How the Bible Was Canonized: English Bible Translation and History

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

Have you ever wondered why and how so many English translations of the Bible came to be? Look no further! This episode of Verity digs into this topic, covering the styles and reasoning behind English translation, how it works, and why we see such diverse translations on our shelves. We also deep dive into the history of the English Bible and how it came to our hands today.


Overview of the English Bible’s history:

John Wycliffe

  • Had an Oxford degree
  • What made him controversial – “Christ’s law is enough”
  • 1374 he pastored in Lutterworth
  • “doctrine should not only be in Latin but also in the common tongue”
  • He used his influence to have the Bible translated roughly from Latin to English
  • These were copied manually because the printing press had not yet been invented!
  • 34 years after his death Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and burned because of his work to provide the gospel in the English tongue

Desiderius Erasmus

  • Dutchman who loved Greek
  • Used 7 Greek manuscripts to develop his NT; the first was poorly edited, but his second became the source text for Martin Luther’s German NT
  • The third edition was used by Tyndale
  • The Textus Receipts refers to any of the published Greek NTs traced back to the text Erasmus collated. KJV is based on this.

William Tyndale

  • attended Oxford and Cambridge
  • Was fluent in 8 languages
  • “If God spares my life, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scripture than you do.”
  • Requested permission to translate and was denied, so he did so himself in Germany, unlike anyone else, he used the original Hebrew and Greek
  • 1526 had it printed and smuggled into England
  • Fun fact – he coined words like “fisherman”, “seashore”, “Scapegoat” and “beautiful”
  • Tyndale was opposed by the king because he wrote against Henry’s divorce – so his translation was opposed and expelled
  • Pg 137 Jones: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” A year later, the king approved Matthew’s version of the Bible – which was primarily the work of Tyndale.
  • In 1539 the Great Bible was purchased by every Church in England

Other bibles popular at the time:

  • Coverdale
  • Matthews
  • Taverners
  • Great
  • Geneva (foreword by Calvin, with notes that undermined the absolute power of kings)

KJV was commissioned with “no political or theological notes”; 47 scholars worked on it. See next episode for more on the KJV!

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Phylicia: Welcome back, friends. Today we are going to be talking about translations and translation processes. I am asked every single time, I do Ask Anything Monday, my weekly Q&A show on Instagram, “What translations do you recommend?” I always answer read more than one, because when you read more than one translation, you’re getting multiple perspectives, whether that’s theologically or denominationally, based on the committee that did the translation, or just the methodology that they brought to the translation. Reading several different ones will give you a well-rounded perspective on the Word of God.

If you’ve been confused by that, today’s episode may bring you some clarity, because we’re going to talk about what goes into translating a Bible, and the methodology, the ideas, the principles that are at play in the pursuit of that. We’re also going to talk very shortly about the history of the English Bible. We’re going to stop at the King James Version though, because we’re going to start up next week with an exclusive episode only about the King James. So, this will be a partial history of the English Bible. So, without further ado, let’s jump right in. 

When translators are putting together your NASB Bible, they are looking at the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, and then the receptor language, which in this case is English. It would be a different language, obviously, if you are translating to do a Spanish Bible, or a German Bible, or something like that. In fact, if you go on YouTube, and you look up Wycliffe Bible translators, they have some really cool videos explaining their processes for translating the Bible into say, these new or unknown languages or languages that are completely oral with no written alphabet. It’s pretty cool stuff. In those cases, the particular language that they’re working with some of these tribal languages that have no alphabet, that is the receptor language, but the original languages are still Hebrew and Greek because that is what these books were written in. 

It’s important as we get started though, to make a point about inspiration. You may remember that earlier in this series, we talked about inspiration, way back at the beginning, and how it’s not that certain Bible versions are inspired, but that the original texts were inspired by God. The original manuscripts were inspired by God. So, translations are not considered inspired. This is actually from Dr. Don Wilkins, who helped to translate the NASB. He says, “No translation is inspired. Therefore, none is necessarily error free or beyond improvement.” This is very important. 

