Watch the Video Presentation: “A Brief History of the English Bible “ along with the following notes.
The total length of the presentation is just over 38 minutes, but it is divided into several sections. The notes below are similarly sub-divided with an indication of where each section begins on the video presentation in brackets. You may want first to watch through the entire presentation in one sitting and then return to view it in sections along with the notes, or you may simply want to follow both from the start.
Early English translations (0.00)
John Wyclif [also known as “Wycliffe”] (c. 1330-1384) and the Lollards.
Wyclif’s secretary John Purvey set himself the goal of preparing a translation “to translate after the sentence [sense] and not only after the words . . .; and if the letter may not be followed in the translating, let the sentence ever be whole and open [plain].”
Wycliffe’s Bible is available to read at https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Wycliffe-Bible-WYC 1 and a modernised spelling version edited by W. R. Cooper was published in 2002.
The Sixteenth Century (2.12)
1488 First printed Hebrew Bible.
1494 Birth of William Tyndale.
1516 First printed Greek New Testament.
1526 Tyndale’s English New Testament, revised 1534.
1530 Tyndale’s Pentateuch in English.
1535 Myles Coverdale‘s first complete English Bible.
1536 William Tyndale killed.
1537 Matthew’s Bible compiled by John Rogers – the first English translation to be published “with the king’s most gracious licence.” (The king being Henry VIII, reigned 1509 – 1547.)
1539 Coverdale revises the Matthew Bible which was “authorized” to be placed in every church in the land, that the parishioners “may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.” Thomas Cranmer writes the Preface to what becomes known as the Great Bible.
1550 Greek text issued by Stephanus: the ‘Received Text’ (‘Textus Receptus’) based on a few Greek manuscripts reflecting the ‘Byzantine’ tradition. See, for example, 1 John 5:7: “For there are three that bear record to heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” This occurs in no Greek manuscript prior to the fifteenth century and is almost certainly derived from an earlier Latin comment.
1560 The Great Bible revised by Reformers in Geneva as the Geneva Bible. See https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/1599-Geneva-Bible-GNV/#vinfo.
1568 The Bishops’ Bible, a revision of The Great Bible.
King James Bible (5.27)
Commissioned at the Hampton Court Conference. It was to be a new version to contain no editorial comments and “to be read in the whole Church and none other.”
Translated by forty-seven Protestant scholars representing all strands of Protestantism from Puritans to Anglo-Catholics.
Published in 1611.
Popularly known in Britain as the Authorised Version or Authorised King James.
Based on the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 and thus ultimately on Tyndale’s work, especially in the New Testament.
Read the Preface, “The Translators to the Reader”.
There are no commentary notes but marginal notes indicate reasonable alternative readings, despite criticism that this could undermine the reader’s confidence in the text. The translators replied that “they that are wise had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than be captivated to one, when it might be the other.”
Avoided a ‘concordance approach’ where a word in the original language is always translated by the same word in English. Doulos in Greek can mean “slave” or “servant” in English. If the translator decided that doulos is always going to be translated as “slave” there are times when this will be misleading.
Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616 and thus was 46 years of age when the KJV was published in 1611. Curiously, if you count in 46 words in Psalm 46 (in the KJV) you find the work “shake” and if you count back 46 words from the end, you find “spear”. Coincidence?
For an imaginative look at what may have happened, see: “Proofs of Holy Writ” by Rudyard Kipling, first published in The Strand magazine in 1934 and also available in a helpfully annotated edition at http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/proofs.htm.
Early Roman Catholic translations (12.31)
Rheims New Testament (1582) based on the Latin Vulgate, as prescribed by the Council of Trent. The Old Testament was translated and published in Douai in 1610, again based on the Vulgate. The Rheims New Testament and Douai Old Testament were combined as the ‘Douai Bible’. This was revised in the eighteenth century and is still in print. The American edition can be read at https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Douay-Rheims-1899-American-Edition-DRA-Bible.
