General History Of Bible Translations

This article is about the general history of Bible translations. 

The Bible has been translated into many languages from the biblical  languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

The Latin Vulgate was dominant in Western Christianity through the Middle Ages. Since then, the Bible has been translated into many more languages. English Bible translations in particular have a rich and varied history of more than a millennium.

Original texts

Hebrew Bible

The Tanakh was mainly written in Biblical Hebrew, with some portions (notably in Daniel and Ezra) in Biblical Aramaic. From the 9th century to the 15th century, Jewish scholars, today known as Masoretes, compared the text of all known biblical manuscripts to create a unified, standardized text. A series of highly similar texts eventually emerged, and any of these texts are known as Masoretic Texts (MT). The Masoretes also added vowel points (called niqqud) to the text, since the original text only contained consonant letters.

This sometimes required the selection of an interpretation, since some words differ only in their vowels—their meaning can vary in accordance with the vowels chosen. In antiquity, variant Hebrew readings existed, some of which have survived in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea scrolls, and other ancient fragments, as well as being attested in ancient versions in other languages.[1]

New Testament

The New Testament is written in Koine Greek.

The discovery of older manuscripts, which belong to the Alexandrian text-type, including the 4th century Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, led scholars to revise their view about the original Greek text. Attempts to reconstruct the original text are called critical editions. Karl Lachmann based his critical edition of 1831 on manuscripts dating from the 4th century and earlier, to show that the Textus Receptus must be corrected according to these earlier texts.

The autographs, the Greek manuscripts written by the original authors, have not survived. Scholars surmise the original Greek text from the versions that do survive. The three main textual traditions of the Greek New Testament are sometimes called the Alexandrian text-type (generally minimalist), the Byzantine text-type (generally maximalist), and the Western text-type (occasionally wild). Together they make up most of the ancient manuscripts.

Most variants among the manuscripts are minor, such as alternative spelling, alternative word order, the presence or absence of an optional definite article (“the”), and so on. Occasionally, a major variant happens when a portion of a text was accidentally omitted (or perhaps even censored), or was added from a marginal gloss. Fortunately, major variants tend to be easier to correct. Examples of major variants are the endings of Mark, the Pericope Adulteræ, the Comma Johanneum, and the Western version of Acts.

  • Early manuscripts of the letters of Paul and other New Testament writings show no punctuation whatsoever.[2][not in citation given] The punctuation was added later by other editors, according to their own understanding of the text.

History of Bible translations

Ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible

Aramaic Targums

Main article: Targums

Some of the first translations of the Jewish Torah began during the first exile in Babylonia, when Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Jews. With most people speaking only Aramaic and not understanding Hebrew, the Targums were created to allow the common person to understand the Torah as it was read in ancient synagogues.

Greek Septuagint

Main article: Septuagint

By the 3rd century BC, Alexandria had become the center of Hellenistic Judaism, and a Koine Greek translation was compiled in several stages during the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC (known to have been complete by 132 BC). The Talmud ascribes the translation effort to Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 285-246 BC) who is said to have hired 72 Jewish scholars for the purpose, for which reason the translation is commonly known as the Septuagint.

The very first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was the Septuagint (LXX), which later became the accepted text of the Old Testament in the church and the basis of its canon. The Latin Vulgate by Jerome was based upon the Hebrew for those books of the Bible preserved in the Jewish canon (as reflected in the Masoretic text), and on the Greek text for the deuterocanonical books.

Some time in the 2nd or 3rd century BC, the Torah was translated into Koine Greek, and over the next century, other books were translated (or composed) as well. This translation became known as the Septuagint. “However, it was not until the time of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) that the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures came to be called by the Latin term Septuagint.”[3]

In his City of God 18.42, while repeating the story of Aristaeus with typical embellishments, Augustine adds the remark, “It is their translation that it has now become traditional to call the Septuagint” [Latin omitted] Augustine thus indicates that this name for the Greek translation of the scriptures was a recent development. However, he offers no clue about which of the possible antecedents led to this development: Exod 24:1-8 , Josephus [Antiquities 12.57, 12.86], or an elision. …this name Septuagint appears to have been a fourth to fifth-century development.” and was widely used by Greek-speaking Jews, and later by Christians.[4] It differs somewhat from the later standardized Hebrew (Masoretic Text). This translation was promoted by way of a legend (primarily recorded as the Letter of Aristaeus) that seventy (or in some sources, seventy-two) separate translators all produced identical texts.[5]

Versions of the Septuagint contain several passages and whole books beyond what was included in the Masoretic texts of the Tanakh. In some cases, these additions were originally composed in Greek, while in other cases they are translations of Hebrew books or variants not present in the Masoretic texts. Recent discoveries have shown that more of the Septuagint additions have a Hebrew origin than was once thought. While there are no complete surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew texts on which the Septuagint was based, many scholars believe that they represent a different textual tradition (“Vorlage”) from the one that became the basis for the Masoretic texts.[1]

