Why is my Bible different from yours?

Part 1 - An introduction

I have been asked to try over the coming months to look at the Bible from the point of view as to why there are so many different versions of the Book .At the same time I will try and explain this month the difference between a translation and a paraphrase and in future articles I will look at some of the different versions available today and offer my guidance and critique of them.                                                                                                    

In order to begin our topic we need to understand a few bits of history. Firstly translations are not new the first major translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek took place in the third century BC.

The Bible was written in basically three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Hebrew is written from right to left and is a language where all the letters of the alphabet are consonants and vowels are provided by a series of points above and below the letters. Unfortunately the Jews in early times never wrote the vowels in, you were meant to know where they went. This can give some cause for concern and my first Hebrew exam many years ago consisted of a piece of text with the letters in place and we had to add the vowels or “point the text”.                                                 

Aramaic is a language as old as Hebrew but it became first the formal language of the Assyrian Empire and then the common language of the day .So whilst Hebrew was known and studied for religious purposes, daily conversation up to the time of Jesus was usually in Aramaic.                                                                                                          Greek however, had become the common language in many places in the Eastern Mediterranean and is certainly the language of the New Testament. Whilst Greek is like our own language written left to right and has a clear set of letters for both vowel and consonants it was written in capitals and when writing materials were expensive no spaces were left between words. Greek was also the language of the Greek world and has a long history. The majority of the Greek texts by people such as Plato or Sophocles were written in Classical Greek where as the New Testament was written in Koine or common Greek. The difference is similar to that between the English of Jane Eyre and the English of a modern novelist                                                                                                    

The other key factor to remember is that all these copies were hand written by  people who were human and therefore occasionally altered things either to get a  better meaning or because they thought they were being helpful or because they were tired.                                                                                                                             

We have parts of the new Testament that date back as early as 120AD, our oldest complete version is the Codex Sinaiticus which dates to the fourth century and is housed in the British Museum. The oldest Hebrew Text is also in the British Museum but dates to the ninth Century. The Hebrews valued their copies of the scripture and thus buried them when they began to wear out, so older bits of text are found in a range of places and indeed in the caves at Qumran we have earlier texts not all of which have yet been published.                                                                                      

This to a modern mind raises a whole range of issues but we have far more texts than we do of many other classical works and the work of a Biblical Scholar is to study the various texts and produce the best text possible.     

Another  key issue we face is whether you translate the words of a foreign language just as they are spoken or whether you put them into an idiom which is understood by the recipient                                                                                                                                     A translation tries to stick to the text and gives the original meaning a paraphrase takes the original and transcribes it into modern speech. So the translator of say John 5v24 Where Jesus in a pure translation says “Amen Amen I say to you” would be translated in translation as “verily verily” or “truly truly” but in a   paraphrase  like the New Life version reads “for Sure”.   

There is a third type of translation where the text is translated to support a particular point of view or the gender of the text is changed for reasons of “political    correctness.” So for example the Watchtower version of the New Testament   translates John 1v1 as “the word was a god” rather than the “Word was God” because the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the divine status of Jesus.                                                                 

The task then of a good version of the Bible is to bring you a version which is readable, conveys the meaning of the original whilst remaining true to the original text. Some versions may give you clearer understanding but may go beyond a true translation.


K V Beaumont

BA Biblical Studies University of Manchester 1980


Why is my Bible different from yours?

Part 2 : The years of the Church Fathers

The books that actually make up the Old and New Testament were fairly well agreed if not formally confirmed early in the Church’s history. Indeed it is possible to argue that the books of the Old Testament had been set since the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was first used several centuries before Jesus. It was certainly clear by the time of Jesus which books were in the Bible, and which were not and when the Jews closed their scriptures after the fall of Jerusalem in 90AD they were only recognising the status quo. What you would not recognise, however, is the order of the books to give two examples, 1 and 2 Kings were usually listed as one book and Jeremiah would include Lamentations.

The New Testament books quickly separated out into those that were valued and those that were not. One person whose evidence is significant in this is the Bishop of Lyons Irenaeus. Irenaeus had been the student of Polycarp who himself had been a student of St John. His writings confirmed many of the present New     Testament books were known and valued as important. When the Council of Hippo in AD393 confirmed the twenty seven books as we know them “it did not confer on them any authority they did not already possess.”

The one area of significant difference is in the books which we refer to as the Apocrypha. These 15 books are mentioned in article 6 of the thirty nine articles of the Church of England as “read (by the church) for example of life and instruction of manners but yet doth it not  apply them to establish any doctrine.”

The books were included in the Septuagint and as the Greek version of the Old Testament became the Old Testament of choice by many early Christians especially those who spoke Greek then the books of the Apocrypha gained status by association.

