The Impact of Bible Translation: How It’s Changing History

James Poole, Executive Director of Wycliffe Bible Translators, writes about how John Wycliffe changed the world for English speakers – and how modern-day John Wycliffes all around the world are now doing the same for their people.

What do human rights, the abolition of slavery, universal healthcare, the education system, the right to vote, and even Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, all have in common?

Without the Bible being translated into English, it is unlikely that any of these things would exist.

They were all inspired by and built on values that come from the Bible. The development of human rights, Wilberforce’s fight to end the slave trade, and Martin Luther King’s fight against racism were all inspired by the biblical teaching that all people are created in the image of God. A huge number of hospitals were started by Christians, inspired by the example of Jesus in healing people. Christians also played a significant role in the development of schools and universities. The rates of literacy across society grew enormously alongside Bible translation as people wanted to be able to read the Bible. These values have shaped English-speaking culture to such an extent that they have been called the cultural ‘air we breathe.’

This is now widely recognised. Secular historians and sociologists like Tom Holland, Joseph Henrich and Adam Grant have all written about the ways that the Bible has shaped the foundations of our culture.

John Wycliffe, who was born 700 years ago, was the first person to translate the Bible into English. Wycliffe’s life was remarkable. He was a theology professor at Oxford University, and his study of the Bible in Latin changed him deeply. What he learnt about God through the Bible caused him to challenge the practices of the Church at the time, which led to his banishment from Oxford.

John became convinced that having the Bible in the language of the people was essential to people coming to know Jesus. So, despite huge opposition, he and his team completed the first translation of the full Bible into English.

‘The Bible is superior to all human thought,’ John wrote. ‘It is from God, it is true, it is the foundation for all society. Christ and his apostles taught the people in the language best known to them… believers ought to have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand.’

Once the Bible was available in English its impact over the centuries has been nothing short of transformative, changing millions of lives and shapting the whole of society.

The ongoing work of Wycliffe Bible Translators – the organisation named after John Wycliffe, is to continue the mission of John Wycliffe so that everyone can have the Bible, as Wycliffe said, ‘in a language which they fully understand.’ This is urgently needed if we are to see a world where everyone can know Jesus through the Bible.

But there is a deep and persistent assumption among many Christians that the work of Bible translation around the world is complete. That is very far from the truth. 1 in 5 people, that is 1.5 billion people, do not yet have the Bible in their language. Indeed, there are more people alive today without the Bible in their language than the entire world population in John Wycliffe’s time.

Thankfully, that is changing. More Bible translation work is happening right now than at any time in history, and a new translation starts, on average, every day. Thousands of modern-day John Wycliffes are working with real urgency all around the world to translate the Bible for their people. Millions of people are receiving the Bible in their language for the very first time.

But like John Wycliffe, many of these modern-day John Wycliffes face opposition and persecution for their work.

One translator called Ibrahim – whose name has been changed because he works in a part of Asia that is hostile to the gospel – explains why he risks his life to translate the Bible: ‘Everyone has the right to know what God says,’ Ibrahim says. ‘How will they know that God loves them if they do not have the Bible in their language?’

The Bible is God’s word. It changes lives. It changes societies. The hope of all the modern-day John Wycliffes translating the Bible for their people is that their translation will have the same transformative impact as the translation of the Bible into English.

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