A Brief History Of Bible Translations


The original biblical languages are Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek

There are about 7,097 spoken languages in the world today.

The Bible has been translated into many languages from the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. As of October 2017 the full Bible has been translated into 670 languages. However, the New Testament alone into 1,521 languages and Bible portions or stories into 1,121 other languages, and some portion of the Bible has been translated into 3,312 languages.

The Old Testament was mainly written in Biblical Hebrew, with some portions (notably in Daniel and Ezra) in Biblical Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in Greek, (Koine Greek – the common Greek spoken and written during the Roman Empire time).

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Early manuscripts of the Pauline epistles and other New Testament writings showed no punctuation whatsoever. The punctuation was added later by other editors, according to their own understanding of the text.

More than 450 Bible translations into English have been written.

Brief History Of The Old Testament Bible Translation

Some of the first translations of the Torah began during the Babylonian exile, when Aramaic became the common language (lingua franca) of the Jews. With most people speaking only Aramaic and not understanding Hebrew, Targums (paraphrases, explanations) were created by Rabbis to allow the common person to understand the Torah as it was read in ancient synagogues. Writing down the targum was prohibited; nevertheless, some targumatic writings appeared as early as the middle of the first century CE. They were then not recognized as authoritative by the religious leaders, however. Some subsequent Jewish traditions (beginning with the Babylonian Jews) accepted the written targumim as authoritative, and eventually, it became a matter of debate. Today, only Jews from the republic of Yemen continue to use the targumim ceremonially.

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Translation of Scripture is older than Christianity itself. The Old Testament Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were brought into other common languages for centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ.

After the time of Alexander the Great in June 323 BC (third century BC), Greek became the common language of much of the ancient world. Many Jews dispersed throughout that world began to speak Greek as their primary language. This eventually led to the need for a Greek translation.

The Torah was translated into Greek in the third century BC (300 years BC), with the other Old Testament books shortly to follow.

This was a great help to the early church.

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Though many early Christians spoke Greek, not all did, and Christians were not content to leave the Old Testament only in Greek. They made various translations of the Greek into many other languages during the 2nd-9th centuries, including Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and Slavonic.

After the rise of Islam (from 609 years AD), Arabic became the dominant language in large portions of the world. In response to this, Arabic translations of the Old Testament began to appear.

Brief History Of The New Testament Bible Translation

Biblical translation was clearly a high priority for the early Church.

From the beginning, the New Testament was built on the necessity of translation. Every time it quotes the Old Testament, it does so in Greek rather than the original Hebrew. In several places in the gospels, words of Jesus or others were spoken in their original Aramaic, but the New Testament offers them in the Greek language that the original readers would have known. For instance, Acts 22:1-21 presents a speech of Paul that it explicitly says he gave in the “Hebrew dialect,” but it records the speech in a Greek translation so that the reader can understand it.

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The New Testament tried to make it into a common, everyday language of the readers. It is no wonder that that Early Christians took up the cause of translation in earnest.

The Syriac and Latin Translation of the New Testament was done between the 2nd and 3rd centuary AD (101 – 200yrs AD).

The Armenian language first developed an alphabet around 406 AD. An Armenian translation of the entire Bible existed by 414. Early Christians were obviously very zealous about bringing the Scriptures into the languages of the people. There were also very ancient translations of the New Testament into Palestinian Aramaic, Georgian,39 Ge’ez (Ethiopic), Arabic, Nubian, Persian, Sogdian (Middle Persian), Gothic, Slavonic, and others. The Early centuries of Christianity thus saw the Scriptures translated into a variety of vernacular tongues as the gospel spread throughout the known world. Biblical translation was clearly a high priority.

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How Was The Bible Translated Into English Language?

More than 450 Bible translations into English have been written.

English languate originated in the mid 5th to 7th centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon settlers from what is now northwest Germany, west Denmark and the Netherlands, displacing the Celtic languages that previously predominated.

Partial Bible translations into languages of the English people can be traced back to the late 7th century (between 601-700 AD), including translations into Old and Middle English. More than 450 translations into English have been written.

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Metrical paraphrases of the Bible (a method of retelling of the Bible for lay people) were reportedly written in Old English in the 8th century, and Saint Bede (672-735 AD) allegedly translated the Gospel of John into English in the 9th century, but no copies of these works have survived.

However, the next major translation of the Bible into English was the John Wycliffe Bible of the 14th Century (1 Jan 1301 – 31 Dec 1400). John Wycliffe an English scholastic philosopher, theologian, Priest….)

John Wycliffe was in many ways a forerunner to the Protestant Reformation. He taught against the papacy, the idolatry of the mass, relics, and prayers to saints. He also inspired the first complete translation of the entire Bible into English. Wycliffe believed that the Bible belonged to all the people of God, and it was out of this conviction that arose the effort to bring the Bible into the common English of the day.