One of the key early translations was to translate the texts into Latin; this was done in its final form by Jerome between 366 and 384. I say final form because many had done their own translation before that but Jerome's authorised as it was by a Bishop of the church soon gained in its authority.

Jerome translated the New Testament from the Greek and also the Old Testament he took from the Septuagint as well and thus the Books of the      Apocrypha were given again a higher status by   association. It was during the time of the reformation that the issue was revisited. The Church of Rome held them canonical, the Lutheran and Anglican Church held them as important. Other reformed churches gave them no value above that of any other religious books. The first edition of the Authorised Version contained the Apocrypha but it was ruled inappropriate by the Parliament of 1644.

The Septuagint was also responsible for  one other set of differences, Hebrews 1v6 says “let all the Angels of God  worship Him” which is a quote from Deuteronomy 32v43 yet if you turn to the verse in Deuteronomy it is not there. That is because the translators used the Hebrew text and the writer of Hebrews quoted the Septuagint.

There are two other points to make in this session firstly the Latin version or the Vulgate as it became known demonstrates the difference between a primary translation and a secondary one. In the New Testament it was a primary translation because it translated from the Greek. In the Old Testament it is a secondary translation because although it again translated from the Greek the Old Testament as we have seen was originally written in Hebrew.

The second is that the Greek of the Septuagint had given a rich meaning to many words which were then used in the New Testament to quote FF Bruce my old Professor “it is important to understand the New Testament words for atonement, sacrifice forgiveness not in their Greek pagan sense but in the sense they were used in the Septuagint” (Books and the Parchment FF Bruce)

As the power of the Roman church grew and Latin became the dominant language of the church the position of the Vulgate was unchallenged in the West. It would be many centuries before this position would change

K V Beaumont


Why is my Bible different from yours?

Part 3 The Reformation

We left the story of the Bible last month with the dominance of the Vulgate or Latin version in the West. We saw that its author Jerome had translated the New Testament from the Greek but for the  Old Testament had relied upon the       Septuagint or Greek Version rather than the Hebrew original. Whilst Jerome in his later years learnt Hebrew  and went on to translate the Old Testament from the Hebrew, his work was not well received.                                                                                          

There were translations into other languages in other parts of the world including Arabic but it remains telling that the first printed bible in 1456 the Guttenberg Bible was a copy of the Vulgate.                                                                                    

The “enlightenment” that period of History at the end of the 15th  and  beginning of the 16th century saw an increase in learning  which included an increase in the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. The first Hebrew text was printed in 1488 and the first Greek text was the work of Erasmus and published in 1516.

There had been an early translation of the Bible into English known as the  Wycliffe Version. It was translated in part at least by John Wycliffe  but  it was not welcomed and a synod of the church in 1408 at Oxford forbade its ownership or reading. Such a ban remained in force for a hundred years and many of Wycliffe's fellow translators were burned as Heretics. Such was the desire of the Roman Church to stop people reading the Word of God which they had not first  interpreted.                                                                                                          

Luther translated the Greek New Testament into German in 1522 and William Tyndale, a graduate of Oxford, wanted to do a similar thing in England so that, “the boy that drives the plough in England might know more scripture than many men of learning.” Although he completed the New Testament his work on the Old Testament was halted by his martyrdom in 1536. His final prayer before the flames overcame him was “Lord open the King of England’s eyes.”                           

Other translations followed, in 1535 the Coverdale version was produced. Myles Coverdale was born in York, he had been a friar and went on to be Bishop of    Exeter between periods of exile in Geneva. Coverdale’s work is known to all     Anglicans because it was his translation of the Psalms that was used in the Prayer book of 1662. Coverdale had in fact used Tyndale’s English, Luther's   German and the Latin Vulgate to produce his work.    

In 1537 a version known as Matthew’s Bible was produced by John Rodgers. Rodgers himself was to be martyred by the catholic Queen Mary in 1555 but his translation was published under license from the King, a clear answer to the prayer of Tyndale.                                                                                                                                                  In 1539 Tyndale's prayer was further answered when “The Great Bible” was produced a version of both Tyndale’s and Matthew’s Bible it was placed in every church in England  at the will of Henry V111 who decreed  “In God’s name let it go abroad amongst the People.”  

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth two key versions of the Bible were produced. The first was the Geneva Bible also known as the Breeches Bible (in Genesis 3v7 Adam and Eve : “sewed figge leaves together and made themselves breeches”) The Geneva Bible published in 1650 was marked by “accurate  scholarship and fidelity to the original text”  (FF Bruce) . The Bible was clearly linked to the Reformed Tradition and its marginal notes were both anti-catholic and Calvinistic in nature.

