The Process of Translation

"Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue." (Isaiah 28:11).

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with small portions in Aramaic. The New Testament was written for the most part in Koine (Common) Greek. The story of how it was translated from those original languages to our present English translations is a fascinating one.



The very earliest known translation of the Bible was the Septuagint. It was a translation of the Old Testament Hebrew Bible into Greek.

1. Ptolemy Philadelphus.

One of the great wonders of the ancient world was the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Jewish tradition tells us that around 250 B.C. Ptolemy Philadelphus, the king of Egypt, ordered that a translation be made of the Hebrew Scriptures into the common language of that day - Greek.

Greek had become the common language ever since Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world.

Ptolemy 2nd himself was the descendant of one of Alexander's generals who had taken control of Egypt. His legacy is the completion of the great library at Alexandria.

2. The Translators.

According to tradition, this translation was the work of 72 Jewish scholars and so became known as the Septuagint (from SEPTUAGINTA, meaning "Seventy").

3. Acceptance.

This translation became the standard version accepted by all non-Hebrew speaking people of the ancient world. It is interesting to note that many of the quotations of the New Testament appear to have been taken from the Septuagint.


Syriac or Aramaic is very close to the Hebrew language. Scholars have distinguished five different Syriac versions of all or part of the New Testament.

Old Syriac Version

Preserved in two manuscripts, both which have large gaps. They date back to the 4th and 5th centuries. They resemble the Western Textual Family of Greek manuscripts.

Peshitta (Syriac Vulgate)

Originally did not include 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude or Revelation. It attained some degree of status prior to the split of the Syrian Church in A.D. 431.

More than 350 manuscripts of the Peshitta New Testament are known today, several of which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries.

There are few variants among the witnesses. The Gospels seem to follow the Byzantine Family while Acts follows the Western Texts.


Include the smaller General Epistles and the book of Revelation. These two families are said to have come about from 500-600 A.D.; the actual existing manuscripts are more recent.


Palestine Syriac

Preserved by three manuscripts dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. It seems to follow the Caesarean Family.



As time went on and the power of Rome grew, Latin began to replace Greek as the common language, especially in the West. And so, a new translation was needed.

1. Jerome.

An Old Latin Translation appeared prior to 200 A.D. and became widely used. In 382 Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome to revise some of these already existing Latin translations which had been made of the Scriptures. Jerome had studied Greek and Latin in Rome and he also studied Hebrew in Palestine.

2. The Translation.

His translation of the Bible into Latin became known as the Vulgate (Latin for "common") because it was in the common language.

CAEDMON (680 A.D.)

As the church grew in England, Latin continued to be the language used in all of the church services, in spite of the fact that the common people spoke Anglo-Saxon. Therefore when the common people went to church, they never understood what was being said.

Onto this scene came Caedmon. He was a singer and he found a monk who agreed to translate certain portions of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon.

Caedmon traveled through England singing, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" in Anglo-Saxon. It was the first time that many of the people in his day had ever heard the Scriptures in their own language.


ALDHELM (640-709)

Aldhelm was a bishop in southern England who was also a Latin scholar. Caedmon's work so impressed him that he decided to translate the Psalms into Anglo-Saxon. He accomplished this work, using the Vulgate as his source text.


BEDE (673-735)

Bede is one of the most famous historians of the Middle Ages. His "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" has long been a major source of information about the early church in England.

As a believer, he decided that the people needed a translation of one of the Gospel Accounts in their own language. He began to translate the Gospel of John.

According to tradition, he finished dictating his translation to a scribe as he lay on his deathbed.



1. His Reign.

Alfred became the King of England at a time when the Danes were on the verge of overrunning England. During his reign, he repulsed the Danes and then went on to built up a military system of fortifications that would keep out invaders for the next 150 years.

2. Educational Program.

Alfred was a Christian and he mandated that all of the people of England follow him in worshiping Christ. There followed a great revival of Christianity in England.

Alfred also began a tremendous program to educate his people. He was a scholar himself and under his reign, both nobles and commoners were taught to read and to write. The primer that was used was an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Bible.

3. Norman Invasion (1066).

In 1066 the Normans invaded England. From this time on, England was ruled by a Norman king and most of the feudal states were under Norman barons.

This brought about a tremendous change in the English language so that, after a hundred years, the old translations of the Bible could no longer be understood.

Also, with the Normans came a rise in Romanism so that Jerome's Latin Vulgate once again became the official Bible of the English church.


JOHN WYCLIF (1329-1384)

Wyclif was a leading philosopher at Oxford University who saw the need for the English people to have a Bible in their own language. He took up the task of translating the entire Bible into English. For this, he was branded as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church.

Wyclif's translation was in the common speech of the day. For example, he rendered...







