The date is 6 October 2001 and there is great rejoicing in a church in Istanbul. One lady puts it like this: ‘I have cried a lot today. Today the Bible is in my hands’.
She expresses the feeling of the other Turkish believers when she says, ‘We are very happy … more than happy, we are proud. Today I feel myself closer to God in my own language, in my own being. For this is my language. The Lord speaks to me in my own language’.
This lady’s excitement is like that of those who heard the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost: ‘How is it that we hear each in our own language in which we were born?’ (Acts 2:9). And many of them came from the very regions which constitute modern Turkey (1 Peter 1:1).
How is it, then, that this Turkish Christian lady can only now say with surprise: ‘The Lord speaks to me in my own language?’ Why had she not possessed a Bible in Turkish before?
The first reason is, of course, that sadly, the land described today as Turkey lost the vigour of its Christian profession. As with the church at Ephesus (W. Turkey) the ‘lampstand’ of true faith was removed.
This made way for the Muslim Ottoman Turks to take over the reins of government and overspread the land in the fourteenth century. The Bible was replaced by the Koran.
The Muslim Turk will say: ‘We believe in the four holy books, those of Moses, David, Jesus and Mohammed’. But, of course, they add: ‘the first three books have been changed and are now unreliable. Only the Koran remains the authentic unchanged Word of God’.
In this way, Satan has snatched away the precious Holy Bible from the hands and minds of Turkish citizens.
For centuries difficulties and mishaps have dogged attempts to produce a Bible in the language of the people. The first known translation was undertaken by a Polish slave in the Sultan’s court at the behest of the visiting Dutch ambassador in the seventeenth century.
It lay unused at Leyden University until a Turkish-speaking Russian, Baron Von Dutz, worked on it in Berlin. But the elderly baron died before the task was finished and it never got any further.
Turkey had to wait till 1827 for its first Turkish Bible, the dedicated work of a Frenchman, but apparently the Turkish was defective.
Another factor has been that any Christian communities in Muslim Turkey have until recently consisted only of non-Turks: Armenians, Greeks or Assyrians.
When these communities wished to produce a Bible in the Turkish language for sections of their community who were losing their mother tongue, they insisted on using a script that was unintelligible to Turkish readers.
For example, in 1843, an American missionary in Beirut produced an acceptable Turkish translation of the whole Bible, but it was printed in the Armenian script and so remained inaccessible to Turkish enquirers.
There was something of a breakthrough in 1850. Two ‘Christian’ nations, France and Britain, responded to Turkey’s plea for military help against Russia in the Crimea (1854-56). This created a greater openness to things Western, and kindled a temporary interest in ‘the Scriptures of the Infidels’.
And was not 1859 the year of a glorious awakening in Christendom? At any rate, a German scholar and missionary named Schaffler, with 25 years of experience in Turkey, was commissioned to the work of translation. He produced the four Gospels and Acts in idiomatic Turkish in 1862.
But Turkey had to wait until 1901 for the complete Bible in contemporary Turkish in their familiar Arabic script.
After 1923, however, everything changed. Ataturk had come to power and was determined to orientate his nation westwards rather than eastwards.
He replaced the Arabic script with a phonetically-based Latin script, removing at one stroke the availability of the latest Bible translation!
At the same time he inaugurated a language reform which sought systematically to rediscover basic Turkish forms of language, freed from all the Arabic accretions accumulated through centuries of association with Islam.
Linguistic experts were sent out into the villages and areas that were thought to have preserved a pure form of Turkish in their dialect.
Over the years, scholars have systematised their findings into a grammatically coherent ‘Pure Turkish’, as it is called.
This revised Turkish has been taught systematically in schools and universities and has become the language of the media. Anyone failing to conform is stigmatised as uneducated and hopelessly old-fashioned.
All this has had obvious repercussions in the field of Bible translation. The translation of 1901 was rendered unacceptable both in script and language and, as the older generation passed away, only a few scholars could read it.
American missionaries Dr McCullam and his son, Lyman, produced a new translation of the whole Bible in 1941, which has served Christians in Turkey well.
But the irreversible tide of language reform has left even that far behind, so that even well-educated Turks say they cannot understand it. Hence the increasingly urgent need for a new translation.
The Bible in my hand
The church meeting in Istanbul in October was celebrating the achievement of this goal after 24 years of dedicated labour on the part of a team of Christian Turks and Westerners.
Emmanuel Bagdas, secretary of the Turkish Bible Society, and Trevor Penrose of the Translation Trust, have both devoted themselves whole-time to this project, meeting regularly with a team of Christian Turks and missionary colleagues.
Their object was to thrash out the best possible translation of every word, sentence and passage with the utmost care, desiring to be completely faithful to God’s Holy Word.
‘Today the Bible is in my hand’, cried the believer triumphantly at the celebratory church meeting in Istanbul. She valued the book for the unique revelation it contained. At the same time it is attractively produced with thin paper and strong stitched binding.
The previous evening a meeting in a major hotel in Istanbul had been arranged to which the media, city officials and academics had been invited.
‘Comparative Religion’ is now on the syllabus of Turkish Universities, with special interest in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But the professors have had difficulty with the previous translation.
‘Will we be able to understand it now?’ asked one of them, to which one of the translators replied: ‘I guarantee that you will’.
Let us pray that a truly spiritual understanding may be granted by our gracious Lord to such men. Pray, too, that this Bible will become a treasured spiritual guide for generations of godly Turkish believers.