Translating the Bible

IN THE FOURTH year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, these words were given to Jeremiah, from the Lord:

‘Take thee a roll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken unto thee against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations…It may be that the house of Judah will hear…that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin’ (Jeremiah 36.2,3).

Jeremiah tells us that on this occasion he actually dictated to Baruch his scribe and he wrote with a pen and ink on the scroll. The Apostle Paul dictated his letters and often there is a paragraph at the end where Paul writes his closing message himself:

‘The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand…My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen’ (I Corinthians 16. 21,24).


At one time critics would say the Bible could not have been written when it claims to have been, because writing was not known so long ago. A visit to any of the major museums in the world now shows that writing has been known, certainly from much earlier than the time of Abraham. Excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia, where Abraham came from, have unearthed libraries of clay tablets, as well as bank records, trading accounts and hire purchase agreements. Writing consisted of wedge shaped characters made in clay with a shaped stick or pen. Records required for a limited time were dried to make the tablets hard. Permanent records were baked even harder.

At the time when Moses lived in Egypt, writing was on papyrus with pen and ink. Records have survived on sheets made from the papyrus reed, scraped, soaked and laid criss-cross, pressed and dried. The natural gum made a good writing surface. There are many wonderful examples of the priestly, hieroglyphic, picture writing in the British Museum in London as well as of the everyday, simpler script.

Other permanent writing materials were parchment – scraped, stretched and dried skin – and vellum, a much finer material made from the stretched animal intestine. Ink was made from finely ground charcoal in a thin gum or egg white. Scrolls were made from sheets of parchment sewn together and could become very bulky; so when lengthy records had to be kept, successive scrolls were numbered. That is why in our Bibles we have the First and Second Books of Kings (1 and 2 Kings) and the First and Second Books of Chronicles (1 and 2 Chronicles).

If a book was important – and the sacred books (rolls) of the Jews were important – they would be copied with great care so that they could be read by more people in different places. In New Testament times, the letters to various groups of Christians were copied and passed to other groups: ‘After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea’ (Colossians 4.16 NIV).

The difficulty is that Jeremiah, like all the Old Testament writers, wrote in Hebrew, and Paul wrote in Greek – as did the other New Testament writers. For us to be able to read the Bible in our own language is a real blessing. Many people over a long period of time, were involved in making this possible.


When Egypt was part of the Greek Empire, around 250 BC, the Emperor Ptolemy Philadelphus established an important library at Alexandria. His aim was to collect a copy of every important book, wherever in the empire it came from. Josephus, the Jewish historian describes the way in which the sacred books of the Jews were included in the library:

‘Demetrius Phalerius, who was library-keeper to the king, was now endeavouring, if it were possible, to gather together all the books that were in the habitable earth, and buying whatsoever was anywhere valuable, or agreeable to the king’s inclination, (who was very earnestly set upon collecting of books;) to which inclination of his, Demetrius was zealously subservient.’ (‘Antiquities of the Jews’ Josephus; Book XII, Chapter 2, Para.1).

This is so similar to accounts of the efforts of those who work for modern wealthy collectors! We can understand, too, how ‘zealously subservient’ Demetrius was. His life as well as his livelihood might depend upon how well he did. He was commanded to get in touch with the Jewish leaders in Israel to arrange for a translation of the Jewish Scriptures to be made. He wrote to the High Priest who, Josephus tells us, wrote the following reply:

‘It is not fit for us, O king, or to overlook things hastily, or to deceive ourselves, but to lay the truth open: for since we have determined not only to get the laws of the Jews translated, but interpreted also for thy satisfaction, by what means can we do this when so many of the Jews are now slaves in thy kingdom?’ (‘Antiquities of the Jews’ Josephus; Book XII, Chapter 2, Para. 2).

In other words, the High Priest was saying that they could work with much more enthusiasm if something could be done to deal with the ongoing problem of the number of Jewish political prisoners still being held. He did not say the work could not be done; the arrangements were already being made, but such was the keenness of the Emperor to obtain the Jewish Scriptures in Greek, that tradition has it that he agreed to 100,000 Jews being released.

Six Greek and Hebrew scholars were selected from each of the twelve tribes of Israel and because, tradition has it, that eventually 72 took part in the work, this important translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek became known as the Septuagint Version. When the work was finished, Josephus wrote:

‘When the labour of interpretation was over… Demetrius gathered all the Jews together to the place where the laws were translated, and where the interpreters were, and read them over. The multitude did also approve of those elders that were the interpreters of the law. They withal commended Demetrius for his proposal, as the inventor of what was greatly for their happiness… Moreover they all, both the priests and the ancientest of the elders, and the principal men of their commonwealth, made it their request, that since the interpretation was happily finished, it might continue in the state it now was, and might not be altered.’ (‘Antiquities of the Jews’ Josephus; Book XII, Chapter 2, Para. 13).


