The complete history of Bible translations – how the Word was delivered from God to our modern-day bibles
The goal of Bible translators is to render the biblical texts from their original language, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, into a “receptor language” while preserving as much of the original meaning as possible. Translators use ancient manuscripts and earlier bible translations to accomplish their goal. Today the Bible has been translated into more than 500 languages.
Because there is not a direct word-for-word equivalent for most languages, translators must use their own judgement, or more accurately, the judgement of large committees, to determine the most accurate translation. Their job is complicated when new manuscripts are discovered which shed additional light on the content of the original language.
When reading the Bible, it helps to understand how the Bible is translated as well as the history of biblical translations. With this knowledge, you’ll understand the importance of the various translations and better comprehend the message that was passed to us through ancient written language.
The translation of Old and New Testaments
Old Testament – Hebrew and Aramaic
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Hebrew form of the Bible was arranged in three sections – The Law (Torah), the Prophets (Neviim), and the Writings (Kethuvim). Ancient and complete copies of the Old Testament have been found. The oldest Old Testament copy is from about 900 AD, more than one thousand years old.
There are many discrepancies in the various biblical translations but overall, Old Testament translations are believed to be extremely accurate. The scribes operated under strict rules and procedures for copying to ensure the text remained unchanged. We can see from surviving texts that their task was accomplished. New archaeological discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, reinforce the accuracy of the oldest known manuscripts.
New Testament – Greek
The New Testament was written in Greek. Copies from shortly after Jesus’ life have been discovered. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is believed to be accurate but comes with its own set of translation concerns.
Introduction to bible translations
In general, the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Hebrew and Aramaic parts were translated into Greek, then later translated into Latin. These four forms, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, became the basis for modern-day English translations
Below is a brief history of biblical translations. It is important to note that this is not a complete list of translations. Hundreds if not thousands of translations are known to exist. The history presented below represents the translations considered most important to our modern-day bibles.
Samaritan Pentateuch – about 430 BC
The Samaritan Pentateuch contains the five books of Moses. It was written in paleo-Hebrew script (a variant of the Phoenician alphabet). The origin of the Samaritan Pentateuch is not clear, but it is theorized that Samaritans took a copy of the Torah to Samaria and used it as the basis for their religion. They made changes and additions to the text to deemphasize Jews and turn the focus to Samaritan culture (Samaritans were looked down on by the Jews even in Jesus’ time). Despite the changes that they made, it is one of the oldest known translations and thus, was helpful to later translators.
Septuagint or LXX – about 240-150 BC
As Jews changed their language to Greek, the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek. The Septuagint translation was created at Alexandria, Egypt around 250-150 BC. Legend says seventy men from the twelve tribes of Israel came to Alexandria to translate the Bible (the name “Septuagint” means seventy).
Their translation was known as the Septuagint or LXX. During the translation efforts, books were regrouped. Translators organized the books according to subject matter instead of by original Hebrew authorship. Subjects included The Law (Pentateuch), Poetry, History, and Prophets. Some books were renamed. For example, Esdras was renamed to Ezra and Zacharias was renamed to Zechariah. In addition, books were included that had not been a part of the Hebrew canon.
About 200 years later, early Christian leaders added the New Testament to the Greek Septuagint. The New Testament was authored in Greek and like the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was organized by subject – Gospels, History, Epistles (grouped as Pauline and General epistles), and Prophecy. This early translation was used almost exclusively by early Christians and remained the Bible of the Church for hundreds of years before relinquishing the crown to later Latin translations.
During years when the Latin bible was considered the Bible of the Church, the Septuagint was largely ignored. This changed in 1947 when the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed that the Septuagint in many cases, contained more accurate translations than known Hebrew translations. Today the Septuagint is important to translators for its window into early Christian texts and its early translation of Hebrew texts.
Aquila’s version – 130 AD
Aquila’s version of the Bible was a translation of the Old Testament to Greek. It became the official Greek translation used by non-Christian Jews. Aquila’s version was a very literal translation. Greek words word used in the text but the use of Hebrew sentence structure made the translation difficult to read. However, because it was so literal, it became a highly-regarded work for later Christian scholars.
Symmachus’s revision – 170 AD
Aquila’s version was very literal, placing great emphasis on the translation of individual words while keeping the sentence structure intact. Symmachus revision placed more emphasis on the meaning and structure of the original sentences. Scholars regard Symmachus’s revision as a highly accurate translation. About 250 years later, Jerome (see below) used it extensively during his Latin translation.
Theodotion’s revision – 180-190 AD
Theodotion’s revision is believed to be a revision of either the Septuagint or Aquila’s version. It was much easier to read than Aquila’s version and thus, became a popular translation in its day.
