A Brief Survey of English Translations


English Translations prior to 1611

The early Christian leader Jerome translated the Bible into Latin around AD 400 (dubbed the Vulgate, from a Latin word meaning “common”), and for a thousand years churches in the British Isles had to use this Bible. We have John Wycliffe to thank for the first complete translation of the Bible into English. The Wycliffe Bible (New Testament in 1380) was actually a word-for-word translation from Latin into English rather than from the original Hebrew and Greek. Wycliffe was accused of being a heretic and suffered persecution for his willingness to translate the Bible into the language of ordinary people. People were threatened with severe penalties for even reading this forbidden Bible. Shortly after Wycliffe’s death in 1384, John Purvey produced a second (and much improved) edition. Purvey’s revision of the Wycliffe Bible (1388) dominated the English-speaking scene for some two hundred years — until the time of William Tyndale.

With the invention of the printing press in the mid–1400s, the renewed interest in the classical languages associated with the Renaissance, and the changes brought on by the Protestant Reformation (early 1500s), English Bible translation shifted into high gear. William Tyndale produced an English New Testament (1526) based on the Greek text rather than the Latin, but he did not live to complete his translation of the Old Testament. In 1536 Tyndale was executed and his body burned for his resolute commitment to Bible translation and his desire to “make the boy that drives the plough in England know more of Scripture” than many a scholar.

Shortly before Tyndale’s death, Miles Coverdale produced a translation of the entire Bible into English (Coverdale Bible, 1535). Two years later John Rogers, an associate of Tyndale, completed the Matthew Bible, using the pen name Thomas Matthew. The Matthew Bible was in large part a completion of Tyndale’s work. Like Tyndale, John Rogers suffered martyrdom in connection with his commitment to Bible translation. In 1539 Coverdale revised the Matthew Bible, a revision that became known as the Great Biblebecause of its larger-than-normal size (approximately 161⁄2 x 11 inch pages). The Great Bible was the first English translation authorized to be read in the Church of England and became popular with the people.

During the infamous reign of Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), many Protestants fled from England to Protestant havens of refuge such as Geneva, Switzerland, the home of John Calvin. While in Geneva, the Oxford scholar William Whittingham (with some help from others) made a complete revision of the English Bible. The popular Geneva Bible (1560) was “the Bible of Shakespeare, the Bible of the Puritans, and the Bible of the Pilgrim Fathers.” Yet because of the Calvinistic marginal notes in the Geneva Bible, the bishops of England were unwilling to use it in English churches. Yet since the Geneva Bible was superior to the Great Bible in translation quality, the bishops knew they needed a new translation. Matthew Parker, the archbishop of Canterbury, was asked to oversee the revision of the Great Bible. The Bishops’ Bible was completed in 1568. The Roman Catholic Church also needed an English translation with marginal notes in support of its doctrine. Although not of the same quality as the Protestant English translations (because of its close adherence to the Latin Vulgate), the Douai-Rheims Bible (1593) served this purpose.

The Authorized Version of 1611

Since none of the previous translations was able to satisfy all the different factions within the English church, in 1604 King James I authorized a new translation of the whole Bible for use in the churches of England. The leading university scholars in England produced the Authorized Version of 1611, commonly known as the King James Version. In order to generate the thousands of copies needed, two different printers were used. This resulted in two editions, named after their different translations of Ruth 3:15. The “He” edition read, “he [Boaz] went into the city,” while the “She” edition read, “she [Ruth] went into the city.” There were more than two hundred variations between these two editions as well as some mistakes. For example, the “He” edition says “then cometh Judas” in Matthew 26:36 instead of “then cometh Jesus.” The “She” edition repeats twenty words in Exodus 14:10. Even from the start it was difficult to determine the real KJV. The King James Version of 1611 also included the Apocrypha, a group of Jewish books recognized as canonical by Catholics but not by Protestants.

