There is evidence of Christianity in the British Isles as early as the late second century. For the next 1,000 years, missionaries and teachers translated bits and pieces of the Bible into the language of the people for teaching purposes, but there was no concerted effort to translate the whole Bible. Latin was the language of the church, and the few whole Bibles that did exist were handwritten in Latin and would have been inaccessible to the average person, even if he could read.
John Wycliffe (1329—1384) was the first person to oversee a translation of the entire Bible into English (NT in 1380, OT in 1382). Wycliffe was educated at Oxford and became a lecturer there. A scholar as well as a pastor, he saw the need for people to be able to read the Bible in their own language. He also spoke out against corruption in the church, drew the ire of Rome, and was forced from his post. His Middle English translation was of the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the church. After Wycliffe’s death, some of his associates revised the translation and were condemned by the church and burned at the stake for their efforts. At the Council of Constance (1414—1418), Jan Hus, one of Wycliffe’s followers, was condemned as a heretic and martyred; Wycliffe was also condemned posthumously, and his bones were exhumed and burned.
During the next 100 years, the English Bible saw tremendous advances, as scholars gained access to Hebrew and Greek versions of the Bible and the Protestant Reformation began. The printing press became commercially available. Protestant scholars saw the benefit of working from the original languages instead of Latin. William Tyndale (1494—1536), spurred by the Reformation, translated the New Testament from Greek manuscripts and began work on the Old Testament from Hebrew. This effort was radical enough, but Tyndale also included marginal notes that were often very critical of church practices. Eventually, Tyndale was condemned and burned at the stake. His last words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
Miles Coverdale (1488—1569) was a Reformer who had to flee England when Henry VIII was still sympathetic to the Roman Catholic Church. In exile, Coverdale continued the work of Tyndale by revising his existing work and finishing the Old Testament. Henry VIII soon broke from the Catholic Church for personal and political (not religious or spiritual) reasons and declared himself to be head of the Church of England. Coverdale finished his translation work and dedicated it to the king. The dedication, as well as the idea that an English translation of the Bible would help to permanently separate the Church of England from the power of Rome, seems to have been an answer to William Tyndale’s prayer at the stake, and Henry VIII embraced the idea.
John Rogers also translated the Bible into English. He was an associate of Tyndale who, like Coverdale, used Tyndale’s work as the basis for his translation. (John Rogers took on the name Thomas Matthew, so his translation is known as the Matthew Bible.) Both the Coverdale Bible and the Matthew Bible were well-received in England and officially made legal.
In 1534, Miles Coverdale was asked to supervise a new, formally sanctioned translation of the Bible to be placed in every church in England. It became known as the Great Bible because of its large size (16½ inches by 11 inches). Toward the end of Henry’s reign, there was a strong reaction against the Reformation, and Coverdale’s and Tyndale’s translations were forbidden and burned; however, the Great Bible was still available in churches. When Henry’s son Edward came to the throne, this trend was reversed. Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s Bibles were reprinted, and several other translations of minor significance became available, as well.
Upon Edward’s death, his sister Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) ascended to the throne and reversed her brother’s policies. She executed several people associated with English Bible translations, including John Rogers. Coverdale escaped by fleeing to Europe. However, the Great Bible was left in the churches. Many English Reformers and Bible scholars found a home in Geneva, the city of John Calvin. There, they produced another English translation, the Geneva Bible, which contained explanatory notes that promoted Calvinism. This was the Bible that the Pilgrims brought with them to the New World. When Mary died, her sister Elizabeth I came to power and reversed her sister’s anti-Protestant policies.
The Geneva Bible became popular, and, although scholars recognized it as a superior translation, it was never officially sanctioned because of its marginal notes. Elizabeth called for a new official translation without controversial notes. The archbishop of Canterbury was to oversee a revision of the Great Bible, with other bishops contributing. This Bible became known as the Bishop’s Bible, but it never replaced the Geneva Bible in popularity.
By this time the Roman Catholic Church had surrendered to the inevitability of an English translation of the Bible, so a new translation favorable to Catholic doctrine was produced. This was called the Douay-Rheims translation, after the two cities where the majority of work on it was conducted.
With all of the notes in Bible translations and the production of a Catholic version that at times was more concerned about preserving Catholic teaching than providing an accurate rendering of the text (see the examples noted by Wegner, The Journey from Test to Translation: The Origin and Development of the Bible, Baker, 2004, p. 305), there arose a need for a Bible translation that would be universally recognized in the English-speaking world for its scholarship, accuracy, literary beauty, and readability without partisan explanatory notes. This translation was sanctioned by King James I, who ascended to the throne of England after Elizabeth’s death.
King James appointed about 50 leading scholars, both Anglican and Puritan, to produce the new translation. Translators used the best available Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and considered previous translations, as well. They worked in small teams to produce translations of smaller portions, and then their work was scrutinized by other teams.
The result was the Authorized Version of 1611, known today as the King James Version. This was the Bible of the English-speaking world for the next 250 years and is still very popular today. The King James Version has undergone several updates and revisions throughout the years. The one that is commonly used today is the Oxford Standard Edition of 1769 (see Wegner, p. 314).
