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What Does the Bible Say? Translations speak in many tongues, Dewey M. Beegle, BAR 8:06, Nov-Dec 1982.

1911_Britannica-Bible-VulgateBible translations are nothing new.

As early as the sixth century B.C. Babylonian Jews may have listened to translations (targums) of the Hebrew Torah into Aramaic. While Ezra read the Torah to the returned exiles in Jerusalem, the Levites “read from the law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8-8).

How should we understand this verse? Did the Levites translate Ezra’s reading into Aramaic or did they make interpretive comments in Hebrew? The rabbis and a number of more recent scholars have understood this incident to be the first record of an oral targum, or paraphrasing of the text, either in Hebrew or Aramaic.

Whether the Levites were translating or making interpretive comments—or both—we know that they were helping people understand the meaning of the Bible—a task that continues in our own day. But today when we translate and interpret the Hebrew Bible, we do so without benefit of the original scrolls; through use and decay they all perished. All we have today are copies of copies made over centuries. In this process of transmission, the copyists made mistakes; many mistakes were repeated in later copies because the scribes did not catch the earlier errors.

The preservation of the Hebrew Scriptures was carried on in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt, the major centers of Jewish life and culture. Different errors were made in each of these regions and so eventually three variant types or recensions of the Hebrew text developed.

After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and founded Alexandria (332 B.C.), the Jews began to use Greek as their native tongue. In Alexandria in the third and second centuries B.C., the first translation of the Bible as a whole was completed—from Hebrew to Greek.

This translation is called the Septuagint. The name comes from a legend. According to this fanciful story, Ptolemy II of Egypt (285–244 BC.) wanted a Greek translation written of the Jewish laws (the Pentateuch) for his famous library in Alexandria. To secure the cooperation in this venture of Eleazer, the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, Ptolemy set free the many Jews who had been sold into slavery by Ptolemy’s father after his military campaign in Palestine in 312 B.C. In gratitude, Eliezer sent 72 elders from Jerusalem (six from each tribe) to Alexandria, where they were royally entertained and finally secluded on an island to undertake their work of translation. In 72 days of labor they completed the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The translation was accepted and sanctified by the Jewish community and any changes were officially forbidden. Ptolemy then sent the translators home with costly gifts.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived at the turn of the era, embellished the story by adding that the Jewish translators, working independently, produced identical translations by divine inspiration. Other ancient sources elaborated the legend by reciting how the translators were shut up in separate cells in strictest seclusion, yet produced the same translation.

From these legends, the translation takes its name, although Septuagint refers, in Latin, to 70 translators rather than 72. In modern scholarly writings, the translation is referred to simply as LXX.

Turning from legend to fact, it is likely that this translation project was initiated by the Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria who no longer understood Hebrew and who needed a Greek Pentateuch for worship and instruction. Between about 275 and 175 B.C., the entire Bible, including Prophets and Writings, was translated into Greek and the designation Septuagint was then applied to the complete work.

Early Christians gradually adopted the Septuagint as their Bible. At that same time they were writing and collecting various letters, gospels and other books which were to become the New Testament.

As with all translations, not everyone was satisfied with the Septuagint. By the second and third centuries A.D., dissatisfaction led to three other Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible—by Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus. From the Greek versions, Origen (184–253 A.D.), the great scholar who worked in Alexandria and Caesarea, compiled his own critical edition of the Septuagint. It became one of the six components of his “Hexapla.” This enormous work, completed in 245 A.D., consisted of six parallel columns- the first—the standard (vowelless) Hebrew text; the second—the same transcribed with vowels in Greek characters; the third, fourth and sixth—the versions of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion; and the fifth column—Origen’s critical text of the Septuagint. None of these translations ever achieved the popularity and influence of the Septuagint. (Today the Septuagint is still the Bible of the Greek Orthodox Church.)

