From Vulgate to Vulgar

The Story of our English Bible

by Brian H. Edwards on September 12, 2007; last featured January 2, 2008

From Nothing But the Truth, by Brian H. Edwards. Reprinted with permission by Evangelical Press.

The Bible is the most translated book in the world. In whole or in part, it has been turned into one third of the world’s 6,000 languages—and that covers ninety per cent of the world’s population. Of all the books translated into English, the Bible easily tops the poll. Millions of copies of the English Bible are printed and sold each year. But this is not a modern phenomenon: during the reign of Elizabeth I, when the population of Britain was less than six million, around half a million copies of the Bible were printed, and this figure doubled by the time of the Commonwealth under Cromwell and the Puritans.

This chapter follows the story of our English Bible, or perhaps more accurately, part of the story—because there is much more that could be written. It will also stray into a glance at the contentious subject of Bible translations and paraphrases—though even this will not be comprehensive because the total number of translations of the complete Bible into English since John Wycliffe at the end of the fourteenth century reaches, by some calculations, over 350.

As the Christian gospel spread across the Roman world, so the Bible spread with it. At first, the Bible that was common in western Europe was the translation of Jerome, completed by AD 405. Jerome’s translation was in Latin, because that was the language used in Europe for official business and also in the church. Jerome’s translation became known as the Vulgate, a word taken from the Latin for ‘common’ or ‘popular’. The Latin Vulgate was faithfully copied all over the Roman Empire, although later editions contained a number of copyists’ errors.

The Anglo-Saxons and Their Bible

A Bible in Latin was of little use to English-speaking people, and for many centuries the ways in which Bible stories were communicated to the ordinary people were through the preaching of travelling friars and the decoration of churches by wall paintings, carvings and later by stained-glass windows. Church services were largely unintelligible since they were all in Latin, but the elaborate ceremonies and ornate dress of the priests were all intended to teach those who observed them. The people also learnt poems and songs which they used at their gatherings. One of the most gifted poets was a labourer called Caedmon, who eventually joined the monastery at Whitby in Yorkshire because of his gift of turning Bible stories into simple poems and songs that anyone could understand.

The language which was spoken by the Anglo-Saxon people of Britain before the Norman Conquest of 1066 is known as Old English. It was so different from our modern English that it is virtually another language. A poem recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt closes with the words:

It is the eternal God of Abraham,
creation’s Lord,
who this camp protects,
valiant and powerful with a mighty hand.

In the Old English version it appears as:

This is se ecea Abrahames god,
frumsceafta frea,
se thas fyrd wereth
modig and maegenrof mif thaere miclan hand.

At first there was little obvious reason to translate the Bible into English. The common people could not read and the priests were supposed to be able to understand their Latin Bible. However, it is believed that Aldhelm, the first Bishop of Sherborne in Dorset, was the first to begin some translation about the year 700; he commenced with the Psalms. Around AD 731 Bede, a monk at Jarrow, wrote the first History of the English Church and People. Bede reveals a wide knowledge of the Bible and apparently translated parts of the New Testament, though unfortunately none of his translation work has survived. He urged that the less able priests should be taught the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in English. 800 years later men and women were burnt at the stake in England for taking his advice!

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex from 871 until his death in 899, should not only be remembered for burning cakes, building a navy and beating the Danes. He was a just and educated king whose Christian faith was real. How much translation Alfred undertook himself and how much his scholars did for him is uncertain, but in addition to the translation of many good books into English, he had the Ten Commandments and other parts of Exodus and Acts translated. Before his death more than fifty biblical psalms could be read by the Anglo-Saxon people in their own tongue.

The Wessex Gospels are the first example we possess of a translation of the Gospels into Old English, and they are dated some time after the death of Alfred in the tenth century.

Later in that century Aelfric, an abbot at Eynsham in Oxfordshire, made a translation of the first seven books of the Old Testament.

While the Latin translation continued to circulate, sometimes a helpful monk would add an English translation to it. The Lindisfarne Gospels, exquisitely and colourfully decorated and now in the British Library, are perhaps the most famous example of this. This manuscript was originally copied towards the end of the seventh century and 250 years later an obliging priest named Aldred added between the lines a literal English translation in the Northumbrian dialect.

1066—a Blow to the Bible

The conquest by William of Normandy changed the English language and culture. The new lords were Norman French, and within a short time the old Wessex Gospels would have been virtually unintelligible even to the ordinary people. The evolution of the English language from the Norman Conquest is a fascinating subject that partially explains why English is such a rich and full language today. Anglo-Saxon and Norman French muddled along together, compounded by scattered dialects which meant that the inhabitants of two neighbouring areas often spoke mutually incomprehensible languages. Slowly, however, a new language—an amalgam of many strands—emerged: it is known to us as Middle English.

Translations of parts of the Bible into an anglicized French were of little value and, with the ever-increasing authority of the pope as the absentee landlord at Rome, Bible translation took a step backwards. Until the middle of the fourteenth century it seems never to have occurred to anyone that a whole Bible in the language of the people might be a good thing. Occasionally parts of the Bible were translated by individuals, and Richard Rolle, the godly hermit of Hampole near Doncaster, translated the Psalms into prose early in the fourteenth century. But such translations were chiefly for the benefit of the priests, monks and nuns, and all were from the Latin Vulgate of Jerome.

This is not to say that no translation or poetry was available; however, instead of the Bible, the masses were treated to legend and romance to such an extent that William Tyndale later complained that the illiterate masses knew more about Robin Hood than about the Bible. Often legends and Bible stories were so interwoven that the ignorance of the people was compounded.

John Wycliffe—a Translation

At the beginning of the thirteenth century King John of England was tired of Pope Innocent III, and the feeling was mutual. In order to bring the king to heel, the pope ordered the church to take industrial action by refusing all marriages, baptisms and burials. Bowing to this pressure, King John signed away his crown and kingdom to the pope, and the knights responded by forcing the king to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, a people’s charter of rights. The knights and barons were determined not to let either king or pope have unrestricted power in England.

John Wycliffe was born near Richmond in Yorkshire into a nation of misery, intrigue and religious abuse in the year 1324. While two rival popes vied for power, in 1348 the plague killed a third of the population of Europe, and 200 a day were dying in London alone. Not surprisingly, Wycliffe’s first tract, in 1356, was called The Last Age of the Church. Four years later he began his attack against the wandering friars who robbed and deceived the people. He also defended the right of the king to rule in England. This theologian from Oxford was popular among the nobility, and the powerful John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, became his patron.

In his writings, Wycliffe frequently quoted from Scripture and clearly he had access to a Latin Bible. He wrote against the abuses and errors of Rome and survived every attempt to silence him. Summarizing the state of the nation he concluded: ‘The chief cause, beyond doubt, of the existing state of things, is our lack of faith in Holy Scripture . . . It is His [God’s] pleasure that the books of the Old and New Law should be read and studied.’ For this, the people must have the Bible in English. There had been scattered attempts to translate parts of the Bible, and by the time of Wycliffe there were at least three versions of the Psalms in Middle English, one of these by Richard Rolle. Also parts of the Gospels and the book of Revelation had been translated.

Wycliffe and his team set out their threefold purpose in translating the Bible: first, to test and correct the doctrine of the church; second, to anchor men’s experiences in the truth; and third, to lead men and women to Christ. Aided by Nicholas of Hereford and others, Wycliffe completed the translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate well before his death in 1384.

Here is Hebrews 1:1–4 in Wycliffe’s translation:

Manyfold and many maners sum tyme God spekinge to fadris in prophetis, at the laste in thes daies spak to us in the sone: whom he ordeynede eyr of alle thingis, by whom he made and the worldis. The which whanne he is the schynynge of glorie and figure of his substaunce, and berynge alle thingis bi word of his vertu, makyng purgacioun of synnes, sittith on the righthalf of mageste in high thingis; so moche maad betere than aungelis, by how moche he hath inherited a more different name bifore hem.

This first edition was a literal word-for-word translation from the Latin; but subsequent revisions showed greater concern to be read easily and reflect English idioms.

Those influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe went out as ‘Poor Preachers’ throughout England and Wales, each with a copy of the Bible in his hand. They were mockingly referred to as ‘Lollards’—a word that probably meant something like ‘mumblers.’ For the first time in thirteen centuries the Englishman had the Bible in his own tongue. Without the printing press, every copy was handwritten, yet astonishingly some twenty copies of the whole Bible and around ninety of the New Testament have survived to this day—all the more surprising when we consider the vigorous opposition that it met with on the part of the authorities.

The church responded in alarm, and in 1394 a bill was presented to Parliament forbidding anyone to read the Bible in English without a bishop’s licence.

