Category Archives: Bible Translations

The Bible in Translation: 450 BC to 1500 AD

I was fortunate enough to visit the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Los Angeles last week. It was amazing seeing all of the items that were in the exhibit that touched on so many things from the Old Testament well into the first century. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946 and continued to be excavated and more discoveries made until 1956. All in all 981 different texts were unearthed from the first two centuries BC several hundred of which were biblical texts (including texts from every book of the Old Testament except Esther). Until this discovery the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament were the Aleppo Codex (920 AD) and the Leningrad Codex (1008 AD). The Dead Sea Scrolls pushed our archaeological/textual evidence for the Old Testament back over 1000 years.

Bible translation in the Bible itself:
Bible translation has been with us for quite some time. I believe the first instance of translation that we have evidence of is in scripture itself when the exiles returned to Jerusalem. When Ezra reestablished the altar, the temple and the Torah with the returned exiles we get this fascinating verse in Nehemiah 8:8,

“They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” – NIV

“So they read from the book, from the law of God with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” – NRSV

The root of the word used here means “to break up” used in this sense it is about translating or interpreting/explaining. It is entirely possible that this generation that didn’t grow up in Israel spoke Aramaic and would have a harder time understanding the Torah in Hebrew. So either Ezra translated it as he went into Aramaic so they could understand its meaning or else he read it in Hebrew but gave explanation for what it meant.

In the New Testament we see use of Bible translation as the apostle Paul often quotes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint). The Gospel writers do at times as well.

There has always been a desire to translate the sacred texts of scripture from the original languages into the languages of the day so that people could understand what God said in the Bible. We see that above from Hebrew to Aramaic and then from Hebrew to Greek.

Eventually the need for Aramaic translation increased as Hebrew became less and less used and understood by the people. The synagogues began trying to meet this need by first reading in Hebrew and then giving a paraphrase in Aramaic. Over time these paraphrases and interpretations into Aramaic were written down into the Jewish Targums.

Bible translation from Hebrew and Greek to other languages:
As the Romans took control of things the common language began to shift from Greek to Latin. Pope Damascus I asked Jerome to come up with a better Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome took several already existing translations and added much of his own work to create the Vulgate in the 4th century. As was just mentioned, Latin translations of the scriptures existed before Jerome produced the Vulgate and we see evidence of that in quotations by the church fathers (Tertullian and Cyprian in the 2nd and 3rd centuries). On a side note, the Gutenberg Bible of the 1450s was a copy of the Vulgate. Sorry if you have $20 million you were planning on dropping for your every day knock around Bible but don’t read Latin! The Vulgate eventually went on to become the official Bible of the Catholic church. It didn’t stop at Latin…the Bible was also translated into Syriac (2nd or 3rd century), Coptic (5th century) and other languages over time. Of these, the Syrian translations are of the most interest as the Gospel spread from Antioch in Syria outward. Syriac is very similar to Aramaic and Hebrew. The Syrian translation of the Bible is called the Peshitta.

The word of God was inspired in its original languages and has undergone over the years the work of translation into the languages people can understand. It is a difficult process. It is an imperfect process. The work of translation has always had issues. It had issues from Hebrew to Greek, Greek to Latin and still has issues from Greek to English. Should that shake our faith in the English Bibles we have today? The answer is no. I love the point made by Daniel Wallace…that while we don’t have the original documents that form the New Testament (handwritten by the apostles themselves) we do have enough manuscript evidence at hand to ensure that we have all of the original readings in the evidence that we have. If you take the 5358 handwritten (pre-printing press) Greek manuscripts that we have, plus the quotations from the church fathers, we have in one place or another all of the original readings. What scholars have to do is take all of that manuscript evidence and compile the most accurate and reliable Greek manuscript they can. If you look at a Greek New Testament (typically UBS5 or NA27) what you see is the text they have concluded is the most accurate above and potential textual variants below each with a grade of certainty. In any given verse among the variants we have at our disposal is the proper reading.

