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    Bible-Origins  Main-Page

1. What is the Bible?

2. What is the historical background of the Bible?

3.Is the Bible Inspired?

4. How was the Bible written?

5.What are the books of the Old Testament?
(The Canon)

6.The Apocrypha, The Septuagint LXX, and the Canon

7. Who decided what books are in the New Testament? (Cannon)

8.  How was the Old Testament Transmitted?

9. How was the New Testament Transmitted?

10.  Old Testament Manuscripts and Textual Criticism

11. New Testament Manuscripts and Textual Criticism

12. History of the English Bible


               12.  How was the English Bible created?


Introduction to the English Bible Translation

 The translation of the Bible from its original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), is a complex story.  The process of translation for each language is story in itself.  As the Gospel spread to other lands, the books of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments were also translated, some earlier then others. 

            The English translation compared to other translations is a relatively late translation.   The story of the English Bible in many ways is similar to the other translation stories.  To under the translation process, the student needs to be familiar with history and source documents behind the translation. 

            Most readers of the English Bible today, are not aware of the dramatic story behind the book they hold in their hand. How a collection of books written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek changed Europe and especially England is taken for granted by many Christians. 

            By using the story of the English Bible, we can see how religion, politics and intrigue each played their part. Although each translation story is unique, each story involves a process, how a group of people received God’s Word in their own tongue.

 Other Translations


Syriac Versions


            The Syriac translation is the Aramaic translation of the New Testament.  The Gospel has an early history in this region of the world; Antioch and Jerusalem were the first centers of Christianity.  From Syria, according to Eusebius, an early an early missionary named Pantaenus in about A.D. 180, took the Gospel to India and found one of the apostles, Bartholomew had preceded him, leaving the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew or Aramaic letters (Eusebius HE 5.10.2-3).  

            Prior to the New Testament, the Old Testament had already been translated into Aramaic in the Jewish Targums. One of earlier known translations to Syriac is Tatian’s work called the Diatessaron, meaning through four.  Tatian’s translation was a harmony of the four Gospels.  Tatian founded a group of ascetics in Mesopotamia called the Encratites who were vegetarians, did not marry and did not drink alcohol.  His views caused his translation, the Diatessaron to be tainted, for example, John the Baptist ate milk and honey as opposed to Locust.  The marriage of Joseph and Mary is not mentioned in Matthew 1:18-19. 

            In the fifth century, the Bishop of Edessa, Rabbula (411-435) established the Syriac Peshitta.  Theodoreus, bishop of Cyrrhus near the Euphrates (423-457) collected and removed Tatian’s harmony, Diatessaron, and replaced it with four separated Gospels.


Coptic Versions


            The Coptic language is the language of Egypt, as opposed to Greek, which was introduced by the armies of Alexander the Great (333-323 B.C.) and Arabic which the armies of Islam introduced in the 7th century.

            There are two main dialects of Egyptian Sahidic (Upper Egypt) and Bohairic (Lower Egypt).  The Coptic script is based on the demotic script, which was derived from the hieroglyphic script

            The Old Testament translation is based on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The New Testament is based on a translation from the Alexandrian text.


Armenian Version


Next to the Latin Vulgate, the Armenian translation of the Bible has the greatest number of manuscripts, 1,244 numbered completely or in part. The Armenian version was produced in the 5th century an Armenian priest, Mesrop Mashtotz (361-439) who developed the thirty-six letter Armenian alphabet. Prior to this, all the books written were in either Greek or Syriac (Aramaic).

            The source of the Armenian Bible’s translation is the Septuagint for the Old Testament and the Syriac Peshitta. 


Old Latin


Before St. Jerome’s translation, the Latin Vulgate, the Bible in Latin was termed Old Latin. By A.D. 250, Latin was the language of the Christian scribes and clerics, creating a need for a Latin Bible. The translation of the Bible into Old Latin varied among the different versions.  These variations caused Pope Damasus I (345-420) to ask St. Jerome, a Latin and Greek scholar to revise the Latin translation of the Bible.


Latin Vulgate[1]


            Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to revise and standardize the Old Latin version.  His translation became known as the Latin Vulgate, which became the standard of the Catholic Church for 1000-years after its completion. By A.D. 383, Jerome completed his translation of the four Gospels based on the Old Latin, but compared to the Greek text.

            Jerome later translated the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew, this was completed in 405; his basis of translation was sense-for-sense rather then word-for-word. Jerome received a great deal of criticism because he translated from the Hebrew Old Testament rather then from the Septuagint.


