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English translations of the Bible

The Bible in English Old English (pre-1066)Middle English (1066-1500)Early Modern English (1500-1800)Modern Christian (1800-)Modern Jewish (1853-)MiscellaneousThis box: view • talk • edit
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The efforts of translating the Bible from its original languages into over 2,000 others have spanned more than two millennia. Partial translations of the Bible into languages of the English people can be traced back to the end of the 7th century, translations into Old English and Middle English as well as the language we know today. Over 450 versions have been created over time. The following paragraphs describe the history of these efforts, focusing on the translation of the Bible into English.


Old English translations

Main article: Old English Bible translations
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Although John Wycliff is often credited with the first translation of the Bible into English, there were, in fact, many translations of large parts of the Bible centuries before Wycliff's work. Toward the end of the seventh century, the Venerable Bede began a translation of Scripture into Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon). Aldhelm (AD 640–709), likewise, translated the complete Book of Psalms and large portions of other scriptures into Old English. In the 11th century, Abbot Ælfric translated much of the Old Testament into Old English.

The English Bible was first translated from the Latin Vulgate into Old English by a few select monks and scholars. Such translations were generally in the form of prose or as literal translations above the Latin words. As time went on, however, English translations became more frequent into the evolving Middle English. All of the translations made the Bible more accessible to the public, both to those who were literate and through oral interpretation.

Despite differences between the Middle English Bible and more contemporary English versions of the Bible, the importance of the texts in both times should not be doubted. While literacy was more limited in the Middle Ages, the oral tradition, especially through the reading of scripture at Mass, was still very important. In fact, what scriptures would be read at what time of year was largely shaped during this time period. Additionally, the grand cathedrals and smaller churches in the Middle Ages conveyed Biblical stories through their art and stained glass windows. The Bible also played a prominent role in other literary works of the time, both in passing and as the primary subject.

The general perspective on the Bible in the Middle Ages was somewhat different from contemporary views. For instance, very few complete translations existed during that time. Rather, most of the books of the Bible existed separately and were read as individual texts. Thus, the sense of the Bible as history that often exists today did not exist at that time. Instead, a more allegorical rendering of the Bible was more common and translations of the Bible often included the writer’s own commentary on passages in addition to the literal translation.

Despite the lack of “completed” Bibles at that time, there is little evidence to suggest that people felt deprived or as though their parts were less valid than the whole. According to Christian tradition, if all of the scriptures are inspired by God, than any part of the scriptures has complete authority. Additionally, the New Testament in particular, is not just about the life of Jesus Christ, but rather is Christ as well. Thus, the Bible (as a whole or in parts) was seen as equivalent to the Eucharist in being Christ. This perspective helps lay the foundations for John Wyclif’s denial of transubstantiation and the Protestant theology shaped by the Reformation.

Middle English translations

Main article: Middle English Bible translations

Orrm’s Translation

Orrm wrote his translation early into the Middle English period and it is said to be fairly difficult to read. Like his Old English predecessor, Elfric, an Abbot of Eynsham, Orrm includes very little Biblical text, and focuses more on his personal commentary. This style was adopted by many of the original English translators. For example, in Orrm's translation, the story of the Wedding at Cana is almost 800 lines long, but less than 40 lines are the actual translation of the text. What is unique about Orrm's translation, however, is that instead of writing in prose form, he attempted to mimic the Latin verse-form. In this way, ironically, his work which sometimes borders on the ridiculous, is actually similar to the better-known and appreciated 14th century English poem, Cursor Mundi.

Richard Rolle's Translation

Richard Rolle is very similar to his predecessors in that he provides a great deal of personal commentary in addition to the translation of the text. A particular characteristic of Rolle, however, is that he deviates very little from the Latin in his translation, resulting in a slightly awkward literal translation and a more fluent commentary. Interestingly enough, his reference for his commentary was Peter Lombard.

Wyclif's Translation

Wyclif's Bible was extremely influential and actually came out in two different versions. Specific information on this translation can be found in the earlier link.

Tyndale's Translation

The Tyndale Bible differs from the others since Tyndale used the Greek and Hebrew translations of the New and Old Testaments in addition to Jerome’s Latin translation. Greek and Hebrew are slightly closer to English than Latin, and thus, Tyndale’s translation is one of the more accessible versions in its English phrasing. There is an ongoing debate over how much Tyndale used Wyclif for his translation, which does not have any definite answers presently, but could mean a more fluid continuity in the historical evolution of the English Bible if Tyndale was in fact influenced by his predecessor. Tyndale is also unique in that he was the first of the Middle English translators to use the printing press to help distribute several thousand copies of the his translation throughout England.

