A Sort of Brief History of Bible Translations

Unlike religions such as Islam, where the Quran is only truly the Quran in the original Arabic, Biblical Christianity has always believed that God’s word can and should be translated into the common languages of all men. In any language in which the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are faithfully rendered, they are still the word of God, and so the Scriptures should be translated into any language necessary to bring the gospel message to all people everywhere.

The Old Testament

Translations of Scripture is older than Christianity itself. The Old Testament Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were brought into other common languages for centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ, and indeed were a great help to the early church. After the time of Alexander the Great, Greek became the common language of much of the ancient world. Many Jews dispersed throughout that world began to speak Greek as their primary language. This eventually led to the need for a Greek translation.

The Torah (The Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy) was translated into Greek in the third century BC, with the other Old Testament books shortly to follow.1 The Septuagint is often quoted verbatim in the New Testament and was very important to the early church. Gentile Christians knew nothing of Hebrew, and so the Septuagint was their Bible. Indeed, after Christians embraced and so effectively used the Septuagint for their own teaching, worship, and evangelism, the Jews rejected it and sought to produce new Greek editions to suit their own community’s needs.2 Even these, however, are often classified by some scholars as revisions of the Septuagint rather than new “from scratch” translations.3

In the third century AD, Origen of Alexandria collected these various Greek editions (along with the Hebrew text of his day) and published them all side by side in parallel columns with notations of key differences in a massive work known as the Hexapla.4 The Hexapla had a profound influence on the future copying of the Septuagint, and scholars give it a central position among the editions of the LXX.5 It was based on the assumption that, while the Septuagint should be revered as the word of God even in its peculiar readings, there is also value in the study of other translations. They, too, are the word of God, even when they differ from the Septuagint, and the church is richer from knowing them.6 The wide popularity and influence of the Hexapla show that this view was held by many early Christians.

Though many early Christians spoke Greek, not all did, and Christians were not content to leave the Old Testament only in Greek. They made various translations of the Greek Septuagint into many other languages during the 2nd-9th centuries, including Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and Slavonic.7

Greek was also not the only language into which the Jew translated the Hebrew Scriptures. After the Babylonian exile, the dominant language among the Jews in and around their homeland began to shift from Hebrew to Aramaic.8 Hebrew and Aramaic are extremely similar languages, and it seems almost surprising that an Aramaic translation was needed at all.9 Indeed, the Aramaic did not supplant the Hebrew, which continued to be read aloud in worship.10 The Aramaic was the contemporary vernacular of the people, however, and so Aramaic translations were produced to aid in comprehension and application of the sacred text.11 We don’t know when written Aramaic Targums were first produced, but our earliest manuscripts go back as early as the second century BC.12

In addition to the Jewish Targums, the Samaritans also produced an Aramaic translation of the Torah.13 The Samaritan Targum is generally regarded as a more plain, literal translation while many of the Jewish Targums were often somewhat interpretive.14

Probably in the late first or the second century AD15 but certainly before the fourth century,16, the Old Testament was also separately translated into a prominent eastern dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac. This translation shows clear markings of Jewish interpretation, but also betrays no obvious Rabbinic influence and was readily embraced and transmitted by Christians.17 For these reasons and more, it is unclear whether the translation was first produced by Jews, Christians,18 or perhaps a community who identified as both.19 At any rate, it is interesting to note that, while Aramaic translations already existed, a translation specifically into the Syriac dialect was considered both proper and needful.

As noted earlier, Christians translated the Old Testament from the Septuagint into Latin, and probably at a very early date.20 In the fourth century, however, a scholar named Jerome became convinced that it was important to produce a fresh Latin translation directly from the Hebrew.21 Jerome relied on the assistance of Jewish scholars.22 Because all translation is to some degree interpretation, this cooperation concerned some of Jerome’s Christian contemporaries. They were worried that the translation would be slanted by Rabbinic exegesis against Christian interpretations of the text.23 The greater controversy, however, was in returning to the Hebrew rather than relying on the familiar and long-trusted tradition of the Greek Septuagint. Even the slightest variation between Jerome’s translation and the Septuagint was met with deep scrutiny and tremendous hostility. In one famous instance, a church in North Africa nearly rioted when Jerome’s translation of Jonah 4 was read aloud and it identified the plant which sheltered Jonah as an ivy plant rather than the Septuagint’s interpretation of the plant as a gourd.24 In time, however, cooler head’s prevailed, and Jerome’s translation from Hebrew became the most popular translation in Western Europe for over a thousand years, later known as the Latin Vulgate.

