English Translations–After the KJV

Eventually, some weaknesses in this translation made more recent revisions necessary. For one thing, the King James Version rests on an inadequate textual base, especially regarding the Greek text for the New Testament. The translators had used essentially a medieval text that had some mistakes that had accumulated through the years. The key point is that the King James Version is a translation of an inferior Greek text. Since 1611 so many more early and better manuscripts have been found. Another problem of this translation is its many archaic words – howbeit, holden, peradventure, thee, suffer (today we say “allow”). In addition, the King James Version includes errors of translation.


As a result of these problems, new translations poured forth, especially in the last 150 years. In 1901 the American Standard Version came out, which was based on the Greek text. It was far superior to that used by the King James translators. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version was released in an attempt to improve on past problems. Its greatest achievement was its readability in an attempt to recapture the beauty of the King James style in a way that is clear and pleasing to the reader. Even this translation did not please everyone, so in 1990 the New Revised Standard Version was published. It altered paragraph structure and punctuation, reduced old-fashioned words, strove for greater accuracy and clarity, and eliminated all masculine-oriented language when references are made to both men and women.


More English Translations of the Bible–A Focus on the King James Version

A flood of translations and revisions followed. One popular one was the Geneva Bible of 1560. It became the Bible for the family. It was the first translation which printed each verse as a paragraph and to  put words in italics not represented in the original texts. It was the Bible used by Shakespeare in his later plays, it was the one used by the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, it was brought to Plymouth on the Mayflower, and it was the one Bible with its improved Hebrew and Greek scholarship that was an intermediate step between Tyndale and the King James version.


Because some Bibles were used in churches, while others were used at home and some were favored by Protestants while others were favored by Catholics, there was a need for a Bible that was satisfactory to all. In 1604 King James of England summoned a meeting of representatives of diverse religious groups to discuss the question of religious toleration. At this meeting people raised the possibility of a new translation. The Geneva Bible had a lot of commentary added which represented the views of John Calvin and the Reformation. For this new translation the king said there  were to be no notes of comment except what was essential in translating the text. Over 40 Greek and Hebrew scholars were selected and divided into six working companies, which focused on key books and then allowed all the other companies to review their work. As a result, this new translation was the product of no individual or group, but of the reviewers as a whole. In 1611 the Authorized Version, better known as the King James Version, was published. It immediately displaced earlier Bibles used in the churches and established itself as the translation for English-speaking people around the world.


It became hugely popular for several reasons. First, Greek and Hebrew scholarship had made tremendous strides since the time of Tyndale. Secondly, literary scholarship and learning in general at this time were at a high. It was the time of Elizabethan prose and poetry, the time of Shakespeare. As a result, the words and phrases were written in a classic English style. Another reason for its success was its timing. A good English translation was needed, and the translators were able to profit from both the excellencies and the shortcomings of previous translations. One final reason for its success was the fact that it was the work of not a single individual or party. England had been torn by religious factions, and partisan translations would not solve the problem. The King James Version was noted for its deliberate impartiality in regards to religious opinions.



English Translations of the Bible–A History

Another phase of the Bible’s transmission lies in the history of English translations. Back in the seventh century, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the late 600s A.D. named Caedmon arranged in verse form stories of the Bible. This is the first known attempt to put the Bible accounts into the native Anglo-Saxon language.


The Norman Conquest in 1066 A.D. modified the old, Germanic language and created what we now call Middle English. The first memorable name in the story the English Bible is John Wycliffe (1330-1384). He grew up in an England full of faction and unrest due primarily to the popes excessive demands for money. Wycliffe emerged in the controversy over papal oppression as the champion of the people. Unlike so many of his time, Wycliffe believed the common man was worth something. As he said, “No man was so rude a scholar but that he might learn the words of the Gospel according to his simplicity.” He undertook a translation of the Scriptures from the Latin into the English tongue and completed this in 1382, having created the first English translation of the complete Bible.


The true father of the English Bible is William Tyndale. Having received a good education at Oxford and Cambridge, Tyndale desire to give to the English people a translation of the Bible based not on Latin, but the original Greek and Hebrew. To an opponent he once said, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that drives the plow shall know more of the Scripture then thou doest.” In 1524 he had to leave England because of threats against his work. The following year in Germany his translation of the New Testament was completed. His work had associated him with Martin Luther, so those who opposed the Reformation and Luther became enemies of Tyndale. Early in 1526 he was able to publish his translation, which was smuggled into England and bought with enthusiasm. He then started translating the Old Testament from Hebrew.


