The Bible has not only been translated more often than any other literary work, it is also known by most people in translation only. The spread of Christianity is certainly linked with the translation of the Bible. Worldwide, the Bible or sections of it have been translated into more than 2,500 languages (2,508 as of December 2009 according to a statistical summary of the United Bible Societies) and each year the number of languages that have at least some part of the Bible translated is increasing. Translation of the Bible has a long and varied history. This entry describes and analyzes the history and development of the translation of the Bible in English. It provides insight into the most important English versions of the Bible from different perspectives, including the textual basis, theoretical considerations undergirding the versions, and the motivations for making the versions.

The descriptions and analyses are based on information that the versions themselves provide, information provided by others about these versions, and relevant contextual factors. Three periods will provide a framework for the discussion: versions before 1611; the Authorized (King James) Version of 1611 and its revisions; and an overview of modern versions. A paragraph on modern pioneers describes individual translation attempts and their impact on Bible translation in general.

It is impossible to describe and analyze all English versions within the scope of one article. English is not only the most “translated-into” language in the world, it probably also has the highest number of versions of the Bible. The total number of versions that include both Old and New Testaments is estimated at somewhere between 350 and 400. This article will restrict itself to the most important and characteristic versions.

The essay will conclude by considering the relationship between translation theory and Bible translation.

Versions before 1611.

Apart from some disputed samples of Bible-based religious prose and poetry (e.g., of Caedmon, Bede, Guthlac, and Aldhelm who lived in the seventh-eighth century) there were also some attempts at a more consistent type of translation of the Vulgate. The first samples of written English translations are so-called interlinear translations, the oldest examples of which date to the late seventh or early eighth century. The most famous among these is known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a beautifully decorated Latin manuscript of the Four Gospels produced by Eadfrith, who became bishop of Lindisfarne in 698. Later, a word-for-word translation was inserted, which is now the oldest existing translation of the Gospels into English. The glosses are attributed to a priest called Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street, probably around 970. Clearly linked with the Lindisfarne Gospels is a manuscript known as the Rushworth Gospels produced by the priest Farman. Only the glosses in the Gospel of Matthew seem unrelated to the Lindisfarne Gospels; those of the other Gospels are simply transcripts in a different dialect. Other Old English translations include the Wessex (or West-Saxon) Gospels, dated around 990, the first independent translation without a corresponding Latin text. The main purpose of these versions was to assist the clergy who were not fluent in Latin. Glossing was also a way of teaching in monastic schools. After the Norman Conquest (1066) Bible translation activity came to a halt, since English ceased to be used by the educated elite, while Latin was seen as the language that was appropriate for religious purposes.

The Wycliffe Bible.

Even though some Bible translation efforts took place between the eleventh and

Translations, English

John Wycliffe (1330–1384).

Illustration from John Bale's Illustrium Scriptorum Majoris Brittanniae, 1548.


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fourteenth centuries the next major achievement is the Wycliffe Bible, the first complete English Bible, probably produced between 1380 and 1384. In spite of its name it is uncertain if and to what extent John Wycliffe (1330–1384) participated in translation activities himself. His theological convictions made him the great motivator and inspirer behind the translation. As a prominent and gifted theologian he voiced serious criticism of the church, challenging the authority of the pope and propagating the Bible as the only authority in matters of church and doctrine. Wycliffe supported the parliament's refusal to pay certain feudal claims by the pope. He had powerful political support from the duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, but his outspoken opinions also gave rise to conflicts with ecclesiastical authorities as well as with the political elite, which could not always clearly be distinguished from each other.

His motivation for translating the Bible directly followed from his theological ideas. He strongly believed that the Bible addresses every person and therefore it should be made available to every person. He was also clear about the political implications: “This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The first Wycliffe Bible was based on Latin texts of uncertain quality. It was literal to an extent that it gave priority to Latin syntax and word-order over English, which obviously did not contribute to its clarity. A second version (1388) by Wycliffe's passionate followers, among whom John Purvey was the leading scholar, used the Latin Vulgate as its textual base and was done in more natural English.

In the so-called “Constitutions of Oxford” of 1408, the church hierarchy had tried to control the situation by declaring the translation of scripture a crime. Bible translation could only be attempted with prior episcopal approval, a directive that, practically speaking, constituted a formal ban on translation. The political and ecclesiastical resistance against Wycliffe's ideas and translation led to the condemnation of the Wycliffe Bible in 1415. Even Wycliffe's body was to be exhumed and burned. Although the Wycliffe Bible too was supposed to be burned, many copies survived. Wycliffe had created a group of lay preachers, known as the Lollards, who were largely responsible for the spread of his ideas and translation. The hand-written translation had been copied frequently and was distributed throughout the country. Until printing was invented the Wycliffe Bible remained the only available full Bible in English. The influence of this translation on the standardization and development of English has been considerable.

Tyndale's Version (New Testament; 1526–1534).

The availability of the biblical texts in their original languages, the stimulus of reformers for general access to sacred texts, plus the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, gave a new impetus to translation. The first printed Hebrew Bible appeared in 1488 in Soncino near Milan and was followed by others. Unfortunately these texts were based on arbitrary manuscript selections; scientific editions based on a single manuscript are of a much later date. The first printed New Testament (NT), critically edited by Erasmus, appeared in 1516.