The church responded in alarm, and in 1394 a bill was presented to Parliament forbidding anyone to read the Bible in English without a bishop’s licence. ‘What!’ exploded John of Gaunt in 1390 when the House of Lords was presented with a motion to burn all Wycliffe’s Bibles. ‘Are we the very dregs of humanity that we cannot possess the laws of our religion in our own tongue?’ Nearly two decades after Wycliffe’s death, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the pope about ‘this pestilent and wretched John Wyclif, of cursed memory, that son of the old serpent.’ Making the Bible available in the mother tongue was regarded as scattering ‘pearls before swine’ and it was the firm belief of the learned divines of the day that the Bible was given, not to the people, but to the church to interpret for the people. Between 1401 and 1409 the church took vigorous steps to ensure that it could hand over to the state for public burning those convicted of heresy—and translating a Bible into English or reading such a translation was heresy. These ‘Constitutions of Oxford’ were applied so vigorously that by the early sixteenth century Wycliffe’s Bible was scarce. However, the effect of the Bible was to bring both revival and reformation into the nation, and the later revisions of Wycliffe’s Bible enjoyed great popularity throughout the fifteenth century. One hundred fifty years after the death of Wycliffe, Sir Thomas More—ill-fated Chancellor to Henry VIII—was grumbling that you could not meet two men on the roads of England ‘without one of them being a Wycliffite.’

In a tract called the General Prologue, published around 1395, the principles of translation which Wycliffe and his team had adopted were set out. Bearing in mind that they had no one to model themselves on, their principles are remarkably modern.

The first need was to find the best Latin text and then to understand it. Then the translator must ‘with divers fellows and helpers, gather many old Bibles, and other doctors, and common glosses, and to make one Latin Bible some deal true; and then to study it anew, the text with the gloss, and other doctors, as he might get, and specially Lyra on the Old Testament, that helped full much in this work; the third time to counsel with old grammarians and old divines, of hard words and hard sentences, how they might best be understood and translated; the fourth time to translate as clearly as he could to the sentence, and to have many good fellows and cunning at the correcting of the translation.’

Then follows the method of translating: ‘First, it is to be known that the best translating out of Latin into English is to translate after the sentence and not only after the words, so that the sentence be as open, or opener, in English as in Latin, and go not far from the letter; and if the letter may not be followed in the translating, let the sentence ever be whole and open, for the words ought to serve to the intent and sentence, or else the words be superfluous or false . . . And whether I have translated as openly or openlier in English as in Latin, let wise men deem, that know well both languages, and know well the sentence of Holy Scripture.’

Finally, the life of the translator himself came under scrutiny: ‘A translator hath great need to study well the sense both before and after, and then also he hath need to live a clean life and be full devout in prayers, and have not his wit occupied about worldly things, that the Holy Spirit, author of all wisdom and knowledge and truth, dress him for his work and suffer him not to err. By this manner, with good living and great travail, men can come to true and clear translating, and true understanding of Holy Writ, seem it never so hard at the beginning. God grant to us all grace to know well and to keep well Holy Writ, and to suffer joyfully some pain for it at the last.’

William Tyndale and the First Printed Bible—a Translation

Constantinople fell to the hordes of Islamic forces in 1453; William Caxton set up his printing press close by Westminster Abbey in 1476; and the Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus arrived in Cambridge in 1511. These three events were each equally significant in the development of the English Bible. Scholars fled to the west from the ancient capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire with priceless manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and by 1516 Erasmus was ready to publish the Greek New Testament—which he did in Germany—and printing presses were at hand to spread rapidly the influence of the Bible in the years that lay ahead, though it was James Nicholson, a printer in Southwark, who had the honour of being the first to print a Bible, Coverdale’s Bible, in England. The first paper-mill was established in England in 1490, a century after Wycliffe’s Bible was painstakingly copied and recopied by hand and, by a neat coincidence, within a year or two of the birth of William Tyndale.

In reality England was well behind the continent both in printing and in the acceptance of a vernacular Bible. There were more than a thousand printers established on the continent of Europe while only three resided in England, including Caxton, and the authorities were implacably opposed to the Bible. Germany had their first translation in 1466, France in 1474, even Italy in 1471, Bohemia and Holland in 1474 and 1477, and Spain before the turn of the century. All these were from the Latin, and Luther’s New Testament translated from the Greek came in 1522. But England was the most conservative and Catholic of all the pope’s estates.

Tyndale, a graduate of Oxford, trained for the priesthood, came to a living faith in Christ and early decided to give the Englishman a translation he could easily read. He studied the Greek texts of Erasmus, first published in 1516 (see the previous chapter), and when Tyndale arrived at Little Sodbury Manor in Gloucestershire in 1521 to tutor the two children of Sir John and Lady Walsh, he was already preparing the first drafts of his New Testament translation. It was here, in debate with a priest who was visiting the manor and who maintained that ‘we would be better without God’s laws than the pope’s,’ that Tyndale went public with his life’s ambition: ‘I defy the pope and all his laws; if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.’

Since there was no place in England for a Bible-translating priest, Tyndale slipped across to the Continent and in 1525 his New Testament started to come off the press of Peter Quentel in Cologne. The work was discovered after a few sheets had been printed and Tyndale and his colleague fled to Worms where, after a hasty revision of the text, the New Testament was printed in 1526 and copies of the contraband book landed in England the same year.

Naturally the bishops hated this New Testament. Tunstall of London ordered it to be burnt and wrote to his archdeacons on 24 October 1526 complaining of the ‘holy gospel of God’ in the common tongue, which was intermingled with ‘certain articles of heretical depravity and pernicious erroneous opinions, pestilent, scandalous, and seductive of simple minds . . . of which translation many books, containing the pestilent and pernicious poison in the vulgar [common] tongue, have been dispersed in great numbers throughout our diocese; which truly, unless it be speedily foreseen will without doubt infect and contaminate the flock committed to us, with the pestilent poison and the deadly disease of heretical depravity.’ At this point the bishop seems to have exhausted his store of expletives; but such language was calculated to make the most lazy archdeacon wake up and take action. Within thirty days all copies must be called in, upon pain of excommunication and the charge of heresy. The following day the bishop marshalled the London booksellers before him in a private chapel and warned them, in no uncertain terms, of the consequences of handling Lutheran books, whether in Latin or English.

Not only were the booksellers and traders warned, but soon severe punishment was meted out to those who were discovered with a New Testament in their possession. An old labourer by the name of Harding was found reading his New Testament by a wood; his house was plundered, and under the floorboards more copies of the offensive book were discovered. Harding was hurried to prison and finally burnt at the stake.

Tyndale’s Preface

Tyndale’s preface to the reader in his New Testament is worthy of notice: ‘Give diligence dear Reder (I exhorte the) that thou come with a pure mynde and as the Scripture sayth with a syngle eye unto the wordes of health and of eternal lyfe: by the which (if we repent and beleve them) we are borne a newe created a fresshe and enjoye the frutes off the bloud of Christ.’ Tyndale urged his readers to notice the plain and clear parts of Scripture and to be careful in hard places not to add anything contrary to that which is plain. Notice also, he continued, the difference between the law and the gospel: ‘The one axeth [asks] and requyreth, the wother perdoneth and forgeveth.’

After briefly urging his readers to repent and believe the gospel, Tyndale turned his attention to ‘them that are learned in Christianity.’ If his language offends them he requests pardon, but reminds them that he had no one to copy and no one from the past to help him with his English. It was therefore open to future revision: ‘Count it as a thynge not havynge his full shape.’

Such a revision the translator promised to undertake as soon as possible, and over the next ten years, as an outlaw hunted sometimes by as many as five government agents, Tyndale slipped from city to city as he continued his work of translation and revision.

Tyndale’s Language

Tyndale provided the nation with an English New Testament—and later also with much of the Old Testament—that spoke to the heart of the ordinary man. His style was rich in variety and many of his phrases have remained part of our English heritage:

  • ‘borne the burden and heat of the day’ (Matt. 20:12)
  • ‘take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry’ (Luke 12:19)
  • ‘for in him we live, and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28)

Besides his native English, Tyndale was a master of six languages, including Greek and Hebrew. A complete Hebrew Old Testament had been printed in Italy in 1488. His translation was remarkable for a man working often alone and as a fugitive. Bishop Westcott, a highly skilled textual critic of the nineteenth century, claimed: ‘He deals with the text as one who passed a scholar’s judgement upon every fragment of the work, unbiased by any predecessor.’ Among the list of helps that the translator tells us he possessed, he had read the German translation by Martin Luther that arrived in England in September 1522.

Tyndale translated, as he had promised, for the ploughboy. His translation is accurate and his language is plain: that is why his work was so popular and enduring. He used ‘formal equivalence’ (varying the translation of the same word) and even paraphrase (the use of ‘God forbid’ to translate a Greek phrase meaning ‘it cannot be’ is Tyndale’s invention). There was no ‘correct’ spelling in his day and the word ‘it’ is spelt seven different ways in his 1526 edition! However, this was tidied up in subsequent revisions and Tyndale’s spelling, through the Bible, significantly influenced standard English spelling. So much of Tyndale is timeless in the way it speaks to the twenty-first century. For example phrases such as, ‘We have a way in through faith’ (Rom. 5:2) and those who ‘chop and change with the word of God’ (2 Cor. 2:17) resonate with any age. Tyndale was not aiming at literary style but readability; in the event he achieved the second and moulded the first.

