Bible Translation

The Bible first began to be translated into other languages in Egypt in the third century B.C. At that time the Hebrew Old Testament was rendered into Greek. According to tradition, 70 (some say 72) Jewish scholars worked at that task, thus giving the version its title, the Septuagint (Latin, Septuaginta , for “seventy” = LXX, the symbol by which that version is now known.

At the time of Jesus, Greek was the universal language, to be superseded by Latin (with the extension of Roman rule). By the mid- third century A.D., parts of the New Testament appeared in that language as well as in Coptic and Syriac. A collation of the various Latin portions was made early. Later Jerome (c. 345-419), bishop of Milan, at the instigation of Pope Damascus made a revision known as the Vulgate (c. 382). The Vulgate was the Bible of the church during the Middle Ages, and was accepted among Roman Catholics up to and long after the Reformation.

In Britain, Latin fell into disuse among the common people. Yet it continued to be the medium of communication in the church and among the intelligentsia. That situation inspired the Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) to translate sections of the Old and New Testaments into the vernacular Anglo-Saxon, the language of ordinary people.

After the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, no further translations were made for some time. The Word of the Lord was scarce in those days. Meanwhile the Anglo-Saxon language changed and was supplemented by what is now known as Middle English. Under the guidance of John Wycliffe (1330-1384), two complete translations of the whole Bible were then brought out. Another two hundred years passed before further translations appeared. In 1516, Erasmus produced the New Testament in the original Greek, which in turn became available to biblical scholars through the printing press (invented in 1450). William Tyndale (1494-1536) in Britain and Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Germany produced translations in the language of the common people.

In Britain other translations quickly followed Tyndale’s: Matthew’s Bible in 1537; the Great Bible in 1540; the Bishops’ Bible in 1568. In 1611, at the suggestion of King James I (1566-1625) there was produced the Bible that remained for centuries the Authorized Version in the English-speaking world. In 1881 a Revised Version appeared but had little impact.

From the beginning of the present century new translations have multiplied remarkably Many of these are the work of single individuals: R. T. Weymouth’s New Testament in The Modern Speech (1903); James Moffatt’s A New Translation of the Bible (1924); Charles B. Williams’ New Testament, “A Translation in the Language of the People” (1937); Ronald Knox’s Catholic Version, The Holy Bible , (1944-50); J. B. Phillips’s The New Testament in Modern English (1958). Unquestionably the best-known single-author translation is Kenneth N. Taylor’s The Living Bible (TLB). It began its life in 1962 as Living Letters and by 1971 the entire Bible was released. It has sold in massive quantity and continues to be the most controversial of all the modern Bible translations, praised by many, condemned by some. Detractors of The Living Bible point out that it is a paraphrase and not a translation, that it is sometimes a very loose rendering of the text’s meaning, and that it is inconsistent in its treatment of theological ideas and very uneven as a whole. Supporters of the work argue that it communicates as no other modern translation does, that it is wholly conservative in its theological orientation, and that it is quite clear to anyone who picks it up to read. The Living Bible is, no doubt, what both groups say it is: a valuable, widely used Bible for today that possesses some peculiarities of its own, so that readers would be wise to keep a more literal translation handy to clear up any confusion about the text’s meaning.

Many other translations have been produced by various committees of scholars. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was intended to be a revision of the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 in the light of the results of modern scholarship and using the simple, classic English style of the King James Version (KJV). The RSV New Testament appeared in 1946 and the Old Testament in 1952. It has been very popular in liberal denominational circles, but less so among the conservatives, who have been disturbed about a certain liberal bias displayed by the translators. On the whole, the RSV is an excellent translation that is readable and reasonably accurate. While it does contain some questionable material, the problems are not serious enough to warrant a wholesale rejection of one of the most widely used translations of this century.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) was prepared under the guidance of 55 evangelical scholars, and was a new translation based on the principles used to translate the ASV of 1901. The New Testament appeared in 1960 and the Old Testament in 1971. This version, like the RSV, tried to make use of the best of modern scholarship, including a revised (or critical) Greek text and the Qumran findings. As a translation it is easy enough to read but lacks literary flair. It is wholly conservative in its choice of theological vocabulary and hence is acceptable to orthodox Christians. The NASB is perhaps overly literal in places but still represents an advance over the ASV.

The New English Bible (NEB) was published in 1970 and was the work of a group of scholars, mainly from Britain. The group’s goal was to put the Bible into the current English of our day without falling into the trap of becoming faddish. The NEB was received with mixed emotions by the English-speaking world. Some felt that it was too “British” (i.e., stuffy), hence was not really a Bible for the average person. North Americans especially felt this way. Others praised its flowing, elegant style. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, with the translation being sometimes glorious and inspiring, and other times verbose and snobbish.

The Good News Bible (GNB) was released first as a New Testament called Good News For Modern Man in 1966, followed by the whole Bible in 1976. Illustrated with over 500 line drawings, it is worded in common language, intended to be read like a newspaper, and put together following a translational theory called “dynamic equivalence.” This theory says the translator must aim to express what the original author meant , not simply what he said . Therefore he must look for dynamically equivalent statements, not statically exact equivalents. This enormously popular Bible has been praised as the first of a new breed of Bible translations and hence the best available, and condemned as a version off on the wrong track. In actual fact, it is neither. The GNB has many good points, but it is far from perfect. It is wise to read a less expanded translation alongside this version for reference.

The Jerusalem Bible (JB) began as a collection of commentaries on the books of the Bible that was finished in 1956. This led to a one-volume French edition of the Bible with commentary notes, published in 1961. The English version begun in 1959, was virtually a new translation from the original languages, but retained the notes from the French edition. It was produced by essentially 27 scholars and released in 1966. The JB was designed for student reference, not for reading in the church, and aimed to help believers keep abreast of the times and deepen their theological thought. Hence, new cadences, words, and expressions were used; simplicity and directness were sought to facilitate understanding.

The New International Version(NIV) was the work of more than 110 evangelical scholars drawn from around the world, hence the name “International.” The New Testament was published in 1973 followed by the Old Testament in 1978. This version was based upon critical texts for both the Old and New Testaments and the translators attempted to strike a middle course between being overly literal and paraphrasing excessively. The translation is accurate, impressive, and conservative in theological tone. Some have found its conservatism to be a fault, and some have complained of a dullness in certain passages.