Translations of the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into other tongues. Translation work has made the Word of God available to thousands of millions of persons unable to understand the original Biblical languages. The early versions of the Scriptures were handwritten and were therefore in the form of manuscripts. However, since the advent of the printing press, many additional versions, or translations, have appeared, and these have generally been published in great quantities. Some versions have been prepared directly from Hebrew and Greek Bible texts, whereas others are based on earlier translations.—CHART, Vol. 1, p. 321.
The Scriptures have been published, the whole or in part, in more than 3,000 languages. From the standpoint of language coverage, this means that about 90 percent of the earth’s population can have access to at least some part of the Bible. An account of versions, or translations, of the Scriptures will engender gratitude to Jehovah God for the wonderful way in which he has preserved his Word for the benefit of mankind’s millions.
Ancient Versions of the Hebrew Scriptures. Extant today are possibly 6,000 ancient manuscripts of all or portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, written in Hebrew (with the exception of a few Aramaic sections). Known to be still in existence are also many manuscripts of old versions, or translations, of the Hebrew Scriptures in various languages. Some versions were in themselves translations of earlier translations from the Hebrew. For instance, the Hebrew Scripture portion of the Old Latin version was rendered from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the other hand, some ancient versions of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Greek Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, the Syriac Peshitta, and the Latin Vulgate) were made directly from the Hebrew and not through the medium of a version in Greek or some other language.
Samaritan “Pentateuch.” After the deportation of most of the inhabitants of Samaria and the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 740 B.C.E., pagans from other territories of the Assyrian Empire were settled there by Assyria. (2Ki 17:22-33) In time the descendants of those left in Samaria and those brought in by Assyria came to be called Samaritans. They accepted the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, and in about the fourth century B.C.E. they produced the Samaritan Pentateuch, not really a translation of the original Hebrew Pentateuch, but a transliteration of its text into Samaritan characters, mixed with Samaritan idioms. Few of the extant manuscripts of the Samaritan Pentateuch are older than the 13th century C.E. Of about 6,000 differences between the Samaritan and the Hebrew texts, by far the majority are unimportant. One variation of interest appears at Exodus 12:40, where the Samaritan Pentateuch corresponds to the Septuagint.
Targums. The “Targums” were free translations or paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic. Although fragments of early Targums of some books were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jewish Targums as a whole likely assumed their present form no earlier than about the fifth century C.E. One of the principal Targums, the “Targum of Onkelos” on the Pentateuch, is rather literal. Another, the so-called Targum of Jonathan for the Prophets, is less literal. Extant today are Targums on most books of the Hebrew Scriptures except Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel.
The Greek “Septuagint.” The Greek Septuagint (often designated LXX) was used by Greek-speaking Jews and Christians in Egypt and elsewhere. Reportedly, work on it commenced in Egypt in the days of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.), when, according to tradition, the Pentateuch thereof was translated into Greek by 72 Jewish scholars. Later, the number 70 somehow came to be used, and the version of the Pentateuch was referred to as the Septuagint, meaning “Seventy.” The other books of the Hebrew Scriptures (by various translators whose style varied from quite literal to rather free rendition) were gradually added until translation of the entire Hebrew Scriptures had finally been completed during the second century B.C.E. and perhaps by 150 B.C.E. Thereafter the entire work came to be known as the Septuagint. This version is often quoted by writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Apocryphal writings were evidently inserted in the Greek Septuagint sometime after it was first completed.—See APOCRYPHA.
One of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint is Papyrus 957, the Rylands Papyrus iii. 458, preserved in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England. It is of the second century B.C.E. and consists of fragments of Deuteronomy (23:24–24:3; 25:1-3; 26:12, 17-19; 28:31-33). Another manuscript, of the first century B.C.E., is Papyrus Fouad 266 (possessed by the Société Egyptienne de Papyrologie, Cairo), containing parts of the second half of Deuteronomy according to the Greek Septuagint. In various places therein, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH in English) of the divine name is found in a form of square Hebrew characters right within the Greek script.—See PICTURE, Vol. 1, p. 326; JEHOVAH.
The Greek Septuagint has thus been preserved in numerous manuscripts, many fragmentary, others fairly complete. Notably, the Septuagint texts are preserved in the three famous uncial manuscripts written on vellum—the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209 and the Sinaitic Manuscript, both of the fourth century C.E., and the Alexandrine Manuscript of the fifth century C.E. The Septuagint as found in the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209 is almost complete; part of the Hebrew Scriptures once included in the Sinaitic Manuscript has been lost; that in the Alexandrine Manuscript is rather complete, though lacking parts of Genesis, First Samuel, and Psalms.
Later Greek versions. In the second century, Aquila, a Jewish proselyte of Pontus, made a new and very literal Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Except for fragments and quotations thereof by early writers, it has perished. Another Greek translation of the same century was produced by Theodotion. His was apparently a revision of the Septuagint or some other Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, though he considered the Hebrew text itself. No complete copy of Theodotion’s version is extant. Another Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures of which no complete copy is extant was that of Symmachus. His rendition, probably translated about 200 C.E., endeavored to convey the right sense rather than to be literal.
About 245 C.E., Origen, the noted scholar of Alexandria, Egypt, completed a mammoth multiple version of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Hexapla (which means “sixfold”). Though fragments of it are extant, no complete manuscript copy has survived. Origen arranged the text in six parallel columns containing (1) the consonantal Hebrew text, (2) a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew text, (3) Aquila’s Greek version, (4) Symmachus’ Greek version, (5) the Septuagint, revised by Origen to correspond more exactly to the Hebrew text, and (6) Theodotion’s Greek version. In the Psalms, Origen used anonymous versions he called Quinta, Sexta, and Septima. The Quinta and Sexta were also employed in other books.
