WACO—Regions Martin Luther never knew have embraced biblical books the Protestant reformer never liked, author and educator Philip Jenkins said.
“If Luther hated it, it goes down great in Africa,” said Jenkins, professor of humanities at Penn State University and co-director of the program on historical studies of religion at Baylor University. He spoke at a conference at Baylor marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
The earliest copies of the King James Bible included the Old Testament Apocrypha—books the church considered valuable but did not accept as inspired Scripture.
Luther’s earlier German translation of the Bible also had included the Apocrypha, segmented from the Old and New Testament to indicate its content did not carry the same weight.
But Luther took an additional step. He placed books he considered of little value—notably Esther, Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation—at the back of the Bible to indicate they occupied “an inferior category,” Jenkins said.
Eventually, Protestant Bibles dropped the Old Testament Apocrypha, particularly after the English Bible societies began printing copies of the Scripture without those disputed books.
“The Bible the British spread around the world lacked the Apocrypha,” Jenkins said.
If the printers and distributors of Bibles had dropped the books Luther segregated in his translation, 21st century Christianity in the global south might look different, he asserted.
When, in their introduction to the King James Bible, translators wrote about the Bible “manifesting itself abroad in the farthest parts of Christendom,” they never envisioned how far some of those parts might be, Jenkins said. Today, the largest markets for Bibles are Brazil, India, China, Indonesia and Nigeria, he noted.
Luther considered the New Testament book of James an “epistle of straw” that emphasized good works and contradicted the Apostle Paul’s teachings on justification by grace through faith, Christians in the developing world.
African, Asian and Latin American Christians, on the other hand, view James as “a practical manual for living as a global south Christian in a society marked by the sharp stratification of wealth and by scarcity of resources,” said Jenkins, author of The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South.
The pithy proverbs of James communicate well in preliterate oral cultures, and its teachings translate well into cultures where Christianity is a minority religion, he observed.
Asian Christians can witness to their Buddhist neighbors on common ground when they share James’ description of life as “a vapor that appears for a little while and vanishes way.” And Christians in Islamic countries can earn the respect of their Muslim neighbors when they heed James’ admonition not to presume upon the future but to say, “If God wills, we shall live and do this or that,” Jenkins added.
Christians in North America and Europe have difficulty relating to the sacrificial systems central to the New Testament book of Hebrews, but African Christians relate readily to it, he noted.
“Hebrews might be considered the national epistle of Africa,” Jenkins said. “Sacrifice is everywhere.”
In cultures where people understand firsthand the prevalence of animal sacrifice and the reality of genocide, Christians are drawn to Hebrews and Revelation—“the bloodiest books in the New Testament,” he said.
African and Chinese Christians understand Revelation as a message of hope to persecuted people today, not just a description of events at the end of time, Jenkins noted.
“Different books speak differently to different people,” he said. “What people hear depends on who is doing the hearing.”