Here is an example of his translation:

"These thingis Jesus spak; and whanne he hadde cast up hise eyen into hevene, he seide: `Fadir, the our cometh; clairfie thi sone, that thi sone clarifie thee; as thou hast yovun to hym power on ech fleische, that al thing that thou hast yovun to hym, he yyve to hem everlastynge liif.'" (John 17:1-2).

Over the next 150 years the English translation continued to change so that once again there was a need for a new translation.



After studying at Oxford and Cambridge, Tyndale came into contact with the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation and determined that the people of England should have the Bible in their own language.

However, instead of going back to the Latin Vulgate as Wyclif, Bede and Aldhelm had done, he instead used Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. In doing so, he was the first man to translate the Bible into English directly from the Greek and Hebrew.

Because of fierce persecution, Tyndale was forced to flee England. He moved to Europe where he translated the entire New Testament and part of the Old Testament.

It is estimated that between 1525 and 1528 there were 18,000 copies of his translated published and spread abroad.

Tyndale was betrayed and arrested in Antwerp in 1535. He continued his work of translating while in prison until October 1536 when he was convicted of heresy and strangled and his body burned at the stake. It is reported that his last words were a prayer, "Lord, open the eyes of the King of England."

In the years that followed, a number of other English translations were made.




The Coverdale Bible


Translated from the Latin Vulgate by Miles Coverdale in 1535 (Coverdale had served as Tyndale's assistant and proofreader at Antwerp).

The Matthew Bible


Published by John Rogers in 1537. He used the pen name of Thomas Matthew for this work It was a compilation of Tyndale's translation and the Coverdale Bible.

The Great Bible


This second edition of the Matthew Bible was given this title because of its extreme size. When Oliver Cromwell came to power, he made the Great Bible the official Bible of England.

The Geneva Bible


Geneva had become a place of refuge for Reformers such as Coverdale and John Knox. It was here that Calvin's brother-in-law, William Whittingham, produced a New Testament which had the distinction of being the first English Bible to be divided into verses.

In 1560 the entire Bible was published at Geneva. It was adopted by the Puritans and is the text quoted by William Shakespear in his plays.

The Rheims-Douai Version


Sponsored by English scholars who were loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate (the New Testament in 1582 and finally published together with the Old Testament in 1609).



1. The Millenary Petition.

On January 14, 1603 a delegation of Puritan Reformers came before King James of England to petition for a change in the established church services and in the various Roman Catholic rituals such as the sign of the cross.

Their petition had been signed by about 1000 Puritan leaders (hence the name, "Millenary Petition."

During the debates that followed, it was suggested that there be made a new translation of the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew text. King James agreed.

2. The Work of Translation.

Within six months, 54 men had been chosen to do the work of translation. Each was an expert in either Greek or Hebrew. The list included both Anglicans and Puritans.

The scholars were divided into six teams and sections of the Scriptures were assigned to each team...

Two at Oxford

Isaiah-Malachi, Gospels, Acts, Revelation

Two at Cambridge

Chronicles-Ecclesiastes, Apocrypha

Two at Westminster

Genesis-Kings, the Epistles

This explains why a word like hagiou pneumatos has been translated "Holy Ghost" in some portions of the Bible and "Holy Spirit" in other portions.

The teams translating the Old Testament used the Masoretic Text while the teams translating the New Testament used a Beza's Greek Text - commonly known as the Textus Receptus ("the Received Text") and based upon the third edition of Erasmus which had been published by Stephanus in 1550.

3. Erasmus.

Desiderius Erasmus had been the great enemy of Luther. In 1515 he had been commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church to put together a Greek New Testament. He was able to find five Greek manuscripts, none of which contained the entire New Testament and none of which dated earlier than the 12th century.

Unfortunately, there were several chapters from the book of Revelation for which he had no manuscripts at all. This did not stop Erasmus, for he simply took the Latin Vulgate and translated it from Latin back into Greek.

To make matters worse, when he was editing his third edition, he was urged by the Roman Catholic Church to place the Vulgate's version of 1 John 5:7 into his Greek Bible. Erasmus complained that there was no Greek manuscript that contained the verse. The Catholic Church quickly complied by drafting up a Greek manuscript that contained the verse and presenting it to him. Erasmus reluctantly entered this revised verse into his 3rd edition (although he took it back out for his 4th and 5th editions).

It was this same 3rd edition of Erasmus that was used by the translators of the King James Version.

4. The Reception of the Translation.

The translation was completed in 1611. It turned out to be somewhat unpopular. The Catholics claimed that it favored the Protestants. The Arminians thought it leaned toward Calvinism while the Calvinists felt that it favored Arminianism. The Puritans objected to certain ecclesiological terms.

There was only one person in all of England who DID like the new translation - King James. And so, it was ratified and became the official translation for England.

To be perfectly honest, it has been one of the finest English translations ever produced, in spite of the poor manuscripts upon which it was based.

