Lost (and found) in translation: installment #3 ; Luke 1:1-2

The opening of a story or a letter is important since it sets the tone for, and makes clear the purpose of, what is being written. This is no less true for the books of the Bible, than for any other literature. Luke opens his gospel account with a densely worded introduction and sometimes the meaning gets lost in translation.

Luke 1:1-2 (NASB95) says, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,”

Luke begins his book in a very formal style, saying “inasmuch as”, or “considering that”. He is writing to a Roman official of some importance named Theophilus and is setting the stage and explaining why he is writing.

He says that other people had also written about the life of Jesus, and “considering that [fact]” and, considering that he himself had access to written and oral accounts from people who had seen and heard Jesus, he felt like it was good that he, too, write an account.

The name “Theophilus” is marked here. This inscription was photographed in the Corinth Museum. / Inkwell with theater masks, perhaps from Rome, 1st–2nd centuries AD. This terracotta inkwell was photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. / Stylus, perhaps from Rome, 1st–2nd centuries AD. This bronze stylus was photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. / Photos copyright bibleplaces.com

The wording is such as would be used to address an honored public official, so we assume Theophilus was some sort of high government official. We should reflect that in translation; for example, we could uses a phrase similar to how we would address a judge as “your honor”. This communicates stylistically in English translation what Luke is communicating.

Some translations say “compile an account of the things accomplished among us.” The term in the original, however, is “fulfilled”. Luke loves to use the word “fulfill”; he uses it many times in Luke and Acts, and it is in fact one of the themes of these two volumes written by Luke. It is referring to something which was promised long ago, in the Old Testament, which God said he would do, which has taken place now that Jesus has come. Luke is referring back to the promises God made in the Old Testament, which have now been fulfilled through the life and death of the Messiah, Jesus.

He said this information came from “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (1:2, NASB95). Now, there is a lot of information that is implied which a Roma who is hearing the Bible for the first time might not be aware of. There are cultural differences between our world today and the world of the Bible from millennia before. There was also a lot of the Old Testament that people already knew about when they first heard the New Testament, but much of this is still unknown to the Roma in Croatia and Serbia today. There are times when we need to make sure that what is implied in the verses is not missed. For example, what does it mean that “they became servants of the word”. For the Roma, we may need to spell it out. “Servant” may need to be clarified. Whom are they serving and how do you “serve” a “word”?

In the broader context, we know that “word” refers to God’s word or message and that they were serving God by telling or passing on his message. So in translation, we may need to spell it out as “they served God by proclaiming his word” since it was God they were serving, and “of the word” implies that it had to do with communicating God’s message.

In v. 3, it says “most excellent Theophilus”. Normally in our culture, we put the name of the recipient of a letter at the beginning of a letter, not at the end of the first paragraph, so in order to communicate more clearly that this writing was addressed to Theophilus, some translations move it to the beginning of verse 1, and start the Gospel of Luke with “Honorable Theophilus”.

Depending on the specific goal of a Bible translation, this information might need to be made explicitly clear. For example, in the translation for the Arli Roma, our translators wrote vv. 1-2 as: “Honorable Theophilus, as you know, many people began to write about the events about which God gave his word, and which were fulfilled among us. They wrote about that according to what the people who saw these events said to us. Those people saw this yet at the beginning of the Messiah’s life on earth. They became God’s servants to teach us the word of the Messiah.”

This is how we put together the pieces of the translation puzzle to make it clear to the Arli Roma what Luke is saying: Those who heard and saw Jesus in person wrote down reports of Jesus. Luke also had access to these reports and he wanted to make sure that his friend, the Roman official Theophilus, knew that what was taught was accurate. So he wrote down this report and is publishing it for all to read. For two thousand years, many readers have been the better for it, including us and the Roma of former Yugoslavia.

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