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The Saxon Gospel

I first came across the Saxon Gospel or Heliand some eighteen months ago. I then touched on it briefly in the missions chapter of Who Needs Words. However, it has been awaiting a proper public airing, and will receive it at the midnight service on Christmas Even this year.

As you read the excerpts below there are a number of things to note. Firstly, there are oddities such as Mary adorning the child with precious jewels. Secondly, there is a real tenderness to the way God addresses his creatures. Thirdly, and most importantly of all, we see the Gospel dressed in the linguistic and cultural clothing of its age.  God is the Protector, Jesus is the great Chieftain, and the shepherds are horse-guards. Whenever we address full churches at the great festivals we need to take a leaf out of the Saxon Gospel’s book. We need to express the core of God’s message in the language and idiom of those who sit before us…even at midnight!



It was not long thereafter that it was all accomplished just as the almighty God had so often promised mankind – that he would send his heavenly child, his own son, to this world to free all the clans of people here from evil.  There in hill fort Nazareth the angel of God addressed her face to face, calling her by name and saying to her from God ‘health be with you Mary. Your lord is very fond of you. You are precious to the Ruler for your wisdom, woman full of grace.  You are to become the mother of our Chieftain here among human beings.’


At that time it all came to pass, just as wise men had said long ago: the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by his own power, to visit the kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took him, wrapped him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though he had the power of God and was the chieftain of mankind.


What had happened became known to many over this wide world. The guards heard it. As horse-servants they were outside, they were men ion sentry-duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field. They saw the darkness split in two the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards in the fields.

Angel speaks

‘I am going to tell you’, he said, ‘something very powerful: Christ is  now born, on this very night, God’s holy child, the good chieftain, at David’s hill fort. What happiness for the human race, a boon to all men.. You can find him, the most powerful child, at Fort Bethlehem. He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder crib – even though he is king over all the earth and the heavens and over the sons of all the peoples, the ruler of the World.’

September 30th

Twenty years ago today, the International Federation of Translators (whose acronym in English comes out, amusingly) as FIT) suggested that the Feast of St Jerome should be marked as International Translation Day. Of course in some ways the work of a good translator, a bit like that of a good plumber or electrician, is hidden. When a translation is good it slips effortlessly in through the back door of our own heart language, and we read the final text without a second thought. Like the plumbing and wiring above – we only notice it when it goes wrong.

In this Biblefresh year many have been thinking especially about the work of Bible translation. Bishop Miles Smith wrote in the preface of the original King James Version that “translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light’. That is just the way it should be.

On this International Translation Day, though, let’s remember some of the rather less successful Bible translations, courtesy of the United Bible Societies:

The Vinegar Bible 1717

The parable of the vinegar (instead of vineyard) in the headline about Luke 20

The Printers Bible 1702

Printers (instead of Princes) have persecuted me.
Psalm 119.161

The Place-Makers Bible 1562

Blessed are the place-makers (instead of the peace-makers). Matthew 5.9

The Bug Bible 1551

Thou shalt not be afraid for the bugges (bogies) by night (instead of terror). Psalm 91.5

The Treacle Bible 1568

Is there no treacle (instead of balm) in Gilead? Jeremiah 7.22

The Unrighteous Bible

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit (instead of not inherit) the kingdom or God. 1 Corinthians 6.9

The Wicked Bible 1631

Do commit adultery (instead of do not). Exodus 20.14. The printer was fined £300 for omitting the word not. All copies were ordered to be destroyed by Charles 1.

The Murderers Bible 1801

There are murderers (instead of murmerers). Jude 16
Let the children first be killed (instead of filled).

God bless ’em, every one.

The father of dynamic equivalence

Back in 2002, I was researching a Masters dissertation on: ‘the preacher as translator: a model for preaching in the 21st Century. At the time, Eugene Nida was my constant companion. Last week, in a hospital in Brussels, he died. If you read the Bible in your own language, in a modern and accessible translation, he has probably been your companion too, even without you knowing it.  Nida’s concern in Bible translation began from a mission perspective, wanting to put into the hands of cross-cultural missionaries a Bible which would ‘do the job’. In order to do this he honed the translation technique known as ‘dynamic’ or ‘functional’ equivalence.

Dynamic equivalence seeks to assess what the source text did in its source culture, and then to reproduce that same effect by the target text on the target culture. In other words, it is less concerned about reproducing a word for word equivalence, and more concerned about reproducing a blow for blow impact. Nida himself said that the aim in all this was that the reader of the eventual translation would be ‘transformed by its [the Bible’s] message.’ This technique led to some spectacular translations, for example:

  • ‘No-one puts old opossum fur onto new opossum fur’ (Mark 2 v. 21, Aboriginal Bible)
  • ‘Place your light on a grain bin’ (Mark 4 v. 21 Korku New Testament)
  • ‘Your sins shall be made as white as the snow of a seal pup'(Isaiah 1 v.18 Inukitut Bible)
The latter comes from a translation for the Inuits which took 24 years to complete. Using the principles of dynamic equivalence, the word ‘snow’ could not be used – since snow is like the dirt under your feet for those who walk on it all day long. Hence the use of ‘seal pup’ to demonstrate purity instead.
Closer to home, the work of Eugene Nida had a huge impact on the Good News Bible, which has now sold over 218 million copies worldwide.
When I teach students about these principles of translation, I tend to talk about the ‘tale of two Eugenes’, using the image below.The man on the left is the one people are far more likely to recognise: Eugene Peterson, translator of ‘The Message’. When Peterson first wrote down his translation of Galatians, and then was persuaded to write down the rest of the New Testament as well, he expressed his surprise about the request. So far as he was concerned he was just writing down what he had been doing in the pulpit for years- expressing the truths of Scripture in the ‘language of the parking lot’.  In so doing, whether consciously or not, he was embracing the principles which another Eugene had laid down before him.
Today I thank God for the life and work of Eugene Nida.

Richard Littledale

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