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History of Bible Translation

QUESTION: What is the history of Bible translation?


The history of Bible translation began with a necessity: people should be able to read the Bible in their own languages as the gospel went into new lands. As familiarity with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek declined, biblical translation into new languages occurred.

The History of Bible Translation - Early Translations - It was not until the fourteenth century that the Bible was translated into English. Latin was dominant in the western church. The principal Bible used in the church was Jerome's Vulgate (completed in 405). Sporadic attempts to translate parts of the Bible into Old English (before 1100) gave limited access to the Bible for those who did not know Latin well. The Venerable Bede, a historian and scholar of the Early Middle Ages, had a great concern that the less-educated clergy be equipped for service through translation of parts of the Bible. He worked on a translation of the Gospel of John, but death intervened in 735. No copies survived.

We have some "glossed" (written between the lines of Latin) manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries. The most famous is the Lindisfarne Gospels that are in the British Museum. This is not a complete translation, however.

The History of Bible Translation - Modern Translations - In the Middle English Period (ca. 1100-1550), John Wycliffe, John Purvey, and Nicholas of Hereford collaborated to produce the first complete Bible in English. There were two editions of the Wycliffe Bible. They were both translations of the Latin text. The first edition was a literal translation from Latin into English. There was a second edition completed in 1396. It circulated more widely. The focus was on the meaning of sentences, not mere words.

As a result of this work, Wycliffe and his followers, "the Lollards" suffered persecution as heretics. Purvey and Nicholas were forced to recant their work. In 1408, the Constitutions of Oxford included a prohibition against Bible translation without approval of church authorities.

By the sixteenth century, a number of events profoundly affected later Bible translation. The Renaissance caused a recovery of classical learning. Greek scholars moved westward as Constantinople fell to the Turks (1453). The invention of the printing press around 1450 was a profound influence on Bible translation. By 1488, there were printed editions of the Hebrew Bible. The Protestant Reformation in 1517 emphasized vernacular versions. The break with Rome during the Tudor dynasty in England influenced the course of the English Bible.

The History of Bible Translation - Today's Translations - William Tyndale (1484-1536) was a Greek scholar educated at Oxford with a desire to provide a readable Bible to the average person. He based his English New Testament on a Greek text established by Erasmus in 1516. He printed it in Europe in 1526 and revised it in 1534. Myles Coverdale produced the first complete English Bible of the sixteenth century in 1535. Subsequently in 1611, King James gave his blessing to a new translation, Authorized Version or King James Bible.

The later discoveries of the Codex Sinaiticus, early Greek papyri of New Testament documents, and the Dead Sea scrolls aided new translations we use today (New English Bible, New International Version, and the Jerusalem Bible).

Learn More about the Origin of the Bible!

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