After the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests, Arabic became the dominant language in large portions of the world. In response to this, Arabic translations of the Old Testament began to appear. As mentioned above, the Christian community produced an Arabic translation from the Greek Septuagint. Based on the existence of composite manuscripts, Christians seem to have also either produced or adopted Arabic translations of some portions of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew.25 The 9th-century Jewish Scholar, Saadia Gaon, also produced an Arabic translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew as well.26 Additionally, the Samaritans produced an Arabic translation from the Hebrew text for their community.27 Thus, in Arabic as in all the dominant languages before it, we see the ancient importance placed on having an understandable translation available in the tongue most worshippers actually spoke.

The New Testament

From the beginning, the New Testament was built on the necessity of translation. Not only does it command the gospel to be preached to all nations, the New Testament itself models translation to the common tongue. Every time it quotes the Old Testament, it does so in Greek rather than the original Hebrew. In several places in the gospels, words of Jesus or others are given in their original Aramaic and then immediately translated, and it is likely that other portions of Jesus’ words were originally in Aramaic as well, but the New Testament offers them in the Greek language that the original readers would have known. Acts 22:1-21 presents a speech of Paul that it explicitly says he gave in the “Hebrew dialect,” but it records the speech in a Greek translation so that the reader can understand it. The New Testament is itself an exercise in bringing all things into the common, everyday language of the readers. It is no wonder that the Early Christians took up the cause of translation in earnest.

Translation of portions of the New Testament into Syriac may go back as early as the second century AD.28 Syriac Gospels and other texts are clearly being cited by eastern Christian writers by the fourth century.29 The Translation was clearly widespread and well used, as we have found Syriac New Testament Manuscripts not only in and around Syria but as far east as India and China.30

Similar to the Syriac, the Latin translation of the New Testament is very early, possibly as early as the second century and certainly by the third.31 The Latin dialect used in early Christian translations and other writings contains vocabulary so different from classical, literary Latin works that some scholars once speculated that Christians had practically invented their own language. Later examination of lower-level, every-day Latin works, however, have demonstrated that this was quite opposite the truth. Far from using some esoteric language unique to the Christian community, the Christian translators and authors were using the street-level, colloquial Latin of popular, every-day speech rather than literary Latin of high works of art or academia.32 Even though multiple Latin translations existed by the fourth century, Jerome and other leaders of his day believed there was a need for one more accurate and up to date, which he provided in what came later to be known as the Vulgate.33

It is not known exactly when the New Testament was translated into Coptic (the language of the native peoples of Egypt.) We have surviving manuscripts, however, from the late third or early fourth century.34 The original translation must obviously have been before that, though not necessarily very long before. It is also noteworthy that Coptic has several different regional dialects. The early Christians did not expect all Coptic Christians of all dialects to learn to use one universal Coptic translation, but rather produced translations in each of the major dialects.35

The Armenian language first developed an alphabet around 406 AD.36 An Armenian translation of the entire Bible existed by 414.37 Early Christians were obviously very zealous about bringing the Scriptures into the languages of the people. There were also very ancient translations of the New Testament into Palestinian Aramaic,38 Georgian,39 Ge’ez (Ethiopic),40 Arabic41 Nubian,42 Persian,43 Sogdian (Middle Persian),44 Gothic,45 Slavonic,46 and others.47 The Early centuries of Christianity thus saw the Scriptures translated into a variety of vernacular tongues as the gospel spread throughout the known world. The biblical translation was clearly a high priority.

How the Bible entered English

The first translation of portions of the Bible into English occurred much earlier than most people realize. Metrical paraphrases of the Bible were reportedly written in Old English in the 8th century, and Bede allegedly translated the Gospel of John into English in the 9th century, but no copies of these works have survived.48 Our Earliest surviving manuscripts of biblical texts in English are the West Saxon gospels dating from around the 10th century,49 which is still startlingly early for an English biblical text. We also possess manuscripts of an 11th Century English translation of the “Hexateuch,” (Genesis-Joshua).50 One such copy includes over 400 illustrations which were added to further aid average people in understanding the text. In time, as the English language changed, however, such early translations fell into disuse.