Faithful to the “Constitutions of Oxford,” William Tyndale (1494–1536), who had studied Greek and Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge, tried to get permission from Bishop Tunstall of London to translate the scriptures from the biblical languages. This permission was not given, probably out of political and theological considerations. King Henry VIII had just been appointed “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X and Tyndale was suspected of sympathizing with reformers elsewhere in Europe. The idea of making the Bible available in understandable English to lay people was seen as a challenge to both church and state authorities. In 1524 Tyndale moved to continental Europe and started translating. He completed the NT translation which was published in 1526, even though he eventually had to go into hiding. Having moved to various German cities he finally went to Antwerp from where he was kidnapped and imprisoned near Brussels. In 1536 he was charged with heresy and condemned to death, strangled, and burned.

The NT translation was accompanied by numerous notes, largely based on Luther's work. This led to the criticism that Tyndale's translation was not independent, but based on Luther's. However, it is generally recognized that the translation is original, made directly from Greek, while it is also praised for its excellent use of English (Daniell 2003, pp. 135–139). The purpose of the NT was made clear in a preface to the 1526 edition by Edward Arber: “Give diligence, reader…that thou come with a pure mind, and, as the Scripture saith, with a single eye, unto the words of health and of eternal life, by the which (if we repent and believe them) we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the blood of Christ.”

Tyndale revised his NT in 1534 and also translated parts of the Old Testament (OT), but could not complete it before he was arrested. The Pentateuch (1530) and Jonah (1531) survived, but it is likely that other translated parts of the OT were destroyed after his arrest. The OT translation has been characterized as “free, bold, and idiomatic” (Metzger 2001, p.59). Tyndale's work had a major influence on subsequent English versions.

The Coverdale Bible (1535).

Attempts by the Canterbury Convocation of 1534 to follow the official church route toward an English translation failed. In the meantime Myles Coverdale (1488–1569), an associate of Tyndale, built on his mentor's work. In 1535 the first complete English Bible was printed, not based on the original languages, but, according to the title page, it was “faithfully and truly translated out of Douche [German] and Latyn into Englishe.” The NT, the Pentateuch, and Jonah are based on Tyndale's translation. Coverdale added many notes and introductions, generally Protestant in outlook. The Apocrypha were added as a separate section after the OT.

Because of the political situation, intertwined with sometimes unpredictable ecclesiastical developments stemming from the Reformation, Coverdale frequently had to move between England and the European continent, even though he tried to avoid confrontations with Henry VIII. Despite the fact that it was favored by Queen Anne Boleyn, Coverdale's translation never gained official status and did not escape from the 1546 decree of Henry VIII restricting the possession and use of Bibles to the upper classes. Many versions, including Coverdale's, were burned.

The Matthew's Bible (1537).

The first Bible to appear with formal royal approval, the Matthew's Bible, was not an original translation but a composite work. It mainly consists of Tyndale's version of Pentateuch, OT historical books up to 2 Chronicles, and NT, completed by Coverdale's translation of the remaining OT books and Apocrypha. The title page mentions Thomas Matthew (a pseudonym of John Rogers) as the editor; Matthew knew both Tyndale and Coverdale from their time in Antwerp. This Bible found its way into many churches, although public reading remained controversial and was even forbidden by royal order in 1539 as causing too much commotion.

The Taverner's Bible (1539).

A minor revision of the Matthew's Bible appeared in 1539. Its main significance is the fact that it was the first Bible to be completely printed in England. The outspoken Protestant perspective in the notes was moderated. Richard Taverner included his own translation of the Apocrypha from the Greek.

The Great Bible (1539).

The Great Bible was also published in 1539. The Great Bible was a revision of the Matthew's Bible done by Coverdale at the request of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister. A subsequent revision in 1540 further improved the translation. The name refers to the size: 15 × 9 inches. The political context apparently made it necessary to picture King Henry VIII on the title page as the recipient of God's Word from the Lord. It was intended that a copy be placed in every church. But as part of ongoing political and concomitant ecclesiastical controversy, restrictions on reading the Bible were imposed and burning of Bibles was ordered in 1546. The Great Bible was exempted, although its reading was restricted to the trusted elite. After the death of Henry VIII the position of the Bible in the church regained strength under Edward VI, but when he died in 1553 persecutions broke out. Rogers and others were killed; Coverdale fled to Geneva.

The Geneva Bible (1560).

Without doubt the most popular version of the sixteenth century was the Geneva Bible, made by British exiles living in Geneva. Through the work of Beza and Calvin, Geneva had developed into an important center of theological studies and a hub for Reformed Protestantism in Europe. The OT was based on the Great Bible, revised and corrected from Hebrew and Greek and also informed by the Latin Bible of Leo Juda (1544). The NT used Matthew's Bible (actually Tyndale's NT) as its basis and further relied on advice from Beza and his Latin translation of the NT. Calvin wrote the preface, while his brother-in-law Willam Whittingham played a major role on the editorial team. The extensive notes were often informative and at several points showed, not surprisingly, a Calvinistic and sometimes an anti-Catholic predisposition. The Roman letter type, versification, and numerous “helps” for readers contributed to its popularity. The political nature of some of the supplementary materials did not always make it popular with the political leadership, most notably King James.

