From Autographs to King James Version:Posted: April 26, 2011
A Short History of Bible Translation
Few American Christians today realize the great gift from God we have in the English Bible. To do so, we must know some of its history.
From earliest times, men of God have foreseen the value of writing down God’s dealings with men. P. J. Wiseman (1888-1948), who conferred with many of the great archaeologists of his day, theorized that the earliest Scriptures, from the Creation to Abraham, were first written on clay tablets in cuneiform(the writing of Abraham’s native land). See “Who Wrote Genesis? A Third Theory” by the author.
Fictionalized pagan versions of Creation and the Flood, with some similarities to the Bible, have been dug up in ancient Mesopotamia (Babylon or Chaldea). In fact, many thousands of clay tablets have been found which are yet to be translated.
Scripture from Abraham to Moses
The Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) evidently kept family records, including stories and genealogies (family trees). Joseph, who became Pharoah’s right-hand man, probably wrote down his own story, and preserved it along with the others for his people during their captivity in Egypt.
One tradition holds that Moses wrote Genesis, along with his other books. This theory assumes that Genesis was dictated to him by God on Mount Sinai. However, Genesis is the only one of the traditional Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) that does not identify Moses as its author.
The prevailing theory among liberals, usually referred to as JEDP, claims that the Books of Moses originated as religious myths which were strung together in patchwork fashion after Israel’s return from Babylon. However, it is likely that Israel knew their history throughout their long sojourn in Egypt, which helped preserve them as the distinct People of God.
Nevertheless, it is highly possible that it was Moses who finally compiled Genesis into a single book.
The Old Testament in Greek
Over the next millennium (1400-400 B.C.), inspired Scripture was written down by:
- Prophets (Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.).
- Rulers (David, Solomon, Nehemiah).
- Scribes or historians (Kings, Chronicles, Judges, Ruth, Esther, Ezra).
Many scholars think that the Old Testament, as we know it, was finally assembled by the great scribe Ezra.
Ancient scribes soon recognized the value of providing the Hebrew Scriptures to others in a language they could understand. For most of the world, the common language of trade and foreign correspondence was Greek, much as English is today.
There were at least four ancient translations of the Old Testament into Greek, but only one still exists today: the Septuagint (meaning “seventy”). According to legend, in about 250 B.C., Ptolemy II of Egypt wished to add a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to his great library at Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Ptolemy commissioned either 70 or 72 Jewish scribes, six from each tribe of Israel, to make the translation. To this day, references to this Greek version are abbreviated by the Roman number LXX (“seventy”).
Since many Old Testament quotations in the New Testament agree perfectly with the Septuagint, many experts think that the apostles, especially Paul, often used the Septuagint in preaching and writing to Greek audiences.
The New Testament Books
The New Testament was written by:
- Disciples of Jesus (Matthew, John, Peter).
- Some of their students and companions (Mark, Luke).
- But most of all by Paul.
The earliest books were probably Paul’s letters (epistles) which he wrote to keep in touch with various churches, beginning about A.D. 46-50. However, some scholars believe that a collection of Jesus’ sayings, called “Q” (short for German quelle, “source”) might have been written earlier and used in writing the gospels. The author of Hebrews is uncertain. The last book to be written was probably the Revelation of John.
The amazing thing about the “Q” theory is that it might have originated from somebody who sat listening to Jesus’ teaching, then wrote down the deep teachings he heard.
The Bible Books Preserved
Early on, the churches recognized the value of the writings of those they recognized as apostles (literally “those sent on a mission”). They preserved their writings and even sent copies to other churches. Over the centuries to follow, both Jewish and Christian scribes labored hard to faithfully copy their respective Scriptures. This was done in ink, on either papyrus(made from Egyptian rushes) or parchment (leather).
None of the originals (“autographs”) of the Bible books still exist today. We do have some very old copies, however. Some New Testament fragments go back as far as A.D. 200, and many more exist from the third or fourth century. And when an almost complete copy of Isaiah was discovered near the Dead Sea from around 200 B.C., only a few letters were found to differ from much later copies.
