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How We Got The Bible


Soon after the New Testament was completed, translation work began. The first translation was probably into Latin. This was the official language of the Roman Empire, though Greek was the most widely spoken language among Christians, even in Italy. At first Greek was used in most churches, but from the second century on many local translations were made. Eventually, however, people felt that there should be a standard text that could be recognized and used by everyone. In this lesson we are going to talk about some of the major contributions and contributors which brought the Bible into the 21st Century.

In about AD 384 Pope Damascus instructed his secretary to revise the Latin New Testament. This man was Jerome. He is the first Bible translator whose name has come down to us. His Latin translation, the VULGATE (or Common Version), has been the standard Bible of the Roman Catholic Church ever since. Scores of other translations have been made from it, including the first English ones. Jerome was a good scholar and he did his work well. In order to translate the Old Testament he learned Hebrew, living for many years in Bethlehem.

During the Middle Ages, (the centuries following the break-up of the Roman Empire in the West), Christianity was spreading fast, especially in Northern and Eastern Europe. As the church grew, parts of the Bible were translated into many new languages. Most of the early works of translations that have been found are only portions of the scriptures, rather than our whole Bible.

In the latter part of the Middle Ages the Protestant Reformation began. During this a number of new Bible versions appeared. These were designed to be read by ordinary Christians and the work was supported by people who were critical of the official church leadership.

One of the main characters involved in the Reformation was John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian. He became convinced that the Bible was so important that it must be available to everyone. As a result, he began translating and by 1384 the Bible had been translated into English. Wycliffe made an English translation of the Latin Vulgate. Most of the translating was done, not by Wycliffe, but by John Purvey, Nicholas of Hereford and other followers of Wycliffe. In the translation the Latin text was closely followed, even in its very un-English order of words. It was later revised to have better and clearer English.

Another great effect on the Bible occurred around 1450 AD at Mainz, Germany. Before this time, any copying of manuscripts, including the Bible, had to be done by hand. Johann Gutenberg, a printer by profession, pioneered the process of printing from movable type. His work began a new era in the history of books, and with them of the Bible. One of the first works to come from the press was the Bible (1456) - in Latin.

Until 1516, all versions translated were based on existing original manuscripts or translated from the Latin. But with the revival of learning, texts in the original languages began to be studied more. Jewish scholars had preserved the Hebrew Bible and in 1488 they printed it in Italy. The Greek New Testament was first published by Erasmus (a Dutch scholar) in 1516.

William Tyndale, who had been a scholar at Cambridge, was influenced by the writings of Erasmus, began to translate the New Testament into English. The church authorities game him no encouragement so he went to Germany to finish his work. The first New Testament printed in English appeared at Worms, Germany in 1526. Copies soon reached England and were eagerly studied but authorities denounced them and even bought and burned them. This did not stop Tyndale. His reaction was to publish a better version and print it again. By 1566 it had been printed forty times. Tyndale was eventually killed, but his work started a movement which eventually led to the Bible being available to be read by anyone in their own language.

In 1535, Miles Coverdale published the first whole Bible in English. It was printed abroad but made its way to England. Coverdale did not work from the original Greek and Hebrew. He based his work on that of William Tyndale, Martin Luther (a reformer who made a German translation) and the Latin versions. Coverdale was the first to include chapter summaries, as in the King James Version and to separate the Apocrypha from the Old Testament books. His version later found acceptance from Henry VIII, the King of England.


In 1537 came the first Bible actually printed in England. It had on it the name ‘Thomas Matthew’, the pen name of John Rogers, a fellow-worker of Tyndale’s. This translation is what we know as Matthew’s Version. It is made up mostly of Tyndale’s translation, and contains a good deal of extra material in the form of indexes and notes. It was the first Bible to be published ‘with the King’s most gracious license’.

In 1538 an order was issued with the King’s authority that the clergy must provide ‘a book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English’ to be set ‘in some convenient place within the church, where the parishioners may most conveniently resort to the same and read it.’ The book the king intended was the Great Bible, Coverdale’s revision of Matthew’s Version. It appeared in 1539. Its second edition contained a preface by Archbishop of Cranmer encouraging everyone to read the Bible. It also contained the note: ‘This is the Bible appointed for the use of the churches.’ The Great Bible remained in the churches throughout the reign of Edward VI and some even in the reign of Queen Mary of England (1553-58).

