Today the Bible is the most translated book in the world, yet this has not always been the case. However, the Bible has been translated from its original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts since ancient times.

Earliest Translations

Some of the earliest translations of the Jewish Tanak date from the first Babylonian exile. Many Jews no longer used Hebrew in Babylonia, but instead Aramaic became the lingua franca in the diaspora. The Aramaic Targums were created in order to allow Jews to understand the Torah readings in the synagogue.

From the time of the Babylonian conquest of Israel into the early Christian era, many Jews lived outside Israel, forming communities scattered around the Mediterranean basin. According to the Talmud, in the third century BC Greek King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt requested seventy-two rabbis to make a translation of the Tanak into Koine, the common commercial Greek of the day. The result of their efforts was completed by 132 BC in Alexandria. Their work, today called the Septuagint (LXX), became the primary version used by Jews living in the diaspora, and was often cited by the apostles of Jesus and early Christians in New Testament writings.

The writing of the New Testament launched a new wave of translation work. Versions of the Old Testament’s 39 books and the New Testament’s growing bundle of gospels and letters, totalling 27 by the end of the first century, led to their translation into not only Greek but also Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Gothic, Armenian, Syriac and Latin.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages comparatively little Bible translation work was done. Translations were generally discouraged. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (late 4th century) was used almost exclusively in the Western church. Despite this exclusive use of Latin in the Western church we know of translations made into Old English (The Venerable Bede, Caedmon, Aldhelm), Slavonic, Bulgarian, Serbian and Russian (Cyril and Methodus of Moravia), French (Bible Historiale), and even Arabic. The Bible translations into the Slav languages allowed the Eastern Church to establish and use Slavonic as its language of choice. Latin and Slavonic had become ecclesiastical languages by the Middle Ages and little need was sensed for translation into the common languages of the people because of widespread illiteracy. In the late Middle Ages, translations were done into Czech (Bible of Dresden), English (John Wycliffe) and Hungarian (Hussite Bible). Yet none of these translations would come into widespread use because manuscripts were still copied by hand and were thus the preserve of the wealthy.

Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern Period

Barely 70 years after Wycliffe’s death, the invention of the printing press was to make his dream of the Bible being accessible to laymen and women in their own language a reality. This invention launched a technological revolution between 1453 and 1500. During that period 15-20 million books were printed in Europe. Roman Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus promoted the circulation of the Greek New Testament. Publishers were also quick to use the printing press to circulate the Masoretic Hebrew text, producing the Bomberg Bible II (1524-1525).

The Renaissance in Europe gave new impulses to Bible translation. When Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, people from the Byzantine Empire fled west into Europe, bringing with them many ancient documents which would later be printed. Among these were ancient copies of the New Testament books — not written in Latin but in Greek — as well as the writings of the Greek and Syrian church fathers. The combination of these factors broke the monopoly of the Latin Church writings.

The Reformation in Europe doubled the number of existing Bible translations. Many European languages received vernacular translations of the Bible during the 16th and 17th century, including German (Luther, 1522), English (Tyndale, 1525-29), French (1535), Icelandic NT (1540), Finnish NT (Agricola, 1548), Geneva Bible (1560), Spanish (De Reina, 1569), Slovene (Dalmatin, 1578), Welsh (Morgan, 1588), Italian (Diodati, 1603), English Authorized Version (1611), Lithuanian (Chyliński, 1631-68), Portuguese NT (De Almeida, 1676), and Latvian (Glück, 1685).(1)

The Modern Period

Since the beginning of the 19th century Bible translation has exploded. English missionary William Carey oversaw the making of forty translations in Asia. As a result of expanding missionary effort, the 19th century witnessed the Bible being translated into more than 460 local languages. The 20th century saw a further 1,768 languages receive translations of the Bible largely as a result of the formation of Bible Societies aimed at translating the Bible into the languages of the world.(2)

In 1999 Wycliffe Bible Translators started their campaign Vision 2025, in which they want “to see a Bible translation in progress in every language still needing one by 2025.”(3)

According to the United Bible Societies “563 languages (spoken by nearly 5.1 billion people) now have a full Bible and a further 1,334 languages (spoken by 658 million people) have a New Testament. This leaves 281 million people with only some portions of the Bible and a further 497 million people with no Scripture translated in their language at all.”(4)

  1. ^ http://www.wycliffe.net/BTT.html
  2. ^ Hill, Harriet, “The Vernacular Treasure: A Century of Mother-Tongue Bible Translation”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 30, No. 2 (April 2006), p.82.
  3. ^ https://www.wycliffe.org/about/
  4. ^ Figures accurate on 31.12.2015 https://www.unitedbiblesocieties.org/translation/global-scripture-access/