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A Short History of the English Bible

February 8, 2011

“In beginning was the Word, and the Word was towards the God, and God was the Word.  This was in beginning towards the God. Everything through him became, and apart-from him became not-even one-thing.  What has-become in him life was, and the life was the light of-the men.  And the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness it not overcame” (Literal rendering of John 1:1-5, by F. F. Bruce).

1) The Bible in its Original Languages

Written by approximately 40 different authors

Written over a 1,500 year span

Written from three continents:  Africa, Asia, Europe

Written in three languages (but really two in the main):

Hebrew (and small portion in Aramaic):  Old Testament

–Originally written only using the consonants (not until the 6th cent. AD would vowel     pointings be added by the Masoretes due to the fear that no one would soon be able to speak     this dying language)

–Vivid in style, rich in imagery

“Perhaps we may be allowed to say that Hebrew is well-suited for narrative and verse but lacks the precision of Greek” (David Ewert).

Greek:  New Testament

Latin was the language of government and the military, but Greek was spoken on the streets.      Spoken throughout the Empire and thus there were no language barriers to overcome in   proclaiming the Gospel.

It was once thought that the language of the NT was a kind of “Holy Ghost” Greek, because there were many words which were not known to us, not being found in classical Greek.  However, late in the 19th century, discoveries were made [in Egypt primarily] called “papyri” (for the papyrus reed they were written on) which substantially increased our knowledge of NT        Greek.  For example, the rare adjective epiousios (daily) was not found in any known Greek literature until it was discovered in the papyri in a shopping list!

2) The Bible in some of its most significant translations and milestones

450-400 BC:  Completion of the OT writings

250 BC:  The Greek version of the OT is completed called the Septuagint (LXX)

The Bible of the early church including the Apostles

1st cent. AD:  Wide-spread agreement on the OT’s content (“canon”)

Completion of the NT writings

4th cent. AD:  By late in the century, the early church attested to the form of the NT we have today.

mid-4th cent:  First translation into a language of the Germanic family (to which English belongs), namely, the Gothic Bible (so named after the peoples to which it was directed, the Ostrogoths).

4th cent AD:  Latin Vulgate

The number of manuscript copies of the NT in Greek, in whole or in part, numbers over 5,000 (as of 15 years ago).  This is vastly more than that of any other document of antiquity.  There is also a wealth of manuscript evidence in Latin and  in the writing of the early church fathers. God has preserved His Word!

3) The Bible in its transmission down into English

1384 AD: Wycliffe is the First Person to Produce a (Hand-Written) manuscript Copy of the Complete Bible in English (80 Books).  Wycliffe had no access to Greek or Hebrew manuscripts and was thus totally reliant on the fourth century Latin translation of St. Jerome.

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.

1525: William Tyndale translates the NT into English. A genius in languages, Tyndale had to do his work outside of England for fear of the Catholic authorities.  When finished, copies had to be smuggled back into England in bales of cloth or sacks of flour.

When Tyndale was hit with opposition that said, “we were better off without God’s law than the Pope’s,” he said, “if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that drives the plough shall know more of the Scripture than you do!”

Tyndale’s translation was the foundation of all subsequent translations of the Reformation era and beyond.

At the end of his life, Tyndale was treacherously kidnapped and imprisoned near Brussles.  In August 1536 he was found guilty of heresy and condemned to be executed.  When that tragic moment arrived Tyndale was tied to the stake, choked by the hangman, and then burned.  His last words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

Coverdale’s Bible (1535): Miles Coverdale worked as an assistant to Tyndale and became the first to produce the complete Bible in English.  It circulated freely in England with the blessing of King Henry VIII.  A significant difference in this version was that Coverdale separated the books of the Apocrypha from the rest of the books of the Bible to show a clear difference between them.  It also was Coverdale who gave us “Forgive us our debts” in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Great Bible (1539): Title comes from its large size.  Its long-term legacy comes from 1) the fact that it served as the basis for the Bible passages that appeared in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer for the Anglican Church and 2) from the way in which the books of the Bible were ordered (no longer following Luther).  Because the Archbishop Cranmer wrote in the preface, “This is the Bible appointed to the use of the churches” it is sometimes called the “Cranmer Bible.”

Geneva Bible (1560): Born out of turbulent times as the following notes:

Parliament in 1543 made it a crime for unlicensed people to read or expound the Bible publicly and even forbade the private reading of the Bible by those belonging to the lower classes.  Henry VIII himself went further in 1546, making it illegal for anyone “to receive, have, take, or keep, Tyndale’s or Coverdale’s New Testament.”  Bibles were again burned in London. . . . With the death of Henry VIII in 1547 and the ascension of Edward VI, this was reversed and all previous translations were reprinted. . . . On the ascension of Mary in 1553, policy was again reversed.  Men like Cranmer and John Rogers were executed and Coverdale sought refuge on the Continent.