The Geneva Bible appeared in 1560. It was the work of scholarly English exiles who worked in Geneva, Switzerland (which is where it gets its name). This version was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. It contained the first translation of Ezra to Malachi directly from Hebrew. The Hebrew idiom was kept whenever possible, in the New as well as the Old Testament. They also included the Apocrypha and study guides, marginal notes and maps to aid the Bible student and became a very popular Bible. In Britain and Germany it was printed seventy times. In Scotland this was the Bible officially read in churches.

The Bishops’ Bible was completed in 1568. This Bible was mainly the work of the bishops with Archbishop Parker in the lead. This is why it has the name of the Bishops’ Bible. It was a revision of the Great Bible commissioned by the Church of England. The revisers aimed to improve the accuracy of the text, to change expressions offensive to public taste and to avoid controversial notes and interpretations. The result of this revision was not as good as the Geneva Bible and as a result was not a popular.

King James I of England, when he came to the throne, agreed to create a new revision of the Bible. He himself took a share in organizing the work which was entrusted to six teams of scholars. The work was based on the Bishops’ Bible, but using the original Hebrew and Greek. This famous translation, the King James’ Version, was completed in 1611. It is called the Authorized Version although it was never formally authorized. There was a dedication to James and a long preface, ‘The translator to the Reader’ was added that answers criticisms and states the translators’ purpose, stresses the care taken in making it etc. This version had enormous prestige for 350 years.

One year before the Authorized Version, in 1610, the standard Roman Catholic version, the Douai Bible was published. This was the work of Gregory Martin and others at the English College at Douai, France. His New Testament appeared in 1582 when the college was at Rheimes. He tried to translate the Vulgate word for word, sometimes making little sense. Many found the language of the Douai Bible hard to understand and much revision work was done. Much of the revisions were influenced by the Authorized Version.


A number of private revisions of the Authorized Version and new translations were made in the following centuries. Some of them were based on much older and more reliable Greek manuscripts than the ‘Received Text’ from which the Authorized Version was made.

In 1870 the Church of England made a decision to make a revision of the Authorized Version, making only necessary changes. This was the English Revised Version. The New Testament is based on a far more ancient Greek text than the Authorized Version, relying chiefly on the fourth-century Vatican and Sinaitic Codices. This translation was introduced in 1898.

The American scholars who had been associated with the English Revised Version produced the American Standard Version in 1901. This version is basically the same as the Revised Version except for differences in American and English idiom.

In 1937 the council which held the copyright for the American Standard Version decided to make a revision. This is what we know as the Revised Standard Version. The New Testament appeared in 1946 and the Old Testament in 1952. Its language is a compromise between the outdated language made familiar by the King James Version and modern English. Most of the outdated words are gone. In Isaiah some changes have been introduced because of new information available in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1973 a new edition, known as The Common Bible, was issued. It was authorized by Roman Catholic authorities as well as the RSV committee.

In 1946 the Church of Scotland approached the main British churches and suggested an entirely new translation, the New English Bible. The idea was welcomed and soon scholars began work. The New Testament appeared in 1961 and the Old Testament in 1970. The New English Bible takes all the latest research into account. The Dead Sea Scrolls have given new information on the Old Testament Text. Newly discovered documents in languages related to Hebrew have revealed the meanings of some difficult words. This translation was intended to be in modern English without the old-fashioned ‘Biblical’ language of the Authorized Version.

In 1966 Roman Catholic translators published the Jerusalem Bible. This was a new version made from the original languages. It was similar to the French Bible de Jerusalem and included the introductions and notes from the French translation. This translation has been widely used by Protestants as well as Roman Catholics. Its language is more lively and modern than that of the Revised Standard Version.

