Translation As Transmission -- By: Bryan Harmelink

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 12:1 (Spring 2015)
Article: Translation As Transmission
Author: Bryan Harmelink

Translation As Transmission

Bryan Harmelink

Bryan Harmelink is Global Consultant for Bible Translation & Collboration at Wycliffe Global Alliance, United States.


One of the questions that motivated me to write this essay is: why are there still so many languages without any Scripture whatsoever? Doesn’t God want His people to have His word? This is one of the mysteries of life, but I firmly stand on the sovereign purposes of God. I will never have an adequate answer to why one part of the body of Christ has such an abundance of translations and different versions while other parts of the body have virtually none.

As I have searched for a possible response to this question, it is encouraging to reflect on how the global Bible translation movement is part of what God has been doing since the beginning of time. The first instance of translation was divine-human communication: God communicating with Adam and Eve. But it is also important to realize that Bible translation is just one part of what God is doing. God’s mission in this world is not all about Bible translation. We have been very encouraged by the writings of Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, and Andrew Walls that have underscored the importance of Scripture translation, but this is not the ultimate purpose of God. His purpose is the reconciliation of all things, the restoration of shalom—that everything be as it should be. Bible translation, of course, plays a part in this.


Throughout the history of God making Himself known in this world, there is a process we often refer to as transmission. Transmission is sometimes conceived of in a rather simplistic way. Perhaps we imagine a solitary scribe copying ancient biblical texts, but the process involves much more than copying. Consider the earliest texts of the Hebrew Bible that would have been written in a very different paleo-Hebrew script. This script is not what we see in our copies of BHS or BHQ. According to Wegner:

The change from paleo-Hebrew to Square script probably took place between the fifth and third centuries BC and would probably have been hastened by the Jews who returned from the exile, for their lingua franca, or trade language, in Babylon was Aramaic.1

How does this happen, that one script takes over another? But this is exactly what we see: a Hebrew text written in Aramaic script. This is part of the history of transmission, and it was motivated by the Spirit of God for the interests of the people of God—namely, for them to have understandable Scriptures. This required updatin...

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