How Did We Get Our Bibles?

Can We Cound On The Bible?

Translating the Bible into English

We now come to our final lesson in our study about whether or not we can count on the Bible we have. We have examined everything from the inspiration of the original texts to an examination of the manuscripts that we have available to help determine the accuracy of a version of the Bible. This leads us to our final section in this study – translating the Bible into the English language AND examining some of the versions that are available. Our question in this lesson is, “Does the twentieth-century Bible we have today possess integrity? Does it adequately and accurately reproduce the original apostolic writings known as the autographs?”[1]
In his book, A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman Geisler and William Nix, we read the following which helps summarize this process. “There are four links in the chain “from God to us”: inspiration, canonization, transmission, and translation. In the first, God gave the message to the prophets who received and recorded it. Canonization, the second link, dealt with the recognition and collection of the prophetic writings. In effect, the objective disclosure was complete when the sixty-six books of the Bible were written, and then recognized by their original readers. However, in order for succeeding generations to share in this revelation the Scriptures had to be copied, translated, recopied, and retranslated. This process not only provided the Scriptures for other nations, but for other generations as well. The third link is known as transmission of the Bible.[2]

I. Translating the Bible

a. In discussing the translation of the Bible, we begin our study by noting that manuscripts developed in four general periods.[3]
i. 1st-3rd centuries – we have few manuscripts (consider how Christianity was illegal during much of this time). We rely on a few incomplete manuscripts including fragments. But we do have inscriptions, lectionaries, quotes from the “church fathers” and other documents.
ii. 4th & 5th centuries, when Christianity was legalized, brought multiplication of manuscripts of the New Testament. This is where many of our earliest and most complete copies come from.
iii. 6th century and onward – manuscripts were collected, copied and cared for by monks in monasteries. AS the quantity of manuscripts increased, so did the variants.
iv. After the 10th century, miniscules (lower case Greek manuscripts) developed which were easier to copy and thus manuscripts increased.
These various manuscripts will factor into the translation of the Bible into other languages.
b. Definitions
i. Manuscript – a handwritten document, whether original or a copy.
ii. Translation - the rendering of a given composition from one language into another.
iii. Version - a translation from the original language of a literary text into another language.
iv. Revision - the systematic reviewing and examination of a text for the purpose of correcting errors and updating the text based upon the latest evidence.
In actuality, in its literal sense, the KJV is a revision.
c. Early translations –
i. The earliest translation is the Septuagint, which was the Old Testament translated into the Greek language between 250 & 100 BC by Jewish scholars in Alexandria.
ii. The earliest New Testament translations as we have noted were into the Syriac language, Latin (of note is the Latin Vulgate by Jerome composed in the late 4th and early 5th century –this Bible would become the standard text for centuries), Coptic (Egyptian), etc. These manuscripts would be instrumental in further translations into further languages.
iii. By 200 AD, the Bible (portions thereof) had been translated into 7 languages.
By 500 AD, 13 languages, By 900 AD into 17 languages,
By 1400 AD – 28 languages, By 1800 AD – 57 languages,
By 1900 – 537 languages, By 1980 – 1,100 languages
By 2006, some 2,426 languages had portions or complete translations of the Bible.[4]