While we often call the Elizabethan English of the King James Version “Old English,” it is actually an early form of modern English. These early translations were in the much early “Anglo-Saxon” or true “Old English.” To better understand how the language has changed since the Old English of the 10th century, here are a few lines from the Lord’s prayer in the West Saxon Gospel of Matthew:

“Fæder üre þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod to-becume þin rïce gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum,” (Matthew 6:9-10, West Saxon Gospels of 990).

If you are familiar with the passage, you can pick out some words (Fæder = Father, heofonum = heaven, etc.) Still, it is not hard to understand why speakers of later forms of English did not continue to use these translations. Occasionally, vernacular translations were made in various languages during the middle ages, including some in English (like the 12th-century Psalter attributed to Richard Rolle), however, the next major translation of the Bible into English was the John Wycliffe Bible of the 14th Century. John Wycliffe was in many ways a forerunner to the Protestant Reformation. He taught against the papacy, the idolatry of the mass, relics, and prayers to saints. He also inspired the first complete translation of the entire Bible into English.51 Wycliffe believed that the Bible belonged to all the people of God, and it was out of this conviction that arose the effort to bring the Bible into the common English of the day.52

Wycliffe’s teachings helped plant the seeds that would later sprout into the Protestant Reformation. When the Reformation began through men like Martin Luther, they quickly recognized the need to make the Word of God available in the languages spoken by everyday Christians. The Bible was not only for people wealthy and educated enough to read Latin or Scholarly enough to know the original Greek and Hebrew. The Bible was written and preserved for the benefit of all believers, and those believers needed access to it in their native tongues. The churches of the Protestant Reformation produced numerous translations into the languages of Europe, such as the German Luther Bible (1522), the Polish Brest Bible (1563), the Spanish “Biblia del Oso” (1569), the Czech Melantrich Bible (1549), the French d’Étaples translation (1530), Dalmatin’s Slovene translation (1578), and Chyliński’s Lithuanian Bible (1659), among others.53

It was in the midst of this Reformation fervor of devotion to the Word of God that an English man named William Tyndale came to the conviction that the English people, too, needed a Bible in the common tongue of their day. Not only was the English of the Wycliffe Bible already out of date, but the Wycliffe Bible was also a translation of the Latin Vulgate, and Tyndale wanted to produce a translation that went back to the Greek and Hebrew. Greek manuscripts were not readily available in the Latin West, but an affordable printed edition of the complete Greek New Testament had very recently become available primarily through the labor of a man named Desiderius Erasmus.

One of the most well known and influential scholars of the day, Erasmus had published the first edition of his Greek New Testament in 1516, with four other editions to follow between 1519 and 1536. Erasmus derived his text primarily from two 12th-century Greek New Testament manuscripts, with a few others available for comparison.54 His oldest manuscript, one from the 10th century, was the one he utilized the least because it was least like the others.55 He had access to only one manuscript for the book of Revelation, and it was incomplete. To fill in the rest of Revelation and other occasional gaps in his manuscripts, Erasmus translated into Greek from the Latin Vulgate.56 Thus, in a few places, Erasmus’ Greek text was based on his best estimate as to what the Greek might have been behind the early Latin text rather than on any hard evidence in front of him. It was, in these few places, a Greek translation of a Latin translation of a Greek original. Still, Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was a vital tool in the hands of the Reformers to produce their vernacular translations. In 1526, William Tyndale published the first edition of his English New Testament, a translation from Erasmus’ Greek text.

Tyndale wanted, however, to produce the whole Bible. The Hebrew text for the Old Testament preferred by the Reformers was the printed edition of the Hebrew Bible produced by the Christian Scholar Daniel Bomberg, with the assistance of a Jewish convert to Christianity, Felix Pretensis.57 The 1524 edition which was most likely used by Tyndale contained not only the Hebrew text but also the text of the Aramaic Targums and Medieval Rabbinic commentaries as tools to help the reader ascertain a clearer sense of the text’s meaning.58 Using such tools, as well as likely consulting, to a much more limited degree, the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Martin Luther’s work,59 Tyndale published the English Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) in 1530. He was preparing the second section of the OT (Joshua through 2 Chronicles) when he was arrested and ultimately executed for his doctrine and his translations. This section of his work was not lost, however, and was later used in the production of the 1537 Matthew Bible.