The Bishop's Bible (1568).

The second authorized English version, the Bishop's Bible, was a response to the Geneva Bible. The latter was popular with common people, but the political and ecclesiastical establishment in England was displeased with the fact that the Geneva Bible undermined the prominent position of the Great Bible. At the initiative of Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker, the Great Bible was revised by editors who were already bishops or subsequently became bishops—hence the name. Only revisions that were supposedly based on Hebrew and Greek were permitted. Since the revisers formed a mixed group without significant editorial coordination the quality and extent of the revision was equally uneven.

The Rheims-Douay Bible, or Douay-Rheims Bible, (1582–1609).

As the political landscape changed, the identity of religious exiles also changed. Under Queen Elizabeth I several Catholics had to flee, among them Gregory Martin. He was the leading scholar of a translation of the NT published in Rheims in 1582. Martin was assisted by a small group of scholars, one of whom was William Allen, who had set up a Catholic seminary for English priests in Douay in 1568. This seminary had temporarily moved to Rheims when the NT was published. The translation was based on Latin. The Greek text was consulted and sometimes put in the margin, but according to the preface Latin was superior. This also explains the relatively high number of Latinisms, such as proselyte and neophyte. This, combined with a meticulous attempt at consistency in translation, did not always accommodate readability and fluency. Nevertheless, the translation influenced the vocabulary of the Authorized Version of 1611 (AV) and hence the English language in general. The OT came too late to have any impact on the AV. Because of lack of resources it was published in 1609 in Douay, although it presumably had been translated before Martin's death in 1582. The notes and other helps were as thorough as those of the Geneva Bible, but naturally showed doctrinal bias toward Catholicism. The polemic nature of the publication was made evident on the title page which states that the helps in the translation are there also “for the discovery of the corruptions of divers late translations, and for clearing the controversies in religion of these days.”

1611: Authorized (King James) Version and Its Revisions.

The year 1611 is seen as pivotal in Bible translation as it marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, although the demarcation is less clear-cut than generally assumed. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a variety of English translations existed. Bible translation had come to be regarded as a political activity by both state and church authorities. For state authorities the issue was maintenance of power and expression of allegiance in terms of relationship with the church in Rome as well as secular allies elsewhere. Church leadership played an essential role in both maintenance of power and allegiance. In addition, theological matters influenced the entire spectrum. In

Translations, English

King James Version.

Title page of the 1611 edition.


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order to control the rather diffuse situation King James I took an initiative that has had a major influence on English versions up to the present day.

The Authorized (King James) Version (1611).

In an attempt to address the divisions among religious parties (also reflected in various English versions) King James called for a conference at Hampton Park in 1604. The conference, attended by both Anglican bishops and Puritans, had not achieved much when the Puritan John Reynolds called for a new or at least revised translation because he considered the existing versions as “corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original.” King James viewed the Geneva Bible, used by the Puritans, with some disdain and approved Reynolds’ proposal for a new translation “so that the whole church be bound unto it, and none other.” The process leading to the new version was characterized by several significant principles. First, it should be based on the best scholarship and therefore many university professors, “learned men,” were to be involved. Second, at the proposal of Bishop Bancroft of London no notes were to be included, besides those on Greek and Hebrew renderings. The absence of polemical notes would enhance broad acceptance in the various constituencies. Third, the text would pass through a number of committees during the process. Finally, the editorial team and committees would consist of men from Anglican and Puritan backgrounds and hence the project was to some extent of an ecumenical nature.

According to the preface the aim of the project was not to produce “a new translation, not yet to make of a bad one a good one…but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one.” Strictly speaking the AV was therefore a revision, not a new translation. The preface explicitly mentions that the Bishop's Bible is the basis, but it also lists Tyndale, Matthew, Coverdale, Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible as alternative resources if they provide better renderings of the original languages. The revision was to be as limited as possible, and justifiable on the basis of Greek and Hebrew. It intended to preserve ecclesiastical terms, and the names should stay as closely as possible to the original. The preface explains why full lexical consistency cannot (and should not) be maintained in translation. The reasoning, however, was not based on considerations stemming from some sort of translation theory, but from a totally different perspective: “if we should say, as it were, unto certain words, Stand up higher, have a place in the Bible always, and to others of like quality, Get ye hence, be banished forever, we might be taxed peradventure with S. James his words, namely, To be partial in ourselves and judges of evil thoughts.

The NT textual basis for the AV is the so-called Textus Receptus, the Greek text that had largely been compiled by Erasmus from late Byzantine manuscripts. In spite of many advances in textual criticism and the existence of older more reliable manuscripts, even the New King James Version (1982) used the same textual basis for the NT, unlike earlier revisions that can be traced back to the AV: the English Revised Version (1885), American Standard Version (1901), Revised Standard Version (1952), New American Standard Bible (1971), and the New Revised Standard Version (1989).

