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Bible translation

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Bible translation is done to make the Bible available in languages that various people groups understand.

One usage, sometimes adopted in the context of academic scholarship, makes a distinction in usage between the term version and translation. The term version is used specificially in regard to ancient translations of the Bible from the original languages - the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Vetus Latina, the Vulgate, etc. The term translation is then reserved specifically for translations from the late mediaeval through modern periods. However, the fact that many modern Bible translations have been named version (such as KJV/AV, NIV, RSV, ASV, ESV, etc.), shows that this convention is far from universal.


Original languages and significant early translations

Old Testament

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, except for some portions in Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew. The Aramaic portions are to be found in Ezra (4:6—6:18 and 7:12—26), Daniel (2:4—7:28), one verse in Jeremiah (10:11), and two words in Genesis 31:47.[1]

Between 300 B.C. and 200 B.C. Jews in Greek-controlled Alexandria in Egypt translated their Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) into the Greek language, as Greek Jews were losing their familiarity with Hebrew. This was reportedly done by a committee of about 70 scholars, and the translation is therefore known as the Septuagint.[2] Because of its claimed translation by 70 scholars, it is commonly known as the LXX. The Septuagint was the earliest, but not the only, ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The Septuagint was in some places a less than literal translation of the Hebrew. In particular, passages that were about God were often translated to make the language less anthropomorphic than the original, since Greek thought of that period had a particular distaste for anthropomorphism. Furthermore, it was made from a Hebrew text which was different in places from that later adopted by the Jews as the official Hebrew text. As a result, the need was soon felt for a more accurate translation from the Hebrew, and thus it had a number of successors—either revisions of the LXX to make it agree more with the Hebrew, or fresh translations—which include the Greek translations of Lucian, Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus.

The Hebrew alphabet originally contained no vowels. These were added by the Masoretes around the 6th to 11th centuries, and the standardised text they produced is known as the Masoretic text. When the Jews made a new copy of their Scriptures, they destroyed the old, worn out one. Therefore relatively few copies exist from before A.D. 900.

There is evidence for the existence of a number of distinct but related Hebrew textual traditions. The main Hebrew text which survives is the Masoretic text. However, some Hebrew portions of the Bible also survive in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is also the Hebrew of the Samaritan Pentateuch (and Hexateuch, since the Samaritans also accept Joshua). The Samaritan text varies in a number of places from the Masoretic Text. In some of those places, it seems clear that it has been altered for sectarian reasons, to suit the beliefs of the Samaritans; but in other cases, it may represent an alternative Hebrew textual tradition which may have been accepted by some Jews also. The Greek of the Septuagint shows evidence in parts of having been translated from a somewhat different Hebrew text than the Masoretic Text. Of particular interest to scholars are those places where the Septuagint seems to agree with the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Samaritan Pentateuch against the Masoretic Text.

Opinions differ as to which textual tradition is to be preferred. Orthodox Jewish and conservative Protestant scholarship prefers the Masoretic Text, tending to see it as more accurate than the other Hebrew textual traditions. Liberal scholarship, and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars, are more ready to accept the idea that in some passages the Septuagint, the Samaritan texts, or the Dead Sea Scrolls may more accurately reflect the original than the Masoretic Text does.

By the time of Jesus, Hebrew had ceased to be the everyday language of Jews in Palestine—it had been replaced by Aramaic. Use of Hebrew was largely limited to scripture and religious ceremonies. As a result, Jews felt the need for a translation from the Hebrew into Aramaic. The result was the Targums, of which there are several versions. These were often more in the manner of paraphrases than literal translations; they did not hesitate to add to the text additional details drawn from Jewish traditions, legends or folklore. Many Christians also spoke Aramaic; they soon developed their own distinct dialect of Aramaic, which is known as Syriac. Their translation of the Bible into Syriac is known as the Peshitta—it has some degree of commonality with the Targums, but on the whole tends to be much more literal—and of course, it also includes the New Testament.

New Testament

The New Testament was originally written in Greek, more specifically Koine Greek, which was the common language which developed in the Eastern Roman Empire (and previous to that, the Empire of Alexander the Great and its Hellenistic successor states.)

There are a number of different manuscript traditions of the Greek New Testament which scholars have identified. The three main groupings are the Western, the Alexandrian and the Byzantine. The earliest translations of the New Testament into English were based on the Textus Receptus, which on the whole represents the Byzantine tradition. However, the oldest manuscripts we have of the NT (see below) tend to represent the Alexandrian text type instead, and this forms the basis of many newer translations. Many conservative scholars prefer the Byzantine text type, believing it to be the best preserved; other conservative scholars, and most liberal scholars, believe in using a combination of all three traditions, but tend on the whole prefer the Alexandrian. The Western text type has the least defenders, having in some parts (especially Acts) significant divergence from the Alexandrian or the Byzantine. The Western version of Acts adds a significant quantity of text to what is present in the Alexandrian or Byzantine versions, although what it adds is of little significance, being just expansions upon what is already present. As a result, most scholars believe the Western version is later, containing expansions by later scribes for added clarity; although a minority of scholars believe the Western version of Acts was the original, and the Alexandrian and Byzantine versions represent condensations.