In the western Christian world, where Greek was not widely used, various Latin translations were made from the Septuagint, possibly as early as the first century A.D. By the end of the fourth century, accumulated textual corruptions and alterations in these Latin translations gave rise to a need for a uniform and reliable Latin Bible text on which the Western Church could base its teaching. This task was entrusted to Jerome (c. 345–4201, the leading Bible scholar of his day and secretary to Pope Damasus I. Jerome was a master of Latin and Greek and acquired a remarkable knowledge of Hebrew. First he set out to revise the existing Latin translations in light of the more accurate Hebrew and Greek texts; among the portions of this revision that have survived are the New Testament, the Psalms, Job, and the Song of Songs.

Becoming increasingly aware of the many instances where the Septuagint diverged from the Hebrew Bible, Jerome decided to prepare an entirely fresh Latin translation from the “original truth of the Hebrew text,” the Hebraica veritas. This great work he carried out in Bethlehem, where he had settled in 386 A.D. His translation reveals the influence of various sources, especially that of his Jewish teachers and of his predecessors, the Greek translators; it thus sheds light on these sources as well as on the Hebrew text of the day. But his revision changed many of the sweet-sounding renderings of the Old Latin, and so his translation was vigorously opposed. A frustrated Jerome called his critics “two-legged donkeys” and noted, “for a lyre is played in vain to an ass.” In fact, Jerome succeeded in combining an elegant and intelligible Latin with fidelity to the original Hebrew. His translation became the Latin standard commonly called the Vulgate. It includes Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Bible and his revision of the New Testament and the Apocryphal For more than 1,000 years the Vulgate stood as the supreme translation of western Christianity from which, at first, all translations of the Bible into West European languages were made. Today the Vulgate still stands as the accepted text of the Roman Catholic church.

Parts of the Vulgate reached England in the sixth or seventh century. Before the late Middle Ages, the “Bible” of the West comprised, for practical purposes, only the Gospels, Catholic Epistles, and Psalms. Codices of the complete Latin Bible were almost unknown in England before about 800 A.D. However, availability of the complete Latin Bible in England did not ensure that it could be read and understood, even by the clergy.

Although Latin dominated the schools and the Church, some priests were uneducated in Latin and needed interlinear (between the lines) translations in their own languages to aid them in conducting worship services. This was especially true in England. The earliest attempts at English interlinear translations of the Latin texts were made in about 700 A.D.

Not until the 14th century was the first comprehensive English translation of the entire Bible produced. This Bible was a translation by adherents of the Lollard Movement, whose founder was John Wyclif. Considered heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, the Lollard Bible was disseminated in part by word of mouth. One of Wyclif’s opponents wrote in a sneering tone- “By thus translating the Bible, [Wyclif] made it the property of the masses and common to all … even to women who are able to read.” Wyclif’s critics had forgotten that it was because the New Testament writers wanted to reach everyone with the Gospel that they wrote in the basic, everyday Greek (Koine) not the classical Greek of the elite. Although numerous manuscripts are extant, the Lollard Bible was never printed in large enough numbers to be available to a wide audience.

Only after the Reformation was the English Bible printed for wider dissemination. The Reformation brought with it, in the 16th century, a revival of learning and spectacular advances in the use of English as a literary language. This was the age of Shakespeare. Oxford and Cambridge Universities established chairs in Greek and Hebrew. There was a dawning of a critical approach to the texts of both the Greek New Testament and the Latin Vulgate. The reformed churches declared that ultimate Christian authority lay in Scripture, rather than in the tradition of the Church; scholars sought to base vernacular translations on original, not secondary texts. The Roman Catholic Church responded to the reform churches by insisting, at the Council of Trent in 1546, on the “authentic” quality of the Latin Vulgate.

In this literary and religious atmosphere, England experienced a burgeoning of Bible translations beginning with that of William Tyndale in 1537. Tyndale, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, is considered the father of the Bible of the English-speaking world, although in his own time, his work was fiercely opposed. In 1525, the first copies of his New Testament translation appeared; he then began work on the Old Testament. He never finished, because he was strangled as a heretic and his body burned at the stake. Not long after Tyndale’s death, his final prayer—“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”—was answered when Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome.