Translations from King James to the Revised Version (13.17)
The Wesley brothers, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) were passionate about reforming the Church of England. Ultimately their failure led to the formation of the Methodist denomination and while we may think they did not go far enough perhaps they went as far as they could. Both Wesleys were prolific writers and John translated Bengel’s Greek New Testament (Gnomen Novi Testamenti) as Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament in 1754. As the title suggests the translation is accompanied by an abundance of textual notes. The translation (without notes) is available at http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-new-testament-john-wesleys-translation and the book (either with or without notes) is still in print in 2016.
The Emphasised [sometimes Emphasized] Bible is of special interest as it was the work of one of our own brothers, Joseph Bryant Rotherham (1828-1910). In 1872 he produced a translation of Tregelles’s Greek New Testament (The New Testament Critically Emphasised) in which he attempted to show where the grammatical emphasis belongs by the use of various symbols. A full Bible followed in 1902. Like reading musical notation Rotherham’s system takes practice but once you get the idea the Emphasised Bible is a useful tool. It is still available both in printed and electronic editions but I have read reports that some electronic versions can be difficult to read or even lose the notation altogether (but I am not clear as to whether this is a software or hardware problem: caveat emptor!). Without them the Emphasised Bible offers nothing that we cannot find more easily elsewhere.
Revised Version (New Testament: 1881, Old Testament 1885). The translators’ policy was to retain “all archaisms, whether of language or construction, which though not in familiar use cause a reader no embarrassment and lead to no misunderstanding.” RV is no longer in print but is very easy to find second-hand.
American Standard Version: 1901. The ASV remains in print (albeit in a not a particularly well bound edition) or can be read at https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/American-Standard-Version-ASV-Bible.
More solo attempts (16.15)
J. N. Darby (1800-1892) was a prolific writer and translator whose teaching established the Plymouth Brethren Church. His translation was first published in 1890 and lends support to some of his own opinions, most famously “Dispensationalism”. A Darby Bible is easy to find second-hand and is available at https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Darby-Translation-Bible.
James Moffatt’s New Testament (1913) and complete Bible (1928) were arguably the first English (or Scottish) Bible to break from “Bible English” and attempt to sound like ordinary people. However some of Moffatt’s decisions were, frankly, questionable. Do many readers find Moffatt’s opening of John’s Gospel an improvement on traditional translations? “The Logos existed in the very beginning, the Logos was with God, the Logos was divine.”
Reprints of Moffatt are easy to find second-hand. An interesting critique may be read at http://www.bible-researcher.com/moffatt.html.
Ronald A. Knox’s New Testament (1945) and complete Bible (1949) received the official endorsement of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It remains in print in an expensive collector’s edition at http://knoxbible.com/index.html. See also Knox’s On Englishing the Bible (London: Burns & Oates,1949).
The Revised Standard Version (18.33)
New Testament: 1946.
Whole Bible: 1952.
The translation committee’s aim was to revise the KJV while still retaining those “qualities which have given the King James Version a supreme place in English literature.”
Archaic verb endings marking the second person singular (“-est”, “- eth”) and the use of the singular “thee” were abandoned, except for when God is addressed.
The ASV’s use of ‘Jehovah’ was dropped in favour of a return to ‘the LORD’.
Thirteen times in Isaiah the notes attribute a chosen reading to “One ancient MS”. This is the great Isaiah scroll from Qumran, discovered in 1947 and published in time for the committee to take it into account.
Some modern translations: from the New English Bible to the English Standard Version (21.33)
1966 The Jerusalem Bible (JB) based on the French Bible de Jerusalem. Updated as the New Jerusalem Bible in 1985.
1970 New English Bible (NEB)
1970 The New American Bible (NAB) was produced by members of the Catholic Biblical Association for the Roman Catholic bishops of America. Replaced by a new translation in 1987.
1970 The New American Standard Bible (NASB) was a conservative attempt to update the 1901 ASV.
1976 Good News for Modern Man was a highly popular edition of the Gospels which was issued in advance of the Good News Bible (GNB). Initially the translation was officially known as Today’s English Version (TEV) but was then marketed as the GNB again. A second edition appeared in 1994 under the slightly different name of Good News Translation.
1973 The New International Version (NIV) New Testament published. A conservative evangelical translation that becomes the most popular of all modern versions.
1978 Full NIV published. Later an Anglicised edition is produced (with British-English spellings, grammar, and metric measurements).
