The English Bible: From Humble Origins to an Embarrassment of Riches (PART 3)

This article marks the third in a series of posts that will, over the next several months, dive into the exciting — yet at times overwhelming — world of English Bible translations.  If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 and Part 2.

It wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that any major translation work was again taken up.  By this time, it was felt by many that a revision of the Authorized (King James) Version (hereafter, KJV) was due.  Languages are living entities and living entities change over time. Some words change their meaning.  Others become obsolete.  As fine a translation as the KJV was, it was produced in the early seventeenth century and many felt a revision was warranted.  Between 1881 and 1901, a number of significant revision projects were undertaken.  The result of these projects was the publication of the Revised Version in Britain (1881-5) and the American Standard Version in the United States (1901).  Both of these versions were attempts at “updating” the KJV of 1611 to something more suitable for the modern era.

The updating of the archaic English of the KJV, however, was only one aspect of the translators’ work.  Recent discoveries, coupled with new approaches to the science of textual criticism, had created a wave of excitement that older, better, and more reliable Greek manuscripts could now be used in place of the younger, inferior, and less reliable manuscripts that the translators of the KJV were in possession of.  Since this theory held sway among both the British and American revisers, a revised Greek New Testament was relied upon as the basis of translation.  Thus, the “updating” of the Authorized (King James) Version was not just a so-called improvement of the old English (something Charles Spurgeon dissented from, however, saying of the Revised New Testament that it was “strong in Greek, weak in English” -Metzger, Translation, 104), it was in fact a refinement (some would say revision) of the very Greek itself.  This new Greek manuscript tradition would become the basis of translation for the overwhelming majority of English Bible versions from that time down to the present day.

It is not difficult to see that, since the publication of the revised versions in both Britain and America, proliferation has ensued.  From 1611 to 1881 (almost three hundred years!) English-speaking Christians generally relied upon one main translation both in the Church and in the home.  By 1901, the options began to increase.  At present, no less than sixty-eight versions of the Bible are available in the English language.  

Today’s Christian can choose from the following (almost overwhelming) list of options — the Authorized (King James) Version and Revised Version/American Standard Version not included: The Bible in Basic English; The Revised Standard Version; The New Revised Standard Version; The Common English Bible; The English Standard Version; The Contemporary English Version; God’s Word to the Nations Version; The New American Bible; The New American Standard Bible; The New English Translation; The New International Version; Today’s New International Version; The New International Reader’s Version; The New Jerusalem Bible; The New King James Version; The New Living Translation; The Amplified Bible; The Christian Standard Bible; The Holman Christian Standard Bible; The Evangelical Heritage Version; The Good News Translation; The International Standard Version; The Jubilee Bible; The Lexham English Bible; The Living Bible; The Message; The Modern English Version; The Names of God Bible; The New Century Version; The New Life Version; The Tree of Life Version.  This is just a random selection!             

Bruce Metzger, The Bible in Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).  

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