Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Languages.
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It was a hot, humid day. We had reached our destination by boat—three brightly painted outriggers carrying dozens of passengers across a turquoise sea. We now sat in rows of plastic chairs; dogs and pigs scratching in the dirt, blue tarp strung overhead, a wall of speakers waiting for the festivities to start.
After an hour’s pause, the birthday party was finally underway for the two inconspicuous children. Parties are different in South-East Asia. Let’s just say a lot of talking and formalities, and not enough pin the tail on the donkey.
Having learnt the language while living there a few years back, I followed most of the proceedings, even if boredom caused me to nod off occasionally. What awoke me was the closing prayer, spoken in an indigenous dialect. Every word pregnant with vowels, it was as distinct as it was unintelligible to my untrained ears. I know about three words of the language.
“We had reached our destination by boat—three brightly painted outriggers carrying dozens of passengers across a turquoise sea.”
But thanks to the hard work of Bible translators, since 2002, this indigenous tongue, spoken by only 30,000 of the earth’s inhabitants, has now been preserved for all time in a Bible and associated language helps.
Some may not be impressed that the Christian gospel is now available in the heart language of this remote people. But all can appreciate that this Bible, like every other translation project undertaken by tireless missionaries around the world, has safeguarded another language for future generations—one that was otherwise on its way to extinction.
“Spurred on by the selfless example of Jesus, Christians gave up their wealth and often their lives to travel to foreign lands and develop national languages.”
Christians stand in a class of their own as preservers of thousands upon thousands of indigenous languages. This is no accident of history. It has deep roots.
It began with Luther and the reformers. They had a vision to democratise language by translating the Word of God into the dialects of Europeans. To do so they ignored every protest and threat of torture from the pope and church officials, who had much to gain by keeping their people ignorant of the Bible.
As the reformers saw it, Jesus didn’t come from heaven speaking a holy, inaccessible language like Hebrew. He spoke the rough street languages of his day—Greek and Aramaic. In the same way, it was time that Latin should no longer hide transforming truth. Knowledge that belonged to the elite must be shared with the masses.
“The continent of Europe marched towards literacy, and a Bible was now found in the homes of most families, giving shape to their language and worldview.”
This stood in contrast to the mood in the East. There, Buddhist monks had little motivation to make the Buddha’s words available in the dialects of neighbouring peoples, since the way to enlightenment wasn’t by filling one’s mind but rather by emptying it.
But the continent of Europe marched towards literacy, and a Bible was now found in the homes of most families, giving shape to their language and worldview.
From Genesis to Revelation, Europeans were reading about this idea of nation—groups of people sharing an ethnicity and language. The days were numbered for the totalitarian Holy Roman Empire. Soon nation-states would dismantle and replace it.
“It began with the reformers who had a vision to democratise language.”
In time, missionaries would take over this epic translation project. Too often, Christians living in the Age of Discovery are wrongly confused with their colonialist counterparts. In truth, colonialists made no profit from studying the native languages of those they’d found to exploit.
Missionaries had nothing to gain either, but spurred on by the selfless example of Jesus, they gave up their wealth and often their lives to travel to foreign lands. There they developed national languages as a channel for vast numbers to hear God speak in Scripture: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali—and many more.
Little did they know, but just like Europe centuries earlier, the languages they systematised would go on to birth nations: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—and many more.
“Jesus didn’t come from heaven speaking a holy, inaccessible language like Hebrew. He spoke the rough street languages of his day—Greek and Aramaic.”
Today, the earth is home to 6,500 living languages. Remarkably, portions of the Bible are available in almost half of them, with complete Bible translations numbering over 550, making it by far the world’s most translated book. In the most remarkable way, Jesus has shaped the world’s languages.
Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Heroism.
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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY
In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.