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Wycliffe’s teachings helped plant the seeds that would later sprout into the Protestant Reformation. When the Reformation began through men like Martin Luther, they quickly recognized the need to make the Word of God available in the languages spoken by everyday Christians. The Bible was not only for people wealthy and educated enough to read Latin or Scholarly enough to know the original Greek and Hebrew. The Bible was written and preserved for the benefit of all believers, and those believers needed access to it in their native tongues. The churches of the Protestant Reformation produced numerous translations into the languages of Europe, such as the German Luther Bible (1522), the Polish Brest Bible (1563), the Spanish “Biblia del Oso” (1569), the Czech Melantrich Bible (1549), the French d’Étaples translation (1530), Dalmatin’s Slovene translation (1578), and Chyliński’s Lithuanian Bible (1659), among others.

About The King James Version (KJV)

The KJV publication began in 1604 and was completed in 1611 under the supervision of King James I of England. It was generally accepted as the Standard English Bible from the mid-17th to the early 20th century.

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The translation was done by 47 scholars, all of whom were members of the Church of England. The New Testament of the KJV was translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic.

Post-KING JAMES (1611AD – 1947AD)

The King James Bible set a standard which was not surpassed during the 17th century. The fact there was little new activity during the rest of the century, surely speaks volumes for the quality of the work of the KJV.

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New Testament editions in the 18th century did not question the Textus Receptus (TR), despite new manuscript evidence and study, but its limitations became apparent. E. Wells, a British mathematician and theological writer (1719), was the first to edit a complete New Testament that abandoned the TR in favour of more ancient manuscripts; and English scholar Richard Bentley (1720) also tried to go back to early manuscripts to restore an ancient text, but their work was ignored. In 1734 J.A. Bengel, a German Lutheran biblical theologian, stressed the idea that not only manuscripts but also families of manuscript traditions must be differentiated, and he initiated the formulation of criteria for text criticism.
In 1782 Robert Aitken’s Bible became the First English Language Bible (KJV without Apocrypha) to be printed in America.

In 1833 Joseph Smith received his “Inspired Version” from God. It was published in 1867 after his death in 1866, and is considered divine by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

In 1841 the English Hexapla New Testament was published. An Early Textual Comparison showing the Greek and 6 Famous English Translations in Parallel Columns, it demonstrated the need for study material for bible translators and scholars.

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The next major works took place between 1881-5, the Revised Version. Based on the KJV, it was a literal translation of Hebrew & Greek by 65 English scholars. Full 80 Book, based on Masoretic 500 AD material. This became the modern bible of the 19th century against the King James version from the 17th. It was also notable for its modern approach to translation rigour, and the team approach to the work.

The story of the Apocrypha (or inter-testament works) is not covered here, however it was officially removed in 1885 leaving the 66 books generally accepted as the Word of God today.

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In 1901 the American Standard was published, an American version on the Revised / KJV line, and in 1952 the Revised Standard Version, authorised by the NCC in the USA. Whilst it has many good points, based on strong Greek originals, it is weak in its translation of key OT messianic passages.

Post DEAD SEA SCROLLS  1947AD – 1982AD

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947), making much 1 C BC material available to highly skilled and organised translators the last part of our journey changes to one where translations are all of very high quality, but have many styles and interpretations. Each translation choosing a different balance between literal translation and creative interpretation.

This trend had started earlier in the 20th century with 1934’s Riverside NT, written in today’s language.

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List Of Notable translations through the latter part of the 20th century

1959: Berkeley
1st rank translation. Faithfully rendered with lively modern English (New Testament only in 1945, Full Printing from the Old Testament in 1969).

1961: NEB (New English Bible)
Completely new translation. First attempt to abstract translation from transient modernisms. Mixed response, questioned by evangelicals. (New Testament only in 1961, Full Printing from the Old Testament in 1970)

1971: NASB (New American Standard Bible)
Revision of the ASV 1901 “Modern and Accurate Word for Word English Translation” (New Testament only in 1963, Full Printing from the Old Testament in 1971)

1971: Living Bible
Was considered a Liberal translation, and not favoured by purists.

1976: Todays English Version – Commonly known as the Good News Bible (GNB) or Good News Translation (GNT)

1978: NIV (New International Version)
New translation from Hebrew & Greek by conservative scholars. “Modern and Accurate Phrase for Phrase English Translation”.

1982: The “New King James Version” (NKJV) is Published as a “Modern English Version Maintaining the Original Style of the KJV”

Since 1982 more translations have been published, most following the 20th century trend of making accurate translations available to enable the Word of God to evangelise people where they are.

Admonition: Just like the Christians of old who worked so hard to translate the bible into different languages, with the purpose to reach out to others with the message of the Gospel of Christ, we, the present day Christians also have the mandate, the responsibility and mission to reach out to others with this message of Christ. It might not necessarily mean translating the Bible to other languages, but we can reach out to them with the Love of God by speaking the good news of Christ unto them as it is written in the Word. You can also send the word to them by supporting a missionary and mission around you that you are convinced preaches the message of Christ.


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