English Translations

THE ANGLO-SAXON spoken by the people of Britain was very different from the English spoken today, but the Bible was needed in Anglo-Saxon. By AD 709 Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherbourne, had translated many of the Psalms into West Saxon and 25 years later the Venerable Bede translated the Gospel of John. King Alfred who many people only know about, because of the story about him burning the cakes, translated a number of the Psalms in the early part of the 10th century AD.

History was moving on and so was the language of the people. 1066 was the date of the Norman invasion of England and the language was now being changed by its mixing with Norman French. No more Saxon translations appeared but the foundations of our modern English Bible were being laid. John Wycliffe was Master of Baliol College, Oxford. He resigned from this post and became priest of Lutterworth and by the year of his death in 1384 he had completed his life’s work of translating the whole of the Bible from Latin into English with the help of a group of faithful followers. This Bible was hand-written and it would have taken about 10 months for a written copy to be made. So although the Bible was being made available in the language of the people, it was not freely available.


The extent to which people understood the teaching of the Bible was under the control of the priests who could quote from the Latin text and could not be contradicted. However, two great developments meant great changes in the Bible translation story.

Firstly, more Bible manuscripts were coming to light and scholars were able to study the Bible not only in Latin, but by looking at copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew and of both Testaments in Greek. These could be compared with translations into Saxon but the authority of the church still limited the access that ordinary people had to the Word of God.

This was altered by the second great change. The development of printing meant that once the type had been set up, copies could be made available in great numbers instead of it taking nearly a year to copy the Bible by hand. By the end of the 15th century Bibles were being produced in French, German, Italian and Spanish and in 1530 the first printed Bible in English appeared. This was the work of William Tyndale, whose aim was to make the Bible widely available so that even a ploughboy could read it.

William Tyndale said that if God spared his life, before many years he would cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than did the Pope.

His work was not approved by the clergy who saw their authority being eroded. Tyndale’s copies of the New Testament were confiscated and burnt at the instigation of the Bishop of London. However, as the copies were taken, so more were printed on the continent and smuggled into this country. Eventually, Tyndale himself was betrayed, arrested and tried for teaching that people could learn the Gospel themselves from the Bible and he was burnt at the stake on 6th October 1536.

Se that ye gaddre not treasure vpon the erth, where rust and mothes corrupte, and where theves breake through and steale. But gaddre ye treasure togeder in heven, where nether rust nor mothes corrupte, and where theves nether brek up not yet steale. For where soever youre treasure ys, there will youre hertes be also. The light of the body ys thyne eye. Wherefore yf thyne eye besyngle, all thy body shalbe full of light. But and yf thyne eye be wycked then all thy body shalbe full of darckenes. Wherefore yf the light that is in the, be darckenes: how greate is that darckenes. (Matthew 6.19-23 Tyndale’s translation)


Deciderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam in 1466. He was a scholar and a reformer who worked for many years in England and was Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He published an important Greek text of the New Testament with his own translation into Latin. He could not understand why the church spent so much time studying the supposed miracles of those they called saints and ignored the wonders of God’s plan of salvation (‘In Praise of Folly’). Erasmus influenced Martin Luther and provided a basis for the work of Tyndale (see page 22).

‘I wish the sacred Scriptures were translated into all languages of all people, that they might be read and known, not merely by the Scots and Irish, but even by the Turks and Saracens. I wish that the husbandman may sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, and that the traveller may with his narratives lighten the weariness of the way.’

If you look at the quotation opposite from Tyndale’s English translation you will see that language is still changing. This is not the language that we speak today. There was also another problem. Bibles being translated by Protestant scholars often had footnotes which were anti-Roman Catholic. So when the Old Testament records the time when the people were told that there was no need to bring any more gifts because there was enough for the work of building (Exodus 36.6,7), a footnote in one Bible says, ‘When will the pope stay “Stop” and prevent people still bringing gifts to build St. Peter’s?’ The Catholic scholars put anti-protestant footnotes in their Bibles.

There were arguments about the footnotes and there were arguments about which was the best translation. In 1604 a conference was held at Hampton Court Palace that resulted in King James ordering a new translation to be made:

‘In the Geneva translation some notes are partial, untrue, seditious and savouring of a traitorous conceit. To conclude the point, let errors of matters of faith be amended and indifferent things be interpreted and a gloss be added unto them’


In 1611 the King James ‘authorised version’ was produced. 47 scholars in six groups met at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster. The title page says that it was:

‘Translated out of the Original Tongues (so the scholars went back to copies of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures) and with the former Translations diligently compared and revised by His Majesty’s special command.’

Language was still changing, as those of our readers who studied Shakespeare at school will know very well. For example, ‘To prevent’ now means to stop something happening. The English word comes from the Norman French ‘pre’ and ‘venir’ (to come) so at the time of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version ‘to prevent’ meant ‘to come before’.

Paul wrote (as translated in the AV) that when Jesus returns, those that are alive will not prevent those that are dead (I Thessalonians 4.15). He did not mean that those who are alive will not stop those who are dead. He meant that they will not ‘come before’, or have any advantage over those who are dead – because when Christ comes, ‘The dead in Christ shall rise first’ (verse 16). The New International Version translates the verse:

‘We tell you that we who are now alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep; For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first’ (I Thessalonians 4. 15,16 NIV).


Many other words have changed their meaning and the ‘old’ verb endings (‘cometh’ instead of ‘comes’) and the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in the Authorised Version make the language of the text unfamiliar. (Note: there is a difference between saying the language is unfamiliar and criticising the translation itself).