The Good News Bible was produced by the American Bible Society. The New Testament was published in 1966 and the Old Testament in 1976. The aim of this translation was to be a reliable and accurate translation using words which make the meanings clear to everyone. Even those who have no Bible background and who use English as their second language can use this translation without much difficulty. Its basic aim is to provide in English the closest natural equivalent of the original language. A second aim concerns the level of language, to be more readable than most. Scholarly, poetical and technical religious terms are avoided and so are slang expressions. The result is a ‘common language’.

The New International Version is one of the most popular of the more recent translations to be published, particularly to Protestant religious groups. The Old Testament was published in 1972 and the New Testament in 1979. The translation was made by a team of Protestant evangelical scholars, mainly from the USA. This translation uses the most recent results of research and archaeology to try and make an accurate translation in the tradition of earlier English Bibles.


In addition to the many translations we have looked at a great number of translations came into being in the twentieth century. Many of the following versions were translated by individuals or a group of people from a specific religious group.

The Twentieth Century New Testament (TCNT) came into print in 1902. The translation was made by thirty or so British translators including ministers, housewives, schoolteachers, etc… however no textual experts. They used the translation text created by Wescott and Hort, an early text giving it more accuracy than some of the earlier translations. It is an easy to read and understand translation. Unlike most translations it orders the books of the New Testament in the order they were written.

The first edition of the Weymouth New Testament, also known as the New Testament in Modern Speech came to shelves in 1903. It was translated by a man named Richard Francis Weymouth but was edited and published a year after his death in 1902 by his secretary Ernest Hampden-Cook. Weymouth made his translation using the translation text he put together. The version divides long sentences and includes section headings, and it uses dignified and sometimes old-fashioned language.

A New Translation of the Bible, completed in 1926 was translated by James Moffat, a theologian and minister of the Free Church of Scotland. His translation was not a revision of an old translation but a brand new translation from the original languages. He states in his preface that "The aim I have endeavoured to keep before my mind in making this translation has been to present the books of the Old and the New Testament in effective, intelligible English.” Though his translation was very readable, his version was very different from some of the traditional translations.

Edgar J. Goodspeed, a Baptist scholar, published The Complete Bible: an American Translation in 1935. His translation was meant to be a very readable translation and even included the Apocrypha (in the 1939 version). The Old Testament was the work of four other scholars.

The Basic English Bible, completed in 1949, is a translation of the Bible into Basic English. Professor S. Hooke used 850 Basic English words. This also included 100 poetry words and 50 “Bible” words, bringing the count up to 1,000 words.

An Anglican minister named J.B. Phillips produced The New Testament in Modern English. During World War II Phillips began rewording the text of the epistles for his youth group who met in bomb shelters in 1947. He continued working through the rest of the New Testament until he completed his translation in 1958. His version is a paraphrase which is not so well known.

The Berkeley Version is a conservative Bible version completed in 1959. The New Testament was translated by Dr. Gerrit Verkuyl; the editor in chief. The Old Testament was translated by a team of scholars in the USA. Since its completion a revision has been done and is known as The Modern Language Bible: The New Berkeley Version in Modern English.

The Amplified Bible was first produced in the USA. It took several years to complete the whole Bible revision from the NIV. The full Bible was published in 1965. This version is a paraphrase and includes alternative and additional words to bring out the meaning of the passages.

Kenneth Taylor produced The Living Bible in 1971. This was a revision made from the American Standard Version. Taylor started this work by rewording his family’s daily devotional reading in simple English so his children would be able to understand. It is a paraphrase primarily designed for family reading.

New American Standard Version is a revision of the American Standard Version published in 1971 using modern English. Another revision of a famous translation is the New King James Version, also known as the Revised Authorized Version, published in 1982. This was a revision of the KJV made to deal with changes of language and the meaning of words since the 1611 edition.

The Easy to Read Version was completed and published in 1987. This translation was made with the goal of creating a simple to read and understand translation for those who are deaf. This translation uses simple English and short sentences to convey the Biblical message. The World Bible Translation center used the earliest available translation texts for this version.

Many more translations have been made than what we have listed. Evidence of this can be seen when you walk into any bookstore and go to the section on religion and look at all the Bibles available.

