Timeline: Bible Translations

HomeChristianity and the BibleTimeline: Bible Translations

In the 2000+ years since Jesus was born, died, and came back to life, the Bible has become the most-translated book in history. The entire Bible has been translated into over 700 languages, and the New Testament into over 1,500 languages.

This list is English-based… that is, I want to list the timeline from the original writings to major or notable modern English Bibles. Please be patient while I gather that information. I’m also including some historically-significant partial Bibles. If you have some of that information, please don’t hesitate to send it along.

Most modern Bibles use the ancient Hebrew manuscripts for the Old Testament and the ancient Greek manuscripts for the New Testament. This timeline does not imply the ridiculous and ahistorical idea that modern Bibles are the end of long series of translations of translations of translations. It’s simply a historical list of the dates of publication for each new Bible translation or version. Some dates are approximate. Beginning with the KJV, I have noted whether I would recommend a particular Bible for reading and study today.

The Old Testament

There is little doubt about the accuracy of the translation and transmission of the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Israelites were incredibly careful and diligent to make sure that what God had said was faithfully recorded and copied.

The Septuagint

The Latin name for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures means ‘seventy,’ and comes from the idea that 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars were asked by Egyptian king Ptolemy II (who was Greek), to complete individual copies to be placed in the Library of Alexandria.

The New Testament

As of this writing, we have almost 6000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Some of these manuscripts are small, and many are only fragments of the full text, but that doesn’t mean much: the average Greek New Testament manuscript is 450 pages. Combined with tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian (and more), it’s clear that the New Testament is comprised of the best-attested writings from the ancient world.

For approximate dates of each New Testament book, read When Was the New Testament Written? For a list of biblical authors, read The Books of the Bible by Author.

Vulgate

Jerome of Stridon, at the request of Pope Damasus I, compiled and retranslated existing Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek manuscripts to create a Latin Bible.

Wessex Gospels

Also known as the West-Saxon Gospels. This was not a complete Bible, but a translation of the four Gospels into a West Saxon dialect of Old English. This is noteworthy in part because the translation didn’t use the Latin-language versions as its base. Seven manuscript copies survive, the earliest from 990.

Old English Hexateuch

The earliest English translation of the first six books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.

Wycliffe’s Bible

John Wycliffe thought that Christians should be able to read the Scriptures in the language they know best. For him and his countrymen, that was English. His work began a process that was completed by a number of pre-Reformation scholars, resulting in the first English translation of the Latin Vulgate.

A forerunner of Protestantism, Wycliffe found no Scriptural justification for the papacy, and was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church 31 years after his death.

Tyndale Bible

William Tyndale’s version is considered the first English translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts, and the first to be mass-produced. He did not complete the whole Bible during his lifetime. His New Testament was published in 1525, and the Old Testament in 1530. In response to his writings, Tyndale was strangled for the charge of heresy by the Roman Catholic church. Among his crimes: maintaining the biblical teaching that faith alone justifies a man before God. Miles Coverdale finished Tyndale’s work about 2 years after his execution. According to recent scholarship, 75% of the KJV’s Old Testament and 84% of the New Testament comes directly from Tyndale’s translation.

Coverdale Bible

The first complete modern English translation and the first complete printed English translation, the Coverdale Bible was produced by Myles Coverdale. His New Testament was primarily based on Tyndale’s translation. For the Old Testament, not being a Hebrew or Greek scholar, he worked primarily from German Bibles and some Latin sources, including the Vulgate.

Matthew’s Bible

Following Tyndale’s execution, King Henry VIII promised an authorized version of the Bible. Because work on the later-published Great Bible was slow, an interim work was published. Working under the false name Thomas Matthew, John Rogers combined Tyndale’s New Testament, a combination of Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s Old Testament, and his own translation of the Prayer of Manasseh (an apocryphal work).

The pseudonym “Thomas Matthew” may have been a poke at those opposed to Tyndale, as the meaning of those names in Greek is “a twin to the original gift from God.” Rogers may have used this name to hide from King Henry the fact that most of the work had been done by Tyndale, who was executed for it. Rogers was later killed by the Roman Catholic church for heresy, like his friend William Tyndale.

