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The battle for accurate Bible translation in Asia

Local pastors and churches object to translations that call God the father 'the great protector' and Jesus the 'representative of God'

The battle for accurate Bible translation in Asia

(The Gospel of Matthew)

Fikret Bocek says that Turkish quince, a fruit like a pear, takes a long time to grow and ripen, but it's delicious. Patience is key for good quince, he says, and also for the salvation of his fellow Turks, most of whom are Muslim like he once was.

Patience was key when the Turkish police arrested and imprisoned him for 10 days in 1988, when he was beaten, verbally abused, and tortured with electrical shocks. The police ordered Bocek, then a teenager and a new convert to Christianity, to recite the shahada, "There is no God but Allah." Despite a crippling fear, he found he could not physically open his mouth to say it, which he attributes to divine intervention.

Patience, a fierce patience, was key in 2007 when a group of Muslims brutally murdered a close friend of his and two other Christians while they were meeting for a Bible study in Malatya, Turkey. The Muslims, who had pretended that they were interested in Christianity, murdered the three men in a two-hour torture session the killers filmed. They finally slit the Christians' throats from ear to ear.

Bocek, 40, now a pastor and church planter in the coastal town of Izmir, Turkey, tells Western mission agencies to be more patient for faith to ripen in Muslims in his country, and not to alter key biblical phrases in translations for the sake of outreach. The phrase "Son of God" is offensive to Muslims because it seems to imply that God was a physical father to Jesus through a sexual union with Mary, so some translators have sought to find alternate terms to describe that relationship. "They get involved in these translations because they see that there is no fruit," Bocek said. "We have results. But you have to be patient and take it really, really slow." He and his fellow pastors address the offensive connotations of "Son of God" by explaining what it really means. "For centuries," he said, "that's the way it went."

Western mission agencies now are feeling a wave of backlash against these "contextualized" translations-not just from a few conservative denominations in the United States, but from an array of local churches in the countries where these translations are going out. While some Turkish pastors, including several contacted for this article, preferred to let Western mission agencies sort out the controversy on their own, others are taking action. At least a dozen Turkish pastors, as well as some whole churches from the Turkish cities of Adana, Samsun, and Bodrum, have signed a petition condemning a new Turkish translation of Matthew. Harun Ibrahim, the director of Al Hayat TV, a Christian satellite television station that broadcasts to millions in the Middle East, also signed the petition. And the Pakistan Bible Society is ending its two decades of partnership with SIL, a translation partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators, over the issue.

A team of translators with Frontiers helped produce the disputed translation of Matthew in Turkish, and SIL said some of its consultants helped at certain points in the process. Sabeel Media, a partner organization of SIL, published the translation in August 2011, printing it in book form and posting it online. In the Turkish Matthew, the "alternative form" for "Son of God" is something along the lines of "representative of God," according to Turkish speakers, and "God the Father" has become "great protector." A footnote explains the alternate terms: "According to the Jews, 'God's Son' means 'God's beloved ruler' and is equivalent with the title 'Messiah.'"

The alternative translation runs on pages on the right, while the pages on the left have an "interlinear" translation with the original Greek words and Turkish underneath, containing the literal translation of the divine familial terms. Bocek, however, said Turks are unlikely to read the literal version on the left-hand side, where the Turkish words run underneath the Greek, but rather the right-hand page that is just Turkish.

The translators emphasize their desire to promote evangelism. Bob Blincoe, the U.S. director of Frontiers, cited in an email lack of growth as one reason for the translation: "The big problem is that church planting among the tens of millions of religious Muslims in Turkey has not been successful; it has not even begun." Turkey is 99.8 percent Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook. Turks estimate that their country has about 5,000 Christians now, but when Bocek became a Christian in 1988, he was one of a total of 80 Protestants in the country. "One significant barrier may be the existing translation of the Bible," Blincoe wrote in an email: "These are paraphrases that help a conservative Sunni Muslim audience know what the Bible really says."

As a Sunni Muslim himself, Bocek also found the phrase "Son of God" offensive: "I could not accept Jesus being the Son of God or God being the Father or the deity of Christ. ... Basically God just worked in my heart." Bocek grew up in Istanbul and the Turkish national television had one channel and showed one movie a week, he said. One day it showed Ben Hur, which depicts Jesus' crucifixion. That began his search for answers about Jesus. He eventually found an international church and spent months studying the Bible from beginning to end, until he had "nothing else left" but to accept faith.

Bocek, trained in linguistics at a Turkish university, then studied at Westminster Seminary California, graduating in 1998 and returning to Turkey to plant a church in 2001 with his wife. During the process of translating Matthew, a Frontiers missionary consulted with Bocek about the book. Bocek said he objected to the alterations to the familial terms, but that wasn't the only problem with the translation: He said the Turkish was unnatural and contained grammatical errors. A Turkish translation of the Bible exists already, but the Frontiers translators explained to supporters that they needed another translation to reach conservative Muslims.

"There is no cause for anyone to be alarmed by the accuracy of this translation," said Blincoe, the Frontiers director. He said the petition against the Turkish Matthew amounts to "slander" and is "like yelling, 'Fire!' in a theater." The petition "has been a great disservice to the peace and unity of the church," he said. He emphasized that the Turkish-Greek translation on the left-hand page preserves the literal terms for Son of God and God the Father. When I said that Turkish speakers say the translation on the right-hand page alters those familial terms, he responded, "You and I don't know what the paraphrase says."