 English Translations

 Rome conquers the British Isles


            The history of the King James Bible starts with the history of England.   The first written record of England begins with the Roman conquest dating back to the time of Julius Caesar in 55 BC, recorded in his “Gallic War commentaries”. He describes his conquest of England with more then 800 ships.  The Celts made peace with Caesar, this allowed him to leave and manage Gaul (France).  This peace between England and Rome lasted until the reign of the Emperor Claudius. Rome invaded with 40,000 soldiers and established its control over the British Isles in A.D. 43.  England became part of the Roman Empire.  Today, Hadrian’s Wall (117-138) marks the northern boundary of Roman territory.  

 Christianity in England


With the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Christianity became the faith of England by the 3rd century, as missionaries brought the Gospel to the outer parts of the Empire.

            The church in England  was well enough established by the 4th century to send three British bishops—of Londinium (London), Eboracum (York), and Colonia Linum (Lincoln)—to the Council of Arles (in modern France) in 314. However, there is no record of the Bible’s translation into the English language at this point. Latin was the language of Rome and its various outposts, including England.

             The Romans withdrew from England in the 5th century to save the capital, Rome, from invading Germans tribes. German tribes also invaded the British Isles, two tribes, the Angles and Saxons swarmed from Germany, in the process Christianity  almost vanished from the Isles.  The Angles and Saxons, German tribes from Saxony; eventually merged with the Celts and became known as the English. 

            For the next 1000 years until the time of Henry VIII (1491-1547), England was part of the Roman Catholic Church.  The Roman Catholic Church dominated both the political and religious spheres of nations.  During this period portions of scripture were translated in by various people, Caedmon (A.D. 678) a cowherder turned scripture into Old English poems, allowing people to memorize and sing scripture.  Aldhelm ( A.D. 709) the bishop of Sherborne, translated a portion of the Psalms from the Vulgate into Anglo-Saxon.

Bede, the father of English history, (A.D. 675-735) translated the Gospel of John into English on his deathbed.  No portion of this translation remains.  Alfred the Great (A.D. 849-901) was a literate king of Wessex from 871, he encouraged Christianity in his reign. He introduced the law code, with translations from the Ten Commandments, Exodus 21-23 and the book of Acts 15:23-29.  For the majority of the people, the Bible was a book only understood by the educated clergy. 

            Several factors caused a growing interest in the Bible, one factor was the schism of the Catholic Church in 1378-1417, known as the Great Schism, causing there to be two popes, one based in Rome and the other in Avignon, challenging Papal authority, demonstrated Papal fallibility.  Another factor was the Black Death, the Bubonic plague that caused the death of 30 to 40% of urban populations.  The plague resurfaced several times in 1360, 1369, 1374 causing the populations to be devastated. Life expectancy in England dropped to seventeen years of age in 1376 from twenty-five in 1348. All this caused people to look for answers, causing a revival in religious interest among the laity. This growing interest in eternal matters was hindered by the lack of resources.

            One of the main issues was the role of the laity and clergy.  The Roman language, Latin, became the language of the clergy.  Most of the laity could not read or understand Latin.  The Bible, the Latin Vulgate, first translated in the 4th century by Jerome from the Septuagint and then later from the Hebrew was inaccessible to English speaking people.   

 John Wycliffe


           To remedy the problem of accessibility, John Wycliffe (1320-84) an oxford scholar, began to translate parts of the Bible into English.  Wycliffe also challenged Roman doctrines, such as transubstantiation[2] and the role of the church in national politics.  His students would carry his views to the rest of England, traveling preachers known as the Lollards (derived from lowlanders, used in the sense of heretics) He completed the translation of the New Testament in 1380. Four years after his death the Old Testament translation was completed by John Purvey (1354-1428), Wycliffe’s secretary.  The basis Wycliffe’s translation was the Latin Vulgate. Purvey’s edition became the dominant English translation for almost 200-years.

