by Alexander Pierce
The Central Asian Russian Scriptures (CARS) Project is designed to contextualize the Russian Bible for the Muslim people of Central Asia.
An axiom of missionary methodology is that every ethnic group should have the scriptures in their own language. However, a problem is encountered when a group uses a regional trade language to the extent that many of them begin to use this language as their mother tongue. They cannot read what is supposed to be their own language, but scripture in the trade language may be culturally inappropriate for them.
This is the case for Muslims in Central Asia who live in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Under the Soviet Union many of them began to use Russian as their first language rather than Kazakh, Tatar, Uzbek and other languages. Of the sixty-eight million Muslims there today, twenty-six million went to Russian-speaking schools, and therefore can only read their own language with difficulty. If someone gives them a Bible or other Christian literature in their own language they will receive it; however, they cannot read it. If offered the same literature in Russian, they are able to read it, but often refuse to do so because the Bible is a holy book “only for Russian people.”
In 1993 a Russian-speaking church in Almaty, Kazakhstan, made a decision to focus on reaching the Kazakh people who are nominally Muslim. To accomplish this, they decided to make several vocabulary changes so that they would attract and not offend Muslims who would visit them. For example, the word “church” was changed to “fellowship of believers” and the Bible became the “Holy Scriptures.” Hundreds of Kazakhs became believers in Isa Masikh (Jesus the Messiah) and came into this fellowship. After a few years the idea was born to produce a version of the Russian Bible that incorporated these kinds of adaptations. With the endorsement of the Kazakh Partnership (an annual meeting of local leaders and missionaries working in Kazakhstan), the Central Asian Russian Scriptures (CARS) Project was launched in 1996.
This project has produced a new version of the scriptures in the Russian language which appeals to a Muslim audience. It was not started from scratch; instead, it used an existing modern-language New Testament published by the International Bible Society (IBS), known in Russian as Slovo Zhizni (Word of Life). IBS also had a first draft of ninety percent of the Old Testament. The CARS Project finished the draft and reviewed and edited the entire text for accuracy and naturalness.
An adapted version of Genesis and Luke, called Svyashennaya Kniga (Holy Book), was published by the CARS Project in 1999. Genesis was chosen because many believers have found it useful in Central Asia to show creation and the fall before explaining the need for salvation. Also, Genesis features Abraham (Ibrahim in the CARS version), a figure well known by most Muslims. Luke was chosen because the JESUS Film is based on this Gospel. Genesis and sixteen New Testament books were included in a second CARS publication, called Svyashennoye Pisaniye (Holy Scripture), in 2002. In December 2003 the first CARS edition containing all sixty-six books of the Bible was published with the same title; a second edition of this was published in 2006.
PRINCIPLES USED IN CREATING THE NEW VERSION
The CARS Project made the following changes in the Russian Bible in order to contextualize it for Muslims:
1. Cover and imprint. The cover is green, rather than black or brown, and has gold ornamentation around the edge similar to that used on Islamic holy books. The title reads “Holy Scripture” rather than “Bible.” The inside page (the “imprint”) makes it appear that it comes from Turkey rather than from a “Christian” country.
2. Text changes. There are three categories of names that needed to be addressed: Qur’anic names, common Russian names and other names. First, most names of biblical characters that are also in the Qur’an are spelled the Qur’anic way rather than the usual Russian way. For example, Moses, rather than Moise, is spelled Musa, and Jesus, rather than Isus, is spelled Isa. Second, biblical names that have become common Russian first names, such as Andrei (Andrew) and Pyotr (Peter) are changed so that scripture does not appear to be populated with Russians. Andrei has been changed to Ander and Pyotr to Petir. Third, the names of people and places have been changed to make them sound more Middle Eastern and to avoid typical Russian orthography. For example, Avimelekh (Abimelech in Gen. 26:1) has been changed to Abu-Malik.
3. Terminology. Terms which have culturally negative connotations for Muslims have been changed to equivalent terms which are neutral. For example, the word “baptism” has the connotation among Central Asians that one has betrayed his or her people and become a Russian. This has a historical basis since Ivan the Terrible forcibly baptized thousands of Muslim Tatars in the 1500s, thus making them citizens of Russia. The Russian language did not adopt the Greek word baptizo as many other languages did, but uses the word kreshcheniye, which is related to the word krest or cross. Therefore, we have changed it closer to the original meaning by using words which mean “ritual of immersion” or “ritual of cleansing.” This change allows a converted Central Asian to explain what has happened to him or her spiritually without unnecessary cultural problems.
