A History of English Translations of the Bible

Middle English Translations

The Wycliffe Bible was the first complete translation of the Bible into English. John Wycliffe, whose name the translation bears, was a teacher at Oxford University in England. The translation was released in stages over a period of 13 years, from 1382 to 1395. It appears to have been the work of several men, with John Wycliffe responsible for overseeing the translation of the New Testament and Nicholas of Hereford that of the Old Testament. Its fatal error lies in the fact that the translators did not translate the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts in which the Bible was written. They chose instead to translate the Latin Vulgate, the translation of the Bible that was used by the priests in the Roman Catholic Church at that time.

Early Modern English Translations

Beginning in 1522 and continuing on until his execution in 1536, William Tyndale translated all of the New Testament and roughly half of the Old Testament. He released a complete translation of the New Testament in 1526, but was unable to complete his translation of the entire Bible before his death in 1536. Tyndale’s translation was the first English translation based on the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts in which the Bible was originally written. It also has the distinction of being the translation that had the most influence on the King James Version of the Bible. The translators retained more than 80% of his New Testament translation.

In 1535, Myles Coverdale released his translation as the first English translation of the entire Bible in print. He based his version of the New Testament and part of the Old Testament on Tyndale’s translation. The remainder of his Old Testament was a translation of Martin Luther’s German translation. The 1539 edition was the first officially sanctioned English translation.

In 1537, John Rogers published a complete translation of the Bible under the alias “Thomas Matthew.” He included Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament and part of the Old Testament. The remainder of the Old Testament was Coverdale’s translation.

The Great Bible was authorized by King Henry VIII in 1538 as the first authorized edition of the English Bible. It was produced by Myles Coverdale under the commission of Thomas Cromwell and consisted of a revision of Tyndale’s incomplete translation of the Bible, with the missing books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha translated into English from the Latin Vulgate and German translations.

The Geneva Bible was produced by several Protestant scholars from England who fled to Switzerland during the reign of Queen Mary I. Their New Testament was published in 1557, and a complete edition of the Bible followed in 1560. It was a revision of both Tyndale’s translation and the Great Bible on the basis of the original languages in which the Bible was written. The annotations in the biblical text were decidedly Calvinistic in nature, and it gained widespread acceptance as a Bible to be read at home.

The Bishop’s Bible was produced under the authority of the Church of England in order to rectify the deficiencies perceived in both the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible, especially the Great Bible’s use of the Latin Vulgate and German translations and the Geneva Bible’s Calvinistic annotations. It was released in 1568, revised in 1572, and used almost exclusively as a pulpit Bible—a Bible for reading during church services.

In 1604, King James I commissioned a new translation of the original texts at the hands of 47 scholars. They were instructed to use the Bishop’s Bible as the basis for their translation, and where that text proved problematic, they were allowed to consult Tyndale’s translation, the Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible. The translators who produced that translation followed Tyndale’s translation about 83% of the time in the New Testament, and they retained nearly 76% of his Old Testament translation. The result of their endeavor was released in 1611.

Revisions of the King James Version

Most printed copies of the King James Version today are based on the 1769 Oxford edition, which was edited by Benjamin Blayney. His edition was, in turn, based on an earlier 1760 Cambridge edition that was edited by Francis Sawyer Parris. Together, these two men sought to produce a standard text that eliminated all the misprints and variations in the printed texts at that time. Cambridge eventually accepted Blayney’s work as definitive, although without some of his idiosyncratic spellings. Since that time, few changes have been made to the Oxford text of the King James Version of the Bible. Blayney’s edition differs from the 1611 edition in nearly 24,000 instances.

The Revised Version of 1885 is the only authorized and recognized revision of the King James Version in Great Britain. The stated goal of the committee 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.” It was commissioned in 1870 and completed in 1885, when it was authorized for use in the Anglican Church.

This is the American version of the British Revised Version of 1885. It is in the main identical to the Revised version and is authorized for use in the Episcopal Church.

This is a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901.

This translation is a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901. It is the conservatives’ response to the liberal revision of the American Standard Version that is found in the Revised Standard Version of 1952. This translation is widely considered to be the most literal translation produced during the 20th century. Its major weakness is its reliance on the King James Version for guidance in those instances where the original text is difficult to understand.

This is a revision of the Revised Standard Version of 1952.

This is a more recent revision of the Revised Standard Version of 1952.