            The Catholic Church was so opposed to Wycliffe translating the Bible into the English language that in the year 1415, the Council of Constance ordered his bones exhumed and burned, and his ashes to be scattered in the river Swift.  People caught reading the Bible were liable to loose their land, cattle , life and goods. In 1408, a synod at Oxford decreed it as unlawful to read Wycliffe’s Bible, declaring,


It is a dangerous thing….as witnesseth blessed St. Jerome, to translate the text of the holy Scripture out of one tongue into another; for in the translation the same sense is not always easily kept, as the same St. Jerome confesseth, that although he were inspired...yet oftentimes in this he erred; we therefore decree and ordain that no man hereafter by his own authority… translate any text of the Scripture into English or any other tongue, by way of a book, pamphlet, or treatise; and that no man read any such book, pamphlet or treatise, now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe or since or hereafter to be set forth in part or in whole, publicly or privately, upon pain of greater excommunication, until the said translation be approved by the ordinary of the place or, if the case so require, by the council provincial.  He that shall do contrary to this shall likewise be punished as a favourer of heresy and error.[3]


 Still people paid to borrow the Wycliffe bible, with the price being recorded as a load of hay, to read the Bible an hour a day over a period [4].

            In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press using movable type.  Gutenberg’s first work was the printing of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate.  Gutenberg’s printing became known as the Forty-Two-line Bible, because of 42-lines in a column.  Gutenberg’s invention solved a major problem for scripture transmission.  With the printing press, human error in text copying was virtually eliminated. In addition, copies could be made much quicker and less expensive than hand copies, making books and Bibles available to the masses. 



William Tyndale (1494-1536) Tyndale Translation


            William Tyndale, a Catholic priest, (1492-1536) born in Gloucestershire, went to Oxford at the age of sixteen. After receiving his Master of Arts degree, he taught at Oxford for a year and then at Cambridge. During this period, he became aware of the lack of scripture knowledge amongst the priests and laity. In a debate with an English priest, Tyndale showed his early desire to make scripture available to all,


Not long after, Tindall happened to be in the company of a certain divine, recounted for a learned man, and in disputing with him drave him to that issue, that the great doctor burst out into these blasphemous words: “We are better to be without God’s law than the Pope’s. Master Tindall, replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws,” and added that if God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of Scripture than he did.”[5]


He took on the task of establishing an English translation of the Bible based on the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text.   The first Hebrew Bible was published in 1488, along with the Hebrew Lexicon in 1506.  Tyndale planned to use these for an English translation of the scripture. Martin Luther published his German translation in 1522, but Tyndale needed permission of the church to translate the Bible. The Church of Rome opposed his plans his plans to translate the Bible into English.

            Tyndale left for Cologne in 1525, but the church prevented the printer from completing the job, Tyndale rescued 6000 copies of Matthew chapters 1-22 already printed and fled to Worms, in Germany. In Worms, he completed two editions and had them smuggled to England (1525).  The Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall purchased as many copies as possible and had them burned.  Of the 18,000 copies smuggled only two remain.  

            Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor considered Tyndale a heretic and had him kidnapped in Antwerp, Belgium and imprisoned. Later found guilty of heresy, Tyndale removed from his priestly office, was handed over to secular powers for execution in August 1536. Burning at the stake, Tyndale cried, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. 

This statement would seem prophetic as Tyndale’s version of the New Testament provided the basis for all successive versions between his day and ours.  The King James Version is practically a fifth revision of Tyndale’s revision.

            The basis of Tyndale’s New Testament was the Erasmus 2nd or 3rd edition of the Greek New Testament printed in 1519 and 1522. Tyndale used the Hebrew Bible and Lexicon to translate portions of the Old Testament.  Miles Coverdale would complete and edit portions of the Old Testament, after Tyndale’s death. This became known as the Coverdale translation (1535).

            Another of Tyndale’s disciples John Rogers, was the force behind the Matthew’s Bible (1537), Henry the VIII allowed the Bible to be distributed throughout England. This free flow of scriptures caused many theologians concern. Edward Foxe, complained “The lay people do now know the holy scripture better than many of us; and the Germans have made the text of the Bible so plain and easy by the Hebrew and Greek tongue that now many things may be better understood without any glosses at all than by all the commentaries of the doctors”[6]



William Coverdale (1488-1569), The Great Bible


            The atmosphere changed in England as Rome and Henry the VIII came into conflict.  Henry the VII wanted to divorce his Catholic wife, Katherine of Aragon, the Catholic Church refused.  When the Pope refused, Henry VII renounced the Catholic Church and appointed himself head of the Church of England.  To spite the Catholic Church and unify his kingdom, he ordered the Bible printed and translated into English, and placed in all the churches, the translation they placed in the churches was the Great Bible.  Miles Coverdale was the editor behind the Great Bible, which used the Matthew’s Bible as its basis. The size of the Bible, 16 ½ inches by 11 inches was the reason it was called the Great Bible.



