North Park University Professor Working in International Bible Translation Project

Bible translation project in India
Recordings for the Bible translation project are being produced at this recording studio in Nagpur, India. (Photo provided by Dr. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson.)

Project seeks to translate Bible into common language, original poetry form

CHICAGO (January 21, 2013) — A North Park University professor is working with a team of people to create a version of the Christian Bible written in Hindi—a common Indian language—and express it in a poetic form so it can be sung. Dr. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson, professor of biblical and theological studies, used part of a sabbatical in 2011 to begin translating the Bible. The translation in poems, "seeks to be faithful to how the text is intended to be sung," he said.

Johnson, a native of India, developed an interest in translating the Bible into poems during his doctoral studies, when he read original biblical texts, including ancient interpretations found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and interpretations before the time of Christ. He learned that the ancient biblical texts were poems—nearly all of the Bible except for Paul's epistles. "The King James Version seeks to understand the poetry, and bring that into English," Johnson said. "Unfortunately the later translations of the Bible into English have lost the poems."

In addition to the translation and poetic expression, recordings have been made of the first five chapters of Genesis, which describe the creation story and God's initial dealings with humanity, and first five chapters of the Gospel of John, an account of the public ministry of Jesus, Johnson explained. "We're trying to do is what the biblical texts originally intended," Johnson said. "Prose was not originally conceived in the early church. In its original form, the gospels are songs, and were sung by the early church."

Johnson, who travels often to India, has researched tribal societies in India and lived among them. He chose to translate into their language because they worship using poems, he said. "Poets or village bards sing songs, and the people respond. They've been doing this in worship for a long, long time," he said.

Collaborators in this unusual Bible translation project include Sunil Sardar, who co-founded Truthseekers, an international organization that advocates for lower-caste people living in India. The project's purpose is to bring the Bible to millions of people who have no access to it because of language barriers, he said. "They don't have a book of their own," Sardar said in a telephone interview from Delhi. "The language is not the same." Sardar explained that most lower-caste people don't understand the higher-caste Indian language in which the Bible has been published previously. But they do understand the poetic language of the Bible written in Hindi.

Sardar said that when he met Johnson, they each learned the other had concluded the need to translate the Bible and put it into its original poetic expression. "It was like a meeting of the minds, a "God thing." It was the right time, and the right message. God has baptized us with this project," he said.

"Now is the time to get the whole Bible in both the language of the people and in the language of poetry," Sardar added. "People love to have this book. We can hardly keep up with the sales." 

In addition to recording biblical poems in Hindi, Johnson said he hopes to publish the poems in English. He is also working with students to turn the poems into music familiar to them, such as rap. "I think this a project for the future of the church. Young people want to use their own theologies. This is a way to do it, to give them texts of the Bible in a genre that was originally intended."

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