Tyndale died having not yet completed his goal of producing an entire English Bible. One of his associates, Miles Coverdale, carried on the work after him. In 1535, the Coverdale Bible was published, becoming the first complete Bible in modern English.60 Shortly afterward in 1537, a man named John Rogers (who himself would afterward die a martyr for his convictions), released a Bible under the pseudonym, “Thomas Matthew.” The Matthew Bible, as was previously noted, was based largely on the work of William Tyndale, including the previously unpublished work on the Old Testament. For the books that Tyndale had not had the chance to translate (everything after 2 Chronicles), the Matthew Bible was a revision of Coverdale.61

It was not long after this that the English crown began to see the value of having the Bible in the native tongue. Rather than continue to resist and punish Bible translation, the state actually commissioned the first official, authorized version of the English Bible, which was first published in 1539. Miles Coverdale was actually chosen to carry out the project, and it was to be done as a revision of the Matthew Bible.62 The resulting translation came to be known as the “Great Bible,” in part because its copies were printed very large and were meant for formal use in church services rather than for personal study at home. Other authorized versions would follow, namely the Bishop’s Bible (published in several revisions from 1568-1602), and finally the famous King James Version of 1611. Before either of these, however, persecution against protestants broke out again in England and key leaders temporarily fled to Geneva for a safe haven. There, they published the influential “Geneva Bible.”

The Geneva Bible was a monument for several reasons. Miles Coverdale did not know Hebrew. Because of this, the portions of the Old Testament translated by him and retained in the Matthew and Great Bibles were translations of translations. The Geneva Bible is thus the first English Bible to be wholly translated from the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament from beginning to end.63 The Geneva Bible was also the first collaborative translation by a team or committee of scholars rather than by one primary translator with only assistance from others. The Geneva Bible was the first English translation to use verse numbers.64 It also included extensive study notes to aid the reader in understanding the sense of the passage, so much so that it is often considered the first English “Study Bible.”65 The Geneva Bible was wildly popular and remained so even for many years after the KJV was published. In a very real way, the publication of the Geneva Bible marked the beginning of the modern printed Bible as we now know it.

Monarchs changed and soon most of the exiled scholars returned to their English homelands. Early in the reign of King James I, he called a council of bishops to debate some of the central ecclesiastical issues between the Episcopalian traditionalists and Puritan Reformists within the Church of England. The most significant thing to occur at this gathering was not something originally on the agenda at all. A proposal was brought to the King to authorize and commission a new, official translation of the Bible to update and replace the Bishop’s Bible.66 The king agreed, in part, because he was displeased with perceived “anti-monarchical” slants in some of the study notes in the Geneva Bible.67 The Geneva Bible was still the most popular English Translation, and the king hoped that the new translation would succeed in replacing it.

The translation was commissioned to essentially be a careful revision of the Bishop’s Bible, retaining the familiar wording of the previous translation as much as possible without compromising faithfulness to the original Greek and Hebrew.68 They were also instructed to use the wording of other previous translations like Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Geneva wherever it was more faithful than the Bishops’.69 Thus, the KJV translators were rarely to produce a “fresh” translation, but were to, as often as possible, choose between the wording used by previous translators. Since these previous translations were often much older, this resulted in the side effect that the KJV retained some language that was dated even in its own day.

The KJV would not utilize extensive study notes the way the Geneva Bible had. The Church of England had various theological factions who could easily agree on the accuracy of a common translation but would not have readily united around a common set of study notes, which would necessity interpret disputed passages in one way or another and alienate someone. The interpretation was largely left to the preachers and readers. The margins were utilized, however, to occasionally note alternative readings where a difficult word might be better translated another way or where the Greek texts utilized by the translators might disagree. There was some controversy around this practice, critics fearing that it would sow doubt among readers about the accuracy and trustworthiness of the translation, but the translators insisted on including such notes of alternative readings and defended the practice in their lengthy preface to the reader.70 Likewise, words added in by the translators to make the grammar and syntax work which were not strictly found in the Greek and Hebrew were printed in a smaller typeface to identify them for the reader.71 (In most printings of the KJV today, the smaller typeface is no longer used to mark off these words. Instead, they are printed in italics.) Like English translations before it, the KJV included the Apocrypha as an appendix. The translators did not hold the books to be inspired Scripture but considered them valuable for their historical content and their place in the Christian tradition.72 For the New Testament, the KJV translators consulted the Greek text of the various editions of Erasmus, as well as later revisions of his work by Stephanus and Theodore Beza. They compared these editions to one another and tried to make the best decisions they could as to the original reading of any given verse.