The AV is generally regarded as the best product possible for its era. It has deeply influenced English language and literature and over the years it has become a monument of style and beauty. Of course, it has its weaknesses. Not all sections are equally beautiful; there are inconsistencies, even in the spelling of names. These problems may be due to the fact that the work was carried out by different panels. Other weaknesses should be ascribed to the questionable textual bases, but at the time these were probably the best available. For centuries to come the AV was the Bible for the English-speaking world.

The Revised Version (1885).

Despite the dominant position of the AV, the need for its revision became increasingly obvious in the nineteenth century. The NT textual base of the AV had been debated since its publication, while over time the language and style were increasingly felt to be archaic. The decision to implement the revision was eventually passed in a resolution in the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury. The project was to be supervised by sixteen scholars including some from non-Anglican denominations. Catholics declined participation. The work was based on a number of “Principles and Rules drawn up by the Committee of Convocation,” according to the preface. One of the guiding principles was that “the style of the language employed in the existing Version be closely followed” and that “as few alterations as possible into the Text of the Authorised Version consistently with faithfulness” should be introduced. No further definition of “faithfulness” is given, but the approved text shows that “faithfulness” meant ensuring that Greek and Hebrew words were rendered consistently with the same English lexical items. In addition consistency in the transliteration of names was enhanced. Further improvements were based on the adoption of better underlying Greek texts. The OT continued to be a literal rendering of the Masoretic Text, but took advances in the study of Biblical Hebrew into account.

Shortly after the project was initiated attempts were made to incorporate American scholarship. Separate revision committees for the OT and NT revision were established in the United States, but final decisions were taken in Britain. The American scholars generally felt that the British guidelines were too strict. They were inclined to propose more changes to what they perceived to be archaic language. Selections of their proposed changes that were declined were published separately in appendices. Their dissatisfaction with the scope of the revision eventually led to the publication of the American Standard Version.

Initial reception of the RV in Britain was very positive, but it never reached the status of its predecessor, mainly because of its strict literalism that led to a stilted style with in many cases a somewhat archaic vocabulary.

The American Standard Version (1901).

The publication of the ASV grew out of dissatisfaction with its British counterpart, the RV. The appendix published with the RV contained only a selection of the modifications that the American committees had proposed. According to the preface to the ASV “The Appendix was itself in need of revision; for it had been prepared under circumstances which rendered fulness and accuracy almost impossible.” Also important was the need to escape British control: “In now issuing an American edition, the American Revisers, being entirely untrammelled by any connection with the British Revisers and Presses, have felt themselves to be free to go beyond the task of incorporating the Appendix in the text, and are no longer restrained from introducing into the text a large number of those suppressed emendations.” The most significant changes were the use of “Jehovah” for the tetragrammaton (translated as “LORD” or “GOD” in the RV), “Spirit” instead of “Ghost,” and “Sheol” for “grave,” “pit,” and “hell.” Some grammatical changes were also made. Nevertheless, the ASV is not far removed from the RV in style and language. Since it was adopted by some churches as the official translation it was initially widely accepted, more so than its British parallel in England. But eventually the stilted style and often archaic language prevented general acceptance.

The Revised Standard Version (1952).

The preface of the RSV declares itself to be “an authorized revision of the American Standard Version, published in 1901, which was a revision of the King James Version, published in 1611.” In 1928 the International Council of Religious Education (representing churches in USA and Canada) acquired the copyright of the ASV and appointed a committee to investigate the need for a revision. Upon their positive recommendation some guidelines were spelled out. The revision was meant for use in “public and private worship.” The OT textual base was the Masoretic Text, while recognizing the results of modern text-critical scholarship in the translation (including emendations and readings from other ancient versions). The Textus Receptus was abandoned as basis for the NT and replaced by an eclectic Greek text. The strict word-for-word principle of translation was abandoned. The language was generally modernized, although several archaisms were maintained. In the preface the translators indicate that they “have resisted the temptation to use phrases that are merely current usage, and have sought to put the message of the Bible in simple, enduring words that are worthy to stand in the great Tyndale-King James tradition.” The result is a translation that is more readable than the earlier versions. Attempts to include representatives from England were not successful, partly because World War II made communication difficult, partly because in England plans for an entirely new translation began taking shape, the New English Bible (NEB). The RSV was widely accepted in America and had a large following in England as well.

The RSV has been revised regularly. In 1977 an edition with the complete Apocrypha was published which became the first translation since the Reformation to be accepted by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike. Since the National Council of Churches was considered liberal in certain circles the RSV also met with skepticism and even with malicious accusations of being a communist Bible. The accusations of liberalism were reinforced by the fact that the OT translation was not forced into congruence with the NT, so that Isaiah 7:14 correctly refers to a “young maiden” instead of a “virgin.”

The New American Standard Bible (1971).

