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The Bible in English
Old English (pre-1066)
Middle English (1066-1500)
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
Modern Christian (1800-)
Modern Jewish (1853-)

The efforts of translating the Bible from its original languages into over 2,000 others have spanned more than two millennia. Partial translations of the Bible into languages of the English people can be traced back to the end of the 7th century, including translations into Old English and Middle English as well as the language we know today. Over 450 versions have been created over time.


Old English translations

Although John Wycliff is often credited with the first translation of the Bible into English, there were, in fact, many translations of large parts of the Bible centuries before Wycliff's work. Toward the end of the seventh century, the Venerable Bede began a translation of Scripture into Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon). Aldhelm (AD 640–709), likewise, translated the complete Book of Psalms and large portions of other scriptures into Old English. In the 11th century, Abbot Ælfric translated much of the Old Testament into Old English.

The English Bible was first translated from the Latin Vulgate into Old English by a few select monks and scholars. Such translations were generally in the form of prose or as literal translations above the Latin words. As time went on, however, English translations became more frequent into the evolving Middle English. All of the translations made the Bible more accessible to the public, both to those who were literate and through oral interpretation.

Despite differences between the Middle English Bible and more contemporary English versions of the Bible, the importance of the texts in both times should not be doubted. While literacy was more limited in the Middle Ages, the oral tradition, especially through the reading of scripture at Mass, was still very important. In fact, what scriptures would be read at what time of year was largely shaped during this time period. Additionally, the grand cathedrals and smaller churches in the Middle Ages conveyed Biblical stories through their art and stained glass windows. The Bible also played a prominent role in other literary works of the time, both in passing and as the primary subject.

The general perspective on the Bible in the Middle Ages was somewhat different from contemporary views. For instance, very few complete translations existed during that time. Rather, most of the books of the Bible existed separately and were read as individual texts. Thus, the sense of the Bible as history that often exists today did not exist at that time. Instead, a more allegorical rendering of the Bible was more common and translations of the Bible often included the writer’s own commentary on passages in addition to the literal translation.

Middle English translations

The Ormulum is in Middle English of the 12th century, and it is said to be fairly difficult to read. Like its Old English precursor from Ælfric, an Abbot of Eynsham, it includes very little Biblical text, and focuses more on personal commentary. This style was adopted by many of the original English translators. For example the story of the Wedding at Cana is almost 800 lines long, but less than 40 lines are the actual translation of the text. A unique characteristic is that instead of writing in prose form, the translation attempts to mimic the Latin verse-form. In this way, ironically, it is actually similar to the better-known and appreciated 14th century English poem, Cursor Mundi.

Richard Rolle is very similar to his predecessors in that he provides a great deal of personal commentary in addition to the translation of the text. A particular characteristic of Rolle, however, is that he deviates very little from the Latin in his translation, resulting in a slightly awkward literal translation and a more fluent commentary. Interestingly enough, his reference for his commentary was Peter Lombard.

The 14th century theologian John Wycliffe is credited with translating what is now known as Wyclif's Bible, though it is not clear how much of the translation he himself did (Paul 2003: 264). This translation was extremely influential and actually came out in two different versions, the latter text being better English, less influenced by Latin.

The early 16th century Tyndale Bible differs from the others since Tyndale used the Greek and Hebrew texts of the New and Old Testaments in addition to Jerome’s Latin translation. Greek and Hebrew are slightly closer to English than Latin, and thus, Tyndale’s translation is one of the more accessible versions in its English phrasing. There is an ongoing debate over how much Tyndale used Wyclif for his translation, which does not have any definite answers presently, but could mean a more fluid continuity in the historical evolution of the English Bible if Tyndale was in fact influenced by his predecessor. Tyndale is also unique in that he was the first of the Middle English translators to use the printing press to help distribute several thousand copies of this translation throughout England.

Early Modern English translations

Early Modern English Bible translations are those translations of the Bible which were made between about 1500 and 1800, the period of Early Modern English. This was the first major period of Bible translation into the English language. It began with the dramatic introduction of the Tyndale Bible. It included the first "authorised version", known as the Great Bible (1539); the Geneva Bible (1560), notable for being the first Bible divided into verses, and the Bishop's Bible (1568), which was an attempt by Elizabeth I to create a new authorised version. It also included the landmark King James Version (1611) and Douai Bibles.

Modern translations

Early English Bibles were generally based on Greek texts or Latin translations. Modern English translations of the Bible are based on a wider variety of manuscripts in the original languages (Greek and Hebrew). The translators put much scholarly effort into cross-checking the various sources such as the Septuagint, Textus Receptus, and Masoretic Text. Relatively recent discoveries such as the Dead Sea scrolls provide additional reference information. There is some controversy over which texts should be used as a basis for translation, as some of the alternate sources do not include phrases (or sometimes entire verses) which are found only in the Textus Receptus. Some say the alternate sources were poorly representative of the texts used in their time, whereas others claim the Textus Receptus includes passages that were added to the alternate texts improperly. These controversial passages are not the basis for disputed issues of doctrine, but tend to be additional stories or snippets of phrases. Many modern English translations, such as the New International Version, contain limited text notes indicating where differences occur in original sources.[1] A somewhat greater number of textual differences are noted in the New King James Bible, indicating hundreds of New Testament differences between the Nestle-Aland, the Textus Receptus, and the Hodges edition of the Majority Text. The differences in the Old Testament are less well documented, but do contain some references to differences between consonantal interpretations in the Masoretic Text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Septuagint. Even with these hundreds of differences, however, a more complete listing is beyond the scope of most single volume Bibles (see Critical Translations below).

