How We Got Our Bible
A Brief History of the Development of
the Bible in the English Language
by Dr. Ron Reitveld
The history of the Bible in English has its
beginnings in the uncertainty and obscurity of the Anglo-Saxon period of the 6th century
A.D. The British churches within the Roman Empire were accustomed to using the Latin
Bible, or Vulgate, which had been the 4th century translation of Jerome. The Vulgate was
studied, used, and copied in Celtic monastic circles in Britain.
The Germanic peoples (Jutes, Saxons, Angles)
who first came to Britain in the 5th century were a pagan people with no background of
Latin language or culture. They did, however, bring with them their dialects, of which
west Saxon became the standard old English.
The need for a Scripture translation into the
vernacular arose with the evangelization and growth of the Anglo-Saxon church in 6th
century England. The beginnings of Bible translation into the English language began in
the latter part of the 7th century through the rendering of portions of the Bible into
Anglo-Saxon poetry. This initial work took the form of verse paraphrases. The Venerable
Bede, the learned monk of Jarrow, spoke of a divine endowment given to the herdsman
Caedmon that enabled him to sing the themes of the Bible in English. According to Bede,
others adopted the same method of popularizing scriptural verse.
Shortly after Caedmon, translation proper
began. Aldheim (A.D. 640-709) has been given the credit of translating much, if not all,
of the Bible into the English language, translating an old English Psalter as early as
A.D. 700, Bede himself translated at least part of the Gospels into Old English. His pupil
Cuthbert noted that Bede was translating the Gospel of John when he died on Ascension Eve,
A.D. 735 and that he had either finished the book or reached as far as John 6:9.
Tragically, all of Bede's work has perished.
After subjugating the Danish invaders of his
kingdom, Alfred, King of Wesse (A.D. 849-901), energetically fostered learning and
religion, including scriptural translation, which he himself attempted. Alfred had some
experience in translating from Latin into Old English. As the king reported, he did so
sometimes word for word, and sometimes meaning to meaning. Although reports are
fragmentary and obscure, tradition supports the fact that Alfred the Great translated the
Decalogue and portions of Exodus 21-23, along with Acts 15:23-29, into English at the head
of his Code of Saxon Laws. William of Malmesbury declares that Alfred was working on an
English translation of the Psalms at the time of his death. The king had stimulated the
growth of Anglo-Saxon culture through his efforts at biblical translation.
Some of the earliest biblical texts in Old
English reveal the practice of glossing (writing interpretive comments) in the Latin text.
A few manuscripts of the Latin Gospels in which the Anglo-Saxon interlinear glosses have
survived may still be seen. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels of the late 7th century A.D.
survive in the British Museum. A literal translation in the Northumbrian dialect of Old
English was made by a priest named Aldred in the late 10th century A.D. The Rushworth
Gospels, whose glosses depend on the Lindisfarne manuscript in Mark, Luke, and John, have
survived at Oxford.
A very important development in the
Anglo-Saxon period was the translation of the four Gospels into a continuous English text.
This text is represented by six extant manuscripts. These Old English versions were based
on the Latin Vulgate. However, the Wessex Gospels from the mid-tenth century represent the
first translation of all four Gospels in English without a dependence on the Latin text.
Thus, by the time of the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, important steps had already
been taken in the direction of an entire Anglo-Saxon Bible.
II. THE MIDDLE AGES
The Norman conquest had adverse effects on the
translation work of the English Bible. Since the Normans did not speak English, they had
very little interest in promoting any version in the native English tongue. Anglo-Saxon
itself was gradually developing into Middle English as the two peoples fused. Anglo-Saxon
versions of Scripture would continue to be copied, improved, and used, but with time these
versions became unintelligible.