Early translations in Late Antiquity

Origen‘s Hexapla placed side by side six versions of the Old Testament, including the 2nd century Greek translations of Aquila of Sinope and Symmachus the Ebionite. His eclectic recension of the Septuagint had a significant influence on the Old Testament text in several important manuscripts. The canonical Christian was formally established by Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem in 350 (although it had been generally accepted by the church before), confirmed by the Council of Laodicea in 363 (both lacked the book of Revelation), and later established by Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 (with Revelation added), andJerome’s Vulgate Latin translation dates to between AD 382 and 420. Latin translations predating Jerome are collectively known as Vetus Latina texts.

Christian translations also tend to be based upon the Hebrew, though some denominations prefer the Septuagint (or may cite variant readings from both). Bible translations incorporating modern textual criticism usually begin with the Masoretic text, but also take into account possible variants from all available ancient versions. The received text of the Christian New Testament is in Koine Greek,[6] and nearly all translations are based upon the Greek text.

Jerome began by revising the earlier Latin translations, but ended by going back to the original Greek, bypassing all translations, and going back to the original Hebrew wherever he could instead of the Septuagint.

The New Testament was translated into Gothic in the 4th century by Ulfilas. In the 5th century, Saint Mesrob translated the bible into Armenian. Also dating from the same period are the Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Georgian translations.

There are also several ancient translations, most important of which are in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic (including the Peshitta and the Diatessaron gospel harmony), in the Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, and in Latin (both the Vetus Latina and the Vulgate). The Bishop of the Goths Wulfila in the today’s Bulgaria translated the Bible into Gothic in the mid 4th century.

In 331, the Emperor Constantine commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius (Apol. Const. 4) recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles.[7]

Middle Ages

Main article: Bible translations in the Middle Ages

The Codex Gigas from the 13th century, held at the Royal Library in Sweden.

When ancient scribes copied earlier books, they wrote notes on the margins of the page (marginal glosses) to correct their text—especially if a scribe accidentally omitted a word or line—and to comment about the text. When later scribes were copying the copy, they were sometimes uncertain if a note was intended to be included as part of the text. See textual criticism. Over time, different regions evolved different versions, each with its own assemblage of omissions and additions.

The earliest surviving complete manuscript of the entire Bible is the Codex Amiatinus, a Latin Vulgate edition produced in 8th century England at the double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow.

During the Middle Ages, translation, particularly of the Old Testament was discouraged. Nevertheless, there is some fragmentary Old English Bible translations, notably a lost translation of the Gospel of John into Old English by the Venerable Bede which he said to have prepared shortly before his death around the year 735. An Old High German version of the gospel of Matthew dates to 748. Charlemagne in ca. 800 charged Alcuin with a revision of the Latin Vulgate. The translation into Old Church Slavonic dates to the late 9th century.

Alfred the Great had a several passages of the Bible circulated in the vernacular in around 900. These included passages from the Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch, which he prefixed to a code of laws he promulgated around this time. In about 990, a full and free standing version of the four Gospels in idiomatic Old English appeared, in the West Saxon dialect called the Wessex Gospels.

Pope Innocent III in 1199 banned unauthorized versions of the Bible as a reaction to the Cathar and Waldensians heresies. The synods of Toulouse and Tarragona (1234) outlawed possession of such renderings. There is evidence of some vernacular translations being permitted while others were being scrutinized.

The complete Bible was translated into Old French in the late 13th century. Parts of this translation were included in editions of the popular Bible historiale, and there is no evidence of this translation being suppressed by the Church.[8]

The most notable Middle English Bible translation, Wyclif’s Bible (1383), based on the Vulgate, was banned by the Oxford Synod in 1408. A Hungarian Hussite Bible appeared in the mid 15th century, and in 1478, a Catalan translation in the dialect of Valencia.

Reformation and Early Modern period

See also: Early Modern English Bible translations

The earliest printed edition of the Greek New Testament appeared in 1516 from the Froben press, by Desiderius Erasmus, who reconstructed its Greek text from several recent manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type. He occasionally added a Greek translation of the Latin Vulgate for parts that did not exist in the Greek manuscripts. He produced four later editions of this text. Erasmus was Roman Catholic, but his preference for the Byzantine Greek manuscripts and not the Latin Vulgate led some church authorities to view him with suspicion.

In 1521, Martin Luther was placed under the Ban of the Empire, and he retired to the Wartburg Castle. During his time there, he translated the New Testament from Greek into German. It was printed in September 1522. The first complete Dutch Bible, partly based on the existing portions of Luther’s translation, was printed in Antwerp in 1526 by Jacob van Liesvelt.[9]

The first printed edition with critical apparatus (noting variant readings among the manuscripts) was produced by the printer Robert Estienne of Paris in 1550. The Greek text of this edition and of those of Erasmus became known as the Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”), a name given to it in the Elzevier edition of 1633, which termed it as the text nunc ab omnibus receptum (“now received by all”).