The translation was very popular, it is also known as Shakespeare’s Bible”, but  its stance was not pleasing to the senior clergy of the Anglican Church so in 1568 they produced the “Bishop’s Bible”. Its marginal notes were Anglican in flavour and it clearly represented the Anglican position rather than the Reformed position.                                                                                                                          

The arguments as to which of the two was the more valid raged through out the later part of the Queen’s reign and by the time we had a new King in 1603 the debate was threatening to cause major discord. As a consequence the King called a conference at Hampton Court in 1604 which he chaired himself. The outcome of that conference was the King James or Authorised Version of the Bible which we shall look at in more detail next month.

K V Beaumont BA (Hons)



Why is my Bible different from yours?

Part 4 The Authorised Version

In our study of the Bible’s history last month we reached the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. We had a new king on the throne in James 1st of England who was anxious not to get dragged into the kind of religious disputes that had caused the demise of his mother Mary Queen of Scots some years earlier.


The Hampton Court Conference of 1604 had been intended to resolve many of the difficulties between the various religious factions, the only concrete outcome was that it was decided “that a translation be made of the whole Bible, as constant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek: and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all Churches of England in time of Divine service”

The translation had been suggested by Dr John Reynolds from Oxford and one of the greatest scholars of his day. Whilst some of the bishops were unhappy, James was really behind the project and it was he who insisted on no marginal notes. These were not notes of explanation rather partisan comments on particular verses. James believed that the notes in the Geneva Bible were” very partial, untrue seditious and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits” One comment in the Geneva Bible which really upset him was about 2 Chronicles 15v 16 which suggested the Kings mother should have been executed, clearly not a topic to gain James support.

James took a huge part in organising the work, panels of translators were set to work, 47 scholars in all, who meet in Oxford, Cambridge and   Westminster having translated the Old and New Testaments they also translated the Apocrypha .Once this work was done it was reassessed by smaller groups.

James himself set some important rules in relation to the work. Proper names were given their forms in common use and also the same name was used through out the work, although this did not apply to names in different Testament so Elijah in the Old Testament is Elias in the New.

Old ecclesiastical words were to be used instead of more modern equivalents thus church was used not congregation and the aim as stated by the translators in their notes to readers was to avoid the extremes   represented by “popish persons at home or abroad” and “self conceited Brethren of Puritan outlook or non conformist temper”  Chapters were given headings which today might cause theological debate but then were acceptable to all.   

Having gained the authority of the King and the Privy Council the translation was published in 1611, in all three parts Old & New Testament and Apocrypha. Indeed in 1615, it was made a criminal offence to print a version without the Apocrypha, although this was overturned in 1644 and the Westminster Confession of 1647 clearly stated that the Apocrypha was not part of canon.  The situation from then on   has remained unclear when in 1902 the Bible Society wished to    present a copy of the Bible to the new King for use in his Coronation   without the Apocrypha  the then Archbishop of Canterbury refused on the grounds that “a mutilated Bible was unacceptable”         

The translation itself has a poetical sense and flow because as the translators themselves said “they did not tie themselves to a uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words” in other words they used the variety of meaning that is within both Greek and Hebrew words when they produced an English translation.    

There were no serious contenders to the position of the Authorised version for almost three hundred years and that says much about its value. With the changes which have taken place in the English language however it is now less used than it was and there are many more up to date translations as we shall see in future articles however in my view there are none which match the grandeur of the language of the Authorised Version. As a final thought many of us who have ever learnt scripture by rote will I suggest have learnt the Authorised Version, it was always more easy to remember.   

The translators wanted the reader to “harken when God speaketh to us” and to read the Word of God set before us in order “ that we might know him and serve him that we might be acknowledged of him when he appears”  A prayer which the Authorised version continues to help answer to this day.

K V Beaumont BA (Hons)


Why is my Bible different from yours?

Part 5 The Revised Versions

Following on from the production of the Authorised Version, one would almost believe no other translation was produced until the late nineteenth century. However whilst the Authorised Version remained the standard against which new translations were compared by the man in the pew, a number of new versions were printed and largely disappeared from sight. The reason for many of these newer versions was down to the increased awareness of  better Greek manuscripts coming to light indeed as early as 1627 Charles 1st was presented with what is now known as the Alexandrine Codex it gave a much better text than had been used in the Authorised Version. One must remember in the days when documents were copied by hand the older the manuscript the better the text is likely to be.

In 1870 the for runner of the House Of Bishops decided that a revision of the authorised version should be undertaken to address those errors in the text which had been used in 1611 and any changes that were deemed appropriate by modern scholarship.. The work was undertaken by two parallel groups of scholars in England and the USA, with the aim of producing one single translation. This aim was not achieved and the Revised Version was published in England in 1885 and the American Standard Version in 1901.

