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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Historical Survey of Translations

Oxford University Press.

The Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford.

Owing to the huge number of translations produced over the last 100 years, it is impossible here to comment upon each of them, or even to mention them all. Nevertheless, an intriguing narrative can be recounted of the history and development of English Bible translation over the last century, beginning with the English Revised Version and American Standard Version, and ending with the Contemporary English Version. The story is one filled with agreements and some serious disagreements, even disputes, the influence of powerful personalities and strongly held convictions, the commendatory work of numerous translation committees and the perhaps not always so commendable compromise that such work requires, and the diligent and often thankless work of numerous individuals, some of whom remain virtually unknown and others of whom put their names at the head of their translations.

Because of its many virtues, as well as the theological and political climate of the times, the Authorized Version eventually achieved supremacy among English translations, attaining this in the second part of the seventeenth century. Despite this, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there had been several efforts either to improve or to replace it (one scholar estimates that there were as many as 70 private versions of the Bible published in English between 1611 and 1881). Among the more reputable versions, efforts by such notables as John Wesley (1775), Noah Webster (1833), and Henry Alford (1869), combined with discoveries of earlier manuscripts and the development of textual criticism (see pp. 147–152 below), set the stage for the formation in 1870 of a committee to oversee revision of the Authorized Version. Members of the committee belonged to a number of Christian denominations, and there was an equivalent American committee formed, which made suggestions regarding American usage. The revision worked within the guidelines that changes were to bring the version into line with recent discoveries regarding manuscripts, correct errors, and clarify ambiguities or inconsistencies, but without making unnecessary changes to the Authorized Version. At the time of its first appearance (1881 for the New Testament, then 1885 for the Old Testament, and 1895 for the Apocrypha), the Revised Version caused a significant stir, selling over 2 million copies in the first few days of its publication. Nevertheless, the perhaps inevitable conservatism of the revision committee, which saw itself as maintaining the language of the Authorized Version, resulted in a less than acceptable product. Of course, some readers were bothered that certain cherished passages, especially in the New Testament, were now confined to the margins or deleted altogether due to reconsideration of the text (e.g. John 5: 3–4; Acts 8: 37; 1 John 5: 7 ), which for the New Testament generally followed that of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, who were working on an edition of the Greek text at the same time. The reconstructed Greek text of the Authorized Version, with the Revised Version's variants noted, was issued in 1881 by F. H. A. Scrivener. More importantly, however, it is generally thought that there was less consideration of English style, again especially in the New Testament, than there should have been, and than there was in the original Authorized Version. In particular, the effort to render each Hebrew and Greek word with the same English word, a more conservative practice than the Authorized Version itself displayed, led to tedium and flatness in reading. Thus, despite the more up-to-date text, and fidelity to the original languages, the Revised Version was probably best used as a study Bible, but not as a pew Bible. The American version of the Revised Version, known as the American Standard Version, was published in 1901 (without the Apocrypha), being completed by essentially the same American committee as had worked in a consultative capacity with the British committee that had produced the English Revised Version. However, the American committee was less conservative than its English counterpart and incorporated more changes into the text in an effort to eliminate archaisms, as well as take American usage into consideration. This version was more popular in the United States than its counterpart was in Britain. Despite—or perhaps because of—the ultimate failure to become replacements of the Authorized Version, these translations suitably paved the way for a spate of modern versions in the twentieth century.

The committee approach to translation of the Revised Version, however, had not been successful. Instead, once the need for modern English versions had been illustrated by the shortcomings of the Revised Version and its American counterpart, a number of individuals in the first half of the twentieth century undertook to produce personal versions, motivated by differing circumstances and resulting in a number of credible and well- received translations. To a large extent, the personal translations gave renewed impetus for the possibility of committee translations, which have subsequently dominated translation in the second half of the century. This is not to say that there have not been personal translations throughout the century, but their acceptance in the first half of the century was generally much greater.

