Christians today have access to a virtual smorgasbord of Bible translations.  To prove this point, let’s see what version of the Bible you currently use for home study.  (survey results:  What version of the Bible do you use primarily for study at home?  ESV-4  KJV-1  NKJV-6  NASB-5  NIV-24  RSV-2  NRSV-1  Phillips-1  Amer Cath-1) 

In the span of just under 500 years, the English-speaking church has evolved from no printed English translations of the Bible to scores of translations, and the number continues to grow with each decade. 

In the next few weeks we will be looking at highlights of the history of English Bible translation.  This survey will take us from the days of Wycliffe in the 14th century down to the present day.   (Parts of the Bible were translated into the vernacular in England prior to the 14th century; however, this was “Old English” and “Middle English”, which bears little resemblance to the English that we recognize today, so we will not consider any of the translation work before the 14th century.) 

Purpose/ goals

It is fitting at the outset to state the goals of this study.  When all is said and done, the primary purpose in studying this material is to provide you with the tools to make an informed decision about the Bible that you select as your personal study Bible.  This decision is much more complicated today, given the increasing number of new translations, and revisions of older translations, not to mention all the paraphrases and simplified versions.  

Can you articulate your reasons for selecting one translation/version over another?  Do you know the history behind the particular version of the Bible that you carried to church with you today?  Or for that matter, the pew Bible in front of you (NIV)?   Everyone here should be able to answer “Yes” to these questions by the end of this study. 

If you’re expecting to hear a resounding, clear recommendation of a particular English Bible version, you will be disappointed.  Let me state in the negative what the focus, or purpose, of this study is not:  The purpose is not to promote any particular version(s) of the English Bible, nor to denigrate any versions.  Having said that, I think you will find by the end of this study that you will have a fondness and respect for certain versions above others, and that is fine and well.  If nothing else, you should have a renewed admiration and respect for the version of the Bible that you already call your own. 

In addition to the personal goal just stated, we will be pursuing some more general goals as we look at the history of English Bible translation.  Principally, we will seek to identify the major driving forces behind new english translations.

  1. Desire to have the Bible accessible to English speaking folk (Tyndale quote1 and Erasmus quote2)
  2. Desire to improve on an earlier translation(s) (see preface to AV of 16113)
  3. Changes in the English language over time (Campbell quote4)
  4. Political and/or economic considerations

Other goals of this study are:

  • To gain an appreciation for the difficulties inherent in Bible translation (Luther’s quote5)
  • To understand the basic principles and theories of Bible translation
  • To learn something about the major English translations of the Bible
  • To discuss some of the modern controversies, namely the “King James only” controversy and the “gender-neutral” controversy. 

Contrast today with pre-Reformation era

I would like us to begin by contrasting the situation today—in which we have a multiplicity of translations—with the English-speaking world at the end of the 14th century, when not a single complete English Bible existed.  During this dark time arose the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, John Wycliffe (c.1320-1384), who is credited with being the first to translate the entire Bible into English.  The bottom line for Wycliffe was this: the English people had a right to read the Bible in their own language, rather than be forced to listen to what their clergy wished them to hear.  As Wycliffe pointed out, the ecclesiastical establishment had a considerable vested interested in not allowing the laity access to the Bible.6

Two things of note regarding Wycliffe:

  • He was not the sole translator of the Bible that bears his name
  • He did not have access to Hebrew and Greek manuscripts; so he translated from the only Bible in use at that time, the Latin Vulgate.  Because Wycliffe’s translation was based on the Vulgate, it behooves us to consider briefly the history of this ancient translation. 

Vulgate (editio vulgate=common edition)

Jerome was one of the finest scholars and linguists of his day.  In 382, the bishop of Rome, Damasus, invited Jerome to Rome to be his personal secretary.  Damasus encouraged him in his scholarship, specifically for the purpose of producing an authoritative edition of the Latin Bible that would supersede all existing translations.    Jerome completed the Gospels, then the remainder of the New Testament before Damasus died.  Jerome left Rome (which he called “Babylon”) and made his way to the Holy Land, eventually to settle in Bethlehem.  It was there that he worked on translating the Old Testament from the Septuagint.  This was a Greek translation from the original Hebrew, which was translated in the 2nd century BC by a committee of approximately 70 scholars (hence the name).  The early Christian Church held the Septuagint in high regard.  The “Bible” of the early Greek-speaking Christians was the Septuagint (Greek OT) plus fragments of the gospels, epistles and other writings that eventually were recognized as the canon of the Greek NT.   Despite the prevailing respect for, and reliance upon, the Septuagint, Jerome did not regard it as sacrosanct.  Armed with knowledge of Hebrew, he risked widespread criticism by abandoning the Greek Old Testament as the basis for his OT translation, and he went directly to the original language.  He did so over the objections of none less than Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, who believed that there was no justification for not using the Septuagint.7   

Jerome’s practice of translating directly from the original languages makes him, in my opinion, the pioneer in the long history of Bible translation. 