As Middle English developed into a literary
language, new work on translating the Bible began. This new era was inaugurated at the end
of the 12th century A.D. with a poetical version of the Gospels and Acts, together with an
accompanying commentary produced by an Augustinian monk named Orm (or Ormin). A
translation of Genesis and Exodus called the Ormulum appeared in English verse in the
middle of the 13th century A.D. By the end of that century a poetical rendering of the
psalms had also appeared. Following this metrical version of the psalter, prose
translations appeared, one of which was the work of Richard Rolle of Hampole. Rolle's
version was included in a commentary and, because of its great success, was copied into
Before the end of the 14th century A.D., work
on the New Testament followed, beginning with the Epistles, apparently for the English
monasteries. Acts and the first chapters of Matthew's Gospel were added later, along with
a prologue that summarized Genesis and Exodus. Thus far, these various renderings did not
cover the entire Bible and probably were designed mainly for monastic use rather than for
During this same period1 a distinguished
achievement was made toward the accomplishment of a complete Bible for the whole
English-speaking people. The driving force behind this work was the scholar John Wyclif
(also spelled "Wycliffe"). Two English versions are associated with Wyclif's
name. It was a part of his philosophy that Holy Scripture--God's own law, as he viewed
it--should be available for the use of lay leaders who could pass on its contents in
After Wyclif's death, his secretary John
Purvey undertook a radical second revision in 1396. The result was the first idiomatic
English Bible. Purvey affixed a prologue in the new edition explaining his aims and
principles. His general purpose was to make it possible for all English-speaking people to
know and understand divine law. Purvey's principles included the establishment of a pure
text, an examination of textual meaning, a careful translation by sentence rather than
word for word, and a sensitivity to the language of the common people. This translation
enjoyed great success despite an effort to suppress it by the Synod of Oxford in 1408.
Since nothing in the text suggested a Lollard connection, copies could be made and deemed
Purvey's version of the Bible is a highly
important transition to the period of modern Bible translation. Because Purvey understood
well the task of translation, and because he performed his work so responsibly, he
directly contributed much to the translations of the Reformation and to those of our own
time. For more than a century, Purvey's idiomatic English Bible enjoyed a wide
circulation, even though each copy had to be written out separately by hand. No one could
obtain a copy without the permission of the bishop of his or her particular diocese.
However, spoken English was changing so rapidly that Purvey's version soon became badly
III. REFORMATION BIBLES
A revolution in western thinking followed the
midpoint of the 15th century A.D. The Renaissance opened up the treasures of both
classical and patristic learning in a new way. It also revived an interest in the study of
both Greek and Hebrew that made possible the study of the Bible in the original languages.
This new interest in original editions stimulated textual research and also evidenced anew
the corruption and ignorance of the contemporary church. The Renaissance created new
opportunities for humanist scholars such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, who sought to make the
Bible available to people of all ages, social levels, and countries.
More radical in outlook than Renaissance
humanists were the Reformers, who measured the teaching and practice of the contemporary
church by the standards of scripture. The Reformers were horrified by the obvious
discrepancies. There soon emerged a mission to discover the pure biblical message and to
reconstruct both the teaching and practice of the church. The Reformers became deeply
convinced that it was both reasonable and necessary to circulate God's word in order to
purify the church from ignorance and destructive practices.
Previously each individual copy of scripture
had to be copied by hand, but with the invention of movable type, Scripture could be
circulated on a scale previously unknown. Although illiteracy still abounded, Bibles now
could be placed in the hands of the literate, and these people, in turn, could read and
share their newly acquired knowledge with others.
The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in
A.D. 1453, along with the discovery of the New World by Europeans in 1492, were important
events that coincided with the new outlook and that strongly aided the new interest in the
translation of the Bible into English.
When John Colet (later Dean of St. Paul's in
London) returned from a visit to the European continent in 1496, he delivered a series of
lectures at Oxford on the letters of Paul. His exposition of the Bible was based on the
historical setting of the text and the plain meaning of the words. Colet had a substantial
influence on such biblical scholars as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. The time had finally
arrived for a new look at what the Bible said. It was decided that a New Testament in
English should be produced that would render the words of Scripture into the language the
English-speaking people could clearly comprehend.
William Tyndale was the first to translate the
Bible directly from the Greek into English and began a tradition in English Bible
translation that is still alive today. After graduating from oxford and Cambridge
universities, Tyndale heard Erasmus' call for a translation of scripture in the common
language of the people. The ignorance of the clergy, especially the Bishop of London,
confirmed Tyndale's purpose of taking the Bible directly to the people. Expressing open
defiance of the Pope, Tyndale said that if God would spare his life he would make it
possible for even a ploughboy to know more about Holy Scripture than the Pope himself.
Since Tyndale was convinced he could not do this in England, he made his way to Germany in
1524 and lived the rest of his life on the continent. By August of 1525 his translation of
the New Testament was complete. Printing began at Cologne, but when the authorities
forbade the project, Tyndale escaped to Worms, where an octavo edition of 6,000 copies
were printed and sold in England by April of 1526. Official opposition in England was so
violent that most of these early copies were destroyed.