Now, this should not undermine your confidence in the authority of the Bible, because as you will see, when we discuss translation processes, we’re working from the same manuscripts, we’re working from the oldest manuscripts, and we have so much authoritative evidence for these manuscripts. They’re looking at extrabiblical resources as far as the usage of the Hebrew and Greek to guide them in what words to use. The fact that we’re saying, “Hey, look, the original manuscripts were inspired by God, but any translations successively are not. They’re an echo of that inspiration.” That shouldn’t upset your applecart, theologically. It might be a reframe if you grew up in a church, that said only this version is inspired. If you think about this, from the big picture perspective, God inspires this word in Hebrew, or in Greek, and then it’s copied and recopied and copied again, that original inspiration, that stands. But through time, as those copies are made, there is potential for errors, which is why there is that community accountability, the doctrinal accountability, the copyist accountability that we’ve talked about thus far, and why translation is such an important process, and such a great responsibility. 

The standard text today used for most of the Old Testament is the Masoretic Text. That’s, again, for the Old Testament. For the New Testament, it is the Novum Testamentum. Some, such as translators of the KJV and the NKJV still use the Textus Receptus. This was what Erasmus used when he was originally translating from the Vulgate, which is the Latin Bible, remember, to a Greek New Testament. He was working from the Greek manuscripts that he had of the New Testament at the time, about seven of them. We’ll talk about him a little bit later, but this is the Textus Receptus. You’ll hear this phrase brought up a lot in the King James conversation. We’re going to save that for the next episode, but I wanted to at least mention that King James’ translators would be depending on that text, Byzantine text, as opposed to the majority of translators today who are using a different New Testament text that is older than that one.

What’s going into translation? What are some things that are influencing translation? A couple. Who is funding it? Money matters, publishers are funding a lot of these. They are helping churches that have denominational translation committees. They’re helping to fund it, and so funding matters, you have to have the money to do the translation. The question is, how much money is available? Also, how much time is available? What is the translation philosophy? Is there a theological understanding? This isn’t to say that, say, a bunch of Southern Baptists get together and they do a translation, but that the Southern Baptists might commission a translation, and then scholars would be found to work on that translation. Not all those scholars may be Southern Baptist, because you’re looking for those Old Testament and New Testament scholars to do this, but it will likely reflect Southern Baptist ideologies and theology. 

The translation philosophy is a factor and the type or style of translation such as dynamic or functional equivalence, which one is it? We’ll talk about those definitions in a second. Is it solo or committee based? Most of what we’re looking at today is committee-based translation, so more than one translator working together to review it. Solo is faster, and it’s more cohesive in the tone, but committee-based translations have more credibility, typically. 

I wanted to read a few quotes from Dr. Wilkins, because I thought as I was reading some of his material, it was very helpful in understanding how translation works, and what it looks like to be analyzing these texts and translating them with good stewardship, because of how weighty a responsibility this is. He was talking a little bit about adding footnotes into the Bible. Why do translators do that as they’re going through this process? He said, “These notes point out alternate readings in the ancient manuscripts.” They may not affect doctrine or theology, but they do result in changes in the wording of the original texts. The notes are there to allow translators to decide whether to choose an alternate reading, or to accept the reading chosen by the editors for the text. He’s saying here that these notes that are added, these footnotes, are giving some context to why the word maybe was changed or translated differently.

I think this is important to keep in mind because whenever I see people arguing against modern translations, it’s often that they change this word or they change this sentence. As you’ll see in a minute, translation is very tricky. You’re taking Hebrew and Greek, which we have no living, modern day speakers of his ancient languages, like we don’t have an ancient Hebrew man standing here today, who speaks it. We don’t have an ancient Greek speaking it exactly the way that they spoke it. They’re trying to piece together from what we have historically, in the language, to come to the best conclusion for what word, what is being expressed here. Remember that Hebrew can have so many different meanings in one word.