Here is a familiar passage from Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526, and because it is one of his most beautiful translations, it is worth quoting in full. It is 1 Corinthians 13:

Though I speake with the tonges of men and angels, and yet had no love, I were even as soundynge brasse: and as a tynklynge Cynball. And though I could prophesy, and vnderstode all secretes, and all knowledge: yee, if I had all fayth so that I coulde move mountayns oute of there places, and yet had no love, I were nothynge. And though I bestowed all my goddes to fede the poore, and though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet have no love, it profeteth me nothynge.
Love suffreth longe, and is corteous. Love envieth nott. Love doth nott frawardly, swelleth not, dealeth not dishonestly, seketh nott her awne, is not provoked to ange, thynketh not evyll reioyseth not in iniquitie: but reioyseth in the trueth, suffreth all thynge, beleveth all thynges hopeth all thynges, endureth in all thynges. Though that prophesyinge fayle, other tonges shall cease, or knowledge vanysshe awaye: yet love falleth never awaye.
For oure knowledge is vnparfet, and oure prophesyinge is vnperfet: but when thatt which is parfet is come: then that which is vnparfet shall be done awaye. When I was a chylde, I spake as a chylde, I vnderstode as a child, I ymmagened as a chylde: but as sone as I was a man I put awaye all childesshnes. Nowe we se in a glasse even in a darke speakynge: but then shall we se face to face. Nowe I knowe vnparfectly: but then shall I knowe even as I am knowen. Nowe abideth fayth, hope, and love, even these thre: but the chefe of these is love.

One thing will be clear from reading this, and that is that the Authorized Version of 1611 was heavily dependent upon Tyndale. In fact ninety per cent of its New Testament was copied almost straight from Tyndale’s revision of 1534. The year following this revision, Tyndale was betrayed and taken to the Castle of Vilvorde, and in October 1536 he was strangled and burnt at the stake. History records that he died with the prayer upon his lips: ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.’ Tyndale died before he was able to complete the translation of the Old Testament.

In that same year two Bibles were circulating in England: one came from the pen of Miles Coverdale (who finished the Old Testament where Tyndale had left off), and the other, Matthew’s Bible, from that of John Rogers, the converted chaplain of the English House in Antwerp where Tyndale stayed before his betrayal and arrest; Rogers was an able translator and improved on Coverdale (who could not translate from the Hebrew or Greek) in many places, especially in the Old Testament. Both Bibles were dedicated to the king and awaited his royal consent. Both contained Tyndale’s New Testament virtually unaltered and were heavily dependent upon his translation of the Pentateuch and parts of the rest of the Old Testament. Henry VIII ran his eyes over Coverdale’s Bible. Tyndale’s name did not appear, and the bishops assured him they could find no errors. ‘Then if there be no heresies,’ roared Henry, ‘in God’s name, let it go abroad among the people.’

The following year His Majesty authorized a small phrase of immense significance to be added to the foot of the title page of Matthew’s Bible: ‘Set forth with the kinges most gracyous lycense.’ On 5 September 1538 Henry ordered every church in England to display ‘one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English,’ the cost to be borne equally by the parson and the parishioners. Among other injunctions the people were urged to learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments in English, the very crime for which a woman and six labourers had been burnt at Coventry in 1519. Private copies of the New Testament were eagerly bought, and even by the year of Tyndale’s martyrdom one writer could conclude, perhaps with only marginal exaggeration, that ‘Every man hath a Testament in his hand.’

In the year of Tyndale’s death Bishop Fox of Hereford declared in Convocation: ‘The lay people do now know the Holy Scripture better than many of us.’ By 1539 the king had received so many complaints that the people gathering around the chained Bible were reading it loudly, even during the celebration of mass, that he ordered them to refrain from reading the Bible during divine services. On 14 November 1539 Henry sent to all ‘printers and sellers of books’ a royal encouragement for the ‘free and liberal use of the Bible in our own maternal English tongue.’ As if to anticipate the king, Robert Redman was printing Tyndale’s translation in 1538, and his print shop was next door to St Dunstan’s in the City of London, where the great Reformer once preached.

The Bible and the Reformation—the Geneva Bible

The translations of Miles Coverdale (Coverdale’s Bible) and John Rogers (Matthew’s Bible) were circulating freely and with the king’s permission by the start of the new decade in 1540. Coverdale, on his own admission, had little knowledge of Hebrew or Greek and relied heavily upon Tyndale’s work, which for obvious reasons he did not dare admit; he translated much of the Old Testament from the German and Latin. It was, in fact, Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms that entered the Book of Common Prayer in 1539 and stayed there even when the rest was updated. The version of John Rogers, which the king liked sufficiently to give it his royal licence, was a mixture of the work of Tyndale, Coverdale, and Rogers. Rogers used the pen name of Thomas Matthew but at the end of Malachi the initials ‘W.T.’ appear, which may have been left in by oversight, or to deliberately indicate that the hand of the great Reformer and translator was behind the Old Testament.

With Bibles now circulating freely, Coverdale was given the task of revising Matthew’s Bible, so that a single recognized edition could fulfil the royal command of 1538 that by a certain day a copy of the Bible should be placed in every parish church in the land under penalty of a fine of four times the cost of the Bible for every month of delay! This was the Great Bible of 1539, which, like its predecessors, was heavily dependent upon Tyndale.

The Great Bible, containing the work of these two translators, remained in every parish church.

Henry VIII died in 1547, and in the closing years of his life he turned against the movement for reform, ordering that the possession of translations by Tyndale or Coverdale should be punishable by death. But it was too late. The Great Bible, containing the work of these two translators, remained in every parish church.

During the brief reign of Edward VI, a number of attempts were made to offer alternative translations, but they each came to nothing and the Great Bible held its ground. The reaction under Mary from 1553–1558, during which John Rogers was burnt at the stake, along with almost 300 men and women who remained faithful to the Reformation, actually had little or no impact upon the Great Bible, and by the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 only the wear and tear of age had made inroads on the copies of the Bible in each parish church.

The killing times of ‘Bloody Mary’ had driven hundreds of good men abroad in a carefully organized ‘evacuation.’ Some of them met up in Geneva, the city of the Reformers which, in the view of John Knox of Scotland, was ‘the most perfect school of Christ’ since the days of the apostles. A few of the English exiles set to work on a new translation, using the help given by the great scholar Theodore Beza. William Whittingham led the team, and a year before Mary died they produced their New Testament. By 1560 the Old Testament was complete, and the Geneva Bible was born—named after the town in which it was conceived and printed.

The Geneva Bible took Tyndale as its basis and revised his work with the aid of Beza’s Latin version and the latest Greek text of Robert Estienne in 1550. Perhaps one of the most notable features of the Geneva Bible, which shouldered its way into first place for the next half-century, was the notes that accompanied it. These notes reflected the strongly Reformed theology of John Calvin’s Geneva and played a large part in moulding the minds of its readers.

The Geneva Bible was the Bible of the later Reformers (both English and Scots), the Puritans, the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed to America in the Mayflower in 1620, and even of Shakespeare. Professor David Daniell, in his superb and indispensable The Bible in English (Yale, 2003), informs us that in Shakespeare’s lifetime, no fewer than 142 new editions of the Geneva Bible were printed. Its immense popularity is seen in the fact that it was still being printed in 1644, thirty-three years after the first edition of the Authorized Version. The Soldier’s Pocket Bible that Oliver Cromwell issued to his army in 1643 contained extracts from the Geneva Bible, and 200 years later it was distributed to Federal soldiers in the American Civil War. It was this translation, more than any other, than provided the foundation for the Reformation in England and, by no means incidentally, moulded the English language. England may have been slow to enter the race for Bible translations, but by the end of the sixteenth century it had caught up with and overtaken Europe. In the last fifty years of the century 120 new editions were published, and Daniell estimates that just under half a million copies of the Bible were printed in England—and that among a total population of around six million. To claim that the Geneva Bible changed the course of English history is hardly an exaggeration.

The Geneva Bible was the first English translation to use verse divisions (see chapter 12), the first to use italics for words that have been added to the text to make clear the meaning, and the first to contain cross-references in the margins. Summaries were included at the beginning of each new chapter. Much of the Old Testament (from Job to Malachi), which Tyndale did not reach before his death and which Coverdale translated from the Latin, was translated directly from the Hebrew for the first time. Over thirty illustrations, including twenty-six woodcut engravings, embellished the Geneva Bible and a few maps illustrated the Holy Land and even located the Garden of Eden. It is sometimes humorously referred to as the Breeches Bible because Genesis 3:21 is rendered: ‘The Lord God made breeches of skin for Adam and his wife.’ It was, however, an excellent revision and translation for both accuracy and readability.

Meanwhile, from 1561 the bishops had been busy with their own Bible which, unsurprisingly, was called the Bishops’ Bible; what was surprising was that it was ready by 1568. Although it was a good revision of the Great Bible, it had already been outclassed by the greater ability of the translators of the Geneva Bible and could never catch up. Unfortunately, it was this Bishops’ Bible, and not the Geneva Bible, that formed the basic text for the next revision to enter the stage.

The Authorized Version—a Revision

A year after James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 he called a conference of leading churchmen and theologians at Hampton Court Palace to discuss ‘things pretended to be amiss in the church.’ The only result of this meeting worthy of note came right at the end, almost as a postscript. It was the resolution ‘That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and pointed [punctuated], without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service.’ This was the birth of the Authorized, or King James Version. In fact it was no more King James’s than Coverdale’s Bible was King Henry’s; it was never formally authorized by Parliament and the king had no hand in the work of preparing it. But James was glad of any opportunity to get rid of the Geneva Bible with its notes which were, to his mind, far too Protestant and Reformed; after all, he was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots!