II. Translating the Bible into English

a. The history of the Bible in English traces its origin to the spread of Christianity into Britain. There is mention of churches in that region in the 3rd century AD. Several of the Delegates at the Council of Nicaea were from Britain.[5] Between 690 and 1320 AD, there was the recording of Biblical accounts and several translations of portions of the Bible into old English (Anglo-Saxons). These included the psalms (Aldhelm – ca 700 AD), the synoptic gospels (Egbert – ca 700 AD) and the Venerable Bede (674-735 AD) translated the gospel of John. Most of these translations were from the Latin Vulgate.
b. WYCLIFFE TRANSLATION - The first COMPLETE Version of the Bible in English was composed by John Wycliffe (1320-1384). He was an opponent of the papacy and believed the Bible should be available in the language of the common people. The Bible attributed to him was actually published by his followers – the New Testament in 1380 and the Old Testament in 1388 AD (after his death). His translation was from the Latin Vulgate. Because of his teachings and stand against Catholicism, the body of Wycliffe would later be exhumed and burned and his ashes scattered in the River Swift.[6]
c. (NOTE: The movable type printing press was invented in 1455 by Guttenberg in Germany. The first book published on it was the Guttenberg Bible.)
d. THE TYNDALE BIBLE – William Tyndale (1492-1536 AD) is sometimes called the father of the English Bible. He was noted for translating the New Testament from the Greek language and portions of the Old Testament from the Hebrew. Of note is that he did this during a time when the Bible in English was outlawed. Much of his work was done from Germany and smuggled into England. He also utilized the printing press to produce copies. He too was executed for his beliefs. During his life there was an occasion when a man charged that Englishmen were “better without God’s Law than without the Pope’s” Tyndale replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws; if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”
As he was about to be executed at the command of Henry VIII, he said, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”[7] This Bible would become the basis for successive revisions from then to now. According to Geisler, the KJV was practically the fifth revision of this work.
e. COVERDALE BIBLE – in 1535 Miles Coverdale printed the first COMPLETE English Bible. He was Tyndale’s assistant and proofreader in 1534 AD. He used at least 5 manuscripts.
f. THE MATHEWS BIBLE – printed in 1537 AD, was the first English Bible printed with the King’s permission. He used Tyndale’s text.
g. The GREAT BIBLE, in 1539 AD was published and read in churches. AT times it was ordered placed in churches and at other times it was ordered removed. It was called by its name because of its large size. It was ordered to be placed in churches in England and was chained to pillars to prevent theft.
h. THE GENEVA BIBLE (1557, 1560). Another English Bible produced during times of persecution in England. Mary Tudor is queen and has persecuted Protestants. Therefore, Protestants, such as John Knox flee to Geneva, Switzerland where they were accepted. There they continued to improve the accuracy of the text of the Bible with better Greek and Hebrew translations. It also used smaller pages and easier to read print which made it easier to manage. AND it is was the first English Bible that divided the Bible into verses. In addition to this, it introduced italicized words not represented in the original text. It also contained Calvinistic notes (as many of these Bibles contained notes in the margins to explain difficult texts).
i. THE BISHOP’S BIBLE – was a revision of the Great Bible and was produced in 1568 AD by translators that were mostly bishops of the church of England (hence its name). Its notes were milder than the GENEVA Bible and it was described as “a compromise – a dignified and ‘safe’ version for public reading.” Because of the popularity and reliability of the Geneva Bible, the Bishop’s Bible enjoyed only limited success. Its final printing was in 1602 AD.
j. RHEIMS-DOUAY BIBLE was translated in 1582 – New Testament & 1609 – Old Testament from the Latin Vulgate. It would become the English Catholic Bible.
k. This is the rich history of the development of the English Bible up until the time of the King James Version in 1611 AD.

III. The King James Version

a. In 1604, shortly after King James I began to reign in England, he summoned a conference in which discussion of a version which would unify all parties that were divided over various versions prior. King James wholeheartedly supported the idea and proceeded to formulate a committee that would translate and revise the English Bible.
b. A committee of revisers was chosen totaling 54 men that were divided into 6 companies in 3 cities (Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster). Each was assigned a specific portion of the scriptures to examine and revise. When they completed their revision, it was sent to the other panels for criticism and suggestions. Where there were differences, the chief members would meet and settle the differences. This helped to maintain the integrity of this version and is one reason it was so highly respected.
c. They consulted and compared several of the above versions, with the Bishop’s Bible being the primary text upon which it would be based.
Revisions were to take place only as the original called for it.
Old Ecclesiastical words were to be kept (i.e. church was used instead of congregation, bishop in place of overseer, etc.)
Unlike the previous Bibles, the notes in the margins were not affixed except for explanations of Greek and Hebrew words when needed and as I understand,
They used the Greek texts of 1516 & 1522 by Erasmus, which we know as the TEXUS RECEPTUS. While there were other manuscripts in existence, the translators used what they had available to them, and thus it was as accurate as it could be. (For example both the Codex Vaticanus was unavailable to protestants for translation work)
d. But, being a translation, it had its flaws including some typographical errors and other minor concerns. These were corrected in later editions.
e. When completed, it was the best English Bible produced up until that point. Many today believe it is still the best!
f. Of particular interest is to note that the King James version used today almost universally is the 1769 edition by Dr. Benjamin Blayney in which necessary corrections were made including the change of some archaic spellings, etc.

