Bible Translations

Bible Translations
Bible Translations
There are two major parts to the Bible: the Jewish scriptures, or Tanakh (largely identical to the Christian Old Testament), and the New Testament (NT), the distinctively Christian scriptures. The ancient texts of these two parts developed in different ways, into the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Hebrew Bible

The text of the Bewish Bible, which includes both Hebrew and a little Aramaic, is preserved chiefly in the Masoretic text (MT), a product of the mainstream ancient Judaism. The Hebrew Bible attained its final form sometime in the first or second century c.e., but the MT was not recorded until about 1,000 years later.

The MT includes the consonants with which Hebrew and Aramaic are primarily recorded, along with a set of markers or diacritical signs indicating the vowels and the singing pattern associated with each word. The MT reflects liturgical usage, both as a sung text and in its use of various euphemisms and clarifying notes.

During the European Renaissance, with its emphasis on the need to return to the sources of learning and culture, other forms of the Hebrew text began to be studied, and this study has continued to the present time.


Renaissance scholars realized that the version of the Pentateuch used in the tiny Samaritan religious communities in the Holy Land was an independent ancient witness to part of the Hebrew Bible. (A few of the differences between the MT and the Sam are the result of doctrinal changes introduced by the Samaritans.)

In the middle of the 20th century a series of caves in Qumran near the Dead Sea were found to contain a large number of scrolls (the Dead Sea Scrolls, or DSS), many of them containing parts of the Bible. Some of the Qumran texts were identical to the MT, and some, witness to a slightly different text. The DSS biblical text is sometimes identical to that behind the Septuagint.

The ancient versions or translations fall into two groups. One group includes those that are based entirely or in part on a Hebrew text. These are the Greek (Septuagint, or LXX), the Latin (Vulgate), the Targums, and the Syriac (Peshitta). All other ancient versions are daughter versions of one of these.

The versions used in the east are based on the Greek; these include various translations in Coptic, Classical Ethiopic or Geez, Armenian, and Georgian. Nearly all the pre-Reformation European versions are based on the Vulgate.

Of the four major ancient versions, the Septuagint is the most important. It is the oldest and most independent; both the Vulgate and the Peshitta are based on the Hebrew text but show some familiarity with the Septuagint. Bilingualism, the regular use of two (or more) languages by one person, was common in the ancient world, among merchants, scribes, and even common people.

The bilingual presentation of a single text is found throughout the ancient Near East. There are bilingual teaching texts from ancient Mesopotamia and Anatolia; there are bilingual public inscriptions from every corner of the Near East, including Egypt.

The distinctive feature of the Septuagint is that it is the earliest translation that is very long (thousands of times longer than any other ancient translation), that is purely religious in orientation (rather than educational or propagandistic), and that can claim to be literary.

The translation of the Septuagint began in the third century b.c.e. A legend preserved in various forms, including the Letter of Aristeas, attributes the work to the desire of the Greek Ptolemies of Egypt to have a complete library of all world thought and literature.

This legend also claims that the work was done under direct divine inspiration. Scholars believe rather that Jews undertook the work for Jews, for use in the liturgy.

The portion translated in the third century c.e. was the Pentateuch, consisting of the five books of Moses (also known as the Torah), and the term Septuagint strictly applies to this portion only. (Thus some scholars use the term Old Greek for the rest of the ancient translation.) After the rise of Christianity, which largely used the Septuagint in worship, Jews prepared various revised versions of it for their own special use.

These revisions, associated with the scholars Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, are closer to the Hebrew than the Septuagint proper, sometimes so close that they are unintelligible in Greek. Origen collected all these Greek versions in his Hexapla.

The Christian community in western Europe developed out of the earlier, Eastern community and took over its scripture in a direct translation from the Septuagint. (In the Greek Church the LXX is still the officially used version of the Old Testament.)

This direct translation, the Old Latin, was largely replaced by the Vulgate translation of Jerome. Scholars consult the surviving portions of the Old Latin as a witness to the Septuagint and for clues to the earliest Latin Church understanding and use of scripture.

The language culturally closest to ancient Hebrew was Aramaic, which was the common language of the ancient Near East for more than a millennium, from the seventh or sixth centuries b.c.e. until the rise of Islam. There are various ancient Aramaic translations of the Bible. Those made by and for Jews are called the Targums.

They are written in literary forms of Aramaic that would have been understood throughout the Jewish world prior to the rise of Islam. There are many Targums (translations), and some of the later Targums used elaborate paraphrases and offer extensive additions to the text.

The chief form of Aramaic used among Christians is Syriac, and the Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Peshitta, or Simple, text. Some portions of the Peshitta refl ect knowledge not only of the Hebrew Bible but also of the Targums.

New Testament

In contrast to the Hebrew Bible, which is completely attested in only one form, the Greek New Testament is attested in many forms, in thousands of ancient and medieval manuscripts.

The study of these manuscripts began with the 16th-century Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who attempted to find the best form of the text by looking for the one most commonly used. Now scholars identify the oldest text (rather than the most common) as the best form. From Erasmus’s work emerged the earliest NT Greek text developed after the Reformation.

This was based largely on minuscule manuscripts (late antique and medieval texts written with lower-case letters). This text, the basis of the NT in the King James Version, is known as the textus receptus and has largely been superseded by later textual study.

The earliest witnesses to the Greek NT include extensive quotations in the works of the fathers of the church and early translations. Translations into Syriac and Latin go back to the second century c.e.; the Syriac traditions include both the Diatessaron (a harmony of all four Gospels) as well as translations of the separate Gospels.

Coptic translations emerge in the third century c.e.; the earliest are in the Sahidic dialect. Other ancient versions (Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Old Church Slavonic) are sometimes of value for the text traditions.

The best large texts of the Greek are uncial manuscripts (those written entirely in capital letters), dating to the fourth and fifth centuries. The intensive study of these during the 17th–19th centuries led to the recognition of various families of texts, into which individual manuscripts can be grouped.

The Byzantine manuscript group provided the basis for the textus receptus, but this is inferior to the Alexandrian and Caesarean groups, which have been the basis for NT editions and translations since the late 19th century.

The most important uncials, most of which are complete Bibles and thus include the LXX as well as the NT, are Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, from the fourth century c.e., and Alexandrinus and Bezae, from the fifth century c.e.

During the late 19th and 20th centuries about 100 NT papyri were discovered. These were nearly all older than the uncials and thus closer to the time of the original composition of the NT.

They generally confirmed the patterns of manuscript distribution proposed during the 19th century. The papyri can be dated to the second and third centuries c.e. None can be taken as identical to the autograph of any part of the NT; all show various changes.

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