“At last, in the Tibetan year of the Wood Hog (1935) Yoseb laid down his pen. Now fifty years old, he had toiled since he was twenty-three with the stupendous task. Gazing on the completed manuscript, he bowed his head: ‘Thank you, Lord. The Task is done. Now the Bible has legs to go to my people. Now the Book will be printed; then it will go to its appointed task. May it be soon, Lord.'”
Allan Maberly, God Spoke Tibetan; The Epic Story of the Men Who Gave the Bible to Tibet, the Forbidden Land. Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1971, p.92.
It took just over 90 years of effort before the Tibetan people had the Bible. It was two Moravian missionaries who first made their way into Tibet and attempted Bible translation. Unfortunately, as it turned out, they used the classical form of the language and what work they did complete could not be used or understood by the common people.
About the turn of the century, in 1897, the son of an exile from the Dalai Lama government returned from years of education and a Christian conversion to assume the work of translation. In His own way, God provided the translator, Yoseb Gerkgan, with a holy book in Tibetan that included key words and phrases which helped make the translation a success. With this, and years of patient work, he completed the Bible, but because of war and unbelievable circumstances it was years before it could be printed.
The translation and publishing of the Scriptures is mostly a long and arduous task. Even when nationals, who of course know their languages very well, translate the Scriptures there is no assurance that the translation will be completed quickly. Nor should there be, unless the demands of the church and the circum stances calling for instruction from the Scriptures warrant some speed. However, even a bad translation is better than using Scriptures in a foreign language which represents an alien culture.
There are reasons why people are sometimes reluctant to receive the Scriptures in their own language, but indifference on the part of the Christian church is a common reason. Evangelists and missionaries can get by with a trade or national language, so the effort to translate is deferred to a more convenient time. For many, many groups this more convenient time never came: small groups of American Indians, Australian Aboriginals, and tribal groups in Africa, South America and the Pacific never heard the Scriptures in their own tongues. Their numbers were too small and the effort was too great.
The stories of translations often center around particular men who have had a great burden for the Scriptures in a particu lar language. This desire for the Scriptures is so strong that it overcomes all sorts of obstacles and often mirrors the burden of the Holy Spirit working in people’s lives. The desire of God for all people to intimately know Him is equally strong. In fact, it must be greater because God knows that even the most fervent Christian without instruction is but a small flame com pared to the potential of God’s Word living in a community. As Christians reflect the Spirit of God by their actions and dedica tion, there can be no doubt that God wants His Word freely avail able to everyone.
The Word of God has an appointed task. It is not simply that the missionary or evangelist are appointed by God and then use the Word as a tool. The metaphor of a tool is inadequate to describe the Scriptures. God says that the Word is alive, His very expression of Himself, His purposes and mysteries. This is not a book which is bound in leather and subject entirely to the dictations of a pastor or missionary. When a group of people receive God’s Word they receive fire, something which burns, flames and enlightens. For any society to survive fire cannot be an option. Likewise, for any Christian group to do more than simply survive, the Scriptures cannot be an option.
Although there is no doubt that Scriptures have been published which do not appear to speak to anyone, there are reasons which are less related to the quality of the translation than to circumstances surrounding the translation. For example, regardless if there are few believers or many, if they can’t read the teaching of reading must precede translation by several years, unless of course, the people have already learned to read in some other language.
In some cases, reading the Scriptures is simply too much effort. People can learn to read their own language fairly quickly, but reading the Bible is hard work. When this happens a professional group arises to interpret and preach the Scriptures and the common man is the listener and only a passive partici-pant. So a lack of readers supports the core of official clergy which inevitably arises to instruct people who cannot find out the answers themselves.
If translating the Tibetan Scriptures were an option today, experts would evaluate the situation and conclude that it was inefficient. Not only is there a constituency lacking, i.e., a willing market wanting the Scriptures, but other indicators would show that there has been no people movement, church growth, or support from a national church. Why should money and effort go into such a project?
On the other hand, in Tibet at least, there was a man who had a conviction that he wanted the Scriptures in his language. Perhaps, in God’s view, that is enough.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION AND COMMENT
- It is a serious decision to state that a group of people don’t really need the Scriptures. What might some considerations be that would force such a decision?
- When Scriptures are not being used–in any culture–what might this indicate?
- Why has it taken so long for people like the Tibetans to have the Scriptures?