  • The use of numbered chapters and verses was not introduced until the Middle Ages and later. The system used in English was developed by Stephanus (Robert Estienne of Paris) (see Chapters and verses of the Bible)

Later critical editions incorporate ongoing scholarly research, including discoveries of Greek papyrus fragments from near Alexandria, Egypt, that date in some cases within a few decades of the original New Testament writings.[10] Today, most critical editions of the Greek New Testament, such as UBS4 and NA27, consider the Alexandrian text-type corrected by papyri, to be the Greek text that is closest to the original autographs. Their apparatus includes the result of votes among scholars, ranging from certain {A} to doubtful {E}, on which variants best keep the original Greek text of the New Testament.

Critical editions that rely primarily on the Alexandrian text-type inform nearly all modern translations (and revisions of older translations). For reasons of tradition, however, some translators prefer to use the Textus Receptus for the Greek text, or use the Majority Text which is similar to it but is a critical edition that relies on earlier manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type. Among these, some argue that the Byzantine tradition contains scribal additions, but these later interpolations preserve the orthodox interpretations of the biblical text—as part of the ongoing Christian experience—and in this sense are authoritative. Distrust of the textual basis of modern translations has contributed to the King-James-Only Movement.

The churches of the Protestant Reformation translated the Greek of the Textus Receptus to produce vernacular Bibles, such as the German Luther Bible, the Polish Brest Bible and the English King James Bible.

Tyndale’s New Testament translation (1526, revised in 1534, 1535 and 1536) and his translation of the Pentateuch (1530, 1534) and the Book of Jonah were met with heavy sanctions given the widespread belief that Tyndale changed the Bible as he attempted to translate it. The first complete French Bible was a translation by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, published in 1530 in Antwerp.[11] The Froschauer Bible of 1531 and the Luther Bible of 1534 (both appearing in portions throughout the 1520s) were an important part of the Reformation.

The first English translations of Psalms (1530), Isaiah (1531), Proverbs (1533), Ecclesiastes (1533), Jeremiah (1534) and Lamentations (1534), were executed by the Protestant Bible translator George Joye in Antwerp. In 1535 Myles Coverdale published the first complete English Bible also in Antwerp.[12]

In 1584 both Old and New Testaments were translated to Slovene by Protestant writer and theologian Jurij Dalmatin. The Slovenes thus became the 12th nation in the world with a complete Bible in their language.

The missionary activity of the Jesuit order led to many of 17th century translations into languages of the New World.

Modern translation efforts

See also: International Bible SocietyBible SocietyWycliffe Bible Translators, and Institute for Bible Translation

The Bible continues to be the most translated book in the world. The following numbers are approximations. As of 2005, at least one book of the Bible has been translated into 2,400 of the 6,900 languages listed by SIL,[13] including 680 languages in Africa, followed by 590 in Asia, 420 in Oceania, 420 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 210 in Europe, and 75 in North America. The United Bible Societies are presently assisting in over 600 Bible translation projects. The Bible is available in whole or in part to some 98 percent of the world’s population in a language in which they are fluent.

The United Bible Society announced that as of 31 December 2007[14] the Bible was available in 438 languages, 123 of which included the deuterocanonical material as well as the Tanakh and New Testament. Either the Tanakh or the New Testament alone was available in an extra 1168 languages, and portions of the Bible were available in another 848 languages, for a total of 2,454 languages.

In 1999, Wycliffe Bible Translators announced Vision 2025. This project aims to see Bible translation begun by 2025 in every remaining language community that needs it. They now estimate that 2,251 languages, representing 193 million people, lack a Bible translation.[15]

In 2001, Mike Coles, an RE teacher in Stepney, translated The Bible into Cockney Rhyming slang and in 2008, graphic representations of The Bible in Manga and Lego brick form were given approval by the Archbishop of Canterbury.[16]

Differences in Bible translations

Further information: Bible translations#ApproachesDynamic and formal equivalence, and Bible version debate


Dynamic or formal translation policy

A variety of linguistic, philological, and ideological approaches to translation are used, including:

  • Dynamic equivalence translation
  • Formal equivalence translation (similar to literal translation)
  • Idiomatic, or Periphrastic translation, as used by the late Kenneth N. Taylor

As Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible, like all languages have some idioms and concepts not easily translated, there is in some cases an ongoing critical tension about whether it is better to give a word for word translation or to give a translation that gives a parallel idiom in the target language like the English language. The Catholic translation, the New American Bible, as well as the Protestant translations of the Christian Bible, translations like the King James Version, the Darby Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, the Recovery Version, and the New American Standard Bible are seen as more literal translations (or “word for word”), whereas translations like the New International Version and New Living Translation sometimes attempt to give relevant parallel idioms.

