We must not hand them back.
Others before us fought long and hard to get them back into our hands. Through blood, sweat and tears, they were returned to the rightful owners. And now, slowly but surely, we are returning the Holy Scriptures to those who hoarded them for so long.
It was in the language of the people that the New Testament Scriptures were first written. However, as time marched on, this beautiful truth was forgotten. Much later, they called this unusual dialect “Holy Spirit Greek” because it didn’t fit the classical Greek of the courts of law and halls of learning. It must have been sent from on high, extraordinary and uncorrupted, they figured. That was until it was discovered as the script of a grocery list!
This 1897 archaeological find in Egypt had unearthed papyri containing this koine dialect of Greek, matching that of the Bible. It turns out that this was the jargon used in conducting the affairs of the marketplace. Thus, it was remembered that the Christian Scriptures had been originally written in the language of the commoner.
Unfortunately, over the centuries the Scriptures were stolen from the hands of the people. Carefully guarded and controlled, the scholars and clergy ensured that only they would interpret and proclaim God’s Word. Even as the Christian faith expanded into new territory, the Bible was sealed into the Latin of Rome. It was no longer passed along in the language of the people.
After more than a millennium of this darkness, in the 14 century, John Wycliffe began to stir things up. “Christ taught the people in the language that was best known to them. Why should people today not do the same?” Timothy Paul Jones quotes Wycliffe as saying in Christian History Made Easy. In response, his followers began to translate the Bible into English. Later, after his death, when his followers completed the English translation, church authorities declared Wycliffe a heretic, digging up and burning his bones.
The early Anabaptists were among the many who carried the torch lit by Wycliffe. Indeed, many of the initial leaders were scholars or former priests. However, that first treasonous act of re-baptism was the fruit of a group Bible study. It is noteworthy that this took place in a home. The Scriptures were being returned to the realm of the commoner.
Those who have gone before us paid a high price to get the Scriptures back into the vernacular. They fought, and even died, to get us to this place. Today, we have more than 50 different English versions of the Bible available. And yet, here we are in the age of biblical illiteracy. A 2013 study conducted by the Canadian Bible Society discovered that a mere 14 percent of Canadians read the Bible at least once per month. The church is not immune to this reality.
Our cornflakes are accompanied by Facebook rather than God’s book. We entrust our learning of the Scriptures to sermons by Bruxy Cavey, Andy Stanley or Greg Boyd, rather than diving in ourselves. In our small groups we do one topical book study after another but rarely plumb the depths of Scripture together. In our Sunday morning worship, increasingly few Bibles are opened, whether they be leather- or screen-bound. Ironically, in an age when centralized authority is trusted less, we delegate Scripture interpretation to the “professionals.”
Slowly but surely, we are handing the Scriptures back.
Throughout our history, when the Scriptures were controlled by ministers, it led the Church of Jesus Christ to a dark place. Might we find ourselves in this place again? Quite possibly. Only this time, it will be our own voluntary doing. We must not hand them back.
Ryan Jantzi pastors Kingsfield-Zurich Mennonite Church, Ont., where he’s fascinated with exploring the interplay between traditional church and new expressions of mission.