For instance, “hesed,” this is a word that you might have seen it in Micah 6:8, “Seek justice, love, mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Well, that word ‘mercy,’ that’s translated mercy and that’s how it was translated in the KJV. Mercy could also mean loving kindness, or covenant faithfulness or loyalty, and it has a whole slew of other meanings that can come. Subsidiaries of those original meanings for his hesed, and you’ll see that word in Ruth several times describing her loving kindness towards Naomi or Boaz, his loving kindness toward her. When we have a word that can have all these different meanings, it means that the translators have to be very cautious and careful in how they’re choosing the correct word for the context. That means that they have to look elsewhere in Scripture and look at other works from that time period to come to a conclusion about the usage of that word. So, sometimes they’ll put a footnote in the text to say, “Hey, we changed this word from the original text, either for readability or because it was a better fit during a revision of that version.” 

What about translation styles? There are several different styles of translation. I’m going to give you three. Formal equivalence is the first, and this is word-for-word translation. Now, oftentimes, people hear word for word and they think more accurate, or they’ll say literal, which any Bible scholar will tell you, any translator will tell you that using the word ‘literal’ for Bible translation, it doesn’t even work. It’s not a word that applies to Bible translation. All of it is literal, because they’re taking literature, they’re taking the words and they’re literally translating them into another language. Literal is not a good term to use with Bible translations, saying, “Is this a literal translation?” All translations are literal.

What people often mean when they ask, is this a literal translation? Is this a word for word translation? They believe that word for word is better, which is not necessarily true. There’s just a difference in the goal of the translation. Word for word or formal equivalence attempts to express as exactly as possible, the full force and meaning of every word and phrase in the original. It wants to maintain the meaning as best it can of the original word even if the sentence is super clunky or confusing in English. As much as possible, they attempt to keep the same word order as the original too. Again, readability is often sacrificed in these types of translations, so that they can stay true to the words that were being used. 

This means it prefers to reflect the sentence structure, the verbal nuances, and the idioms of the original language. It’s also why you’ll see in word-for-word translations, they’ll italicize words that are not in the original text but are needed to make sense of that sentence. Some examples of this would be the KJV, the NKJV, the NASB, NRSV, the Amplified Version, the NAB, and the ESV. I have many of these versions myself. I love my NASB and my ESV, especially, but you will notice that they sometimes are a little less readable as far as modern English goes than your dynamic equivalence translations, which is what we’ll talk about next. 

Dynamic equivalence, or sometimes called functional equivalence, attempts to translate thought for thought or phrase for phrase rather than word for word. It’s attempting to bring the same meaning of the text as the original readers would have had. The meaning would be the same as if the original readers were reading it, but the wording may be slightly different. This seeks naturalness of expression. That’s, again, according to our Dr. Wilkins, uses modern style, structure, or idioms to reflect the original meaning. Some examples of dynamic equivalence would include the NLT, the GNT, NCV, and the CEV. 

Now, there is one other option, and it’s called optimal equivalence or a hybrid. There’s some debate over whether this even really exists or if it’s ultimately they’re all phrase for phrase because they’re trying to work with the language and translating it to English. But the HCSB, or the Christian Standard, or the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which is my personal favorite that I use every day, is optimal equivalence. What they say Holman Christian, wanted to– they made an effort to provide this accurate, readable text that worked together dynamic and functional equivalence, and this is from the introduction to the Holman Christian Standard. It says, “This approach seeks to combine the best features of the formal and dynamic equivalence by applying each method to translate the meaning of the original with optimal accuracy. In the many places throughout Scripture where word-for-word rendering is clearly understandable, that rendering is used. In other places where a literal rendering might be unclear in modern English, a more dynamic translation is given. The HCSB has chosen to use the balance and beauty of optimal equivalence for a fresh translation of God’s Word that is both faithful to the words got inspired, and user friendly to modern readers.” I have definitely seen this balance in my five years, or actually, I think it’s seven years now, of using a HCSB Bible or a CSB Bible. I really enjoy that blending of a dynamic and functional equivalence in the text. 

Okay, so we’ve talked about the different translation styles, a little bit about footnotes, and when scholars use those. Now, we want to talk about interpretive versus noninterpretive translation. Dr. Wilkins says about this, “The best way to describe this is when two or more meanings are possible for a passage. The translators attempt to word it in such a way that it’s open to all possible interpretations.” That’s the noninterpretive translation process. They want to give this openness to interpretation rather than working in their own interpretation. He says, “The task for the translator is to write a first draft in which the meaning is not clearly one thing or another if the meaning of the text in the original language is not clearly one or another. What could very well be the object of criticism in one committee, as in,” I can’t tell exactly what this is supposed to mean, “will be praised in a committee aiming for noninterpretive translation.” If the goal is noninterpretive translation, then them not having the clear meaning in a specific passage, maybe a good thing, as opposed to interpretive translation, so that’s another factor that that’s being decided. 