The Living Bible and The Message are two paraphrases of the Bible that try to convey the original meaning in contemporary language. The further away one gets from word for word translation, the text becomes easier to read while relying more on the theological, linguistic or cultural understanding of the translator, which one would not normally expect a lay reader to require.

Doctrinal differences and translation policy

In addition to linguistic concerns, theological issues also drive Bible translations.

Several translations of the Bible, produced by single churches or groups of churches, may be seen as subject to a point of view by the translation committee. Among these, the New World Translation, produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, is seen as controversial by some because of the renderings of key verses. Especially verses, that in other Bible translations support the deity of Christ, are rendered differently in the NWT. Also, the NWT often translates the New Testament Kyrios, “LORD,” as “Jehovah.” when referring to God. The publishers argue that this can be supported by the oldest copies of the Greek Septuagint found among the Dead Sea Scrolls have the original Tetragrammaton (Hebrew letters representing God’s name).[17] At a later period this was translated as Lord. The NWT translators believe that when Jesus read from such earlier scrolls he would have used his father’s name and not the title. (Luke 4:18, Jo 17:6, 26) The NWT translators did this despite the Tetragrammaton does not appear in the Greek manuscript of the New Testament books. The Greek manuscripts use Kyrios to refer to both Jesus Christ and God the Father.

Inclusive language

  • “inclusive language”, see gender in Bible translation

See also

Ancient and classical translations:

  • Septuagint (Greek)
  • Targum and Peshitta (Aramaic)
  • Vetus Latina and Vulgate (Latin)
  • Coptic versions of the Bible
  • Syriac versions of the Bible

English Translations:

  • English translations of the Bible
  • Old English Bible translations
  • Middle English Bible translations
  • Early Modern English Bible translations
  • Modern English Bible translations
  • Jewish English Bible translations

Other languages:

  • Bible translations by language
  • Bibelarchiv Vegelahn: Bible translations in German


  • Bible version debate
  • Translation
  • Hermeneutics
  • Exegesis
  • List of languages by year of first Bible translation
  • Institute for Bible Translation


  1.  a b Menachem Cohen, The Idea of the Sanctity of the Biblical Text and the Science of Textual Criticism in HaMikrah V’anachnu, ed. Uriel Simon, HaMachon L’Yahadut U’Machshava Bat-Z’mananu and Dvir, Tel-Aviv, 1979.
  3.  Sundberg, Albert C., Jr. (2002). “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism”. In McDonald, Lee Martin; Sanders, James A.. The Canon Debate. Hendrickson Publishers. pp. 72. ISBN 978-1565635173.
  4. Karen Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint ISBN 1-84227-061-3, (Paternoster Press, 2001). – The current standard for Introductory works on the Septuagint.
  5. Jennifer M. Dines, The Septuagint, Michael A. Knibb, Ed., London: T&T Clark, 2004.
  6. Some scholars hypothesize that certain books (whether completely or partly) may have been written in Aramaic before being translated for widespread dissemination. One very famous example of this is the opening to the Gospel of John, which some scholars argue to be a Greek translation of an Aramaic hymn.
  7. The Canon Debate, McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, pp. 414-415, for the entire paragraph.
  8. Sneddon, Clive R. 1993. “A neglected mediaeval Bible translation.” Romance Languages Annual} 5(1): 11-16 [1]
  9. Paul Arblaster, Gergely Juhász, Guido Latré (eds) Tyndale’s Testament, Brepols 2002, ISBN 2-503-51411-1, p. 120.
  10. Metzger, Bruce R. Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Paleography (Oxford University Press, 1981) cf. Papyrus 52.
  11. Paul Arblaster, Gergely Juhász, Guido Latré (eds) Tyndale’s Testament, Brepols 2002, ISBN 2-503-51411-1, pp. 134-135.
  12. Paul Arblaster, Gergely Juhász, Guido Latré (eds) Tyndale’s Testament, Brepols 2002, ISBN 2-503-51411-1, pp. 143-145.
  13. “The Bible in the Renaissance – William Tyndale” Dom Henry Wansbrough.
  14. United Bible Society (2008). “Statistical Summary of languages with the Scriptures” Retrieved 2008-03-22.
  15. Wycliffe Bible Translators (2007). “Progress Report” Retrieved 2008-03-22.
  16.  The Bible but not as you know it BBC Magazine, retrieved 28/11/2008
  17. See Dead Sea scroll 8HevXIIgr

External links

  • Bible translations at the Open Directory Project
  • Repackaging the Bible by Eric Marrapodi, CNN, December 24, 2008
  • Bible Versions and Translations on
  • Choosing a Bible Translation – Daniel B. Wallace

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