Taverner’s Bible

A minor revision of Matthew’s Bible, edited by Richard Taverner.

Great Bible

After Tyndale’s execution, King Henry VIII of England authorized Miles Coverdale to create an edited version of Tyndale’s work. Called “great” because of its large size, it was revised to remove the ‘objectionable’ parts of Tyndale’s previous work. Coverdale didn’t translate from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts, and this led to the creation of the Bishops’ Bible.

Geneva Bible

The first English Bible to include verse numbers, the Geneva Bible was also the first to translate the Old Testament directly from Hebrew. This was the Bible used by such prominent historical figures William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, John Knox, John Donne, and John Bunyan.

King James I of English so disliked the Geneva Bible that he commissioned his own Bible, the King James.

Bishop’s Bible

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Church of England authorized the production of a new English Bible in 1568. The 1602 edition was used as the starting point for the King James Bible.

Douay-Rheims Bible

In response to Protestant challenges to their authority, the Roman Catholic church published an English translation from Latin manuscripts. Scholars from the English College at Douay, France created the work, which was later published in Rheims, France. The New Testament portion was published in 1582, with the Old Testament coming in two parts in 1609-1610.

King James Bible

In 1534, King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. When the Roman Catholic church denied his request, he separated from them, creating the Church of England. When Henry commissioned the KJV, it was specifically designed to conform to the structure and beliefs of the Church of England, replacing the Bishop’s Bible.

Created by 47 of the best Church of England scholars, the KJV (also known as “The Authorized Version”) was seen as an improvement on previous English-language Bibles, and the translators hoped that others would make similar improvements to their work in the future. You can read their words in The Original Preface to the King James Bible. Most modern KJV Bibles are not the 1611 version, but the 1769 Oxford edition, edited by Benjamin Blayney.

The KJV became the most popular Bible in history, and may be the most influential book in history. Even skeptics of Christianity regard the KJV as an important part of the development of the English language, even considering as ignorant those who have never read from it. Some adherents consider it the only acceptable English Bible in history. For more, read The King James Only Controversy.

Not Recommended. The KJV is a good Bible, and should be considered trustworthy. However, since 1600, older and more reliable manuscripts have been discovered and translation methods have improved. Modern Bibles generally take advantage of both, which makes them more useful. Also, English has changed greatly over the past 400+ years. This Bible should not, for most, be used as a primary text for reading or study.

Quaker Bible

Anthony Purver, a Quaker (The Religious Society of Friends), worked for 30 years to produce ‘a new and literal translation of all the books of the Old and New Testament, with notes critical and explanatory.’ In direct competition with the KJV, the Quaker Bible was never popular. His work was not backed by any church, including the Quakers, and having one person produce a Bible isn’t generally a positive thing. Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s comment may explain it all: “Often ungrammatical and unintelligible. Not without its good points, but much more curious than useful.”

Thomson’s Translation

Charles Thomson took 19 years to complete his translation of the Greek Septuagint (Old Testament). A Greek scholar, his was the first English translation. He released a New Testament in the same year. His finished work was published in four volumes and was printed in Philadelphia. One thousand sets were published. Considered to be very serious scholarship, and the scholars working on the 1881 Revised Version in England consulted his work.

Young’s Literal Translation

Robert Young used the Textus Receptus and the Masoretic Text to create a very literal translation of the Bible. One notable quality of his work is the use of the present tense, which is often not sufficiently expressed in English. For example, most English Bibles render Genesis 1:3 as “And God said, let there be light; and there was light.” the YLT renders the Hebrew in this way: “and God saith, let light be; and light is.”

Julia E. Smith Parker Translation

The daughter of a minister, Smith was disappointed when William Miller’s prediction of Jesus’ return didn’t happen as expected. She believed that was due to straying from the original languages of the Bible, so she made her own. At this writing, it’s the only complete, unaided translation of the Bible by a woman.

Because Smith translated very literally, using strict word-for-word techniques, her work was very difficult to read. She took eight years to complete it, but didn’t seek publication for 21 years. At the age of 84, she had 1,000 copies printed… at a retail price of $2.50 each.