Tyndale's English work is quite similar to
that of Martin Luther. Although he used Luther's German translation, Tyndale also drew
upon the Latin Vulgate as well as Erasmus' Greek text. He completed a simple idiomatic
English translation that was both fresh and vital. Tyndale's New Testament version and his
faithful translation of Old Testament books remain influential in biblical translation
work. Tyndale's New Testament edition of 1534 is commonly acknowledged as a definitive
work. The influence of this edition may be judged by the fact that nine-tenths of the New
Testament in the King James Version (KJV) is Tyndale's translation. By the same token,
where the KJV departed from Tyndale's wording, the English Revised Version (ERV) of 1881
went back to it. Without question, this first printed English New Testament began a new
epoch in the history of English Bible translations.
Tyndale did not live to complete his Old
Testament translation. On May 21, 1535, he was arrested and later executed for heresy at
Vilvorde, Belgium, on October 6, 1536. His dying prayer was that the Lord would open the
eyes of the King of England. He left behind a manuscript containing the translation of the
historical books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles that was finally published in 1537.
By 1530 Tyndale was joined in his translation
work by a Cambridge graduate, George Joye, who also had a significant part in developing
the English Bible in Tyndale's own day. He revised Tyndale's New Testament in 1534 and,
without Tyndale's personal authorization, published the work. After Tyndale published his
own edition in 1534, Joye published another New Testament edition and continued to work on
the Old Testament, including Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
A year before Tyndale's death, the entire
Bible in English was circulating without any interference from the authorities. This Bible
was the work of Miles Coverdale, a friend and helper of Tyndale. A graduate of Cambridge
university, Coverdale translated the entire Bible while living on the continent. No expert
in the original Hebrew or Greek, his edition was based on Tyndale's Pentateuch and New
Testament, the rest being translated from Latin and German editions. Coverdale brought
excellent stylistic touches to his work, especially in those parts of the Old Testament
that Tyndale never attempted to translate.
The first complete printed Bible in English
was published on the continent in 1535. Soon it reached England, where King Henry VIII,
finding no heresy in it, reportedly declared: "Then in God's name let it go abroad
among the people." This was the first Bible to separate the apocryphal books and to
place them in an appendix to the Old Testament. Coverdale's version of the Psalms, as he
revised them for the Great Bible (1539), is familiar to generations of Anglicans through
the Psalter printed in the Book of Common Prayer. It is from this, rather than the KJV,
that some of our most common quotations of the Psalms were taken into English literature.
Coverdale's beautiful rhythm and phrasing have made a lasting contribution to the
tradition of English Bible translations.
E. Matthew's Bible
Another former associate of Tyndale, Thomas
Matthew (alias John Rogers), produced an important English version in 1535 and 1537.
Matthew himself was just an editor or compiler rather than a translator. The man who was
really responsible for the version was William Tyndale. In this version were published
Tyndale's translation of the Old Testament books for the first time. Other parts of the
Bible that Tyndale had not translated were taken from the Coverdale Bible. (No copyright
laws existed at that time.)
Matthew's Bible quickly attracted the
attention of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, received a
royal license from Henry VIII. Thus Matthew's Bible was allowed by the King's own
authority to be bought and read throughout the realm. The publication and circulation of
Matthew's Bible prepared the way for other great accomplishments in the history of
translating the Bible into English.
F. The Great Bible
By 1538, royal injunctions had been issued
that authorized the provision of English Bibles in all churches of the realm. These
injunctions called for "one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in
English." Hence a new and larger edition of Matthew's Bible was printed in Paris,
with the support and approval of King Henry VIII and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. After some
delay, the so-called Great Bible was published in 1539. The Bible had tremendous influence
on English-speaking people as well as the history of Bible translation in the English
language. Prepared by Coverdale, Tyndale's friend, helper, and Bishop of Exeter, it went
through various editions, including a 7th printing in 1541. The Great Bible carried a
prologue by Archbishop Cranmer from the second edition on, but it is still sometimes
referred to as Cromwell's Bible. It was called the Great Bible because of its size, but it
remained essentially Coverdale's revision of the Thomas Matthew Bible which was basically
Tyndale's so far as it had gone.
A revised edition of the Great Bible in 1540
contained a title page indicating that this particular translation of scripture was to be
used in the churches. Archbishop Cranmer recommended the use of the Bible in his preface
and encouraged all English-speaking people to "learn all things, what they ought to
think, what they ought to do, and what they should not do." Copies were obtained for
the churches, and people collected around them, often disturbing church services with
their reading and discussing of passages.
