A Brief History of the English Bible

Jason Dulle

Inherent in Jesus' command to go into all nations, making disciples of all people, and teaching them to observe all that He said (Matthew 28:19-20) is the necessity of translating His words into the world's different languages. The inspired New Testament is evidence of this need because most of Jesus' words and teachings were spoken in Aramaic, but were translated into Greek by the apostles and other disciples who penned the New Testament Scriptures. Even as early as the second century the Scriptures were translated into Coptic for the Egyptians, Syriac for those who spoke Aramaic, Gothic for the Germans, and Latin for the Romans.

There is a long history of the English versions of the Bible. The English speakers were first introduced to the Scriptures when the Latin Vulgate was brought to England in the sixth century by a monk named Caedman. He translated parts of the Old and New Testaments of the Vulgate into English. Later a churchman by the name of Bede translated the four gospels into English. He was working on the Gospel of John on his deathbed. King Alfred the Great translated the ten commandments and the Psalms into English in his lifetime. All of these partial translations were based upon the Latin Vulgate, and not upon the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew and Greek).

Wycliffe was the first to translate the entire Latin Vulgate into English. He completed the New Testament (NT) around 1380 and the Old Testament (OT) in 1382. One of Wycliffe's associates, John Purvey, produced a revision of his translation in 1388. In less than a century, Purvey's revision replaced Wycliffe's translation.

Although English speaking peoples had a complete English Bible, it was inadequate in that it was based off of a translation of the Biblical languages and not the languages themselves. William Tyndale was the first to translate the entire Bible into English from the original languages. Tyndale studied Hebrew and Greek at Oxford University in England, thus he was well equipped and well qualified for the task. Since England still had strong ties with the Catholic Church, King Henry VIII of England would not support Tyndale's work. As a result, Tyndale moved to Germany. His translation of the New Testament was completed in 1525. Fifteen thousand copies of it were smuggled into England. Tyndale also translated the Pentateuch, Jonah, and other historical books. In 1535 he completed his revisions of the NT, but he could not complete his translation of the OT because He was imprisoned for his work. While in prison, an associate of his named Miles Coverdale finished translating the OT. The complete translation compiled by Coverdale was complete by 1537. By this time King Henry VIII had broken all ties with the Roman Catholic Church and was ready to receive an English translation of the Bible for the common people to have in their possession.

Although King Henry allowed Tyndale's Bible to be read in England, it was not the first to be authorized for public use. The translation to be authorized first was the Great Bible translated by Thomas Matthew, a pseudonym for John Rogers. Rogers used Tyndale's unpublished translations and parts of Coverdale's translations for the Great Bible. This version continued to be used until the king banned all English versions from being read by the common people in 1543.

After a few years great persecution broke out against Protestants by Mary, who wanted to restore Catholicism to England. As a result, many Protestants fled to Geneva for refuge. While there, they chose William Whittingham to make an English translation for them. Whittingham used Theodore Beza's Latin translation and consulted some Greek texts for the work. The resulting translation was called the Geneva Bible. Although it was popular among the common English people, it was not popular among leaders in the Church of England because of its Calvinistic notes. It is understandable that Calvin's teachings would be inserted into the notes of the Bible since John Calvin taught out of Geneva. The leaders in the Church of England revised the Geneva Bible by 1568 and renamed it the Bishops' Bible. This version was the Bible of England until superseded by the King James Version completed in 1611.

The King James Version came about upon the ascension of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England as James I. He was asked by a Puritan leader, John Reynolds, to authorize a new translation of the Bible. King James agreed to authorize a new version because the Bishops' Bible was not successful and the Geneva Bible was considered to be seditious. More than fifty scholars trained in Hebrew and Greek began work on this new translation in 1607. They adhered to the reading of the Bishops' Bible so long as it adhered to the original languages, and also consulted Tyndale's, Coverdale's, and Roger's versions. Even the Great Bible and Geneva Bible were used if their renderings of the original languages proved to be accurate.

The translators of the King James Version used the Masoretic text of the Hebrew for the translation of the OT, and Erasmus' Greek text called the Textus Receptus for the translation of the NT. Erasmus only used five or six manuscripts dating from between the tenth and thirteenth centuries for his text.