There are a number of personal translations worth mentioning, virtually all of them attempting to be modern English renderings. Richard Weymouth's translation was the outgrowth of his having worked with other translation projects, as well as his own interest in Greek language as a classical scholar, and his work in textual criticism (he earlier published his own Greek text, The Resultant Greek Testament (1886), collating a large number of Greek editions). He produced a translation (1903) of the New Testament into contemporary English as a supplement to other versions, not as a substitute for Bible versions to be read in church. Weymouth's translation went through several revisions, and was eventually published in the United States. Its strengths were that it reflected translation of the Greek text by someone who was familiar with it for other than strictly theological reasons, and that it differentiated the purposes for which translations might be made.

Courtesy of Mansfield College, Oxford.

A better-known personal translation is that of James Moffatt, the Scottish pastor and scholar. Moffatt actually published two separate translations. The first was The Historical New Testament, published in 1901, but the one for which he is known today is his New Translation, with the New Testament appearing in 1913 and the Old Testament in 1924, and the combined version in 1926. It was this Bible that later became the basis of the Moffatt Bible Commentary on the New Testament (1928–49), which had a number of distinguished contributors besides Moffatt himself. Moffatt was a very innovative translator, concerned to overcome the archaisms of the Authorized Version and reflect what he considered the most important advances in understanding of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Testaments. As a result, many of his renderings have a noteworthy freshness and vividness, but that is also what has been considered the problem with the translation. Despite its becoming probably the most popular modern language version of the first half of the century, with the New Testament more highly regarded than the Old, it has been accused of being too free and easy with the text, both in terms of changes that Moffatt made to the ordering of the text of the Old Testament and in his renderings themselves. For example, Moffatt placed Job 40: 15–34 in square brackets at the end of Job and Jeremiah 45: 1–5 between verses 7 and 8 of chapter 36. He also used different typefaces to distinguish pentateuchal sources. For the New Testament, Moffatt used von Soden's Greek text (1913), which he considered a major step forward, although later textual critics do not share that opinion. Nevertheless, Moffatt's contribution to modern English translation of the Bible should be recognized as the important effort that it was, resulting not only in his two translations, but also in his involvement with the Revised Standard Version, though he died before it was completed.

Whereas the first two personal translations of substance were done by British scholars, the first American English personal translation of lasting value was made by Edgar J. Goodspeed with J. M. P. Smith. A New Testament scholar who had a keen interest in the recently discovered and published papyri (he edited a number himself), Goodspeed, as the name of the version—An American Translation—reflects, was concerned to produce one that was actually in American English and suitable for use in a public context. When the translation of the New Testament appeared in 1923, it was written in a smooth American English, showing (as might be expected) much knowledge of the Greek text. Goodspeed did the New Testament, and a colleague in Old Testament at the University of Chicago, Smith, translated the Old Testament, which appeared in 1927. The two were combined in one edition in 1931. The translation, especially of the New Testament, was highly criticized, much of it being unfair criticism, because of Goodspeed's teaching at the University of Chicago, considered by many to be too theologically liberal an institution to produce a responsible translation of the Bible, and because of wording that Goodspeed used that was different but in fact more accurate than the Authorized Version.

To this point, most of the new versions of the Bible in English had been done by Protestants, with the Catholics using the Douai-Rheims-Challoner version (New Testament in 1582, Old Testament in 1609–10, revised in the eighteenth century by Richard Challoner; and reprinted numerous times in the nineteenth century), a version that suffered from its being a translation of a translation, albeit an ancient one (it was a translation of the Vulgate), and done in conscious reaction to Protestantism. Because of its numerous archaisms, a revision of this translation was thought necessary, and the British Catholic scholar Ronald Knox was selected to do this. A man of literary accomplishment, besides theological knowledge, as well as being a convert from Anglicanism, he completed his translation of the New Testament in 1945 and the Old Testament in 1949. His attempt to render the language of the Vulgate into what a native English-speaker would say, and to overcome the limits of a translation, was clearly to his credit. Since 1943, however, Catholic scholars were allowed (and after Vatican II Catholic scholars were greatly encouraged) to utilize the original languages in their work. Thus, the fact that his version was based upon the Vulgate, which severely limits its effectiveness as a translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts, rendered it somewhat anachronistic.