Translation Statistics 6,900 Approximate number of languages spoken in the world today 1,300 Number of translations to new languages currently in progress 1,185 Number of languages the New Testament has been translated into 451 Number of languages the Bible (Protestant Canon) has been translated into From

The Reformation in the sixteenth century ushered in a new age for the Bible and its availability to people. The Bible was now translated into all major European languages. With the birth of the modern missionary movement, the Scriptures have been translated into many hundreds of languages. And while there are still hundreds of language groups without the Word of God, English-speaking readers of the Bible are almost embarrassed by the large number of versions available today.


You might ask why there are so many translations available for us today. This question makes it difficult for some Bible readers to know which version to use. Because these versions differ from one another, people can become confused. Let’s look at some of the reasons we have so many versions.

1. Use of different original texts - Translators do not always use the same Hebrew and Greek texts for their translations of the Old and New Testaments. As we learned in our earlier lessons, we only have copies of the original manuscripts and none of these copies are free from all errors. Every translator or reviser, therefore, has to decide which readings he is going to follow.

For example: The ending of the gospel of Mark. All major manuscripts end this Gospel at 16:8. But because the wording of the verses seems abrupt the longer ending, found in other manuscripts, is added in most modern translations, either as a footnote or in brackets, indicating that Mark 16:9-20 is not found in the better Greek manuscripts or ancient versions.

2. Hebrew and Aramaic are Semitic languages and have different sentence structure from that of English, and even the Greek of the New Testament. The way that things are said in Hebrew and Greek can be worded differently. Sometimes words are left out or added in and there are some words that do not translate word-for-word into the English language.

For example, look at Mark 13:1. If we were to translate into English the order of the Greek words we would have “And going out he from the temple he says to him one of the disciples of him, Teacher...” The translators change the word order to make it more readable. Since the sentence structure of the original Biblical languages is different from ours, the translations of this language into English will vary. The same applies to Hebrew.

3. Hebrew and Greek have different verbal systems, and the tenses of the English verb have to be adapted to these.

Greek for example has four past tenses. Each of these tenses has its own subtle variations. A translator must study the context and determine for himself what to use and how to translate the passage. Obviously, not every translator will agree with the others.

4. There are rarely EXACT equivalents in English for Hebrew and Greek words.

For example, the Greek word parakletos. Should we translate parakletos as “comforter, helper, advocate, encourager, consoler, counselor, or friend”? There are many words that could be used. This is just one word!

5. Besides having a list of options, a translator will not always translate the same word in the same way in every passage because some words have a certain meaning in a certain context.

For example, the English word “bar” can be used in several ways. “A candy bar”, “a bar of soap”, “he was admitted to the bar”, “He put a bar across the window” or “he goes to the bar for a drink”. This is why translations don’t always render the same Greek or Hebrew word by the same English word.

6. Transliteration. To transliterate is to write a word from another language down in English letters. Sometimes, translators are hesitant to give their interpretation, and choose to transliterate. The Greek word parakletos may be used in English as “Paraclete”, but that is not an English word. Another example is the word baptizo. It is normally not translated at all, but transliterated as “baptize”.

7. At times a Greek word may appear to have an exact equivalent in English, but the cultural context gives it a different ring.

Example: John 2:4 - When Jesus addresses his mother as “woman” that sounds discourteous to us, but it wasn’t in Jesus’ day. So what does a translator do? Some have tried to soften the words by using the word “madam” or “my dear woman”, etc.

8. English is constantly changing. Since living languages are constantly changing words take on new meanings, and new words are formed. Many words that were familiar to English readers in 1611 for example when the Authorized Version was published are no longer common words or have changed their meaning. Words like “hath, saith, thou, thee”, etc.”. Some words whose meanings have changed are “allege” was used for “prove”, “communicate” for “share”, “suffer” for “allow”, “allow” for “approve”, “let” for “hinder” as well as others.