The Lockman Foundation, by its own claims a conservative interdenominational ministry dedicated to the translation, publication, and distribution of the Bible, published the NASB in 1971. Although the name NASB suggests a revision of the ASV, this is not strictly speaking the case. The preface states: “Recognizing the values of the American Standard Version, the Lockman Foundation felt an urgency to preserve these and other lasting values of the ASV by incorporating recent discoveries of Hebrew and Greek textual sources and by rendering it into more current English. Therefore, in 1959 a new translation project was launched, based on the time-honored principles of translation of the ASV and KJV. The result is the New American Standard Bible.” The OT textual base was Kittel's Biblia Hebraica, while recent insights from Hebrew lexicography, cognate languages, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were considered. The NT is supposedly based on Nestle's twenty-sixth edition of the Greek NT. However, many unaccounted deviations occur. Instances of theological prejudice transpire, notably in OT allusions to Jesus Christ. Obvious attempts to accommodate its conservative constituency (e.g. “virgin” in Isa 7:14) and premillennial bias in the translation of passages in Revelation further illustrate this point. From a stylistic perspective the translation suffers from its tendency to follow Hebrew and Greek word order.

The New King James Version (1982).

The NKJV grew out of the initiative of the Thomas Nelson Corporation. The revision is an attempt to update the language of the AV, without any significant adjustments to its textual base or translation principles. Despite claims that the NKJV contains the full text of the AV, the Apocrypha are missing, thereby illustrating that the publisher intends to appeal to a specific conservative consistency. The revision is a rather inconsistent combination of dated KJV style and somewhat modern vocabulary and grammar.

The New Revised Standard Version (1989).

The RSV (Standard Bible) committee was never dissolved and was commissioned in 1974 by the National Council of Churches to undertake a revision of the RSV. The principal motives were formulated as follows in the preface: (a) significant advances had been made in the discovery and interpretation of documents in Semitic languages related to Hebrew; (b) early Greek manuscript copies of books of the New Testament had also become available. The textual basis for the OT revision was the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1977; ed. sec. emendata, 1983). The NT revision was based on United Bible Societies (UBS) Greek New Testament (1966, 3d. ed.). The preface describes the mandate for the revision as “the directive to continue in the tradition of the King James Bible, but to introduce such changes as are warranted on the basis of accuracy, clarity, euphony, and current English usage.” Many archaisms were removed from the text (e.g., “thee” and “thou”). The preface further explains “the maxim, ‘As literal as possible, as free as necessary.’ As a consequence, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) remains essentially a literal translation.” Another important mandate was that “masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture.”

The NRSV continues in the ecumenical tradition of the RSV and is also published in an anglicized edition. This involves adjustment in spelling, grammar, and punctuation as well as some changes in vocabulary.

An Overview of Modern Versions.

The twentieth century has produced a myriad of English versions, new and revised, some aimed at a very specific audience and others intended for a broader readership. The modern era also shows an increasing variety in perspectives as far as translation theories are concerned. This section provides a limited overview of the most characteristic and influential translations.

A New Translation of the Bible (1926–1935) by James Moffatt.

The greatest achievement of this otherwise controversial translation is its readability enhanced by its consistent use of modern speech and style. Heavy criticism has been leveled against the textual basis for the NT, a publication of Hermann on Soden which turned out to be defective. Apart from that Moffatt regularly used emendations with little or no manuscript support. He made rearrangements of the texts to what he claimed were their original position. In the OT he used different typefaces to indicate the different sources and authors and was not afraid to show theological bias: for example, in Matthew 26:26 where he translated, “Take and eat this, it means my body.” Despite these criticisms the number of copies sold indicates that the translation filled a need.

An American Translation (1927) by Smith and Goodspeed.

Based on the assumption that the NT was written “in the common language of everyday life” Goodspeed translated the NT into common English based (with the exception of very few emendations) on Westcott and Hort's Greek NT. The OT was based on the Masoretic Text, “as long as it makes satisfactory sense.” The translation was generally viewed as more conservative than Moffatt's. The value of both was that they prepared the way for more common language translations that were to follow.

The New Testament in Modern English (1958) by J. B. Phillips.

The NT translation of J. B. Phillips, an English clergyman, is an attempt to address the younger generation in contemporary English. In his preface Phillips lists three “essential principles of translation: (1) it must not sound like a translation at all; (2) a translator does his work with the least possible obtrusion of his own personality; (3) a translator should be able to produce in the hearts and minds of his readers an effect equivalent to that produced by the author upon his original readers.” Although Phillips did not specify the basis for his translation the initial editions of his NT indicate that he did not use an eclectic text. At a later stage he edited his translation on the basis of the UBS Greek NT (1966).

The Jerusalem Bible (1966).

The first Catholic Bible to be based on the original languages is the Jerusalem Bible. The previous ones were based on the Vulgate. The JB was largely modeled after its French equivalent with some books drafted from French and then meticulously compared with Hebrew and Aramaic. According to the editor's foreword “the translator of a Bible in a vernacular may surely consider himself free to remove the purely linguistic archaisms of that vernacular, but there his freedom ends.” The result is a readable translation in somewhat contemporary English. It is largely uninfluenced by dogmatic or doctrinal positions in its helpful scholarly notes, illustrating the fact that Protestant and Catholic biblical scholarship have converged to a considerable degree. One remarkable feature is the translation of the tetragrammaton as “Yahweh.” Its textual bases are the Masoretic Text for the OT and an eclectic Greek text for the NT, while some discoveries from the Dead Scrolls were also recognized. In a 1985 revision (New Jerusalem Bible) the amount of masculine-oriented language is reduced “though not at all costs,” because as the foreword states “the word of the Lord concerns women and men equally.”

