Additional Resource

From Ancient Manuscripts to Modern Translations: The History of the Bible

Andrew C. Skinner- Executive Director of the Neal A Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship.


The history of the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) is a remarkable story filled with high drama, inspiration, intrigue, intellectual brilliance and self-sacrifice. Many individuals through the ages gave everything they had — health, wealth, reputation and even their very lives — for the single-minded purpose of making God’s word available to all who could read or be read to. Their sacrifices were not in vain. According to one authority, the Bible “has had a greater influence on the world for good than any other book ever published.”

The earliest sections of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, were composed of genealogical or family history records. These early portions of Genesis provide us with a pattern for how the rest of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament was formed. Each successive writer-editor added to previous records. Stories began to be set down in writing and were combined with laws, prophecies and poetry in order to describe God’s involvement in human history. Moses, the ancient lawgiver and deliverer of Israel, is credited with authorship of the Pentateuch, but he undoubtedly took existing records; collated, edited and abridged them; and wove them together in a narrative. Over 700 years later, Ezra the scribe returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity and it is thought performed the demanding task of collecting, sorting and editing the extant biblical books and records into one collection. It is believed the Old Testament reached its current form sometime around the late first-century A.D.

The New Testament went through a similar process. In his book Journey From Texts to Translations, Paul Wegner explains that it "was crucial for the early church to have access to the very words of Christ and the apostles because this is the foundation upon which the church was built." Thus, teachings and stories of Jesus first circulated orally, with the written letters or epistles of the Apostle Paul appearing fairly early, some by at least A.D. 50. The three synoptic Gospels, followed by John’s Gospel, came afterward. The earliest artifactual evidence for the existence of a written gospel is a papyrus fragment of John, discovered in 1934 and now housed in the Rylands Library in Manchester, England. It contains a few verses written in uncial script (Greek rounded capital letters) and shows that John’s Gospel was circulating in Egypt no later than A.D. 125.

The New Testament canon (collection of authoritative books) developed gradually. The first church leader to include all 27 books of the present New King James version of The New Testament canon was Athanasius (296–373), bishop of Alexandria. He mentioned them in an Easter letter to his parishioners in 367. No one knows exactly when the Old and New Testaments were combined into a single volume. However, the two oldest surviving complete (more or less) Bibles date from approximately the mid-to late-fourth century and are known today as the Codex Vaticanus (housed in the Vatican library) and the Codex Sinaiticus (found at St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula by German scholar Constantin von Tischendorf in 1844 — he actually rescued its pages from a pile of trash waiting to be burned). How much biblical material has been lost, we can only guess.

A towering figure in the history of biblical transmission is St. Jerome (347–420). In 383 he wrote to Pope Damasus describing the mistakes, inaccurate translations and blundering alterations found in the manuscripts of just the New Testament alone and sought approval to produce a better translation of the Bible. He then took the existing inferior manuscripts of his day, consulted original Hebrew and Greek texts and produced a new Latin version of the Bible called the Vulgate. It became the standard Bible in Christianity for the next thousand years. The period between the creation of the Vulgate in the fifth century and the waning Middle Ages in the fourteenth century witnessed two developments: the emergence of beautifully illustrated Bible manuscripts and the rendering of partial translations into medieval English. The eighth — century Book of Kells, for example, is an illustrated rendition of the Latin Gospels and is regarded by some as the greatest masterpiece of Celtic art.

The man responsible for the first complete Bible in English was John Wycliffe (1328–1384). A theology professor at Oxford, Wycliffe promoted a program of church reform in both doctrine and practice. The centerpiece of the reform was Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English, the language of the common people. Because his efforts and ideas influenced future reformers, Wycliffe is known as "the Morning Star of the Reformation." He and his followers, the Lollards, were bitterly persecuted by church officials, but they did not back down, consistently maintaining that scripture alone should be the sole basis for Christian teaching.

Wycliffe saw the contemporary church hierarchy as corrupt, far removed from the pattern described in the New Testament. The great need was for a new Bible translation against which the Church could be measured by everyone and which the English-speaking laity could understand for themselves rather than having to rely upon biblical texts transmitted through the agents and lenses of a corrupted church. Thus, all doctrine and teaching could be tested against a biblical text uncorrupted by misinterpretation.