The Bible particularly of those of the reformed faith, thus also of the Pilgrims and Puritans aboard the Mayflower.  It was the first to use italics for words which were supplied in the translation but not in the original text.  An interesting marginal note is found at Revelation 11:7 where the beast that ascends from the pit is identified as “the Pope which hath his power out of hell and cometh hence.”

Bishops’ Bible (1568): Called for by Queen Elizabeth to counteract the impact of the Geneva Bible.  Its greater long-term legacy was that it became the starting point for the translators who would work on the KJV.

King James Version (1611): The most famous of all pre-1980 English Bibles.  Also called the Authorized Version.  47 men worked in six committees on the project.  It is a translation from the Hebrew and Greek mss of their day, but also a thorough revising of and building upon the previous English versions to that day.  Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton, simply says, “the KJV stylistically is the greatest English Bible translation ever produced.”  Yet Ryken also puts his finger on the reasons why the KJV could not maintain its position as the best translation available today:  1) outdated language; 2) advancement in the knowledge we have of words in both Greek and Hebrew and 3) the Greek text used for the NT is now thought by most to be of an inferior quality. Another little known drawback, though not serious, to the KJV is the translators’ use of synonyms for the same Greek or Hebrew word.

The KJV has had a long and storied history and will continue to do so.  One should note that the current KJV which he uses is not the one published in 1611 for there have been at least 4 major revisions of the KJV through the years, the last being in 1769.  If not for these, almost no one would be able to read the older English contained in the 1611 KJV!

Interesting note:  In the 1631 edition the word “not” was inadvertently omitted from the seventh commandment.  The King’s printers were fined 300 pounds (!) and this edition became known as the “Wicked Bible.”

Revised Version (1885): It would be almost three hundred years before the next major English translation would be undertaken.  When the Revised Version came out in NYC, 300,000 copies sold the very first day!  Its underlying Greek text made use of the advances which had been made since 1611.  However, its excessively literal style made for a very poor translation into English.  This was a British project whose American counterpart, the American Standard Version (ASV) was released in 1901.  It also suffered from being overly literal, a defect which was corrected in its revision.

Revised Standard Version (1952, 1971): In the line of the KJV and the ASV, the Revised Standard Version was a nice improvement over the latter version.  Indeed, it is still a worthwhile translation to consult.  However, some felt that as a revision of the earlier ASV it was too “free” (used too much paraphrasing).  Even more upsetting to many were the theological biases of the translators seen in such verses as Isaiah 7:14 (“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el”).  In 1989 an update of the RSV came out called the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  Again, this version is worth consulting for a comparative reading or two, but its greatest potential weakness is what has come to be known as its use of “gender-neutral” or “gender-inclusive” language.  This is the attempt by modern scholars to reflect the fact that when the Bible uses male nouns like “man” and “brother,” or pronouns like “he” and “him,” they at times are clearly including women as well–hence inclusive language.  The subject is extremely complex (I’m sure I don’t understand it!), but we should at least be aware of the debate, the versions that make heavy use of “gender-inclusive” language, and make solid decisions based on the facts as best we understand them.

Living Bible (1971); New Living Translation (1996)

One man’s family devotions led to the establishment of not only a major Bible version but also a publishing company as well!  What eventually would become the Living Bible grew out of Kenneth Taylor’s concern that his children understand the Bible in their devotions in language they could comprehend.  This led to Taylor’s first systematic attempt, in 1956, to produce a written paraphrase of an entire book of the Bible.  He did this while riding the commuter train between his home in Wheaton and his office in Chicago where he worked for Moody Press at the time.  He then worked on all of Paul’s letters, but couldn’t find a publisher for them, so he printed 2,000 copies on his own and took them to the Christian Booksellers Convention.  Orders came slowly, but then, in 1963, Billy Graham was confined to a hospital.  He had been given a copy of Taylor’s work (by then called Living Letters) and read it.  The rest was history.  Graham asked for 50,000 copies to be used by the ministry.  Response to these was so great that Taylor would soon form his own company, Tyndale House, to publish his Bible and many other works.

The Living Bible is a paraphrase (Taylor never professed that it was anything else) written in another man’s words, “as in the language and style of the morning paper.”  As of 1999, 40 million copies of it had been sold.  As long as one remembers that the Living Bible is a paraphrase and that of only one man, he can read it with enjoyment and profit.  However, it is not a Bible that can be used for exact study nor would it come recommended for pulpit use (due again to its style which can at times border the crude or vulgar).

The Living Bible was given a major upgrade when in 1996 Tyndale House came out with the New Living Translation.  Instead of being the work of one man, now a team of nearly 100 set about to update and refine Taylor’s original work.  Much less of a paraphrase and more of a translation (the original languages were consulted whereas Taylor worked only from his English Bible), the NLT is a fine work.  However, the reader should be aware that it also strives to be a “gender-neutral” translation.

