Thank God that the gospel translates!
I’m reminded of that on a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Below the church is a network of ancient caves that early Christians modified with walls and archways to serve as workspace and chapels. Pilgrims flock to the cave where, by ancient tradition, Christ was born.
Ellen and I head to a quieter part of the labyrinth: the underground cell where St Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Called the Vulgate (“common language”), that translation served the Christian church for the next 1500 years.
Jerome’s cell is unoccupied as Ellen and I enter and sit on a bench at the back to pray. In front is an altar, and behind it a modern mosaic depicting (from left to right) a young Roman woman named Eustochium, her widowed mother Paula, St. Jerome, and Eusebius.
Paula was a Roman aristocrat who funded Jerome’s scholarship for decades and founded a convent in Bethlehem. Eusebius (not the great church historian) was a student and colleague of Jerome. These four traveled together throughout Bible lands and settled in Bethlehem. Jerome worked (apparently from this cell) on Bible translation and other biblical scholarship for more than thirty years. He died in Bethlehem in AD 420.
The late Lamin Sanneh, native of the Gambia and long-time professor of missions at Yale Divinity School, wrote a classic book called Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (1989; revised 2018).
His main point is that the gospel message is phenomenally translatable. The language and central ideas of Christianity got translated into countless host cultures. Rather than critiquing Christianity as primarily colonial, this African scholar shows how Christian mission could powerfully validate host cultures all over the globe.
Missionaries invested their lives in putting countless indigenous languages into writing for the first time. Then those scholars translated and gave away their most precious possession: the Scriptures. Christian faith took root in dramatically diverse cultures and developed distinctive expressions on every continent.
As Ellen and I are about to leave Jerome’s cell, an African priest enters and prepares to celebrate Eucharist. A small group of pilgrims soon stream into the room—yet another example of the cultural diversity that the translatable gospel makes
Want to see St Jerome’s cell for yourself? I’m back to leading tours to biblical sites because I love seeing the Bible and the early church in three dimensions with other God-seekers. The next tour is “Journey of Hope: Jordan, Israel, Palestine,” September 13–24, 2023. This will take us to many Old Testament and New Testament sites. See: https://tourmagination.com/tour/2023-journey-of-hope-jordan-israel-palestine-biblical-tour/
Speaking of the diversity of gospel expressions, watch for my forthcoming book, Stuck Together: The Hope of Christian Witness in a Polarized World (Herald Press, April 2023). It’s already up on Amazon, and it’s possible to pre-order now. See: