OV1 – The Bible’s origins, contents, and translations into other languages

© Jeff Stacey | Last updated:  7 August 2020

OV1(a)  What is in the Bible?

The Bible is divided into two parts called the “Old Testament” (OT) and “New Testament” (NT).  Although the Bible is a single book it is actually a collection or “library” of 66 separate “books”. 

The OT contains 39 of these books and is about 75% of the Bible.  It mainly refers to the formation and history of the ancient nations of Israel and Judah, in the times before the coming of Jesus Christ.  The NT contains 27 books and deals with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and of His followers during His lifetime and for the first generation afterwards.1

OV1(b)  Authors and original languages of the biblical books

Many authors were involved, some unknown.  There is also evidence of later editing and compiling of various books from prior historical sources, again by unknown persons and processes.  Two of the books (Psalms, Proverbs) are collections of separate writings.

The books were originally written in three languages.  The OT is in ancient Hebrew except for a few short passages in Aramaic (or “Chaldean”).  The NT is all in the common everyday Greek of the first century AD.

OV1(c)  Ancient manuscripts of the biblical books

The original manuscripts of the Bible’s books are known to have been authentic historical documents.  Those in the OT were written probably in the period 1400-250BC in various parts of the Middle East.  The NT books were written in about 45-90AD in the eastern Roman Empire.

Many ancient copies of the Bible books’ original manuscripts have survived as hand-written documents (“manuscripts”) on papyrus, parchment (skins) or paper.  The number of these still in existence is far greater than for any other ancient documents.

Over 6000 ancient copies still exist of parts or all of the OT books, both in Hebrew and translations into other languages.  The oldest copies of individual OT books in Hebrew are from about 70AD (the “Dead Sea Scrolls”).  Complete copies of the Hebrew OT (the “Masoretic Text”) exist from about 800AD.

More than 5000 ancient copies of parts or all of the NT books still exist, the oldest fragments being from about 130-180AD.  Complete copies of the Greek NT (the “Codex Sinaiticus” and “Codex Vaticanus”) are from about 400AD.

OV1(d) Accuracy of the ancient manuscripts

The original manuscripts were carefully copied by hand.  Then for centuries the copies were re-copied.  Meticulous methods for checking new copies were used, such as counting total numbers of characters.  Yet there are many minor variations in the wording of the surviving OT and NT manuscripts.  But the majority of these differences are not significant.  Most of them have been corrected using complex techniques (“textual criticism”) for dating and comparing earlier and later copies.

OV1(e)  Summary of origins

To summarise, the origins of the Bible were spread over different authors, locations and languages and a long period of time Jeremiah 36:1,2,  Hebrews 1:1.  Obviously the historical and cultural settings of the various writers differed greatly.  These are significant issues to be considered when interpreting each book.  It cannot just be assumed that the authors’ circumstances and ways of expressing their thoughts were all the same, or no different to our own.

OV1(f) Translation of the Bible into other languages

A major factor in understanding the Bible is that readers have to rely on translations into their own language [see CA7 and CA8].  Language translation always faces limitations in finding ways to exactly and fully transfer the meaning of the original language into the “receptor” language. There are often no equivalent words, the grammar is always different and even the form of writing may not be the same.

A basic issue is whether a translation should reproduce the “equivalent” meaning of words and sentence structures in the original languages? Or should the aim be to convey the meaning of the original language by using quite different words and sentence structures that are more “natural” in the translated language? Conflict often results between concerns for theological accuracy and the freedom of language used. This can become a debate about whether a Bible version is a “translation” or a “paraphrase”? Or is it “too literal”, or even “too free and inaccurate” and so distrusted?

OV1(g)  Early Bible translations

After about 300AD, Christianity spread further across the Roman empire around the Mediterranean, into areas where Greek and especially Hebrew were less known. Some translations of parts of the Bible were done into Egyptian (“Coptic”) and Syriac. Jerome took 20 years to produce a complete Bible in Latin (the “Vulgate”), which became the dominant version across Western Europe for over 1000 years. By 600AD there were hundreds of translations of Bible portions, including into Arabic and Chinese.

From 1300 to 1600AD there was a surge of Bible translations into Europen languages. A major factor was Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, ending 1000’s of years of handwritten copying. His first product was the Vulgate in 1456. By 1480 printed versions were completed in Italian, Dutch, Spanish and German. The huge difference was that copies of the Bible became widely available beyond church leaders only.

OV1(h)  Translations of the Bible into English

The first translations of the whole Bible into English were by John Wyclif (c.1380) and Miles Coverdale (1535).  

There are multiple English translations in use today.  The earliest of these is usually the King James (KJV) or Authorised (AV) Version, translated by 54 scholars and published in 1611.  Several revisions of the KJV were made, mainly the Revised Version (RV, 1881) and Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1901).  These were done to update the language and to take into account some older manuscripts that had been discovered more recently.  Since then there have been many further discoveries of ancient manuscripts and other modern translations into contemporary English.

There are obvious variations between different English Bibles. The translators have chosen different English words and sentences to try and transmit most accurately the meanings of the original languages.

So rather than argue about which is the “best” Bible version, it is usually more helpful to study a Bible passage in several versions, to get more aware of the range of meaning in the original.

I have generally assumed that the vast expert research involved in translating the Bible into English has produced versions that can be relied on for accuracy. Yet comparisons of different translations for words and verses that are hard to understand can still be required.

OV1(j) The New Living Translation (NLT) of the Bible in English

I have used the NLT (2007 revision) in the RefTagger windows throughout this project.2

The most widely used Bible version in English is now the New International Version (NIV, 1978, with later revisions published in 1984 and 2011).  The Preface to the NIV gives a summary of the breadth of viewpoints and church traditions of its more than 100 international translators.  It also outlines the vast amount of research they did, managed under a long and complex process of drafts and discussions that began in 1965.

Occasionally I have used the NIV or other translations for particular verses where they seem better than the NLT for what I am emphasising.

OV1(k) Massive increase in translating of the Bible into the languages of the whole world

Bible translating into other world languages expanded after 1800. This was due to the discovery and colonisation mostly by Europeans of other lands, with Christian missionaries taking the gospel to the indigenous peoples. This process increased dramatically after 1930 with the development of descriptive linguistics science. It is used for the recording, analysis and reduction to writing of indigenous languages. Then translation of the Bible is possible, along with production of other educational literature for the people.

The latest estimates of total world languages requiring a Bible translation are between 3500 and 3800. In 1999, Wycliffe Bible Translators launched “Vision 2025”. This aimed to coordinate all Bible translating to achieve the goal of commencing work by 2025 in all remaining languages (then about 1500, spoken by 170 million people). Strong acceleration has resulted, especially due to the increased use of information technology. Current estimates are that this goal can be achieved!

For example, in 1996 there existed translations into world languages of 308 full Bibles, 764 New Testaments and 1014 portions (total 2086). By 2019 these were increasing exponentially to totals of 698, 1548 and 1138 (total 3384).

Continue to OV2

FOOTNOTES

1.   The Douay-Rheims Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church contains 9 additional OT books, plus 5 additions to the OT books of Esther (1) and Daniel (4). These are known as “The Apocrypha”. They were mostly written later than the OT books, in the period from about 400BC to 100AD. Generally they are responses to the situations and issues faced by the Jewish people in those times. Protestant Bibles and the Jewish OT do not include these.

For further detailed background information about the OT and NT, see the separate articles Old Testament Background [OTB] and New Testament Background [NTB]. (Return to reading).

2. The “Note to Readers” in the front of the 2007 edition of the NLT states:

“The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, was first published in 1996. It quickly became one of the most popular Bible translations in the English speaking world. While the NLT’s influence was rapidly growing, the Bible Translation Committee determined that an additional investment in scholarly review and text refinement could make it even better. So shortly after its initial publication, the committee began an eight year process with the purpose of increasing the level of NLT’s precision without sacrificing it’s-easy-to-understand quality. This second-generation text was completed in 2004 . . . An additional update with minor changes was subsequently introduced in 2007.

The goal of any Bible translation is to convey the meaning and content of the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts as accurately as possible to contemporary readers. The resulting translation is easy to read and understand, while also accurately communicating the meaning and content of the original biblical texts . . . ” (Return to reading)

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