Origen’s Hexapla – sometime after 200 AD
Origen’s translation was an attempt to correct differences between the Septuagint, Aquila’s version, Symmachus’s revision, and Theodotion’s revision. Origen wanted to unify the old Greek translation and create an accurate-as-possible translation using original Hebrew manuscripts. To do this, he created a sort of parallel-bible with several columns on each page – a column for Hebrew, Greek, Aquila, Symmachus, etc. with the addition of his translation in a separate column (the “fifth column”). Today, only parts of Origen’s original work have been found. Scholars agree that if a complete copy of Origen’s Hexapla is found, it will be invaluable because Origen discovered and documented many omissions, errors, and transpositions in the prior translations.
Masoretic Text – Between 100 and 1,000 AD
The creation of the Masoretic Text began around 100 AD but translation efforts solidified around 500 AD. The Masoretic Text is mostly written in Aramaic but parts are written in Hebrew. The Masoretic Text was copied by Masoretes from a presumably accurate master copy. It is considered the authoritative text of the Hebrew Scriptures. Its accuracy was later supported by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.
Vulgate (Latin Form) – 383-405 AD
The Vulgate, or Latin form of the Bible, was commissioned by the Bishop of Rome during a time when Latin was becoming the official language of the church. Latin translations existed but they had been translated from the Geek Septuagint instead of earlier Hebrew translations. Church leaders felt the bible should be translated to Latin from its original Hebrew and Aramaic forms. Thus, Jerome translated the bible to Latin between 383 and 405 AD. Jerome used various sources including the Septuagint and other, earlier Latin translations. He followed the same organization as the Greek Septuagint. Jerome’s Vulgate was the first translation to use modern chapter and verse organization.
Introduction of various English translations – 640 AD
Christianity is believed to have been founded in England as early as the first century. The earliest English translations date to that time, including translations into Old and Middle English, languages which, despite their name, different significantly from modern-day English.
Toward the end of the 7th century, the Venerable Bede (an English Benedictine monk) began a translation of scripture into Old English.
Around 639–709 AD, Aldhelm translated the complete Book of Psalms and large portions of other scriptures into Old English.
In the 10th century an Old English translation of the Gospels was made embedded in a work called the Lindisfarne Gospels. A word-for-word glossary was inserted between the lines of the Latin text by Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street. This is considered the oldest wholly surviving translation of the Gospels into the English language.
The Wessex Gospels (also known as the West-Saxon Gospels) are a full translation of the four gospels into a West Saxon dialect of Old English. Produced in approximately 990 AD, they are the first translation of all four gospels into English without the Latin text.
Introduction paper copies of the Bible – around 1200 AD
Around 1200 AD, paper and the printing press allowed for more accurate copying of the biblical texts. Transcription errors became a thing of the past and the focus turned to modifying biblical text to make it as accurate as possible.
Wycliffe’s first English Bible – Around 1400 AD
Around 1400 AD, John Wycliffe penned an important English translation using the Latin Vulgate. His translation followed the same organization as the Vulgate – books were grouped by topic rather than their official order. The translation was banned in 1409. Although the few people could read at the time and the Wycliffe Bible predated the printing press, it was widely circulated in manuscript form. More than 250 copies of the work survive today.
Gutenberg Bible – 1454
The Gutenberg press was invented in 1436 and the Gutenberg Bible followed shortly after, around 1454. The Bible was not Gutenberg’s first work but was one of his earliest. The Gutenberg Bible was an edition of the Latin Vulgate.
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam publishes the Greek new Testament – 1516 AD
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Greek New Testament was translated from incomplete copies (Revelation was missing the last six verses) and used very few manuscripts (in some cases, only a single manuscript was used). His first edition contained many errors. Later editions corrected many of the errors. The use of the Gutenberg press allowed more than 750,000 copies to be sold during his lifetime. Many copies exist today.
Jacob Ben Chayyim (a Hebrew Christian) publishes standard edition of the Masoretic Text – 1525 AD
Jacob Ben Chayyim’s edition of the Masoretic Text was published in 1525 AD. It was based on manuscripts from 1400 AD which were built on Masoretic text created in 920 AD (see above).
First Printed English Bible – William Tyndale – 1525-1535 AD
Tyndale’s English Bible began with the New Testament. Over a 10-year period, he translated the Old Testament to English too. He began with Greek text compiled by Erasmus (the basis for the Textus Receptus). He used the Latin Vulgate and other manuscripts to translate the Old Testament. It would be the first English Bible to be mass produced.
Tyndale’s works were condemned in England and copies of his Bible banned and burned. He was executed (strangled to death and burned at the stake) for heresy for having made the translation. His last words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” To his credit, his work would later be accepted by England and become the basis for many English language bibles that followed.