In 1535, Miles Coverdale, Tyndale’s assistant, produced an English Bible under royal auspices. Five years later, in 1540, Tyndale’s translation became the basis of the “Great Bible” (known also as Cranmer’s Bible). It was this Bible that Henry VIII ordered placed in every parish church.

The “Great Bible” was followed by a “corrected” version, the Bishops’ Bible (1568); its major significance was that it formed the basis for the famous King James translation (KJV) or Authorized Version of 1611.

The King James translation was not well-received. It took almost half a century to overcome the popularity of previous translations, but the King James ultimately achieved, and has retained, a quasi-sacrosanct position within the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, its language, essentially the literary English in use in 1611—although beloved by many who have grown up with it—has become increasingly archaic, deviating more and more each year from contemporary spoken English.

Another difficulty with the King James translation is that the Greek text used by the translators was compiled from manuscripts dating largely from the 13th to 15th centuries. Older manuscripts discovered during the last 150 years and recent philological research have revealed a number of errors in the King James translation.

During the years 1611 to 1900, about 500 English translations of all or part of the Bible were published, but none was able to break the spell of the King James Version over English-speaking peoples.

The 20th century brought new challengers. The American Standard Version (1901) claimed to be more accurate than the King James Version but was so literal and wooden in style that it did not appeal to most people. In reaction, the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1911 published an English translation of the Masoretic Hebrew Bible, the standard text of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings compiled by the Masoretes (Jewish scholars of the ninth-tenth centuries A.D.). This Jewish version tried to avoid the pitfalls of the ungraceful American Standard Version by following the King James Version at all relevant parts while taking into account Jewish Bible scholarship and rabbinical commentary.

A Catholic version of the Bible based on the Latin Vulgate was published by Ronald A. Knox (1944–1949).

A new departure in Protestant Bible translation was made with the Revised Standard Version (RSV) (1946–52). A panel of translators from the non-Catholic American Christian communities and including one Jew returned to the Masoretic text as their basic source, correcting it in light of the Dead Sea Isaiah Scroll and other ancient texts. (However the translation maintained, wherever possible, the King James style of English.)

Since World War II there has been a veritable explosion of new English translations and study Bibles. These are summarized in the table following, but it is important to mention two Bibles published within the past few months- Writings, published by the Jewish Publication Society, completes the New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Old Testament. (The Torah [Pentateuch] was first published in 1962; the Prophets was published in 1978.) This new translation by a panel of distinguished Jewish scholars is based on the Masoretic text, the Hebrew textus receptus. (This translation is reviewed in detail by Marc Brettler in “The Torah, The Prophets and The Writings—A New Jewish Translation”). Also published this year is the New King James Version of the Bible, a revision of the King James translation with modernized language but preserving as much of the original as possible. (A review appears in “The New King James Version,” in this issue).

There are Bible translations to meet many special needs and religious perspectives. In the sidebar “Bibles at a Glance” we have summarized some of the most popular, the unique, and the new Bibles available to the American Bible reader, as well as a few study Bibles. This list is not exhaustive but we hope it will be helpful to those confused by the great variety of Bibles now offered.

Since no translation is perfect, those who take the Bible seriously should have a number of the good translations available. Different nuances of meaning and interpretation alert one to the possibilities for understanding difficult passages in Scripture. Most of the translations and study Bibles noted have a variety of formats and prices. Paperback editions with durable covers are quite reasonable, and a library with several translations for study and meditation should be within reach. Ideally, the scholarship of various traditions should be included- New Jewish Version (NJPS) (Jewish); New American Bible (NAB) or Jerusalem Bible (JB) (Roman Catholic); Revised Standard Version (RSV); New English Bible (NEB) or Good News Bible (GNB) (mainline Protestant); and New International Version (NIV) (conservative Protestant). From an ecumenical standpoint the preferred edition is the Expanded Edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha because it has the support of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Churches alike.

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