Despite advances in the translation of the
Bible into English, opponents remained active. An example is the 1543 condemnation of
Tyndale's work by the English Parliament despite the retention of his contribution to the
Great Bible. The English Parliament also passed restrictions on both private and public
reading of Scripture. Paradoxically, Parliament permitted the reading of the New Testament
in both the morning and evening services. Although Coverdale came under the 1546 ban, the
Great Bible continued to be used in the churches. When King Henry VIII died in 1547,
restrictions on Bibles, Bible translation, and Bible readings were eased, and the Great
Bible was issued in new editions in 1549 and 1553. The liturgies in the 1549 and 1553
Books of Common Prayer permitted the Great Bible to be used in lections, canticles, and
IV. ELIZABETHAN VERSIONS
During the reign of Edward VI, the climate
again became more favorable for the development and use of the Bible in English. Although
very little translation work was accomplished, many editions of older translations were
published. After Edward's death, however, the reign of his Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor
brought about a brief halt to the circulation of the English Bible. Bibles were actually
taken from churches, and many Protestants suffered martyrdom.
When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558,
the official attitude again changed towards the use of scripture and translation work.
Elizabeth ordered the setting up of "one book of the whole Bible in the largest
volume in the English in all parish churches." Those parishes that still possessed
the Great Bible in good condition retained their copies; others purchased new copies that
apparently came from undestroyed stocks of the 1553 edition of the Great Bible.
A. The Geneva Bible
During the reign of Mary Tudor, English exiles
in Geneva had continued to work on the translation and revision of Scripture, which had
been going on since the first publication of Tyndale's New Testament. Verse divisions were
also introduced. In 1557, these exiles produced a revised New Testament that was mostly
the work of William Whittingham, who had married a relative of John Calvin of Geneva. This
was part of a larger project that resulted in the so-called Geneva Bible, published in
1560 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I of England. This was the very first English Bible
translated entirely from the original Hebrew and Greek. It was considered the finest
English translation of the entire Bible ever to have been produced and it remained so
until the King James or Authorized Version (KJV) of 1611.
The Geneva Bible won widespread acceptance. It
became the undisputed Bible version in Scotland and the household version for Protestant
England. Long after the appearance of the KJV, the Geneva Bible remained in use in both
Scotland and England. It was also the version that the Pilgrim Fathers took with them
across the Atlantic ocean to the New World in 1620. The pilgrims believed that the KJV was
"a fond thing vainly invented" and held that "the older was better."
Some enjoyed the Reformed views found in the Geneva Bible. Others were impressed by its
scholarly accuracy. Even though the last edition of the Geneva Bible was printed in 1644,
it continued to be used in some places for a generation or more after that.
B. The Bishops' Bible
Although the Geneva Bible was more accurate
than the Great Bible, there was [ still no official endorsement for a single version for
the entire British realm. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, promoted revising
the Great Bible. Since much of the work of revising was done by bishops, the revision
became known as the Bishops' Bible. A revision of varying quality, the Bishops' Bible
reveals considerable dependence on the Geneva Bible. It immediately became the version
read in English churches. Yet Queen Elizabeth I gave it neither formal recognition nor
When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English
Protestants had two versions of Scripture competing for the favor of the churches in the
realm. The reign of James I of England and James VI of Scotland would see the competing
versions replaced with a newer one.
C. The Rheims-Dauay Version
During the reign of Elizabeth I, Roman
Catholics had found refuge on the European continent. Hoping to counteract the influence
of Protestant translations of the Bible, these Roman Catholics produced their own
translation of Scripture. Produced mainly by George Martin, an Oxford scholar, this
version was called the Rheims-Douay Version since the New Testament was published at
Rheims in France and the Old Testament at Douay (1609-1610).
This new translation found both its motive and
justification in the need to counteract the various Protestant translations, which had
"corrupted" Holy Scripture by adding, detracting, and altering it. The
translators remained loyal to the Latin Vulgate, which had been endorsed by the Council of
Trent in 1546. However, they consulted both the Hebrew and Greek texts. They also
confirmed the canonical status of apocryphal books by placing them in their Latin order
rather than putting them separately in an appendix, as was done in the Reformation
versions. They retained certain Latin words and closely followed their basic text, even to
the point of sacrificing intelligibility at times. In addition, they provided a glossary
to help the English reader and broadened the word-base upon which the KJV was constructed.
Publication of the Old Testament at Douay occurred too late to have much influence on the
translation of the KJV.
The Douay Bible used today is not the version
produced by George Martin but a revision carried through in the mid-l8th century which
conformed to the diction of the KJV.