But then Blincoe said the translation team doesn't have plans to translate the other books of the New Testament, so I asked why not if he thought this was an important tactic to reach unreached people. He said that was simply what workers in the field had told him: "Let's give it a chance to do its work." In an email he added, "The team believes that if Turks do not take ownership, the project will just fade away, as the teacher Gamaliel commented about human efforts in Acts 5."

Blincoe said Frontiers has contacted a number of local pastors in the last few weeks and urged them to read the translation for the first time (implying that critics hadn't read it). He said many approve. Bocek countered that many Turkish pastors have read the translation, and still disapprove. He and the other Protestant pastors he knows oppose it-not just Reformed pastors like himself, but also those at "extreme charismatic" churches. "They're not listening," he said about the missions agencies: "They come with theories and they leave with theories. ... We are going to be the ones who are going to be sweeping up all their mistakes."

Thomas Cosmades, a Turkish Christian who translated the New Testament into Turkish from the original Greek, mailed a letter to Frontiers at the end of 2007 after he saw a copy of the Turkish Matthew. (Several hundred were printed before the official publication in 2011). Cosmades died in 2010, at age 86, just after he published a new edition of his New Testament. In his letter he wrote that he was "highly disquieted" by the paraphrased Matthew and proceeded to analyze the debatable phrases in detail.

"This translation is not seeking to emphasize the value of the incarnation," he wrote. "Should the trend continue, who knows where it will lead the coming generation? If Athanasius of old would have encountered such departure from biblical Christology he would have placed these redactors far below the Arians." He continued: "Undoubtedly the people who are working hard on this paraphrase have given much of their valuable time, probably meaning well. I wish I had a positive word concerning their efforts, but I regret that this is not the case. In this paraphrase the stakes are high; the pitfalls dismal."

Blincoe couldn't answer whether the translation had been changed in response to Cosmades' critiques before its official publication in 2011, but Bocek said, "The kinds of words [Cosmades] said they're using, it's still there." Cosmades' wife Lila also signed the petition condemning the translation of Matthew.

Everyone interviewed who was critical of the translation said they believe a small minority of individuals in these mission agencies is pushing these translations in Turkey and other countries, and most missionaries are faithful to the Bible. "Missionaries give their lives for us," said Samuel Naaman, a Pakistani believer who now teaches at Moody Bible Institute: "You're hearing from a person who came to Christ through the power of missionaries' prayers for 18 years. I was discipled and trained by the missionaries."

Naaman said "contextualizing" the gospel for the local culture is fine: "Christ himself came to us, and was born as a human. ... He is the founder and the basis of contextualization." He is nevertheless worried about the consequences of contextualized translations for the church in Pakistan: "Many of the pastors don't even know that this curse is being imposed on us. ... Then they will have to face the repercussions."

The Pakistan church at large may not know about the debate, but the Pakistan Bible Society (PBS) does. After 20 years of work together, the Bible society and SIL are parting ways over the issue, which is a blow to SIL because now it must operate without the imprimatur of the premier local publisher. SIL said in a statement that the decision not to work together on one project was mutual, the result of "translation style differences," not just the debate on divine familial terms.

But the general secretary of the Pakistan Bible Society, Anthony Lamuel, wrote in a letter on Jan. 26 that the issue of altering terms for target audiences was central in the decision, and added that such translations have resulted in the "water downing" of Christian concepts: "We the Pakistan Bible Society will not promote experiments with the translation at the cost of hurting the church."

A woman working on another translation project in Central Asia, who asked for anonymity for the sake of her work, said the debate on the "Son of God" issue in her translation team has deadlocked their project and stirred confusion among local believers who don't have a Bible in their own language as a reference: "It has eroded their faith in the authority of the Word of God and in us as foreigners who are supposed to be the 'teachers' but can't seem to agree on some basic truths of who Christ said he was. ... Sadly it raises doubts and endless discussion, wasting a lot of time."

Anwar Hussain, the head of the Bangladesh Bible Society, has been at the forefront of efforts in his country the last few years to repel Bible translations from various groups that change divine familial terms. Hussain grew up Muslim, and when he professed Christ as a young man, his family cut ties with him. Edward Ayub, another Christian of Muslim background, is the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh and-alongside Hussain-has vigorously opposed the translations. "I want to die for the Bible," not a misleading translation, Ayub said. "The harm they are doing now for the church will be long-lasting."

Back in Turkey, Bocek recalled meeting a young Muslim who was in school in Izmir, and who planned to train for jihad. He offered the young man a Bible, and the man took it, saying he would prove "the Bible is a corrupt book." The young man read through the whole Bible and met with Bocek regularly to talk about it over the course of almost a year. "He started saying he saw the real corruption," Bocek said. "He realized his heart was corrupt." When the man became a Christian, his parents sought to kill him, and the church had to hide him for two years. "These are the kinds of things that happen," Bocek said, "when they say there's no fruit."

(Editor's note: The article has been corrected to reflect new details concerning the three Christians who were murdered in Malatya, Turkey, in 2007. Early reports of the murders included other details and those reports have been repeated since, but individuals who saw the bodies confirmed to WORLD that those early reports were inaccurate.)

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.