James arranged for six groups of translators to divide the work: three on the Old Testament, one on the Apocrypha, and two on the New Testament. Forty-seven scholars were chosen, and the work was modelled on the Bishops’ Bible; for this reason it was in some respects a backward step from the Geneva Bible and those which preceded it. The Authorized Version, which was completed in 1611, reintroduced words that had a loaded ecclesiastical meaning in pre-Reformation days. For example, ‘confess’ was introduced in place of ‘acknowledge,’ which appeared in both the Geneva Bible and in Tyndale’s New Testament before it, ‘charity’ in place of ‘love’ and ‘church’ in place of ‘congregation.’ At John 10:16 the translators chose ‘There shall be one fold and one shepherd,’ which Westcott, years later, rightly called a ‘disastrous’ translation since it gave support to the Roman idea of one visible organized church on earth; Tyndale had rightly translated by the use of the word ‘flock’. These may be small issues today, but for the strong supporters of the Geneva Bible they were seen as a drift back to Rome. In fact the translators were trying to steer a middle course, but whether or not they succeeded is a matter of opinion.

Certainly the Authorized Version was no stiff, word-by-word translation. At times it could be accused of being too free: for instance, in Romans 5:2, 3, 11 the same Greek word appears as ‘rejoice’, ‘glory’ and ‘joy.’ It is even open to the charge of paraphrasing: for example, in Matthew 27:44 the single Greek word ‘revile’ is rendered ‘cast the same in his teeth,’ and Paul’s expression, ‘It cannot be,’ in Romans 6:15 and other passages, is paraphrased as ‘God forbid’—though we can blame Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament for both these readings. In fact the Authorized Version, like all its predecessors, was heavily dependent upon Tyndale and, as we have already noted, almost ninety per cent of the New Testament is taken from Tyndale’s 1534 revision. This is why, strictly speaking, the Authorized Version is a revision and not a new translation.

Like every version before and after it, the Authorized Version did not lack critics, particularly from among those who had been brought up on the Geneva Bible. The most vigorous critic was Dr Hugh Broughton, a recognized Hebrew and Greek scholar who was left out of the translation team possibly because of his abrasive character and because he was known to be working on his own revision of the Geneva Bible. Broughton hated the new translation and told the king so: ‘The cockles of the seashore, and the leaves of the forest, and the grains of the poppy, may as well be numbered as the gross errors of this Bible.’ This charge is reminiscent of Bishop Tunstall who, within a few short months of Tyndale’s New Testament arriving in this country, claimed to have found 3,000 errors within its pages. It is hard to be an unprejudiced critic when we feel threatened!

In spite of Hugh Broughton and the strong supporters of the Geneva Bible, the Authorized Version of King James won its way into the hearts and minds of the people and remained at centre stage for the next three and a half centuries. At first the Apocrypha was bound in with it and in 1615 Archbishop Abbott forbade anyone to issue an edition which did not include it. The Puritans objected, and the issue remained a lively one for many years; it is still possible to buy copies of the Authorized Version with the Apocrypha (see chapter 10). The King James Version (KJV) as it is known in North America, was the first complete Bible to be printed on that continent in 1781. Because the English language has changed considerably since 1611 there has been a need for revision of the language of the Authorized Version over the years. In 1769 it was updated by a Dr Blayney, and the spelling of the 1611 edition would be oddly unreadable for a modern congregation. For comparison with Tyndale’s 1526 translation of 1 Corinthians 13 quoted earlier in the chapter here is the same passage in the exact words and spelling of the first edition of the King James Authorized Version in 1611:

1. Though I speake with the tongues of men & of Angels, and haue not charity, I am become as sounding brasse or a tinkling cymbal. 2. And though I haue the gift of prophesie, and vnderstandall mysteries and all knowledge: and though I haue all faith, so that I could remooue mountaines, and haue no charitie, I am nothing. 3. And though I bestowe all my goods to feede the poore, and though I giue my body to bee burned, and haue not charitie, it profiteth me nothing. 4. Charitie suffereth long, and is kinde: charitie enuiethnot: charitie vaunteth not it selfe, is not puffed vp, 5. Doeth not behaue it selfe vnseemly, seeketh not herowne, is not easily prouoked, thinketh no euill, 6. Reioyceth not in iniquitie, but reioyceth in the trueth: 7. Beareth all things, beleeueth all things, hopeth allthings, endureth all things. 8. Charitie neuer faileth: but whether there be prophesies, they shall faile; whether there bee tongues, they shall cease; whether there bee knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9. For we know in part, and we prophesie in part. 10. But when that which is perfect is come, then that whichis in part shall be done away. 11. When I was a childe, I spake as a childe, I vnderstoodas a childe, I thought as a childe; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12. For now we see through a glasse, darkely: but then faceto face: now I know in part, but then shall I know euen as also I am knowen. 13. And now abideth faith, hope, charitie, these three, butthe greatest of these is charitie.

A Bible for Roman Catholics—a Revision

At first Rome was violently opposed to any suggestion that the people should have what John of Gaunt referred to as ‘God’s laws in their own language.’ The reason for this is that in the view of the Roman Catholic hierarchy only the church could interpret the word of God. However, when that battle had been lost, it was considered wiser to approve a translation suitable for members of the Catholic community. But Rome was slow to move. The first version was a revision of a translation completed around 1610 by Gregory Martin, a Roman Catholic exiled during the reign of Elizabeth and a member of the English College at Douai, in northern France. Because the New Testament was published while the college was still at Rheims, it is sometimes referred to as the Rheims New Testament.

The first principle was that the basic text for translating had to be the Latin Vulgate of Jerome. This was considered to be even better than the Greek ‘in those places where they disagree.’ This is still the first principle for any translation approved by Rome and therefore, strictly speaking, Roman Catholic versions of the Bible are revisions rather than translations. The translators of the Douai Bible kept Latin words, and even phrases, and admitted to a word-for-word approach at times. This occasionally led to such unhelpful renderings as ‘against the Spirituals of wickedness in the celestials’ (Eph. 6:12). If a verb is not required in the Latin (or the Greek), it is not supplied in the English either, therefore they rendered Hebrews 13:4 as ‘Marriage honourable in all.’ The Psalms contain some quite unintelligible phrases because here Jerome translated from the Septuagint; the Douai Psalms are therefore a translation from a translation of a translation! However, it has to be admitted that this Bible was clearly dependent in a large measure upon Tyndale, Coverdale and the Geneva Bible—an irony indeed.

The marks of Roman Catholic theology are nevertheless evident. John and Jesus both call upon their hearers to ‘do penance, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Our Lord prays that ‘this chalice’ might pass from him, and Paul and Barnabas ordain ‘priests in every church.’ The Douai Bible included the Apocrypha, with the exception of the books of Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh, which were printed separately at the end. The commentary that ran alongside the text helped the faithful to interpret the Bible from a Roman Catholic perspective.

Bishop Richard Challoner revised the Douai Bible in the eighteenth century (1750) and this version, which was influenced to a considerable extent by the Authorized Version, lasted until the Confraternity Version in 1941. Even this was based upon the Latin Vulgate, although it was preceded by the commencement of the Westminster Version of the Sacred Scriptures in 1935 based upon the Hebrew and Greek texts.

By far the most popular English translation for Roman Catholics, partly because it is an official version, is that of Ronald A. Knox, called ‘a translation from the Latin Vulgate in the light of Hebrew and Greek originals.’ This was completed in 1949 but its great weakness was in being tied to a copy of the Vulgate authorized in 1592 and clearly not accurate in places.

It is not always appreciated that the Jerusalem Bible is a Roman Catholic translation. Published in 1966, the full version contains commentary notes to draw out Roman Catholic theology. For example, the note on Exodus 12 claims, ‘The Jewish Passover becomes a rehearsal for the Christian passover, the Lamb of God, Christ, is sacrificed (the cross) and eaten (the Last Supper) . . . The mystical re-enactment of this redemptive act becomes the central feature of the Christian liturgy, organized around the Mass which is at once a sacrifice and a sacrificial meal.’ The notes are also clearly liberal: the note on Jonah dismisses Jonah as the author and claims the book was written at a late date, concluding, ‘The late date is warning enough against any interpretation of the book as history.’

The Jerusalem Bible is of little value as a translation, though it is still the most widely used for reading in Roman Catholic churches. However, Roman Catholics are now permitted to use the Revised English Bible, and later editions of the Revised Standard Version under the title ‘The Common Bible.’

Beyond the Authorized Version

From the seventeenth century, the Bible shaped not only the religious life of the British nation but every aspect of life, from science to politics. For half a century from the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 the Authorized Version held sway with many imprints but with barely any revision. The eighteenth, century however, saw a number of revisions: Whitby in 1703; Wells in 1718–24; Mace in 1729; Whiston in 1745 and Blayney in 1769. In 1768 even John Wesley produced a revision of the Authorized Version with notes for ‘plain, unlettered men who understand only their Mother Tongue.’ Wesley carefully studied the Greek and made about 12,000 alterations, all of which he considered necessary. From the nineteenth century serious attempts were made at revisions and translations, and in the twentieth century the floodgates opened. Today there is a bewildering assortment available to the modern reader with little sign of the flow coming to an end.

