Understanding The Bible
Part II - Introduction to MANUSCRIPTS and VERSIONS


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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible


    1. Early English or Anglo-Saxon VSS (based on Latin Vulgate)
      1. Caedmon's Poetic Paraphrases of Scripture (7th century).
        Caedmon did not know Latin. He was an unlettered man but a true poet. His custom was to have someone translate freely a portion from the Vulgate, and then he would tell the story over in his own words, putting it into poetic form. His paraphrases of Scripture, being the only "Bible" in Anglo-Saxon, were much loved and quoted. (See How We Got Our Bible, pp. 42-49, for full and charming story about Caedmon.)
      2. Eadhelm's VS of the Psalms (around 700).
      3. Egbert's VS of the Gospels (around 700).
      4. The "Venerable" Bede's VS of John's Gospel and other portions (735).
        Bede, as the most famous scholar of his day in Western Europe, wrote on medicine, astronomy, rhetoric, and most of the other known sciences of his day. His Ecclesiastical History is our chief source of the knowledge of ancient England. But his sermons and commentaries on Scripture were deemed by him his chief work. He was a great and godly man who "didn't want his boys to read a lie," so he translated portions carefully from the Latin Vulgate, the text of which was fast becoming corrupt. (How We Got Our Bible, pp. 49-52.)
      5. King Alfred the Great's work (900).
        Translated the Ten Commandments and had completed half of the Psalms when he died. (How We Got Our Bible, pp. 52-54.)
      6. Archbishop Aelfric's work (end of 10th century; HWGOB, pp. 54-56). He translated the Pentateuch and some of the historical books.


    2. Interval between Anglo-Saxon VSS and Wycliffe's VS (approximately 980 to 1380)
      Amid the disturbances resulting from the Danish invasion there was little time for thinking of translations, and before the land had fully regained its quiet, the fatal battle of Hastings had been fought (1066) and England lay helpless at the feet of the Normans (French). The higher Saxon clergy were replaced by the priests of Normandy, who had little sympathy with the people over whom they were placed. The Saxon MSS were contemptuously destroyed by the Norman clergy; thus, the progress in English translations came to a standstill. So, for centuries the Scriptures remained in England, "a spring shut up, a I    fountain sealed."

      Yet.. .during this time.. .the future language of the nation was being formed; the Saxon and the Norman French struggled side by side; gradually the old Saxon grew unintelligible to the people; gradually the French became a foreign tongue; and, with the fusion of the two races, a language grew up which war the language of United England." (HWGOB, pp. 57-58.)

      About the only attempt during the interval was a poor paraphrase by Orme (1180).

    3. The Wycliffe Bible (l380) (HWGOB, pp.59-79.) (before the reformation period)
      This was the first COMPLETE translation of the Bible into English and was finished about 1380. John Wycliffe translated the whole New Testament and about half of the Old Testament. It appears that the latter half of the OT was done by a friend, Nicholas de Hereford, of Oxford. It was based upon the Latin Vulgate. No one in England knew Hebrew and Greek, even if Hebrew and Greek MSS had been available (they weren't) (they spoke middle English).

      The whole Bible was carefully revised about 8 years after Wycliffe's death by a devoted fellow-laborer, Richard Purvey.

      In this Bible, chapter divisions appeared for the first time, having been made shortly before by Cardinal Hugo for the purpose of a Latin Concordance.

      The appearance of Wycliffe's Bible aroused fierce opposition at once, and the rulers of the Church shortly forbade such translations under penalty of major excommunication. The Roman Catholic Church's historic position has been that no one was fit to read the Bible unless he had been fully trained in the Church's teaching.

      Unfortunately Wycliffe was not one to win the Church leaders to his view. He was destructive rather than constructive. Though a great and good man, he had a little too much fire. He was twice tried. The powerful John of Gaunt secured his release at the first trial, but he was forsaken by "the arm of flesh" at his second trial, and was excommunicated; but in deference to his age, he was allowed to return to his little flock at Lutterworth, where he completed his translation, and shortly afterward died (1384).