It is important to note that, despite the many variants between different manuscripts of the NT, very few of them are of any import—mostly they are differences in spelling, or the addition or deletion or substitution of a single word. These differences very rarely make any difference to doctrine or morals. There are a few well-known passages, which could possibly be of doctrinal import—such as the Johannine Comma—although, arguably, the same doctrines are taught even without these additions, just possibly not as succinctly.

The Vulgate—the Bible in Latin

Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to make a standard Latin translation of the Bible in A.D. 382, to replace the earlier Vetus Latina translations, and over the next 23 years he completed the Old Testament as well as some of the New Testament.[3][4] His translation, combined with other translations of various New Testament books, is known as the Vulgate. The Vulgate ultimately became the official version used by the Catholic church until the middle of the 20th century.[5] Jerome translated the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew, except for Psalms which was a Latin translation from the Septuagint.[3]

Types of documents

A manuscript is a written text on a pliable material, such as papyrus or paper.

A scroll is a manuscript that is rolled up on two rollers. As the scroll is read, one scroll is unwound and the other is wound up, so gradually moving through the scroll. Only one side of a scroll is used.

A codex (plural: codices) is a book, where the manuscripts are folded and stitched together. Codices were an advance on scrolls, as they could be written on both sides, could contain larger texts, and could be readily opened to any section. Codices were popularised by Christians from the second century.[6]

Early copies

There are literally thousands of copies of portions of the New Testament, with a few dating back to within 100 years of the events they record. However, many are very small fragments. For example, the Rylands Papyrus is dated to about A.D. 125 and contains only a handful of words from the Gospel of John.[7] The earliest fairly-complete Bibles are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus.

Codex Vaticanus

The Codex Vaticanus is considered to be the oldest almost-complete copy of the Bible. It has been in the Vatican library since the 14th century,[8] and was first published (printed copies produced) in 1857, although this had numerous errors, and the first published copy considered to be reliable was published in 1867.[9]

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus

The Codex Sinaiticus also dates from the fourth century. (While the Vaticanus is generally considered older, some believe that the Sinaiticus is older.) It comprises roughly the second half of the Septuagint Old Testament (including Apocrypha), plus the New Testament. Its earliest known location was St. Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai, although today most of it is in the British Library, with the rest in three other places, including some still at the monastery.[10]

Compiled texts

Most of the existing manuscripts of the Bible are incomplete, being anything from scraps of parchment with a few words to almost complete Bibles. Because copies were made by hand, copying errors crept in, although because there were many copies that could be compared, discrepancies were generally very minor.

When translations are made, the translators must decide which variation of specific passages they will translate from. To ease this process, a number of people have produced compiled texts, where they have compared the variations and selected the ones that they believe to be the most likely original wording. In many cases this is quite straightforward, with, for example, the vast majority of extant copies rendering a particular passage one way and only a few rendering it differently. In other cases, however, many factors need to be taken into account.

One factor that can be considered is the age of the text. Many scholars would argue that the older a text is, the closer that it is to the original, having had less time—or being the result of fewer copying steps—than younger texts. However, another possibility is that the older texts have survived because they were not used because they were recognised as being faulty. Accurate copies would be used until they wore out, but faulty copies would be discarded, perhaps somewhere in which they survived until being rediscovered in much later times.

Textus Receptus

Desiderius Erasmus, one of the leading scholars of the 16th century, was commissioned by a printer to produce the text for what became the first published Greek New Testament. This was published in 1516. However, it was done hastily, and contained many typographical errors and questionable passages. In 1519 another edition was produced, with Erasmus correcting most of the typographical errors and making a few other changes. Erasmus' third edition in 1522 introduced the infamous Johannine Comma, which remained in subsequent texts. Further editions followed, although without significant changes, until Robert Stephanus produced an edition in 1550, which differed in including variant readings (from significant manuscripts) in the margins. (His next edition in 1551 introduced the verse divisions that are still in use.)[11]

Theodore de Bèza produced some editions between 1565 and 1611, although they were quite similar to earlier versions. A 1633 edition by Bonaventure and Abraham Elzevir introduced the name Textus Receptus which was subsequently applied to all these Greek New Testaments.[11]

Westcott and Hort

In 1881 B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort published a Greek New Testament based primarily on the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. This became the standard Greek text for some time.[12]

English translations

Authorised Version

For more information, see King James Version.

The Authorised, or King James Version was translated in 1611. The New Testament was based on seven editions of the Textus Receptus, particularly that by Bèza, but also Erasmus' five editions and Stephanus' 1550 text.[13]


  1. Frederick E. Greenspahn, An introduction to Aramaic p.1.
  2. Septuagint and Reliability
  3. 3.0 3.1 Vulgate Vulgate.Org
  4. Three Early Biblical Translations, The Bible: The Book That Bridges the Millennia
  5. The Vulgate Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  6. Manuscripts and Codices - Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt
  7. P52: A Fragment of the Gospel of John,
  8. N.T. Ancient Manuscripts,
  9. Codex Vaticanus, Bible Research.
  10. History of Codex Sinaiticus, The Codex Sinaiticus Project.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Rich Elliot, The Textus Receptus.
  12. Douglas Kutilek, Westcott & Hort vs. Textus Receptus: Which is Superior?, 24 May 1996.
  13. James White in Is the King James Version the best?, Unbelievable? with Justin Brierly, 12 February 2011.
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