The Geneva Bible (1560)


            When Mary Tudor (1553-1558) (Daughter of Henry VIII) became Queen of England, she tried to restore Catholicism Protestants were persecuted and killed.  Many fled to John Calvin’s Geneva, where another translation of the English Bible was prepared, the Geneva Bible.  The Geneva Bible translation (1557, 1560) was done under the direction of William Coverdale and John Knox and influenced by John Calvin.  This Bible became popular in England after Mary Tudor’s execution and Protestant persecution stopped.  An act of the Scottish Parliament required it compulsory for every householder who had an income above a certain amount, to buy a copy of the Geneva Bible. The popularity of the Geneva Bible with Protestants caused the Great Bible’s revision.  This revised edition later became known as the Bishop’s Bible (1568).

            The marginal notes of the Geneva Bible had a Calvinist theology, which caused concern for the Church of England. To counter this concern, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, who recognized the superior quality of the Geneva translation, published the Bishop’s Bible in 1568 to counter its theology.



The Douay-Rheims Bible (New Testament 1582, Old Testament 1609-10)


            With the popularity of the Geneva Bible and its marginal notes, the Catholic Church was forced to respond with their own English translation.  William Allen an Oxford fellow and strict Catholic, fled to Europe, when Elizabeth I came to the throne. He established and English College in Douay, France 1568. The college was later forced to move to Rheims in 1578, where the New Testament was published. The college returned to Douay, France in 1593 where the Old Testament was published, hence the name Douay-Rheims.

            The source text used in the translation was the Latin Vulgate. The translators made their aims clear in the preface, “To meet the Protestant challenge, priests must be ready to quote Scripture in the vulgar tongue since their adversaries have every favorable passage at their fingers’ ends; they must know the passages correctly used by Catholics in support of our faith, or impiously misused by heretics in opposition to the Church’s faith[7]

            The apocryphal books are interspersed among the canon as in the Latin Vulgate.


The King James Bible ( KJV  1611)


            In 1604, the Puritan Party made a petition to King James I (1603-1625) called the Millenary Petition[8], about grievances between the Puritans and the English Church. John Reynolds, the Puritan president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford raised the question of having an authorized version of the English Bible that would be acceptable to all parties. This Bible was to replace both the Bishop’s Bible and the Geneva Bible as the English translation. The purpose of this new translation was to have a Bible, that could be read in church services and at home.

            Six companies of men totaling 54 were assigned with only 47 actually working on the revision of the Bible.  Each committee had a set of instructions. All other English translations were to be consulted as well as the Hebrew and Greek Texts but the Bishops Bible was to be used as the base in translation.  Their finished work is known as the King James Authorized Bible.

            The Hebrew Text used was second edition of the Rabbinic Bible prepared by Jacob ben Chayim published by Bromberg (1524-1525).  The New Testament consulted the work commonly known as Textus Receptus or the “Received Text”.  Beza’s Greek New Testament of 1565 was the underlying text of the New Testament used in the King James Bible, which became known as Textus Receptus.  The King James 1611 translation also became known by the name Textus Receptus or received text.

            King James established the principles for the translation of the Authorized Version, hence the name authorized.

1. The 1602 version of the Bishop’s Bible was to be used as the basis of the translation, but the original Greek and Hebrew were to be examined. Other translations were also to be consulted to determine the best reading of the Hebrew and Greek.

2. So the translation did not become too stilted a variety of words were to be used for the same Greek and Hebrew words.

3. Words necessary in English but not in Hebrew or Greek were to be set in Italics.

4. Names of biblical characters were to correspond as closely as possible to those in common use; however names were not standardized. Example Jesus and Joshua.

5. Old Ecclesiastical words were to be maintained, congregation and washing in the Tyndale’s translation became “Church” and “Baptism” in the Authorized Version.

6. No marginal notes were to appear other then to explain the Hebrew and Greek words.

7. Existing chapter and verse divisions were to be retained, but new headings would be supplied.[9]


[1] Vulgate is Latin for the word translation

[2] The belief the bread and the wine become the actual physical body and blood of Christ as opposed to symbolic body and blood.

[3] Paul Wagner, The Journey from Text to Translation, Baker Book House 1999, Pg.  283.

[4] ibid

[5] Ibid, Pg. 285

[6] Ibid, pg. 295

[7] Ibid pg., 304

[8]  It was called the Millenary Petition because it had 1000 signatures of the Puritan party and their grievances with the Church of England.

[9] Paul Wagner, The Journey from Text to Translation, Baker Book House 1999, Pg.  310