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Spreading the Word

He said to them, ‘Go into all the world, and preach the Good News to the whole creation.’” Mark 16:15 

The Abrahamic religions were originally confined to the relatively small geographical areas in which they first appeared, and their Scriptures were preserved in the languages of the people to whom they had been revealed. But the growth of the Jewish Diaspora, the evangelical mission of Paul to the Gentiles, and the military conquests of the early Islamic armies spread the knowledge of these monotheistic faiths far beyond their early geographic centers to an ever-expanding periphery, reaching a broad range of peoples speaking an extensive array of languages. Because these new adherents often did not understand the original languages of the Scriptures, a variety of strategies emerged for transmitting the texts of revelation and sacred history. With so much of each scriptural text dependent on the nuance of its original linguistic tradition, even subtle differences in wording had the potential to cause dramatic shifts in meaning. As a result, direct translations were often fraught with problems and rife with misunderstood words or concepts. One remedy to this situation was the use of polyglot texts, where the original text was presented along with one or more translated versions, written or printed, usually side by side, on the same page.

The translation of Scripture into these many vernacular tongues has been a long and complex process. The transition from handwritten manuscript to printed book enabled an exponential expansion of the texts’ availability, and the rise of new electronic technologies has fostered true global accessibility. The sacred Scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths, in all of their translations and polyglot versions, are by far the most geographically widespread and linguistically diverse body of literature the world has ever seen.

Images: Psalterium, Hebraeum, Graecum, Arabicum, Chaldaeum [Psalter, in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Aramaic; Genoa Psalter]. Agostino Giustiniani, O.P., editor. Genoa: Petrus Paulus Porrus, 1516. NYPL, Rare Book Division.