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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Bible, Translations

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The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament in Greek, the languages both of the writers and of those who were expected to read the books in the first instance. The complete Bible has been translated into 293 languages and dialects, the New Testament into 618 additional ones, and individual books into 918 more languages. The process of translation is ongoing in the effort to make God's Word available to all in languages which everyone can understand.

Early Translations The Samaritan Pentateuch used by the Samaritan community is a form of Hebrew written in a different script (Samaritan characters) from that which the Jewish community later came to use. The Aramaic translations called Targums have their beginning in the pre-Christian period and are represented in the Qumran finds; but the major Targums came later.

The Old Testament was translated into Greek about 250 B.C. for the royal library of Alexandria. Named from the seventy translators who are said to have made it, the Septuagint, though made by Jews, has come down to us through Christian channels. Later Greek translations were made in the early period by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.

The evangelistic thrust of the early church gave impetus for many translations to impart the gospel to peoples in diverse language areas of the Roman empire. Before the 400 A.D., the Bible had been made available in Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Georgian. The succeeding centuries brought still other translations.

In the West, the church primarily used Latin after the end of the second century, and unofficial translations were made. In the fourth century Pope Damascus invited Jerome to revise current Latin translations based on Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Jerome completed the new translation after eighteen years of work at Bethlehem. Jerome's translation came to be the accepted Bible, and by 1200 A.D. was called the Vulgate, the official version for the Roman Catholic Church.

Reformation Translations The invention of printing in 1443 and the onset of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 stimulated great interest in Bible translation. Most of the modern languages of Europe had printed translations made at that time: German, 1466; Italian, 1471; Spanish, 1478; and French, 1487. Each of these areas has a long history of manuscript translation prior to printing.

English Translations Efforts to render Scripture into English began with Caedmon's paraphrases into Anglo-Saxon (A.D. 670). Bede (A.D. 735) is said to have translated the Gospel of John, completing it on the last day of his life. It was, however, John Wyclif and his associates (A.D. 1382) who are given credit for having first given the English the complete Bible in their own language.

Erasmus printed the Greek New Testament for the first time in 1516. Luther made his German translation in 1522-1524; and William Tyndale in 1525 brought out his English New Testament—the first printed one to circulate in England. Making use of Tyndale's material where available, Miles Coverdale brought out his complete Bible in 1535.

From this point the history of the English Reformation and the history of the English Bible go hand in glove with each other. Coverdale's Bible was followed by Matthew's Bible in 1537. Then in 1539, Coverdale with the king's approval brought out the Great Bible, named for its large size.

With the coming of Mary Tudor to the throne in 1553, the printing of Bibles was temporarily interrupted; but the exiles in Geneva, led by William Whittingham, produced the Geneva Bible in 1560. This proved to be particularly popular, especially with the later Puritans. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, then had the Bishops' Bible prepared, primarily by bishops of the Church of England, which went through twenty editions. Roman Catholics brought out their Rheims New Testament in 1582 and then the Old Testament in 1610. The period of Elizabeth was the time of England's greatest literary figures.

With Elizabeth's death and the coming of King James I to the throne at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, the king accepted the proposal that a new translation be made. The outcome was the King James Version of 1611. It is number nine in the sequence of printed English Bibles and is a revision of the Bishops' Bible. The KJV was heavily criticized in its early days; but in time, with official pressure, it won the field and became “the Bible” for English-reading people—a position it has held for almost four hundred years. The KJV has undergone numerous modifications so that the currently circulating book differs from that of 1611 in many ways, though the basic text is essentially the same.

By 1850, large numbers of people felt the time had come for a revision. A motion made by Bishop Wilberforce in the Convocation of Canterbury carried, setting in operation the making of the Revised Version whose New Testament appeared in 1881 and its complete Bible in 1885. The best British scholars of the day participated in the revision, and American scholars were also invited for a limited role. Though launched with great publicity, the revision eventually provoked harsh criticism. In time it became obvious that people still preferred the KJV. The revised edition was more accurate; however, the style was awkward.

The Americans waited out the fifteen years which they had promised before they would bring out a rival revision. The American Standard Revised Version was issued in 1901 with the American preferences in the text and the British in an appendix. It was more accurate than the KJV; but the revisers made the mistake of using an English style not native to English at any time. Wishing a literal translation, they produced one which is really English in Greek and Hebrew grammar and word order.