The New English Bible (1970).

A joint committee of Protestant churches, university presses, and Bible societies was established in 1946 in order to translate the Bible into the language of today. It was not to be a revision, but, as the preface says, “the translators should be free to employ a contemporary

Translations, English

New English Bible Translation Panel.

Members of the New Testament translation panel working under the chairmanship of C. H. Dodd, c. 1950. Left to right: Bishop of Woolwich; Rev. Prof. C.F.D. Moule; Rev. G.M. Styler; Rev. Prof. C.H. Dodd; Phoebe Allen, Secretary; Very Rev. Dr. G.S. Duncan; Prof. T.H. Robinson.


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idiom rather than reproduce the traditional ‘biblical’ English.” This approach generated a rather fresh and lively translation that was sometimes criticized for being more of a paraphrase than a translation. Its OT textual basis was Kittel's Biblia Hebraica (1937) while the NT was based on an eclectic text. In 1989 a thorough revision (Revised English Bible) showed a generally more literal approach to translation in which, according to the preface, “care has been taken to ensure that the style of English used is fluent and of appropriate dignity for liturgical use, while maintaining intelligibility for worshippers of a wide range of ages and backgrounds.”

The New American Bible (1970).

The encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) encouraged Catholic scholars to translate the Bible from the original languages and not from the Vulgate. A new Vulgate-based translation, the Confraternity Version, was already in progress and the NT had been completed. The Vulgate-based work on the OT was stopped in favor of a Hebrew-based translation which was published in different volumes between 1959 and 1969. In the meantime work on a new translation of the NT based on Novum Testamentum Graece (25th edition) had started in 1956. The complete Bible was published in 1970. It contained major revisions of the earlier OT portions and a new translation of Genesis. Although the American Catholic hierarchy had been involved in the project the result turned out to be controversial. The translation was felt to be too strongly influenced by the dynamic-equivalent theory of translation, some even calling it a paraphrase, while its gender-inclusive approach was also not generally appreciated. Despite these criticisms excerpts from revised editions of the NAB are included in the approved Lectionary for Mass. In 2011 the publication of New American Bible, revised edition (NABRE) came about. This version has not been approved for use in the Lectionary.

The Good News Translation (1976).

Originally published beginning in the 1960s by the American Bible Society as the Good News Bible, and later on as Today's English Version, the GNT gives priority to meaning over form in accordance with the principle of dynamic equivalence translation. The NT was published in 1966 as Good News for Modern Man. As the preface explains, “every effort has been made to use language that is natural, clear simple, and unambiguous.” Nevertheless “the primary concern of the translators has been to provide a faithful translation of the meaning of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.” The textual basis for the OT is Kittel's Biblia Hebraica (1937), for the NT it was the UBS Greek NT (1975). The translation was partly a response to demands for a translation for those who speak English as a second language as well as for new literates. This also led to adjustments in the vocabulary which tries to avoid typical ecclesiastical terminology. Subsequent revisions used more recent textual materials. A Study Bible edition in 1997 provided the reader with additional helps and explanations about the cultural and historical backgrounds of the text. Millions of copies of the GNT were sold, but among conservative churches the translation met with much skepticism, partly because of doubts about the theological integrity of the main editor, Dr. Robert Bratcher, partly because it shied away from word-for-word translation, in keeping with its own principles. The translation of Isaiah 7:14 where “the young woman” appears instead of “virgin” added to the concerns of this constituency, despite the fact that the issue was clearly explained in a footnote.

The New International Version (1978).

The NIV turned out to be the translation that was widely accepted in conservative evangelical circles. The initiative for this translation was taken by the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals and subsequently backed by the New York (later: International) Bible Society and was fed by dissatisfaction with the RSV. The word “International” in the NIV reflects the fact that scholars from various English-speaking countries worldwide were involved. The preface indicates that the translators sought a position between formal and dynamic equivalence translation principles: “The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the Biblical writers. They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. At the same time, they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation.”

The OT translation is based on “the latest version of the Biblia Hebraica,” while other sources were also consulted. About the NT textual basis the preface states that “the best current printed texts of the Greek New Testament were used.” In an apparent attempt to distinguish itself from more liberal counterparts the preface also points out that “the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form.” The translation shows little if any bias, but generally sticks to its conservative tradition. Isaiah 7:14 translates “virgin” without explanation. Only in the Study Bible edition (1985) is a note added with some additional information, but no explanation is given for the translation decision.

The sales for the NIV were very successful and in 1988 it even replaced the AV in the United States as the best-selling Bible. Special editions were numerous. In 2005 Today's NIV was published. This gender-neutral version met with much criticism from its traditional constituency.

Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (1985).

The preface explains that the Tanakh, a translation “produced by the Jewish Publication Society was made directly from the traditional Hebrew text into the idiom of modern English.” The need for such a translation became increasingly clear as the knowledge of Hebrew among American Jews declined further. The Tanakh wanted “to reflect contemporary scholarship, thus laying emphasis upon intelligibility and correctness. It would make critical use of the early rabbinic and medieval Jewish commentators, grammarians, and philologians and would rely on the traditional Hebrew text, avoiding emendations.” This attempt has resulted in a very readable translation, although it contains many passages where according to the notes the “Hebrew is unclear.”