      Despite the fact that possession of any part of Wycliffe's Bible was a criminal offense, and despite the fact that everything possible was done to stamp it out, it was circulated widely through the kingdom. Because it was to be had only in MS form, its cost restricted its possession to the wealthier classes, but the poor paid for the privilege of reading it and those who could bought the privilege of copying small portions.

      Wycliffe's translation profoundly influenced all England for more than a century.
    4. Things which made possible Tyndale's VS and its wide diffusion
      1. The invention of the printing press by John Gutenberg around 1450.
      2. The fall of Constantinople (1454) resulting in scholars being driven West for refuge, which in turn resulted in the "Revival of Learning" (Renaissance), which included the revival of study of Hebrew and Greek.
      3. Erasmus's famous Greek Testament (1516).
      4. Tyndale, who was trained to make use of Greek and Hebrew and possessed a passion to give the people an English Bible in print.
    5. Tyndale's VS (1525) (date of his New Testament)
      William Tyndale was born in 1483. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge. Sat under Erasmus at Cambridge, just when Erasmus brought out his Greek Testament. Had no patience with papists who argued against giving people-the Bible.

      His application to Bishop of London for his patronage to sanction his translating the NT was refused. He worked on the translation for a year in London, hoping still to get the Bishop's sanction. But some Englishmen, the Bishop included, looking across the seas and seeing the war which followed Luther's break with Rome, feared that to follow his plan of a break with Rome and an open Bible would be the beginning of anarchy and schism. High church officials feared this. Tyndale, knowing no English publisher would print his work without a Bishop's sanction, soon saw there was no hope in remaining in England, so in 1524 he went to the Continent, first to Hamburg, then to Cologne (Germany).

      Just as the NT was about to be published in Cologne the next year (1525), Tyndale's carefully guarded secret leaked out to the Roman Catholic priest through a drunken printer, so he fled with the proof sheets to Worms, where he was safe with those who favored Luther. However, the English bishops had been warned, and his first edition, which was sent into England in cases, barrels, bales of cloth, etc., was confiscated and burned. Nevertheless, SOME copies got in and were eagerly read.

      About this time the Bishop of London secured a prominent English merchant, who traded on the continent, to buy up the remaining copies of Tyndale's first edition, so the Bishop could burn them publicly. The merchant, Pakington, being a secret friend of Tyndale's agreed to do so. He then gave the fine price the Bishop paid for his bonfire to Tyndale, who printed a much better edition with , the money, much to the dismay of the Bishop.

      Tyndale's translation was eagerly received by the people. "Over England's long night of error and superstition God had said, 'Let there be light!' and there was light. But the Light-bringer himself did not live to see that day!" As a poverty-stricken exile he had labored on. Finally he was betrayed into the hands of the Romanists by a villain named Phillips, a clergyman of very plausible manners, who won his confidence. He was imprisoned and finally strangled at the stake, and then burned to ashes, but not before uttering his famous prayer which burdened his last words, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes!" In three years . a Bible was issued bearing the authority of the King of England and of the Bishop. ; Tyndale was martyred October 6, 1536. ,

      For the first time in an English translation, Tyndale went back to the original Greek and Hebrew, simply comparing the Vulgate and Luther's recent German VS. He translated the complete NT from Greek and the Pentateuch, Historical books, and part of the Prophets of the OT from Hebrew.