Translation or Paraphrase?

Throughout this survey we are drawing a distinction between translations, revisions, and paraphrases. A translation goes back to the original Hebrew and Greek and attempts to give the meaning of the words in the nearest equivalent English words. A revision is based upon an existing translation and, though the revisers may consult the original Hebrew and Greek, their main aim will be to update the language of the translator and correct any errors. A revision may still be a translation. A paraphrase attempts to give the meaning rather than the words of the original writer; it therefore translates thoughts rather than words. A paraphrase will change words, phrases and idioms to make the text easy to understand. A paraphrase can never be described as an accurate translation, and however readable it may be, it should never be used as a serious study Bible either privately or publicly.

It is not the popularity or readability of a translation or paraphrase that matters most, but whether it . . . is an accurate translation.

It is not the popularity or readability of a translation or paraphrase that matters most, but whether it is based upon the best possible original text and is an accurate translation of that text. That there is no perfect translation will soon be obvious.

By the nineteenth century full use was being made of the Greek manuscripts that were not available to the 1611 translators. Codex Alexandrinus (see chapter 12) for example, arrived in England just sixteen years too late for King James’ translation teams, and many more followed. Translations and paraphrases continued: Sharpe in 1840 and 1865, Young in 1862, Conybeare and Howson in 1864, Dean Alford in 1869, J. N. Darby in 1871 and 1890, Rotherham 1872, 1897–1902 and Newberry in 1890.

The Bible was the foundation of the emerging missionary societies of the early nineteenth century, and in its first eleven years of activity, the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804, could report that it had distributed almost half a million copies of the complete Bible and as many New Testaments—all in the Authorized Version.

The Revised Version—a Revision

In 1870, the Upper House of Convocation of the Province of Canterbury agreed to a revision of the Authorized Version and a committee prepared the ground by listing a number of principles, including the instruction that as few alterations as possible should be introduced into the text of the Authorized Version. In addition an eclectic text would be used (see chapter 12) and where this differed from the Authorized Version the alteration would be indicated in the margin. Scholars in the United States of America began a parallel work and it was hoped that one version would result. In the event the American Standard Version, free from some of the restrictions placed upon the Revised Version committees, was published separately in 1901.

The Revised Version New Testament was ready in 1881 and the Old Testament by 1885. Sales were enormous, and so was opposition, especially by the brilliant Oxford scholar Dean Burgon. The Revised Version was largely the product of men unsympathetic to a conservative approach to Scripture and this was evident in some of the footnotes casting doubt upon portions of Scripture. Many mourned the loss of the dignified Authorized Version language and style: for example, ‘the interrogation of a good conscience’ is hardly a helpful translation at 1 Peter 3:21. The Revised Version achieved little advance upon the Authorized Version in the New Testament, and hence it did not remain a popular challenge for long because it was soon overshadowed by the American Revised Standard Version.

The Revised Standard Version—a Revision

This is a revision of the 1901 American Standard Version and the work began in 1937 using ‘the best results of modern scholarship’. The New Testament was published in 1946 and the whole Bible in 1952. It is a great improvement upon the Revised Version in terms of style and readable English. The language is modernized: ‘saith’ becomes ‘says’; ‘sendeth’ becomes ‘sends’, and so on. ‘Thou’ becomes ‘you,’ except when God is addressed; although the revisers would have saved themselves some criticism if they had not made this exception, since their decision to make the disciples refer to Christ as ‘you’ during his earthly ministry is merely a subjective judgement. In fact the original Greek knows of no such ‘reverent’ language when addressing Deity. Quotation marks are introduced for direct speech, and the printing of prophetic statements as poetry is included. For these reasons the Revised Standard Version achieved a more consistent usage in public than the Revised Version.

One of the most serious criticisms levelled against the RSV is that it attempts to downgrade the full deity of Christ, thus reflecting the liberal theology of the majority of its translators. In places this criticism is valid—there is no justification for ‘your divine throne’ in Psalm 45:6 (though the expression is correctly translated in Heb. 1:8). More instances are cited, but not always with justification. On the other hand, the translation of Titus 2:13—‘awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ’—and of 2 Peter 1:1—‘the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ’—unquestionably affirm the true deity of Christ, where the Authorized Version obscures it.

The RSV has much to commend it. Of course there are some poor translations, but it has the advantage of being generally more careful than the Authorized Version in translating particular words. For example, the Authorized Version obscures the difference between ‘creatures’ in Revelation 4 and ‘beast’ in Revelation 13; two entirely different Greek words are used and the RSV makes this clear. Similarly the Authorized Version frequently translates the word daimonion as ‘devil.’ But the words ‘demon’ and ‘devil’ are very different; the RSV gives the correct word at this point in Matthew 8:31; 1 Timothy 4:1 and James 2:19, for example. Because the translators used an eclectic Greek text, they were at times too ready to relegate passages like Mark 16:9–20 and John 8:1–11 to a footnote.

With the greater appreciation of the Hebrew language since 1611, the RSV was better able to render some of the previously unknown phrases and words. Thus the totally meaningless, ‘The flood breaketh out from the inhabitant; even the waters forgotten of the foot: they are dried up, they are gone way from men’ of Job 28:4 (AV), becomes ‘They open shafts in a valley away from where men live; they are forgotten by travellers, they hang afar from men, they swing to and fro.’ We now at least know that Job is talking about mining deep beneath the earth.

Until the New International Version came on the scene, the Revised Standard Version was very popular among evangelicals—even though it was justifiably criticized for, among other things, substituting the word ‘expiation’ in place of ‘propitiation.’ But before we arrive at the NIV there are a number of translations and paraphrases to note.

J. B. Phillips—a Paraphrase

J. B. Phillips completed his paraphrase by 1957 and for a time it was very popular, even among evangelical Christians, who were often unaware that Phillips denied Bible inerrancy and reserved the right to ‘expand or explain’ the text. He did this with sometimes disastrous results. In Matthew 7:12, ‘This is the law and the prophets,’ becomes ‘This is the essence of all true religion.’ In Luke 6:37, ‘Forgive and you shall be forgiven,’ becomes ‘Make allowances for others and people will make allowances for you.’ Similarly, ‘When he shall appear we shall be like him’ (1 John 3:2) becomes ‘If reality were to break through, we should reflect his likeness . . .’ In 1 Corinthians 14:22 the whole verse is revised into what Phillips thought Paul meant to say! The subtle danger of a simple paraphrase is clearly seen in J. B. Phillips’ work.

The New World Translation

  • Colossians 2:9 is translated: ‘In him all the fullness of the divine quality [theotetos] dwells.’ Yet in Romans 1:20 a related Greek word is accurately translated as ‘Godship’. The Watchtower (August 1962, p.480) admits: ‘The way these words have been rendered in the New World Translation has given rise to the charge that the New World Bible Translation Committee let their religious beliefs influence them. That charge is true, but they did not do so wrongly or unduly. The meaning that is to be given to these two Greek words depends upon what the entire Bible has to say about Jehovah God and Jesus Christ.’
  • Titus 2:13 is translated, ‘. . . and of our Saviour Christ Jesus.’ There is no manuscript evidence for the genitive, ‘of,’ and without it the deity of Christ is plainly stated in this text. The library edition provides a lengthy statement to justify the inclusion of the genitive, offering only Moffatt and obscure German, French, and Spanish translations (all by individuals) as evidence, but admitting that it is inserted to avoid attributing deity to Christ (Appendix, p. 3592).
  • Similarly, 2 Peter 1:1 is rendered, ‘. . . of our God and (the) Saviour Jesus Christ.’ The library edition footnote on page 3480 admits that there is no evidence for the definite article but it is inserted ‘to agree with the distinction between God and Jesus in the next verse.’
  • Another example of interpretation rather than translation is found in the rendering of the word ‘worship.’ The Greek word (proskuneo) appears fifty-nine times in the New Testament and with two exceptions (Matt. 18:26; Acts 10:25) is used only with reference to God, Christ, or the false worship of idols and demons. The New World Translation consistently uses ‘obeisance’ when it refers to Christ and ‘worship’ when it refers to God the Father or demons or idols. Such manipulation is hardly worthy of something which claims to be a translation.
  • The New World library edition provides ‘a concordance of all the places in this translation where the name Jehovah occurs in the Christian Greek Scriptures’ (Appendix, p. 1450). This is odd, to say the least, since there is no word in the Greek New Testament that is the exact equivalent of Jehovah. The Greek word for ‘Lord’ is Kurios. The New World Translation chooses to translate Kurios by ‘Jehovah’ when it refers to the Father and by ‘Lord’ when it refers to Christ; that is interpretation and not translation.

