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THE BIBLE IN ENGLISH

Other articles have outlined the history of the manuscript sources of the Bible, which as actual documents go back as far as the second century BC for the Old Testament and the early second century AD for the New Testament. No other book from antiquity has anything like this wealth of written sources, it confirms very fully that the text we now have is a faithful and accurate reproduction of what the prophets and apostles originally wrote.

The good hand of God has ensured the preservation of all this evidence, and that hand may also be seen in three historical events of the Middle Ages which materially promoted the translation of the Bible into the everyday language of the common people in England and Western Europe. These were:

  • The fall of Constantinople in 1453, which led to the revival of learning in the West, and especially (in this context) to the spread of knowledge of Greek and Hebrew amongst scholars.
  • The invention of printing about the same time, by which books could be produced in multiple copies without the slow and labourious effort of hand copying with its inevitable risk of copyists errors.
  • The Reformation, which gave an enormous impetus towards the goal of translating both Testaments, so that ordinary people could compare what was spoken from the pulpit, with the inspired word of God.

Besides the English versions which are a notable feature of this period, Luther's German translation was published in 1522-34 and the first French versions in 1534-45; Spanish, Italian and Czech versions appeared some 70 years later.

THE EARLIEST VERSIONS

Certain translations of the Old Testament had, of course, been made centuries earlier, especially the Aramaic 'Targums' and the Greek 'Septuagint'; these were produced, to serve the Jewish communities in Palestine and in the dispersion respectively, for the large number of ordinary Jews who no longer spoke Hebrew. As Christianity spread, the need arose for versions in Syriac, Latin, Coptic and other languages in lands around the Mediterranean where apostolic teaching had penetrated. Notable among these was the Latin tongue, and with the growing supremacy of the Roman bishops it became - in Jerome's 'Vulgate' translation - the 'official' version throughout the Holy Roman Empire for over a millennium. However, after centuries of copying and recopying, the text of the Vulgate became very inaccurate, and although Latin remained the language of the Roman Catholic liturgy, it was meaningless to the common people when they heard it read in church. Such was the situation in the second half of the fourteenth century when the first complete Bible in English was published, the work of John Wycliffe and his followers.

THE BEGINNINGS OF THE ENGLISH BIBLE

There had indeed been earlier translations of small portions of the Bible into Old English (ie Anglo-Saxon), eg by King Alfred, but none of these has survived. Some of the earliest specimens are 'glosses' - interlinear insertions in copies of the Latin Psalter and Gospels. Wycliffe stands out as a man who acknowledged the sole authority of the Bible in matters of faith and practice, and he wished to give everyone access to the written Word of God. Unfortunately, because he did not know Hebrew or Greek, he had to work from the Latin Bible, with all its accumulated faults. His earlier edition, produced between 1380 and 1384, is extremely literal and 'word-for-word' with the Latin. A later Wycliffe version, believed to be the work of John Purvey, shows much more feeling for English idiom; it held the field until Tyndale's translation appeared, although it was strongly condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities, who imposed severe penalties on anyone caught circulating it.

THE WORK OF TYNDALE

The 'father' of the English Bible was William Tyndale. Filled with the same zeal as Wycliffe to put the Scriptures within reach of all, he nevertheless found it impossible to fulfil his purpose in England. He left for Hamburg in 1524 and in little over a year produced his first translation direct from Erasmus edition of the Greek New Testament. Several revisions followed up to 1534, together with portions of the Old Testament (direct from Hebrew) on which he was engaged until his death at the stake in Belgium two years later.

Tyndale's revised New Testament of 1534 has formed the basis of all subsequent revisions down to the Revised Standard Version of 1946. Nine tenths of Tyndale's language survives in the Authorised Version. and such changes as were later introduced (eg 'charity' for 'love', 'church' for 'congregation' ) are arguably for the worse.

In the years which followed Tyndale's death a number of translations based on his work were produced, including Coverdale's Bible (1535), Matthew's Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560) and the Bishops' Bible (1568). These last two were Calvinistic and Anglican respectively, and it was partly to heal the breach between these opposing parties that the idea of a new translation received the support of King James. The labours of four years resulted in the birth of the Authorised Version in 1611. It gradually won general approval over its main rival, the Geneva Bible, and reigned supreme for the next 250 years. Its beautiful and lofty English has become part and parcel of our literary heritage, and its influence on the lives of millions has been incalculable.

However, spoken language slowly but surely changes over the centuries and much of the wording and structure of the Authorised Version is archaic, if not alien, to English speakers of today unless they have been in close contact with it over many years. Further, its translators chose to render a large number of the original words in diverse ways in English, even with a confined context, thus effectively obscuring lines of reasoning plain enough in the Hebrew or Greek. [For example, compare 2Corinthians 3.18 and 4. 3 in the Authorised and Revised Versions, where the analogy of a veil runs through Paul's reasoning.]

In the latter half of the nineteenth century the study of the Greek Bible received a great impetus with the discovery and subsequent publication of several ancient codices such as the Coder Sinaiticus and the Coder Vaticanus. As a result, and in view of the defects of the Authorised Version just mentioned, a Revision Committee was set up in 1870,and produced the Revised Version of the New and Old Testaments in 1881 and 1885 respectively. The revision was undertaken in conjunction with an American committee, and a similar volume, known as the American Standard Version. incorporating their preferred renderings (they were less hidebound than their English colleagues) was published in 1901.

