English Translations of the Bible by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
The Bible was not written in English -- not even "King James English"! Most of the books of the Old Testament were originally composed in Hebrew (with a few portions in Aramaic), while the entire New Testament was originally written in Greek (although some books may also incorporate Aramaic sources). Thus, what most people
today read are not the original biblical texts, but other people's translations of the scriptures.
But why are there so many different English translations of the Bible? And why can't churches or scholars agree on just one translation?
No original manuscript of any biblical book has survived! All of the texts written by the biblical authors themselves have been lost or destroyed over the centuries. All we have are copies of copies of copies, most of them copied hundreds of years after the original texts were written.
The extant manuscripts contain numerous textual variations! There are literally thousands of differences in the surviving biblical manuscripts, many of them minor (spelling variations, synonyms, different word orders), but some of them major (whole sections missing or added).
Important old manuscripts were found in the last 200 years! Recent discoveries of older manuscripts (esp. the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Codex Sinaiticus) have helped scholars get closer to the original text of the Bible, so that modern translations can be more accurate than medieval ones.
The meanings of some biblical texts are unknown or uncertain! Some Hebrew or Greek words occur only once in the Bible, but nowhere else in ancient literature, so their exact meanings are unknown; and some biblical phrases are ambiguous, with more than one possible meaning.
Ancient languages are very different from modern languages! Not only do Ancient Hebrew and Greek use completely different alphabets and vocabularies, but their grammatical rules and structures (word order, prepositions, conjugations of verbs, etc.) are very different from modern English.
Every "translation" is already inevitably an "interpretation"!Anyone who knows more than one modern language realizes that "translations" often have meanings that are slightly different from the original, and that different people inevitably translate the same texts in slightly different ways.
All living languages continually change and develop over time! Not only is "Modern English" very different from 16th century English, but the language used in Great Britain, America, Australia, and other countries are slightly different from each other (in spelling, grammar, idioms, word meanings, etc.).
Cultural developments require new sensitivities in language! Recent awareness of the evils of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of discrimination have shown have certain language is slanted or biased, with corresponding efforts to develop more "inclusive" language alternatives.
Thus, no translation is "perfect" (none of them can be completely "literal" or 100% identical to the original texts) and there is no "best" translation (all of them have some advantages and some drawbacks). In general, however, the most recent translations (1980's or 1990's) are better than the older ones (esp. the KJV or the Douay-Rheims, both about 400 years old), not only since the English language has changed significantly over the centuries, but more importantly because of the ancient biblical manuscripts that have been discovered in the last 50 to 150 years which are much older (and thus closer to the originals) than the manuscripts that were available to the translators of previous centuries.
There are two basic philosophies or styles of translation, "formal correspondence" and "dynamic equivalence." Other popular versions of the Bible in English are not really "translations" but are "paraphrases" instead.
"Formal Correspondence Translations" try to stick as closely as possible to the original wording and word-order of the Hebrew and Greek texts. Thus they may seem more accurate or "literal," but often require detailed explanations in footnotes to avoid being misinterpreted by modern readers. They are good for in-depth academic study of the Bible, but may be less suited for public proclamation, since they can be difficult to understand when heard or read aloud.
"Dynamic Equivalence Translations" try to put the sense of the original text into the best modern English, remaining close to the ideas expressed but not always following the exact wording or word-order of the Hebrew or Greek originals. Thus they may seem less "literal" than the formal correspondence translations, but can be just as "faithful" to the original text, and are therefore generally better suited for public proclamation or liturgical use.
"Biblical Paraphrases" are not (and do not even claim to be) accurate translations, although they are usually still called "Bibles." These popular books (esp. those intended for children or teenagers, or the "Living Bible" of 1971) not only condense and/or omit much of the material, but they freely change the wording of the original texts to make the stories easier to understand and/or more "relevant" for their intended readers.
For example, the system of measuring time in ancient Israel was very different from our own. They counted twelve hours from sunrise to sundown, and subdivided the night into three (or sometimes four) "watches." Thus, the same time that is called "the eleventh hour" in a formal correspondence translation would be translated "five o'clock in the afternoon" in a dynamic equivalence version (and might simply say "in the late afternoon" in a biblical paraphrase).