      Tyndale was superb as a translator. His deep spirituality and passionate love of God's Word, as well as his scholarly attainments, peculiarly fitted him for his great work. "The magnificent quality of Tyndale's work is evident from the fact that all subsequent scholars, and companies of scholars, have done nothing more than improve in details his translation." All of them are essentially "the brain and the heart of William Tyndale. " For example, in John 10:7-10, out of 87 words, 80 stand in the AV exactly as in Tyndale's 1525 Testament, and 77 in the RV.
    6. From Tyndale's to the Authorized VS (1525 to 1611) (HWGOB, pp. 112-123.)
      1. Coverdale’s Bible (1535)
        Just a year before Tyndale's martyrdom, this Bible was issued, the first complete pnnteq Bible in English. It was dedicated to Henry VIII. This Bible was not a translation from the Hebrew and Greek, but was translated from Dutch and Latin with the help of "five sundry interpreters." Evidently Tyndale was the main "interpreter" he followed, for the NT and Genesis to 2 Chronicles of the OT are essentially Tyndale's. From Job to Malachi were done by Coverdaie, the Psalms being well done. He is not to be compared with Tyndale as to scholarship or heroism, but fortunately he recognized his limitations.
      2. Matthew's Bible (1537)j
        This was issued by John Rogers under the assumed name of Matthews. Tyndale had been chaplain of the English merchants at Antwerp during his last years, and it was Rogers who succeeded him. When Tyndale was betrayed in 1535, Rogers seems to have been left in charge of his papers. This Bible, except for the last half of the OT, was taken largely from Coverdale's; hence was nothing more than Tyndale's work in its latest form. Although Tyndale's VS was still prohibited in England, this Bible was brought in with Henry VIII's permission (through Cromwell's influence). One cannot help but chuckle to hear Archbishop Cranmer say that he likes it "better than any translation heretofore made, " and he "would rather see it licensed by the king than receive 1000 pounds, " and "if they waited till the bishops should set forth a better translation, they would wait till the day after dooms -day." How it escaped detection as Tyndale's, even under the assumed name of his successor, is difficult to see, for many of his strong anticlerical notes were left in.
      3. The Great Bible (1539) This was so-called because of its large size. It was the first Bible to originate with the Church itself. Archbishop Cranmer selected Myles Coverdale to direct this revision. The printing of the Bible was started in Paris, but was interrupted by the Inquisitor-General, so Coverdale fled with printing press, type, and the printers themselves to England, where the work was finished.

        The Bible was practically a revision of Matthew's, " but since this was practically Tyndale's, the Great Bible was "little more than a revised edition of Tyndale. Thus had the old martyr triumphed." And on the title page appeared the name of his enemy, Cuthbert, Bishop of London (then of Durham).
      4. The Geneva Bible (NT, 1557; OT, 1560)

        This Bible was translated by Coverdale and others who had fled to Geneva before the face of "Bloody Mary," the new queen.

        This was a very fine translation. The OT was the Great Bible revised; the NT was Tyndale's VS revised. The notes were strongly Calvinistic, showing the influence of Calvin and John Knox, who were then in Geneva.

        For the first time verse divisions were included. (These were developed by Robert Stephens, celebrated editor of a Greek Testament.) The Apocrypha was also omitted for the first time. The book was handy in size and became the people's Bible. It remained the most commonly used and most loved Bible of England for 75 years, even contesting for a while the right of the AV to supremacy.
      5. The Bishops' Bible (1568) )
        Neither Queen Elizabeth nor her bishops were sympathetic with Genevan views on doctrine and church polity. Therefore, the popularity of the Geneva Bible was not acceptable to them. Ostensibly to correct the defects of the Great Bible, but really in order to supplant the Geneva Bible, the Bishops' Bible was put out in 1568. This translation derives its name from the fact that the Bible was the work of many different bishops, each translating an assigned section.

        However, this translation lacked the unity, precision, and beauty of the Geneva Bible, and although it was ordered to be read in churches (and was until the AV), nevertheless the people adhered to the Geneva Bible.
      6. The Rheims New Testament (1582) and Douay Old Testament (1609-1610) "By 1582 even the Roman Catholic Church had been driven to undertake an English VS of the Bible. This was not due from any desire to place the Scriptures in the hands of the laity. They were there already." The purpose, therefore, was to minimize what was considered an evil, and to this end highly controversial notes were included.

        The English College at Douay in Flanders, removed for a few years to Rheims, produced the NT in 1582; the OT not being brought out until 1609-1610. The VS was, of course, based on the Roman Church's revered text, the Latin Vulgate, compared with Hebrew and Greek.

        The chief translator, William Alien, was to have been Archbishop 01 Canterbury if the Spanish Armada had succeeded in conquering England.

        The VS is remarkable for its Latinisms, some of which have enriched our language (e.g., "impenitent," "propitiation," "remission") and some of which are either biased by Roman doctrine (e.g., "repentance, " rendered "do penance") or sound very strange to our ears (e.g., Ps.23:5, "Thou hast fatted my head with oil; and my chalice inebriating, how goodly it is.").