Revised Version

Still the only authorized revision of the King James Bible in England, the Revised Version was released in two parts: the New Testament in 1881, and the Old Testament in 1885. The translation team’s goal was “to adapt King James’ version to the present state of the English language without changing the idiom and vocabulary,” and “to adapt it to the present standard of Biblical scholarship.” This is significant because the RV is considered the forerunner of modern Bibles, which are designed to update the language of the text to make it more easily understood by modern readers.

Notable features: the text was arranged into paragraphs for the first time, Old Testament poetry was printed in poetic arrangements, and marginal notes were added to alert readers to variations in ancient manuscripts.

Not Recommended. The RV, to a lesser extent than the KJV, lacks the benefits that come from updated language and the availability of older manuscripts.

Webster’s Revision

Noah Webster, whose name is synonymous with the term “dictionary,” produced a limited revision of the KJV, mainly to update some of the more archaic language. He made very few changes, and the changes he did make were generally limited to English vocabulary and grammar, rather than translation improvements. There are two notable exceptions. The first was changing “Easter” in Acts 12 to “Passover,” as the KJV translators had erred. The second was replacing “Holy Ghost” with “Holy Spirit,” as common English usage of ‘ghost’ suggested something other than God Himself.

American Standard Version

The ASV is a revision of the Revised Version for American audiences. American scholars were invited to take part in the RV by correspondence, and they published their own version after a contractual delay of 15 years.

Notable features: God’s name (the Tetragrammaton) is rendered as Jehovah, rather than Lord, and ‘Holy Ghost’ was dropped in favor of ‘Holy Spirit.’

Not Recommended. As with the RV it’s based on, most readers should replace the ASV with a more modern version.

Revised Standard Version

The RSV, commissioned by the National Council of Churches, is a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901. Notably, translators used the Nestle-Aland Greek text for the New Testament and the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament. Some portions of Isaiah followed the text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Later editions, at the request of the Episcopal Church in the US, included the Deuterocanonical books.

Not Recommended. The RSV suffers from the theologically-liberal positions of the National Council of Churches. Among their members, for example, is the Swedenborgian church. Their unbiblical teachings include that salvation is available through all religions, that Jesus has already returned, and that Heaven and Hell are simply our personal, present, inner experience as individuals. While it’s clear that the NCC holds to many biblical positions, and that there are undoubtedly many among their members who are born again, I cannot recommend a Bible produced by them.

New American Standard Bible

The NASB (also known as the NAS) is a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901, published by the Lockman Foundation. Widely considered the most technically accurate translation at that time, it provided an alternative to the RSV, which was considered to be theologically liberal. The Gospel of John was released in 1960, the New Testament in 1963, and the complete Bible in 1971.

Recommended.

New International Version

Published by Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society), the NIV is one of the most popular English translations in the world. Notably, the NIV is not a revision of a previous Bible, but a fresh translation from the oldest copies of reliable texts. For the Old Testament, translators used the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia Masoretic Hebrew Text. For the New Testament they used the Koine Greek editions of United Bible Societies and Nestle-Aland. In addition, they consulted a number of other texts: the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Aquila, the Symmachus, the Theodotion, the Latin Vulgate, the Syriac Peshitta, the Aramaic Targum, and the Juxta Hebraica. Updates were produced in 1984 and 2011.

Recommended.

New King James Version

Also known as the Revised Authorized Version, the NKJV was produced to update the vocabulary and grammar of the King James Version. The New Testament was published in 1979, and a complete Bible in 1982. In addition to the original KJV text, translators used additional manuscripts not available in 1600. Efforts were made to preserve the poetic nature of the KJV text while being faithful to a broader number of ancient manuscripts. Today, the NKJV is one of the most popular English translations.

Recommended.

New Revised Standard Version

The NRSV is a revision of the RSV, which is a revision of the ASV, which is a revision of the RV, which is a revision of the KJV, which was produced in response to the Roman Catholic church’s refusal to grant King James a church-sanctioned divorce. Published by the National Council of Churches, the NRSV is generally considered by scholars to be reliable. The translators took advantage of the recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other significant manuscript discoveries.

However: its publication is not without controversy. The National Council of Churches is theologically very liberal, and that is somewhat reflected in the text. Most Catholic Bishops require other translations, and the Orthodox Church in America does not permit its use in liturgy or Bible studies on the grounds that it is “highly divergent” from traditional readings.