IV. Various English versions Today -

a. Since the time of the King James Version there have been MANY discoveries of manuscripts, as well as advancements in the field of textual criticisms. This is one reason that has prompted many different English translations since then. It is not an effort to discredit the KJV, but rather to ensure that what we have is as accurate as possible, the very goal that was set out by the King James committed concerning earlier versions.
BUT, does that mean that we can view all English versions as equally reliable today? Let me emphatically say – NO! While I believe there are other reliable English translations today, I also believe there are many that I CANNOT recommend.
b. Different types of versions
i. Literal translations – often difficult to read, these versions seek to give a word by word translation that preserves the tense of the word. Some of these are good for detailed study but they are awkward from an English stand point. Examples would include Young’s Literal Translation, and Darby’s Translation
ii. Word for word – a type of literal translation – the most popular. These are the versions I recommend for serious Bible study. These versions attempt to translate EACH word in the text based upon how it is used at the time of translation. Examples of this include the KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASU, RSV, and the ESV (English Standard Version – one of the latest – 2001).
iii. Thought for Thought – a process where translators attempt to present the thought of a text rather than a word for word translation. These translations sometimes are called “dynamic equivalence” translations. Examples would include: The Good News Translation, New Century Version (NCV), Contemporary English Version (CEV) and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible. I do NOT recommend these for serious study.
iv. Balanced translations are a mixture of word for word and thought for thought. Examples include: the NIV, God’s Word (GW), Today’s New International Version (TNIV). I do NOT recommend these because they veer away from the original language too much.
v. Paraphrase – is a restating of a translation in modern terms. They often amplify a text taking free liberties. Examples of these include: The Message & The Living Bible.
I highly DISCOURAGE consideration of these, especially as a primary Bible. While they read easily, they do NOT present the word of God accurately. They liberally omit key thoughts and add others.
c. Differences in word for word versions
i. We might wonder why there are differences in word for word translations. There are many reasons for this.
1. Languages changes with generations. As languages emerge, there is a need to ensure that people have the word in a language they can understand.
2. Sometimes versions are generated with an agenda. In studying the history of the Bible we have noted early examples of heretics producing their own gospels.
Today there are religions that have their own translations – The New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses), The New American Bible & New Jerusalem Bible (Catholic).
I also would place any translation written by a single person in this category – most paraphrases Bibles (Good News, The Message, The Living Bible, etc.). Even Alexander Campbell produced his own translation in which he used the word immersed instead of baptized. Obviously such versions are NOT reliable.
3. However, some of the differences relate to their approach to textual criticism. Some versions give more weight to earlier translations while others give more weight to the majority of texts. Here is where we find major differences and variances in reading.
ii. English Revised Version (ERV) of 1881-85, With the discovery of more complete and earlier manuscripts, there was a desire to again seriously revise the English Bible to more accurately reflect what was now available. So a group of some 65 advisors including Americans examined the text. They omitted many of the phrases that were absent in earlier manuscripts. This explains the MAJOR differences between it and the KJV.
While the KJV relied upon Bibles that were based upon the Texus Receptus, the ERV appealed to the Alexandrian text which was based upon the 4th and 5th century Codices (Vaticanus, Sinaticus and Alexandrinus).
iii. American Standard Version (ASV) – in 1901, an AMERICAN translation of the ERV was produced. It was in essence the same, except it used American expressions instead of British English. It was composed by some 30 scholars who were part of the ERV committee.
iv. Revised Standard Version (RSV) – in 1952 some 32 translators upgraded the language of the ASV. They also had access to the Dead Sea Scrolls which enhanced the Old Testament text.
v. New International Version (NIV) – in 1978, a committee of 115 scholars used a text in which they examined as many manuscripts as possible and chose the variant that seemed best. The NIV is a balanced text. I mention it here because of its popularity today. Its purpose was to produce a translation that was acceptable to many denominations. One of its problems involves its Calvinistic teachings on the sinful nature of man. I CANNOT recommend this as a primary text.
vi. New King James Version (NKJV), in 1982, a team of 119 scholars determined to update the language of the King James to accommodate modern speech while maintaining the text of the Original King James Version. Corrections are only made where they were clearly needed. Like the KJV, it is based on the Masoretic Text (OT) and Texus Receptus (NT), with foot notes from the Nestle-Aland Text.
vii. New American Standard Version Update (NASU) – (1995) Updated the language of the ASV. Translation based upon Nestle-Aland Text and UBS text.
d. In defense of modern day versions. It is clear that the New Testament was written in the common language of the first century. Thus it can be implied that producing the Bible in our modern language is justifiable and even necessary. BUT respect for the actual meaning of God’s intended message is IMPERATIVE!
e. One other thought, in most of our word-for-word translations, marginal notes acknowledge differences and thus correlate with other versions.

And thus we see a brief introduction to English text of the Bible. There is so much more we could say and compare as we examine these versions. It is my hope that this study has been beneficial and that we have greater confidence in the Bible we have AS the word of God. While we can have confidence in the word of God, it is my hope that in THIS lesson we have seen we must proceed with caution in determining WHICH translation we use. Remember, if it is our desire to learn what IS the word of God and follow it as exact as we can, we need to ensure that we have a text that is as accurate as possible. The lesson is yours.

[1] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1996). A general introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded.) (pg. 344). Chicago: Moody Press.
[2] Ibid. (pg. 320–321)

[3] Ibid. (pg. 354)
[4] How We Got the Bible (Pamplet), Rose Publishing, © 1998, 2008.
[5] Metzger, Bruce, The Bible in Translation, Ancient and English Versions, © 2001. Via, PC Study Bible,
[6] Geisler & Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 548.

[7] Ibid, 550.

Return to the special Study Of How We Got Our Bibles

Return to the Basic Bible Lessons For Beginners page

Return to the Question/Answer Index page

Return to the General Articles page

Home / Bible studies / Bible Survey / Special Studies / General Articles / Non-Bible Articles / Sermons / Sermon Outlines / Links / Questions and Answers / What Saith The Scriptures /Daily Devotional / Correspondence Courses / What is the Church of Christ / Book: Christian Growth / Website Policy / E-mail / About Me /