Textus Receptus (TR)
In the early 1500s Erasmus decided to put together the most accurate Greek New Testament he could based on various manuscripts that he had at his disposal and also based upon the Latin Vulgate. He didn’t have the textual evidence mentioned above that we have discovered since the 1500s at his disposal. He used seven different Greek manuscripts all dating from the 12th & 15th century. You can see the list here. Where Erasmus didn’t have a Greek text on a particular verse he relied on the Vulgate and backwards translated from Latin to Greek to complete his Greek New Testament. You see this reflected in a number of places including:

Acts 9:6 “and he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him…”

and most notably where he was missing the last page of Revelation (missing the last 6 verses) which the Vulgate mistakenly had “book of life” instead of “tree of life” (Rev 22:19) compare KJV & NIV) that Erasmus back translated from Latin to Greek to create his own version to fill the void. Since the 1611 KJV translators used Erasmus’ work, they translated it back into English and the error continues on in the KJV even to this day.

Erasmus’ Greek New Testament (TR) underwent multiple revisions that eventually became the Greek text used along with the Bishop’s Bible that were the basis for the KJV. It was the third edition of 1522 that was used by William Tyndale in his 1526 English Translation of the New Testament. The third edition was also the one used by the KJV translators. More on Early English translations later.

Everything You Wanted to Know About the King James Bible

The NIV has been under attack lately because people say it “deleted verses” from the Bible. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear that accusation is the question, “What exactly did they delete? Why?” Turns out that the early English translations were based on a few dozen Greek manuscripts and only aContinue Reading

Reading the Bible Contextually: Eugene Peterson on the Antidote to Prooftexting

The Bible was read without chapter and verse numbers for well over 1000 years. When the New Testament was first written not only did it lack verse numbers (remember these were letters and biographies) but they also lacked punctuation, capitalization and any meaningful formatting at all! What compounded things further was that early English translationsContinue Reading

Bible Translation Taste Test…Which Translation is the Real ESV?

The English Standard Version has become extremely popular as of late. For those of you who are discerning in your selection of a good Bible version and who may really enjoy using the ESV I want to give you a “translation taste testt. The results will surprise you! Here are 2 passages from 2 differentContinue Reading

Logos’ Baker Academic Biblical Greek Collection (6 vols) – A Great Resource for Learning or Refreshing Your Greek

Over the last few weeks I have been working through Logos‘ Baker Academic Biblical Greek Collection and it has been tremendously helpful in refreshing my Greek. This bundle is designed to give you a variety of beginner and intermediate level Greek resources to help you either learn Koine Greek or brush up on it ifContinue Reading

Greek in the Pulpit – Being Honest With Limitations

I love this story from David Black and his book, “It’s Still Greek to Me” in warning ministers to not preach making points from the original languages, “When Harvard presented Andrew Jackson with an honorary doctorate in 1833, Jackson had a small problem. His schooling was meager, and the ceremony was in Latin. To expressContinue Reading

Is the ESV the Mac of Translations?

In the last post, Zondervan was compared to Microsoft. Which translation/publisher would you compare to Mac? User friendly, intuitive, sleek, and powerful…If I was skilled enough at photoshop I would create a picture of a Mac-esque Bible. If any of you guys can create something like that send it my way.

Is Zondervan the Microsoft of Bible Translations?

In 1984 Zondervan published what would become the most popular Bible translation in print, the NIV. In 2005 Zondervan published and updated version called the Today’s New International Version but it didn’t fare quite so well. The gender neutral language was good in some places but had its critics. So they came out with anotherContinue Reading

Greek and Hebrew Textual Study Tools Big List

There are all kinds of great tools on the web for studying the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament (the text, textual variants/criticism, etc). I thought it might be nice to start a list of them so that when anyone needs them you can get them all in one spot. IContinue Reading

Help From You Guys With Accordance or Logos – What is the most common command in the Bible?

I had an email discussion yesterday with a buddy about what the most frequent command in scripture is. If you google it you will find “do not be afraid” comes out on top. That is at least the theory but I can’t find really any evidence that backs it up. They say it occurs 365Continue Reading


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