The KJV of 1611 was not identical to the traditional KJV of today. The text not only went through several formal revisions, but it also experienced informal corrections and alterations with virtually every printing.73 It took on its more or less final form now familiar to us in 1769 in the revision of Benjamin Blaney.74 There were other later revisions of the KJV, such as that of Noah Webster in 1833, but they failed to attain wide use, and the Blaney Revision has remained the essential form of the text down to today.

Contemporary English translations

Though a variety of other English Bible translations were produced in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were minimally used, and the Blaney Revision of the King James Version remained essentially the English translation from 1769 until the twentieth century. At that time, another era of English translation dawned, and many new versions came into popular use in both personal studies and in cooperate worship. Among the most widely accepted was the New International Version (NIV), first published in 1978, the New American Standard Bible (NASB), first published in 1971. Like the KJV before them, these translations have both undergone revisions since their first publication, and will likely see more in the future. The New King James Version (NKJV) of 1982 has also proven a significant contribution to the contemporary development of English Translations and, in more recent years, the English Standard Version (ESV), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), New English Translation (NET), and many others have also attained notable usage.

There are multiple reasons for the proliferation of new translations, but the primary three are:

  1. English has changed since the time of Tyndale. It has changed since 1611. We speak quite differently than Benjamin Blaney did in 1769. Many words have fallen out of use. Punctuation is used differently. Numerous words and phrases mean entirely different things today than they did then. Grammar and syntax have changed. What was once a clear translation into common English is now much more difficult to understand. Even many people who think they understand the KJV actually walk away with a completely different meaning of some passages than what the translators intended. This is only natural. It is inevitable for languages to change and for new translations to be required. Wycliffe replaced the West Saxon gospels because of changes in English, and Tyndale replaced Wycliffe for the same reason. The dawning of new translations periodically as languages change is the normal and healthy historical pattern.
  2. In the 16th century when Tyndale first translated the New Testament into modern English, the western world was only beginning to rediscover biblical Greek. Learning Hebrew had been controversial for much of the middle ages due to hostility toward the Jews. Over the centuries since then, we have learned much about these languages we did not know back then. This opens the door to the possibility of even more accurate translations of the Greek and Hebrew texts.
  3. Since the time of Erasmus and his revisers, scholars have had the chance to compare far more manuscripts. We have also discovered manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament much earlier than anything Tyndale or the KJV translators could have imagined. There have been similar discoveries in Old Testament texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls which are literally a thousand years earlier than any Hebrew text we possessed before. All of this new data led to the demand for fresh translations that would take all of these manuscripts into consideration.

Miles Coverdale, the associate of William Tyndale who translated both the Coverdale and Great Bibles and was also involved in the committee for the Geneva Bible, once noted:

“Sure I am that there cometh more knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures by their sundry translations than by all the glosses of our sophistical doctors. For that one interpreteth something obscurely in one place, the same translateth another, or else he himself, more manifestly by a plain vocable of the same meaning in another place. Be not thou offended, therefore, good readers, though one call a scribe that another calleth a lawyer.”75

Coverdale argued that, far from obscuring or confusing the text, multiple translations help the reader better understand the text through careful comparison. They serve, in a sense, as commentaries on one another to help explain the meaning of passages that may be difficult in one. It seems that Coverdale’s viewpoint has prevailed in our era. Most contemporary English-speaking Christians are not dogmatically committed to only one particular translation but often read from several. Indeed, modern translations have not even utterly supplanted the classic KJV, which is still widely purchased, read, and quoted. Instead, they have come alongside it and added to the study tools of the modern Christian to aid in understanding. And understanding has always been the point of translation since the very beginning of Christianity.

Luke Wayne


Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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