“Don’t you think, Dr. McGilvary, that you spoke too directly or inflexibly to your audience? But again, your audience might not have been listening to your words, but watching your magnificent long white beard!”
These words are from a letter from a living to a dead missionary. Kosuke Koyama had been in Northern Thailand for six years when he wrote a letter to Daniel McGilvary who had also served the same people group. The Japanese missionary was struggling with a persistent problem for the church: language.
Learning another language is difficult, but it is even harder when you move from studying it in a book to using it on the street. Koyama’s case was even more challenging because he was trying to take a book that was written in ancient languages not his own (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and communicate it to people who did not share either his or the Bible’s language and culture.
I remember my first time walking across an intersection in Nairobi when I visited Christiane in Kenya. People had told me that the traffic lights were mostly there for decoration and now I saw what they meant. I watched as a policeman accomplished the exceptional task of blowing a whistle at everyone and no one all at the same time. It was a bewildering view of a treacherous crossing and it is a good picture of the intersection at which Koyama stood and struggled.
Koyama was a Japanese man who had been trained in the Western theological tradition. Now he was in rural Thailand struggling with how the Bible, which had crossed cultures to get to him, could communicate in a new day to a Buddhist Asian context. But he knew that he was not the first to navigate such crossroads so he turned to a forerunner for help. He picked up McGilvary’s A Half Century Among the Siamese and the Lāo but was troubled by what he read.
Learning from the Past?
The younger missionary was concerned that his own teaching was not getting through. The expressions through which Koyama knew the gospel seemed to wither and droop in the Thai climate. At times, his listeners thought he was merely confirming Buddhist teaching. Other times, what he said was so alien that the Thai dismissed it as irrelevant. But when he read McGilvary’s book, it sounded to Koyama too much like his own preaching which he saw was missing the mark.
He wrote to McGilvary, “I am forced to see how thoroughly strange and unrealistic – how ‘Western’ – is the Xn vocabulary to the ears of my Thai neighbours.” Both men used terms like ‘sin and guilt’ and preached that Jesus ‘suffered and died to save us’ and give us ‘eternal life’. So Koyama wondered: “Don’t you think, Dr. McGilvary, that you spoke too directly or inflexibly to your audience?” He went even further: “…I have become very curious to know whether your audience understood your preaching or not, if you will pardon me for asking.”
Can the Gospel Get Through?
As Koyama took a step back and looked at this cultural and linguistic crossroads, he took in a lot of noise and traffic. There were traditional Thai beliefs, a particular brand of Buddhism and his own Japanese background along with around 2,000 years of Western reflection on the Bible all jostling for position. How does the gospel get through all this? What was the right language – the right vocabulary, phrases, and figures – to use here?
For example, how do you explain Jesus as the Messiah, which is a title embedded in a foreign, Jewish culture? Koyama saw the danger of swapping in terms which the Thai already used. You could call Jesus an arahant, one who has achieved nirvana and so has insight into the true nature of reality. This would gain you a hearing and even have some measure of truth. But Koyama knew it would “also be candy-coated poison. It might go down the throat without irritation, but when it reached the stomach it would paralyse the vital organs.” An arahant is not a Jewish messiah. What is more, the arahant comes from the wrong direction. Jesus did not begin as one of us and reach a higher plane. Jesus began as the Son of God and by incarnation came down to us. But how would you get at this for the Buddhist people of rural northern Thailand?
Following Koyama Backwards
Koyama’s ‘letter’ ends without providing any sure and easy answers but we should follow in his footsteps by recognizing the persistent difficulties of language and culture. My wife Christiane spent a lot of her time in South Sudan with the Mabaan thinking about just these issues. What does it sound like for Jesus to speak Mabaan?
This is a bigger issue than just how the Bible is translated. It is broader than the initial encounters between people and the good news of Jesus Christ. It is about how his gospel can be so at home amongst each distinct people group that it goes out beyond them again. We should also follow Koyama’s example in looking backwards for help. In fact, I suggest that we can look back much further than he did, all the way back to the third century before Christ.
Learning from the Septuagint
During this period, a substantial community of Jewish people lived as a minority group in Egypt. Jews were adopting Greek as their everyday language and began to translate their sacred texts from Hebrew into Greek. The translators had to communicate their scriptures in a new language and context. They had to make these texts speak a foreign language in a new time and place. The resulting translations form the core of what we now call the Septuagint, the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.
What I want to point out is that the Septuagint translators were standing at an intersection very similar to the one which troubled Kosuke Koyama, and to the ones we all face in a multicultural and globalized world. This means that the Septuagint provides us with a unique opportunity to learn how to navigate these crossroads. What happens when you speak the Hebrew words of the Jewish God in Greek? What must be done so that they make sense in Egypt rather than in Palestine?
I believe that Missions and Septuagint Studies can learn a lot from each other. The goals of the church today overlap with the goals of the Septuagint translators. The rich variety of techniques and approaches they used left us a fertile field to go digging in. This is why I am studying the Septuagint at Cambridge. The Bible had to cross languages and cultures to come to us and the ongoing task of the church demands that it continue to do so.
Understanding the Septuagint can help us face the complex intersections of language and culture that stand before us. These junctions are never easy to cross but we must continue forward because the Word of Christ will only dwell richly among all of us when it speaks in terms that make sense to each one of us.
*All quotes are from Kosuke Koyama, Waterbuffalo Theology (London: SCM Press, 1974), pages 81-82.