Christian Greek Scriptures. Translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures into Syriac (an Aramaic dialect) were produced from the second century onward. A Syriac version of particular note is Tatian’s Diatessaron, a Gospel harmony of the second century C.E. It may have been written originally at Rome in Greek and later translated into Syriac in Syria by Tatian himself, but that is uncertain. The Diatessaron is extant today in an Arabic translation and a small third-century vellum fragment in Greek. Additionally, two editions of Ephraem’s fourth-century commentary, one in the original Syriac and one an Armenian translation, contain lengthy quotations from its text.
Only incomplete manuscripts of an Old Syriac version of the Gospels (a translation other than the Diatessaron) are extant, the Curetonian and the Sinaitic Syriac Gospels. Though these manuscripts were probably copied in the fifth century, they likely represent an older Syriac text. The original version may have been made from the Greek about 200 C.E. Quite likely, Old Syriac renditions of other books of the Christian Greek Scriptures once existed, but there are no extant manuscripts thereof. All books of the Christian Greek Scriptures except Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude, and Revelation were included in the Syriac Peshitta of the fifth century. In about 508 C.E. Philoxenus, bishop of Hierapolis, had Polycarp make a revision of the Peshitta Christian Scriptures, and this was the first time Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude, and Revelation were added to a Syriac version.
The Christian Greek Scriptures had already been translated into Latin by the end of the second century C.E. They were also available in Egyptian by about the middle of the third century.
Ancient Versions of the Entire Bible. The Peshitta of Syriac-speaking people professing Christianity was in general use from the fifth century C.E. onward. The word “Peshitta” means “simple.” The Hebrew Scripture portion was basically a translation from the Hebrew, probably made during the second or third century C.E., though a later revision involved comparison with the Septuagint. Numerous Peshitta manuscripts are extant, the most valuable being a sixth- or seventh-century codex preserved at the Ambrosian Library in Milan, Italy. One Peshitta manuscript of the Pentateuch (lacking Leviticus) has a signed date corresponding to about 464 C.E., and a palimpsest with Isaiah has the date 459-460 C.E. signed, making them the oldest dated Bible manuscripts in any tongue.
Old Latin. This is the collective title (Vetus Latina) for the texts that reflect Latin translations generally prior to Jerome’s Vulgate. These probably appeared from the latter part of the second century C.E. onward, but the earliest evidence of the Latin Bible is from Carthage, North Africa, at least by 250 C.E. The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Latin from the Greek Septuagint (not yet revised by Origen), but the Christian Scriptures were rendered from the original Greek. Scholars usually refer to two basic types of Old Latin text: the African and the European. The earliest extant Biblical manuscripts date from the fourth and fifth centuries C.E.
Latin “Vulgate.” The Latin Vulgate (Vulgata Latina) is a version of the entire Bible by the foremost Biblical scholar of that time, Eusebius Hieronymus, better known as Jerome. He first undertook a revision of the Old Latin version of the Christian Scriptures in comparison with the Greek text; he began with the Gospels, which were published in 383 or 384 C.E. Just when he completed his revision of the Old Latin Christian Scriptures is uncertain. Between about 384 and 390 C.E., he made two revisions of the Old Latin Psalms, based on the Greek Septuagint. The first is now lost, but what is called the Roman Psalter may represent the Old Latin text he corrected. The second is called the Gallican Psalter, named for its adoption in Gaul. Jerome also translated the Psalms directly from Hebrew, this work being called the Hebrew Psalter. He began to revise other books of the Hebrew Scriptures from the Greek but apparently never completed such a revision, preferring to translate directly from Hebrew (though also referring to Greek versions). Jerome labored on his Latin translation from the Hebrew from about 390 to 405 C.E.
Jerome’s version was originally received with general hostility, and only gradually did it gain wide approval. With its later general acceptance in western Europe, it came to be called the Vulgate, denoting a commonly received version (the Latin vulgatus meaning “common, well-known”). Jerome’s original translation underwent revisions, the Roman Catholic Church making the one of 1592 its standard edition. Thousands of Vulgate manuscripts are extant today.
Other ancient translations. As Christianity spread, other versions were required. At least by the third century C.E., the first translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures had been made for the Coptic natives of Egypt. Various Coptic dialects were used in Egypt, and in time various Coptic versions were produced. The most important are the Thebaic, or Sahidic, Version of Upper Egypt (in the S) and the Bohairic Version of Lower Egypt (in the N). These versions, containing both the Hebrew and Christian Greek Scriptures, were probably produced in the third and fourth centuries C.E.
The Gothic version was produced for the Goths during the fourth century C.E. while they were settled in Moesia (Serbia and Bulgaria). Missing from it are the books of Samuel and Kings, reportedly deleted because Bishop Ulfilas, who made the translation, thought it would be dangerous to include for use by the Goths these books that consider warfare and that contain information against idolatry.
The Armenian version of the Bible dates from the fifth century C.E. and was probably prepared from both Greek and Syriac texts. The Georgian version, made for the Georgians in the Caucasus, was completed toward the end of the sixth century C.E. and, while revealing Greek influence, has an Armenian and Syriac basis. The Ethiopic version, used by the Abyssinians, was produced perhaps about the fourth or fifth century C.E. There are several old Arabic versions of the Scriptures. Translations of parts of the Bible into Arabic may date from as early as the seventh century C.E., but the earliest record is that of a version made in Spain in 724 C.E. The Slavonic version was made in the ninth century C.E. and has been attributed to two brothers, Cyril and Methodius.