During the Middle Ages Jerome’s Vulgate existed side by side with other Latin translations.  To the best of my knowledge, it was not until the Council of Trent in the 16th century that the Roman Catholic Church officially recognized Jerome’s translation as the Latin translation to be used by the Church.8  Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church revered the Vulgate translation so much that it was not until the 20th century that the Pope authorized new translation work based on the original languages rather than Latin.  

(Incidentally, it was in the Vulgate that current chapter divisions, accredited to Stephen Langton (d.1228), were first introduced into the Bible.  More about verse divisions later.)

Keep in mind that when Jerome produced his Vulgate, he was living in the last days of the Roman Empire, and so his audience was fellow Latin speaking citizens of the Empire.  I am certain that he had no inkling that his Vulgate would be used for centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire in lands far and wide, where diverse other languages were spoken.  

The common people in Europe in pre-Reformation Europe knew no Latin, and for that matter, neither did much of the clergy.  Imagine attending church services and never hearing the Bible read in your native tongue!  Nor being able to ever read the Bible in the privacy of your own home.  We take these blessings so much for granted today, but for centuries the gift of having the Scriptures in the vernacular was denied to generation after generation of the faithful.   (Even today this continues in some countries—I recently met an evangelical Christian woman from Ethiopia who informed me that in the Greek Orthodox churches of that African country the church services, including Scripture readings, are conducted exclusively in Greek, a language that scarcely anyone knows in Ethiopia.)

New Biblical scholarship

The stagnant condition which marked the Middle Ages changed dramatically with the advent of new Biblical scholarship that sprung from the Renaissance interest in classical languages and cultures.   A key figure in this regard was Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) who was a man of tremendous erudition.  Under the influence of Erasmus and his kind, with their new insistence on classical learning, there arose necessarily a new appraisal of the role of the Vulgate.  For a thousand years there had been no new study of the original Bible languages in Europe.  The Latin of the Vulgate had become as sacred as the Book itself.  But the revival of learning threw the light of scholarship back on the sources of the text.  Ad fontes (“to the sources!”) was the rallying cry.

Erasmus showed that the the Latin text included “seriously misleading errors in translation.  Erasmus’ solution was simple: he would point out these errors and offer a new Latin translation of the NT, which would correct them.”9

In 1516 Erasmus published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament along with his own Latin translation.  Erasmus’ Latin was not the Vulgate translation of Jerome, but his own fresh rendering of the Greek NT text that he had collated from less than ten partial NT manuscripts into a complete Greek NT. 

Erasmus’ parallel New Testament served as the textual basis for two groundbreaking vernacular translations that followed shortly thereafter:  Martin Luther’s German Bible, and William Tyndale’s English Bible.  A popular expression of that day was “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched”.  Erasmus himself was reform minded, but not sympathetic to the agenda of the Protestant Reformers.  Nonetheless, one cannot overstate the role that Erasmus’ Greek New Testament played in furthering the cause of vernacular Bible translations, without which the Reformation would surely have been stillborn.  

The manuscripts

While speaking of Erasmus, this is a good time to introduce the subject of Bible manuscripts and the role that they play in vernacular translations.  Erasmus’ seminal contribution to future translation efforts consisted of collecting several biblical manuscripts into a single textual source that later became known as the Textus Receptus (the “received text”).  
Because there are no surviving original canonical writings (autographs), we must rely on surviving copies (manuscripts) to know the content of Holy writ.  

A few things to keep in mind about these manuscripts:

  • they are numerous, and span several centuries, unlike almost all other ancient texts, of which only a few copies have survived.  
  •  With few exceptions, they are fragmentary.  Comparison of multiple fragments is necessary to reconstitute the Bible in its entirety.
  • The text type of Bible manuscripts changed over time.  The earliest manuscripts were copied in a text type that we would recognize as capital letters—this is called uncial text.  Later, scribes uniformly used a lower case, which was easier to reproduce by hand—this is called miniscule text.  The text type helps to date manuscripts. 
  • In addition to handwriting style differences, manuscripts have other characteristics which allow them to be grouped into “families”.  These other characteristics include the material on which the manuscript is copied (vellum or parchment), punctuation and column patterns, and artwork (calligraphy).  “A family of manuscripts displays similar characteristics, suggesting that there is a historical connection between those manuscripts.”10  The three most important text-families that scholars have identified are: Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine.  
  • The science of textual criticism is concerned with determining which of the manuscripts are most authentic/ reliable. 