Translating the Bible
By the fourth century after Christ, the Roman Empire had become a Greek Christian empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). But most of the people from Rome west spoke Latin, not Greek.
Jerome (lived about A.D. 347-420) set himself the task of translating the Bible into Latin. He translated the gospels, but was persecuted for “changing” Scripture. He found it wise to move to Bethlehem, where he taught himself Hebrew in order to translate the Old Testament.
Jerome’s work, together with that of other translators, became known as the Vulgate, the official Catholic version. The Vulgate can be useful in translating the Bible today, by re-translating it into Greek or Hebrew, since it predates most of the Bible manuscripts still in existence.
Efforts to get the Bible into the vernacular (the language of the people) have continued since Jerome. The Roman Church long considered Bible translation dangerous, since heresies could evolve. In the wake of the recent events in Waco, this fear is not unfounded. But without Scripture, the common people walked in ignorance, superstition, and subservience to Church authorities.
The Bible in English
One of the earliest English versions was that of John Wycliffe (1328-1384). The Roman Church vowed to burn him at the stake, but was cheated when he died of natural causes. Many years later, the Church dug up his bones and burned them.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) fueled his Reformation with his German New Testament, published in 1522. Then he spent twelve years translating the Old Testament from available Hebrew texts, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate. The whole Bible was published in 1534.
In 1525, with Luther’s help, William Tyndale was able to produce his English New Testament. Tyndale’s notes often attacked Church authorities. He was burned at the stake in England in 1536.
Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) was a former friar turned Protestant who produced the Coverdale Bible (1535), possibly with the permission of Henry VIII. He later edited the Great Bible (1539) and helped with Thomas Cranmer’s Bible (1540). But Coverdale was still persecuted for heresy. Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake by Queen Mary. See “Politics and Religious Liberty in 17th-Century England” by the author.
The Geneva Bible was published in 1560 by followers of John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland. This Bible, printed in English, contained extensive notes expounding Calvinistic doctrine, frowned upon by many other groups. It was also the first Bible to be printed with chapter and verse divisions.
The Geneva Bible became known as the “Breeches Bible,” because it referred to the High Priest’s “apron” as “breeches.” Likewise, a 1551 edition of the Bible came to be called the “Bug Bible” because of its translation of Psalm 91:5, “Thou shalt not be afraid of any buggies by night . . .” .
In 1568, French scholars produced the Douay Bible for Catholics, a translation of the Vulgate into English. In the same year, bishops of the Church of England produced an official translation for use in their churches. The “Bishops’ Bible” remained a popular Bible version even after the King James Version appeared in 1611.
The King James Version
The Bishops’ Bible and other translations came to be criticized, especially by the Puritans, for not being true to the better Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available. A new translation was proposed. It was to be a non-sectarian, mainstream version, containing no controversial notes like the Tyndale and Geneva Bibles.
With the permission of King James I, from 52 to 54 scholars were gathered from the English universities. One tradition, yet unproven, holds that one of these men was none other than William Shakespeare. These scholars were divided into several teams, each of which was assigned part of the Bible. The Bishops’ Bible was used as the basis for the new version. Changes were only to be made when warranted by the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available.
After three years’ labor, what these men produced was of course the King James Version. Few Protestants today realize that the original King James Version included the Apocrypha, the so-called “Catholic” books. The Apocrypha includes such books as 1 & 2 Maccabees, 1 & 2 Esdras (also called 3 & 4 Ezra), Judith, Bel and the Dragon (a fanciful tale about Daniel), Tobit, Susanna, and Ecclesiasticus. All of these books were written later than the Old Testament books. The Puritans objected to the Apocrypha on the grounds that they had never been included in the Hebrew canon. The first edition of the King James Bible which did not include the Apocrypha was printed in 1620, and became the standard.
Though many Christians today complain they cannot understand the Elizabethan English, the King James Version is still recognized as an extremely balanced and literal translation, its beauty of expression unsurpassed.
©1994 Paul A. Hughes. Originally published in
The Polk County Enterprise, March 13, 1994, p. 3B.