This is Part 1 of a 3 part article. It was read at the World’s Bible Congress held at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco, California, USA on August 1-4, 1915.
Adolf Harnack1, in repelling the proposal that the faculties of Theology in the German Universities should cease to be faculties of distinctively Christian Theology, and become faculties of Theology in general — without special reference to any particular religion — points out that Christianity’s place is not so much among as above the other religions. He that does not know it, says he, knows none, and he who knows it in its historical development knows all. Chief among the characteristics by which it elevates itself above other religions, he emphasizes this one: that Christianity has the Bible — the book of the ancient world, the book of the Middle Ages, and (though not perhaps in the market-place) the book of these new days of ours. What does Homer matter, he asks; what the Vedas; what the Koran, in comparison with the Bible? And how inexhaustible it is! Every succeeding period discovers new aspects of it, and every new search into its depths raises the inward life of Christendom to a higher level. What Harnack means is perhaps expressed in somewhat crisper phrase by Martin Kaehler2, when he declares that history has written in shining letters on the forefront of the Bible, “This is mankind’s book.” Other books may belong to a people, an age, a stage of human development; this book belongs to all peoples, all ages and all stages of growth, whether of the individual or of the race — unifying them all and welding them into one vitalized and vitalizing whole. The Bible is, by way of eminence, the book of humanity.
The Bible did not begin, indeed, as a world-book. The Jewish Bible was the book of a people and was written in the tongue of a people. An earnest of what was to come was given, it is true, when this book of a people began in the third century before Christ to clothe itself in a world-language. The rendering of the Hebrew Bible into Greek has an immense significance in the history of civilization, as the first important attempt in the region of Mediterranean culture to translate from one language into another. It thus became at once a symbol and an instrument of the unification of the peoples. Of far more importance was it, however, in the development of religion among men. Its meaning here was nothing less than this — that the diffusion of the Jewish people through the earth should not spell loss to the religion of revelation, but its entrance as leaven into the world. The Jews, scattered among the nations, might lose their language, but not their religion. Their religion, on the contrary, was to go with them, and through them was to work upon men of every race and of every clime. The Greek version of the Old Testament thus became a bond which held the Jewish diaspora firmly to the religion of revelation, and as well a powerful ferment in the life of the peoples into contact with whom it was brought. Thus it prepared the way for Christianity.
It did not as yet, however, become a world-book. That the Old Testament could not become without the New. It was only by being taken up into that Evangel which was “to course and range through all the world,” that it could become a portion of the Bible of mankind. So long as the Kingdom of God was like a pent-in stream, the book of that Kingdom must needs be the book of a race, the race chosen of God to be his people during those days of mere conservation. Its passage into a world-language could at most dig the canal through which the universal gospel might afterwards flow out to water the earth. This the Greek Old Testament did. For, if the Greek language did something for it, it in turn did much for the Greek language. It taught it to speak the great things of God. It was only, however, when the barriers were broken down, and the stream rushed forth to overspread the world, the Spirit of the Lord driving it, that the book in which was embodied the Word of the Kingdom could become veritably a world-book. It was no accident that the Christian Bible was a Greek Bible. Greek was at the time the lingua franca of the civilized world, and the universal gospel naturally clothed itself in this world-tongue. But even the lingua franca of the civilized world did not suffice the Bible. It was the world, not the civilized world, which was “the field” in which the seed of the Kingdom was sown and, within the civilized world, the whole body of the people, not that “upper crust” which had found it convenient to communicate with one another in a common speech. The gospel penetrated through every stratum and spread outward from land to land. As it worked its way thus intensively and extensively, the book in which it was enshrined became ever more and more obviously the world’s book.
We can observe its progress toward this result from the earliest years of the gospel proclamation. Wherever the gospel went, there the book is found; not as an exotic treasure, however precious, but as a leaven buried in the very substance of humanity and working through the whole lump. Wherever it went, it went as the people’s book; energizing at the bases of the people’s life and lifting the whole mass upward into new intellectual, ethical, spiritual vitality. And wherever it went, it established itself as at only a new frontier station whence it ever pushed yet farther beyond. In the West it became a Latin book. Not at Rome, indeed; for Rome was in those early days of Christianity a Greek city, and the Roman Church a Greek Church nourishing itself on the Greek Bible: its very Bishops commonly bore Greek names and when Latin names occur among them, they are disguised in Greek forms (Xystus). But in the outlying provinces, North Africa first, where Latin was the speech of the people; and where, in the form in which the people spoke it, it became the speech of this book of the people. Out from these beginnings, it made its way to dominate a whole civilization for a millennium and a half. In the East it became a Syriac book, and the service which the Latin Bible rendered in the West, the Syriac Bible rendered to another civilization in the East. The extent of the influence of the Syriac Bible was bounded only by the limits of the Eastern world. Copies of it have come down to us from Egypt, from Malabar, from China itself. “A whole series of peoples,” we are told, “received from the Syrians writing, the alphabet, and the Scriptures.” In the South it became a Coptic book, perhaps first breaking effectively down the barriers of the cumbrous old script which confined the possession of letters to a cast, and giving to Egypt, mother of letters, an alphabet which even the meanest might read. In the North it made its way, if more slowly yet with equal sureness, to the unlettered hordes which swarmed beyond the bounds of civilization: to the Goths and the Georgians, the Armenians and the Slavs, creating for its use in each case an alphabet and written speech.
It was thus that the Bible began to make itself the book of the world a millennium and a half ago; not waiting for civilization to prepare the road for it, but itself breaking the path for civilization; knowing no difference between cultivated and uncultivated, but seizing upon all alike and lifting all alike to its own level. From that day to this, with whatever slackenings in the rate of its progress, or even interruptions of it, it has advanced on the same lines. As the world grew ever bigger, it has grown with equal ceaselessness ever more expansive; until today it is not the Bible of the Mediterranean basin or of the Eurasian world, but of the whole round globe. It may sound cold and insignificant to say that it has now been rendered into all the chief languages of mankind. It may perhaps have more meaning to us to say that it may be read today in more than five hundred human tongues. Perhaps, however, it will be most intelligible if we say that the Bible is accessible today to three-quarters of the human race in their own mother speech. It is only natural that, in the presence of this stupendous fact of the transfusion of the Bible into the languages of the earth, men should think of the miracle of Pentecost and see that miracle projecting itself through the ages. Tennyson3 strikes a note to which all our hearts respond when he places on the lips of his Wycliffite hero the apostrophe:
“Heaven-sweet Evangel, ever-living word,
Who whilome spakest to the South in Greek About the soft Mediterranean shores,
And then in Latin to the Latin crowd,
As good need was — thou hast come to talk our isle.
Hereafter thou, fulfilling Pentecost,
Must learn to use the tongues of all the world.”
After five hundred years we look not forward but back upon this great achievement. The miracle has been accomplished, and now it is but a slight exaggeration to say that every man may hear the mighty things of God in his own language in which he was born.
1 (1851-1930) Liberal German theologian and church historian
2 (1835-1912) German theologian
3 (1809-1892) English poet