A Concise History of the Bible
The Bible as we know it today consists of two groups
of books called the Old and New Testaments. What books were included in these
groupings remained in flux for several centuries after Christ. In some ways the
matter is not totally settled even today as some faith traditions include or
exclude several books which are usually referred to as the Apocrypha. Even what
books constitute the Apocrypha may vary but prominent among them are those that
detail the Maccabeean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes during the second century BC. This account
informs the tradition behind the present day celebration of Hannukah.
What we call the Old Testament was originally oral then written down in Hebrew with small sections in Aramaic (portions of Ezra, Jeremiah and Daniel) from the 12th century BC to the 2nd Century BC. The Hebrew Text most commonly known is the Masoretic Text.
From the 3rd to the 2nd century BC, the
Old Testament was translated into Greek in
The Septuagint was the Old Testament most
familiar to early Christians who were comfortable with Greek. New Testament
writings were in Greek and were gradually added to the Greek translation of the
Old Testament to comprise a "Christian Bible."
The first Latin translations were based
on the Septuagint, but near the end of the 4th century AD Jerome translated the
Latin Vulgate from original Masoretic Hebrew and Koine Greek texts. This remained the principle Bible for over
a thousand years.
By the end of the 5th century,
translations had been done into Gothic, Armenian, Syriac,
Coptic, Ethiopic and Georgian. Some partial translations of the Bible into Old
English and Old German took place in the 8th century, but the Latin Vulgate
continued to be primary. No doubt this was in large part due to the continued
use of Latin for the mass and homiletics.
Wycliffe produced the entire Bible in
Middle English based on the Latin Vulgate in the 14th century. This encouraged
other vernacular translations based on the Vulgate. While the Latin Vulgate was
well known, over a century would pass before a printed Greek text was widely
available for translation
The earliest printed Greek edition of the
New Testament was produced by Erasmus in the early 16th century. The
combination of printing and the availability of this New Testament resulted in
the first widespread availability of vernacular translations. Only a few years
after Erasmus produced this Greek text, Luther translated the New Testament
from Greek into German. This was printed in 1522. Four years later Jacob Liesvelt printed the entire Bible with portions based on
Luther's translation of the New Testament.
Eight years later, in 1534, the Bible
known as the "Luther Bible" was printed based on Luther's
collaborative work with several other translators to produce a definitive
German Bible. It is unique in the addition of the word "alone" (allein) to Romans 3:28. This word is not found in any
original Greek text. The Luther Bible is largely responsible for standardizing
the German language we know today due to its widespread usage.
Tyndale began publishing portions of the
Bible in English in the early 16th century, but it was Miles Coverdale who
printed the first complete English Bible in 1535. However, this Bible was
published not in
A definitive English Bible translation
from the Hebrew and Greek was not completed until 1611. Known as the King James
Version, it is still widely used four centuries later despite many changes in
English usage through the years. While the Great Bible of Miles Coverdale and
the Bishops Bible of 1568 preceeded it, they never
achieved the widespread acceptance of the King James Bible. Perhaps this was
because this Bible was expressly commissioned to conform
its translation to the ecclesiology and episcopal
structure of the Church of England.
Several attempts have been made to update
the English text through the years. These translations have been hindered in
becoming as widely accepted as the King James probably more from the plethora
of options to choose from than from any defect in translation. These include
the Revised Standard Versions, the American Standard Versions, The New International Versions, the New American Bible, the
New English Bible, the
To add to the confusion several
paraphrases which are not translations have been added to the mix. These
include the Living Bible and the Message Bible. Paraphrases tend to be heavily
informed by the theology of the denomination that produces them and are
therefore of low critical value.
While translations are usually more
accurate, one English translation, The
Today, we do not have the originals of any of the
Greek or Hebrew texts. The best we can often do is to go back to the oldest
available. That often takes us to the
Codex Sinaiticus written in Uncial Koine Greek. It is probably the earliest relatively complete
text and dates back to the 4th century AD. We also have a very few papyrii fragments available from as early as the 2nd
century AD. However, we do not have any originals from the hands of the apostles.
The King James Bible of 1611 was a major breakthrough
in that it allowed the people to read the Bible in the street language of their
day. Prior to that, they had to rely on
Jerome's Latin Vulgate or the then available Greek and Hebrew texts that Jerome
As we have discovered older and more authoritative
Greek and Hebrew texts, more modern translations have tried to reflect those
older texts. Every translation,
including the King James, has interpretations strongly influenced by the
religious denomination of the translators.
The use of committees is intended to overcome these biases, but they are
never completely successful.
How can this happen when it is supposed to be a direct
translation from an earlier text? If you look at the King James Version (KJV)
you will see that some words are written in italics. Those words are in italics
because they were not in the original text.
That original is commonly referred to today as the "Textus Receptus." Some may be surprised that they did not stick
to this text entirely even in the KJV.
This is common in translations as some phrases are difficult to clearly
translate from one language to another. (For example: "Zeitgeist"
from German to English) This creates a serious problem for those who believe that God dictated word for word
what should be written in the Bible.
For such Biblical literalists, there are far more
serious problems than what Bible translation is correct, for even in the KJV,
there are inconsistencies. A good example is the comparison between II Samuel
24:1 and I Chronicles 21:1. In one instance God moved
David to number
One may choose to read and study the King James
Version of the Bible as their favorite. That
is fine. It has everything necessary for
salvation, and so do other translations. They all have their shortcomings, but
by the grace of God, they also have the plan of salvation clearly and
meaningfully presented so that no one should be lost.