The History of Bible Translation and the Spread of the Gospel 

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From the very beginning of Christianity, overcoming language barriers has been a significant part of spreading the gospel. When the Spirit was released at Pentecost, God miraculously overcame language barriers using the gift of tongues (Acts 2).

Since then, the church has been hard at work making sure that Scripture was available to people in their own language. Here we look at some examples from the history of Bible translation, going back to before Jesus was born with the Septuagint. 

And then we want to share how the work of Jesus Film Project® helps to augment the role of Bible translation around the world!

The Septuagint: a critical Bible translation

As early as the third century BC, work began on translating the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language. This is the very first biblical translation project. As Jews became Hellenized (educated and enculturated into the Greek world), Jews stopped speaking Hebrew and gravitated toward Greek and Aramaic (which is probably Jesus’ primary language). 

Called the Septuagint (Latin for “seventy”), the legend has it that there were 72 translators, six from each of Israel’s 12 tribes. The Septuagint became incredibly important to Greek Jews and was quickly adopted into Hebrew religious practice. 

By the first century, the Septuagint was the holy book of Greek-speaking Jews. And throughout the New Testament, writers quote this translation while writing to their Greek audience. 

The Vulgate: translating the Bible into Latin

In the fourth century, St. Jerome worked from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts to create a Latin translation of Scripture which came to be known as the Vulgate. Latin was the common language of the West, and the Christian church was desperate for Latin translations of the Bible. Jerome was tasked to create a standard and authoritative translation from the original languages. 

The Vulgate became the official Latin Bible of the Catholic church until the end of the 1970s. 

The first English translations

William Tyndale, who is often credited as the first to translate the Bible into English, was convinced that the Scriptures should determine the practices and doctrines of the church and that all believers should be able to read the Bible in their own language.   

During his lifetime, Tyndale translated the New Testament, the Pentateuch and the Old Testament historical books. The fact that Tyndale was working on an English translation that could be easily printed and made available to the public threatened the church’s authority. Many felt that having a populace that could read the Bible themselves or have the Bible read to them undermined the church’s authority. 

The church condemned Tyndale’s translations and his work was banned. Tyndale was defrocked and executed in 1536. Tyndale’s work influenced the Great Bible, which was the first authorized English Bible in 1939, and it went on to influence the creation of the King James Version which became one of the most important English translations for centuries. 

The church’s concerns were well founded. The translation of the Bible into the English language helped make the Bible more accessible to everyday people, and helped propel and cement the Protestant Reformation. 

A major wave of Bible translations 

During the 19th century a wave of translations occurred, and the Bible was translated into almost 500 languages around the world. In the 20th century organizations like Wycliffe Bible Translators paved the way for more than 1,000 new translations—and as we’ve moved into the 21st century, this pace has increased. 

To date the Bible has been translated into more than 700 languages, which is almost 10 percent of the languages spoken around the world. But about one in five people are still waiting for a Bible in their own language. 

The role that Jesus Film Project Plays in translation 

The JESUS film is a dramatic telling of Luke’s Gospel, and was first introduced in 1979. Since it’s release, it has been translated into more than 2,000 languages. This work has played a critical role in the spread of the gospel, leading to more than 600 million decisions to follow Jesus since the work started. 

Not only has the JESUS film played an important role in the spread of the gospel, but it has helped fill a hole in the biblical translation process, too. Since JESUS is a dramatic reenactment based on Luke’s Gospel, it gives people an opportunity to experience the good news in their own language, especially in cultures where the expense and time required to create an actual biblical translation are prohibitive. 

In fact, many of the people groups who have experienced the JESUS film in their heart language don’t even have a written language to translate Scripture into. Film provides a way for people to experience the gospel in a way they can instantly understand and connect with even when a Bible translation isn’t available. 
Many are still waiting to hear the story of Jesus in their language, so the work of Jesus Film Project continues. Our teams are ready to translate and dub the next 2,000 languages. Learn more about our 2,000th translation and about ways you can partner with us in ministry.