9. Different ways of translating. Every translator (or translation team) must agree on some basic principles according to which the translators are to work.

a. First it must be decided whether the new version is to be a revision of existing versions, or a fresh translation. If it is a revision then the reviews must agree on whether it is only the English that is to be revised or whether the revision will reflect also a different textual base from that of the parent version. For example the English Revised Version of the New Testament (1881) was a revision of the Authorized Version (1611), but it followed a text that was different from that of the Authorized Version in numerous places. The Revised Standard Version was basically a revision of the American Standard Version (1901), but strove to retain as much of the Authorized Version language as modern English would allow.

b. Translators must decide whether they are going to follow the word order of the Hebrew and Greek as much as English allows them to do, or whether they are going to do a sense translation. If the version is to have reasonably good English, then a “literal” translation is impossible. On the other hand, if one seeks to transfer the meaning of Hebrew and Greek sentences into English, then one opens the door a bit more widely to interpretation by the translator.

c. Translators must decide how much explanation their version is to have. In other words how much will be paraphrased.

d. Translators have to agree on the cultural level of the English they are going to use. This also includes the style of English used.

e. Translators must agree on how to deal with special problems in translations:

? How will they render the name of God? Should it be Jehovah, Yahweh, Lord, Master, etc.? ? Will they use punctuation? Since the early manuscripts have few punctuation marks the translator has to supply them. This can sometimes cause different translations to render the same reading as a question or a statement and can sometimes change the meaning completely. ? There are still words in Hebrew and Greek whose meanings are not absolutely clear to this day. Ex. What does Behemoth mean? It has been translated as hippopotamus, crocodile, elephant and just behemoth, in different translations. ? How will they translate words dealing with money? One way is to simply transliterate and use words like denarius, drachma, talanton, etc., and then let the reader seek to discover their current values. Obviously an American version will differ from a British version if they seek to use current monetary terms. The same thing applies for weights and measures. Even if one uses the current monetary terms, one still has to know the buying power of the original term in order to give the approximate current value.


Now we need to look at the question, “Which is the best English version?” Here are some things to consider in choosing a Bible:

Accuracy. The accuracy of a Bible translation is very important. A version must, first of all, be based on the most accurate Hebrew and Greek texts, and the texts must also be translated accurately. Almost all Bibles have a “Preface” at the beginning. In this preface, you can find out information like:

1. Who were the translators? (You need to ask questions like: Was it made by one man, or a group of men? A particular religious group? What are the credentials of those involved in the translating? Do they have any knowledge of the original languages? etc… A reader is safer in choosing a version that has been done by a broadly based translation team rather than by one individual.) 2. Where the work was done and procedure followed in making the translation? (The way a translation is made has a great effect on its accuracy) 3. What manuscripts, or texts, did the translators use as their basis of translation? 4. What was the translators’ reason for making this translation? (The reasons behind a translation are also important to consider. You can find out whether the translation was made because a particular teaching is favored. You can find out who the intended readers are, for example, the deaf, the young, a certain age group. And, you can find out if it was made by or for a particular religious group. Etc.)

Who will be using the Bible? If for example you are looking for a Bible for children, then you would look for one written in simple English and maybe with illustrations and pictures. If you are looking for a study Bible then you might choose one that is translated more literally. If you are looking for one to use for every day reading a different style may appeal to you. When choosing a version you must ask what it is to be used for. What is best for one reader may not be the best for another.

Paraphrased Bibles. Some Bibles are what we call paraphrased. The translators of these Bibles do not attempt to make an exact translation. Instead, they read the original text, decide what they think it says, and then word it the way they feel it should be worded to get the message across to the average person. These Bibles are not exactly what we would call translations, because actual translation does not take place. They are all paraphrases.

It is not wise to limit yourself to one version, but to several, especially if you want to study the Bible seriously without knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. If a Bible student uses only one version for Bible study there is always the danger on building too much of particular wording found in one version.

Few translations are deliberate distortion of the Biblical message and so we can read most versions with considerable confidence. No translation is PERFECT, but if we will use several versions, so that one serves as a check on the other then the chances of our being misled decrease dramatically than if we rely on only one version of the Bible. If you keep these things in mind when studying and choosing what Bible to use you will have a better understanding of what God says in his word and will not be deceived.

This concludes our study of How We Got the Bible. We hope that you have enjoyed learning about the journey the Bible we have today has gone through to get to us. It is an amazing journey and is not over yet! The Bible is not going away and will probably be around for many more centuries to come…

Closing Thought---

24 For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: 25 But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you. 1 Peter 1:24 -25