Unfortunately, at the time of the translation of the King James Version there was not nearly as much knowledge of Hebrew grammar and meanings of words as was to come over the next couple of centuries. This, along with the late date of the Greek texts used in the Textus Receptus, occasioned the desire among Christians to produce an improved translation of the Hebrew text, and establish a more accurate Greek text.

Around 1700 John Mill produced an improved Textus Receptus. In the 1730's Johannes Albert Bengel (father of modern textual criticism) published a text that deviated from the Textus Receptus altogether. His Greek text was based almost exclusively on earlier manuscripts such as the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus. By the 1800's, certain scholars were completely abandoning the Textus Receptus. They were publishing their own Greek texts. The best came from two Englanders named Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort. They worked twenty-eight years to produce The New Testament in the Original Greek. This text, based primarily upon the Codex Vaticanus, was responsible for officially overthrowing the acceptance of the Textus Receptus as the most reliable Greek text.

By the latter half of the 19th century Christians had three good Greek texts: Tragelle's, Tischendorf's, and Westcott and Hort's. Because there was so much more knowledge concerning the original languages after the writing of the King James Version, a new translation was deemed necessary. There were a few attempts made for new translations, but most failed. The first major effort began in 1870 by the Convocation of Canterbury which sponsored a major revision of the King James Version. Their goal was to make the KJV reflect the new Greek texts instead of the Textus Receptus. Thousands of changes were made to the NT alone, so that the end result was a new translation, not just a revision. This revision, completed in 1885, was called the Revised Version. At first the translation was received with great enthusiasm. Three million copies were sold in the first year of publication, but in the end the people still preferred the KJV over the RV.

Several American scholars were invited to participate in the translating of the RV, but they were made to promise not to make an American translation for another fourteen years. To this the Americans agreed. Sixteen years later America did write their own translation. In 1901 some of the same scholars who helped translate the English RV also published the first American English Bible called the American Standard Version.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered there were some major discrepancies between them and the Masoretic text, upon which most translations of the OT were based. These findings resulted in departing from the Masoretic text as the standard Hebrew text in favor of today's standard, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The current NT translations are based off of the new standard Greek text called the Nestle-Aland text.

At the start of the twentieth century there was a desire to depart from Elizabethan English. The first translation in modern vernacular was called The Twentieth Century New Testament. A year later Richard Weymouth published The New Testament in Modern Speech. James Moffat, a Scottish scholar, published a translation in 1913 based off of Hermann von Soden's Greek New Testament, which all scholars know today is defective. It was called The New Testament: A New Translation.

The earliest American translation in modern speech was Edgar J. Goodspeed's, The New Testament: An American Translation. The OT translation soon followed, translated by J. M. Powis and three other scholars to form The Complete Bible: An American Translation. Both testaments were completed by 1935.

Since the RV and ASV tried to translate every occurrence of the Greek and Hebrew words using a single English word regardless of the context, a new translation was desired. The Revised Standard Version was the result. The entire Bible was published in 1952. It was based off of the seventeenth edition of the Nestle-Aland text and the Masoretic text.

The Living Bible was written by Kenneth Taylor and promoted by Billy Graham. The Bible was written in segments, being published in its entirety in 1971. The LB is a paraphrase version. It is not based off of the original languages, but is a paraphrase of the ASV.

The Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible are both revisions of the ASV of 1901. The NASB was published in its entirety in 1971. This translation tends to follow the Textus Receptus rather than the minority text of the Nestle-Aland.

The New International Version is an international translation made by more than 100 scholars. It's considered an international version because the scholars who translated the NIV were from the major English-speaking countries: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The translators sought to use vernacular common to the major English-speaking nations of the world.


There are countless other more modern translations that could be discussed, but they are too numerous for the scope of this paper. Although new English translations are still being printed, the modern trend is to revise already existing versions.

The Bible has been translated into English now for about 1500 years. The versions are numerous, and the differences between them vary. Throughout this time the versions have become more accurate and more abundant in production. The English Bible has been the best-selling book for years. Because of the English Bible, we can observe all things that Jesus commanded His disciples. Thanks be given to God that we have His Word given to us in our native tongue!

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