However, towards the end of the 19th century it was felt desirable to produce the Revised Version. The whole Bible was issued in 1885 although the New Testament was available earlier. So there has been a continuous effort in the last hundred years to make sure that the Bible is available in a language that is accessible to everyone. Some translations have been more successful at achieving this aim than others.

The New English Bible was conceived in the 1940s as a new translation from the original languages into the best contemporary English and was completed in 1970. A tremendous amount of work went into consulting not only language experts, but historians, geographers and archaeologists so that decisions could be made as to whether the word for a place should be translated as ‘town’ or ‘village’, for example. The translation was hailed as authoritative and good, but the text sadly, soon became dated. For example we read in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus is ‘The effulgence of God’s splendour and the stamp of God’s very being’. (Hebrews 1.3 NEB) Did we use the word ‘effulgence’ in 1970? The AV of 1611 translates the same verse: ‘Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person.’

In the last 35 years the New International Version, The New King James Version, The Good News Bible, among a number of others – have been produced by teams of scholars, checking and re-checking each others’ work. In addition there have been a number of ‘one man’ translations. All have their supporters. All have various strengths and weaknesses as far as being translations into the language or the ordinary people.

What is important as far as the Bible student is concerned, is that we are able to hold in our hands a book which brings before us the mind of God himself. If we can read, we can be transported into events which demonstrate the unfolding of the purpose of God. We can be brought close to teaching that can change our lives. We can find the way of salvation and have the opportunity of learning the true Gospel message and eventually receive the gift of eternal life.

We can have all this by reading the Bible in our own language and by following its teaching. No minor blemishes of an imperfect translation can prevent this, whichever of the standard translations we read. Can we be sure of this?

Teach me, O Lord, the meaning of your laws,
and I will obey them at all times.
Explain your law to me and I will obey it:
I will keep it with all my heart.
Keep me obedient to your commandments,
because in them I find happiness.
Keep me from paying attention to what is worthless:
be good to me as you have promised.
Keep your promise to me, your servant –
the promise you make to those who obey you.
(Psalm 119. 33–35,37,38 NIV)


Can we be sure that we hold in our hands a book which can convey to us the mind of the Almighty? We will look at just one criticism of the reliability of the Bible in English. It has been said that if you look at the early history of the Bible – not just in the centuries immediately before the invention of printing – but in the hundreds of years that followed the writing of the original manuscripts, because those manuscripts were copied and copied and copied, mistakes must have been made. Once printing was invented, the translations and versions were ‘static’ in a sense, but before that…? There are two main arguments (among others), which refute this criticism.

1. The Samaritan Pentateuch

When the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, they completely evacuated the centre of the land and brought in remnants of other nations they had conquered. They were allowed to occupy the land and take over the deserted farms, but this block of foreigners would prevent the southern kingdom of Judah uniting with the remains of Israel and causing trouble for Assyria. This worked well as a political strategy. The foreigners became a separate entity with Samaria as their capital and centuries after, at the time of Christ, it was still said that the ‘Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’ (John 4.9).

However, when the foreigners first came into the land they felt that they would only prosper if they adopted the gods of the land. They obtained copies of the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures called the Pentateuch (See the first article in this series – Volume 18.8). For hundreds of years, with no contact with the Jews, they preserved and copied and recopied these manuscripts, and adopted many of the religious practices of the Jews.

If the copies of the copies of the copies of the Jewish Pentateuch had gradually included mistakes (and presumably the Samaritans might even be expected to have been less careful!), then, after a long period of time the Samaritan and Jewish Pentateuchs would have a number of significant differences. A number of important Jewish and Samaritan manuscripts have been discovered. They can be compared, and such was the carefulness of the copyists (under divine providence), that the critics cannot argue that the early documents are unreliable.

2. The Dead Sea Scrolls.

The story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is well known (‘LIGHT on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ can be obtained free from LIGHT Bible Publications). Among the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 at Qumran are parts of most of the Old Testament scrolls as well as some complete scrolls. The complete roll of Isaiah is probably the most famous and received the greatest publicity.

The Scrolls from Qumran date from well before the time of Christ and as far as Isaiah is concerned it jumps back a thousand years earlier than the oldest Hebrew manuscript of the prophecy then available. It suddenly became possible to compare copies of Isaiah a thousand years apart. If there were errors of copying it would immediately be apparent.

This is why the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was so important (as well as being fascinating and faith stimulating). There can be no doubt that when we open our copies of the Bible and read what Isaiah has written – in our English language – we are reading, as closely as we can get, the thoughts and ideas that Isaiah wrote when he first penned them, words inspired by God. It was Isaiah who wrote, ‘To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isaiah 8. 2).

It was Isaiah who describes so vividly the kingdom that Jesus will establish when he returns. It is the inspired prophet Isaiah who foretold the first coming of Jesus as the Saviour (Isaiah 53). It is Isaiah who reminds us that when man was unable to save, God’s arm brought salvation (Isaiah 59.15–16, 20).

We wrote earlier – but we can now repeat it without fear of contradiction – that we are able to hold the Bible in our hands, a book which brings before us the mind of God himself. If we can read, we can be transported into events which demonstrate the unfolding of the purpose of God. We can be brought close to teaching that can change our lives. We can find the way of salvation and have the opportunity of learning the true Gospel message and eventually receive the gift of eternal life.

Preface by the Translators to the King James Version AD 1611

‘How shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? Translation it is that openeth the windows and letteth in the light, that breaketh the shell that we may eat the kernel, that pulleth aside the curtain that we may look into the Holy Place, that removeth the cover of the well that we may come by water’