By the late 1800s, there had been a tremendous number of discoveries of new manuscripts, plus, the English language had changed quite a bit. Over the next 150 years, there have been a tremendous number of new translations or revisions of older ones that have attempted to incorporate the latest biblical scholarship while updating the language to make the Bible more accessible. Some of the major ones are discussed below:
The Revised Version (NT 1881, entire Bible 1885) was a revision of the Authorized Version completed by English and American scholars. However, it never replaced the Authorized (King James) Version. From this work, the American scholars who worked on the Revised Version published the American Standard Version of 1901, in American rather than British English. It was considered to be an excellent translation and was well-received, but it still did not replace the King James Version in popularity.
The Revised Standard Version (NT 1946, entire Bible 1952) was a revision of the American Standard Version. It eventually included the Apocrypha (1957) in an attempt to make it acceptable to Catholics as well as Protestants. However, it was largely rejected by evangelical Protestants because of what many felt were the liberal theological tendencies of its translators and the fact that the National Council of Churches held the copyright.
In 1971, the Lockman Foundation released the New American Standard Bible, an update of the American Standard Version of 1901. For several decades it was the favorite of Bible students.
By this time, there had developed a division among scholars, some preferring what is called the eclectic text of the New Testament, which considered all of the recent discoveries of biblical manuscripts and attempted to weigh and prioritize them; and those who preferred the “received text” or the Textus Receptus, which represents the majority of the manuscript evidence and was largely the basis for the King James Version. The modern versions mentioned above are all based on the eclectic text. In 1979 (NT) and 1982 (whole Bible), the New King James Version was released as an attempt to update the language of the KJV while still basing the translation on the received text.
All of the translations mentioned above would fall into the category of “literal” translations that attempt to stick as closely as possible to the Greek and Hebrew texts, while still being readable English. However, in recent years more versions have become available that are considered “dynamic” translations. The primary goal of these translations is to make the Bible understandable and readable in English, even if the wording and literary structures of the original languages have to be abandoned. In addition to translations done by teams of scholars, there are paraphrases or translations done by single authors. The most well-known paraphrases are The Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor and The Message by Eugene Peterson.
The Good News Bible, also known as Today’s English Version, was released in 1966 (NT), and 1976 (the entire Bible). The goal of this new translation was to be simple and readable and avoid technical terms. The GNB was made available at low cost in inexpensive paperback editions, and it became very popular. (It was also illustrated by simple line drawings.) Its strength is its simplicity, which is also a weakness, as some difficult concepts in Scripture can be minimized when the goal of the translation is simplicity.
The New International Version was released in 1978 (NT in 1973) to fill a need for a dynamic, accurate English translation. It was sponsored in part by the National Association of Evangelicals and the International Bible Society. This version quickly became popular and remains so to this day.
In 1996, the New Living Translation was released. The NLT was a serious translation, the work of over about 90 scholars, but sanctioned by Kenneth Taylor, who wrote The Living Bible paraphrase. The goal was to keep the readability and clarity of Taylor’s original work but to be an all-new translation based on the Greek and Hebrew. It became popular at first but has never rivaled the NIV as the dynamic translation of choice.
The English Standard Version was released in 2001 as an “essentially literal” translation that attempts to be highly readable. It has become a favorite with Bible readers who want a translation more literal than the NIV and more readable than the NASB.
Most of the versions mentioned so far have gone through numerous revisions and updates to correct minor errors and to update the language. The New English Translation or NET Bible is an internet-based translation with numerous translational notes and the capacity to be updated continually.
Every serious Bible translation is a human work that can be improved upon and is, at the same time, the authoritative Word of God. Today, English readers have more options than ever when it comes to Bible translations, and almost all of them are available online at no cost. For those who cannot read the original languages, we suggest reading several translations side-by-side to get a better understanding of the text. In certain places, the translations may differ in meaning, and these are places that deserve further study. For study, we would recommend the NIV, NASB, ESV, and KJV or NKJV. For rapid reading or daily reading (rather than in-depth study), any one of the other versions might be helpful.
With the plethora of English Bible translations, there has also been an explosion in study Bibles. Study Bibles contain the text of the Bible in one of the various translations along with explanatory notes. Some of them are based on the teaching of a single individual (e.g., the MacArthur Study Bible and the Swindoll Study Bible), and others are based on notes from a team of scholars, often from a particular theological perspective (e.g., the Reformation Study Bible). Some have a particular area of interest, such as the Apologetics Study Bible or the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. The notes in these Bibles are not the inspired text but may (or may not) be helpful. Some study Bibles simply attempt to help the reader understand the text, while others appeal to certain demographics of Bible readers. Consequently, there are study Bibles geared for children, teens, singles, couples, men, women, students, small groups, etc.
The English Bibles we have today came to us at great cost. Many men lost their lives in their attempt to produce and distribute the Bible in English. Others spent a great deal of money to buy or even rent a Bible. Today, most English-speaking Christians have multiple copies and versions available in book form, and there are many more versions available online. Is it possible that we have come to take the English Bible for granted?