V. THE AUTHORIZED OR KING JAMES VERSION
James I was immediately pressured by puritans
and English Protestants to convene a conference at Hampton court in 1604. The puritan
leader John Reynolds proposed "that a translation be made of the whole Bible, as
consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek." This suggestion received the
enthusiastic support of the king, who favored a new translation of the Bible in English
that could be used in church services to the exclusion of all other versions. This new
translation was to be a revision of the 1602 edition of the Bishops' Bible. The aim was
"not to make a bad version good, but to make a good one better, or out of many good
ones one principal good one." In addition to the Bishops' Bible, the revisers used
the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, Matthew's Bible, the Great Bible and the Geneva
Bible. They also consulted the Rheims-Douay New Testament. All of these different versions
were checked against original languages.
Fifty-four of the finest scholars, both
Anglican and puritan, were chosen to serve on six panels that met at Westminster, Oxford,
and Cambridge. Three panels were responsible for the Old Testament, two for the New
Testament, and one for the Apocrypha. Each scholar made his own version of a passage and
then all the renderings were discussed until there was agreement. When a whole book was
finished by a panel, it was sent to the other panels for approval or criticism. Two
representatives from each panel made up a group of 12 that finally reviewed the drafts.
The first edition, published in 1611, just
seven years after it was begun, was commonly called the Authorized Version, although it
was never granted formal authorization by the king or the British parliament. This version
immediately displaced the Bishops' Bible in the churches of Scotland and England and in
time gained a victory over the Geneva Bible among all the English-speaking people.
he King James version (KJV), often called the
"noblest monument of English prose," began a long and brilliant line of English
Bible translations. Although it did not meet with instant acceptance, it triumphed over
those who vehemently denounced it on grounds of scholarship and sound doctrine and has
retained an unrivalled place as "The Bible" throughout the English-speaking
Although the KJV was not based on the best
texts, it achieved considerable accuracy resulting from many years of work and experience
that preceded it. Indeed, it was a literary masterpiece, its vigor, simplicity, and prose
rhythms made it impressive for public reading. It was Tyndale who was largely responsible
for setting the stylistic pattern followed in the KJV, not only because he was the first
to translate scripture from the original Hebrew and Greek, but because the basic structure
of Tyndale's translation has endured through all subsequent changes. Approximately 60
percent of the English Bible text achieved its final form before the KJV appeared. At
least one-third of the KJV New Testament is worded exactly as Tyndale's New Testament,
while sentences in the remaining two-thirds follow the general style of Tyndale's New
VI. SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Those who used the KJV did not treat it as the
final word in the way that more recent admirers have come to believe. Over 300 corrections
were made in the 1613 edition of the KJV. Better manuscripts soon became available, and
changes in style and vocabulary required more up-to-date renderings. Hence others soon
attempted new translations. In fact, the next two centuries were to be marked by intensive
Bible translation work as progress was made in both the study and recovery of the original
For the most part, the puritans and the
English Protestants followed the path of paraphrase. Paul's epistles appeared in
paraphrase in 1675, and Richard Baxter's New Testament with Paraphrase and Notes was
published in 1665. In the first decades of the 18th century, paraphrase translations
continued to dominate the scene. The normal method was to use the KJV text, with
explanatory material in brackets. John Wesley published a revision of the KJV in 1755 for
the "plain unlettered man." His division of the text into paragraphs is worth
Roman Catholics made a significant advance in
Bible translation work in the 18th century with the revisions of the Rheims-Douay version
by Bishop R. Challoner. Challoner excluded many Latin terms and permitted the KJV
influence in phrasing and rhythm. In 1610, American Roman Catholics received permission to
use the Douay-Rheims Challoner Bible.
Many developments in the 18th and early 19th
centuries increased the demand for an official revision of the KJV. Textual studies were
on the increase. The literary and historical investigation of the Bible was underway. Both
written and spoken English were changing, and more people were attempting a more accurate
and understandable translation. A new surge of interest in the Bible, both theological as
well as evangelistic, gave rise to home and foreign Bible societies that were charged with
the publication and distribution of the Bible.
By the end of the 19th century, the necessity
for revising the KJV was apparent. Not only was diction of the KJV dated, but the textual
basis of the New Testament was unsatisfactory. A series of private attempts to revise the
KJV appeared, one of the most distinguished being Henry Alford's English New Testament
edition of 1869. Alford insisted that every other consideration must yield to "truth
of testimony, or truth of rendering." Thus the way for the major revisions of the
English Bible in 1861 and 1901 had been prepared.