Recent Translations by Committee

This translation was produced by a committee of over 100 translators whose goal was to create a more readable translation than the King James Version. To do so, they tried to strike a balance between a formally equivalent translation and a dynamically equivalent translation of the words in the original text. The primary weakness of the translation lies in the fact that the reader has no direct connection to the meaning of the words in the original text. That is, the translators continued the tradition of translating one word in the original text in many different ways and using one English word to translate many different words in the original text. A secondary weakness resides in the tendency of the translators to resort to the King James Version for guidance in translating difficult passages.

This is a revision of the New International Version. It was produced by a committee of 13 translators who sought to update the original translation. It retains the weaknesses of the original translation and thereby prevents the reader from gaining insight into the idioms inherent in the ancient mind-set.

This translation was produced by a committee of more than 20 translators. It seeks to solve the problem of formal and dynamic equivalence by producing a dynamically equivalent text with extensive footnotes whose purpose is to give the reader the information needed to produce a formally equivalent translation on their own. It retains the weakness of every other translation by translating one word in the original text in many different ways and using one English word to translate many different words in the original text.

Translations by an Individual

Noah Webster’s stated purpose in his translation was to produce an updated text of the King James Version that could be used for reading in schools.

Robert Young’s purpose was to produce a translation that adhered to the original text of the Bible insofar as possible. He is to be commended for attempting to reduce his translation of biblical terms to their essential meaning rather than picking and choosing from a range of “acceptable” meanings as nearly all other translations do. His translation comes up short primarily in his lack of recognition that the biblical languages speak in terms of verbal aspect rather than verbal tense.

J.N. Darby’s version of the Bible is not actually a translation, and it was certainly not done by one man. It is at heart a revision of the King James Version done by committee, with Darby having the final say. It follows the sentence structure of the King James Version exactly in most cases and makes only minor changes to the text where it deviates from it. The most obvious change is the use of “Jehovah” rather than “Lord” throughout the Old Testament. James Darby took credit for the revision even though it was done by other men. The primary weakness of the translation lies in the fact that it adds nothing to the King James Version other than minor changes to the language of that text.

In his translation of the Bible, Ferrar Fenton’s stated goal was “to ascertain what its writers actually said and thought.” He therefore took extensive liberties with the original text to make his translation say what he thought the text meant rather than what the text actually said. That is the primary weakness of the translation.

Adolph Knoch’s intention was to determine the essential meaning of each word in the original text of the New Testament and assign it a unique English word that he could use consistently throughout his translation. Consequently, he followed in the footsteps of Robert Young by refraining from translating many different Greek words with the same English word and one Greek word with many different English words. Others carried on his work by applying those same principles to a translation of the Old Testament. The Concordant Version of the New Testament is difficult to read; but its main weakness lies in Knoch’s translation of the Greek verb. He routinely translates aorist forms with a present tense and subjunctive forms as indicative.

James Moffat stated his goal was “to present the books of the Old and New Testament in effective, intelligible English.” The truth is, he sought to introduce his liberal views regarding the origin of the biblical text into his translation of that text. Hence, in the Pentateuch, he used different typefaces to indicate where and when he believed the text originated. He also rearranged the text to make it read the way he thought it should. His introduction of his liberal mindset into his translation is its primary weakness.

Jay P. Green set out to produce an even more literal translation of the Bible than the King James Version and its many revisions. Whether or not he achieved that objective is a matter of opinion. The primary weakness of his translation resides in the fact that he failed to ascertain the meaning of terms in the original languages before he translated them. Thus he continued the tradition of English translators who resort to lexicons for guidance and continue to use words introduced by Tyndale that have long since lost their original meaning in the English language.

Larry Dee Harper has been working over the past 35+ years to produce an English version of the Protestant Bible that would not only be completely consistent throughout, but also one that would allow the serious student of the Bible to see the biblical text that lies behind the English translation. He has been assiduously seeking to assign nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns a definition that will allow them to be translated the same way in every instance; and he is doing his best to isolate the various forms of the verb by tense, voice, and mood (e.g. present, past, future, active, passive, reflexive, subjunctive, indicative, etc.) so that he can translate each form exactly the same way every time. It is a massive undertaking, and one that could only be accomplished by one person using every tool available on the computer. Two or more translators collaborating would take years to agree on even the standards to be used, much less a standardized meaning for all the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic terms.