Guide to Bible Translations – Part One

04 Mar 2016

Guide to Bible Translations – Part One

Ancient to Modern Versions

From medieval manuscripts read only by clergy to the world’s bestselling book, widely available in contemporary languages, the Bible has come a long way. The Bible is God reveling Himself and communicating with mankind. It is our guide to life bringing hope, direction, and comfort. The Bible was given to us through divine inspiration. “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 NAS) The Bible was originally written in the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic (old testament), and Greek (new testament). The differences in today’s modern language becomes a challenge for us to understand the Bible’s original meaning. Hence, the need for translations into modern contemporary languages.

Manuscripts are copies of the original text. Versions are translations of the manuscripts.

The early Hebrew manuscripts were written on leather in the form of a scroll. We call these documents a codex. Some of the early Hebrew manuscripts used in translating the Bible are the Masoretic text, Codex Cairensis (A.D. 895), and the Aleppo Codex (tenth century A.D.). In 1947 several leather scrolls stuffed in pottery jars were found in a cave near Qumran. These Qumran scrolls became know as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were written and hid in the caves near Qumran by a group of monk scholars called the Essenes. The Dead Sea Scrolls predated both the Cairensis and Aleppo Codex by over a thousand years, and proved the authenticity and accuracy of them and the Masoretic text! It was amazing truth that the manuscripts we had been using to translate the Bible were accurate.

The early Greek manuscripts were written on a material called, Papyrus. The manuscripts were reproduced by scribes who meticulously copied the documents by hand. At this point, the Bible was entirely handwritten by monks. During the first through fourth centuries, the scribes started translating the Bible into the languages of the people. In the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (the dominant language of the Roman empire). He was a master of biblical Hebrew and Greek. It took him twenty-two years to complete the project which became the official version of the Roman Catholic Church. St. Jerome’s Latin edition would be called the Versio Vulgata (or Vulgate).

At this point, the Bible was entirely handwritten by monks.

For the next ten centuries, the primary translation of the Bible was in Latin. These handwritten bibles were rare and sometimes chained to the pulpit in a church to prevent theft. They were also found among the very rich and powerful as a symbol of status. During this time, the complete Bible was largely unavailable even to the clergy. Bible study relied upon small fragmented portions of scripture that were circulated through out the church. Without being able to read the complete flow, context, and meaning of the scriptures; the medieval church developed some strange and distorted doctrines.

The Bible was not available to the everyday common layperson until the fourteenth century when John Wycliffe translated the Latin into English. It was Wycliffe who originated the idea that every man should have a Bible in his own language. By putting the Bible in the hands of the masses, men realized they were responsible for their own personal faith in Christ. This began to challenge the established church’s authority and doctrines.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came the popularity of paper and the invention of the printing press. During the 1450’s Johann Gutenberg produced the first printed Bible.

The Bible was now mass produced.

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. This event became known as the beginning of the reformation movement. But, Luther’s crowning achievement did not come for some years later (1522 A.D.)  when he translated the Greek New Testament into common German. It was William Tyndale who would translate the Greek New Testament into English in 1525. Wycliffe’s translation (1380A.D.) from the Latin was handwritten, but Tyndale’s translation would come from the printing press.

Miles Coverdale would take up where Tyndale left off. In 1535, Coverdale was the first to translate the entire Bible into English. The Geneva Bible of 1560 marks the first time a team of scholars worked together to translate the Bible from the original biblical languages. The Geneva Bible also included notes and was the preferred version of the Pilgrims traveling to the new world in 1620 A.D.

The main issue of the protestant reformation was not that the Bible could now be read by the masses, but the interpretations bypassed the teaching of the established Catholic church. Protestants were interpreting the scriptures from their own reasoning powers without help from the clergy or church tradition. So, the Roman Catholic Church saw the need for a Roman Catholic English Bible. It came in the form of the Douay-Rhemes New Testament. Which was translated in 1582 from the Latin Vulgate not the Greek. Its notes emphasized Catholic doctrines and church authority.

Every man should have a Bible in his own language.

In 1611, the authorized King James version was established. It was translated using the Hebrew and Greek by a team of 54 scholars. Early printing practices, or lack of them, resulted in some errors such as spelling, vocabulary or word omissions. Several revised editions attempted to correct these errors and misprints. Finally in 1769, the revisions became standardized. The King James version of the Bible would last more than three hundred years.

Here we have presented a short historical overview of the ancient Bible versions. A more in depth study of this subject would be beneficial. This is by no means a exhaustive examination of this subject. We have covered only the high points from the monks to the masses in the history of the ancient versions. Men were executed; whole copies of the Bible were burned and lost forever; so that we could have a Bible translated into our own language.

In Guide to Bible Translations – Part Two, we will move into the history and basis for the modern versions of the Bible. May God bless you richly, and may your faith in Him and the Bible increase daily!

Ancient Bible Versions:

405 A.D.  St. Jerome – Latin Vulgate

1380A.D. John Wycliffe

1450A.D Johann Gutenberg

1516A.D. Erasmus – 1st Greek New Testament

1525A.D. William Tyndale

1535A.D. Miles Coverdale

1560A.D. Geneva Bible

1582A.D. Douay-Rhemes – Catholic

1611A.D. King James – Authorized version

1769A.D. King James – Standard version


JD Wilhite

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