VII. THE ENGLISH REVISED AND AMERICAN
For over 250 years, the KJV maintained its
position as the Authorized Version of all English-speaking people. No serious
consideration of revising it appeared until the 1850s. A revision of the KJV was initiated
by the convocation of Canterbury of the Church of England. The translators agreed that as
few changes as possible were to be made in the text, and that such changes should be
expressed in the language of the KJV. The Old Testament revisers retained the Masoretic
text. Because of advances in Hebrew scholarship since the KJV was published, the
translators greatly improved the KJV Old Testament, making difficult renderings much
clearer. Zealous for precise renderings of Greek tenses, the New Testament revisers
produced a version of the New Testament that is stylistically inferior to the KJV but
The English Revised Version (ERV) of the New
Testament was published in England in 1881, and the complete Bible was published in 1885.
Although its accuracy proved valuable for study purposes, its style was not generally
accepted by those who favored the rhythm and flow of the Authorized Version of 1611. The
American Standard Version (ASV), a variant edition that contained renderings preferred by
a parallel company of American revisers, was published in 1901 without the Apocrypha.
VIII. TWENTIETH CENTURY VERSIONS
A series of new translations, especially of
the New Testament appeared as the 20th century began. The view that the Greek of the New
Testament was the popular, vernacular Greek of the first century, and not the literary
Greek of that era, encouraged translations in "everyday English" rather than the
stilted archaisms of the ERV and the ASV.
In some ways more accurate than the ERV was R.
F. Weymouth's New Testament in Modern Speech, which was posthumously published in 1903. A.
T. Robertson acknowledged that Weymouth's New Testament was "a modern translation of
a higher order in dignified vernacular that is reasonably faithful to the Greek
text." James Moffatt's translation (New Testament, 1913; Old Testament, 1924) took
the English-speaking world by storm, despite its Scotticisms and rather cavalier treatment
of the text. Edgar J. Goodspeed's work, The Bible: An American Translation (New
Testament, 1923; whole Bible, 1927, 1935; Apocrypha, 1938), which excluded British
expressions alien to the American ear, sold over a million copies in 25 years and was
printed in full in several newspapers in the fall of 1923. It possessed a quality of
diction that was superior to Moffatt's version.
In 1947, J. B. Phillips issued his Letters
to Young Churches, a publishing success achieved only earlier by Moffatt. Working
with young people during the air-raid days in London during World War II, Phillips
discovered that his young fellow workers could not comprehend the epistles of Paul.
Beginning with the Greek text and warmly encouraged by the British author C. S. Lewis,
Phillips rendered an up-to-date version of the New Testament (1947-1958; revised 1972)
that received a tremendous response among the English reading public. According to his own
account, Phillips tried to blot out from his mind all existing versions and all that he
had read about Bible translation work. He intended to produce a translation, not for
scholars or those who had a strong Christian heritage, but for those who received little
help from existing versions or those who knew little about the Bible in general. Phillip's
New Testament in Modern English still holds a special place among paraphrases.
In 1966, the American Bible Society published
a paraphrase translation entitled Good News for Modern Man, with the subtitle The
New Testament in Today's English Version (TEV). Prepared by Robert Bratcher, it was
the first translation of the New Testament into English sponsored by that society. The
impetus for the TEV arose out of the success of a Spanish translation prepared for Latin
American Indians that became popular among the urban population.
The subtleties of language and grammar are not
permitted to stand in the way of the simplicity and vigor of the TEV. This version was
intended for those with little Christian background, whether using English as a mother
tongue or as an acquired language. It shifted from traditional theological language to the
common language used in a newspaper. Those who enjoy the rhythms of the KJV may find the
TEV deficient in literary merits, but this version was made from the best Hebrew and Greek
critical texts available at the time. Although the TEV uses a limited vocabulary and
simplified structures, the basic beliefs and duties to God and man are clearly portrayed.
The TEV is widely used around the world because of the promotional work of the various
More recently, the American Bible Society
published the Contemporary English Version of the New Testament (1991) after
about six years' work. This version applies the principle of "functional
equivalence," which allows breaking up sentences and changing their order as long as
the original meaning is preserved. Barclay M. Newman of Springfield, Missouri headed a
four-member team that did most of the initial translating, and refinements were
recommended by a panel of 100 Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars and linguists. The
CEV New Testament, also named The Bible for Today's Family, was issued as the
American Bible Society marked its 175th anniversary. The complete CEV Bible was published
Notable for its readability, Kenneth N.
