By Kay Carter
For a hundred years, Romanians have been reading a Bible with dated vocabulary and second-hand translation. Now, Dr Emanuel Contac has a vision for a new version.
‘I didn’t have an ounce of faith that a revision to the Romanian Bible was possible,” says Emanuel Contac, grinning.
He is recalling his first visit to Tyndale House, in 2012, to write a history of the Romanian Cornilescu Bible. Used by half a million people in Romania, as well as a Romanian diaspora numbering in the tens of thousands, the Cornilescu is the favourite Bible version among Romanian Evangelicals and Protestants, and is much loved. But it is also almost 100 years old, and the language has never been revised. Not only is the vocabulary dated, but it isn’t even all translated from the original Greek and Hebrew — significant portions are second-hand translations from a French edition.
In the conclusion to his book on the history of the Cornilescu, Contac mused that, perhaps in 10 years, a new revised edition could be published drawing on the familiar phrasing but fully faithful to the earliest Bible sources. Sadly although such a project had been envisioned in the 1930s, with the rise of Communism in Romania at the end of the Second World War it had to be abandoned. Reading the current version, Contac says, “is like a British person reading the King James Bible. Our own version is not as old as the King James, but in some cases the words used are so dated that they have changed their meaning. There are passages that are very hard to understand because we are struggling with archaic language.
“I once saw a film about Jesus’s death and resurrection, and I was intrigued because the film showed Jesus being whipped before his crucifixion. In the Romanian version of the Bible we read not that Jesus was flogged with a whip, but that he was beaten with rods. The word used comes from a French word (verge) which means a flexible cane, but in the Greek we see that he was whipped with a Roman whip. It doesn’t have particular theological importance, but you can see the difficulties.”
Unbeknown to Contac, the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), which has printed the Cornilescu since 1924, had taken his words to heart. In 2015, on behalf of BFBS, the Romanian Bible Society approached him and asked him to assemble a panel of scholars to review the text for a new edition.
During his PhD research at the University of Bucharest, Contac had spent time looking at how key words were translated across 30 Bible versions, and had written a brief history of Romanian Bible translations. He also teaches New Testament Greek at Bible school, making him the natural person to lead the revision project.
The BFBS wanted a group that was representative of the major denominations then using the Cornilescu translation. By April of 2015, Contac had firm commitments from nine scholars from across the denominational spectrum. “We’ve never had a panel like this since the Romanian Bible began being translated. We never had a committee of various scholars from different backgrounds working together. We also created a pastoral committee, which was there to make the connection between the scholarly world and the world of the Church. They would read the text from the perspective of the person in the pew, as people who don’t know Greek and Hebrew.”
The aim of the BFBS was to update the vocabulary but without losing the essence of a text which Romanian Christians are enormously familiar with. “Romanian has changed considerably so we wanted to renew the language but not to the point where it’s a new translation. We wanted to keep the style and fluency. We wanted people to be drawn to it, to have a beautiful text that is read in the Church, but at the same time avoiding some of the older words.
“Our job was so much easier than Cornilescu’s because we have so many more tools and commentaries available. Cornilescu couldn’t make use of computers to help him with consistency because he produced his version on a typewriter, and even wrote some of it by hand. At that time the Romanian people were desperate for a Bible in their own language, so he set himself the task of completing his work in four years.
To finish in such a short space of time he relied on foreign translations, and even followed the word order of a French version, meaning the Romanian version loses something in the translation. We wanted to look again at some of these issues.
In English prose syntax isn’t very flexible, but in Romanian we can keep some of the word plays from the Greek, as well as matching the vocabulary as closely as possible to the original languages.
“For example, the Greek term dikaiosunē is translated in English as ‘righteousness’. In the Romanian Bible version it’s translated as ‘unblemished’, so it defines this characteristic in the negative, by what it’s not. But righteousness is a positive term and ‘unblemished’ doesn’t do it justice, so we decided to go back and translate it with a positive Romanian term (dreptate).”
In 2015, Contac headed back to Tyndale House to work on the new text. “In Romania we don’t have all the exegetical commentaries that are necessary, so first and foremost I wanted access to the excellent scholarly collection. You also meet people who are specialists and who deal in detail with the issues you are looking at. At one point I was discussing a particular passage in 2 Corinthians 2 with Prof George Guthrie, from Union University in Tennessee, who was doing research at Tyndale House. He said, ‘I’ve written an article on that subject,’ and went back to his desk and sent me the PDF. Tyndale House provides that possibility of having deep and detailed discussions with scholars who come from various backgrounds and who have all sorts of skills.”
It took four years, but in April 2019 the New Testament was ready to print. “We published 1,500 copies, which were distributed in less than a week. We had first-year Bible college students who wanted to buy it for their churches and friends. They distributed with such enthusiasm that by the time we’d supplied all the people who contacted us for copies we couldn’t put any on public sale because there were none left. Our next print run was for 1,400 copies and they are now available for the public to buy, and a third print run of 2,000 copies — with a larger font and in hard cover — is planned for later in the year. The text is also online and people are using it through apps.”
Daniel Suciu, a Romanian pastor whose congregation uses the Cornilescu version, sums up the response to the revised New Testament. “I really appreciate that the text follows closely the text in the original Greek. It not only corrects the old version but adds new nuances. For example, in 2 Corinthians 2:17, ‘For we do not corrupt the Word of God’ has become ‘For we do not peddle the Word of God’. In 1 Corinthians 13:5, we read that love ‘does not keep a record of evils’ instead of ‘does not think evil’.
“But I like that the revisers have preserved the style of the old version, by avoiding words with an exaggerated contemporary flavour. When you read, there is an added sense of precision, but you get the same flavour of the old version.”
Now that the New Testaments are rolling off the presses, the revision team has turned its attention to the Old Testament. “The whole Old Testament has now been revised at least once by the first reviser and more than 70% has been revised by the second reviser,” says Contac. “Next the literary reviser will read the text, and I will work on Isaiah, and proof-read the New Testament again in preparation for the new edition.”
Contac will again be coming to Tyndale House to work on this next phase of the project. “Being the supervisor of the team, I’m required to make sure I have read every single verse,” he says. It is detailed and painstaking work, but now he has the air of a man who has more than just an ounce of faith.