For several years he was an exiled, hunted man always on the run. Tyndale was eventually captured by those who opposed the Reformation and imprisoned near Brussels. Steadfast to the end, on an October morning in 1536 Tyndale went to the stake. He was strangled and burned, crying out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” His translation was for the common person – he used the word “love” instead of “charity,” ” repentance” instead of “penance.” He coined such words as Passover, scapegoat, mercy seat, and long-suffering. It was Tyndale who created such well-known phrases as the kingdom of heaven is at hand, the salt of the earth, daily bread, consider the lilies of the field how they grow, shepherds abiding in the field, eat drink and be merry, only begotten son, in my father’s house are many mansions, in the twinkling of an eye, and behold I stand at the door and knock.


Continuing to Look at Translations of the Bible–the Vulgate

The next major translation occurred during the Roman Empire. Since Rome was the dominant power, Latin translations came into use all over the empire. They were done informally and arose independently, differing from one another.

These differences set the stage for the translation into Latin called the Vulgate. By the way, this term simply means common or commonly accepted. A man named Jerome, born about the year 345, had studied Latin and Greek. He nearly died with a severe fever and had a dream in which God challenged him for not being a sincere Christian. As a result, he resolved to devote the rest of his life to the study of the Scriptures. For several years he lived among Syrian hermits and began to learn Hebrew. He eventually served under the Bishop at Rome when there was an obvious need to create a single, official Latin translation.

It took many years, but Jerome completed both the Old and New Testaments by 350 A.D. His translation was a huge improvement because the other, older Latin translations have been based on the Septuagint. But Jerome went back to the original Hebrew for his Old Testament translation.

The Vulgate reigned as the Bible of Western Europe for 1000 years. When at the end of the Middle Ages demand for the knowledge of Scripture increased dramatically, it was the Vulgate which was first translated into languages of the people. The first printed Bible (the Gutenberg Bible) was a beautiful Latin Bible.

Many words used in English translations today are due to the Latin Vulgate – congregation, consecration, conversion, exhortation, justification, ministry, sanctification, testament, Calvary. Eventually the Vulgate was made the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, and it remains so today.


How We Got Our Bible–Translations


It’s been a long road from the original scriptures in Hebrew and Greek to the Bibles we hold in our hands today. The story of Bible translations is long but interesting.


One of the most important Bible translations ever made was the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. Around 250 B.C. 72 elders, six from each of the 12 tribes, were selected to meet in Alexandria to translate the Old Testament. For some reason the original number of 72 has been rounded down to 70 – Septuagint, its Latin name. In the city there was a large Jewish population, so a translation from Hebrew to Greek would have been needed.


First the Pentateuch was translated and then the other books over an unknown period of time. Scholars are certain that before the time of Jesus the entire Old Testament was accessible in Greek. The Septuagint presents many problems – was there one early Greek version or several? Or were there various editions of it? There are numerous textual variations between the Septuagint in the Hebrew text, but the great majority of these are minor.


The influence of the Septuagint has been great. It gave us the names of several of the books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), it grouped the books into law/history/poetry/prophets, it subdivided 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and so forth. For a while it was the only Bible for the early Christian church. It was the text most often quoted by the apostles and writers of the New Testament. Many New Testament terms and phrases come right out of the Septuagint, including words like apostle, atonement, covenant, faith, forgiveness, glory, law, peace, redemption, righteousness, and truth.


Last Section on New Testament Canon

We will look at translations in future posts, but for now let’s finish the story of how the New Testament was put together:

By the last half of the second century, substantial lists of the New Testament books appeared. One of the earliest lists contains all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and perhaps 3 John. From the very first time that books of the New Testament are mentioned, the four Gospels we currently have (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were always included; no other collections of Jesus sayings (for example, the Gospel of Thomas) were ever mentioned. In the third century, a church father, Origen, listed the four Gospels we know. He seemed hesitant about Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John. By the mid-300s A.D. the 27 books of the New Testament we have today were accepted. Again, just a reminder that the disputed books were questioned, not because they taught some odd doctrine but, especially in several instances, because they were not well-known and widely circulated in all church areas. Like the Old Testament writings, the New Testament books do not depend upon the decision of the church or a council of bishops. Any council that did meet simply recognized what had been accepted by the church with a growing conviction over several hundred  years.


New Testament Documents

Like the Old Testament, we do not have the original documents by the writers of the New Testament. But the good news is we have thousands of copies to compare, and we have many that are extremely close to the originals. This gives the New Testament documents a huge advantage over other ancient writings, which are often limited to just a few, and those few are often hundreds of years later than the originals. In addition, we have thousands of quotations from early church fathers, giving us an even better idea of what the original documents said.