The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version (1995).

In an ultimate attempt to remove all possibly offensive language from the translation the NTPIV has made a radical adaptation of the NRSV. Masculine metaphors have been replaced by inclusive ones (e.g. God our Father-Mother), metaphors with potential negative racial connotations have been adjusted (e.g. darkness as a figure for ignorance has become night). The introduction states that “This version has undertaken the effort to replace or rephrase all gender specific language not referring to particular historical individuals, all pejorative references to race, color, or religion, and all identifications of persons by their physical disability alone, by means of paraphrase, alternative renderings, and other acceptable means of conforming the language of the work to an inclusive idea.” The most difficult issue was pronominal reference to God. To circumvent the problem it was decided not to use pronouns, but to use only the gender-neutral word God. Such decisions have a negative impact on style and natural language use; among the more friendly criticisms of this version is that it is anachronistic. Severe criticism (e.g. “a distortion of the inspired word of God”) has come from several churches. It should be noted that texts dealing with homosexuality have not been stripped of potentially offensive language.

The New Living Translation (1996).

The NLT is a thorough revision of the Living Bible, a paraphrase with a strong doctrinal bias and numerous inaccuracies. Many of these shortcomings have been repaired in what is claimed to be “a thought-for-thought translation” based on the original languages. It maintains its general conservative theological outlook.

The English Standard Version (2001).

The ESV presents itself as a “new, essentially literal translation that combines word-for-word precision and accuracy with literary excellence, beauty, and readability.” The reliable translation is generally conservative: no inclusive language and a somewhat more literal approach than the NIV. The translation carefully positions itself “in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium.” Although it claims to be “essentially literal,” Isaiah 7:14 translates “virgin,” while the same is not done in Exodus 2:8. The textual bases are Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1983) and the UBS Greek NT (4th corrected edition) and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th edition).

The NET Bible (2005–print edition).

The innovative NET Bible is freely accessible on the Internet ( The name has a double meaning: “New English Translation” and “Internet.” The translation was the first to be beta-tested. The Web site says that “the initial planning group was interdenominational and evangelical, although not made up of official representatives from church groups or denominations. A deliberate decision was made early on to devote special attention to the avoidance of doctrinal peculiarities or sectarian bias in the new translation.” The translators “worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.” It contains a huge number of notes: about sixty thousand. These are under constant review. A revision of the translation is scheduled every five years. One of the editors claims that “the translation is not self-consciously evangelical; it is self-consciously honest (2001, p. 335).” To illustrate the honesty, it is noted that Isaiah 7:14, the touchstone for orthodoxy, translates “young woman,” adding an explanatory note to support the decision. This reliable translation seeks a balance between formal and functional equivalence.

The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation (2006).

This translation provides an adaptation of the Torah in the 1985 Tanakh “only with respect to social gender” states the preface. The editor claims that “the single most innovative aspect of the gender-sensitive translation offered in The Contemporary Torah is its treatment of the Hebrew word ʾish as a term of affiliation more than of gender.”

Common English Bible (2011).

The CEB presents itself as “not simply a revision or update of an existing translation. It is a new translation designed to meet the needs of Christians as they work to build a strong and meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ. A key goal of the translation team is to make the Bible accessible to a broad range of people; it's written at a comfortable level for the majority of English readers.” To achieve this goal an interconfessional translation team of more than five hundred scholars (from various Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church) has been established, including a Readability Editor. The textual basis for the NT is the Novum Testamentum Graece (27th edition). The OT is based on the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (4th edition) and Biblia Hebraica Quinta (5th edition) and emended with readings from the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX. The deuterocanonical books are based on Göttingen Septuagint (in progress) and Rahlfs’ Septuaginta. Since ease of comprehension is a main goal, the translation tends towards a dynamic equivalence approach and avoids traditional and archaic terminology (e.g. the Human One instead of the Son of Man), which has led to criticism from the more traditional sections of the Christian constituency.

Modern Pioneers.

A number of individual translations of (parts of) the Bible have been published recently. These translations usually serve a specific purpose, clearly explained by the translator in extensive introductory comments. The influence of these translations is not restricted to the academic community only, because they may impact current ongoing attempts of producing translations for wider constituencies and communities of faith.

The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes (1995); Give Us a King!: Samuel, Saul, and David (1999) by Everett Fox.

Following the model set by Buber and Rosenzweig's Hebraicized German translation, Everett Fox, a professor of Judaic and biblical studies, in his translation wanted “to draw the reader into the world of the Hebrew Bible through the power of its language.” He explains that he “tries to mimic the particular rhetoric of the Hebrew whenever possible, preserving such devices as repetition, allusion, alliteration, and wordplay.” This leads to a translation that often deliberately avoids natural English, so that the reader will be able “to meet the Bible at least halfway,” thereby becoming “an active participant in the process of the text, rather than a passive listener.”

The David Story: 1 and 2 Samuel (1999); The Five Books of Moses (2004); The Book of Psalms (2007); The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (2010) by Robert Alter.

