In the old Buddhist legend, Prince Siddhartha Gautama (who became the Buddha) started his spiritual journey after he saw an old person, a sick person and a dead person for the first time. “What do we live for, if all are destined to die?” he asked, and his sincere questioning gave start to one of the world religions.
From several Kurdish testimonies, we see that for many Kurds who became followers of Christ, the very beginning of their life quest was absolutely the same. Both for our senior team member, who is the long-term translator, and for a younger team member, who has been a philological editor and an external reviewer of the Kurdish Scripture translation for several years, the path that finally led them to Christ started at the age of 8 or 9 years old with a realization that death awaits all. Our translator’s story was surprisingly similar to Prince Gautama’s: he saw a dead person being carried through their village to his funeral. The younger team member (let’s call him Alex) had a different life story: he was one of six children, and the only one who lived past childhood. At the age of 4 or 5 Alex lost his last remaining brother, and at the age of 8-9 his mind and heart became restless, tormented and hypnotized by questions about the inevitability of death and the meaning of life.
Now, when Alex looks back at his life path from the perspective of his Christian faith and knowledge of the Bible, he finds much similarity between his people’s modern-day society and Jewish society at the time of Christ. It was crucial for Pharisees to observe the foundations of their tradition, and this is no less crucial for contemporary Kurds. Not least because they are persecuted and feel that the very core of their national identity depends on maintaining the foundations of their ancient Yezidi religion.
But what kind of religion is this? Here the difference starts. Pharisees were the most educated representatives of Jewish society. To the contrary, “In our religion, receiving an education is considered one of the worst mortal sins,” Alex shares. “If a person wants to get an education, it is seen as rebellion because it is believed that only the founder of our religion, Sheikh Adi, was worthy of holding a pen in his hands. But he has the status of a saint, and if an ordinary person wants to be educated, this means that this person has decided to be like a saint, to become a saint himself, to take the place of the one and only real saint! What a distorted perception! Since my very youth I was very diligent in following the religion of my ancestors. You see, since the cultural identity of my people is based on our traditional values, on our religious and cultural heritage, if you tell us that our religion is wrong and founded upon misconception and idolatry, then you endanger the very existence of our whole people with its unique culture! That’s how I saw the situation. I used to repeat to myself: ‘Under no circumstances will I ever become a Christian or a Muslim, even on pain of death! I’ll never betray the faith of my forefathers!’ But all this time God was knocking at my heart. With my constant reflections about death and the meaning of my own life, with my endless questioning about why God let me live when all my siblings died, one day I came upon the Bible’s words that God is One and there are no other gods before Him. That’s when I felt a strong desire to start reading the Gospel. From my reading I realized that I had finally found what I’d always been seeking. The paradox was that I used to lead a very bad life from the point of view of divine and human law, but I was very pious in sticking to traditional religious rites. Thus, at first nobody believed that I had become a Christian. People around me thought that I had simply invented my conversion in order to get people to trust me so that I could commit more crimes. But the change in me was real and evident. God changed my life totally. And later, people had no choice but to admit this. My own father had sworn to kill me if I converted to Christ, and after my conversion I was waiting for him to punish me severely even if he didn’t actually kill me. But I was ready to die. Time passed, and nothing happened. Later he and my mother turned to Christ, too. Such a miracle!”
Alex has now acquired quite a lot of experience in working with the text of the Bible. “It’s always a great advantage to know several languages and to be able to get acquainted with the Biblical text in parallel translations,” he says. “This practice enriches your understanding because you notice many passages where the text sounds different in different versions.” Alex shared several Bible passages that had been previously misunderstood by his Kurdish kinsmen. Thus, one Kurdish pastor was sure that in the story of the miraculous cleansing of the leper in Mark 1, it was the leper, not Jesus, who could no longer openly enter into the city. During the audio recording of the New Testament, reviewers demanded that the reader put a question intonation after Paul’s words, “I think that I also have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:40). They were certain that the Apostle Paul doubted whether he actually had the Spirit of God and was asking the Corinthians their opinion on this matter. Such situations prove that the first translation of the Bible into a new language is indeed a demanding and an extremely difficult task. Even passages that seem obvious to those who are used to reading the Bible every day their whole life may be interpreted the wrong way by an audience that is encountering the Bible for the first time.
“My first Gospel was in Russian,” Alex continues. “I lived in Armenia and I knew Armenian very well, but I also knew Russian since I had been coming to Russia time and again since childhood. I had no difficulty in understanding the Gospel in Russian, but the actual problem of understanding is secondary. The main problem is that many Kurds feel that Christ is for Russians, for Armenians, for European nations, but not at all for themselves. When I started reading the Gospel in Kurdish for the first time, I got the opposite impression – that Christ was one of us, that He was a true Kurd indeed!”
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