Bible Translations, I: History of Translations

Anyone who would seek to learn more about the purposes of God as made known in the Bible is immediately faced with a major obstacle: which version or translation should be used? We are faced with an alphabet soup of translation abbreviations: KJV, NIV, ESV, NLT, NKJV, NASB, NRSV, etc. What do they all mean? Why do so many translations exist? Which should I be using? Let us explore Bible translations and versions; to do so, we do well to understand the history of the Bible so as to understand why so many translations exist.

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. 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 thus derived from Greek texts.

Latin prevailed over Greek in the western part of the Mediterranean, however. The Bible was translated into Latin at an early stage in Christian history; in the fifth century Jerome worked to standardize the translation and root the Old Testament in the Hebrew original over the Greek translation (the Septuagint). Over time Jerome’s version became the standard and called the Latin Vulgate; it was the Bible in Western Europe for over seven hundred years.

Wars, famine, and religious arguments divided the western part of the Mediterranean from the eastern by the eleventh century. 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 New Testament in English were made.

The Bible in English

The same forces which led to a greater appreciation of Greek also fueled the Reformation. In England previous attempts had been made to translate the Bible into English so that all the people could understand God’s Word in previous centuries; by the middle of the sixteenth century William Tyndale worked diligently to translate the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible into English. Within the next thirty years six other versions would be translated from the original texts into English (Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s Bible, Matthew Bible, Great Bible, Geneva Bible, and the Bishops’ Bible).

As a result of the multiplication of versions in English and its resulting confusion, in the early seventeenth century, King James I of England commissioned Hebrew and Greek scholars in English universities to create a new version based on the older translations, correcting those texts when the need arose. Using these texts along with Erasmus’ Textus Receptus, these scholars created the King James Version (KJV), also called the Authorized Version (AV), in 1611. At first, most continued to prefer the Geneva Bible; over time, the King James Version would find preeminence among English speaking Christians, and would become the Bible in English for almost three hundred years.

Not a few people learned English and how to read and write thanks to the King James Version. Over time, however, the Elizabethan English of the KJV proved more and more antiquated, and today proves difficult for the modern English reader to understand. Thus, in the late 20th century, the KJV was revised to conform to modern English; the result is the New King James Version (NKJV), published since 1982.

New Findings, New Versions

During the nineteenth century Western Europeans, flush with developments and power thanks to the Industrial Revolution, sought to better understand their heritage in the past. The discipline of archaeology developed during this time; conquest and influence provided Westerners with heretofore unprecedented access to the Eastern Mediterranean world. Through archaeological expeditions and exploration of ancient monasteries multiple fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament were found.

Many of these new fragments and manuscripts varied in consistent ways from Erasmus’ Textus Receptus; Wescott and Hort would publish their own edition of the Greek New Testament in the late nineteenth century. A committee of scholars published the Revised Version (RV) in 1881 in England; as its name suggests, it was a revision of the KJV based on the more ancient manuscript evidence provided in Westcott and Hort’s Greek text. Twenty years later the Revised Version was prepared and edited by a committee of American scholars for use in America, and was published as the American Standard Version (ASV) in 1901.

The American Standard Version would become the foundation for most of our modern versions of the Bible in English, as it is based on the oldest witnesses to the New Testament that we have in our possession. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published, modernizing and making some changes to the ASV; in 1974, as a result of evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other reasons, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) was published. In 1971, the Lockman Foundation adapted the ASV into more modern language, publishing the New American Standard Bible (NASB); further revisions to the NASB came out in 1995, now known as the New American Standard Bible Updated (NASU). In 1998 the English Standard Version (ESV) was developed to set forth the Bible in the ASV tradition in clearer English.

In recent years many have elected to make a shift in approach in translations away from word-for-word translation (“functional equivalence”) to a more thought-for-thought translation (“dynamic equivalence”). The first and greatest of these versions is the New International Version (NIV) of 1967, itself modified in the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV; 1996), and updated in 2011 (NIV 2011). A similar process has led to the Good News Bible (GNT; also “Today’s English Bible”; 1976), the Contemporary English Version (CEV; also “The Bible for Today’s Family”; 1995), the New Living Translation (NLT; marketed also as “The Book”; 1996), the Common English Bible (CEB; 2011) and many others.

Many other translations exist for other reasons: some “literal” translations, some translations still based on the Textus Receptus or the so-called “Majority” Text, and some as translations sponsored for a given denomination (Roman Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.). In future articles we will explore all these Bible translations and versions in greater detail. May we seek to learn of God in Christ from the Scriptures and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

One thought on “Bible Translations, I: History of Translations

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.