Why Are There So Many Translations of the Bible?

Every once in a while I come across an interesting article, worth being shared. This one is by Eric Johnson.

The original manuscripts of the Bible were written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), with a few parts in Aramaic. In order to read the Bible as it was originally written, a person would need to learn these ancient languages. However, few people are able to invest in the time-consuming, difficult task of learning these ancient languages. In order for modern people to read the Bible, translators must take the ancient words and make them understandable in today’s language. Scholars have worked for several hundred years to translate the Bible into various languages, and yet even now, fewer than half of the 7,000 languages in the world have at least one translated book of the Bible.

As far as English is concerned, many different translations have been produced over more than six centuries. The first complete English translation (from the Latin Vulgate) was put together by John Wycliffe at the end of the fourteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church opposed his efforts. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first movable type printing press in the fifteenth century, the literary world was forever changed. Instead of having to copy the Bible letter by letter, copies could now be printed by whole pages. As a result, a number of sixteenth-century English translations were produced. For instance, William Tyndale–the first to translate the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts–smuggled his Bibles into England. Believing that common people deserved the Bible in their language, Tyndale famously said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws; and if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” He was paid for his trouble by being burned at the stake.  Other English translations from this era include the Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims Version.

First published in 1611, the King James Version established itself as the standard translation in the English world for more than four centuries. In the nineteenth century, ancient biblical  manuscripts were made available that earlier translators could not access, including Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus. Starting in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Israel and were dated as early as 150 B.C. Before this, the earliest Old Testament (OT) manuscripts available to translators were dated in the tenth century A.D.

With the wealth of these more reliable manuscripts, a number of excellent Bible translations have been produced since the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the more popular modern versions are the New American Standard Bible (1971), the New International Version (1978), Today’s English Version (1992), the Contemporary English Version (1995), the English Standard Version (2001), the New Living Translation (2004), and …the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009). Some translations place greater emphasis on contemporary readability, some emphasize a literal approach more, and others aim to balance these approaches. With the wide variety of translations available today, readers have many good choices for studying God’s Word.

We can trust that throughout the centuries, God has watched carefully over His Word and those who have taken on the task to translate it so that people in every place in every time can read and understand it. As Isaiah wrote, “For just as rain and snow fall from heaven, and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and will prosper in what I send it do” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Johnson, E. (2009). Why Are There So Many Translations of the Bible? The Apologetics Study Bible for Students, 747. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

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