        However, generally speaking, especially in the NT, the translation is very beautifully done in spite of its being in bondage to an often erring Latin text and the tradition of the fathers. A revised edition called Confraternity (gradually issued since 1941) is very helpful in dealing with Romanists.
    7. The Authorized or King James VS (1611) (HWGOB, pp. 123-132.)
      “A King of England directing an English Bible translation! How Tyndale's heart would have swelled at the sight."

      A new translation or, better, a new revision was considered desirable because there was no Bible that met the approval of all classes. The Great Bible was antiquated and cumbersome, the Bishops' Bible was an inferior translation, and the Geneva Bible had become the Bible of a party--the Puritans --and thus was distasteful to the Church of England. The matter came to a head at a conference in Hampton Court Palace, in January, 1604, called by the King (James I) to consider alleged grievances of the Puritan party. James took immense personal interest in the project, and by June 30, 1604, a list of  54 of the best scholars of all parties was approved by him. Actually only 47 seem to have had a hand in translation, these being divided into six companies to do the OT and Apocrypha, and two companies to do the NT.

      Of the 15 regulations laid down, these are most important:
      1. The Bishops' Bible was to be followed and departed from only when the text required it.
      2. Any competent scholars might be consulted about special difficulties.
      3. Differences of opinion were to be settled at a general meeting.
      4. Divisions of chapters were to be as little changed as possible.
      5. Marginal references should be given from one scripture to another.
      6. Either Tyndale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's, or Geneva, etc. were to be used where it agreed better with the text than Bishops'.
      7. There were to be no marginal notes, except for the explanation of Hebrew and Greek words.

      "Never before had such labor and care been expended on the English Bible. The text was studied carefully, VSS in other languages examined, the best commentaries scanned, and no pains spared to express the sense of a passage in clear, vigorous, idiomatic English."

      The result was a translation whose "grace and dignity" and "masterly English style" have made it a standard of excellence and a molding power in the English language for three centuries. For some time after its appearance, however, the Geneva and Bishops' Bible continued in use (especially the former), showing the difficulty of weaning people from the familiar sound of the old, but loved, translation. In time the AV prevailed by general consent, "becoming the Bible of all English speaking peoples."

      Probably the major criticism of this excellent translation is the fact that in order to enhance its beauty of English, there was a deliberate use of synonyms in translating the same Hebrew or Greek word. Thus, any word study based on  the English words used winds up exceedingly faulty and even misleading. Sometimes the same original word may be rendered by half a dozen different English words. In addition, different original words are often translated by the same English rendering. This leads to a great many misunderstandings of doctrine by the omission of key words which should have been included but were omitted because it was not apparent the same Bible word was used, but it had been obscured by another English translation or translations.

    8. The Revised Version (NT, 1881; OT, 1885; in England) (HWGOB, pp. 133-153 Called the American Standard Version in U.S. (issued in 1901).

      The AV was itself a revision. One need not ask why another revision would be desirable after nearly three centuries. It was desirable in 1881:
      1. Because scholars had access to a treasury of ancient MSS, VSS, and quotations such as the scholars of King James's day had never dreamed of.
      2. Because the science of textual criticism, which teaches the value and the best methods of dealing with these documents had sprung up entirely since 1611.
      3. Because scholars were better acquainted with Hebrew and Greek, and were able to distinguish delicate shades of meaning which were quite lost on their predecessors.
      4. Because, owing to the natural growth of the English language itself, many words in the AV had become obsolete, and several had completely changed their meaning during the preceding 300 years. There were about 200 of the latter, e.g., "mortify, " "conversation, " "damnation, " "lost, " "let, " "prevent, " etc.

      Work on the RV began in 1870 with the appointment of a representative group of revisers in England (37 for OT, 27 for NT) and another in America (15 for OT, 19 for NT). The NT was published in 1881; four years later (1885) the OT was finished.

      The American Standard Version, which is the RV with minor changes of the American revisers, was brought out in 1901. The American Committee agreed not to issue their edition for 20 years. In 1901 they published the American Standard Version (ASV) incorporating their preferences over the decisions of the English RV.