Since the time of Erasmus, more biblical manuscripts have been discovered, several of which are believed to be older than the manuscripts that were known at the time of the Reformation.  These discoveries have made the field of textual criticism all the more interesting and important.   For example, one notable manuscript discovery is known as Codex Sinaiticus, which was discovered by a biblical scholar at a monastery near Mount Sinai in the latter half of the 19th century.  This manuscript, which dates to the 4th century, includes parts of the OT and the entire NT.  It is the only known complete copy of the Greek NT in uncial script.11   

As a result of the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, and other similar manuscripts, bible scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries published new critical Greek editions of the NT.  These Greek New Testaments became the basis for the majority of modern English translations of the Bible.   (We will come back to this topic when we consider the “King James only” controversy in detail later.)

Requirements for making a translation

What is required to translate the original languages of the Bible into a receptor language such as English? 

  • good manuscripts (translation teams today work with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of manuscripts, whereas Erasmus and other translators of his day had scant material by comparison)
  • a method of textual criticism whereby one makes decisions regarding variant readings
  • a working knowledge of both the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) and the receptor language—the language into which the Bible is being translated.  Keep in mind that not all translations begin with the original languages.   During the Middle Ages, for example, what little translation took place was done using the Latin Vulgate (translation from a translation).  Before the time of the Vulgate, the translation of the Old Testament that was commonly used was the Septuagint

In the long history of the church, there have been few individuals equipped with the requisite language skills and spiritual gifts to accomplish an entire translation of the Bible.  Jerome was such a man.  So, too, was William Tyndale, of whom we will speak next time.  


“I had perceived by experience how that it was impossible to stablysh the laye people in any truth, excepte the scripture were plainly layde before their eyes in their mother tongue.”  Tyndale (c.1494-1536)

Translation: a rendering from one language into another; also : the product of such a rendering (aka “version”)

Purposes/Goals of this study:
Personal: to provide you with the tools to make an informed decision about the Bible that you select as your personal study Bible
General: to identify the major driving forces behind new English translations:

  • Desire to have the Bible accessible to English speaking folk
  • Desire to improve on earlier translation(s)
  • Changes in the English language over time
  • Political &/or economic considerations

Other goals:

  • To gain an appreciation for the difficulties inherent in Bible translation
  • To understand the basic principles and theories of Bible translation
  • To learn something about the major English translations of the Bible
  • To discuss some of the modern controversies, namely the “King James only” controversy and the “gender-neutral” controversy

Pioneers in Bible translation 

  • Jerome (c.340-420, author of Latin Vulgate)
  • John Wycliffe (c.1320-1384)
    • Morning Star of Reformation
    • First to produce complete English translation (based on Latin Vulgate)
  • Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536)
    • Ad fontes (to the sources)
    • Published critical edition of Greek New Testament
    • “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”
  • William Tyndale (1494-1536)
    • first to print a partial English translation of the Bible from the original languages


  • surviving copies of the original canonical writings (“autographs”)
  • text type: uncial vs miniscule
  • text families: Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine
  • textual criticism: The science concerned with determining which of the manuscripts are most authentic/ reliable

Requirement for making a translation


Tyndale: “I had perceived by experience how that it was impossible to stablysh the laye people in any truth, excepte the scripture were plainly layde before their eyes in their mother tongue.”
In a reply to one of his critics, Tyndale wrote: “I defy the pope and all his laws; if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plough in England to know more of the Scriptures than thou doest.”

Erasmus; ‘I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures should be translated into everyday languages and read by unlearned people.  Christ wishes his mysteries to be made known as widely as possible.  I would wish even all women to read the gospels, and the letters of St. Paul.  I wish that they were translated into all the languages of all Christian people—that they might be read and known not just by the Scots and Irish, but even by the Turks and Saracens.  I wish that the farm laborer might sing parts of them at his plow, that the weaver might hum them at his shuttle, and that the traveler might ease his weariness by reciting them.”

Preface to AV (1611): “Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought…that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one,….but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one…”

Campbell: “(this) constant mutation in a living language will probably render new translations, or corrections of old translations, necessary every two or three hundred years…the changes which have taken place since the reign of James I do now render a new translation necessary.” General Preface, An Apology for a New Translation, 1827. 

Luther: “I have undertaken to translate the Bible into German.  This was good for me; otherwise I might have died in the mistaken notion that I am a learned fellow.”

6 McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible…, p.16

Augustine to Jerome: “I pray you not to devote your energies to translating the sacred books to Latin, unless you do as you did earlier in your translation of the book of Job, that is, adding notes that show clearly where your version differs from the Septuagint, whose authority has no equal…Besides, I cannot imagine how, after so long, someone can find in the Hebrew manuscripts anything which so many translators did not see before, especially since they knew Hebrew so well.”

Council of Trent, 1546, Session IV, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures: “If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety…and as they are contained in the Old Latin Vulgate Edition…let him be anathema.” 

9 McGrath, p.57

10 Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible Versions, p.61

11 Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, p.44