The Amplified Bible—a Translation/Paraphrase

Completed in 1962, the Amplified Bible endeavoured to bring out the various shades of meaning in the Hebrew and Greek words. The New Testament text was that of Westcott and Hort. A typical example of this amplification is found in John 1:12: ‘But to as many as did receive and welcome him, he gave the authority (power, privilege, right) to become the children of God, that is, to those who believe in—adhere to, trust in and rely on—his name.’ Clearly this version could never be used for public reading. But it may be useful in private study for those who do not have access to the Hebrew or Greek.

By the use of parenthesis, dashes and brackets, the committee tried to distinguish between additional meanings included in the Greek and Hebrew and comments intended to clarify the meaning. This often makes for clumsy and even ungrammatical reading. For example, Romans 8:29 reads: ‘For those whom he foreknew—of whom he was aware and loved beforehand—he also destined from the beginning (foreordaining them) to be moulded into the image of his son [and share inwardly his likeness], that he might become the first born among many brethren.’ But perhaps this does not matter for the intended purpose of the Amplified Bible.

The Good News Bible—a Paraphrase

The Good News Bible was published by the American Bible Society in 1976 and was subtitled ‘Today’s English Version.’ Although it claims to be a translation, it is much closer to a paraphrase. The various editions are all adorned with simple line drawings and enjoyed greater publicity than any translation before it. Today’s English Version sold by the millions of copies. It was the work basically of one man, Dr Robert Bratcher, who denied both inerrancy and infallibility and went so far as to call the evangelical position ‘heresy’! From the beginning, significant mistranslations marred it as a serious study Bible.

  • Frequently the reference to the ‘blood’ of Christ was translated by the word ‘death.’
  • In Acts 20:28, for example, ‘which he made his own through the death of his Son’ should literally be ‘which he bought with his own blood’; this is typical of many such instances.
  • It is equally serious that in Romans 4:3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 22 the phrase, ‘God accepted him as righteous,’ is repeatedly used. This misses the whole point of imputed righteousness. The Greek word used here is logizomai and nowhere can it mean ‘to accept’; on the contrary the word means ‘to reckon’ or ‘pass to someone’s account’, ‘to impute.’ It is one of Paul’s favourite words and he uses it twenty-seven times.
  • Similarly, ‘the means by which our sins are forgiven’ is a pathetically weak translation of hilasmos in 1 John 2:2, which is best translated by ‘propitiation,’ and refers to the satisfaction of God’s righteous anger against sin.

The New English Bible—a Translation

The New English Bible, completed in 1970, had as its aim to present the Bible in English ‘which is as clear and natural for the modern reader as the subject matter will allow.’ Whether or not it succeeded can be judged by a glance through Paul’s two letters to Timothy, where the following words are met: ‘interminable,’ ‘patricides,’ ‘matricides,’ ‘felicity,’ ‘specious,’ ‘inculcate,’ ‘precepts,’ ‘atrophied,’ ‘fidelity,’ ‘craven,’ ‘adjure,’ ‘refractory,’ ‘implacable,’ ‘insinuate,’ and ‘charlatans’! In addition colloquialisms abound: ‘I sponged on no one’ (2 Cor. 11:9); ‘they left me in the lurch’ (2 Tim. 4:16); ‘they got wind of it’ (Acts 14:6); ‘it touched them on the raw’ (Acts 7:54); ‘smashing them to bits’ (Rev. 2:27); and in the Old Testament, ‘David got wind of it’ (1 Sam. 23:25); ‘itches for your gift’ (Isa. 1:23); ‘you mighty toppers’ (Isa. 5:22). T. S. Eliot once described the New English Bible as ‘vulgar, trivial and pedantic’.

There are many examples that represent the doctrinal weakness of the translators. ‘Every inspired Scripture has its use for . . .’ (2 Tim. 3:16), implies that not all Scripture is inspired; in 1 John 2:2 ‘propitiation’ becomes a meaningless ‘remedy for the defilement of our sins’; and in Isaiah 9:6 the magnificent Hebrew expression, ‘Mighty God’ (El Gibbor) becomes merely ‘Godlike.’

In 1989 the Revised English Bible was published as ‘a fundamental revision of the New English Bible.’ It was planned to be acceptable ‘to all Christians’ and certainly it has the support of the mainline denominations, including the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of England, and the Roman Catholic Church.

The REB sets out to use ‘clear and up-to-date but dignified language that will speak in a natural and understandable way to all.’ In Paul’s two letters to Timothy the revisers have cleared up some of those unfamiliar words, but they have added ‘avaricious’ and ‘perfidious.’ The English language is one of the richest in the world with more than half a million words, but the revisers would have done well to appreciate that the average English speaker uses less than 6,000 words. They have also given us ‘pompous ignoramus’ and the quaint eighteenth-century phrase ‘reformation of manners.’ Sadly the word ‘bishop’ is retained at 1 Timothy 3:2; and 2 Timothy 3:16 reads, ‘All inspired Scripture has its use . . .’, which is incredibly weak and misleading.

The New American Standard Bible—a Translation

‘On July 31st 1970 the New American Standard Bible was completed after 9 years and 7 months of intensive work by 58 consecrated and dedicated scholars’—so reads the cover blurb of the early edition of this translation published by the Lockman Foundation of California. It is an evangelical translation ‘produced with the conviction that the words of Scripture as originally penned . . . were inspired by God.’ The Greek text is based largely upon the Nestle Greek New Testament, which is an eclectic text, and this makes it more acceptable among many evangelicals than those based solely upon Westcott and Hort (see chapter 12). The NASB has been updated as recently as 2002.

Punctuation and paragraphs have been changed to clarify the meaning of the passage. Personal pronouns commence with a capital when referring to the Deity (which can look a little pedantic when, for example in John 20:17, ‘Me’ and ‘My’ appear between them four times), although the second singular (‘thou,’ ‘thy,’ and ‘thee’) when the Deity is addressed has been dropped in later editions. Like the later New King James Version, the NASB persists in providing editions with the words of Jesus in red letters—as we shall see later, an unwise decision. The rendering of Luke 1:3 as ‘consecutive order’ is a hostage to fortune since by ‘an orderly account’ Luke surely meant simply a meaningful order; ‘consecutive order’ may present problems in view of the different order of events in the Gospels.

The Living Bible—a Paraphrase

Kenneth Taylor produced this paraphrase, completing the New Testament in 1962 and the Old Testament in 1971. The language, for its day, was racy, down-to-earth and at times coarse—though, as we shall see, it has been upstaged more recently. A few examples will illustrate its attempt to be contemporary. Romans 9:21 is rendered, ‘one jar beautiful, to be used for holding flowers, and another to throw garbage into’; and Romans 14:7 says, ‘We are not our own bosses’; while in 1 Samuel 24:3 we have the plainly ridiculous statement that Saul ‘went into a cave to go to the bathroom’.

There is too much of Taylor’s interpretation in his paraphrase: for example, at Genesis 37:6, 9 we read, ‘“Listen to this,” he proudly announced . . .’ and ‘“Listen to my latest dream” he boasted’ (italics added). This is an addition to Scripture. The words ‘proudly’ and ‘boasted’ appear nowhere in the Hebrew text; this may be what Taylor thinks of Joseph—and he may be right—but nowhere does God’s Word say so.

More serious is Taylor’s ability to obscure the true meaning of a verse. There can be no defence for such a weakness, since the only justification for a paraphrase is its ability to make the text clear. The following examples are but a few of many:

  • ‘God’s powerful method of bringing all who believe to heaven’ (Rom. 1:16). But the gospel is not God’s method, powerful or otherwise; it is the power of God itself.
  • ‘God treats everyone the same’ (Rom. 2:11). God certainly does not! The word means ‘partiality’ and Paul, far from suggesting that God treats everyone the same, states that in God’s dealings with man he is not influenced by circumstances or traditions.
  • ‘He used Christ’s blood and our faith as the means of saving us from his wrath’ (Rom. 3:25). Our faith is not additional to the blood of Christ; it is faith in the blood of Christ that saves us.
  • ‘And we know that all that happens to us is working for our good if we love God and are fitting into his plans’ (Rom. 8:28). ‘Fitting into his plans’ is a strange way even to paraphrase ‘called according to his purpose.’

The Living Bible is very popular, and certainly reads easily; however, accuracy is a far more important requirement for any Bible translation or paraphrase.

The New International Version—a Translation

Since its completion in 1978 the New International Version has rapidly become the translation used by a significant number of evangelicals. Translated by an international team, mainly North American, of 100 scholars who hold ‘a high view of Scripture as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession, and the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals,’ the New International Version cannot fairly be accused of deliberately twisting Christian doctrine.

Based upon an eclectic text, it will never be accepted by those who favour the Received Text only. It can be fairly criticized for its inconsistency in the footnotes that refer to ‘other ancient authorities.’ For example, at John 5:3–4 these disputed verses, which have some good manuscript backing, are relegated to the footnote with the comment that ‘some less important manuscripts’ also add verse 4, whereas at Acts 8:37, where the textual evidence for this verse is very sparse (even the Received Text omits it) we are simply informed that ‘some late manuscripts’ add verse 37. The NIV is more likely to follow the Septuagint than the Masoretic Text, as for example at Isaiah 53:11.