4. Footnotes. Footnotes have been added which clarify the text for Muslims or tie the text to aspects of their culture. For example, Genesis 22 has a footnote explaining that this incident is celebrated annually by Central Asians in the Kurban Ait (Feast of Sacrifice) festival.
EVALUATING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE NEW VERSION
To evaluate the effectiveness of this new version to reach Central Asian Muslims, three focus groups were conducted in 2004. The participants were Central Asian Christians from a Muslim background who were familiar with the Holy Scripture. Because of its cultural adaptations and its understandability, these groups felt the version was very good for evangelism and for new believers. The cultural adaptation mentioned most often was the cover, which drew very high praise from a large number of participants. In contrast to the old adage, many Central Asians do judge a book by its cover. Both the design and the quality of the cover were praised. As one participant said, “When the Holy Scripture sits [at home] it is less of a stumbling block. My relatives are more interested in it—they glance at it, look at it, [ask] ‘What is it?’…In reality the Holy Scripture is an excellent witness.”
A second cultural adaptation often mentioned was the contextualized names and terms. Several participants characterized the names as “understandable.” Most biblical names are indeed foreign to most of the cultures in the world. However, the biblical cultures of the Middle East, including many names and some terms, were brought to Central Asia by the Arabs and Persians when they conquered the area or came as Islamic merchants and missionaries. Thus, when the names are changed back to something closer to the original Hebrew, they are also closer to the culture of Central Asia and thus “understandable” as names. For example, Abraham in Russian is Avraam, which is not recognizable as a name to Central Asians. But in the Holy Scripture it has been changed to Ibrahim, which is understandable as a name because many Central Asians have that name themselves.
Participants also said that the Holy Scripture does not “grate on the ears,” in comparison to the usual Russian translation. Others said that it was “not alien to Central Asia” or that it was “close to us.” Grating on the ears can only refer to the text itself rather than the cover or other factors. As one participant said, “At the university we lead studies using it, and I know that they read it and say that it’s a better scripture, more understandable, and that it makes them feel Kazakh.
I have a lot of pride that we have such a book.” Another said the translation gives them an opportunity to remain Kazakhs but receive the gospel in a Russian version.
Ease of understanding was given as a major reason why they appreciated the Holy Scripture. A variety of terms were used to indicate its clarity: “easy,” “easy to understand,” “words very easy,” “accessible language,” “modern words,” “understandable,” “simply written,” “simplified” and “better.”
COMING TO CHRIST WITH THE NEW TRANSLATION
Since its publication many Central Asian Muslims have become believers through reading the Holy Scripture. One Russian-speaking Muslim became a Christian at a local church when he was 16-years-old however, when he brought a traditional Russian Bible home, his mother confiscated it and forbid him to attend any Christian meetings. Three years later a missionary gave him the Holy Scripture to take home. His mother read it and became a believer herself; so did his younger brother. The Holy Scripture has also greatly helped local believers to evangelize their fellow Muslims. One Russian-educated Uzbek said,
In our minds the [Christian] faith was always Russian. The moment [Christians] used certain words there was always a connection in our minds with drinking alcohol at funerals, worshipping Mary and crossing yourself. If we use their words and their translation of the book, even if we believe, our people will think that we have become Russian. We desperately needed a book that wasn’t immediately rejected because of those words.
Both lay people and Muslim leaders are reading and distributing this new version. According to a believer in one city, the mullah at the main mosque was overjoyed to get it and asked for more copies for his co-workers. In another city portions of the Holy Scripture were on sale at the same table with the Qur’an in the front of a local mosque.
The Holy Scripture has received good reports and testimonies throughout the former Soviet Union. Both local believers and missionaries report how well Muslims receive it in comparison to the usual Russian Bibles.
The only difficulty is that most ethnic Russian congregations are hesitant to use this new version. Some cling to the standard Russian Bible out of tradition; others are committed to a more literal philosophy of Bible translation. Many, seeing some Russian-speaking Muslims responding to the gospel using traditional methods, conclude that contextualization is not necessary. However, from the testimonies received and the results of the focus groups it is evident that a contextualized approach makes a significant improvement in ministry to Russian-speaking Muslims.
The principles used in producing this translation could have a wide application in the world today. Many languages are spoken both by Muslims and other religious groups. It is possible that two versions of the scriptures would be necessary in many of these cases.
Alexander Pierce (a pseudonym) serves with People International and Mission to the World (the mission arm of the Presbyterian Church in America) in Central Asia.
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