Bible Translations

The Bible has been translated into many languages from the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek. The very first translation of the Hebrew Bible was into Greek, the Septuagint (LXX), which later became the received text of the Old Testament in the church and the basis of its canon. The Latin Vulgate by Jerome was based upon the Hebrew for those books of the Bible preserved in the Jewish canon (as reflected in the masoretic text), and on the Greek text for the rest.

Other ancient Jewish translations, such as the Aramaic Targums, conform closely to masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, and all medieval and modern Jewish translations are based upon the same. Christian translations also tend to be based upon the Hebrew, though some denominations prefer the Septuagint (or may cite variant readings from both). Bible translations incorporating modern textual criticism usually begin with the masoretic text, but also take into account possible variants from all available ancient versions. The received text of the Christian New Testament is in Koine Greek, and nearly all translations are based upon the Greek text.

The Latin Vulgate was dominant in Christianity through the Middle Ages. Since then, the Bible has been translated into many more languages. English Bible translations in particular have a rich and varied history of more than a millennium.



Some of the first translations of the Jewish Torah began during the first exile in Babylonia, when Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Jews. With most people speaking only Aramaic and not understanding Hebrew, the Targums were created to allow the common person to understand the Torah as it was read in ancient synagogues.

The most well-known movement to translate books of the Bible appeared in the 3rd century BC. Most of the Tanakh then existed in Hebrew, but many had gathered in Egypt, where Alexander the Great had founded the city that bears his name. At one time a third of the population of the city was Jewish. However, no major Greek translation was sought (as most Jews continued to speak Aramaic to each other) until Ptolemy II Philadelphus hired a large group of Jews (between 15 and 72 according to different sources) who had a fluent capability in both Koine Greek and Hebrew. These people produced the translation now known as the Septuagint.

Origen's Hexapla placed side by side six versions of the Old Testament, including the 2nd century Greek translations of Aquila of Sinope and Symmachus the Ebionite. The canonical Christian Bible was formally established by Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem in 350 (although it had been generally accepted by the church previously), confirmed by the Council of Laodicea in 363 (both lacked the book of Revelation), and later established by Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 (with Revelation added), and Jerome's Vulgate Latin translation dates to between AD 382 and 420.

Latin translations predating Jerome are collectively known as Vetus Latina texts. Jerome began by revising the earlier Latin translations, but ended by going back to the original Greek, bypassing all translations, and going back to the original Hebrew wherever he could instead of the Septuagint. The New Testament was translated into Gothic in the 4th century by Ulfilas. In the 5th century, Saint Mesrob translated the bible into Armenian. Also dating from the same period are the Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Georgian translations.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, translation, particularly of the Old Testament was discouraged. Nevertheless, there are some fragmentary Old English Bible translations, notably a lost translation of the Gospel of John into Old English by the Venerable Bede, which he is said to have prepared shortly before his death around the year 735. An Old High German version of the gospel of Matthew dates to 748. Charlemagne in ca. 800 charged Alcuin with a revision of the Latin Vulgate. The translation into Old Church Slavonic dates to the late 9th century.

Alfred the Great had a number of passages of the Bible circulated in the vernacular in around 900. These included passages from the Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch, which he prefixed to a code of laws he promulgated around this time. In approximately 990, a full and freestanding version of the four Gospels in idiomatic Old English appeared, in the West Saxon dialect; these are called the Wessex Gospels.

Pope Innocent III in 1199 banned unauthorized versions of the Bible as a reaction to the Cathar and Waldensian heresies. The synods of Toulouse and Tarragona (1234) outlawed possession of such renderings. There is evidence of some vernacular translations being permitted while others were being scrutinized.

The most notable Middle English Bible translation, Wyclif's Bible (1383), based on the Vulgate, was banned by the Oxford Synod in 1408. A Hungarian Hussite Bible appeared in the mid 15th century, and in 1478, a Catalan translation in the dialect of Valencia.

Reformation and Early Modern period

In 1521, Martin Luther was placed under the Ban of the Empire, and he retired to the Wartburg Castle. During his time there, he translated the New Testament from Greek into German. It was printed in September 1522.

Tyndale's Bible (1526) was met with heavy sanctions given the widespread belief that Tyndale changed the Bible as he attempted to translate it. William Tyndale was first jailed in 1535 for translating the Old Testament without permission, and a year later was strangled and burnt at the stake. There was the 1530 translation of Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples. The Froschauer Bible of 1531 and the Luther Bible of 1534 (both appearing in portions throughout the 1520s) were an important part of the Reformation. In 1584 both Old and New Testaments were translated to Slovene by Protestant writer and theologian Jurij Dalmatin. The Slovenes thus became the 12th nation in the world with a complete Bible in their language.

The missionary activity of the Jesuit order led to a large number of 17th century translation into languages of the New World.

Modern translation efforts

The Bible continues to be the most translated book in the world. The following numbers are approximations. As of 2005, at least one book of the Bible has been translated into 2,400 of the 6,900 languages listed by SIL, including 680 languages in Africa, followed by 590 in Asia, 420 in Oceania, 420 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 210 in Europe, and 75 in North America. The United Bible Societies are presently assisting in over 600 Bible translation projects. The Bible is available in whole or in part to some 98 percent of the world's population in a language in which they are fluent.

The United Bible Society announced, that as of 31 December 2007 The Bible, with Duetercanonical material was available in 123 languages. The Tanakh and New Testament were available in 438 languages. The New Testament was available in 1168 languages, and portions of the Bible were available in 848 languages, for a total of 2,454 languages.

In 1999, Wycliffe Bible Translators announced Vision 2025. This project aims to see Bible translation begun by 2025 in every remaining language community that needs it. They currently estimate that 2,251 languages, representing 193 million people, need a Bible translation. [4]

Modern approaches

A variety of linguistic, philological and ideological approaches to translation have been used, including:

A great deal of debate occurs over which approach most accurately communicates the message of the biblical languages' source texts into target languages. Despite these debates, however, many who study the Bible intellectually or devotionally find that selecting more than one translation approach is useful in interpreting and applying what they read. For example, a very literal translation may be useful for individual word or topical study, while a paraphrase may be employed for grasping initial meaning of a passage.

In addition to linguistic concerns, theological issues also drive Bible translations.


  1. ^ Some scholars hypothesize that certain books (whether completely or partially) may have been written in Aramaic before being translated for widespread dissemination. One very famous example of this is the the opening to the Gospel of John, which some scholars argue to be a Greek translation of an Aramaic hymn.
  2. ^ " The Bible in the Renaissance - William Tyndale", Dom Henry Wansbrough.  
  3. ^ United Bible Society, Statistical Summary of languages with the Scriptures , <> . Retrieved on 22 March 2008
  4. ^ Wycliffe Bible Translators, Progress Report , <> . Retrieved on 22 March 2008

Back to Top