In New Testament times copies of the Old Testament books were available in the synagogues in Hebrew but copies of the Septuagint translation of the books of the Old Testament into Greek were also available. Although the Greek Empire had now been succeeded by the Roman Empire, the language of the educated for official purposes was still Greek. The language of the Jewish synagogue was Hebrew but the language of the home and the street was Aramaic (or a mixture of Aramaic and Latin).

On one occasion when Paul had been arrested he was about to be taken into the Roman barracks by the soldiers and he said to the commander, ‘May I say something to you?’ The commander immediately replied, ‘Do you speak Greek?’ He thought that Paul was an Egyptian terrorist that had started a revolt sometime earlier. Paul asked permission to address the crowd, and he stood on the steps and ‘When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defence”. When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet’ (Acts 21.37–40; 22.1,2 NIV).

The use of both Greek and Hebrew is very helpful to our understanding of the Old Testament. When quotations are made from the Old Testament by the New Testament writers, because the New Testament was written in Greek, it is usually the Septuagint Old Testament that is quoted.

Luke tells us that Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and he was given the roll of Isaiah to read. He found chapter 61 and read: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted’ (Luke 4.18).

Jesus would have been given the roll written in Hebrew but because Luke is writing in Greek, he makes the quotation from the Greek Septuagint version. If we compare this with Isaiah chapter 61 in our Old Testament, we read, ‘The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek’ (Isaiah 61.1).

You may have noticed that the New Testament (NT) reading from Luke has the word ‘gospel’ whereas the Old Testament rendering is ‘good tidings’ (or good news). The difference is because Jesus is quoting from the OT (Old Testament) book of Isaiah. Although we read both OT and NT in English, the quotation in Luke has been translated twice: from Hebrew to Greek to English. However, this reminds us that the meaning of ‘gospel’ is ‘good news’ and if you look at a translation into more modern English like the NIV (New International Version), that is exactly what it says, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’ (Luke 4.18 NIV).


The example above is a simple one that confirms the meaning of a word with which we were probably already familiar – the word ‘gospel’. Sometimes the value of a translation made before the time of Jesus is much more important. Isaiah foretold that when the Saviour came, he would be born of a virgin:

‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7. 14).

Bible critics have said that the word that Isaiah used and which is translated virgin, really only means a young woman, so the prophecy does not have the special significance that Christians claim. It is true that the word in Hebrew translated virgin can also mean a young woman. But what did it mean when Isaiah made that prophetic statement?

When Jewish scholars 250 years before the time of Christ were translating the Prophecy of Isaiah into Greek, they used a Greek word which could only mean ‘a virgin’. Two and a half centuries before the time of Christ, the Jews themselves understood Isaiah to have prophesied that the Messiah when he came, would be born miraculously of a virgin.

The inspired NT writer Matthew, leaves us in no doubt about the accuracy of the prophecy:

‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us”’ (Matthew 1. 22,23 NIV).


Up to the early centuries after Christ, the Old Testament manuscripts in Hebrew had been copied and copied for generations. The originals were no longer in existence but great care was taken in the copying and every manuscript was checked and rechecked. Because the books were sacred to the Jews, every letter of the text was counted before any copy was regarded as authoritative. The Greek translation was also available and many copies of this had been made too.

The New Testament manuscripts written in Greek were also being copied. As Christianity spread, so the copies were taken all over the Roman world. But, language was also changing. Latin was now the language of the Roman Empire and fewer and fewer people could read Greek. Because of this, a monk called Jerome made it his life’s work to translate the Bible – both Old and New Testaments into Latin. His translation was called the ‘Vulgate’. The English word ‘vulgar’ really means common or ordinary and the Vulgate was the Bible in the common or ordinary language – the language of the people. It was the Vulgate that was to be the Bible of Christianity for many centuries.

It was this Bible, which came with Augustine to bring Christianity to the British Isles; it was the Vulgate which went with Christianity to Spain, to North Africa and to other parts of the world. Sadly, with the break up of the Roman Empire, fewer could read the Bible for themselves. Latin was no longer spoken and they had to rely on priests and missionaries to explain what the Bible taught and often their teaching was biased.


As the years went by the cycle of change repeated itself. When Greek was spoken, the Hebrew Old Testament could not be read by people who did not understand Hebrew.

Under God’s good hand the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek (see chart opposite). In the early centuries of the Christian era, the official language of the Roman Empire was Latin and so the work of Jerome was essential in enabling both Old and New Testaments to be read.

As has already been explained, it was the Latin Vulgate that came with Christianity to Britain with Augustine in AD 597 – but people in England did not speak Latin so the work of translation had to continue. The next article in this series traces how the Bible was translated into English.