Bible Translations, I: History of Translations

The Christian today is faced with a dizzying array of choices when it comes to the Bible from which he or she will read. We are faced with an alphabet soup — KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV-what do they all mean? In the next few editions, I hope to help clarify the different versions of the Bible that we see today so that Christians may make an educated decision about which version they will use. First, however, in order to better understand the context of our translations, let us look to the past to see how we got to where we are today.

From Greek to Latin and Back to Greek Again

The New Testament began in the Mediterranean world, the record of events of Jesus Christ and His followers in the first century CE. At that time, the majority of the eastern Mediterranean world spoke in Greek; while each area had their own native tongue, Greek was the universal language of that part of the world. Therefore, when the texts of the New Testament were first written, they were in Greek. Our modern translations, in order to be the most accurate they can be, are so derived from Greek texts.

The western part of the Mediterranean, however, spoke Latin over Greek. Thus, as the early church grew and spread to the west, the need for a Latin version became evident. In the fifth century CE, a Catholic monk named Jerome traveled to Bethlehem and began work on such a translation, and the translation which he made was called the Vulgate. The Vulgate was deemed the official version of the Bible by the Catholic church, and was used in western Europe as the sole Bible for about 1,000 years.

Wars, famine, and religious arguments divided the western part of the Mediterranean from the eastern by the eleventh century CE. The knowledge of Greek in the west slowly faded into oblivion. However, the invasion of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, former capital of the Byzantine Empire) in the fifteenth century CE forced the Orthodox there to flee west, bringing their knowledge of Greek. This re-emergence of the understanding of Greek brought about renewed interest in the text of the Bible in its original language, and a German named Desiderius Erasmus was a principal scholar in this field. He was able to find six or seven copies of the Bible in Greek, dating from the tenth to thirteenth centuries CE, and from those texts he edited his version of the Bible in Greek, which was later called the Textus Receptus, or TR. It is from this text that the earliest modern translations of the Bible in English were made.

The Bible in English

The Renaissance, which in part led to the re-emergence of the knowledge of the Greek, also led to a schism in the Catholic church. Initiated by Martin Luther, many groups left the Catholic church and became different churches. They all determined that the Bible needed to be translated in the languages which people spoke, in order that all may understand it. In England, King Henry VIII threw off the yoke of Catholicism in the mid sixteenth century, and founded the Church of England. Only a few years later, William Tyndale published the first direct translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible into English. It was not received well; however, within the next thirty years, six other versions would be translated from the original texts into English.

Unfortunately, this boom of translation led to many inconsistencies and confusion, since some texts were not as well-translated as they should have been. In order to clear up any confusion, King James I of England in the early seventeenth century commissioned Hebrew and Greek scholars in English universities to create a new version based on the older translations (such as Tyndale’s and also the Bishops’ Bible, among others), correcting those texts when need be. Using these texts along with Erasmus’ TR for correction, these scholars created the King James Version (KJV), also called the Authorized Version (AV), in 1611. Soon after, the KJV found preeminence in English Christianity, and was the sole version used for over two hundred and fifty years.

Time, however, caught up with the KJV. Within a couple of centuries, the language of the KJV was archaic and was difficult to understand for many. Therefore, in 1981, some English scholars revised the King James text in order to conform with more current English usage; this version is now known as the New King James Version (NKJV).

New Findings, New Versions

The Victorian era was known for its novelties, and many during that time had become enamored with the past and ways to learn more about it. Concurrently, many also became enamored with the text of the New Testament, and endeavored to find older copies of the Greek texts.

They did. By the 1880s, these scholars had found multiple texts of the New Testament dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries CE, texts only 200 or 300 years removed from their originals. These texts differed in certain respects with the TR, and in order to create a more accurate text, a new version was necessary. The committee of scholars came up with the Revised Version of 1881; however, this committee soon disbanded. Their work was soon revised some for American usage, and was published as the American Standard Version (ASV) in 1901.

The ASV is the foundation for the rest of the modern versions of the Bible, as it is based on the oldest witnesses to the New Testament that we have in our possession. In 1952, some more revisions were made to the ASV, and was published as the Revised Standard Version (RSV). In 1971, the Lockman Foundation adapted the ASV into more modern language, publishing the New American Standard Bible (NASB); further revisions to the NASB have also come out recently, now known as the Updated New American Standard Bible. Three years later, due to new understanding of Old Testament texts, a revision of the RSV was made, now known as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Finally, in 1967, some religious groups determined that it would be helpful to revise the modern texts in such a way to make the text more understandable to the modern reader, abandoning the more literal approach for a more interpretive approach. This perspective and determination led to the New International Version (NIV). Later on, in 1989, a whole new translation was made with this same idea, to make the text more understandable: the New Living Translation (NLT; also marketed as simply “The Book”) was the end result. This same methodology has led to the Contemporary English Version (CEV), Today’s English Bible (TEV), and many others.

This is where we are today, from the Greek texts to the modern translations. We will begin to examine each of these versions, and determine their benefits and detractions, so that you may know which version will best fit your needs in your attempt to follow God as He wants you to.


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