How Wycliffe Bible Translators Get Some Bible Translations Wrong

The first Bible printed in America was Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, also known as Algonquian Bible, was done through the translation work of the English Puritan missionary John Eliot (c. 1604-1690).

Eliot believed the Bible could be used to “recreate a Christian society” among the native population where political and ecclesiastical power would be decentralized and minimized. It’s no wonder that Eliot’s book The Christian Commonwealth “had been banned, and Eliot . . . forced to issue a public retraction and apology” since it called on the king to submit to a higher authority: God. There is no divine right of kings or divine right of priests.

In the opening section to Part I of Vishal Mangalwadi’s most excellent work The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, this quotation from H. Grady Davis is cited:

“The Bible brought its view of God, the universe, and mankind into all the leading Western languages and thus into the intellectual process of Western man. . . . Since the invention of printing, the Bible has become more than the translation of an ancient Oriental literature. It has not seemed a foreign book, and it has been the most available, familiar, and dependable source and arbiter of intellectual, moral, and spiritual ideals in the West.”

The Bible has been translated into the vernacular of the people for some time. The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around the second century BC. Then there’s the Latin Vulgate that became the standard translation of the Bible for centuries.

Before long, English translations emerged. John Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384) and William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) defied the Roman Catholic Church and commenced to produce a readable English translation of the Bible. In 1535, Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned for more than a year before he was tried and convicted of heresy and executed, after which he was burned at the stake.

Then there were the many editions and printings of the Geneva Bible that the English Pilgrims used and brought with them to the New World. Of course, the 1611 King James translation has been a mainstay for more than 400 years.

Church and State feared putting the Bible into the hands of the people because the people would come to realize that self-government under God is the rule and that Church and State have limited governmental authority.

This brings me to an article I read about Wycliffe Bible Translators USA and their goal to translated the Bible into every known language. Here was the troubling part. Even though “more people than ever before can access the Bible in their own language,” the ultimate goal is to prepare the world for the return of Jesus Christ.

Bob Creson, president and CEO of Wycliffe Bible Translators, told Christian News, “I believe that the work we do hastens the return of Jesus Christ.” Citing Matthew 24:14, Creson said, paraphrasing the text, “‘this good news message has to be preached to the whole world, to every tongue, tribe, and nation, and then the end will come.’”

Being president of a Bible translation organization, it troubles me that Mr. Creson doesn’t translate Matthew 24:14 properly or understand its interpretation. First, the passage does not include the words “every tongue” and “tribe.” The gospel did not have to be disseminated to every tongue and tribe before the return of Jesus.

Second, his use of “whole world” in his paraphrase is inaccurate. He’s not alone in mistranslating the text as “whole world,” but as president of a Bible Translation ministry, he should be as accurate as possible. Matthew uses the Greek word oikoumenē (οἰκουμένῃ) and not the usual word for “world” (kosmos/κόσμος) in verse 14. Oikoumenē is used almost exclusively to describe an area of limited geography while kosmos most often (but not always) refers to a wider geographical territory.

For example, in Luke 2:1, we find a statement by Luke that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the ‘whole world’ should be taxed.” Some translations get this one right and translate it as “the inhabited earth” or “Roman Empire.” Luke couldn’t have meant the whole wide world since Rome did not have taxing authority over the whole wide world. That’s why Luke uses oikoumenē and not kosmos. The same is true in Acts 11:28 where a prophet named “Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius.” Again, the Greek word translated “world” is oikoumenē, not kosmos, because the earthquake was confined to a part of the Roman Empire at that time.

This all means that what Jesus was prophesying in Matthew 24:14 was not some distant fulfillment about the gospel going into the whole wide world but the gospel going throughout the Roman world before Jesus would return in judgment against Jerusalem within a generation (Matt. 24:34). The outward manifestation of that judgment coming by Jesus would be the destruction of the temple where “not one stone would be left upon another” (24:2).

Had the gospel been preached throughout the Roman Empire within a generation? It certainly had (Rom. 1:8; 16:25-27; Col. 1:6, 23; 1 Tim. 3:16).

So while we wait for Wycliffe to translate the Bible into the remaining untranslated languages (about 1900 of them), what should Christians be doing? Waiting for the return of Jesus or applying the Bible to every area of life?