Of course there are inconsistencies and blemishes, but there are some strikingly good translations. ‘Guests of the bridegroom’ is a great improvement upon ‘children of the bridechamber’ (Matt. 9:15), and ‘Prepare your minds for action’ is an excellent approach to 1 Peter 1:13. Some of the harder parts of the New Testament are rendered with clarity and accuracy. The New International Version is one of very few translations to escape bondage to the inaccurate ‘inspiration’ of 2 Timothy 3:16 and declare, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed.’ Similarly 2 Peter 1:21 brings out the full force of the Greek word by saying, ‘Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’

The New King James Version—a Revision

In 1982 a revision of the Authorized Version, based solely upon the Received Text, was completed and published by Thomas Nelson as the Revised Authorized Version. The same revision, with a few spelling adjustments, is now known as the New King James Version.

This is not a new translation but a revision, and therefore ideally suited to those who love the Authorized Version, or by conviction prefer the Received Text to any other, and yet who need a language update. This approach has at times limited the freedom of the revisers: for example, they have retained the old-fashioned and inaccurate ‘inspiration’ at 2 Timothy 3:16 instead of ‘God-breathed,’ and 1 John 5:7 is retained in spite of the overwhelming textual evidence against it. However, in places the NKJV allows itself the freedom of improving on the Authorized Version, so that Paul’s ‘God forbid’ becomes ‘Certainly not’ and at Matthew 27:44, ‘cast the same in his teeth’ becomes simply ‘reviled him with the same thing’. In 2 Peter 1:1 the NKJV follows other modern translations by making clear, as the Greek does, that Christ is both God and Saviour; this is a decided improvement on the Authorized Version. So is the ‘one flock’ of John 10:16 instead of the ‘one fold’ of the Authorized Version.

The New King James Version rejects the principle of ‘dynamic equivalence,’ according to which a modern idiom is chosen in place of one of Bible times; and opts for ‘complete equivalence’ instead; this is good, and an improvement even on the Authorized Version. Generally the translators have fulfilled their commitment in the production of a carefully accurate translation of their Greek text.

The use of the second person singular to refer to Deity is dropped. But this wise decision seems to cut across the use of capital letters to refer to Christ throughout, which makes for a clumsy appearance with a liberal use of ‘You,’ ‘Him,’ ‘He,’ ‘Who,’ and even ‘Man.’ This is not just a matter of preference because the system forces the translators to decide when and where the reference is to a person of the Godhead; this presents problems in the Old Testament prophetic references to Christ, and in the New Testament prior to the ascension of Christ. Even more debatable is the decision to place the words of Christ in red—a habit that serves little purpose and brings with it the danger of suggesting, though unintentionally, that the actual words of Christ are more important than the rest of Scripture; fortunately non-red-letter editions are available. The footnotes reveal references to alternative readings from the Nestle’s Greek Text, the ‘NU-Text’, which is not wholly tied to the Received Text.

Often particular shades of meaning are well captured, as for example, Peter’s reference to ‘your own husbands’ in 1 Peter 3:1 (italics added) where the word ‘own’ is too frequently overlooked by translators. Similarly Hebrews 1:3, where the Greek is accurately rendered, ‘when he had by himself purged our sins’ (italics added). In Ephesians, Paul’s frequent use of the little proposition ‘with’ as a prefix is often captured by the use of the word ‘together’; clearly the translators realized what Paul was doing in his letter. It is also good to find a translation that appreciates that the word in Colossians 2:16 is ‘sabbaths’ and not ‘a Sabbath day’.

As an accurate translation the NKJV is very good, though for public reading it does not read so well as the NIV, with such phrases as ‘my beloved’ (NIV ‘my dear friend’) and ‘the fruit of your womb’ (NIV ‘the child you will bear’) giving a slightly quaint ring to it. At times the translation can be a little wooden (see, for example, Exod. 6:28–29), and such phrases as ‘in like manner’, ‘did not heed them’ and ‘Thus . . . Behold’ (Exod. 7:11–13, 17) do not help a modern reader.

The English Standard Version—a Translation

In 2001 Crossways, a division of Good News Publishers in America, published the English Standard Version (ESV) with the stated goal of ‘faithfulness to the text and vigorous pursuit of accuracy . . . combined with simplicity, beauty, and dignity of expression.’ To this end every phrase was compared with the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to ensure that nuances in the text were observed. Unashamedly the Revised Standard Version was ‘the starting point for our work.’ The ESV claims to be an ‘essentially literal’ translation, which means that as far as possible it follows the line of ‘formal equivalence’ (literal translation) rather than ‘functional equivalence’ (paraphrase). It tends towards gender inclusiveness, using ‘anyone’ instead of ‘any man’ where this is possible, but not to the point of losing the word ‘brothers’ when this refers to all Christians; though we may wonder whether ‘people-pleasers’ (Eph. 6:6) is taking it a little too far, especially as the word ‘man’ is retained in the next verse. By using the Nestle and Aland Greek text it is clearly eclectic in its choice, which will not be acceptable to those who favour the Received Text. The international team of scholars (heavily weighted towards North America) was committed to ‘the truth of God’s Word and to historic Christian orthodoxy’—this meant that they held generally to biblical inerrancy.

At times the ‘nuances’ are well understood when, for example, Peter urges wives to ‘be subject to your own husbands’ (1 Peter 3:1, italics added), a subtle point missed by many translations, and it well translates 2 Peter 1:9 as ‘so short-sighted that he is blind’; similarly, the woman could not ‘fully straighten herself’ in Luke 13:11 (italics added). Strangely, however, at 1 Corinthians 6:9 only one word is translated by ‘men who practise homosexuality,’ whereas Paul uses two words, arsenokoites and malakos; it would certainly help in today’s debate if both words had been translated. In Hebrews 1:3, the ESV’s ‘After making purification for sins . . .’ misses the significant words captured by the New King James Version: ‘When he had by himself purged our sins . . .’ (italics added).

Some translations are surprising: is ‘vanity’ really the best word in Ecclesiastes 1:2 and similar passages? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘conceit’ and ‘a desire for personal admiration’—which is not quite what the Hebrew intends. Others are hardly modern in their ring: ‘that it be not known’; ‘thus and thus you shall say’; ‘his eyes were dim’ (1 Kings 14:1–5); ‘seeking to see’ and ‘small of stature’ (Luke 19:3); ‘kill them not’ (Ps. 59:11), ‘all the wombs of the house of Abimelech’ (Gen. 20:18), ‘a womb or two for each man’ (Judg. 5:30), ‘on the pate of him who . . .’ (Deut. 33:16), and ‘unto you’ (Luke 2:11) are just a few. Nor are words like ‘duplicity’ and ‘unappeasable’ very helpful for a modern readership.

For these reasons ESV does not always read well publicly: 1 Kings 14:7–10 is rendered as one sentence of 150 words, where the NIV helpfully gives us four sentences; and ‘the earth brings forth its sprouts’ (Isa. 61:11) will turn the thoughts of even the least of the gourmets in the congregation towards dinner, though probably not towards worship! Only slightly less annoying is the repetition of the word ‘and’ thirty-one times from Luke 1:5–24; this is hardly imaginative translation.

The ESV is certainly a faithful translation and generally is to be commended for its accuracy and theological loyalty; however, many were hoping for the careful exactness of the New King James Version combined with the public readability of the New International Version, but the English Standard Version, in the opinion of many, has not quite reached this goal.

The Message—a Paraphrase

The next two Bible versions can best be summarized by the way they each begin and close their translations. Here are Genesis 1:1–2 and Revelation 22:21, first in The Message and then, for comparison, in The Word on the Street:

The Message

First this: God created the Heaven and the Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

The Word on the Street

First off, nothing . . . but God. No light, no time, no substance, no matter. Second off, God says the word and WHAP! Stuff everywhere! The cosmos in chaos: no shape, no form, no function—just darkness . . . total. And floating above it all, God’s Holy Spirit, ready to play.

Then to close the Bible, The Message has: ‘The grace of the Master Jesus be with all of you. Oh, Yes!’ The Word on the Street ends with: ‘Here’s to Jesus the Boss pouring out his generosity on God’s people. Absolutely!’

These comparisons clearly show the shift in dynamic presentation in the short space from 2002 to 2003!

The Message is published by NavPress, presented by Eugene Peterson and subtitled ‘The Bible in contemporary language.’ Jim Packer, Peterson’s fellow professor at Regent College in Vancouver, commends it as a ‘blend of accurate scholarship and vivid idiom.’ Chapter divisions are kept, but to make it read more like a book, verses are excluded; as Peterson points out, there were no verses in our Bible for 1,500 years. Each book of the Bible begins with a short introductory section and the flow of the text is undoubtedly attractive. It is contemporary without being crass, and it certainly uses the language of today. Provided that we are not looking for the nuances that a straight translation should have, there is much to commend The Message to a non-church reader.

Peterson set out to prepare a text that people who had no interest in the Bible would be attracted to, without dumbing down the message; he urges the readers to move on and get ‘a standard study Bible’ as soon as possible. It can only be hoped that all readers take his advice because that standard study Bible will certainly be needed: while Peterson is good at reporting narrative, he fails sadly when the heart of the gospel is at stake. The phrase in Romans 3:25, ‘Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith’ (ESV) turns into ‘God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear.’ Certainly ‘propitiation’ is a hard word to modernize, but what does ‘the altar of the world’ mean?