1982 The New King James Version (NKJV) preserves the textual features of the original KJV but with modernised spellings and some archaic turns of phrase modernised.
1984 NIV revised to include more gender-inclusive language. The publishers planned to phase out the first edition NIV but there was such uproar over this “politically correct” Bible that both versions were kept in print, the original NIV being marketed as the “Classic NIV”. Thus there were in effect four NIVs on the market: “traditional” and “revised” in American and British forms. A later revision, Today’s NIV, was published in the early twenty-first century (New Testament in 2002 and complete Bible in 2005).
1985 The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), an update of the JB prepared by Henry Wansborough. One interesting feature is the use of Yahweh instead of ‘the LORD’ throughout the Old Testament.
1989 The Revised English Bible (REB) is a radical revision of NEB.
1989 The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is another offspring of the KJV, being an extensive revision of the RSV.
1991 The New Century Version (NCV) is aimed at younger readers.
1993 British edition of NCV.
1994 Second edition of GNB issued as Good News Translation with more masculine orientated features removed and some updating of the language. See https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Good-News-Translation-GNT-Bible/#vinfo.
1995 The Contemporary English Version (CEV) is a dynamic equivalence translation aimed at the less-confident reader.
1996 The New Living Translation (NLT) is another dynamic equivalence translation.
2001 The English Standard Version (ESV) is an Australian revision of the RSV, attempting to take a more conservative line than the NRSV.
2004 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) issued.
2009 HCSB second edition published. This is not a radical revision but more an attempt to eliminate inconsistencies. The most noticeable change is a significant increase in the use of “Yahweh” for “the LORD” in Old Testament passages from about 75 to over 500.
2010 The latest NIV text becomes available electronically.
2011 The latest NIV (the NIV11) issued in print. The publisher (Zondervan in USA, Biblica in the rest of the world) announce that all earlier versions of the NIV, including TNIV, will not be kept in print. The older NIVs remain available on-line so in February 2013 there were four NIVs available at www.biblegateway.com (New International Reader‘s Version, NIV, NIV84, and NIV UK plus TNIV). By June 2016 only the 2011 NIV was available on-line, in American and British editions plus the New International Reader’s Version. There is an interesting article on this by Marvin Olasky at https://world.wng.org/2013/03/have_mercy_on_those_who_memorized_the_classic_niv.
Yet more solo attempts (33.20)
J B Phillips (1906-1982), aware that the members of his South London youth group no longer understood the “Bible English” of KJV produced his Letters to Young Churches in 1947. The rest of the New Testament followed as The Gospels in Modern English, The Young Church in Action, and The Book of Revelation with the “Phillips’ New Testament” being completed in 1958. Phillips then started on the Old Testament with Four Prophets (Amos, Hosea, “The First Isaiah”, and Micah) in 1963.
Kenneth Taylor (1917-2005) paraphrased the Bible as the Living Bible in 1971. The New Living Version is being marketed as its successor but is in fact a new translation and any links between the two have been made by the marketing department trying to ride the popularity of LB.
The Message is an interpretative Bible by Eugene Peterson (born 1932). The New Testament was published in 1993 with the Old following in instalments, being completed in 2002. It is more of a re-write than a translation, using contemporary metaphors, idioms and wordplays.
Between 2002 and 2011 N. T. (“Tom”) Wright wrote a series of seventeen short commentaries, The New Testament for Everyone (London: SPCK). Each section opened with Wright’s own translation which were eventually edited and gathered together into a single-volume New Testament, also The New Testament for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2011). In his “Preface” (page xvii) Wright explains that he did not want to be constantly pointing out where other translators had, in his opinion, got things wrong or could have expressed themselves differently so he went ahead and made his own. The result is a readable version that might be described as the Phillips for the new century.
Some examples of English dialect Bibles
Barnes, William, The Song of Songs in the Dorset Dialect (English Dialect Society, 1859).
“The zong o’ zongs, that is Solomon’s.
Let en kiss me wi’ the kisses ov his mouth: vor your love is better than wine.
Vor the smell o’ yur sweet-smell-en scents, shed scent is your ne-ame, an therefore the mai-dens do love you.”