Modern translations take different approaches to the rendering of the original languages of approaches. The approaches can usually be considered to be somewhere on a scale between the two extremes:

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Individual translations

While most translations are made by committees of scholars, in order to avoid bias or idiosyncrasy, translations are sometimes made by individuals. The translation of J.B. Phillips, Gerrit Verkuyl's Berkeley Version, and The Message are largely the work of individual translators. Robert Alter has also translated individual books of the Bible specifically to capture what he sees as their specific flavour.

Alternative Translation Approaches

Most translations make the translators' best attempt at a single rendering of the original, relying on footnotes where there might be alternative translations or textual variants. An alternative is taken by the Amplified Bible. In cases where a word or phrase admits of more than one meaning the Amplified Bible presents all the possible interpretations, allowing the reader to choose one. For example the first two verses of the Amplified Bible read:

IN THE beginning God (prepared, formed, fashioned, and) created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and an empty waste, and darkness was upon the face of the very great deep. The Spirit of God was moving (hovering, brooding) over the face of the waters.[2]

Single Source Translations

While most translations attempt to synthesize the various texts in the original languages, some translations also translate one specific textual source, generally for scholarly reasons. A single volume example for the Old Testament is The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (ISBN 0060600640) by Martin Abegg, Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich.

Jewish translations

Jewish English Bible translations are modern English Bible translations that include the books of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) according to the masoretic text, and according to the traditional division and order of Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim.

Jewish translations often also reflect traditional Jewish interpretations of the Bible, as opposed to the Christian understanding that is often reflected in non-Jewish translations. For example, Jewish translations translate עלמה ‘almâh in Isaiah 7:14 as young woman, while many Christian translations render the word as virgin.

While modern biblical scholarship is similar for both Christians and Jews, there are distinctive features of Jewish translations, even those created by academic scholars. These include the avoidance of Christological interpretations, adherence to the Masoretic Text (at least in the main body of the text, as in the new Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation) and greater use of classical Jewish exegesis. Some translations prefer names transliterated from the Hebrew, though the majority of Jewish translations use the Anglicized forms of biblical names.

The first English Jewish translation of the Bible into English was by Isaac Leeser in the nineteenth century.

The JPS produced two of the most popular Jewish translations, namely the JPS The Holy Scriptures of 1917 and the NJPS Tanakh (first printed in a single volume in 1985).

Since the 1980s there have been multiple efforts among Orthodox publishers to produce translations that are not only Jewish, but also adhere to Orthodox norms. Among these are The Living Torah and Nach by Aryeh Kaplan and others, the Torah and other portions in an ongoing project by Everett Fox, and the Artscroll Tanakh.

Popularity of English Translations

The Christian Booksellers Association list the most popular versions of the Bible sold by their members (in the US). In 2007 the New International Version was the most popular, followed by the New King James Version and the King James Version[3] More current data can be found in the External links section, which typically reflects the above rankings.

Amazon lists the top ten in current sales in the USA (as of 8/17/2009) to be the NAB, NRSV, NIV, KJV, Message, NASB, NLT, RSV, Amplified, and the Orthodox Study Bible.

Sales are affected by denomination and religious affiliation (i.e. the most popular Jewish version would not compete with rankings of a larger audience). Also, sales data can be affected by the method of marketing. The NRSV and NAB are directly marketed to churches, and may not appear as high on the Christian Bookseller's Association rank because they are not exclusively marketed through booksellers.

See also


  1. ^ See the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, The New King James Version and the New American Standard Version of the Bible.
  2. ^
  3. ^

Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. Yale University Press, 962. ISBN 0-300-09930-4.

Fowler, David C. The Bible in Early English Literature. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

Grabois, Aryeh. "Bible: Biblical Impact on Daily Life." Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol 2. Ed. Joseph R. Strayer. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983.

Lawton, David. “Englishing the Bible, 1066-1549.” The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 454-482.

Levy, Bernard S. Preface. The Bible in the Middle Ages: Its Influence on Literature and Art. Ed. Bernard S. Levy. New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992.

Maas, A.J.. "Versions of the Bible: English Versions." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 9 April 2008. <>.

Paul, William. 2003. "Wycliffe, John.” English Language Bible Translators, p. 263,264. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company

Muir, Laurence. "Translations and Paraphrases of the Bible and Commentaries." A Manual of the Writings in Middle English: 1050-1500. Ed. J. Burke Severs. Connecticut: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1970. Vol 2. 381-409.

External links

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