Why are there so many different versions or translations of the Bible today? Do you view new versions as a help or a hindrance to Bible understanding? Learning about their origins can help you to assess them wisely.
First, though, who originally wrote the Bible, and when?
THE ORIGINAL BIBLE
The Bible is normally divided into two sections. The first section has 39 books containing “sacred pronouncements of God.” (Romans 3:2) God inspired faithful men to write these books over a long period of time—about 1,100 years from 1513 B.C.E. to sometime after 443 B.C.E. They wrote mostly in Hebrew, so we call this section the Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament.
The second section has 27 books that are also “the word of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13) God inspired faithful disciples of Jesus Christ to write these books over a much shorter time—about 60 years from about 41 C.E. to 98 C.E. They wrote mostly in Greek, so we call this section the Christian Greek Scriptures, also known as the New Testament.
Together these 66 inspired books make up the complete Bible—God’s message for mankind. But why were additional translations of the Bible made? Here are three of the basic reasons.
To allow people to read the Bible in their mother tongue.
To remove errors made by copyists and thus restore the Bible’s original text.
To update archaic language.
Consider how these factors were involved in two early translations.
THE GREEK SEPTUAGINT
About 300 years before Jesus’ day, Jewish scholars began to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into another language—Greek. This translation became known as the Greek Septuagint. Why was it made? To help the many Jews who by then spoke Greek rather than Hebrew to stay close to their “holy writings.”—2 Timothy 3:15.
The Septuagint also helped millions of non-Jewish, Greek-speaking people to get to know what the Bible taught. How? “From the middle of the first century,” says Professor W. F. Howard, “it became the Bible of the Christian Church, whose missionaries went from synagogue to synagogue ‘proving from the scriptures that the Messiah was Jesus.’” (Acts 17:3, 4; 20:20) That was one reason why many Jews soon “lost interest in the Septuagint,” according to Bible scholar F. F. Bruce.
As Jesus’ disciples progressively received the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures, they put them together with the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that came to be the complete Bible that we have today.
THE LATIN VULGATE
About 300 years after the Bible was completed, religious scholar Jerome produced a Latin translation of the Bible, which eventually came to be the Latin Vulgate. Latin translations in various forms already existed, so why was a new one needed? Jerome wanted to correct “wrong renderings, obvious errors, and unwarranted additions and omissions,” says The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
Jerome corrected many of those errors. But in time, church authorities committed the greatest disservice of all! They declared the Latin Vulgate to be the only approved translation of the Bible and continued to do so for centuries! Instead of helping ordinary people to understand the Bible, the Vulgate made it a closed book because eventually most people knew no Latin at all.
NEW TRANSLATIONS MULTIPLY
In the meantime, people continued to make other translations of the Bible—such as the famous Syriac Peshitta by about the fifth century C.E. But it was not until the 14th century that renewed efforts were made to give many ordinary people the Scriptures in the vernacular.
In England in the late 14th century, John Wycliffe began the process of breaking free from the clutches of a dead language by producing the Bible in English, a language that people in his land could actually understand. Soon after that, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing methods opened the way for Bible scholars to produce and distribute new versions of the Bible in many different living languages throughout Europe.
When English translations multiplied, critics questioned the need to make different versions in the same language. The 18th-century English cleric John Lewis wrote: “Language grows old and unintelligible, therefore it’s necessary to review old Translations to make them speak the Language in use, and be understood by the living generation.”
Today, Bible scholars are in a better position than ever to review older translations. They have a much clearer understanding of ancient Bible languages, and they have valuable ancient Bible manuscripts that have been found in recent times. These help to establish more accurately the original text of the Bible.
So there is real value in new Bible versions. Of course, there is need for caution regarding some of them.* But if the revisers have been moved by a genuine love of God in making a new Bible version, their work can be of great benefit to us.
See the article “How Can You Choose a Good Bible Translation?” in the May 1, 2008, issue of this magazine.