      One special feature of the RV is the printing of the text in paragraphs, which makes for more connected reading than the rather choppy verse system of the AV. At first, the verses were indicated only in the margin, but have since been introduced into the text without destroying the paragraph system. In addition, the RV sought accuracy even at the expense of beauty of literary form. As a result, the RV is closer to the original than any previous English translation. But in doing so some of the charm and stateliness of the AV was lost. As a result, "the verdict of the people has been 'The old is better.

      It is unfortunate that charm of literary style was not incorporated with the obvious advantages of an advanced textual criticism, for it is inconvenient for the reader to refer from one volume (AV) to the other (RV), and no combination printing of the two texts proved satisfactory (with the exception of the' little known Oxford Two Version Bible). As a result, few Christians avail themselves of the RV's many helpful corrections of the AV and the equally helpful "better renderings, " especially in the prophets and epistles. The RV gained wider and wider reception, but as time went on it became apparent that the RV would not supersede the AV in popular use and esteem. Hence, agitation for a correction of this situation led to translation of the Revised Standard Version.

    9. The Revised Standard Version (NT. 1946; OT, 1952)
      The RV and ASV attempted to conserve the values of the AV and put the Bible in contemporary English, but this combination of the old and the new did not win the field, even though they are excellent translations. Consequently, numerous group and individual translations began to appear. However, some of these translations were poor or lacked official church approval. A new Protestant modern language version was considered necessary; one which would make use of new manuscript discoveries and advances in textual study, and yet seek to recapture something of the fluid charm which made the AV unique and beloved.

      This version has recaptured in some degree the literary charm and beauty which for 300 years has brought the English world under the spell of "the Old Bible, " but it has not met with universal acceptance. Indeed there has been a decided growth in rival private VSS.

      The project was first organized in 1930, when a committee of 13 men was announced. Work was delayed until 1936 because of the depression. When the work was revived, certain rules were adopted:
      1. The ASV was to be followed and changes made must receive a 2/3's vote.
      2. Westcott and Hort's Greek text was to be considered authoritative in the NT.
      3. The names of God used in the AV were to be followed.
      4. The text was divided into sections which were revised by different members.
      5. Proposed revisions were mimeographed and circulated among the other members.
      6. All changes then became the subject of discussion at the committee meetings.

        The NT was completed in 1946, and the OT was published in 1952.

        It is not difficult to point our a number of regrettable decisions made by the committee. For example, the numerous "Cn." footnotes in the OT, where there is an admitted conjecture as to the vowel pointings of the Hebrew word, are adopted in the text itself and the translation of the actual Masoretic text is relegated to the footnote, with the designation "Cn." This is utterly improper. On the other hand, many excellencies can be pointed out. Clarity of style, easy readability, and excellent printing are to be commended.

        No one should pretend to speak with authority concerning the RSV who has not accurately informed himself of the translation and the facts back of the translation. It is not enough simply to read a pamphlet for or against it. . Nor, in the light of historical perspective at the issuance of previous translations, is it good practice to accept or reject in toto or unqualifiedly any translation.

        The reader should be alert to occasional errors, a few of them glaring, and appreciative of good renderings. Perhaps the best advice is to eat the fish and throw away the bones! At any event, the RSV is here to stay and should be studied by serious Bible students.

    10. Chief English Translations and some less important (both older and newer)
      It would be quite impossible and unwise to list every English translation. We have therefore included all of the important older and newer translations and also a selection of the less important newer translations.

      The goal is both factual and interpretational. In addition to basic facts of dates and parts of the Bible translated, there has been added--especially in later translations--an evaluation of dependability. It is hoped this will prove a guide to relative usefulness.

      Those versions discussed somewhere in the notes above are preceded by an asterisk (*).

      (Note: Dates may sometimes vary with those the student will find in some listings . This is usually due to the fact that many have later editions or revisions. Commonly the date given here is that of the first edition or date of first issuance, except when the translation was issued piecemeal. In such a case the date is usually when the whole NT or whole OT was issued as a unit, e.g., Confraternity OT.)


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