The most astonishing example of the global inroads being made by Muslim blasphemy codes may well be found in a deepening controversy over the Bible translations for many Muslim cultures by Wycliffe, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and some other Bible translators.
Ostensibly to placate Muslim sensibilities, they removed the words “Father,” “Son,” and “Son of God” to describe the Trinitarian nature of God in the New Testament, using instead, at least for the Arabic and Turkish copies, the terms “Allah,” and “Messiah.” The Christian Post provides an example from Matthew 28:19: “Instead of ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ [the text] becomes ‘Cleanse them by water in the name of Allah, his Messiah and his Holy Spirit.’”
This is not a new controversy among scholars of Christian missionary work (Christianity Today wrote a cover story, “The Son and the Crescent,” about it a year ago) but, over the past few weeks, it has inspired mounting protests on Christian websites and a petition to the translators is now posted for signatures by a consortium of Christian missionaries and leaders.
Wycliffe, an interdenominational Protestant organization dedicated to translating the Bible into all living languages, posted a response on its website on February 7 that is less than reassuring. An excerpt of which states:
Wycliffe USA is grateful to all those who have expressed their questions and concerns regarding reports that we have been removing “Father” and “Son” from certain Bible translations, particularly in Muslim cultures. . . . While we have never intentionally sponsored a translation that neglects to properly communicate the divine familial terms, some observers have raised concerns about whether our methodology has consistently met our goal. We are listening to those concerns and are seeking God’s guidance as we re-evaluate our methodology and investigate to ensure that our commitment to accurate and clear translation is being reflected in every project. We are engaged in meaningful conversations with partner organizations, constituents, and church leaders to evaluate our standards, and expect to be prepared to issue a more complete statement soon.
Hopefully, some of those who have commented from the Muslim world itself will be among those Wycliffe and the others listen to.
A former Muslim writes: “Such terms were equally offensive and problematic for Jews in the 1st Century were they not? And yet Jesus used them anyway and God inspired His apostles to do so. And still there was explosive church growth amidst the Jews in the 1st Century. Why should Muslims of today be any different? Indeed, the very fact that God is Jesus’ Father, Jesus is God the Son, and God can be called our Father is what is so attractive about the Gospel.”
A Turkish pastor argues: “Already Muslims in my country believe that the Bible is changed by men and these mission agencies are making it harder for us!”
Another pastor in Turkey makes a common-sense proposal: “Rather than changing the meaning of the Biblical terms and give reason to those Muslims who accuse Christians of adulterating the Scriptures, why not simply put a footnote to clarify that ‘Father’ does not refer to a biological father and ‘Son’ does not refer to a biological son?”
He then goes on to reveal another very disturbing fact about some translations: “But for me the worst thing in this translation is that this ‘Matthew’ started with a quote of the Koran and that the translation is full of footnotes with quotes of the Koran, as if it was the highest authority to decide what is true and what false.”
Since it was founded in the 1940s, Wycliffe has done extraordinary work in making the Bibles and New Testament accessible in hundreds of the world’s tongues, in many places bringing for the first time the Good News of the Gospels, and in the process promoting literacy. Translating sacred texts is often an art as much as a science and scholars have continuously debated the fine points of theology inherent in the translating process throughout Christian history. But, with these Arabic, Turkish, and other Bible translations tailored for Muslim cultures, one wonders, who is converting whom?
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide (Oxford University Press, November 2011).