Occasionally there was a problem in acceptance of the New Testament manuscripts. For instance, in the case of Hebrews, there was uncertainty of the book’s authorship, which presented a  temporary obstacle to universal acceptance. A few other letters came from some distance away, so it took some time for all areas to accept them. Again, like the Old Testament documents, there are some today who are concerned about oral tradition since the biographies of Jesus were not written for some 30 years after his death and resurrection. But the response is the same – ancient peoples had amazing abilities to memorize a great amount of material. Plus, in the case of Jesus, he had disciples who followed him around. The job of the disciple for any rabbi was pretty simple; he had to simply listen to the rabbi and memorize what he had to say.


Let’s Look at the New Testament–How Was It Put Together?

We finished talking about the Old Testament. Now let’s take a look at the compilation of the New Testament. About the middle of the second century, a Christian writer, Justin Martyr, stated that on Sundays in the Christian worship assemblies the “memoirs of the apostles” were read together with the “writing of the prophets.” That meant that not long after the close of the apostolic age the New Testament writings, as well as the Old Testament, were being read generally among the churches. How did this happen so quickly?


During the life of Jesus, there was no thought of a New Testament. Early Christians used the Old Testament as their Bible. But within a few years after the death of Jesus, those who knew him or who were associated with those who knew him created letters and biographies that began to circulate in the churches. Paul’s letters were gathered into a single whole, the Gospels followed, and other writings came after. Almost all of these books were written within the first 30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, although the Gospel of John in Revelation probably did not appear until somewhere around 90 A.D.


Writing methods changed slightly from the Old Testament period. For a while papyrus was used, but by the fourth century, parchment (stretched and dried animal skins) had displaced papyrus.  Because it is more durable, the vast majority of ancient New Testament manuscripts that survive today are written on parchment. Eventually the roll form of books on papyrus and parchment gave way to the codex, which was far more convenient to use. Sheets were placed together, folded in the middle and stitched, then opened in separate pages. The result was a book that could be easily read, easily referred to, and easily carried about. Christians, especially found this advantageous, because it allowed them to make one book for the four Gospels, another for Paul’s letters, and later one book for the entire Bible.


The Old Testament Canon

This introduction to the Old Testament gets us to the idea of Old Testament canon, which is a list of books that are accepted as inspired.


It was fairly well fixed by the time of Jesus. The last time the Hebrew canon was discussed seems to be at the Council of Jamnia in 98 A.D. Two books in particular, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, had apparently been considered Scripture for some time, but some features about each of these works may have troubled some rabbis. The key thing to remember is that no council of rabbis picked particular books to be part of the canon. Instead, the people over the centuries had acknowledged particular writings were divinely inspired.


In fact, each part of the Old Testament was admitted into the canon almost at once, and this Jewish Council of  Jamnia merely confirmed the books that were already widely accepted as canonical. It’s striking that by the time of Jesus so many different groups of people representing different Jewish backgrounds and nationalities had such a tight agreement about the Old Testament canon. Something else they agreed on was the closure of the canon. Jews believed that prophetic inspiration ceased with Malachi.


The Old Testament: Torah, Prophets, and Writings

Let’s keep on with a survey of how we got the Old Testament.


Every copy of the original text had to be written out by hand, which leads many people to believe there must be a lot of mistakes. But Jews had detailed rules to govern the copying of their scriptures. The size of the pages or scrolls to be used was carefully recorded. The size of columns, spaces between words and letters, even the color of ink to be used, and the clothing to be worn by the scribe were all laid out in great detail. The number of words and letters of each book of the Old Testament was counted; the scribe fixed the middle letter of each line and each book. When he was finished, the scribe would have to submit his manuscript for checking, and if it was in error at any point, it was ordered to be destroyed, which meant he had to start all over again.  Copying was a sacred undertaking, so the scribes were very careful as they went about this task.


The first section of the Old Testament, referred to as the Pentateuch or Torah, was credited to Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. At one time, critics said it was impossible for him to be the author because writing had not been invented then, but things have changed as far as the history of writing is concerned. If it really was Moses that wrote these books, he did this in the 1400s B.C. since the Exodus is dated close to that time. The events prior to Moses’ birth as recorded in Exodus 1 could have come down to him in oral form or written records. Some people are very uncomfortable with the idea of oral history since they wonder if anyone could remember things well enough to get them correct. But ancient peoples memorized an amazing number of stories and poems. This first section of the Old Testament was accepted as sacred from early on.


Over the next 1000 years, people wrote down the history of Israel, the poetry of its musicians, the sayings of its wise people, and the good and bad news brought to Israel by its prophets. The second section of the Old Testament was called the Prophets, which are made up of historical books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and the prophetic books that we think of today (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the 12 minor prophets).  The third and final section was called the Writings, which included the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations) plus the other historical books (Ruth, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles). Some of these books were considered sacred almost as soon as they were written, such as Joshua and Samuel, but some took longer to accept because they took longer to complete, Psalms and Chronicles in particular.