Printed English Bible – Great Bible – 1539
The Great Bible was commissioned during the reign of King Henry VIII. The project was directed by Thomas Cranmer and prepared by Myles Coverdale. The Great Bible was the first “authorized” version of the bible and was largely based on Tyndale’s previous translation.
Robert Estienne (Stephanus) Bible – 1550
Stephanus’ bible was written in Greek in 1550 by Robert Estienne, a prominent 16th century printer and classical scholar based in Paris. His work was based on the earlier Erasmus’ Greek translation.
Geneva Bible – 1560
The Geneva Bible was translated in 1560 under the leadership of John Calvin. It is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible into English and became strongly preferred over the Great Bible. In fact, it was one of the Bibles taken to America on the Mayflower. The Geneva Bible was a revision of the Tyndale translation and the Great Bible. It was the first English bible to use modern chapter and verse organization.
Bishops Bible – 1568
The Bishops Bible was commissioned in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to revise the Geneva Bible. However, it failed to replace the Geneva Bible as the most popular English translation of its day.
King James Bible – 1611
Decades after the Bishops Bible failed to gain a foothold with the public, the King James Bible was commissioned by King James VI of Scotland after complaints about mistakes in the Great Bible and the Bishops Bible. Detailed requirements were specified and a team of 47 scholars set out to translate the Bible. The text of the Bishops Bible was the basis of the work. Familiar popular names of characters were retained. If Bishops Bible was problematic, the Tyndale Bible, Great Bible, or Geneva Bible could be consulted.
The King James Bible used the 25 letter English alphabet with no letter “J” (Jesus was “Iesus”). It was not until 1629 that the modern 26-letter translation appeared.
Textus Receptus – 1624
The Textus Receptus was largely based on Erasmus’ Greek Bible which was created in 1516 AD, and derivative works including Greek editions from Stephanus (Robert Estienne), Theodore Beza, and Cardinal Francisco Ximenes). It was an almost identical copy of Theodore Beza’s version created in 1565. Despite the faulty interpretation, it was popularized as “the only true text” of the New Testament.
The second edition of Textus Receptus was published in 1633. The preface read, “Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum: in quo nihil immuta tum aut corruptum damus.” from which “Textum” and “receptum” were extracted to create “Textus Receptus” or “Received Text”. For centuries, the Textus Receptus would be the most influential basis for biblical translations. Thousands of copies exist today.
Beginning of biblical criticism and revision – 1648
Shortly after the Textus Receptus was published, the Bible entered a period of careful study and revision. Manuscripts were systematically gathered, categorized, and weighted.
John Mill reprint of Robert Estieene’s Greek Bible – 1707
Published just two weeks before his death, Mill’s reprint of the Greek Bible included 30,000 variants from nearly 100 manuscripts. His translation sparked interest in biblical correction and revisions and became a basis for established textual evidence.
Johann Jakob Wettstein publishes Prolegomena – 1751
The Prolegomena was a textual analysis of biblical texts. The translation was based on weight of the text, not by number of available manuscripts.
Johann Salomo Semler reprint of Prolegomena – 1764
Johann Salomo Semler published a reprint of prolegomena in 1764. He proposed three categories of biblical texts – Alexandrian, Western, and Eastern (or Byzantine).
Johannes Martin Augustinus Scholz publishes textual analysis – around 1800
Around 1800, Johannes Martin Augustinus Scholz added 616 new manuscripts to the materials available for translations. He was the first to propose that the location where the manuscript was written should be considered when the manuscript is weighted (called the “theory of local texts”). It marked the break from the Textus Receptus, a trend that many later translations would follow.
Important manuscripts emerge – 1840 – 1930
New manuscripts and papyri were discovered in 1840, 1897, and 1930. These discoveries provided new insight into the verses and confirmed the accuracy of existing translations.
Dead Sea Scrolls discovered 1947
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in November 1946 by a shepherd who stumbled across the scrolls hidden in jars in a cave in Qumran. 972 manuscripts were found dating to about 200 BC to 100 AD. The scrolls had been preserved by the dry, arid, low humidity in the area near the Dead Sea. They would provide invaluable confirmation of biblical translations.
New International Version 1978
The New International Version, or NIV, was first published in 1978 by Biblica (the International Bible Society). The translation was done using the earliest, highest quality manuscripts available and conducted by 5 scholars from a variety of denominations. It remains the most popular translation to this day.
New King James Version 1982
Shortly after the NIV was published, the New King James Version was published by Thomas Nelson. The aim of the translation was to update the vocabulary and grammar of the King James Version while preserving its classic style.