The Good Book

Cover of an English Bible belonging to the Collins Family, dated 1873

Cover of an English Bible belonging to the Collins Family, dated 1873

According to many polls and studies, the Bible is the most translated book in the world. As of 2012 it had been translated into 518 languages, and over 2,700 languages have had at least a portion of the Good Book translated.

The Whanganui Regional Museum holds 60 bibles in its collection, in seven languages: English, Te Reo Māori, Gaelic, Welsh, German, Swedish, and Tahitian.

Front page from a Bible printed in Welsh, dated 1864

Front page from a Bible printed in Welsh, dated 1864

Contents page from a Bible in Tahitian, dated 1847

Contents page from a Bible in Tahitian, dated 1847

The earliest versions of the Bible were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. It was translated into Gothic in the 4th century, and the 5th century saw a growth of translation into Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Old Nubian, Ethiopic, and Georgian. Old English and Old High German fragments began to appear in the 8th century, but translation was discouraged and the Church banned all unauthorised versions of the Bible, some synods making ownership of such copies illegal. A translation into Old French in the 13th century seems to have been accepted, but the Middle English translation in the 14th century was not embraced by all synods.

Title and inscription of a Gaelic Bible owned by the McGregor Family, dated 1827

Title and inscription of a Gaelic Bible owned by the McGregor Family, dated 1827

There were various versions of an English translation published throughout the following centuries, but each were questioned by the Church and not entirely accepted. That is, until King James VI of Scotland attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1601, two years before he sat on the throne of England, and discussed the need for a new translation, one suitable both for the people and the Church. This version took 10 years and 54 translators to complete, but the mission was finally accomplished in 1611.

As Christianity and the Empire expanded, so did the Church, and the Bible was translated into more and more languages, including Te Reo Māori.

While serving as a chaplain in Australia, the Reverend Samuel Marsden had learned about New Zealand and its inhabitants and decided to convince the Christian Missionary Society to start a mission here. He had been learning about Māori language and culture so when the mission was finally approved, he was ready. Marsden and his team established a successful mission and their skill in Te Reo increased, resulting the first book on Maori grammar and vocabulary, published in 1820. The first Te Reo tracts were published in 1827, but as popular as these were the need for the complete translated Bible was apparent.

Nga Whakatauki – Proverbs, from a Te Reo Bible, late-1800s

Nga Whakatauki – Proverbs, from a Te Reo Bible, late-1800s

Different chapters of the Bible were translated and published individually throughout the 1830s using a small printing press and paper donated by the missionaries’ wives. The first full translation of the New Testament into Te Reo was completed in 1836, and in March of that year the small press, operated by one printer, was put to work printing 5000 copies of the 356-page volume. Binding issues meant that most of the copies had to be bound using curtains from local houses, but the printing was finally completed in December 1837.

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