Early Modern English translations

Main article: Early Modern English Bible translations

Early Modern English Bible translations are those translations of the Bible which were made between about 1500 and 1800, the period of Early Modern English. This was the first major period of Bible translation into the English language. It began with the dramatic introduction of the Tyndale Bible and included the landmark King James Version (1611) and Douai Bibles. It included the first "authorised version", known as the Great Bible (1539); the Geneva Bible (1560), notable for being the first Bible divided into verses, and the Bishop's Bible (1568), which was an attempt by Elizabeth I to create a new authorised version.

Modern translations

Main articles: Modern English Bible translations and Jewish English Bible translations

Much like early English Bibles, which were based on Greek texts or Latin translations, modern English translations of the Bible are based on the best-available original texts of the time. The translators put much scholarly effort into cross-checking the various sources such as the Pentateuch, Septuagint, Textus Receptus, and Masoretic Text. Relatively recent discoveries such as the Dead Sea scrolls provide additional reference information. There is some controversy over which texts should be used as a basis for translation, as some of the alternate sources do not include verses which are found in the Textus Receptus. Some say the alternate sources were poorly representative of the texts used in their time, whereas others claim the Textus Receptus includes passages that were added to the alternate texts improperly. These controversial passages are generally not the basis for disputed issues of doctrine, but tend to be additional stories or snippets of phrases. The majority of modern English translations, such as the New International Version, contain extensive text notes indicating where differences occur in original sources.

Modern English translations can be broken down into Christian, Critical and Jewish sections.

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Christian translations

There are over 50 complete modern English Christian translations and many more partial translations. See main article: Modern English Bible translations.

Critical translations

Although most translations of the Bible have been authorised or made by religious people for religious use, historians and philologists have studied the Bible as a historical and literary text and have presented secular translations.

The best known is the Anchor Bible; each book is translated by a different scholar, with extensive critical commentary.

Jewish translations

Main article: Jewish English Bible translations

Jewish English Bible translations are modern English Bible translations that include the books of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) according to the masoretic text, and according to the traditional division and order of Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim.

Jewish translations often also reflect traditional Jewish interpretations of the Bible, as opposed to the Christian understanding that is often reflected in non-Jewish translations. For example, Jewish translations translate עלמה ‘almâh in Isa 7:14 as young woman, while many Christian translations render the word as virgin.

While modern biblical scholarship is similar for both Christians and Jews, there are distinctive features of Jewish translations, even those created by academic scholars. These include (besides the avoidance of Christological interpretations) adherence to the Masoretic Text (at least in the main body of the text, as in the new JPS translation) and greater use of classical Jewish exegesis. Some translations prefer names transliterated from the Hebrew, though the majority of Jewish translations use the Anglicized forms of biblical names.

The first English Jewish translation of the Bible was by Isaac Leeser in the nineteenth century.

The Jewish Publication Society produced two of the most popular Jewish translations, namely the JPS The Holy Scriptures of 1917 and the NJPS Tanakh (first printed in a single volume in 1985).

Since the 1980s there have been multiple efforts among Orthodox publishers to produce translations that are not only Jewish, but also adhere to Orthodox norms. Among these are The Living Torah and Nach by Aryeh Kaplan and others, and the Artscroll Tanakh.

See also

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article: 1911 Britannica entry


Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. Yale University Press, 962. ISBN 0-300-09930-4.

Fowler, David C.. The Bible in Early English Literature. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

Grabois, Aryeh. "Bible: Biblical Impact on Daily Life." Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol 2. Ed. Joseph R. Strayer. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983.

Lawton, David. “Englishing the Bible, 1066-1549.” The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 454-482.

Levy, Bernard S.. Preface. The Bible in the Middle Ages: Its Influence on Literature and Art. Ed. Bernard S. Levy. New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992.

Maas, A.J.. "Versions of the Bible: English Versions." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 9 April 2008. <>.

Muir, Laurence. "Translations and Paraphrases of the Bible and Commentaries." A Manual of the Writings in Middle English: 1050-1500. Ed. J. Burke Severs. Connecticut: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1970. Vol 2. 381-409.

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