Taylor's The Living Bible (1962-1971) is a paraphrase that enjoys a special
appeal for younger people. It is the outcome of 16 years of work that began when Taylor
started paraphrasing the ASV for use with his children in family devotions. A large
portion of work was done at night, on weekends, during vacations, and as Taylor commuted
to and from work to Moody Press in Chicago, Illinois. As he expanded his work, he enlisted
various scholars to check his translation against the original texts and literary
consultants to improve his style. Taylor eventually founded his own publishing house
(Tyndale House) to issue The Living Letters (1962) and later the whole Bible in
The Berkeley Version (New Testament,
1945; whole Bible, 1959, 1969) is a generally straightforward translation but contains a
number of odd phrases and some inappropriate idioms. On the whole, however, it is an
excellent piece of scholarship and enjoys a good reputation among modern Bible
B. The Revised Standard Version
The Revised Standard Version (New
Testament, 1946; whole Bible, 1952; revised 1962, 1972; New Revised, 1989) was intended as
a revision of the KJV, the ERV, and the ASV. It took into account the new knowledge of the
history, religion, culture, and geography of the Bible lands, in addition to the new
resources for understanding the vocabulary, idioms, and grammar of the biblical languages.
The RSV broke away from the more mechanical and literal limits of the revisions of 1881
and 1901. Thus the RSV intended a return to the basic structure and the more natural flow
of the Tyndale tradition while utilizing modern knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts
and their meaning and use of current English. while the RSV enjoyed a phenomenal sale, it
by no means replaced the KJV. compared to the New English Bible (NEB), the RSV is a
conservative revision and is one of the most widely read revisions of the KJV in the world
Some recent translations were motivated, in
part at least, by conservative non-Catholics who desired to produce a translation that
could counter what was perceived to be the liberal bias of the RSV. The Amplified
Bible (1965) was one of these modern translations. Produced by Mrs. Frances Siewert
(1881-1967), the New Testament was published by the Lockman Foundation and Zondervan
Publishing House in 1958. It was followed by the two-volume Amplified Old Testament in
1962 and 1964 and the one-volume Amplified Bible in 1965. Its purpose was to reveal
meanings that were concealed by the traditional translation method. The Amplified
Bible, Expanded Edition appeared in 1987.
C. The New English Bible
The New English Bible (New Testament,
1961; whole Bible, 1970; revised 1989) was produced under the direction of a Joint
Committee of Protestant Churches of Great Britain, with Roman Catholic representatives
participating as advisors at a later stage in the project. The NEB translators set for
themselves the goal of preparing a completely new translation. This aim differed from that
of the RSV. The RSV laid claim to being a revision in the Tyndale-KJV-ASV tradition of
Bibles. However, the NEB was to be independent of earlier versions. It was intended for
the unchurched, for young people, and for intelligent lay persons who had become overly
familiar with scripture. The widespread enthusiasm for the NEB resulted in its frequent
use for reading in public worship.
The Revised English Bible appeared in
1989. The revisers avoided complex or technical terms when possible and prepared a version
with sentence and word order facilitating congregational reading. The revisers preferred
more inclusive gender references where this was possible without compromising the
scholarly integrity or the English style of the translation. The NEB and its successor the
REB are free translations, tending toward paraphrase. But the readability of both
versions, with few exceptions, is indisputable.
D. The New American Standard Bible
The New American Standard Bible is a
revision of the American Standard Version (1901). The New Testament was published in 1963,
and the entire Bible appeared in 1972. Rather than claiming to be a revised ASV, the NASB
claims only to follow the principles used in the ASV. Although these two translations are
different, both stand clearly in the Tyndale-KJV tradition of Bibles.
The NASB follows a critical text rather than
the Textus Receptus. In some cases, the ASV differs in text from the KJV, and the
NASB disagrees with both translations; in other cases, the NASB differs from both the KJV
and the ASV text. The NASB translators followed the word and sentence patterns of the
original authors in order to help the reader to study Scripture in its most literal format
and to perceive the individual personalities of the biblical authors. The NASB is a
faithful translation that is praised for study purposes.
E. The Jerusalem Bible and the New American
Several Roman Catholic translations of
importance have appeared in the 20th century. Monsignor R. A. Knox published a trial New
Testament translation from the Vulgate in 1945. A definitive edition followed that same
year. This edition was accorded an official status along with the Roman Catholic Rhemish
version. Knox produced an Old Testament translation from the Latin Vulgate in 1949 that
received hierarchical authorization in 1955.