The goal of the KJV translators was to translate the original Greek and Hebrew texts into the language of ordinary people, with enough dignity to be used in church. From the original preface to the 1611 version we learn that these scholars were keenly aware that their new translation would bring opposition from those who refused to break with tradition. They wrote:

For was anything ever undertaken with a touch of newness or improvement about it that didn’t run into storms of argument or opposition? . . . [The king] was well aware that whoever attempts anything for the public, especially if it has to do with religion or with making the word of God accessible and understandable, sets himself up to be frowned upon by every evil eye, and casts himself headlong on a row of pikes, to be stabbed by every sharp tongue. For meddling in any way with a people’s religion is meddling with their customs, with their inalienable rights. And although they may be dissatisfied with what they have, they cannot bear to have it altered.

In spite of the dangers associated with Bible translation, the translators were committed to the ongoing ministry of making the Scriptures available in the language of ordinary people.

So the Church should always be ready with translations in order to avoid the same kind of emergencies [i.e., the inability to understand because of a language barrier]. Translation is what opens the window, to let the light in. It breaks the shell, so that we may eat the kernel. It pulls the curtain aside, so that we may look into the most holy place. It removes the cover from the well, so that we may get to the water. . . . In fact, without a translation in the common language, most people are like the children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw the water with; or like the person mentioned by Isaiah who was given a sealed book and told, “Please read this,” and had to answer, “I can not, because it is sealed” (Isaiah 29.11).[9]

Early on, the King James Version faced severe attacks from certain quarters. Dr. Hugh Broughton, an eminent biblical scholar of that day, was famous for his caustic remarks: “Tell His Majesty that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches. The new edition crosseth me. I require it to be burnt.”[10] In spite of such criticism, the King James Version eventually became one of the most widely used translations in the English-speaking world.

Because languages (including English) change over time, the King James Version itself needed to be revised. There have been many major revisions (1629, 1638, 1729, 1762), but the 1769 revision by Benjamin Blayney (known as the Oxford Standard Edition) is the edition still in use today. Many people are unaware that the 1769 edition of the KJV differs in thousands of places from the original 1611 edition. Language can change a lot in the span of 150 years.

Contemporary readers face two major obstacles with the KJV. First, the translators of the KJV worked from an inferior Greek text constructed from only a few, late New Testament manuscripts. Since the KJV first appeared, many older manuscripts have been discovered, and scholars contend that these older manuscripts are much more likely to reflect the original text. In contrast to the Greek text on which the KJV is based, scholars today are able to translate from a Greek text that draws on more than five thousand New Testament manuscripts, some dating back to the second century. Often differences between the KJV and contemporary translations such as the NIV are due to differences in the underlying Greek text. Here are several examples.

Verse King James Version New International Version
Acts 8:37 36And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 36As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [No verse 37] 38And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
1 John 5:7–8 7For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.8And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
Rev. 22:19 19And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. 19And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.

A second obstacle is the KJV’s use of archaic English words and phrases. In addition to the use of obsolete terms such as “aforetime,” “must needs,” “howbeit,” “holden,” “peradventure,” and “whereto,” the KJV is filled with out-of-date expressions that either fail to communicate with contemporary readers or mislead them entirely. Consider the following:

    • Genesis 43:25: “And they made ready the present against Joseph came at noon.”
    • Exodus 19:18: “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke.”
    • 1 Samuel 5:12: “And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods.”

[What are “emerods”?]

  • Psalm 5:6: “Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing.”
  • Luke 17:9: “Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.”
  • Acts 7:44–45: “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen. Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Jesus[Joshua] into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drave out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David.”
  • 2 Cor. 8:1: “Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia.”
  • James 2:3: “And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing.”
  • James 5:11: “The Lord is very pitiful.”

The King James Version was a good translation for the early 1600s since it was written in the English of the early 1600s. Today, however, most of us would have trouble even reading a page of the original 1611 version, since it was printed in archaic English.

To argue that we should still use the 1769 KJV edition (the one that is popular today) is to admit the necessity of revising a translation. This is the case since there have been thousands of changes from 1611 to 1769; they are literally two different Bibles. Why not continue the process of revision by drawing on the latest in biblical scholarship and using language that today’s readers can understand? Anything less seems to violate the intent of those who translated the original King James Version. Let’s turn our attention now to what happened in Bible translation after 1611.