The Hebrew and comparative literature professor Robert Alter has published translations of selected books of the Bible. All publications have the subtitle “A Translation with Commentary.” The task he set for himself was three-fold: “to translate every word of the Hebrew without fudging; to maintain, as befits the ancient text, a properly serious tone; and to provide useful commentary on key phrases, textual cruxes, and the art of biblical narrative.” He rather strictly follows Hebrew syntax, translating every occurrence of “and” and consistently translates each key Hebrew lexical item with the same English rendering, thus trying to maintain the original flavor and rhythm of the Hebrew text, and also offering the reader “the chief means of thematic exposition” and the tools to recognize the connective layers between the different stories. Additional notes provide valuable information about linguistic issues (such as puns and word plays), culture, literary features, and any other relevant matters.

Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas (2009) by Willis Barnstone.

Apart from the inclusion of noncanonical texts related to the NT, Barnstone's translation is new in many ways. In his own words the translation is “a revolution.” The main differences with existing NT translations: “a restoration of the probable names of persons and places to their Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew originals; a book that avoids Biblespeak, the half-lovely archaized speech that most translations fall into after the King James Version, or really infelicitous lowbrow talk that floats like lead when the scripture is gold.” The restoration of names is intended to be an unmasking of the fact that nearly all characters of the Bible are Jews. Another focal point is the poetic nature of the texts. Barnstone wants to “show by translating much of the book into verse that like all the world's religious scripture the book was meant to be chanted.” The order of the books has been chronologically and thematically restored. The introductions shed light on the historic contexts in which the texts originated and on their original intent “always with the awareness that more is unknown than known.” The author hopes that “the reader feels that the restored scripture reveals the commonality of the Abrahamic sects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I hope the faithful and secular see a work closer to the original scripture and not bathed in the propaganda of bias and willful persuasion.”

Translation Theory and Bible Translation.

At present there is a wide variety and diversity in theories of translation, both descriptive and explanatory. However, few translations of the Bible in past and present are based on an explicit theory of translation; one must resort to Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) in order to detect any systematic approach. The aim of DTS is “to describe the phenomena of translating and translation(s) as they manifest themselves in the world of our experience” (Holmes 1988, p. 71), which in turn leads to the establishment of “general principles by means of which these phenomena can be explained and predicted.”

Contrary to what one might expect, this does not automatically lead to the conclusion that a specific theological persuasion leads to a specific method of translation. Translations aimed at a conservative constituency range from free (NLT) to literal (ESV), while a similar continuum exists for translations which are deemed to have been produced from a more liberal perspective.

The first coherent theory of Bible translation was developed by Eugene Nida and his colleagues at the American Bible Society and the United Bible Societies. Building on the work of Moffatt and Goodspeed they developed “a new concept of translating” (Nida and Taber 1969, pp. 3–9) called dynamic equivalence which is in contrast with formal correspondence (pp. 22–32). In short, in a dynamic equivalence approach to translation “the message of the original text has been so transported into the receptor language that the RESPONSE of the RECEPTOR is essentially like that of the original receptors” (p. 200). In other words, meaning has priority over form. Later on, the concept of dynamic equivalence developed into functional equivalence (de Waard and Nida 1986), although “it is not designed to suggest anything essentially different” (p. vii). The influence of this theoretical framework is obvious in GNT, NLT, and the Contemporary English Version (CEV), while it has had some impact on translations such as NIV and NET. Since the approach became institutionalized in the UBS (Mojola and Wendland 2003, p. 1–4) it has impacted many translations worldwide.

Further reflections on this theory lead to a more critical appraisal. What exactly is equivalence? How can response be measured, and moreover, how can the response of the original receptors be determined? Mojola and Wendland correctly observe that “the reading, interpretation and translation of texts are influenced by presuppositions and assumptions, prejudices and biases, value systems and belief systems, textual traditions and practices, world views, ideology and interests” (p. 8). This has led to a more multifaceted perspective on Bible translation in which all these aspects are carefully weighed, together with those that have a bearing on the communication event, such as cognitive, sociocultural, organizational, communication-situation, and text frames of reference (Wilt 2003).



  • Bruce, F. F. The English Bible: A History of Translations from the Earliest English Version to the New English Bible. London: Lutterworth, 1970.
  • Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Greenslade, S. L., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 3. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1963.
  • Holmes, James S. Translated! Papers on Literary Translation and Translation Studies. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.
  • Lampe, G. W. H., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001.
  • Mojola, Aloo Osotsi, and Ernst Wendland. “Scripture Translation in the Era of Translation Studies.” In Bible Translation: Frames of Reference, edited by Timothy Wilt, pp. 1–25. Manchester, U.K.: St. Jerome, 2003.
  • Nida, Eugene A., and Charles R. Taber. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1969.
  • United Bible Societies. About Us: About UBS Translation Work. (accessed on 25 March, 2011).
  • Waard, Jan de, and Eugene A. Nida. From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986.
  • Wallace, Daniel B. “Innovations in Text/Translation of the NET Bible NT.” The Bible Translator 52, no. 3 (2001): 335–349.
  • Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 1999.
  • Wilt, Timothy, ed. Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. Manchester, U.K.: St. Jerome Publishing, 2003.

Gerrit J. van Steenbergen