For more explanation of the difference between "formal correspondence" and "dynamic equivalence" translations of the Bible, see chapter 3, "Translations," in Daniel J. Harrington, Interpreting the New Testament. Many of the translations discussed by Harrington have been revised since his book was published, so the following chart gives some updated information:
Douay-Rheims (no abbrev. - 1582 NT; 1609-10 OT)
(some revisions 1749 and 1941, but no recent revision)
King James Version (KJV - 1611)
New King James Version (NKJV - 1979-82)
Revised Standard Version (RSV - 1946 NT; 1952 OT)
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV - 1989)
Amplified Bible (AB - 1958 NT; 1964-65 OT)
(combined edition reprinted in 1987, but not revised)
New English Bible (NEB - 1961)
Revised English Bible (REB - 1992)
Today's English Version (TEV - 1966)
Contemporary English Version (CEV - 1996)
Jerusalem Bible (JB - 1966)
New Jerusalem Bible (NJB - 1985)
New American Bible (NAB - 1970)
New American Bible (NT & Psalms revised - 1987; OT revised - 2011)
New International Version (NIV - 1973 NT; 1978 OT)
Today’s New International Version (TNIV - 2002)
Since there are over 500 different English translations of the Bible, the above chart lists only a few of the most popular or important ones. For more information about these and many others, see another webpage on English Bible Translations; or the series of articles, "The History of the English Bible," from Bible.org.
"Ecumenical" translations (approved and used by both Catholics and Protestants): NEB/REB, RSV/NRSV
There are also several good "Jewish" translations of the Hebrew Bible, but these usually do not contain the New Testament.
(An exception is the so-called "Jewish New Testament," which is a modern Jewish translation of the New Testament).
Translations vs. Editions:
Publishers not only have to choose a particular translation of the biblical text, but they usually also add various materials for academic study, group discussion, or pastoral application, such as:
introductions, chapter & paragraph headings, footnotes and/or endnotes, cross-references, and appendices with maps, glossaries, reflection questions, etc.
So, be careful to distinguish between the names of the Bible translation and of the particular edition you are using;
for example, the Oxford Annotated Bible (edition) is based on the RSV (translation), the Catholic Study Bible uses the NAB translation, the HarperCollins Study Bible uses the NRSV, and so forth!
The same translation of the Bible may be published in a variety of different editions by the same or different publishers.
"Reader's Edition" - contains a translation of the biblical text itself, with very little other material added.
"Study Edition" - not only contains a particular translation of the Bible, but adds other materials, as listed above.
"Catholic Edition" - contains the Deuterocanonical books (Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Macabbees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch) intermingled with the rest of the OT books in the traditional/canonical order accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.
"Ecumenical Edition" - sometimes contains the seven deuterocanonical books (called "The Apocrypha" by Protestants), but in a separate section between the OT and the NT (or after the NT).
"Protestant Edition" - usually omits "The Apocrypha" entirely.
The Authorized Version (AV) is another name for the KJV; the Good News Bible (GNB) is exactly the same as TEV.
If you use other translations, try to find out when they were translated, by whom, and what translation philosophy was used.
For academic study of the Bible by anyone who does not know Hebrew or Greek, it is good to compare at least three or four different modern translations; you'll probably find it interesting and helpful to use at least one "dynamic equivalence" and one "formal correspondence"translation.
History: a brief listing of some of the earliest translations of the New Testament and/or the full Bible into English:
900’s: various Old English (Anglo-Saxon) translations of the New Testament
1380’s: John Wycliffe – first complete translation of the Bible into English (hand-written)
1453-55: Johannes Gutenberg – invents printing press; first printed book is the Latin Vulgate Bible
1516: Desiderius Erasmus – publishes Greek/Latin parallel New Testament
1522: Martin Luther – translates New Testament into German; the full Bible by 1534
1526: William Tyndale – first printed English translation (from the Latin Vulgate) of the New Testament
1535: Myles Coverdale – first printed English translation of the full Bible (incorporating Tyndale's NT)
1537: “Matthew’s Bible” – based on Tyndale & Coverdale; includes marginal notes & commentary
1539: “Great Bible” – first English Bible authorized for pulpit use throughout England
1560: “Geneva Bible” – first English Bible with verse numbers (in addition to chapter numbers)
1568: “Bishops’ Bible” – basis of the later “King James Bible”
1582: “Rheims New Testament” & 1609: “Douay Old Testament” – first English translations approved for Catholics; together called the “Douay-Rheims Bible”
1611: “King James Bible” – a.k.a. the “Authorized Version”; a revision of the “Bishop’s Bible”; ultimately based on the “Great Bible” and on Tyndale’s New Testament
1782: Robert Aitken – first Bible printed in America (KJV)
1841: “English Hexapla New Testament ” – printed the Greek and six English translations (Wycliffe, Tyndale, Great Bible, Geneva Bible, Rheims, King James)
1885: “English Revised Version” – an English revision of the KJV
1901: “American Standard Version” (ASV) – an American revision of the KJV
1946/52: “Revised Standard Version” (RSV) – an updating of the ASV
1982: “New King James Version” (NKJV) – a modern updating of the KJV
1989: “New Revised Standard Version” (NRSV) – a further updating of the RSV
Note: The above are the most direct ancestors and descendants of the KJV, but there are hundreds of other English translations of the Bible.
The Contemporary Parallel New Testament. Oxford University Press, 1998. - contains
the King James, New American Standard, New Century, Contemporary English, New International, New Living, New King James, The Message.