THE REVISED VERSION

The Revised Version of 1885 (or its American counterpart) is probably the most reliable of all official versions for the general reader. It is the most consistent in its translation, and is closest in its adherence to what prophet and apostle actually wrote. Most of its editions, like those of subsequent translations, are properly paragraphed, and the fragmentation of verse division has been kept to a minimum. The archaic language of the Authorised Version was not changed, however, except where the Rev ision Committee felt that a word had become completely obsolete.

Unfortunately the Revised Version was not received with much enthusiasm, mainly because it changed many well known and popular passages to more accurate or consistent, but less elegant, renderings, Over the next half century a number of private translators endeavoured to fill the gap - Darby, Rotherham, Weymouth, Moffatt, and others. During the same period further progress in Bible archaeology and languages, together with the more keenly felt archaisms of both Authorised and Revised Versions, induced scholars on both sides of the Atlantic to contemplate new translations. In America the National Council of Churches set up a committee in 1937 for a further revision of the American Standard Version, and the Revised Standard Version New Testament duly appeared in 1946, The Old Testament, published in 1952, included a few of the alternative readings of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Revised Standard Version has proved very popular for the general reader because of its dignified yet substantially current English, although it is not as consistent in its translation as the older Revised Version. In the Old Testament it adapts a good many readings of the Septuagint, Syriac and other ancient versions in preference to those of the traditional (Masoretic) Hebrew text and some of these may well be justified. What is less satisfactory is the not infrequent resort to corrections of the Hebrew text without manuscript authority; these ought rather to be called 'conjectures', and they detract from what otherwise would be a very acceptable version,

There is no inbuilt incompatibility between the use of modern literary English and faithfulness in translation. This is demonstrated by the New Jewish Version of the Old Testament based on the traditional Hebrew text, which the Jewish Publication Society of America issued in one volume in 1985. In a smaller area E. V. Rieu's translation of the four gospels (in the Penguin Classics) achieves the same success. But when the more recent versions of the whole Bible are studied, viz, the Jerusalem Bible (1966) and the New English Bible (1970) the indisputable modernity of the language is unfortunately offset by a 'reconstruction' of the text in various passages of the Old Testament. Another regrettable feature is the transposition of lines, verses and even groups of verses on a purely subjective basis (following the lead of Moffatt fifty years previously). For example, in the New English Bible, Isaiah chapter 5. 24, 25 is inserted between verses 4 and 5 of chapter 10; Job chapter 41.1-6 appears after chapter 39.30; there is no manuscript evidence whatever for introducing such changes. One has therefore to read the Old Testament portions of these new translations with a great deal of caution. and preferably with the Revised Version (or American Standard Version) at hand to check doubtful renderings.

THE GOOD NEWS BIBLE

Another version which has become very popular in recent years is the Good News Bible which, in its New Testament section, first appeared as Today's English Version in 1966. It is a Bible Society publication, and there are similar up-to-date versions in French (Bonnes Nouvelles Aujourd'hui). German (Die Gute Nachricht) and other languages. The translators' aim in each case was to produce a simple text, avoiding as far as possible stereotyped religious language, and using paraphrases whenever the original was repetitive or unclear to the lay reader. An unfortunate result of this latter policy has been the loss on occasions of important detail. [ For example, in Luke 1. 32, when the angel told Mary about the son she would bear: "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David", the Good News Bible reads: 'The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was'. This falls short of the angel's specific promise and its Old Testament foundations, eg in Isaiah 9. 7, Jeremiah 33. 17-20; Psalm 89. 3, 4.]

Of course, for well over a century now the various Bible Societies have been promoting the translation of the Scriptures into more and more of the world's great variety of languages. These range from the eleven major tongues of India, each with their many millions of speakers, to small and isolated pockets in Africa and South America, some with only a few hundred speaking a common language. For many peoples, however, it is not a question of lack of translation but rather of access to the printed word, whether through illiteracy or political and religious factors.

THE NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION

Finally, in 1978 another major translation, the New International Version, was published in the USA by the New York International Bible Society and in Britain the following year. It is in general a very attractive production in contemporary yet dignified English. There is, however. in the New Testament a strong Trinitarian bias which the reader needs to watch for.

What version, then, should the serious reader rely on? For general reading the Revised Standard Version and the New International Version have much to commend them. For serious study, however, one must still resort to the Revised Version or the American Standard Version, or to one or more of the older private' versions such as Rotherham's 'Emphasized Bible' or J. N. Darby's 'New Translation', which were painstakingly produced by men with a wholesome respect for the written text. By using our discrimination in this way, God's revelation to man can be learned and appreciated in all its beauty, and His will understood and applied in our daily lives.

It should be stressed, however, that knowledge of the 'first principles' of Bible truth, which are essential to salvation, can be learned from virtually any translation. These first principles are repeated, emphasised and illustrated so frequently throughout the Bible that the conscientious reader cannot fail to take note of them.