The last of the important personal translations takes this survey into the second half of the century, but its origins, purpose, and accomplishments merit its inclusion here. Out of work that he did with British youth during the Second World War, J. B. Phillips became aware of the need to communicate the Bible to those who had no background in biblical English. He decided to produce a translation that reflected spoken English, with the appropriate number of words to reflect the original in a smooth, flowing, and understandable language like that of a regular modern book. Beginning with his Letters to Young Churches (1947), which included Paul's epistles, Hebrews, and the catholic epistles (with a preface by C. S. Lewis, who had found much of merit in Phillips's translation), and following on with other parts (gospels in 1952, Acts in 1955, and Revelation in 1957), Phillips issued his entire New Testament in 1958. The popularity of this translation, as well as a desire not to have his version enshrined in the same way as some other translations had been, led Phillips to issue a revised edition in 1972, this time based upon the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament, rather than that of Westcott and Hort, which he had originally used (see below on the texts used for translation). The translation is considered by many to be of high literary sensitivity, although others consider it too paraphrastic (see below on paraphrase vs. translation).

In the second half of the twentieth century there have been other personal translations produced as well, mostly of the New Testament, such as those by Gerrit Verkuyl known as the Berkeley Version (1959, though the New Testament appeared in 1945), by the Jewish scholar Hugh Schonfield, the first Jewish translator of the New Testament into English (1955), by the classical scholar E. V. Rieu as the Penguin Gospels (1952), and his son, C. H. Rieu, of the Acts of the Apostles (1957), by the classical scholar Richmond Lattimore (1962 for the Gospels and 1982 for Acts and the letters), by the Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson (The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language, 1993), and the paraphrase of the American Standard Version by Kenneth Taylor into what he calls the Living Bible (1971). A revision of the last, purporting to make use of the Hebrew and Greek texts, has now been published (1996). The translation of the New Testament in 1966 of the Today's English Version, which became the New Testament portion of the Good News Bible (1976), was done by essentially one person, Robert Bratcher, but that is considered below, since it was a project sponsored by the American Bible Society and never promoted as a personal translation. Nevertheless, those above represent significant monuments in the history of Bible translation, for a number of reasons. Not least is the amount of effort devoted by a number of individuals to overcome the resistance to any other translation but the Authorized Version in English-speaking circles. There is on top of that the phenomenal amount of learning required to translate either or both Testaments, as well as the decisions that must be made regarding how to render words and phrases and pitch them appropriately for the use and audience of the particular version. Without these individual efforts, the history of Bible translation would certainly be much different. At the least, they paved the way for the major translation efforts of the second half of the century.

Whereas the first half of the century produced a number of personal translations of the Bible, the second half of the century has been dominated by group translational projects sponsored by Bible societies and other committees, such as had originally translated the Authorized Version and produced the Revised Version and American Standard Version. Having suffered setbacks with the Revised Version, and recognizing continuing admiration, even veneration, for the Authorized Version, such translational projects undoubtedly had been slow in developing in the first half of the century. When such projects did get under way, they were dependent for their efforts upon the groundwork laid by the huge effort expended in personal translations, by people who had first taken up the task of developing readable modern English versions. A noteworthy exception to this is the Twentieth Century New Testament, a version by a small group of twenty men about the turn of the nineteenth century (1902). This group of ministers and laymen, none of them scholars, with common concern that the Bible be understood by readers in their own language as they use it, worked together over a number of years to produce this translation. The translation, which organized the New Testament in chronological rather than the usual order, is considered to be a pioneering effort in producing a modern English version, though it took a number of years before subsequent efforts by committees became widespread.

