The Bible you read today has not always been available in English. The various books of the Bible were originally written by some 40 authors over a period of some 1,500 years. The Old Testament writers wrote mostly in Hebrew, but a few passages were written in Aramaic. The New Testament was written entirely in Greek. Obviously, for the Bible to be available to people of other languages, it has had to be translated into those languages.
The process of translating the Bible began during the third century B.C. with the translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The reason for this translation, called the Septuagint, was the need for a Bible for the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, who spoke Greek and no longer understood Hebrew.
While the Septuagint was made for Greek-speaking Jews, in the Christian era this translation soon fell out of favor with the Jews, primarily because from the first century onward the Christians adopted it as their version of the Old Testament and used it freely in defense of the Christian faith. The Jews, therefore, soon produced other Greek versions.
At the beginning of the Christian era, the churches in the East (Greece, modern Turkey, and Palestine) were Greek speaking, whereas in the Roman provinces of Africa and Western Europe, the official language was Latin. Toward the end of the second century, therefore, we find references to the Latin Bible showing up in the writings of the church fathers.
In A.D. 382, Pope Damasus I commissioned his secretary, Jerome, to produce a Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome’s Bible became known as the Vulgate (from vulga, meaning “everyday speech”). In 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Vulgate became the official Bible of the Catholic Church, and it was the first book to be printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1456.
The first complete English translation is credited to John Wycliffe, a lecturer at Oxford University, in the latter part of the fourteenth century. Wycliffe believed that “if every man was responsible to obey the Bible, . . . it follows that every man must know what to obey. Therefore the whole Bible should be accessible to him in a form that he could understand.”
One hundred fifty years later, William Tyndale translated the Greek New Testament into English. It was published in 1525 in Germany and was then smuggled in bales of cloth back into England for distribution. Church officials, opposed to the circulation of his translation, bought copies and burnt them. Tyndale himself, after being betrayed by a friend, was imprisoned and executed in Belgium in 1536. In 1535, one year before Tyndale’s death, Miles Coverdale published another complete translation in English. By that time, Henry VIII had made himself head of the church in England and was ready to accept English translations of the Bible.
Prior to the invention of printing in the mid-1400s, copies of the Old and New Testaments had to be made by hand. This process continued for many centuries, with scribes making copies of copies of copies. In 1516, the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus published the first printed Greek New Testament in Basel, Switzerland. Unfortunately, all of the Greek manuscripts available to Erasmus had been copied after about A.D. 1000.
When James I became king of England, he authorized a new translation, which since its publication in 1611 has been known as the Authorized or King James Version (KJV). Morethan 50 scholars who were versed in Greek and Hebrew were responsible for its production. The KJV remained for more than 300 years the most loved English version of the Bible. Protestants and Roman Catholics (and Jews also, with respect to the Old Testament) have appreciated its beauty and value.
However, the KJV was based on more recent copies of the New Testament. Thus, the older manuscripts, some of which dated back to A.D. 300 and 400, were not available to the translators in 1611. Also, many English words in the KJV are no longer being used, and some have changed in meaning. For example, the words to prevent (1 Thessalonians 4:15) in the seventeenth century meant “to go before,” or “to precede,” rather than “to hinder.”
In 1870, the Convocation of Canterbury voted to sponsor a major revision of the King James Version. When the complete Revised Version appeared in 1885, it was received with great enthusiasm, but its popularity was short lived, because most people continued to prefer the Authorized Version.
In the past 200 years, a number of older Greek manuscripts have been discovered that have minor changes from the ones used to translate the KJV. The most important of these are two manuscripts prepared about A.D. 350. One is called Codex Vaticanus, because it was found in the Vatican library. The other is called Codex Sinaiticus because it was discovered in 1844 in the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.
In 1881, therefore, two English scholars, Brooke F. Westcott and Fenton J. Hort, published The New Testament in the Original Greek, which was based primarily on the ancient Vaticanus and Sinaiticus manuscripts.
Scores of English versions of the Bible have been produced during the past 100 years, some by individual scholars and others by committees of scholars. Some people have felt that the King James Version is the only correct English version of the Bible and that all of the more recent versions are suspect.
One of the most frequent criticisms of modern versions is the supposed omission of terms connected with the divinity of Jesus. For example, in certain verses the KJV has the title “Lord Jesus Christ,” whereas many modern versions read only “Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11; 16:31; 1 Corinthians 5:4; 2 Corinthians 11:31; etc.). The omission of the word Christ in these texts is seen as a denial of Jesus’ divinity. However, the words “Lord Jesus Christ” appear 63 times in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and 60 times in the New International Version (NIV).
Furthermore, there are a number of places where modern versions are stronger and clearer on the deity of Jesus than the KJV. One example is John 1:18. The KJV reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Modern versions like the New American Standard Bible (NASB) read, “only begotten God,” and the NIV, “God the One and Only” instead of “only begotten Son.”
Two lengthy passages are not found in the earliest manuscripts. One is the closing verses of Mark (16:9–20), and the other is the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). Most modern versions include these passages but indicate their omissions in the ancient manuscripts in various ways. For example, the NIV interrupts the text flow between verses 8 and 9 of Mark 16 with a line that is followed by a note stating, “The two most reliable early manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9–20.” Because we do not have the original autographs, we do not know whether these stories were lost in the process of transmission or whether they were later additions of oral reports. Whatever the case, their omission in the ancient texts does not warrant the charge that modern versions have changed God’s Word.
Which translation to use
The proliferation of new English versions in recent decades has made it necessary to carefully consider which translation one is going to use and for what purpose. First, we need to recognize that there are three basic types of translations.
1. Formal or literal translations attempt to translate as close as possible to the original Greek and Hebrew wording. Among these are the King James Version (KJV, 1611), the New King James Version (NKJV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1971).
2. Dynamic equivalency translations are not so much concerned with the original wording as with the original meaning. Among these are the New English Bible (NEB, 1970), the New International Version (NIV, 1978), and the Revised English Version (REB, 1989).
3. Paraphrases of the Bible seek to restate in simplified but related ways the ideas conveyed in the original language. Among these are Today’s English Version (TEB, 1966), The Living Bible (TLB or LB, 1971) and The Message (1993). Paraphrases are more like commentaries.
The question naturally arises which is the best version to use. For serious Bible study and preaching, it is helpful to consult the versions that translate as nearly as possible the wording of the Hebrew and Greek. Among these are the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New King James Version. Paraphrases are useful for personal and family devotions. Those who are seeking the most readable English while retaining as much as possible the wording of the original languages will find the dynamic equivalency versions to be especially helpful.
Whichever version you choose to use, remember that you are reading a message from God to you in your own language.