The Model-T was the best car of its day, and even now, it is still a fully legal car. If you ever drive one, people will smile and wave. And it sure beats walking or riding a horse. But if you ever drive one for more than a few miles, you will soon find that a car meant for dirt roads doesn't do so well on the modern highway.

The same is true with old bible versions such as the King James Version. It was the best of its day and is now just as valid as ever with still quite a large readership. But just as I prefer my new Saturn for most driving purposes over the Model-T, I prefer to use a modern English Bible over the King James Version for my regular Bible reading.



Since the day when the King James Version was first published, there have been literally thousands of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts discovered which are older than those used by the translators of that version. Newer translations have been able to take advantage of this increased wealth of information.

1. The Revised Version.

A British revision committee was set up in 1870 to revise the King James Version in light of the growing manuscript evidence. They translated the Old and New Testament, completing their work in 1885. They went on to translate the Apocrypha in 1895.

They made it a point to utilize Elizabethan English in this translation, changing only that language which could no longer be understood.

2. The American Standard Version.

Working in cooperation with the British revisers, a United States committee brought out this translation in 1901. Instead of following the accepted practice of translating the tetragramatum as "LORD," they gave an anglicized version of "Jehovah."

3. The Revised Standard Version.

This translation was completed in 1952 and was a revision of the Revised Version of 1885.

"The New Testament is quite faithful to the best Greek texts; the Old Testament often departs from Hebrew for readings in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, or just conjecture." (Dr. William S. LaSor).

Because it has a tendency to depart from the traditional readings of the King James Version, this translation has come under significant attack by Protestant Evangelicals.

4. The New American Standard Version (1970).

This was the nine year effort of 58 scholars brought together by the Lockman Foundation. They worked to update the American Standard Version. Its critics argue that it is too literal.

"Considerable attention has been given to translation of verb tenses with the result that it often sounds awkward and slightly pedantic." (Robert H. Mounce, Professor of Religious Studies at Western Kentucky University).

Personally, I have found that the attention to literalness of translation to be a great aid in Bible study. Admittedly, there are times when the New American Standard does not flow readily and does not show the best of English grammar, but this is only a reflection of the fact that the writers of the Bible spoke in the common language. As such, they did not worry about run-on sentences or other forms which we might take to be poor grammar. In recording this, the NAS has been most helpful.

5. The New International Version.

This translation was the combined work of more than 100 translators and editors. In contrast to the NAS which sought a more literal rendering, the NIV set out to give a dynamic equivalence in translation.

"We tried to avoid making a mechanical word for word rendition, which is the tendency of some versions that stress faithfulness to the original languages. Our translators always asked, 'Knowing what the original writer was trying to communicate, how would we say the same thing today?'" (Dr. Burton Goddard, interview in Eternity Magazine).

This translation has some excellent qualities. It is in modern English without resorting to slang. It is divided into paragraphs and is written in a flowing style for easy reading.

6. The King James II Bible.

This translation was published in 1971 by Jay P. Green. It claims to be primarily a translation of the Textus Receptus family of texts. The lack of a translating board lessens its value as a translation and makes it more likely that the opinions of the publisher prevail.

7. The New King James Version.

For the Old Testament, the Stuttgart edition of Biblia Hebraica was used, although both the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were consulted.

The Textus Receptus was used for the New Testament, although marginal notes indicate where there is a deviation from either the Critical Text or from their Byzantine Family (referred to as the Majority Text).



One of the more recent debates has been whether a translation ought to be a COMPLETE equivalent or whether it is sufficient to be a DYNAMIC equivalent of the original text.

A Complete Equivalence seeks to preserve ALL the information in the text.

Dynamic Equivalence commonly results in more of a paraphrase.

The problem with a Complete Equivalence is that it leaves figures of speech and ambiguous customs unexplained and difficult to understand.



There are so many versions of the Bible on the market today that the reader is often perplexed as to which translation he should choose.

How can you choose a good translation? Are there criteria for picking a good translation of the Bible? I think that there are.

1. It should be a True Translation.

It has become very popular to read a paraphrased edition of the Bible such as the Living Bible. It should be understood that this is not a translation from the original languages, but rather a paraphrase of the King James Version.

Other works such as the Amplified Bible or Wuest's Expanded Translation might be closer to the original language, but they still do not fit the requirement for a translation.

2. The Theological Perspective of the Translators.

Every translation involves a certain amount of interpretation. You cannot interpret from one language into another without allowing some of your personal prejudices to influence your work.

What is the perspective of the translators? Are they evangelical in their outlook? Are they trying to read into the text some particular theological viewpoint?

3. The Readability of the Text.

There have been some translations that have either cluttered themselves with slang or are full of variant meanings to the point where they are difficult to use.







17th Century English

Old sentence structure

Formal style


Number of Translators





Type of Translation

Word for word

Dynamic Equiv.

When first published





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