By far the most significant committee-made Bible in the English-speaking world of the twentieth century, in no small part because of the numerous imitative projects that it spawned, is the Revised Standard Version. The Revised Standard Version is itself a revision of the American Standard Version, the American version of the Revised Version. The International Council of Religious Education, which later became the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, a group that had membership from a range of denominations, was given the copyright of the American Standard Version, and they took it upon themselves to set up a committee in 1937 to oversee its revision. The committee had a broad range of representation of American denominations. The translation was meant to preserve such language of the Authorized Version as could be preserved, but to take into account the findings of biblical scholarship, including that of textual criticism, and render this into a form of English that could be used for both public and private reading. Some of the more noteworthy changes were the use of the best Hebrew and Greek texts available. For the Old Testament, this included the Masoretic Hebrew text, supplemented by a few readings from some of the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls (especially Isaiah). For the New Testament, this meant an eclectic text based on the sixteenth (1936) and seventeenth (1941) editions of Nestle's Greek New Testament, with reference to other Greek texts (see further below). The Revised Standard Version went back to the practice of the Authorized Version in rendering the same word by differing English words, according to context and interpretation. There was also serious reconsideration of the use of pronouns, ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ being abandoned except when addressing God, with the odd result that ‘you’ was used when speaking to the pre-resurrected Jesus and ‘thou’ used when speaking to the resurrected Christ. The Revised Standard Version met with mixed reactions when the New Testament was published in 1946, and both Testaments in 1952. For over twenty-five years, until the New International Version was published, it was the predominant English version (over 12 million were reportedly sold in the first ten years alone), and continued to undergo a number of modifications and revisions under the auspices of its continuing Bible Committee. These included a revised edition in 1962, a Roman Catholic version with Apocrypha (translated in 1957) (New Testament in 1965; entire Bible in 1966), and a Revised Standard Version Common Bible with 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151 , books accepted by Orthodox churches, in 1973. The negative reaction to the Revised Standard Version was at times vitriolic, but as is so often the case in instances such as this, much of it was misdirected and misguided. For example, there were accusations that theological truths had been lost in the translation. Some of these accusations overlooked the fact that in certain places many of these truths were still reflected, but they were often not to be found where the underlying original text did not include such theological wording. The consensus has been that the Revised Standard Version in most ways accomplished its purpose.

The committee was not content with its product, however, and the translation underwent a more thorough revision in what was published as the New Revised Standard Version in 1989. Beginning in 1974, the committee began work on this new edition, conscious of continuity with the Authorized Version through the Revised Standard Version and the American Standard Version, and wishing to make their new edition as cognizant of recent scholarly work, especially in Semitic languages. For the Old Testament, the standard critical scholarly text, based on the medieval Masoretic text, was still used, while being open to further correction from other ancient manuscripts. Texts for the apocryphal and deuterocanonical books were drawn from a range of manuscripts. The New Testament relied on the latest edition of the United Bible Societies' Greek text (third, with knowledge of the fourth), which is similar to the Nestle–Aland 26th edition (1979). Several other noteworthy departures from previous editions are the elimination of archaic second-person references even to God, and avoidance of what they call linguistic sexism, that is, any reflected bias of English towards the masculine gender, through the lack of an inclusive third-person singular pronoun. This has been the most controversial issue regarding this translation, since, as the editorial committee realized from the start, owing to the structure of the original languages and of English, it was impossible to be entirely consistent without being misleading. Thus, in some passages, masculine-oriented language was retained.

Oxford University Press.

One of the major problems facing those producing personal translations was making sure that they were not falling into the trap of drawing upon their knowledge of previous translations. On the other hand, many translations produced by committees see themselves as following a tradition of constant revision, such as the Revised and New Revised Standard Versions. The New English Bible, however, attempted to be a completely new translation. In 1947 a committee was formed that brought together major church groups in Britain, as well as the British and Foreign Bible Society and the National Bible Society of Scotland, with the committee first headed by C. H. Dodd until 1965, when G. R. Driver became co-director with him. As might have been expected with scholars of this calibre, attention was paid to the Greek and Hebrew texts, the former being issued in a separate publication by R. V. G. Tasker (1964) to illustrate the decisions made in this eclectic text, and the latter reflecting a number of textual judgements based upon Driver's penchant for comparative philology, especially the use of Arabic. The translation, which was first issued for the New Testament in 1961 and the complete Bible with Apocrypha in 1970, followed a set of almost certainly unattainable goals. It was meant to have a timeless quality that avoided both archaisms and modernisms, not preserving the language of former versions, and written in such a way that it could be used for reading aloud. In its translation theory, the New English Bible was meant to be rendering by the sense or meaning of the passage and not literalistically or word by word. The result was to be expected. Although in places the New English Bible reads very well, it was criticized by many for its not finding the right level of style. Some thought that it had gone beyond what the average intelligent reader could understand, while others thought that it was rather more prosaic in its phrasing and expression. Designed for a British audience, it never found a place with American readers, for whom it usually sounded quite foreign. An attestation that this translation did not fully achieve its goal of timelessness is confirmed by the revision published in 1989 as the Revised English Bible. Committee representation had been expanded to include Roman Catholics. The desire to create a Bible for worship, as well as one intelligible to a range of users, is reiterated. To this effect, only ‘you’ pronouns are used, and inclusive- gender is used where reference is to both genders. Whether the goals of this version are any more attainable than the previous only time will tell.

