It is hard to believe that just over a century ago, there was only one popular English translation of the Bible. But walk into a Christian bookstore today, and there are dozens of versions and translations from which to choose.
Bible translations are not a modern invention. In the third century B.C., Jews translated the Scripture from the original Hebrew into the language of the people of Alexandria, a Greek-speaking city. These Greek-speaking Jews could no longer read Hebrew, so reading and understanding the Word of God became impossible.
Following the command of Christ, early Christians fulfilled the Great Commission by taking the Word of God to the nations, translating the Scripture into many languages, including Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Egyptian, Coptic, and many more. Christians understood the importance of reading and understanding the Scripture in their native language.
Under the influence of the Roman Empire, Latin emerged as the common language for Bible translation. After Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin in 382 A.D., priests and prelates for centuries limited translation to Latin and restricted its use for the clergy, leaving most people without access to the Bible.
English translation began under the study of John Wycliffe, a professor at Oxford University. Just before his death in 1384, he published a literal translation based on Jerome’s Latin Bible, the “Vulgate.” Because of his work as a Bible translator, Wycliffe was denounced a heretic, his body was exhumed and burned, his ashes cast into a river, and his translation and many of its copies burned.
But threat of death and flame would not stop Christians from translating the Scripture into the language of the people. William Tyndale (1492-1536), who studied at Oxford and Cambridge, became a professor at Cambridge University and translated the Scripture from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Tyndale, like the German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), desired to translate the Bible into the common language of Christians.
From Tyndale’s translation flowed the basis for English translations for over 400 years. To this day, English translations are affected by the work of Tyndale, including the King James Version and the American Standard Version and its successors (RSV, NASB, NAU, NRSV, ESV).
Until the middle of the 20th century Bible translations operated under the singular goal of literal word-for-word translation, rendering the words of the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) from the text of Scripture into the language of the people, insofar as the new language allowed the translation.
During the mid-20th century, a new era in Bible translation began. Under the influence of modern linguistics and cultural anthropology, Bible versions multiplied, applying new principles of language science to the process of translation.
Missionaries worked with translators to develop texts that could be used when working with unreached people groups, resulting in thousands of translations of the Scripture. Translation into tribal languages brought extra challenges, such as transforming the language of the original Hebrew and Greek into very different grammatical/syntactical systems employed by the biblical authors.
In the last half of the 20th century, Bible translators differed with each other as to the best way to render the ancient biblical text into contemporary language. Translation principles developed and conservative scholars were chosen to develop new translations into contemporary English.
Modern versions of the Bible pursue one of two philosophies of translation, known by the technica