A little more than a century passed between the death of John Wycliffe and the birth of the man the world would recognize as the real "Father of the English Bible" — William Tyndale (1492–1536). By the time Tyndale turned his considerable intellectual prowess to a new English translation, Martin Luther had made a new translation of the Bible into German and Johann Gutenberg had perfected moveable‑type printing, resulting in his now-famous 42-line Vulgate Bible. The Gutenberg Bible is a two‑volume masterpiece printed no later than 1455 and is traditionally regarded as the earliest important printed book.

Luther (1483–1546), widely acknowledged leader of the Protestant Reformation, picked up where Wycliffe had left off. He also insisted that church teaching and practice must be grounded in scripture — which means, in a sense, that the Bible precipitated the Protestant Reformation. He produced a new translationof the Bible so that its concepts and principles could be clearly understood, and misunderstandings (and thus misinterpretations) avoided. So good was this translation, and its use of the German language so superior to many other texts, that it became the standard for centuries by which the German language itself was measured. The other great church leader associated with the Bible during this period was Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), who published the first accessible Greek New Testament in 1516. Aware that Roman Catholic Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros (1437–1517) was working on the first polyglot Bible (which included the Greek text), Erasmus rushed his New Testament to completion in 10 months. It contained many mistakes. Though the work of Cardinal Cisneros and his assistant, Stunica, was indisputably better, Erasmus’s edition became the more popular (an interesting lesson in itself as to how errors get perpetuated). When Erasmus edition first came out and Stunica brought its deficiencies to the attention of Cardinal Cisneros, the magnanimous old cardinal replied: "Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets! Produce better, if thou canst; condemn not the industry of another."

The stage was set forWilliam Tyndale, an Oxford scholar trained in Latin, Hebrew and Greek and whose passion was the creation of the finest English Bible for laymen that could be translated from the original languages (Hebrew and Greek). "If God spare my life," he said to one opponent, "ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough [to] know more of the Scripture than thou doest." Tyndale was especially concerned for those who did not possess the scriptures in their own language and were at the mercy of priests and teachers who tried to discredit teachings that Tyndale knew were true. Said he: “If Christians possessed the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue, they could of themselves withstand these attacks.” Also: “I had perceived by experience how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order and meaning of the text.”

It is not hard to understand why church and state officials continued their persecution of Tyndale until they succeeded in having him burned at the stake. Yet, they could not eradicate his monumental influence on future versions of the Bible as well as on civilization itself. One version, the Geneva Bible of 1560, used by Shakespeare and the Pilgrim Fathers, came to America on the Mayflower. William Tyndale’s impact on Bible translations culminated in the Authorized or King James Version of 1611.

In 1607, King James I of England appointed nearly 50 scholars, divided into six companies, to produce a new Bible translation to settle differences between the English clergy and Puritans. As Miles Smith, author of the original preface to the King James Bible of 1611, wrote: "Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water ... [For] without translation into the [common] tongue the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well ... without a bucket or something to draw with."

The scholars who worked on the King James Versionconsulted the original Hebrew and Greek texts but also closely followed previous translations — especially Tyndale’s.  Modern scholars have found that, overall, 84 percent of Tyndale’s language has been retained in the King James Version.

New translations of the Bible continue to be made for a variety of reasons: to keep apace of changes in the language; to facilitate ease of understanding; and occasionally to harmonize language with doctrinal understandings in the modern world. (It  must be recognized that any translation is automatically an interpretation.) However, nothing yet has quite hit the high-water mark left by the King James Version.

 Once it became established in the Church of England, the King James Version also became a mainstay of Protestant Christianity in the English‑speaking world until more modern translations of the last century began to displace it in terms of usage. Even in the unlikely event that the King James Version were to go out of print someday, according to scholars the English language would still bulge with King James expressions like "the skin of my teeth," " a drop in the bucket," "my brother’s keeper" and "holier than thou." Today, almost 400 years after the publication of the Authorized Version of 1611, it remains the most-quoted version. Though modern translations might proliferate, none will so shape a language, mold a culture and change the world as the King James Version.

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