© The Times.

At about the same time as British Protestant scholars were working on the New English Bible, there were several other translation projects worth noting. In Britain, there was a Catholic initiative to produce an English version directly from the original Hebrew and Greek, rather than from the Latin Vulgate. French scholars working in Jerusalem had produced a translation called La Bible de Jérusalem, which appeared in one volume in 1956. English-speaking Catholic scholars, including the well-known novelist and medievalist J. R. R. Tolkien, taking their model and inspiration (as well as the textual notes), from the French version, produced their own rendering of the Hebrew and Greek (checked against the French version), publishing the Jerusalem Bible in 1966. The Jerusalem Bible often has felicitous renderings, without the encumbrance of residual Authorized Version English still to be found in the Revised Standard Version, and was designed especially as a study Bible. The Jerusalem Bible has rightly established itself in Catholic circles, but it is not used as frequently in Protestant circles, where there is probably suspicion of the translation, perhaps perpetuated by some of the Catholic-oriented notes and interpretations. The Jerusalem Bible was revised and reissued as the New Jerusalem Bible in 1985, although some have thought that its revisions often take a more literalistic bent than the earlier version. In the United States, the equivalent Catholic translation was the New American Bible. Originally known as The Confraternity Bible, this version took a long time to appear in its final form, owing to changing policy on translation by the Roman Catholic church. The New Testament, first translated from the Vulgate, was issued in 1941, and the Old Testament from the Hebrew in 1969. Re-translation of the New Testament from Greek delayed issuing of the entire Bible until 1970. If nothing else, this version is a monument to perseverance, and is often used by Roman Catholics in the United States. The general flavour of the version has maintained some traditional Bible translation language, while utilizing some of the developments of the twentieth century, such as rendering the same word by different English words depending upon context.

Also in the United States, and at about the same time, there were three other major Bible translation projects under way. A conservative foundation undertook publication of a new version of the Bible, out of concern that the virtues of the American Standard Version were being lost in the spate of translations since 1901. Some might have thought this a good thing, but this foundation obviously did not, and appointed a committee to translate the Bible from the latest scholarly Hebrew and Greek texts, into a style of English that was contemporary but reflected its translational heritage. The New American Standard Bible was published with the New Testament in 1963 and the entire Bible in 1971 (and revised in 1995). The result was a version that has proved highly useful for students of the original languages, because of the literalness of the translation, but something that is far from readable as modern English. For example, returning to pre-twentieth-century translational practice, each verse is printed separately, rather than in paragraph form, and words not in the original but thought necessary by the translators are put in italics, a practice that cannot be maintained consistently, not least because it is difficult to define what constitutes literal translation. When rendering the Greek tense-forms, the New American Standard Bible utilizes an outmoded understanding, so that the English reads very unnaturally, perpetuating the idea that the Bible must sound difficult to be the Bible.