The first English translation of Scripture
made from the original languages by Catholic scholars was The Jerusalem Bible,
published in 1966. The name is derived from the La Bible de Jerusalem, which
produced by the Dominican school in Jerusalem and forms an important basis for this
translation. The New American Bible (1970), sponsored by the Bishops' committee
of the confraternity of Christian Doctrine, was a major translation based on the original
languages and on what was believed to be the oldest form of the text extant. The New
American Bible New Testament: Revised Edition appeared in 1986. The purpose of this
revision was to eliminate exclusive language where the Greek text is not meant to be
exclusive. This edition firmly rejects formal equivalence as the measure of faithfulness
Since its publication in 1966, the Jerusalem
Bible has become widely used for liturgical purposes, as well as for study and
private reading. A revised edition of La Bible de Jerusalem was published in 1973 that
incorporated the progress of scholarship over the previous two decades. This revision
warranted a completely new edition of the English-language Jerusalem Bible. The
first edition of 1966 was criticized for following the French translation more closely
than the originals, whereas the completely new edition of 1985 was directly translated
from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
F. The New International Version
The New International Version (New
Testament, 1973; whole Bible, 1978) arose out of a dissatisfaction of evangelicals with
the existing translations of the Bible. The Committee on Bible Translation, composed of 15
scholars from many different religious groups in 1965, began a project that eventually
produced the NIV by over 100 evangelical scholars. This entirely new translation was
financed and sponsored by the New York/International Bible Society. The New Testament was
issued in 1973, and the complete Bible appeared in October 1978 with the largest printing
ever done for an English Bible.
The NIV is a combination of traditional and
innovative renderings. The NIV strives for accuracy, dignity, and and moves beyond the
RSV, NED, NASB toward a clarity, and contemporary style for the English reader. The NIV
does not always render a Hebrew or Greek word by the same English word, and paraphrases
freely at times. The NIV marks an important step in the direction of supplying God's Word
in understandable English with an easy reading style.
G. The New King James Bible
The New King James Bible (New
Testament, 1979; Old Testament, 1980) was produced and published by Thomas Nelson
Publishers of Nashville, Tennessee, the same firm that had earlier published the ASV
(1901) and the RSV (1952). The NKJV translators were restricted in what they could do
because of their reverence for the text and form of the KJV. Like other contemporary
translations, the NKJV corrects the errors of the KJV in its renderings of the idiom of
the Greek New Testament. Despite a policy of moving toward a more contemporary English
version, the NKJV still retains many phrases no longer in use.
H. The International Standard Version
The International Standard Version (New
Testament, 1998; Old Testament, 2001?) was produced by The ISV Foundation of Santa Ana,
California, and published by Davidson Press, Inc., with offices in Yorba Linda,
California. The ISV used an entirely new translation philosophy called a
"literal-idiomatic" approach. The ISV's striking use of poetry to restore the
emotion and feelings of the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 and in the "faithful
sayings" of the pastoral letters won the admiration of many people. Dr. Gleason
Archer, one of the translators of the NIV and NASB, called the ISV "a significant
event in the history of Bible translation."
I. Jewish versions of Scripture
The history of the English translations must
also include those of various Jewish versions. Tyndale had used Latin translations of the
classic Jewish commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Kinhi (11th-13th centuries), whose works
were influenced by a knowledge of the Targums. Rashi's influence on all the authorized and
most of the unofficial English translations of the Hebrew Bible is apparent in Tyndale's
use of Martin Luther's Old Testament work, which drew on Rashi's translation. Tyndale's
central influence in subsequent English translations enhances the legacy of the classic
One of the earliest Jewish translations of the
Pentateuch into English (1785) was done by Alexander Alexander of Great Britain. In 1861
Abraham Benisch published a translation of Hebrew Scripture under the name Jewish School
and Family Bible. The first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into English in the
United States was the work of Isaac Leeser (1854). This work became the version used in
all American synagogues. The Jewish Publication Society of America published a new
translation of the Bible in 1917, produced by Jewish scholars headed up by Marcus Jastrow.
This particular translation became the standard Bible in the American Jewish community
until the publication of the New Jewish Version, which appeared periodically. The Torah
was published in 1962; The Prophets, in 1978; and The Writings, in 1981. The complete
Jewish Bible was published in a single volume in 1985 with the title Tanakh.
The translation of the English Bible is the
result of a long struggle dating back to the re-evangelization of Great Britain after the
Roman withdrawal and the barbarian invasions. Certainly the translation of the Bible into
English did not stop with the KJV in 1611. With the discovery of new texts and with
changes in the English language, new translations and new editions have continued down to
the present day.
The English Bible owes more to William Tyndale
than to any other person, not only because he was the first to translate scripture into
English from the original languages, but because the basic structure of his translation
work has endured through all the subsequent changes in the various English versions of
Holy Scripture, not all of which can be reviewed here. The continuation of the
Tyndale-KJV-ASV tradition is clearly apparent in the ongoing work of Bible translation,
which continues to pursue the study and transmission of God's Word to the English-speaking
people of the world.