The New Testament was first written and circulated in Greek. But as the gospel spread it went into areas where Greek was unknown and there was a need for the scriptures to be translated into other languages.
One of the earliest of these translations was the Old Syriac. Syriac was the chief language spoken in the regions of Syria and Mesopotamia and it is almost identical with Aramaic. The Syriac translation was especially valuable for Aramaic speaking Jews and in districts adjacent to Palestine.
In the East other translations like the Egyptian, Armenian and Gothic were made in order that people in those regions might read the Bible in their own tongues.
In the west however, the Roman Empire was firmly established with Latin as its official language. Since Latin was the language of many Christians, the Old Latin Version was soon produced. Like the Old Syriac, the Old Latin is another of the very early translations, In fact both translations date at least as far back as the 2nd century.
The man most closely associated with the Latin versions was Jerome. A grammarian and scholar, he undertook a revision of the Old Latin version in the year 382.
Not long afterward, Jerome went to Bethlehem where he gave himself fully to Biblical research. He examined carefully the earliest manuscripts he could find. In order to make his Old Testament work as accurate as possible he even studied Hebrew under a Jewish Rabbi.
After 20 years of labor he completed his revision of the Old Latin. Written in the language of the common man, his translation came to be known as the Latin Vulgate. Pictured here is an old manuscript of the Vulgate.
Jerome and the Vulgate reigned supreme. His translation came to be regarded as the last word, as shown in this scene (4) depicting Jerome giving a copy of his work to and ecclesiastical authority. For centuries men thought no other translation was needed and so for centuries the Bible remained in Latin.
In England, as elsewhere, the Bible was known only in Latin. When in the year 735, the Venerable Bede put the gospel of John into Anglo-Saxon he translated from a Latin text. This is the earliest known translation made in Britain. It was finished, it is said, in the last hours of Bede’s life.
No copies of Bede’s translation remain. Preserved in the British Museum is a beautifully illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels. In between the lines of the Latin text is an Anglo-Saxon paraphrase produced by a monk named Aldred, this translation stands as the oldest existing copy of the four gospels in the English language.
It was not until about 500 years later, in the 14th century, that a translation of the complete Bible would be made in English. The translation was due primarily to the efforts of John Wycliffe, a powerful advocate of social and religious reforms in England.
Wycliffe and his associates lead the way in championing the cause of the common man. Wycliffe believed that every man should be able to read the Bible in his own home and, as he said, “Learn the words of the gospel according to its simplicity.”
In the year 1382 Wycliffe and his associates completed an English translation from the Latin. Now, for the first time, the entire Bible was available in the English language. Each copy however had to be produced by hand. Because of this, copies of the Bible were few in number and very expensive. Besides this, many of the common people could not read.
So Wycliffe set out his followers, called Lollards, to go among the people to read to them and to teach them the word of God. They did this even though there was still much persecution from authorities of the Roman Church.
Wycliffe himself died before the persecution began. Later he was condemned as a heretic and his remains were dug up and burned. In the year 1408 at Oxford, the clergy forbade anyone to translate or even to read an English version of the Bible without the proper ecclesiastical consent.
But the seed of the scripture in their own spoken language had been planted in the hearts of the English people, seed that in a hundred years would flourish into an abundant harvest. In the meantime however, an event of immeasurable significance took place.
Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, in about 1450 perfected a method of printing that, for the first time, proved practical in the making of books. No longer would copies of the Bible have to be made by hand. This picture shows Gutenberg examining a copy as it comes off the printing press.
The first major work to emerge from the press of Gutenberg and his associates was the Bible. This Bible was the Latin Bible, the year was 1456. It would be some time yet before scholars had access to printed copies of the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek languages.
Around the same time in England, men anxiously sought to learn the Biblical message. According to one old historical record, people often sat up all night reading and listening. Some people gave great amounts of money for a hand written book of scripture and some gave a load of hay for a few chapters of St. James or St. Paul in English. Always, persecution was an imminent danger.
Erasmus of Rotterdam is the man who is credited to be the first to edit and publish the New Testament in Greek. This portrait of Erasmus was done by Hans Holbine and is now preserved in the Louvre in Paris. Erasmus was a monk and scholar. He was one of the few men in all of Europe who had mastered the Greek language.
In 1516 at Basel, Switzerland, Erasmus issued his first edition of the Greek New Testament. The Greek text, shown in the left column, was accompanied with his own Latin translation, shown on the right. The occasion was epic making because scholars in different lands could now have access to the New Testament in its original Greek language.
One of these scholars was William Tyndale, educated at Oxford and at Cambridge. Tyndale’s chief ambition in life was to give to the people a translation in English based on the original languages. He once said to one of his opponents that if God would spare his life for a few more years he would make it so that even a farmer boy would know more about the scripture than they did.
In order to achieve his objective and due to fierce opposition, Tyndale had to leave his native England. After a year of great stress, often fleeing from city to city, he was able to complete his translation of the New Testament in 1525.
Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament was the first ever to be printed in English. Also, it was the first English translation, to be based, not on Jerome’s Latin version, but on the Greek text itself.
Early in 1526, the first copies of Tyndale’s translation were smuggled into England. Many church leaders spoke out condemning it. They obtained copies of the translation and burned them in public ceremony. But all of this concentrated opposition could not wipe out a movement that was making itself felt around the world.
Tyndale’s translation was indeed for the plowboy. Instead of “church”, he used “congregation”, for “penance” he used “repentance” for “grace” he used “favor” for “charity”, “love” and so forth. These were terms that the common man could understand.
Many Biblical words familiar to us today originated from Tyndale. Words like peacemaker, Passover, scapegoat, and long suffering. This is why Tyndale is often called the father of the English Bible.
Tyndale next turned to translating the Old Testament from Hebrew. Within a few years he had translated several books of the Old Testament and also had issued two other editions of his New Testament. His translations were bought and read enthusiastically.
But in 1535 Tyndale was betrayed and thrown in prison near Brussels in Belgium. While in prison, shortly before the last winter of his life, he wrote a letter to a person in authority. Tyndale asked that he might be granted the kindness of a warmer cap and a warmer coat also.
His letter continues, “My over coat is worn out, my shirts are also worn out, and I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening. It is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar and Hebrew dictionary that I may pass the time in that study.”
After spending months in prison, Tyndale was found guilty of heresy and was sentenced to death. He was strangled and burned at the stake crying aloud, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Had Tyndale escaped his enemies a few more years, he surely would have finished his translation of the whole Bible.
But credit for the completion of the English Bible was goes to Miles Coverdale. Coverdale was not the scholar Tyndale was, but he too spent much of his life in making the Bible available in English.
Coverdale’s translation, completed in 1535, was in part based on Tyndale’s. The Coverdale Bible was the first complete Bible printed in English. It was also the first Bible to circulate in England without interference from religious or civil authorities.
Now that English translations of the Bible could circulate more freely, other translations began to appear. Matthew’s Bible was issued in 1537 and Taverner’s Bible in 1539.
Also in 1539 another translation called the Great Bible made its appearance. Edited by Coverdale, it was the first of the English Bibles authorized to be read in the churches. This authorization was given by King Henry VIII who wanted this version of the Bible spread among the people. Tyndale’s dying plea to open the king of England’s eyes was now granted.
Soon every church building in England was furnished with a copy of the Great Bible. This early engraving shows how people flocked eagerly to the churches to see the Bibles. At times the preachers complained because the people chose rather to read the Bible than hear their sermons.
But another translation was destined to be the most popular of all the 16th century translations. This was the Geneva Bible of 1560. It was named this because of where it was printed, in Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva, at that time, was the center of the reformation. It was the city of John Calvin and John Knox. And it was the city that become the new home of many exiles who had fled England to escape persecution,
Produced in legible type in a convenient size with accompanying commentary and illustrations, the Geneva translation became the Bible of the English household. It was the first translation to print each verse as a separate paragraph.
Other translations also made their appearance including the Bishop’s Bible and the Roman Catholic Rhiems-Douay Bible. But it was the Authorized Version of 1611 that finally succeeded in provided a translation which was suitable for all English speaking people. This translation is more popularly known today as the King James Version, since it was produced under the authority of King James of England.
Because the starting point of the King James Version, we must go to Hampton court, one of the royal residences close to London. There in the year 1604 representative church leaders met to discuss the question of religious toleration (19). These men felt that a common version of the Bible, readily accepted by all the people would help accomplish their purposes.
These leaders came up with the following resolution: “That a translation be made of the whole Bible as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek. And this to be set out and printed without any marginal notes and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service.”
The resolution pleased King James and the King himself seems to have laid down the main requirements that were to be followed in making the translation.
About 50 scholars were commissioned by the king to join in the project. They were divided into 6 working companies. Two of the groups worked at West Minister, two at Oxford and two at Cambridge. The Bishops Bible was to serve as the basis of the new translation.
In time the new King James translation was finished and the first copies came from the press. On its title page was written, “Appointed to be read in churches”. Also attached to the translation was a dedication to the King, “To the most high, and mighty prince James.” Because of these words this translation is generally known as the King James Version.
Shown here is the original edition of 1611. The King James Bible was a large volume as most its predecessors had been. It looked very much like the Bishops Bible which it was designed to replace.
More than 350 years have passed since King James’ men completed their work. They did their work well. However, since English is a living language, other translations have continued to appear in order to express in contemporary terms the same truths of the Bible. Men like Erasmus, Tyndale and Coverdale, had blazed the trail for these newer translations.
Even the blind can read the Bible because the Bible has been translated into Braille.
The Bible has been translated into over 2,000 different languages all over the world. There are still many translations to be made and there is an effort to have the Bible translated into every known tongue by the year 2025.
Original text and slides of lessons 1-4 from "How We Got the Bible", ©1970 Gospel Services, Inc. Used by permission. Various edits and new audio recordings by the Bible Study Center 2006-2014.
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