English Translations since 1611

A number of more recent English translations have some connection (direct or indirect) to updating the King James Version. The English Revised Version (1881–1885) was the first such revision and the first English translation to make use of modern principles of textual criticism. As a result, the Greek text underlying the ERV was different from that of the KJV. In 1901 American scholars produced their own revision of the ERV: the American Standard Version. Toward the middle of the twentieth century (1946–1952), the Revised Standard Version appeared. The goal of the RSV translators was to capture the best of modern scholarship regarding the meaning of Scriptures and to express that meaning in English designed for public and private worship— the same qualities that had given the KJV such high standing in English literature.

The New American Standard Bible (1971, rev. ed. 1995) claimed to be a revision of the ASV, but probably should be viewed as a new translation. The NASB (or NAS) is one of the more popular translations that adheres closely to the form of the original languages. The New King James Version (1979–1982) attempts to update the language of the KJV while retaining the same underlying Greek text that the translators of the KJV used (commonly called the Textus Receptus or TR). This preference for the TR distinguishes the NKJV from the other revisions, which make use of a better Greek text (commonly called an eclectic Greek text), based on older and more reliable readings of the Greek. The New Revised Standard Version, a thorough revision of the RSV, was completed in 1989 with the goal of being as literal as possible and as free as necessary. The accompanying chart illustrates the relationship between translations that are related in some way to revising the KJV.

In addition to the KJV revisions noted above, committees of scholars have produced many other new translations in recent years. Catholic scholars have completed two major translations: the New American Bible (1941–1970 and the Jerusalem Bible (1966). What makes these significant is that not until 1943 did the Roman Catholic Church permit scholars to translate from the original Greek and Hebrew. Until that time, their translation had to be based on the Latin Vulgate. The New Jerusalem Bible, a revision of the Jerusalem Bible, appeared in 1985 and the New American Bible, Revised Edition in 2011. Both the New English Bible (1961–1970) and its revision, the Revised English Bible (1989), are translations into contemporary British idiom. The American Bible Society completed the Good News Bible in 1976 (also called Today’s English Version). The transl tors of this version sought to express the meaning of the original text in conversational English (even for those with English as a second language). In the New International Version (1973, 1978, 1984), a large committee of evangelical scholars sought to produce a translation in international English offering a middle ground between a word-for-word approach and a thought-for-thought approach.

The New Century Version (1987) and the Contemporary English Version (1991–1995) are recent translations that utilize a simplified, thought-for-thought approach to translation. A similar translation from the translators of the NIV is the New International Reader’s Version (1995–1996).

The New Living Translation (1996) is a fresh, thought-for-thought translation based on the popular paraphrase, the Living Bible(1967–1971). A recent attempt by an individual (rather than a committee) to render the message of Scripture in the language of today’s generation is The Message by Eugene Peterson (1993–2002). The Message claims to be a translation but reads more like a paraphrase aimed at grabbing the reader’s attention. God’s Word Translation (1995) uses the “closest natural equivalence” approach to translation in an attempt to translate the meaning of the original texts into clear, everyday language. The New English Translation, commonly referred to as the NET Bible (1998), offers an electronic version of a modern translation for distribution over the Internet. Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection (including translators and missionaries) can have access to this new version, not to mention that it is under continual revision.

Today’s New International Version (2001) is an attempt to revise the NIV, using the best of contemporary biblical scholarship and changes in the English language. The English Standard Version (2001) is a word-for-word translation that uses the RSV as its starting point. Its goal is to be as literal as possible while maintaining beauty, dignity of expression, and literary excellence. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (1999–2004) is a new Bible translation that promotes a word-for-word approach unless clarity and readability demand a more idiomatic translation, in which case the literal form is often put in a footnote. The Common English Bible(2011) is a fresh translation in the liberal Protestant tradition.

Most recently, the Committee on Bible Translation has revised the most popular of all modern English translations of the Bible, the New International Version. The NIV 2011 incorporates many of the improvements of the NIV (1984) made by the TNIV but with more precision in the area of gender-inclusive language.

Our survey of the history of English Bible translations running from the Middle English of John Wycliffe’s 1380 translation to the NIV 2011 has been a brief one. We have only hit the high points in a long and rich history. We move now to explore the different approaches to Bible translation.

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