The Revised Version had achieved its main aim of using a better text from which to translate however as a translation it was not so successful. The RV is a literal translation and therefore lacks the readability of the older Authorised Version. It did however gain greater usage in schools, Universities and Students of the Word. Indeed it remains worthy of comparison for those who lack the use of the original languages.

The American Standard was very similar but slightly more conservative in outlook and remains of similar use today, although it is not widely available.

The knowledge and study of Biblical Texts and language made great advances in the early part of the twentieth Century and whilst in England an attempt to amend the Revised Version of the Bible was disrupted by the Second World War in America the work on a new translation continued. The new version was to “embody the best results of modern scholarship as to the meaning of the scriptures and express the meaning in English diction which is designed for use in public and private worship and preserves those qualities which have given the King James Version a supreme place in English literature”.

The outcome was the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1952. A version which to quote T W Manson, a former Professor of Biblical Studies at Manchester, is   “reliable and speaks directly to the man in the pew in language he can be reasonably expected to understand”. The translation ceased to use the “th” in the third person singular so instead of “he saith” it read “he says”. The translation also does away with the pronoun of the second person singular (thou, thee, thy) unless addressed to God.

The RSV also uses a range of English words for one Greek word and this gives a much greater readability. For me it remains the best of present translations, it is true to the text retains a readability and a use of appropriate language which few if any of the modern translations can manage.  To quote another Manchester Biblical Studies Professor FF Bruce  “The revisers have succeeded in satisfying the requirements of those mid twentieth century readers who look for an English Bible which will do for today and tomorrow what the A.V. did for the seventeenth and following centuries.”

K V Beaumont BA (Hons)


Why is my Bible different from yours?

Part 6  Modern Translations

Even while the Revised Standard Version we spoke of last month was making its way through the process of production, scholars in Britain decided they wanted a new all British translation. They also decided that they wanted a fresh    translation without reference to the old if that were possible.. In consequence, the New English Bible was produced, The New Testament part was produced in 1960 the Old Testament in 1970. Initially it was a great success, no less a publication than the Times Literary Supplement commented in March 1961 that “in a few years time there will only be two versions in normal use the Authorised Version and the New English Bible”. This has proved not to be true however, the original !961 version contained a number of particular idioms, around for example such issues as the Virgin Birth  which upset a number of theologians  and the criticism  stuck. The translation would now be hard to find.

The Good News Bible was published in 1966 as “The Good News for Modern Man”. Originally an American Translation its aim was to produce a bible for people who speak English either as a mother tongue or as a second language. The translation is based on a thought for thought translation rather than a word for word translation, Two versions therefore were produced an American one and an English one. It is a modern translation for the modern world and it has much to commend it. You will still see it sold as either the Good News Bible or as Today’s English Version.

The period also saw the production of another American translation, The New International Version, whilst like the Good News Bible it claims to be written in the language of the common man it retains a much more literary translation and therefore bears many similarities to the Revised Version, it also avoids causing any serious theological upset and its original version it is a worthy translation.

Two other translations appeared around this time The New American Standard Bible which again is an update of the Revised Version and therefore has much in it that makes it a worthy translation. The final translation of this period was Living Bible which although a paraphrase translating thought for thought it is worthy of Private reading and for illustrating some difficult concepts.

The Bible Society which produced the Good News published in 1995 the Contemporary English Version, designed to be able to be read by all, especially those with no biblical knowledge or indeed difficulty with reading generally. Again it it is a useful text to read but it lacks the Academic rigour needed for Public use

I must also mention the Revised English Bible which is an updated version of the New English Bible whilst it has many improvements on the NEB it  does set itself out to be gender inclusive and therefore renders itself liable to the charge of being a paraphrase since it is no longer a literal translation but one designed to fit modern opinion.

The same charge would be laid against the New Revised Standard Version; whilst it is an update of the Revised Standard Version of 1952 the preface states “that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated.”  The translation of Daniel 7v13 which reads “one like the son of man” in the RSV as “”one like a Human being” removes from the text any of its greater meaning or the understanding behind the phrase “Son of Man” which Jesus used of Himself.                                                                                   

The updated New International Version Today’s New International Version published in full quite recently has in fact been heavily criticised for taking the process to far.

One more recent translation that is worthy of mention is “The Message” the translation by one man Eugene H Paterson, a Theology Professor was written because as he said himself “While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren't feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its    original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way.”

In conclusion we have a great tradition of text and translation and we must hold fast to the view of Paul expressed in 2Timothy 3v16 “All Scripture is    inspired by God”. Ours is not the job to add to that scripture because we find the original text challenging but to translate it faithfully for the benefit of all.

Happy reading!!

K V Beaumont BA (Hons)

















Why is my Bible

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