New American Standard Bible (1971, 1995)

Produced by The Lockman Foundation in stages:  Gospel of John (1960), the four Gospels (1962), the NT (1963) and the entire Bible (1971).  The Foundation was attempting to keep the ASV (see above) in circulation as a viable Bible version for the late 20th century and did an admirable job.  This is a great Bible for exact Bible study as it aims to be as literal as possible.  Some call it “woodenly” literal, meaning it is so literal that it does not make for good, fluent English.  I never found that to be the case as this was the first Bible I ever used for personal devotions outside the KJV and it helped me greatly. The NASB was updated in 1995 and the major improvement was the removal of all “thee’s/thou’s” that are no longer part of modern English.

New International Version (1978, 1984, 2010)

In the early 1950’s some evangelicals who were acutely aware of the increasingly outdated language of the KJV, began to envision a version in modern English that would do for our day what the KJV did for its day.  It was to be a version that could be used in public worship, for private study and for memorization as well.  The Christian Reformed Church took the lead by appointing a committee within it ranks to study the matter.  Later, they would go outside themselves to the NAE (National Association of Evangelicals) and plans began to take shape by 1961 for a new translation.  In 1965 representatives from many denominations and multiple countries met and launched the effort that came to be known as the New International Version (originally it was to be called “A Contemporary Translation”–ugh!).  The governing body which still continues to give oversight to the NIV consisted of 15 biblical scholars originally chaired by Edwin Palmer, who was succeeded in this task upon his death by Kenneth Barker, formerly of Dallas Seminary.  The eventual number of people to work on the NIV numbered over 125 from over 30 different denominations.

One of the goals of the NIV was to steer a middle course between the paraphrases (sometimes called a “dynamic-equivalent” where the translators attempt a “though-for-thought” rendering as opposed to “word-for-word”) such as the Living Bible and the literal translations such as the KJV and the NASB.  This so-called middle is deemed to be what the NIV has achieved.  It has certainly become the Bible for many English people of the late 20th century, perhaps because it seems to live up to the words of one who wrote “the NIV is a monument of Christian scholarship at its best.”

New King James Version (1982)

An updating of the classic KJV which does a commendable job given its seemingly impossible goals:  to retain as much of the language and “feel” of the KJV while bringing that language into the 20th century (one reviewer commented on the NKJV, “the voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau”).  Over 130 translators worked on the NKJV, including those from Dallas Seminary and Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.  Its major shortcoming was in the selection of the Greek text to be used for the NT, the so-called “Majority Text” which is, in the main, the text of the first KJV (called by some the Textus Receptus or the “Received Text”).  [I wonder if we stretch the term “Majority Text,” would we then be using the Latin Vulgate which has even more manuscripts that have survived to this day than the NT Greek text (8,000+ to 5,000+)!].

The Message (1993, 2002)

The work of Eugene Peterson, one-time Presbyterian pastor, then seminary professor now retired.  It is a version unlike any other with which I am familiar. A paraphrase to the extreme, this Bible may be good for some as a reading Bible to get the whole sweep of its message, but it could never be used as a study Bible (nor did Peterson ever intend for it to be so).

1 Cor. 13:1-8a:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

[4] Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want  what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end. Love never dies.

English Standard Version (2001)

“Introducing a Bible translation that doesn’t improve upon the original.”  So goes the publisher’s blurb for this newest translation from Crossway Books.  It is an “essentially-literal” translation because in the words of its publisher, “the English Standard Version is founded on the conviction that the words of the Bible are the very words of God.  And because the words themselves-not just the thoughts or ideas–are inspired by God, each word must be translated with the greatest precision and accuracy.  Self-consciously in the stream of English Bibles that have descended from the KJV, the ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (minus the liberal theological bias and the faulty textual decisions).  Over 100 people worked on the English Standard Version and it will be interesting to see if it develops as a serious rival to the NIV in the coming years.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (1999, 2003)

This version is a fine, mostly literal translation that came up with yet a third theory or philosophy of translating the Scriptures: optimal equivalence. Formal equivalence strives for the most literal translation possible; dynamic equivalence aims for faithfulness to the text but in a less literal, more “paraphrastic” fashion. Here is how the introduction to the HCSB defines their theory of “optimal equivalence”: It recognizes that form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed . . . unless comprehension demands it. The primary goal of translation is to convey the sense of the original with as much clarity as the original text and the translatioin language permit. Optimal equivalence appreciates the goals of formal equivalence but also recognizes its limitations (remember our literal translation of John 1 at the beginning).

The Holman CSB uses optimal equivalence as its translation philosophy. When a literal translation meets these criteria, it is used. When clarity and readability demand an idiomatic translation, the reader can still access the form of the original text by means of a footnote with the abbreviation “Lit.”

A team of 100 scholars, editors, stylists, and proofreaders worked on the HCSB and were committed to biblical inerrancy. This is a version I have come to appreciate and trust.

So which one to use? The one which most changes your life and not exclusively one, for much can be learned by consulting several translations in so many cases.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    February 8, 2011 3:37 PM

    Are you are theological steroids?! You are starting to really crank it out!

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