Keynote lecture by Lourens De Vries (VU Amsterdam): ‘The Retranslation of holy texts in Christian traditions: questions of authority, actualization and intertextuality’

It is not just the divine origin ascribed to certain ancient texts that makes them holy texts in the eyes of faith communities. Equally important is the universal audience believed to be the divinely intended addressee: there is a Divine Voice mediated by the holy text that speaks to ever changing communities in different times and places. My paper tries to present a short history of retranslation in Christian traditions from the changing ideological perspectives on, and social practices of, textual holiness.

The Greek writings that emerged from communities of early Jewish followers of Jesus in the first century AD interacted with the holy writings of their Hebrew heritage in ways that indicate that “The holiness resided not in the written text or the language in which it was written but in the Christological reality to which it witnessed” (Carr 2005). These early Christian writings quote Jewish Scripture not in Hebrew but from Greek translations that had emerged in diaspora communities of Hellenistic Jews. Paul and the other writers of the Greek New Testament were engaged in actualization, making the ancient Greek versions of Jewish Scripture speak with divine authority to the concerns and circumstances of their present readers and listeners.

When the expansion of Christianity went beyond the Greek speaking world of the eastern Mediterranean, Greek Christian Scriptures, themselves for the most part translations from Hebrew and Aramaic, were retranslated without recourse to source texts into Latin, Coptic, and other languages. And all these versions of late Antiquity functioned as holy texts in the liturgical centers of their communities (de Vries 2019).

Rabbinic Judaism of the first centuries CE tended to go in opposite directions. For the rabbi’s the Hebrew scrolls,  and only the Hebrew scrolls, were holy texts, and the only texts permitted in the center of the liturgy of the synagogue.  In a particularistic contexts where the Hebrew of the Bible or the Arabic of the Quran is a holy tongue, and the Word of God is completely bound to the linguistic form of the Hebrew or Arabic text, oral or written actualizing translations are permitted, but only as lowly and fallible servant texts explaining the meanings of the holy Hebrew or Arabic text to the unlearned, never to replace it as a holy text.

The cultural, religious and linguistic incarnation and appropriation of Christian holy texts in Latin, Syriac and other languages spoken in the Christian expansion had important historical consequences. First, the ancient translations of the first centuries became not just the Word of God, but they became “our” Word of God, emblems of communities, reflecting and constituting linguistic, cultural, theological and political identities, boundaries and interests. Second, the separation of the Divine Word as the locus of holiness from the original language form of biblical source texts became so radical that the awareness of the Hebrew origin or its significance was lost in many parts of western Christianity which made the rediscovery of the Hebraica Veritas by St Jerome an unsettling thought that evoked resistance.

Renaissance and early humanism introduced a philological ad fontes perspective that problematized the retranslation traditions of the western church without recourse to the Hebrew and Greek sources. This did not imply a break with the tradition of incarnational actualization: the Divine Word was not meant to be a prisoner of the re-discovered original Hebrew or Greek  fontes. On the contrary, the Reformation re-emphasized the belief that the Word of God is not just divine in origin but also universal and divine in its communicative intention. The Divine Word can and must enter the languages, lives  and hearts of all believers who are guided by the Holy Spirit. The combination of the ad fontes perspective of Christian humanists and the incarnational translational actualization theology of Scripture of early Reformers led to subversive and revolutionary Bible translations in common languages that pretended to be based on biblical texts in the original languages, in direct confrontation with the Latin Vulgate. Some of these early Protestant translations were retranslated without recourse to source texts or other versions in non-western languages such as Malay (de Vries 2018b).

In countries where Protestantism in various forms became the state religion,  early modern states initiated and sponsored national translation projects in compilative interlingual retranslation mode (Alvstadt and Assis Rosa 2015). They retranslated and integrated earlier Protestant translations into Authorized Versions,  but with much more, and much more sophisticated, recourse to Hebrew and Greek biblical source texts and to Bible translations of other European reformers, and also with enhanced philological tools (lexica, grammars, concordances, commentaries) to analyze those sources (de Kooter 2017).

Thee  authorized versions developed into emblems of political and religious identities with immense authority. They function to this day as emblematic holy texts of numerous conservative denominations in the Bible belts of western nations, often lightly revised in spelling and lexis. The King James and the Dutch Statenvertaling were retranslated in dozens of non-Western languages of the colonies (de Vries 2009, 2018b), without recourse to Hebrew or Greek sources or to other pre-existing translations.

The Enlightenment would bring the biblical sources more and more into retranslational practices but a strong intertextual continuity with authorized versions would be a sine qua non far into the 20th century for most ecclesiastical Bible translations. The Enlightenment also brought a new type of Bible translations.  Enlightened scholars published non-confessional Bible translations direct from the biblical sources, in single interlingual retranslation, based on their philological scholarship, often with notes and explanations, not meant to replace the authorized versions, but as tools for individual study of the Bible in relative independence from the authorized versions (de Vries 2017). Such educational  Bible translations did not function as holy texts of faith communities. The 20th and 21st century saw a wide range of similar individual Bible retranslations not commissioned by faith communities, this time with a literary or cultural function rather than an educational function, to present the Bible as ancient literature, as part of a cultural rather than a religious canon.



  • Alvstad, Cecilia and Alexandra Assis Rosa. 2015. ‘Voice in Retranslation. An overview and some trends’. Target 27:1, 3-24.
  • Carr, David M. 2005. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • De Kooter, D.J. 2017. In de studeervertrekken van de Statenvertalers. PhD Dissertation Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.
  • de Vries, L. J. (2009). ‘Telaah tentang Sejarah Penerjemahan Alkitab di Indonesia’. In H. Chambert-Loir (Ed.), Sadur: Sejarah Terjemahan di Indonesia dan Malaysia. (pp. 459-488). Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia.
  • de Vries, L. J. (2017). ‘The Book of True Civilization: The Origins of the Bible Society Movement in the Age of Enlightenment’. The Bible Translator, 67(3), 331-350.
  • de Vries, L. (2018a). ‘Newton Goes East: Natural Philosophy in the First Malay Grammar (1736) and the First Malay Bible (1733)’. The Bible Translator, 69(2), 214-232.
  • de Vries, L.  2018b. ‘Iang Evangelivm Ul-kadus menjurat kapada Marcum: the first Malay Gospel of Mark (1629-1630) and the Agama Kumpeni. Journal of the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (BKI 174 (2018) 47-79.), Leiden.
  • de Vries, L. (2019). ‘Retranslations of Holy Scriptures: Why Keep Translating the Bible?’ Journal of Biblical Text Research, 45 (10), 252-268.

About the speaker

Lourens de Vries (born in 1955 in Baflo, the Netherlands) is professor of Bible Translation and professor of General Linguistics in the faculties of Theology and Humanities of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He is the chair of the Department of Language, Literature and Communication. His research interests include religious language and the translation of sensitive texts, the history of Bible translation in the Malay world and the anthropological and typological linguistics of Melanesia.