Translations and Editions

views updated


The New Testament was written in Greek. The Hebrew Bible (to Christians, the Old Testament) also reached the earliest known world in Greek, in a translation known as the Septuagint (from the Latin septuaginta, 'seventy', because it was traditionally thought to be the work of seventy-two Jewish scholars). The spread of the power of Rome led to the circulation in the Roman Empire of various translations into Latin of the Greek of both Testaments. St. Jerome's fourth-century Latin version (with the Old Testament translated from the original Hebrew) over time became the common one and was eventually christened the Vulgate (from the Latin vulgata, 'popular'). That it was not the original Bible text was, over the next thousand years, generally forgotten.

In sixteenth-century Europe, translations of classical texts into the chief European vernaculars, the result of the new humanist scholarship, were printed, and editions of the Greek and Hebrew originals of the Bible became newly available. Soon fresh translations from these were printed, often in large numbers. Cities such as Florence in northern Italy and Worms in Germany were centers of Hebrew scholarship, and Greek was taught in universities throughout Europe. The remarkable Complutensian Polyglott from Alcalá (Latin "Complutum") in Spain, published in 1522 under the aegis of Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros of Toledo, printed the Old Testament in Hebrew (with commentary), Greek, and Latin and the New Testament in Greek and Latin.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) published the first printed Greek New Testament with his new Latin translation in 1516. As a young monk, he had been inspired by reading Lorenzo Valla's Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum (c. 1450), where he found the new humanist philology that clarified the ancient text. Erasmus intended with his translation to correct the many inaccuracies in the Vulgate. His text was based on what Greek manuscripts he could lay his hands on and was, by modern standards, far from good. In places (for example, the last verses of the Apocalypse, also known as Revelation) he found the Greek missing, and made it up from the Latin. Nevertheless, by an accident of nomenclature (by the printer Robert Stephanus in a Geneva edition of 1550), Erasmus's Greek text became the revered textus receptus (received text). His translation was seized upon by scholars across Europe, was revised several times during his lifetime, and was unchallengeable for several centuries.

Martin Luther (14831546) believed that putting the Bible into the hands of the laity was the key to reform of the church. His Septembertestament of 1522, a German translation from the Greek with prologues, marginal notes, and fine woodcuts, had a wide readership that was a factor in unifying the language and thus the nation. Luther's work influenced William Tyndale (c. 14941536), an Oxford scholar with fine Greek who was forbidden to translate and print in England. He worked in Germany and in Worms in 1526 printed the first English New Testament translated from the Greek. Smuggled into England, with copies pirated in Antwerp, it was immediately bought in large numbersand not only banned, but publicly burned, the owners being hunted down and punished. The ban on Bibles in English, set up by the church after the spread of the manuscripts of the English Bible made by followers of the Oxford scholar John Wycliffe in the 1380s, was still in force in the 1530s. The church authorized only the Latin Vulgate, to be expounded only by the learned and by priests. The church maintained that if the common people had access to a whole Bible, they would seriously misunderstand it. Tyndale's text gave to English speakers many common phrases, but above all a Bible language that has remained close to Christian hearts. It was the basis of all the sixteenth-century versions that followed (and indeed, the several thousand translations until the twenty-first century), and it provided over 80 percent of the King James Version of 1611.

In Germany, Tyndale learned Hebrew, virtually the first Englishman to do so. His 1530 Pentateuch, from Antwerp, resounded with new phrases: instead of Fiat lux, et lux erat, his readers and hearers found "Let there be light: and there was light." Tyndale revised his New Testament in 1534. Another Englishman, Miles Coverdale (14881569), who had been in Antwerp at the same time, printed the first complete English Bible, again in Antwerp, in 1535, with notes revealing his pastoral intent. As he made clear, he worked from modern versions, not the originals, relying heavily on Tyndale and also using the Vulgate and Luther's, as well as other, translations. Tyndale was executed as a heretic outside Brussels in October 1536. His work, by then including the Old Testament historical books, was edited and published by John Rogers in Antwerp in 1537, from where it was exported to England. This was the pseudonymous Matthew's Bible, with a license from King Henry VIII (ruled 15091547). Coverdale edited his own version, with silent use of Tyndale's work, as the king's gift to the nation (the only Bible ever authorized), the Great Bible of 1539: a copy was to be placed in every one of the nearly nine thousand parish churches in England.

In France, the great French Bible of Pierre-Robert Olivétan (c. 15061538), translated from the original languages and published in 1535, became standard. In the Netherlands, Jacob van Liesvelt's first complete Dutch Bible of 1526 was followed in 1528 by Willem Vorsterman's lavish revision and others. A Danish New Testament was first printed in 1524, again followed by others. In Germany, Luther's complete Bible of 1522 was steadily reprinted throughout the sixteenth century, virtually without rivals. It is striking that more Bible translations, of the whole or parts, usually from the original texts, were made in English than in any other European language.

In 1560, the Protestant English scholars who had been exiled to Geneva by the persecutions of Queen Mary Tudor (ruled 15531559) produced the first, and remarkable, Geneva English Bible. This finely made volume revised Tyndale and contained elucidatory marginal notes, prologues, commentaries, maps, pictures, concordances, and three versions of the Psalms, all intended to support study. The second half of the Old Testament, consisting of difficult Hebrew poetry, was there translated into English for the first time by a handful of men now almost unknown, although their work was outstanding, anditendured.TheGenevaNewTestament was revised in 1576, and again in 1599. The Geneva Bible was enormously popular among the populaceat least a million copies were bought.

The official Bishops' Bible of 1568 with few notes, although pressed on the country, translated Hebrew badly and never attained the popularity of the Geneva Bible. The Catholic English version of the New Testament from Reims in 1582, often silently using the "heretic" Tyndale, and rarely reprinted, was followed by the Douay Old Testament in 16091610. Under the influence of the third session (15621563) of the Council of Trent, the Latin Vulgate began to be revised.

On the accession of James I in 1603, the dominance of Geneva Bibles was halted for political reasons. The so-called King James Version was a revision of the Bishops' Bible made by three panels of fifty-four scholars, and published in 1611. It was largely disliked for having no notes, which crippled understanding of the Hebrew. Influential in the English Civil War, the Geneva versions suffered commercial maneuverings, and were defeated by "King James" by 1660. With the return of the English monarchy in 1660 after the Civil War, the myth was fostered that the King James Version at its appearance in 1611 had been royally authorized. No evidence for such an act has ever been found. As the "Authorized Version," this 1611 English Bible gained exalted status in the late eighteenth century. This version, either as "AV" or as "KJV," has had enormous influence among English speakers throughout the world.

See also Church of England ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Luther, Martin ; Printing and Publishing ; Reformation, Protestant.


Arblaster, Paul, Gergely Juhasz, and Guido Latre, eds. Tyndale's Testament. Turnhout, Belgium, 2002. Detailed information on all early modern Bible translations.

Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2, The West, from the Fathers to the Reformation. Edited by G. W. H. Lampe. Cambridge, U.K., 1969. Vol. 3, The West, from theReformation to the Present Day. Edited by S. L. Greenslade. Cambridge, U.K., 1963.

Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven and London, 2003.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Reformation of the Bible: The Bible of the Reformation. New Haven and London, 1996.

David Daniell