Okay, so say you have your Revised Standard Version, your RSV, and the functional equivalent translation, but it’s written earlier in the 20th century, and now it needs an update. Why are Bibles revised? Why would somebody mess with the translation and update it after the fact? Well, there’s a couple reasons. Dr. Wilkins mentions three. First is changes in the original languages, so updated manuscripts. Changes in the receptive language, so how words change in English. We have words that mean things now that they didn’t mean years ago. He gives the example of the word ‘dumb.’ Today, dumb means stupid, but years ago, the word dumb meant mute, unable to talk. If we use dumb in the Bible today, then we want it to reflect the modern understanding of that word, as opposed to the antiquated meaning of that word. 

Then, the third reason is textual criticism changes. All of these changes will happen over time. He says there would be a revision every 10 to 20 years, sometimes sooner. There also might be changes in the philosophy of the translation. He says if those philosophies are too significant, though, it would end up with a whole new translation rather than a revision. So, revisions are good things. They help us keep our Bibles current and accountable to any updated manuscripts we find. Remember, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1940s. These gave us the oldest manuscripts we had to date at that point that allowed for renewed textual criticism and checking these manuscripts against what we’ve been working from. That’s a good thing. It helps us be even more accurate in what we are translating. William Barclay said about translation, and I thought this was just a really good quote. “There’s a sense in which translation begins to go out of date, on the day it was completed, for language is never static, but always on the move.” It’s true, especially these receptor languages, our languages are always changing, they’re adapting, they’re giving us new words, so we need to be able to adapt our translation to reflect that for the modern era.

Now, we’ll get to this more in the KJV episode, but sometimes I hear from people saying like, “Look, the KJV was good enough for the ancients, it’s good enough for me.” I have heard some people joke, “It’s good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me,” and I do get a good kick out of that joke. The joke is Paul didn’t have the KJV. That aside, when people argue, “Well, we should just be able to deal with the older language, and if people just paid attention and worked harder than they would understand it.” Truth is the KJV and the other English versions that came before it, all were in the modern language of the time. They were all in the modern language of the time, and they were so controversial that people got killed over them. 

At one point, the KJV was very controversial because of its modern language. Things change over time, especially language, and we should not get upset when other versions are being used that are in modern language today. Language changes, the Word of God doesn’t. All we’re doing is updating the language to reflect what is understandable for today’s people. 

Before we go on a quick history of the English Bible, I wanted to read a little note from my friend, Laurie. Laurie used to work at Thomas Nelson, huge Bible publisher, and oversee Bible translation in marketing and reviewing it. She had some really neat things to say that gave some context to the translation process from a high-level view, and I thought this was super helpful. She says, “Translations are targeted to a specific reading level. The KJV reads at a 12th grade reading level. The average person in America reads closer to a fourth or fifth grade reading level. Reading levels do not indicate intelligence nor the grade in which one completed. There is a standard system for determining what level Americans read. This is then used for writing purposes to ensure readability. Newspapers and journalism set this level, the New York Times would rank at the top tier of the media reading level, whereas a hometown paper is going to be quite a bit lower. When a publisher commissioned a new translation, they’re looking to meet the needs of their intended audience. A translation does have an audience. The Holman Christian Standard targeted Southern Baptists, the ESV targets Reformed. The RSV is mainline, but they’re also looking at reading level.” 

I thought that was really interesting that this is a factor that’s going into the translation process, who’s our target market? Who are we writing this for? How readable does it need to be? Then bringing in the scholars to accurately translate this inspired Word of God in a way that is available for, as I believe Tyndale said, “The average ploughboy.” Today, who is the average ploughboy? He’s the clerk at the grocery store, the 15-year-old clerk, and he understand the Bible that we’re giving him, he understand it in his language that is the same mission that Tyndale had. I think we need to keep that in mind before we get riled up about certain translations. 