There are some renderings that are faithful to the heart of the meaning and read with life and enthusiasm. As an example, 2 Timothy 3:14–17 will provide a fair opportunity to assess its merits: ‘But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.’

Similarly, the end of Romans 8 reads well: ‘I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.’

However, inevitably a paraphrase like this loses much of the strength and precision of the Scriptures. As a way in for someone who may be tempted to read the Bible if it is in a more familiar style, The Message may prove useful, but certainly it is of little value for the way on, and it has no place in the public reading of Scripture, or for personal study purposes. The Message is an entertaining read, but as with all paraphrases, accuracy is sacrificed for readability.

The Word on the Street

Rob Lacey has taken the entertainment one step further, and perhaps to its conclusion. Originally The Street Bible, it was first published in 2003 and a year later was voted Christian Book of the Year in the UK. The Word on the Street is ‘for those who’ve never read the Bible, and for those who’ve read it too much’. To be fair, it does not claim to be the Bible at all, and the hard bits, such as Leviticus, are dismissed in one paragraph of racy explanation—‘messing up God’s order makes him mad’—and Numbers with little more. It is hard to find your way around the gospels, since they are compressed into one story with references to show where we are.

But what can TWS make of the ‘propitiation’ passage that The Message missed so badly? Interestingly it gets much closer to the meaning. This passage from Romans 3:23–26 will give a fair view of the style of TWS: ‘No one’s innocent. We’ve all messed up and dropped well short of God’s target for us. But at no cost to us, he sets us straight and sorted, ’cos he bought us back with the priceless currency of Jesus’ blood when he was ceremoniously sacrificed, And, no, God’s not just wangled it; he’s not pulled a fast one, or gone soft on us just to get us off the hook—it’s all totally above board. See, Jesus took the rap that we should’ve got. So God stuck to the Rules, and still got us out of our mess, for those who take Jesus at his word.’

In Isaiah 53 the suffering of Christ is handled like this: ‘He grew up vulnerable as a sapling in a concrete yard . . . He was dissed by most, given the cold shoulder by many. . . But whoa! Step back a sec! Weren’t those our weaknesses he took on? Wasn’t that our sadness he carried? . . . He was messed up for our mess. He was knocked down for our slip-ups. The slapping that we should’ve got—he got.’

  • Repentance: ‘So they swivel round a full 180 degrees and face the music’ (Zech. 1:6).
  • Confession: ‘If we face up to it, admit to God that we’ve messed up’ (1 John 1:9).
  • And JLM stands for Jesus Liberation Movement.

Much of the poetry is upgraded for the twenty-first century. For example in the Song of Solomon we read: ‘Your voice carries your ideas like a chauffeur-driven Merc purring out from between your two crafted cheekbones . . .’

Lacey communicates brilliantly, and for some—and only some—the language is right on! Though, unlike Tyndale’s concern for his ploughboy, Lacey is more concerned for entertainment than precision. But if we believe in verbal inspiration, precision matters above all. There is nothing intentionally coarse about The Word on the Street. Whatever our reaction to it, it is not mocking Scripture but taking it seriously.

The NET Bible

Released on the Internet by the Biblical Studies Foundation in 2005, the NET Bible is a completely new translation of the Bible. It is an international evangelical work (one third of the translators and editors are listed as from the UK), and currently includes around 61,000 extensive translators’ notes in 40,000 pages of Bible-study materials, all available online free of copyright charges. It is constantly updated from input by scholars and others on the latest research results in linguistics and interpretation. The notes are intended both at a technical level for pastors, teachers and students of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek who are interested in the grammatical, syntactical and text-critical details, and for general readers.

The NET Bible aims to be ‘accurate, readable, and elegant’ and strives for ‘faithfulness to the original biblical texts while at the same time seeking to attain accuracy in terms of current English style’. One of its general principles is to indicate in the notes a more literal rendering, and to be gender-accurate rather than gender-inclusive. The full Greek text is promised at a later date. There is also an audio version of the New Testament.

Selecting a Bible Version

There are many, many more translations available—from the serious to the trivial—and where Bible translation will go from here is anyone’s guess. Faced with a bewildering selection of translations, paraphrases and revisions, the average Christian is ill-equipped to make an informed judgement between them. Generally Christians use the one their church or spiritual adviser recommends—and the recommendations are not always helpful—or the one they grew up with. But there are an increasing number of Christians today who grew up with nothing. Some simply follow the trend by purchasing the one that sells best (the popularity test); others decide according to the quality of the cover or artwork inside (the presentation test); while others go for the punchy, modern language used (the prose test); and some are merely influenced by a cheap edition (the price test). The choice of translations creates confusion, especially among new readers of the Bible, and it makes it almost impossible for some congregations to read aloud together in worship. Sadly also, the choice of translation or paraphrase in some quarters becomes a test of orthodoxy—and therefore of fellowship.

In the attempt to persuade a generation of non-readers to read the Bible there is a danger of being more concerned with those who read it than those who wrote it. To a point it is true that the Bible, written long ago in cultures very different from our own, requires some understanding of its context. That is where the sermon and Bible study helps should assist us. But the claim that the Bible has a different ‘voltage’ from today and therefore requires a ‘transformer’ has led some to conclude that communicating the message is more important than accuracy of translation. This is a false distinction and must be resisted. The translator must never forget that primarily he is responsible for the text of Scripture, not its meaning. To translate the ‘Sabbath day’s journey’ (Acts 1:12) by ‘about a kilometre’ (Good News Bible), or ‘the half mile’ (Living Bible), is to reduce the Bible to a flat, colourless and cultureless technical handbook; it may also obscure a very important point of application. The New International Version, the New King James Version, the English Standard Version, and others are wise to retain the phrase and provide a footnote that informs the reader of the modern equivalent.

No translation can translate exactly word for word without becoming meaningless and unreadable. Dr Fisher, in The New Testament Student and Bible Translation, provides an example of a literal translation of Genesis 33:14: ‘As for me, let me lead my gentleness to the foot of the business which is to my face and to the foot of the children that I shall come to my lord to Seir.’ Similarly Genesis 34:26 literally speaks of the ‘mouth of the sword,’ but the ‘edge of the sword’ is more sensible. A good translation will stay as close as possible to the words of the original and will avoid interpreting or explaining a difficult passage. The translator translates; the expositor explains.

In the light of these complexities, there is some advice that can help in the choice of a good translation. The Bible was written in the common language of the people of its day, whether Hebrew or Greek. The New Testament is written not in classical Attic Greek, but in the Koine Greek—the language of the people. This should indicate that we need a translation that is in the language of today, and since language is rarely static—especially the English language, which is both rich and changing—there will be need for new translations from time to time. Very few people speak in seventeenth-century language today unless they are on stage. However, this does not mean that we should convert chariots into tanks and bows into AK45s, because it is important to retain the cultural setting of Bible times. Generally, we must translate what Isaiah or Paul said then, not how they would have said it now, though occasionally there have to be exceptions to this.

There are other points to bear in mind. At times, words in the original Hebrew or Greek can be left untranslated, or words need to be added, to make sense in the ‘receptor’ (receiving) language; the Authorized Version does this many times. Similarly, a literal word-for-word translation should be used wherever possible. This ensures accuracy to the original, but it must allow for the fact that one Hebrew or Greek word may have many different meanings. Most of the important ‘theological’ words—like propitiation, atonement, justification and sanctification—must be retained; it is the task of the preacher/commentary to explain them.

Modern English does not use the second person singular. The argument in favour of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ as a reverent or respectful way of addressing Deity may be very pious and well meaning, but in the Bible there is no such distinction; even the devil is addressed in the second person singular.

Cultural references should be retained wherever possible. We noted the importance of retaining the ‘Sabbath day’s journey’, and similarly there is little point in putting modern equivalents in place of shekels and denarii since money values change rapidly; even weights and measures are best left alone since, across the English-speaking world, these are expressed differently. Footnotes (or a conversion table) to give equivalents are in order.

Doubtless we are still waiting for the perfect translation, but that may be a dream too unreal to hope for its fulfilment. On the other hand, the confusion of translations that was so feared by the reactionary clerics of Wycliffe’s and Tyndale’s day is surely a price worth paying for the privilege of everyone across the English-speaking world being able to read God’s word in their mother tongue.

Finally, however much we may enjoy settling down to a comfortable and entertaining read of The Message or The Word on the Street, these contemporary and lightweight paraphrases will never help us to grasp the great truths that God is revealing through a careful translation. If they introduce the non-churched and non-reader to the Bible, little harm may be done; but unless the reader is quickly weaned to an accurate translation he or she will never grow in faith and understanding. We need a translation we can trust as well as enjoy.

It is true that Tyndale worked hard to produce a Bible that would be understood by ordinary people—unlike the Latin of Jerome that was unintelligible to most. However, Tyndale was equally meticulous to be accurate and faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew. He knew the importance of a Bible that was in reality the word of God. With good reason some may well consider that from the fifth century to the twenty-first, as far as translations are concerned, we have in some cases moved from the Vulgate to the vulgar.


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