(Song of Solomon 1:1-3)
Lorimer, W. L., The New Testament in Scots (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983).
“Ye are the licht o the warld. A toun biggit on a hill-tap canna be hoddit; an again, whan fowk licht a lamp, they pit-it-na-ablo a meal-bassie, but set it up on the dresserheid, and syne it gies licht for aabodie i the houss.”
Williams, Dick and Frank Shore, The Gospel in Scouse (1966, revised 1977).
“Before God did owt else e ad summat ter say. It wus is last werd. Ony it cum first. An it summed up is ole attitude to everything. Now dis werd wus wid God. Fact it was part’n parcil uv im. So at start uv everything an a long time fore man was akshully made, God’s werd to men wus ready an waitin. Evrythink there is wus made by this werd. E wus God’s one and ony contractor for de ole Universe job. Nowt at all as ever got made sept through this d’partm’nt uv God . . . Wot we call is ‘werd’. Now just becus dis werd is part uv God isself, all God’s life is in im. An did life is de light what shines on everybody. Dis is de light wot everybody needs.”
Postscript: Bible translations of the early 21st century
Unless you are a prophet or the son of a prophet this section is impossible to write with certain knowledge. New translations have been published since the start of the millennium but it is too soon to say which will become established and which will be forgotten. This gets even more clouded by the fact that a particular translation may be endorsed by a church leader or celebrity and gain in popularity with that person’s audience. When Bono of U2 releases a twenty-minute video of him discussing Psalms with Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, (at https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/bono-eugene-peterson-psalms then we may not be surprised if The Message becomes the Bible of choice for U2 fans. But, we ask, will anyone remember U2 or still read The Message by the end of the twenty-first century?
So what follows is a snapshot of new translations that we have noticed since 2000 that have not already been mentioned. Perhaps some will stick, perhaps none will. Are any truly significant? We would say “Not yet” but watch this space and see which are still being read in years to come.
The Expanded Bible (2011) occupies similar territory to Rotherham’s Emphasised Bible (1902), and The Amplified Bible (first edition 1965, revised 2015) in giving help in matters of language to the non-specialist. If you take the trouble to read the instructions these tools can be useful but on their own they are neither useful study Bibles nor suitable for public reading.
The New English Translation (1996-2006) is better known as its acronym: The NET Bible. This was a collaborative project by a team of scholars from around the world linked by the Internet and available at present only digitally.
The 21st Century King James Version (1994) is misnamed as it jumped the date by six years. The first rebranded King James Version was the New King James of 1975. As this was and is commercially viable we should perhaps not be surprised that other publishers want their own updated KJV and we note that the concept of “public domain” is interpreted differently in the US than the UK. Of course once a classic has been tampered with others think they can do a better job so, for a variety of reasons, we can expect to see more attempts on improving upon the KJV in the future.
The Voice (2012) attempts to be both accurate while avoiding the restrictiveness of a word for word approach. Part of the (lengthy) “Preface” says this:
With The Voice Bible we acknowledge the difficulties translation teams face and offer what might be described as a mediating position between the extremes. We describe our approach as “contextual equivalence.” Recognizing that context is the most important factor in determining the meaning of a word, sentence, paragraph, or narrative, we have sought to create a Bible translation that preserves both the linguistic and literary features of the original biblical text. A “contextual equivalent” translation technique seeks to convey the original language accurately while rendering the literary structures and character of a text in readable and meaningful contemporary language. This particular translation approach keeps in mind the smaller parts and the larger whole. In endeavoring to translate sacred Scripture, The Voice captures uniquely the poetic imagery and literary artistry of the original in a way that is beautiful and meaningful. (From https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/The-Voice-Bible/#vinfo)
Like The Message, when The Voice gets it right it can be both powerful and memorable. But sometimes both can become a muddle. Both are worth using but neither should be a study Bible.
World English Bible (based on ASV of 1901). This is another exercise in updating a translation that is now considered to be in the public domain (at least in the USA). If I want an ASV I will look for one second-hand and I do not see the point in trying to update something that is now a relic of the late nineteenth century. It has served its purpose and should be left to rest in peace.