The second project was the translation of the Good News Bible or Today's English Version. The brain-child of the important linguist Eugene Nida (see below), this version attempts to enshrine the principles of translation that Nida developed in several important monographs. These principles are discussed below, but essentially involve rendering the Bible into the equivalent in modern English of how a contemporary reader would have understood and reacted to the living language of the text. As a result, all sorts of technical and biblical language are avoided, expressing the text in short sentences utilizing limited vocabulary. This programme is at the heart of what is called dynamic or functional equivalence translation theory, as opposed to formal equivalence translation. Sponsored by the American Bible Society, the New Testament was translated from the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (1st edn., 1966) by Robert Bratcher, which appeared in 1966 as Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament in Today's English Version, with subsequent editions. The Old Testament, done by a small group of translators from Kittel's Biblia Hebraica (3rd edn., 1937), appeared in 1976 with the New Testament in what was called the Good News Bible, with the Apocrypha following in 1979. To date, well over 70 million of these Bibles have been sold, and it has been widely used by those for whom English is not their first language and as an aid in the translation process of rendering the Bible into the languages of cultures for whom the Bible is their first written document. It is obvious that the Good News Bible has been a tremendous success, although there were many who cast aspersions on it because of what they perceived as theological deficiencies. Most of these theological accusations seem now to have been unfounded. There are many more issues raised by the translational method itself, discussed below. In many ways reflecting the same translational tradition, although with more attention to its place at the end of an entire history beginning with the Authorized Version, is the Contemporary English Version. Utilizing the latest Hebrew (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 1977) and Greek texts (UBS Greek New Testament 3rd and 4th edns., 1975 and 1993), this translation employs the principles of dynamic or functional equivalence, while at the same time wishing to be seen as a translation that preserves the virtues of the Authorized Version in its literary style. The Contemporary English Version was published in 1995, and aroused the same kind of response as did the Good News Bible. It was falsely accused of a number of translational errors that reflected more on the traditional and conservative views of its reviewers. Nevertheless, the Contemporary English Version does seem to be trying to maintain a double standard in the claims that it makes regarding its innovative nature and its wanting to preserve certain traditional translational features. This perhaps reflects the realization that, for many Bible users, this is not a day and age that is theologically receptive to innovation; they want their Bible to sound like the Bible they are used to.

© The American Bible Society.

© NETBible.com.

The third American translation to note here is the New International Version. The New International Version grew out of a concern of some American denominations for finding an existing translation that would provide a general-purpose Bible, as had been the Authorized Version, but would do so in contemporary English. When they were unable to find a suitable version (they rejected the Revised Standard Version), a committee was set up in 1965 to provide a new translation, enlisting the help of numerous other scholars. Since these scholars came from not only the United States but other English-speaking countries, such as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, the version acquired its name. Despite the support of the New York Bible Society and the version's publisher, and no doubt because of the large numbers of people involved and the complex procedures used, entailing very slow results, the translational project was on the brink of failure a number of times. In many ways a conservative alternative to the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version used the standard Masoretic Hebrew text and a text very similar to that of the standard eclectic Greek New Testament. The New Testament was published in 1973, and the whole Bible in 1978. The result is a mixed product. At times the New International Version is colloquial and unstilted, while at other times it retains biblical language that is not transparent. Not as dependent upon the tradition of the Authorized Version as the Revised Standard Version, in some ways the New International Version is not as consistent in its style. The conservative nature of the translators can be seen, and is enshrined in the preface, which refers to the translators being ‘united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form’.

As might be expected in this computerized age, Bible translation has not escaped the desire to be technologically up- to-date. The result has been a number of translations that are now available in a variety of machine-readable forms, including availability on the internet and on CD-ROMs. Whereas most of these translations are electronic forms of previously made translations, one translation, the NET Bible (New English Translation), has been developed in both print and electronic form from the start. Distinctives of this translation are its availability for distribution through the net and its publication with extensive notes, which, commenting on a range of issues from language to theology, reveal a conservative orientation to understanding the Bible.

This brief survey has only touched on a number of the more important or well-known translational projects—both personal and committee-based—that have taken place beginning with the Revised Version. There is no doubt that a huge amount of intellectual effort has gone into these projects, with at least something to commend almost every one of the versions, despite some of the caustic and ill-founded treatment that many of them have received, especially by those wishing to continue their veneration of the Authorized Version. Nevertheless, in the course of this discussion, a number of recurring issues have been raised that merit further examination.

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