latin; those who couldn't read Latin couldn't read at all. There was little point in having another translation; the Vulgate was good enough.

Its amazing how much contemporary anti-religious, polemical writing rests on gross historical misrepresentations. Hitchens pastiche of errors about scriptural translation is merely the tip of a single books iceberg, to say nothing of the riot of falsehoods littering the Web.
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