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 modern English Bibles. Please be patient while I gather that information. 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. Early dates are approximate.

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?

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.

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.

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.


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