Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why translate the Old Testament anyway?

Recently, I’ve been asked about the relative importance of translating the Old Testament for languages here in Papua New Guinea (PNG)...much less the importance of translating the ugly stepchild book of Leviticus. Shouldn’t you just focus on translating the parts about Jesus? The modern church doesn’t really need all that stuff anymore.

hard at work on Leviticus!
For the last nine months, I’ve had the privilege of working through Leviticus (and now into the middle of Deuteronomy) verse by verse, phrase by phrase with the Kamano-Kafe translation team (who had finished their New Testament translation and dedicated it Christmas of 2014). And, just like 2 Timothy 3:16-17 proclaims, the Old Testament (and even the Law) is just as crucial for the development of a healthy Christian life as the New Testament (and in some cases, like here in PNG, the Old Testament can be even more valuable than you might imagine!)


Here are four big reasons why the Old Testament is important to include in Bible translation!

1. The story of Christ IS the story of the Old Testament. Origins. Human value. Sin. Redemption. Sacrifice. Love. Covenant. The Fall. God’s pursuit of Israel. Without the Old Testament to provide the foundation and understanding, then just reading the New Testament is like handing out bottles of unlabeled medicine without knowing the ailment or the side affects.  Jesus, Paul, Peter—all of them presented the story of God’s amazing love and grace using only the writings that now make up the Old Testament; they had no Romans Road. If they can do it, so can we.

As Nathan, one of my Kamano-Kafe colleagues put it, "The New Testament is all about fulfilling the Old Testament. How can we appreciate and understand the New Testament if we don't know the Old Testament?"

2. The Old Testament provides a wealth of cultural information.
We all interpret things through the lens of our culture without even knowing it. The Old Testament is like the back-stage door, giving readers insight on what is going on behind the curtain. It’s one thing to marvel at Jesus’ mercy when He touched blind men, lepers, or the woman who bled for 12 years. It’s another to be in awe of His actions when you understand the extreme cultural taboos and laws and extreme penalties surrounding His choices...and He did it anyway.
storytelling in a workshop!

3. The Old Testament teaches through story. In the New Testament, once you pass Acts, the stories pretty much trickle to a halt, and you’re faced with letter after letter. The Old Testament, on the other hand, is full of talking donkeys and lions dens and impossible battles and fiery chariots and evil kings and daring escapes. The vibrant storytelling of the Old Testament teaches important truths about God in a way that oral cultures, like PNG (or even Israel in Jesus’ time), find much more palatable and understandable.

Gardening is all-consuming
4. The cultures of PNG and ancient Israel share more similarities than you might think. Land-based societies filled with social taboos, animal sacrifices, blood vendettas, sorcery, loose alliances, death rituals—PNG and ancient Israel have many similarities, and often my Kamano-Kafe teammates understand the reasons and importance behind laws much more quickly and fully than I do. The Old Testament delves straight into practical, every-day problems (think of Proverbs, Psalms, Lamentations and more). Some things are quite challenging to translate—fractions, for example, and the differences between certain metals or various fabrics, but we never run out of words to talk about gardening or killing livestock!

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So, in response to your questions--yes, we are focusing on  translating the "stuff about Jesus"--all 66 books!