English Translations of the Bible
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Holy BibleIntroduction: The Bible was not written in English -- not even "King James English"!  Most of the books of the Old Testament were originally composed in Hebrew (with a few portions in Aramaic), while the entire New Testament was originally written in Greek (although some books may also incorporate Aramaic sources).  Thus, what most people today read are not the original biblical texts, but other people's translations of the scriptures.

But why are there so many different English translations of the Bible? And why can't churches or scholars agree on just one translation?

Thus, no translation is "perfect" (none of them can be completely "literal" or 100% identical to the original texts) and there is no "best" translation (all of them have some advantages and some drawbacks).  In general, however, the most recent translations (1980's or 1990's) are better than the older ones (esp. the KJV or the Douay-Rheims, both about 400 years old), not only since the English language has changed significantly over the centuries, but more importantly because of the ancient biblical manuscripts that have been discovered in the last 50 to 150 years which are much older (and thus closer to the originals) than the manuscripts that were available to the translators of previous centuries.
 

Translation Philosophies:

There are two basic philosophies or styles of translation, "formal correspondence" and "dynamic equivalence."  Other popular versions of the Bible in English are not really "translations" but are "paraphrases" instead.

For example, the system of measuring time in ancient Israel was very different from our own.  They counted twelve hours from sunrise to sundown, and subdivided the night into three (or sometimes four) "watches."  Thus, the same time that is called "the eleventh hour" in a formal correspondence translation would be translated "five o'clock in the afternoon" in a dynamic equivalence version (and might simply say "in the late afternoon" in a biblical paraphrase).

For more explanation of the difference between "formal correspondence" and "dynamic equivalence" translations of the Bible, see chapter 3, "Translations," in Daniel J. Harrington, Interpreting the New Testament.  Many of the translations discussed by Harrington have been revised since his book was published, so the following chart gives some updated information:
 

Older Translations: Updated Translations:
Douay-Rheims (no abbrev. - 1582 NT; 1609-10 OT) (some revisions 1749 and 1941, but no recent revision)
King James Version (KJV - 1611) New King James Version (NKJV - 1979-82)
Revised Standard Version (RSV - 1946 NT; 1952 OT) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV - 1989)
Amplified Bible (AB - 1958 NT; 1964-65 OT)  (combined edition reprinted in 1987, but not revised)
New English Bible (NEB - 1961) Revised English Bible (REB - 1992)
Today's English Version (TEV - 1966) Contemporary English Version (CEV - 1996)
Jerusalem Bible (JB - 1966) New Jerusalem Bible (NJB - 1985)
New American Bible (NAB - 1970) New American Bible (NT & Psalms revised - 1987; OT revised - 2011)
New International Version (NIV - 1973 NT; 1978 OT) Today’s New International Version (TNIV - 2002)

Since there are over 500 different English translations of the Bible, the above chart lists only a few of the most popular or important ones.  For more information about these and many others, see another webpage on English Bible Translations; or the series of articles, "The History of the English Bible," from Bible.org.
 

Translations grouped by "Translation Philosophy":

Translations sponsored/approved by various Churches:

Translations vs. Editions:

Additional Notes:

History: a brief listing of some of the earliest translations of the New Testament and/or the full Bible into English:

 

Bibliography / Suggested Readings:


 


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