He also wanted to go on and say, and this kind of confirms something that we talked about earlier. “Most believe a word for word translation is more accurate. The KJV is after all, word for word, so it must be best. However, when I started working with translators on a minor revision to my translation, it opened my eyes to a different perspective. Bible Translators would argue that there’s no such thing as word for word translation. The reason is because the translation between Greek and Hebrew and a given language, even English, can never be done word for word. If you were to take the biblical manuscripts and translate them word for word, then you’re left with a jumble of words that are out of context and will often not make sense. This means that by default, all translations are thought for thought. You must look at an entire verse or clause to get a better understanding of what the author intended. Then, you translate this into the English language, using the grade level you’re translating for and given the theological bent.” 

Taking this and looking back at what we talked about with functional equivalence, this lines up with what I was reading from Dr. Wilkins, who’s basically saying that, yes, word for word exists, but to accomplish word for word you have to do what Laurie saying here, you have to look at the phrase, you have to look at the clause, you have to look at the context, you have to utilize outside resources to achieve an accurate translation. I’ve also heard people use the idea of Scripture interpreting itself as a reason to never look at outside materials, but that’s just foolish, and not what these translators who I was reading were recommending. They were saying, “We need those resources to know what was going on historically, and linguistically at the time, so that we can translate these words with as much accuracy as possible.” I find this all very fascinating. I think it’s so helpful and makes us appreciate our Bibles more when we know the history and the work that goes into it. 

As we wrap up this episode, I wanted to do a quick rundown of the English Bible’s history. If you remember, we’ve talked about in previous episodes, the Vulgate, the Latin Bible, which was translated by Jerome, and this became the standard Bible of the church up until John Wycliffe. Remember that as the church is expanding into Northern Europe, you’ve got England, you have Germany, and you have the surrounding nations. These people, most of them don’t speak Latin, they speak English or German, whatever their language in their area was. So, the church having a Bible in Latin and doing mass in Latin really wasn’t serving many of them, because they could not understand this language. John Wycliffe was the first to make it his mission to get the Bible in English to the people. This was very early, this was in the 1300s. A little bit about Wycliffe, he had an Oxford degree. What made him controversial with the church, and the church, at the time, did not like him, was because he said Christ’s law is enough, that church tradition was not the guide, but Scripture itself was the guide. In 1374, he was pastoring in Lutterworth, and that’s when he decided that there needed to be an English Bible, and said, “Doctrine should not only be in Latin, but also in the common tongue.” 

Now, while Wycliffe didn’t actually do the translation himself, he did use his influence to have the Bible translated roughly from Latin to English. Now, there is a problem with this. The problem here is because it’s a translation from Latin to English, it’s a translation of a translation, which means, it’s not going to be super accurate, but it was better than nothing. These manuscripts were copied manually, because the printing press had not yet been invented. They were hand-copying these Bibles in English for the people and they were secretly distributing them because it was not okay with the church for them to be doing this. To the point that Wycliffe got in trouble with the church multiple times, but they never ended up condemning him. He went on trial, I believe, three times, but they never ended up condemning him until 34 years after his death. At that point, Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and burned, because of his work to provide the gospel in the English tongue. When his body was burned, he was actually burned alongside Jan Hus, who was also using the basis of the English Bible in the call of the gospel, to reach unreached people with the Word of God. Interestingly, it is the example of Hus that inspired Luther in many ways. Wycliffe really opened the door to this idea of a translation and the common tongue, of course, at the time being English.

There’s another person who is in our series of Canon Fathers, if you will, who may also sound familiar, and this is Erasmus. Erasmus was a Dutchman, and he loved Greek. In fact, there’s a quote of him saying that he loved Greek so much, he used his money to first buy Greek books, and then to buy clothes. He would rather be naked than go without his Greek books, apparently. When he developed his New Testament, he used seven Greek manuscripts. The first of these manuscripts is pretty poorly edited, but his second was better and this actually became the source text for Martin Luther’s German New Testament. The final and third edition that Erasmus produced was used by Tyndale. Now, anytime you see the term again, Textus Receptus, this is referring to any of the published Greek New Testaments traced back to the texts Erasmus collated. The KJV is based on these texts that Erasmus compiled and was using, that’s the Textus Receptus. Erasmus actually laid this foundation that Tyndale could then work from, and Luther could then work from, and Tyndale is the next person that we’re going to talk about. 

