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The Gospel of Matthew

The battle for accurate Bible translation in Asia

Religion | Local pastors and churches object to translations that call God the father 'the great protector' and Jesus the 'representative of God'

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

Fikret Bocek says that Turkish quince, a fruit like a pear, takes a long time to grow and ripen, but it's delicious. Patience is key for good quince, he says, and also for the salvation of his fellow Turks, most of whom are Muslim like he once was.

Patience was key when the Turkish police arrested and imprisoned him for 10 days in 1988, when he was beaten, verbally abused, and tortured with electrical shocks. The police ordered Bocek, then a teenager and a new convert to Christianity, to recite the shahada, "There is no God but Allah." Despite a crippling fear, he found he could not physically open his mouth to say it, which he attributes to divine intervention.

Patience, a fierce patience, was key in 2007 when a group of Muslims brutally murdered a close friend of his and two other Christians while they were meeting for a Bible study in Malatya, Turkey. The Muslims, who had pretended that they were interested in Christianity, murdered the three men in a two-hour torture session the killers filmed. They finally slit the Christians' throats from ear to ear.

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Bocek, 40, now a pastor and church planter in the coastal town of Izmir, Turkey, tells Western mission agencies to be more patient for faith to ripen in Muslims in his country, and not to alter key biblical phrases in translations for the sake of outreach. The phrase "Son of God" is offensive to Muslims because it seems to imply that God was a physical father to Jesus through a sexual union with Mary, so some translators have sought to find alternate terms to describe that relationship. "They get involved in these translations because they see that there is no fruit," Bocek said. "We have results. But you have to be patient and take it really, really slow." He and his fellow pastors address the offensive connotations of "Son of God" by explaining what it really means. "For centuries," he said, "that's the way it went."

Western mission agencies now are feeling a wave of backlash against these "contextualized" translations-not just from a few conservative denominations in the United States, but from an array of local churches in the countries where these translations are going out. While some Turkish pastors, including several contacted for this article, preferred to let Western mission agencies sort out the controversy on their own, others are taking action. At least a dozen Turkish pastors, as well as some whole churches from the Turkish cities of Adana, Samsun, and Bodrum, have signed a petition condemning a new Turkish translation of Matthew. Harun Ibrahim, the director of Al Hayat TV, a Christian satellite television station that broadcasts to millions in the Middle East, also signed the petition. And the Pakistan Bible Society is ending its two decades of partnership with SIL, a translation partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators, over the issue.

A team of translators with Frontiers helped produce the disputed translation of Matthew in Turkish, and SIL said some of its consultants helped at certain points in the process. Sabeel Media, a partner organization of SIL, published the translation in August 2011, printing it in book form and posting it online. In the Turkish Matthew, the "alternative form" for "Son of God" is something along the lines of "representative of God," according to Turkish speakers, and "God the Father" has become "great protector." A footnote explains the alternate terms: "According to the Jews, 'God's Son' means 'God's beloved ruler' and is equivalent with the title 'Messiah.'"

The alternative translation runs on pages on the right, while the pages on the left have an "interlinear" translation with the original Greek words and Turkish underneath, containing the literal translation of the divine familial terms. Bocek, however, said Turks are unlikely to read the literal version on the left-hand side, where the Turkish words run underneath the Greek, but rather the right-hand page that is just Turkish.

The translators emphasize their desire to promote evangelism. Bob Blincoe, the U.S. director of Frontiers, cited in an email lack of growth as one reason for the translation: "The big problem is that church planting among the tens of millions of religious Muslims in Turkey has not been successful; it has not even begun." Turkey is 99.8 percent Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook. Turks estimate that their country has about 5,000 Christians now, but when Bocek became a Christian in 1988, he was one of a total of 80 Protestants in the country. "One significant barrier may be the existing translation of the Bible," Blincoe wrote in an email: "These are paraphrases that help a conservative Sunni Muslim audience know what the Bible really says."

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