The History of Bible Translations

John Wycliffe


This post is the second in a series of three based on a teaching series on Bible translations which I am teaching on Sunday nights. For the first post on “The Necessity and Purpose of Bible Translations” click here.
George Santayana is credited with having said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Interestingly, much of the controversy over modern Bible translations today is a repetition of mistakes made in the past by previous generations.
When we study the history of Bible translations a lot of the disagreements about Bible versions just melt away. Studying the history of Bible translations serves to clarify many of the issues while correcting many misunderstandings.

There is no virtue in accepting something just because it is new. Neither is there any virtue in rejecting something just because it is new. There are two extremes that we need to avoid. They are the extremes of novelty. First, we need to avoid the extreme of novelty. Just because something is new doesn’t mean that it is better. This is true in the area of Bible translations. We don’t need 100 different translations of the Bible into English. We don’t need a Bible specifically translated for left-handed diabetics. But on the other hand we need to avoid the extreme of tradition that says everything new is bad, just because it is new. As James White wrote in his book called The King James Controversy, “Believers have to walk the narrow path between these two extremes” (p. 9). According to Jesus in Mark 7, it is possible to reject the Word of God by man’s traditions. This has happened before in church history and I believe it is happening today in some circles. Here are a couple of examples from history:

The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek by 70 scholars at Alexandria around 200 BC. It is called the Septuagint from the Greek word for 70. Also known as the LXX (the Roman Numerals for 70). The LXX was the translation of the Old Testament used by the authors of the New Testament.

Many Christians believed the LXX to be an inspired translation of the Old Testament. When Jerome began translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin some were upset. In fact, the great St. Augustine opposed the reading of Jerome’s translation. His explanation went as follows:

[M]y only reason for objecting to the public reading of your translation from the Hebrew in our churches was, lest, bringing forward anything which was, as it were, new and opposed to the authority of the Septuagint version, we should trouble by serious cause offense the flocks of Christ, whose ears and hearts have become accustomed to listen to that version to which the seal of approbation was given by the apostles themselves.
Quoted in James White’s The King James Only Controversy, pp. 11-12

Sound familiar? The same argument is being used today in defense of the KJV.

The Old and New Testaments were translated into Latin in the early 400’s (5th Century) by Jerome. This translation is called the Latin Vulgate and was the official Bible of Christendom for approximately 1200 years! Then along came Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus went back to the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Using six or so manuscripts, Erasmus put together something called the Textus Receptus or the “Received Text”. This was the Greek text from which the English translations of 16th and 17th centuries translated the New Testament (this includes the KJV). Interestingly, just as many had opposed Jerome’s Vulgate for leaving the LXX, now many opposed Erasmus for leaving Jerome’s Vulgate. Erasmus, like Jerome was accused of changing the Word of God. Every time in Church history when a translation of the Bible has become the traditional accepted Bible after centuries of use, the result is a strong reaction against the new translation as changing God’s Word. This is what we’re seeing today in our generation with the KJV. After one translation of the Bible has been dominant for 400 years, all new translations are now considered to be an attempt to change God’s Word. This should not be the case, especially when considering that the real issue is not how a particular translation measures up to the KJV but how it measures up to what is actually in the Hebrew and Greek texts!

Perhaps, it is very possible that sometime 400-500 years from now there will be a group of people who are NIV only or ESV only. I hope not, but if they fail to learn from history it could happen!

After introducing the topic of the history of Bible translations, I continued by providing a brief historical survey of English Bible translations. For this purpose I used the history and timeline available online at greatsite.com. This is a great resource for the study of the history of the Bible. To access the English Bible history and timeline click here. Below is the section of the timeline which I used in my study:

1384 AD: Wycliffe is the First Person to Produce a (Hand-Written) manuscript Copy of the Complete Bible; All 80 Books.

1455 AD: Gutenberg Invents the Printing Press; Books May Now be mass-Produced Instead of Individually Hand-Written. The First Book Ever Printed is Gutenberg’s Bible in Latin.

1516 AD: Erasmus Produces a Greek/Latin Parallel New Testament.

1526 AD: William Tyndale’s New Testament; The First New Testament printed in the English Language.

1535 AD: Myles Coverdale’s Bible; The First Complete Bible printed in the English Language (80 Books: O.T. & N.T. & Apocrypha).

1537 AD: Tyndale-Matthews Bible; The Second Complete Bible printed in English. Done by John “Thomas Matthew” Rogers (80 Books).

1539 AD: The “Great Bible” Printed; The First English Language Bible Authorized for Public Use (80 Books).

1560 AD: The Geneva Bible Printed; The First English Language Bible to add Numbered Verses to Each Chapter (80 Books).

1568 AD: The Bishops Bible Printed; The Bible of which the King James was a Revision (80 Books).

1609 AD: The Douay Old Testament is added to the Rheims New Testament (of 1582) Making the First Complete English Catholic Bible; Translated from the Latin Vulgate (80 Books).

1611 AD: The King James Bible Printed; Originally with All 80 Books. The Apocrypha was Officially Removed in 1885 Leaving Only 66 Books.

1833 AD: Noah Webster’s Bible; After Producing his Famous Dictionary, Webster Printed his Own Revision of the King James Bible.

1846 AD: The Illuminated Bible; The Most Lavishly Illustrated Bible printed in America. A King James Version, with All 80 Books.

1885 AD: The “English Revised Version” Bible; The First Major English Revision of the KJV.

1901 AD: The “American Standard Version”; The First Major American Revision of the KJV.

1971 AD: The “New American Standard Bible” (NASB) is Published as a “Modern and Accurate Word for Word English Translation” of the Bible.

1973 AD: The “New International Version” (NIV) is Published as a “Modern and Accurate Phrase for Phrase English Translation” of the Bible.

1982 AD: The “New King James Version” (NKJV) is Published as a “Modern English Version Maintaining the Original Style of the King James.”

2002 AD: The English Standard Version (ESV) is Published as a translation to bridge the gap between the accuracy of the NASB and the readability of the NIV.

This English Bible History Article & Timeline is ©2002 by author & editor: John L. Jeffcoat III. Special thanks is also given to Dr. Craig H. Lampe for his valuable contributions to the text. This page may be freely reproduced or quoted, in whole or in part, in print or electronically, under the one condition that prominent credit must be given to “WWW.GREATSITE.COM” as the source.
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3 comments

  1. The lesson that was taught on Sunday night at West Broadway was great. My wife said that lesson helped her understand more about the translation debate than in the personal conversations that I have had with her. She said to let you know that it helped her a lot…

  2. I am SO tired of people discriminating against left hand diabetics!

    Actually, this is a good post, and I will give serious consideration to stealing it for my use in Sunday School.

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