William Tyndale attended Oxford in Cambridge, he was fluent in eight languages, what? Oh, my word. The guy’s so smart. At one point, the story goes, he got in an argument with a priest about the law of the church versus the law of God. The priest said that the law of God could pass away, but the law of the church basically was supreme. At this point, Tyndale retorts, “If God spares my life, I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do.” Whoa, spicy words. That’s what he did. His mission was to get the boy with a plough the availability of the gospel, and what a beautiful mission that is. He requested permission. First, he did go through the proper channels, he requested permission from the church to translate, but he was denied. So, he moved to Germany, and he did so himself. But unlike anybody before him, he translated directly from the original Hebrew and the Greek. This is from Paul Wagner and his writing on Tyndale as well as Timothy Paul Jones. To be honest, I was like, “Well, Erasmus was translating from the Greek.” But I think that what they mean here is, he’s using the Greek that Erasmus had put together for him. 

In 1526, he had his English Bible printed and smuggled into England. It was actually smuggled into England in pieces and then put together once they arrived. This was a super controversial thing. Seriously, it did get him killed and it could have got him killed at any point in time, but it was so important to him to get these English Bibles in the hands of the common people that he did it anyway. It said that the bishops of the churches were actually buying up the Tyndale Bibles and burning them. Tyndale said, “Good for them. Go ahead, buy them up. The more you buy, the more money I have to produce more.” Truly believed that his mission would be blessed by God, and it was blessed by God. Couple fun facts about Tyndale. He has coined words we still use today, like fishermen, seashore, scapegoat, and even beautiful. He was the first one to put these words into a text in a way that was the modern understanding and definition of those words. 

Why was Tyndale under such fire? Well, part of it was he was coming against the church, but that wasn’t the only problem. The other problem was he opposed the king because of Henry the VIII’s divorce. When that happened, Henry the VIII’s, who we all know is a super stable guy. He got a little ticked off, and he decided that Tyndale his translation was to be utterly opposed and expelled from England because he was mad that Tyndale didn’t endorses divorce. Ultimately, this resulted in Tyndale’s death.

Always is emotional for me to read about the death of Tyndale and the burning of Wycliffe because it’s amazing to me how much resistance there was to getting the gospel out. Remember, when we’re looking at history, it’s easy to go, “Oh, man, these people, they’re just so evil.” Yes, there was evil. There were evil people doing these things. But there’s also clearly a spiritual war going on here. There are men trying to advance the gospel and yet, here they are being so strongly opposed that they end up losing their lives. This is 1300 and 1500 years after the early church and their martyrdoms. Yet here, they’re still being martyred for the gospel, just for trying to get it into the hands of people who need to hear it. It’s just super powerful. 

When Tyndale was burned, his last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” A year later, the king actually approved the Matthew’s version of the Bible, which was primarily the work of Tyndale. Just such an amazing story. I think that is so just amazing grace of God to use Tyndale’s life and then kind of sneakily just justify him by having Matthew’s Bible approved, which was mostly the work of Tyndale. In fact, Thomas Matthew was basically a pseudonym for Tyndale, and in between the Old and New Testaments in Matthew’s Bible are the initials for William Tyndale.

A little bit later, after his death in 1539, the Great Bible, which was translated based again on Tyndale’s work was purchased by every church in England and used as the authorized version for the Church of England. Once again, influenced by Tyndale. Whether or not the king of England’s eyes were actually open to the truth, which is, we’re not quite sure, [chuckles] we do know that God used him to put Tyndale’s work in a place where the common person could hear it.

That’s all for this episode, you guys, I hope this gave you an overview of translation, and some things to think about, appreciation for the Bible that sits on your nightstand, or the fact that maybe you have five different Bibles in your house, different versions, and what people had to go through just to get us this Bible in our language. Next week, we’re going to talk about the King James version, which came after Wycliffe, Erasmus, and Tyndale and had its own political and theological processes as well. 

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