Not Recommended. While this version appears to suffer less from the theologically liberal bent of the National Council of Churches, I still can’t recommend it. Their theologically-liberal interpretations of both Scripture and history have, in my mind, left behind the ‘gospel handed down’ as expressed in Luke 1:1-4 and in Jude 1:3.

World English Bible

The WEB is an updated revision of the 1901 American Standard Version. Produced to be freely available to all, it uses readable modern English (but not “Basic English”). It includes the Apocryphal books, which are useful but should not be considered Scripture.

Recommended.

English Standard Version

The ESV, published by Crossway, is derived from the text of the Revised Standard Version. The theologically liberal influences that had created much criticism of the RSV were purposefully removed by the translation committee, who worked to make the text reflect the intent of the original writings. Well-known individuals on the oversight committed include Wayne Grudem, Kent Hughes, and J.I. Packer. A number of well-known study Bibles use the ESV as their primary text.

Recommended.

Holman Christian Standard Bible

Work on the HCSB was begun by Arthur Farstad, a general editor of the NKJV. Published by Lifeway, it takes advantage of a broad range of ancient manuscripts to produce the most reliable text possible. The New Testament was published in 1999, with the full Bible published in 2004. Considered a very good translation, the translation committee gathered a team of 100 scholars and proofreaders, all of whom were committed to the belief that the Bible, as originally written, is inerrant. Their goal was to make the original text as readable and clear to modern readers as possible.

Recommended.

New English Translation

The NET Bible is a completely new translation, not a revision of an older version. Originally conceived as a digital Bible to be shared on CD-ROM and over the internet, it’s free for anyone to use. A unique feature of the NET is the compilation of over 60,000 translators’ notes, explaining background information on the text as well as information related to translation decisions.

Recommended.

Modern English Version

The MEV is an update to the King James Version. Designed to make the text more accessible to modern readers, it’s based on retranslations of the Textus Receptus. The New Testament was completed in 2011, the Old Testament in 2014.

Not Recommended. The MEV ignores the hundreds of important manuscripts found since 1600. Many of these manuscripts are far older, and so closer to the original writings, than the manuscripts contained in the Textus Receptus.

Christian Standard Bible

The CSB is a substantial revision of the HCSB, taking advantage of better translation techniques to update the wording of certain texts. Considered by many to be the most readable modern Bible, it uses the latest Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts.

Recommended.

Recommended / Not Recommended / Avoid

I’m regularly asked which Bibles are best. Generally speaking, I would recommend almost any English Bible to English readers. It’s better to read the Bible than to not read it.

However: the Bible is not simply a historical document. Christians consider the Bible to be God’s Word, and our primary guide for living. As we read in 2 Timothy 3:16, all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Because the Bible is so important, it’s equally important to understand what it says. Generally speaking, newer translations use a much larger number of ancient manuscripts for translation than were available prior to the 1900s, so they’re closer to what was originally written. They’re also translated to match the way we speak today. Most Bibles are, in fact. The King James, for example, was translated in a way that English speakers of that time could understand. There’s nothing wrong with the King James… but, because the type of English spoken more than 400 years ago is hard for a typical modern reader to understand, the KJV should probably not be a Christian’s primary Bible for reading and study. I use the KJV regularly, but I don’t consider it the best translation available. The KJV translation team presumed – and hoped – that others would follow in their footsteps and create even more accurate translations.

A note of Not Recommended does not mean “bad.” It means that I would substitute a Bible that’s more functional for today’s English speakers. My goal is to encourage people to read more and to understand more, and Bibles are translated to make comprehension a priority.

From time to time, however, Bibles are produced badly… that is, they aren’t so much concerned about being faithful to translate the meaning of the original texts, but to promote a particular brand of teaching. This was true of the KJV: it was, in part, a Bible created for the Church of England. More egregious are Bibles like “The Passion Bible,” which isn’t a translation at all. It’s a paraphrase done by one man, designed to promote unbiblical New Apostolic Reformation principles, not to reflect what eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry originally wrote. When a Bible falls into that category, I will suggest that it be avoided entirely.


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