English Bible Translations in the Twentieth Century At the turn of the century Adolf Deissmann, using study of the papyri from Egypt, persuaded scholars that the New Testament was in the common language (the Koine) of the first century, giving impetus to an effort to present the Bible in the language of the twentieth century. Accompanying this development was the rise of archaeological discovery which gave new manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments. The Cairo Genizah collection of Hebrew manuscripts was found at the end of the last century, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Perhaps twenty-five Greek manuscripts of the New Testament could have been used in 1611. Now 5357 are known. The papyri which now total ninety-three items and are older than the great codices were found. Wider knowledge of the nature of the biblical and related languages has been gained, making for more accurate definitions. New scholarly grammars, dictionaries, and anthologies of texts grew out of these developments. Besides these matters is the simple fact that the English language continually changes so that what is understandable at one period becomes less so at a later one.

The first half of the twentieth century saw a spate of translations which abandoned the effort to revise the KJV and attempted to reflect new trends, each from its own viewpoint. They had a limited vogue in some circles while being criticized in others. Some were works of groups; others were prepared by one person; none seriously threatened the dominance of the KJV.

The Revised Standard Version, with its New Testament ready in 1946 and the complete Bible in 1952 bore the brunt of criticism of modern translations because it was the first serious challenge after 1901 to the long dominance of the KJV. It retained the Old English forms in liturgical and poetic passages, as well as using Old English pronouns when deity is addressed. Eventually an edition was issued with modifications to make it acceptable for use by Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics which is called the “Common Bible.” After forty years the RSV is rapidly becoming archaic. The New Revised Standard Version appeared in 1990.

The British have prepared the New English Bible (1970) which represents certain trends in British biblical scholarship. The American reader will see differences between British English and American English.

Roman Catholics issued the Jerusalem Bible, which with its notes is used both in and out of Catholic circles. Of more widespread influence is the New American Bible (1970) which was used in preparing the English version of the liturgy of the Roman church. While making some concessions, its notes support Catholic doctrine.

The Jewish community has produced the New Jewish Publication Society translation (1962-1982).

The paraphrase found a champion in Kenneth Taylor with his Living Bible Paraphrased (1971), which has more recently been issued under the name The Book. Taylor attempts to restate the biblical message in different words from those used by the writers, hoping to make it more understandable. Taylor, not a Hebrew or Greek scholar, paraphrased the American Standard Version. The accuracy of his work has been heavily criticized by Greek and Hebrew scholars. A revision was being prepared as this article was written.

Those who prefer literal translation found their representatives in the New American Standard Bible (NAS) prepared by the Lockman Foundation (1963). An attempt to give the ASV new life, this effort removes many archaisms from the ASV; it reflects different judgments on textual questions from the ASV, and its generous use of items which have been supplied by the translators in italics invites reinterpretation of passages.

An effort to preserve as much of the old as possible is the New King James Bible (1982). This is a “halfway house” for those who know that something needs to replace the KJV but who are not willing to have a translation which represents the current state of knowledge and which uses current language.

An effort to meet the needs of those who have English as a second language or those who have a limited knowledge of English is Today's English Version (TEV), also known as the Good News Bible (1976). Recasting of language, consolidation of statements, and paraphrasing have all been employed in the effort to make the message simple enough to be grasped by the reader.

The New International Version was issued in 1978 by the International Bible Society from a cooperative project in which more than 110 scholars representing thirty-four religious groups participated. Abandoning any effort to revise the KJV line of Bibles, the NIV is a new translation aiming at accuracy, clarity, and dignity. It attempts to steer a middle course between literalness and paraphrase while attaining a contemporary style for the English reader.

The translation effort in all its forms is a sincere effort on the part of many people of many different religious persuasions to make the Bible accessible and understandable to people to whom it might otherwise be a closed book. A diligent study of any of the efforts will increase one's understanding of the Bible. The ultimate translation is one that influences the behaviors in readers' lives and brings them hope. The task of translation is not finished. New discoveries and new students of God's Word will bring still more translations of the Bible to serve the church and its mission in generations to come.

Jack P. Lewis

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Bible, Translations'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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